First Wednesdays – A North Carolinian’s Experience During the Overland Campaign

Grant and Lee’s Overland Campaign (the name typically given by scholars to describe the series of battles from the Wilderness until Grant’s crossing of the James River, May-June, 1864) was arguably the hardest-fought campaign of the entire war.  The fighting on both sides reached almost desperate levels at times, as both North and South believed that this would be the year that decided the conflict once and for all.  From the moment Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River to the moment they crossed the James River to advance on Petersburg, they were locked in almost continuous combat with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  For this reason, it is difficult to choose one document from our collection which encompasses the entire campaign.  Instead, I have chosen a collection of letters by George W. Pearsall (an infantryman in the 55th North Carolina) which cover the entirety of the campaign, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, and I will be posting them on the 150th anniversary of the dates they were written, so check back with us periodically to see new posts throughout the month!

The first letter, dated May 7th, details the 55th’s actions in the initial battle of the campaign, fought in the dense woods known to locals as the Wilderness.  Pearsall’s regiment was part of Col. John M. Stone’s mixed brigade of Mississippians and North Carolinians.  All throughout the day on the 5th of May, the North Carolinians resisted waves of attacks, with Pearsall attesting to the intense nature of the fighting by exclaiming that he fired his rifle 61 times from the same spot.  Pearsall and his regiment counterattacked late in the day and fought their Union counterparts to a standstill, with Pearsall becoming separated from his company (which had lost 22 men out 30 killed, wounded, or captured; the regiment as a whole lost 230 out of 350) in the dark woods.

Pearsall claimed that he rejoined his company on the following day, the 6th, which is probably why there is no mention of his regiment almost being annihilated by the Union counterattacks launched that morning on the exhausted Confederates.  He also makes no mention of the famous flank attack conducted by James Longstreet in which his brigade participated.  This leads me to believe that he did not rejoin his company until the battle was nearly over.  Nevertheless, Pearsall described himself as “broke down” on the night of the 7th, but little did he know that an entire month of ferocious fighting still lay before him.

You can read Pearsall’s letter at the link below [Note:  Although Pearsall’s handwriting is of an admirable quality, his spelling leaves much to be desired, so the letter can be quite difficult to decipher.]

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