May 4, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac moved out to begin its long-anticipated offensive, now with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in overall command.
This was just one part of Grant’s simultaneous offensive against all major points in the Confederacy. Two other Federal armies began mobilizing in Virginia: Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s east of Richmond and Major General Franz Sigel’s in the Shenandoah Valley. Another army was to move against Mobile, Alabama, and a combined force of three Federal armies was about to advance against the Confederates in northern Georgia.
Grant planned to move Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac around the right (east) flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia south of the Rapidan River. Grant had considered moving around Lee’s left, but the Federals could be resupplied much easier via the waterways on the right. However, the movement involved traversing the Wilderness, where dense woods, ravines, and undergrowth could offset the Federals’ numerical superiority.
Federal wagons began taking their places around 12 p.m. on the 3rd; the wagon train eventually stretched over 60 miles. Confederate scouts observed the movements along with smoke clouds, which indicated that the Federals were burning all the supplies they could not bring with them.
That night, Grant met with his subordinates at his Culpeper Court House headquarters, where he announced, “I shall not give my attention so much to Richmond as to Lee’s army, and I want all commanders to feel that hostile armies, and not cities, are to be their objective points.”
Grant stated that if the Federals defeated Lee, the Confederates would have to take refuge in the Richmond defenses. Standing beside a large map of Virginia on the wall, Grant circled the area between Richmond and Petersburg with his cigar and declared, “When my troops are there, Richmond is mine. Lee must retreat or surrender.”
The Federals began leaving their winter quarters on schedule. Grant reported, “Soon after midnight, May 3d-4th the Army of the Potomac moved out from its position north of the Rapidan, to start upon that memorable campaign.” This began an unprecedented movement designed to maintain relentless pressure upon Lee until he surrendered. That pressure would be applied for nearly a year.
Across the Rapidan, Lee had three infantry corps:
- Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps held the Confederate right, which was closest to the Federal advance.
- Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps held the center, near Orange Court House.
- Two divisions of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps held the left near Gordonsville.
Lee also had his invaluable cavalry command, led by Major General Jeb Stuart. Near midnight, Lee’s signalmen atop Clark’s Mountain flashed the awaited message: “General Ewell, have your command ready to move at daylight.” Around 9:30 a.m. on the 4th, the signalmen notified Ewell, “From present indications everything seems to be moving to the right, on Germanna and Ely’s Fords roads, leaving cavalry in our front.”
Grant crossed the Rapidan wearing a new dress uniform. He was accompanied by Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois, his political benefactor who had sponsored the law bestowing the rank of lieutenant general upon him. Grant reported, “The crossing of the Rapidan effected. Forty-eight hours now will demonstrate whether the enemy intends giving battle this side of Richmond.” Grant was relieved that Lee had not contested the crossing, but he did not know that Lee was waiting for the Federals to get across before attacking them in the forbidding Wilderness.
As Grant set up headquarters in a farmhouse, a correspondent asked, “General Grant, about how long will it take you to get to Richmond?” Grant replied, “I will agree to be there in about four days. That is, if General Lee becomes party to the agreement; but if he objects, the trip will undoubtedly be prolonged.” Later that day, Grant received word that Ewell was advancing. He said, “This gives just the information I wanted. It shows that Lee is drawing out from his position, and is pushing across to meet us.”
Ewell’s Confederates led the march along the Orange Turnpike, followed by A.P. Hill along the parallel Orange Plank Road. Longstreet remained back for the time being, guarding the line from Gordonsville to Richmond in case Grant sent a force around the Confederate left. Ewell halted for the night near Mine Run, while Hill camped at New Verdiersville.
When it became clear that the main Federal threat was on the right, Lee called Longstreet’s men forward. Longstreet urged Lee to move around to the Federal rear, but Lee directed him to move north to Orange Court House, and then follow Hill’s corps along the Orange Plank Road.
Stuart’s cavalry scouted near Fredericksburg amid rumors that the Federals might turn east. Stuart soon discovered that the Federals were actually turning west, moving between the Wilderness and Chancellorsville. Lee planned to attack them before they could get out of the Wilderness and into the open, just as he did against Joseph Hooker last year.
As the Confederates moved, President Jefferson Davis notified Lee that the armies of Butler and Sigel were also on the move in Virginia. Lee relied on General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates southeast of Richmond to handle Butler, while Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley were tasked with facing Sigel.
The Federals stopped for the night in the Wilderness so the wagon train could catch up. Many camped on the old Chancellorsville battlefield, where skeletons had been unearthed by weather. This macabre scene foreshadowed things to come as the armies bivouacked within two miles of each other.
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