In 1864, Union and Confederate armies endured a long winter on opposite sides of the Rapidan River in Virginia. But spring was not a welcome thought, as the Civil War entered its fourth year. The thaw would mean battle and bloodshed, not warmth and spring blooms.

When Union troops, under the command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, seized the river crossings at Germanna Ford and Ely Ford on May 4, 1864, it marked the beginning of the final engagement between Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee. It would culminate in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

Under the command of Grant — newly appointed general-in-chief of all Union forces — the Army of the Potomac suffered horrific causalities on battlefields whose names are etched into U.S. history: Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomy Creek and Cold Harbor. Eventually, the army crossed the James River to lay siege to Petersburg.

Each side tried to draw the other into battle in pursuit of a decisive victory, but the Union army — continually replenished by fresh troops and a supply chain unhampered by blockades — conducted a series of left-flanking maneuvers that drew Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia slowly south and east, in a relentless push known as the Overland Campaign.

Some of the most significant names in this military drama belong to the mute waters flowing to the western shores of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay: the Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James as well as their tributaries — Rapidan, Mattaponi, North Anna, Chickahominy. Each played a major role in major battles or numerous skirmishes.

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War continues in earnest this spring, there’s no better time to visit the battlefields and the rivers that shaped the strategy and outcome of the last year of the Civil War.

Visitors can start with exhibits at Richmond National Battlefield Park at the Tredegar Irons Works on the James River in Richmond. But NPS historian Bob Krick, an expert on the Overland Campaign, said that gaining a perspective from or alongside these rivers will bring to life the battles and their consequences. The map, “Lee vs. Grant, the Overland Campaign,” produced by Virginia Civil War Trails, is a handy guide to the battlefields, supply depots and historic homes along the way.

Visitors can retrace troop movement, starting at the VA Route 3 crossing of the Rapidan to Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor on country roads through forests and fields.

At the North Anna Battlefield Park in Doswell, VA, the trench works, complete with rifles pits, are among the most well-preserved that remain from the campaign. A trail at the 80-acre park leads visitors through the now dense forest to an overlook on the North Anna River at Ox Ford, where on May 23–26, 1864, Lee’s strategy and Grant’s response resulted in an engagement that is better know for what didn’t happen, than what did.

Here, Lee’s strategy was to lure the Union army across the river by making his own seem smaller, assembling them into a wedge with a narrow forward line that appeared insignificant and would serve to divide the Union brigades as they attempted to cross the river.

But the full execution of Lee’s plan was not realized — he had taken to bed ill and could not direct the strategy that relied on precise timing for success. Though his troops ultimately held off Union soldiers, Grant did what he had twice done before lacking a decisive victory: move to Lee’s right flank, the Union’s left, along the northern side of the river, forcing the Confederates to follow.

Grant’s strategy is the stuff of military textbooks, Krick said. “Some people think military logistics is not the most interesting subject, but when professional officers — marines from Quantico or army personnel from Fort Lee — tour the battlefields here, they come to study logistics and leadership.”

While an increasingly tenuous supply train supported Lee’s soldiers using inland railroads still under Confederate control, the Union by 1864 had full control of the Chesapeake Bay and most of its rivers. Grant continually kept these rivers to his back and east as he repeatedly engaged with — and then disengaged from — Lee’s forces to keep his own supply lines connected to the Virginia rivers.

Grant changed his primary base of supplies four times during the Overland Campaign — from Aquia Creek on the Potomac River to Port Royal on the Rappahannock. From there, he moved to the town of White House on the Pamunkey, and finally across and up the James River to City Point.

Daily shipments from Washington, DC, and points north were offloaded and delivered to Union forces using more than 64,000 horses and mules. “Just the animals alone would consume 600 tons of fodder a day,” said Jimmy Blankenship, NPS historian from Petersburg Battlefield Park. “There was no such thing as living off the land — you had to bring it with you.”

Krick explained that Grant’s choice to move the action east and south of the Confederates not only kept supply lines open, but also ensured the relative ease of crossing the rivers. The rivers in Virginia run northwest to southeast. Had Grant’s forces moved more directly toward Richmond, not only would they have been moving away from their supply base, but they would have also had more rivers to cross.

For example, had Grant persisted and succeeded at the North Anna River, his troops would have had to cross not only the North but also the South Anna River, slowing and vastly complicating the maneuvers. Instead, Grant moved east to cross the Pamunkey at Nelson’s Ferry southwest of present day Hanover.

When the Confederate and Union forces met at Cold Harbor — one of the more gruesome and lopsided battles in the war, with more than 5,000 Union troops falling in a mere hour — there was little but the wide and swampy Chickahominy between them and Richmond. Many historians believe that the fervor with which Confederate soldiers fought was because retreating into the Chickahominy would have resulted in a chaotic and tragic defeat. Here, too, Grant disengaged and moved his troops east to cross at Long Bridge where the Chickahominy is more distinct.

By 1864, the Union army had developed a well-oiled logistic machine for moving men and supplies across rivers. Wooden and canvas-covered pontoon boats — transported by wagon from river crossing to river crossing — were anchored in the river, supporting wooden roadways that could carry thousands of men, horses, wagons and tons of supplies. Grant’s engineering regiments could lay down a several hundred-foot river crossing in a matter of hours. And then take it back up again.

The James River crossing by the Army of the Potomac June 13–16, 1864, remains one of the most famous river crossings of the Overland Campaign. The engineers worked from opposite shores, and in 10 hours built a 2,100-foot-long bridge floating on 101 pontoon boats braced by three anchored schooners. The bridge crossed between Weyanoke Point on the north to the south side of the river. While steamships ferried some troops, the pontoon bridge conveyed the federal supply train across the river, whose channel reaches 85 feet deep in some places.

Today, visitors can stand on the bluff at the Wilcox Wharf, now part of Lawrence Lewis, Jr. Park, and imagine the 35-mile-long line of infantry, artillery and wagons crossing. A new boat launch at the park joins the fishing pier, providing visitors multiple ways to view the James River and the enormity of the crossing. (See “Natural, U.S. history of James River more accessible at Lawrence Lewis, Jr. Park,” Bay Journal, September 2011.)

The ability to stand on the same ground where ancestors stood and heroes died has contributed to the swelling ranks of re-enactors and Civil War history buffs over the last several decades. Historical parks, Krick said, create an environment to help visitors picture how things were back then.

But even as many of these hallowed grounds have given way to developments and highways over the last 150 years, he said, the basic geography, and especially the rivers, has not.

Experience Overland Campaign by land or water

Commemorations, river journeys and re-enactments are scheduled this spring as Civil War experts travel the land and waters of the Overland Campaign. There’s an abundance of opportunities to see old places with new eyes, whether by car, kayak or canoe. For details, check out these resources: