Newly appointed by President Lincoln to lead all the Union armies, Grant developed a strategy to defeat the Confederacy by placing the Army of the Potomac (under the command of Gen. George G. Meade) between the rebel capital of Richmond and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. On 4 May, Grant’s forces crossed the Rapidan River and started the campaign. Lee attacked while Grant’s men were still in a tangled forest area called the Wilderness, and the battle there was a major one. At its end, Grant did not retreat back to his camp to recover, but instead moved southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House, in an attempt to get past Lee’s right wing. Lee moved in time to prevent Grant from seizing the road junction at Spotsylvania. Fighting continued around Spotsylvania from May 8-21 and was inconclusive. From there, Grant continued his movement to the southeast, around Lee’s right. On June 3, his disasterous attack on Lee’s dug-in army ended Grant’s hopes to take Richmond directly.
"When you do move out I think it will be advisable to maneuver to get a good position from which to attack, and then if the enemy is routed follow him into Petersburg"
Next Grant focused on Petersburg, 25 miles due south. Confederate supply lines passed through there, where three railroads met (The Norfolk & Petersburg, Petersburg & Weldon and South Side). If Grant could cut these railroads, then Lee would have to abandon Richmond. On June 14 the Army of the Potomac crossed the James River northeast of Petersburg on a pontoon bridge over 2,000 feet long, and moved towards that city. Lee was fooled by this move and did not move south until June 18, by which time Grant’s entire army had been moved south of the James. After four days of combat with no success Grant began siege operations.
So Lee ended up in Petersburg with the Appomattox River (a tribuary of the James) protecting his back, and surrounding the city below the river he built two lines of works that covered the entire area. Grant sent Gen. Benjamin Butler and his Army of the James back north towards Richmond, to launch diversionary attacks there and siphon off some of Lee’s forces to drain him at Petersburg. Meade and the Army of the Potomac built works from the river northeast of Petersburg down to south of the city, as far as they could go. The Confederates controlled all the ground from Grant’s southern tip west up to the river. Siege conditions prevailed from June 1864 to virtually the war’s end. Grant’s main objective during the ten-month Siege of Petersburg was to extend his lines south and west to cut Lee’s railroad links and encircle him at the same time. Here was Lee’s problem: he was stuck in Petersburg and every Union success forced him to extend his lines. Every time he had to extend, those lines became thinner.
In the summer of 1864, the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad that ran from Petersburg southeast was in Union hands, and Grant's thrust was toward the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad that ran due south. If he could cut the Weldon, only one lifeline in Petersburg would remain open to the Confederates, a rail link that ran west. The Battle of Weldon Railroad (also called Globe Tavern) took place from August 18–21, 1864 and was a Union victory and left Grant in full control of the Weldon Railroad’s access to Petersburg. As things then stood, Lee now had no choice but to offload his supplies from the crucial supply centers in North Carolina at the Weldon’s Stony Creek rail station, 18 miles south of Petersburg, then transfer them by wagon to Dinwiddie Court House and then up the Boydton Plank Road into Petersburg. This new, less-efficient supply line became the target of Grant's next offensive at Petersburg, as he sought to block off the Boydton Plank Road. Late September 29, Grant began moving troops into place, and that night received a letter from Meade reporting on Confederate troop movements and saying, “I can throw a force out to Poplar Spring Church, and engage the enemy, if you deem advisable, but this will only be extending our lines without a commensurate object, unless the engaging the enemy is so deemed.”
Grant quickly responded with this Autograph Letter Signed, on his Head Quarters Armies of the United States letterhead, City Point, Va., September 29, 1864, 11.30 p.m., to Meade, issuing detailed orders for the imminent Battle of Peebles's Farm and setting forth his strategy at Petersburg generally. “You need not move out at daylight in the morning, but be prepared to start at, say, 8 o'clock, if you find the enemy still further reduced, or if ordered. I will start up to Deep Bottom at 5 a.m., and may be able to judge of the force sent to the north side by the enemy. When you do move out I think it will be advisable to maneuver to get a good position from which to attack, and then if the enemy is routed follow him into Petersburg, or where circumstances seem to direct. I do not think it advisable to try to extend our line to the South Side road, uncles a very considerable part of the enemy is drawn across the James, and then only when we are able to withdraw Butler's force rapidly and it to you.”
On the 30th Meade attacked the Confederate fortifications in the Battle of Peebles's Farm, which resulted in a Union victory. Its forces extended the siege lines past the Peebles's Farm area, bringing them all the closer to their ultimate goal of the Boydton Plank Road.
Maj. George K. Leet was on Grant’s staff throughout the Civil War. The above letter was sent as a telegram, with Leet as a courier from Grant himself to the telegraph office. After seeing the telegram sent to Meade, Leet retained the original letter, and it has remained in his family for the ensuing 147 years. Knowledge of its text was known from copies, and the continued existence of the original has been unknown until now. We obtained it recently directly from Leet’s descendants, and it has never before been offered for sale.