As Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant planned his Overland campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1864, the selection of his field headquarters locations was a crucial component of operational success. Ever the stoic yet assertive commander, Grant situated his bases of command to maximize proximity to the front lines and facilitate coordination with subordinate commanders, all while avoiding exposure to direct enemy attack.
Grant’s first headquarters, at Culpeper Court House, placed him near the Rappahannock River where Lee’s forces were entrenched on the opposite bank. The small village provided ample room for his sprawling supply trains and telegraph lines connecting back to Washington, yet close enough for Grant to dictate movements to Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac. When the campaign commenced in early May, Grant struck out through the Wilderness scrub forest, establishing his next post at Germanna Ford along the Rapidan. The second floor of a modest dwelling there afforded greater visibility and safety as the two armies collided nearby.
Ever the offensive-minded general, Grant shifted his headquarters to Todd’s Tavern as the battle crept southward. The clearing at Todd’s farm hosted his traveling military office, providing a critical junction along the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection. This position allowed Grant to oversee attacks on Lee’s right flank and confront his retreating adversaries. Even under small arms fire during a Confederate assault, Grant displayed uncanny composure and sharply assessed the combat situation.
As the armies continued their deadly waltz to Spotsylvania Court House, Grant situated himself first at Piney Branch Church, then along the Ni River at Laurel Hill. These locations placed the Union general-in-chief close behind his army’s advance elements approaching Spotsylvania. Grant could directly consult Meade while devising tactics to outmaneuver Lee’s rebels from their entrenchments. Though the Piney Branch Church belonged to a pacifist Quaker family, this did not deter Grant from occupying its second floor to scan his maps and charts.
At Yellow Tavern on May 11th, Grant transferred his mobile headquarters in order to parley with Major General Philip Sheridan, fresh from his raid on Richmond that mortally wounded Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart. Characteristically brief and businesslike in manner, Grant approved Sheridan’s plan to link up with Union forces advancing south from Fredericksburg toward Richmond.
As the slaughterhouse combat at Spotsylvania staggered to inconclusive results in late May, Grant rode out with Meade inspecting the lines around Guinea Station. The small railroad stopover featured a raised telegraph station where Grant could communicate freely to Washington, receiving news of coordinated operations elsewhere across Lee’s shrinking domain. Now Grant prepared to continue his push southward, his calculating mind set on outflanking Lee once more across the North Anna River. No grand accommodations or comforts were expected or desired by the determined Union general during this arduous campaign – just stark effectiveness and progress toward victory, however long delayed.
Photo from the Library of Congress Collection: