May 1, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac prepared to cross the Rapidan River and begin its long-awaited offensive in northern Virginia.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “acknowledged with pride” that he had received President Abraham Lincoln’s “very kind letter” of April 30. Grant responded from his Culpeper Court House headquarters:
“It will be my earnest endeavor that you and the country shall not be disappointed… I have been astonished at the readiness which everything asked for has been yielded, without even an explanation being asked. Should my success be less than I desire and expect, the least I can say is, the fault is not with you.”
According to a War Department report, Grant now had 141,160 officers and men, including the 20,780 troops of IX Corps coming from Chesapeake Bay. But not all were battle-seasoned veterans; many were conscripts, hired substitutes, or volunteers enticed more by bounties than patriotism. They would all be tested to their limit in the upcoming campaign, which began with Grant’s order on the 2nd:
“The movement of this Army will commence at 12 o’clock tomorrow night. The attempt will be made to turn the right flank of the enemy–that is, to cross the Rapidan east of or below the railroad. Ely’s Ford, Germanna Ford, and Culpeper Mine Ford will be the crossing places.”
The Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General George G. Meade, would advance in two columns, both led by cavalry:
- The western (right) column would cross the Rapidan at Germanna Ford and march to Wilderness Tavern, west of Chancellorsville; it consisted of V and VI corps under Major Generals Gouverneur Warren and John Sedgwick respectively.
- The eastern (left) column would cross at Ely’s Ford and march to Chancellorsville; it consisted of II Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock and the artillery.
The Federal wagon train would cross at Culpeper Mine Ford, and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps would be in reserve. Grant would direct the army’s movements, and Meade would carry them out. By moving against the Confederate right, Grant hoped to wedge the Federals between General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond.
That day, Lee and his subordinates observed Federal troop positions from atop Clark’s Mountain. Lee correctly deduced that Grant would move to the Confederate right, cross the Rapidan, and advance into the Wilderness area west of Chancellorsville. This would keep the Federals close to the rivers needed to transport their supplies and men. Studying Ely’s and Germanna fords, Lee said, “Grant will cross by one of those fords.”
Lee had just 64,000 officers and men in his army, or less than half that of Grant. But Lee had the advantage of fighting on the defensive, and unlike the Federals, most of the Confederates were battle-tested. Lee developed a plan to advance and meet the Federals in the Wilderness, where their superior numbers and artillery could be neutralized by the dense brush and undergrowth.
Lee’s overall strategy was to inflict so many casualties on the enemy that the northern public would demand an end to the bloodshed, even if it meant Confederate independence. He wrote, “If victorious, we have everything to live for. If defeated, there will be nothing left to live for.”
On the Federal side, Meade issued a proclamation to his army on the 3rd:
“Soldiers! Again you are called upon to advance on the enemies of your country… You have been re-organized, strengthened and fully equipped in every respect. You form a part of the several armies of your country, the whole under the direction of an able and distinguished General, who enjoys the confidence of the government, the people and the army. Your movement being in co-operation with others, it is of the utmost importance that no effort should be left unspared to make it successful.
“Soldiers! the eyes of the whole country are looking with anxious hope to the blow you are about to strike in the most sacred cause that ever called men to arms… Bear with patience the hardships and sacrifices you will be called upon to endure. Have confidence in your officers and in each other. Keep your ranks on the march and on the battlefield, and let each man earnestly implore God’s blessing and endeavor by his thoughts and actions to render himself worthy of the favor he seeks. With clear consciences and strong arms, actuated by a high sense of duty, fighting to preserve the Government and the institutions handed down to us by our forefathers–if true to ourselves–victory, under God’s blessing, must and will attend our efforts.”
Meade wrote his wife, “To-morrow we move. I hope and trust we will be successful, and so decidedly successful as to bring about a termination of this war.” Acknowledging that both armies had been re-equipped and reinforced, Meade stated, “This is all the better for us, if we succeed, as it will make the battle and victory more decisive.” He concluded:
“I beg of you to be calm and resigned, to place full trust in the mercy of our heavenly Father, who has up to this time so signally favored us, and the continuance of whose blessing we should earnestly pray for. Do not fret, but be cheerful, and go about and do just as if nothing was going on, and above all things don’t anticipate evil; it will come time enough… I feel quiet and determined, satisfied I have ever striven to do my duty to the best of my ability, and believing that in time posterity will do justice to my career.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20197-214, 20340-49; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2934-44; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6754; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 45, 56-60; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 491; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 285-88