Category Archives: Virginia

Showdown Looms in the Shenandoah Valley

May 13, 1864 – Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates moved out to confront Major General Franz Sigel’s Federal Army of West Virginia advancing south “up” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Federal Gen Franz Sigel | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

In late April, the third of four planned Federal offensives in Virginia began when Sigel led 10,000 Federals out of Martinsburg. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had tasked Sigel with clearing Confederates out of the Valley, which provided vast amounts of foodstuffs. Destroying this fertile region could starve the Confederate armies into submission.

On the 2nd, the fourth offensive began when Brigadier General George Crook moved 6,000 Federals southeast out of the Kanawha Valley toward Dublin Station in West Virginia. Crook’s mission was to advance to the New River Bridge and wreck the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. A detachment of 2,000 cavalry under Brigadier General William W. Averell was to ride from Logan’s Court House to destroy the salt and lead mines at Saltville and Wytheville.

Crook and Averell were then to move to Staunton, where they would join forces with Sigel and destroy the Virginia Central Railroad connecting the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond. Grant had little faith in Sigel as a commander and therefore expected Crook to be the campaign’s driving force. Sigel’s main task was to guard the Valley until Crook’s force arrived; as Grant said, “If Sigel can’t skin, himself, he can hold a leg whilst someone else skins.”

Sigel arrived at Winchester on the 2nd, covering just 22 miles in three days. News of his advance reached General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia about to do battle in the Wilderness. Lee notified Breckinridge, heading the Confederate Trans-Allegheny Department: “Grant’s whole army is moving on our right… (Sigel) will probably cross at Chester Gap and move upon our left.”

With Lee’s army stretched to its limit, Breckinridge was assigned to stop Sigel. Breckinridge immediately began moving two infantry brigades toward Staunton. This left West Virginia open for Crook and Averell to strike the vital railroad, saltworks, and lead mines there.

Meanwhile, Sigel remained at Winchester for a week due to incorrect reports that Confederates were poised to threaten his flanks. He finally left town on the 9th, with his troops wearing new uniforms and marching with confident precision. According to a soldier, “They had heard reports that a great battle had been fought between Grant’s and Lee’s armies, and that our army had the advantage.”

Major General John C. Breckinridge | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Breckinridge had just 4,000 Confederates to oppose Sigel in two infantry brigades, a cavalry command under Brigadier General John B. Imboden, and various other independent units. On the 10th, he called upon the cadets at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington to march 32 miles to join him at Staunton. After commemorating the first anniversary of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s death (Jackson had taught at VMI), the cadets headed out, led by Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp.

Farther west, Crook’s Federals arrived at the 400-foot New River Bridge on the 10th. A small Confederate unit traded artillery fire with the Federals before withdrawing, and Crook’s men burned the bridge. Crook was now within eight miles of Dublin, where he was to wait for Averell’s cavalry and then head east to join Sigel at Staunton.

However, Crook issued orders for his men to return to Meadow Bluff, near Lewisburg, where they could resupply. Crook later justified this dubious withdrawal by claiming, “I saw dispatches from Richmond stating that General Grant had been repulsed and was retreating, which determined me to move to Lewisburg as rapidly as possible.”

Farther southwest, Averell found the way to Wytheville blocked by Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate horsemen at Crockett’s Grove. The Confederates made several charges, inflicting 114 casualties and pushing the Federals eastward. Averell withdrew to Dublin, where he learned that Crook would not be meeting up with him.

When Breckinridge reported to Richmond that the New River Bridge had been destroyed, Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg urged him to turn southwest and confront Crook. Bragg left the final decision to Lee, who simply told Breckinridge, “You must judge.” Fortunately for Breckinridge, Crook and Averell made the decision easy by falling back; Breckinridge could now focus solely on Sigel.

As Sigel’s Federals continued southward, they were harassed by Imboden’s cavalry in their front and Colonel John S. Mosby’s Confederate partisans on their flanks and rear. On the 11th, Imboden attacked one of Sigel’s cavalry regiments stationed at Front Royal and captured 464 men. But neither Confederate cavalry nor foul weather stopped Sigel’s methodical advance up the Valley. The Federals reached Woodstock the next day.

At Woodstock, Sigel learned that Breckinridge was organizing an army to oppose him. Having moved deep into enemy territory, with partisans harassing him and no word yet on what happened to Crook, Sigel informed his superiors:

“My forces are insufficient for offensive operations in the country where the enemy is continually on my flank and rear. My intention, therefore, is not to advance farther than this place with my main force, but have sent out strong parties in every direction. Skirmishing is going on every day. If Breckinridge should advance against us I will resist him at some convenient position.”

Breckinridge arrived at Staunton that same day to take “general direction of affairs” past the Blue Ridge. Rather than wait for Sigel to attack him there, Breckinridge advanced his makeshift force to join with Imboden’s horsemen, which fell back from Mount Jackson to New Market, 40 miles away. The VMI cadets arrived to join Breckinridge just as his men began moving out of Staunton on the morning of the 13th.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20385; 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 5148-77, 5193-203, 5212-22, 5232-242; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 427, 436-37; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 16, 20, 23, 25, 28-29; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 146, 527-28

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Spotsylvania: Terrible Fighting at the Mule Shoe

May 12, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered a massive Federal assault on a salient in the line of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

A portion of the Confederate defenses in the northeastern sector protruded from the rest of the line and resembled a “mule shoe,” giving the salient its name. About 5,000 Federals from Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac (with Grant in overall command) tried taking this position on the 10th but failed. Grant therefore planned to attack with 15,000 men on the 12th.

Lee had pulled 22 guns out of the Mule Shoe because he thought Grant would fall back eastward. But when word spread that Grant would be attacking that point again, Lee hurriedly ordered the guns returned. As another fight seemed imminent, a Confederate chaplain recalled:

“Nothing was said by our officers, but there was a nameless something in the air which told each man that a crisis was at hand. Orders were given in low tones. The dim, shadowy outlines of the different commands as they took their positions under the sombre shades of the pines, gave a weird effect to the scene.”

The Confederate line consisted of Major General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps holding Laurel Hill on the left (west), Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps holding the Mule Shoe in the center, and Major General Jubal Early’s Third Corps holding the eastern face of the Mule Shoe on a north-south line on the right. The line generally resembled an “L.”

In preparation for the attack, the bulk of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps was shifted from the Federal right (west) to the center, facing the Mule Shoe. To Hancock’s right was Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps, and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s II Corps now held the right (west) flank. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps held the Federal left, on a north-south line facing west.

Map of action on May 12 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Grant ordered Hancock to attack at 4 a.m., but darkness and rain caused a 30-minute delay. When the Federals emerged from their defenses, they charged against the apex of the Mule Shoe salient and penetrated the Confederate line. At the salient’s eastern tip, Federals from Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow’s division overran Brigadier General George Steuart’s brigade and captured some 3,000 men, including both Steuart and his division commander, Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. The Federals also captured most of the famed Stonewall Division and split the Confederate army in two.

Battle of Spotsylvania | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Burnside’s Federals attacked the eastern face of the salient, which aided Hancock’s efforts but resulted in no breakthroughs. Early’s Confederates held firm in this sector until around 2 p.m., when both Grant and Meade ordered Burnside to attack. The ensuing assault was repelled, and Burnside fell back when a Confederate brigade threatened his flank.

To the northwest, Hancock’s attack soon spread around the Mule Shoe’s apex and onto its western face. His Federals had broken through, but they had no plan for what to do next. Moreover, the troops had been massed in such a compact formation that the individual commands became disorganized.

Brigadier General John B. Gordon quickly directed Confederates to plug the gaps in the line and drive the Federals out. Lee arrived on the scene and prepared to advance with one of the Confederate units himself. Gordon insisted that Lee go back to safety, and the men shouted, “Lee to the rear!” Lee complied, and the Confederates soon reclaimed the eastern face of the Mule Shoe. Meanwhile, Major General Robert E. Rodes’s Confederate division worked to shore up the western face.

Around 6:30 a.m., Grant ordered Wright and Warren to attack. Wright’s Federals struck the Mule Shoe’s western face where it rounded to the apex. The heaviest fighting of the day occurred in this sector, which became known as the “Bloody Angle.” Brigadier General Abner M. Perrin, who commanded a brigade in Early’s corps, was killed after announcing, “I shall come out of this fight a live major general or a dead brigadier.”

Warren’s Federals attacked Laurel Hill around 8:15 a.m. The men had failed to take the hill several times since the 8th, and few had any confidence that it could be taken today. Consequently, the attack was not in full force, and after 30 minutes, Warren informed Meade that he could not advance any further “at present.” Enraged, Meade ordered Warren to attack “at once at all hazards with your whole force, if necessary.”

Warren passed the order to his division commanders, adding, “Do it. Don’t mind the consequences.” The corps attacked but was repelled once again, this time by just one Confederate division under Major General Charles W. Field. Not only had Warren failed to break the line, but his attacks were so weak that Lee did not need to reinforce that part of his line.

Meanwhile, Confederates in the Mule Shoe kept up the hard fighting in the rain while their comrades hurried to build a new defensive line at the salient’s base. Some of the Confederate gunpowder was too wet to ignite, forcing them to use their bayonets and hand-to-hand combat. This marked some of the most terrible fighting of the war. A Federal officer recalled:

“It was chiefly a savage hand to hand fight across the breastworks. Rank after rank was riddled by shot and shell and bayonet-thrusts, and finally sank, a mass of mutilated corpses; then fresh troops rushed madly forward to replace the dead, and so the murderous work went on. Guns were run up close to the parapet, and double charges of canister played their part in the bloody work. The fence-rails and logs in the breastworks were shattered into splinters, and trees over a foot and a half in diameter were cut completely in two by the incessant musketry fire.”

A Federal from VI Corps wrote, “The flags of both armies waved at the same moment over the same breastworks, while beneath them Federal and Confederate endeavored to drive home the bayonet through the interstices of the logs.” A tree 22 inches in diameter was sawed in half by bullets. Everything in the path of the opposing armies was laid to waste, as (unlike most battles) both sides refused to yield.

According to a Federal officer, “I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania, because I should be loath to believe it myself were the case reversed.” Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff recalled:

“Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the ‘angle,’ while in front of the captured breastworks the enemy’s dead, vastly more numerous than our own, were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from the horrid entombment. Every relief possible was afforded, but in too many cases it came too late.”

Fighting continued through the night, as Robert Park of the 12th Alabama wrote:

“It was a night of unrest, of misery, of horror. The standing men would occasionally hear a comrade utter an exclamation as a stray bullet from the enemy pierced some part of his body and placed him hors du combat. And it was well that the men were kept standing, as I saw many of them walking by the right flank and then by the left flank, and in profound sleep, wholly unconscious of what they were doing.”

By 4 a.m. on the 13th, the new defenses were completed, and the Confederates in the Mule Shoe fell back to take positions behind them. This ended 24 hours of non-stop combat. A new era of warfare had begun, in which defenders entrenched themselves behind fieldworks and attackers charged in much more compact, powerful lines to create gaps in the enemy line. This type of fighting would not only dominate the rest of this campaign, but it would serve as the model for how future wars would be fought.

Since May 10, Grant had lost 10,920 killed, wounded, or missing. He wired Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on the night of the 12th, “The enemy are obstinate and seem to have found the last ditch.” The next morning, the Federals advanced and found nothing but dead and wounded men in the Mule Shoe. Burial details were dispatched to inter the corpses.

At Federal headquarters, members of Grant’s staff blamed Meade for yesterday’s failure to break through the Confederate line, but Grant rejected calls to remove him as army commander. He wrote Meade, “I do not desire a battle brought on with the enemy in their position of yesterday, but want to press as close to them as possible to determine their position and strength. We must get by the right flank of the enemy for the next fight.”

The Federals began shifting their massive line, as the men of V and VI corps were to move from the right (west) and take new positions on the left (southeast). Grant would try turning Lee’s right flank once more.

On the Confederate side, Lee had lost about 6,000 men in three days, or a tenth of his army. He needed reinforcements, specifically Major General Robert F. Hoke’s troops defending Richmond. Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “If Genl Hoke with fresh troops can be spared from Richmond it would be of great assistance. We are outnumbered and constant labor is impairing the efficiency of the men.”

Since combat operations began on May 5, Lee’s Confederates had consistently repelled the full force of the Army of the Potomac. However, this threatened to become a war of attrition, which the Confederates could not win.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 475; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 168-70; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 456-57, 460; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 406; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 436-37; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7070-94; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 99, 105, 124-25; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 238; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 499-500; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 729-31; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 575; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 290-91; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 516-17, 551, 709

The Death of Jeb Stuart

May 12, 1864 – The “Cavalier of Dixie” succumbed to a wound suffered at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, and another legendary Confederate general was gone.

Confederate General Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Major General Jeb Stuart, cavalry commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had led a portion of his force in fighting a delaying action against Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal troops just six miles from Richmond. Stuart was shot during the fight, and he was subsequently taken on an agonizing six-hour ambulance ride to the capital.

Along the way, Stuart said, “I don’t know how this will turn out; but if it is God’s will that I shall die, I am ready.” The ambulance stopped at the home of his sister-in-law on Grace Street at 11 p.m. Four of Richmond’s top physicians tended to him, but there was little they could do. The bullet had severed his intestines, and he was slowly dying most likely from internal bleeding and peritonitis.

Messages were sent to Stuart’s wife Flora and their children, who were staying at Beaver Dam Station. However, Federals had cut the telegraph lines out of Richmond, so the message did not arrive until noon on the 12th. Flora and the children boarded a train for Richmond, but Federals had wrecked the tracks. Wounded Confederate cavalry officers gave them their ambulance wagon to finish their journey.

That morning, Stuart dictated his will to Major Henry McClellan, his adjutant. Stuart noted the sound of artillery, and McClellan assured him that it was Major General Fitzhugh Lee chasing the Federals east, away from Richmond. Stuart said, “God grant that they may be successful, but I must be prepared for another world.”

President Jefferson Davis visited Stuart and asked his condition. Stuart replied, “Easy, but willing to die, if God and my country think I have fulfilled my destiny and done my duty.” When a doctor told him that he would probably die before nightfall, Stuart said, “I am resigned if it be God’s will, but I would like to see my wife… But God’s will be done.”

Around 7 p.m., a clergyman led everyone in the house in prayer. Stuart then asked him to lead a singing of “Rock of Ages,” his favorite hymn. Stuart tried singing along but could not. He said, “I am going fast now. I am resigned; God’s will be done.” James Ewell Brown Stuart, the “Cavalier of Dixie,” died at 7:38 p.m., at age 31. Flora and the children finally arrived at the Grace Street house at 11:30 that night.

Back at Spotsylvania, General Robert E. Lee received word of Stuart’s wounding and paid him his highest compliment: “He never brought me a false piece of information.” Composing himself, Lee announced to his officers, “Gentlemen, we have very bad news. General Stuart has been mortally wounded.” As Lee returned to his tent around midnight, he received word that Stuart had died. Lee quietly remarked, “I can scarcely think of him without weeping.”

Funeral services were held on the 13th at St. James Church in Richmond. Stuart’s wife Flora and their children attended, along with Davis, Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg, and several other high-ranking Confederates. Many others, including those still pursuing Sheridan and those at Spotsylvania, could not be there. Lee could not spare any men for a funeral escort as Stuart’s body was brought to Hollywood Cemetery and buried. News of his death shocked and deeply sorrowed the South.

Meanwhile, Sheridan’s raid continued. His Federals rode east, where they damaged the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and temporarily cut communications between Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the capital. Sheridan planned to ride southeast and join Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred, south of the James River.

On the 14th, the Federal troopers entered Butler’s lines at Haxall’s Landing, bringing 400 freed Federal prisoners and 300 Confederate prisoners. They suffered 625 casualties on the raid, and while they did not attack Richmond as hoped, they damaged Beaver Dam and Ashland. And most importantly, Sheridan showed that he could match Stuart’s legendary cavalry. Sheridan reported that Stuart’s death at Yellow Tavern “inflicted a blow from which entire recovery was impossible.”

Sheridan’s men rested and refit their horses for the next three days before heading back north to rejoin the Army of the Potomac. They returned on the 24th, 15 days after their expedition began. The raid proved successful, as the Federals wrecked telegraphic communications and 10 miles of railroad track on three different lines while freeing imprisoned comrades and capturing vast amounts of supplies.

More importantly, this demonstrated the growing skill of the Federal cavalry. Perhaps most importantly, it permanently deprived the Confederacy of Stuart, whose leadership could not be replaced.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 475; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20102; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 406, 408, 410, 412; 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 4932-73; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 437; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7070-82; http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-yellow-tavern.htm; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 123-24; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 679-80, 727-28; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 499-502, 504; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 680, 846-47

The Battle of Yellow Tavern

May 11, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan embarked on a Federal cavalry raid intended to disrupt Confederate supply lines and destroy the famed command of Major General Jeb Stuart.

Maj. Gen. P.H. Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, blamed Cavalry Corps commander Sheridan for failing to clear the Brock Road on the 8th, which helped the Confederates win the race to Spotsylvania Court House. As the two men argued, Sheridan snapped that if headquarters left him alone, he could ride out and whip Stuart’s Confederate horsemen.

Meade relayed this to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant responded, “Did Sheridan say that? Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.” Meade issued orders for Sheridan to lead 10,000 troopers south to cut Confederate supply lines and destroy Stuart’s command. Sheridan could then either ride south to join Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James or return to the Army of the Potomac.

Sheridan gathered his three division commanders–Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt, David M. Gregg, and James H. Wilson–on the night of the 8th and announced, “We are going out to fight Stuart’s cavalry in consequence of a suggestion from me. In view of my recent representations to General Meade I shall expect nothing but success.” According to Theophilus F. Rodenbough of Sheridan’s staff:

“The command was stripped of all impediments, such as unserviceable animals, wagons and tents. The necessary ammunition train, two ambulances to a division, a few pack-mules for baggage, three days’ rations and a half-day’s forage carried on the saddle, comprised the outfit.”

The troopers, along with six batteries of horse artillery, rode out at 6 a.m. on the 9th, with Sheridan vowing to whip Stuart out of his boots. To conserve energy, the Federals kept a slow pace as their line stretched 13 miles along the Telegraph Road.

Confederate scouts learned of the enemy movement almost as soon as it began, and elements of Stuart’s cavalry under Brigadier General William C. Wickham quickly began harassing Sheridan’s rear. Sheridan disregarded these sporadic attacks, telling his command, “Keep moving, boys. We’re going on through. There isn’t cavalry enough in all the Southern Confederacy to stop us.”

Maj Gen Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Stuart, perhaps underestimating Sheridan’s strength, kept nearly half his command at Spotsylvania to guard the Army of Northern Virginia’s flanks while leading his remaining 5,000 men (in three brigades under Generals Fitzhugh Lee, Lunsford Lomax, and James B. Gordon) to positions between Sheridan and Richmond.

Sheridan’s horsemen reached the North Anna River by nightfall. Merritt’s division continued to Beaver Dam Station, a key Confederate supply depot on the Virginia Central Railroad. Confederates burned the depot before retreating, and the advancing Federals burned 100 railroad cars and two locomotives. Some 504,000 rations of bread and 904,000 rations of meat for Confederate soldiers was destroyed. The Federals also freed 400 of their comrades held as prisoners of war.

Unable to beat Sheridan to the North Anna, Stuart continued south to try beating him to the South Anna. He reported to Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg in Richmond that Sheridan was heading south from Beaver Dam Station, while Federal detachments continued destroying tracks on the Virginia Central between the North and South Anna rivers.

Stuart wrote, “Should he attack Richmond, I will certainly move in his rear and do what I can; at the same time, I hope to be able to strike him if he endeavors to escape.” Stuart intended to make a stand outside Richmond that would delay Sheridan just long enough for the Confederate troops in Richmond to man the capital’s defenses.

Sheridan stopped after crossing the South Anna that night. Stuart’s command, having rode 36 straight hours, halted north of that same river. The next morning, Stuart divided his force even further by sending Gordon’s troopers to harass Sheridan’s rear while the other two Confederate brigades headed to Yellow Tavern, an old stagecoach stop on the Brook Turnpike about six miles north of Richmond.

The Federals came up around 11 a.m., and the fight that Sheridan had hoped to draw Stuart into soon began. With Confederates continuing to harass his rear, Sheridan patiently scouted Stuart’s positions and deployed Merritt’s division in line of battle. The Federals had three divisions versus just two Confederate brigades; the Federals also had superior Spencer repeating rifles.

Merritt attacked Lomax’s brigade, sending the Confederates reeling back to their second defense line under Fitz Lee. A lull came over the field as both sides held back until reinforcements could arrive. Then, a Federal brigade under Brigadier General George A. Custer appeared in the clearing and charged an artillery battery. One of the Federal cavalrymen later wrote:

“As soon as our line appeared in the open, indeed, before it left the woods, the Confederate artillery opened with shell and shrapnel; the carbines and sharpshooters joined with zest in the fray and the man who thinks they did not succeed in making that part of the neighborhood around Yellow Tavern an uncomfortably hot place, was not there at the time.”

But the Federals managed to capture the battery and turn Stuart’s left flank around 4 p.m. Stuart directed a countercharge by the 1st Virginia, which he held in reserve, and they repelled Custer’s Federals. As Stuart rode forward with the Virginians, a bullet from a .44-caliber Federal pistol hit him in the right side below the ribs. His aides helped him off his horse. Fitz Lee soon arrived, and Stuart passed command to him: “Go ahead, Fitz, old fellow, I know you will do what is right.”

Stuart’s aides loaded him into an arriving ambulance, with one aide recalling:

“As he was being driven from the field he noticed the disorganized ranks of his retreating men and called out to them: ‘Go back! Go back! And do your duty, as I have done mine, and our country will be safe. Go back! Go back! I had rather die than be whipped.’”

Under command of Fitz Lee, the Confederates ultimately held firm. After probing for weaknesses, Sheridan disengaged and rode down the Brook Turnpike toward Richmond. However, the Confederate delaying action gave city officials enough time to bolster their defenses.

The Federals rode past the capital’s outer works as alarm bells rang and artillery fire erupted. Sheridan surveyed the defenses and told an aide, “I could capture Richmond, if I wanted, but I can’t hold it. It isn’t worth the men it would cost.” Sheridan reported to Meade:

“It is possible that I might have captured the city of Richmond by assault, but the want of knowledge of your operations and those of General Butler, and the facility with which the enemy could throw in troops, made me abandon the attempt.”

Sheridan asserted, “I should have been the hero of the hour. I could have gone in and burned and killed right and left.” But it was not worth sacrificing his men “for no permanent advantage,” since they could have only temporarily occupied the capital. Besides, Stuart had been Sheridan’s main objective, not Richmond. The Federals turned east to eventually join either Butler or Meade.

This marked a turning point in the cavalry struggle in Virginia, as the Federals now had not only the numbers but the skill to easily match the Confederate cavaliers. Estimated casualties at Yellow Tavern for each side were about 800, but the greatest loss of them all was Stuart himself.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20093-102; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 403-05; 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 4728-48, 4894-914, 4942-52; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 433-34, 436; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6986; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 114-15, 117-23; http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-yellow-tavern.htm; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 727-28; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 244, 275-76; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 496-99; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 728; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551, 680, 846-47

Spotsylvania: Attacking the Mule Shoe

May 10, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac launched an all-out assault on Confederates defending Spotsylvania Court House, with particular emphasis on a salient in the defense line. More horrific casualties resulted.

The constant marching and fighting between Major General George G. Meade’s Federal army (under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command) and General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia entered its fifth day. Both armies temporarily halted the general fighting to build lines of defense.

By the morning of the 9th, the Confederates had built strong defenses just north of Spotsylvania Court House, blocking the Federals from any further southward advance. The line ran from the Po River on the left (west), across Laurel Hill and the Brock Road in the center, and then southward to the court house. A salient in the northeastern sector of the line jutted outward and resembled what became known as the “Mule Shoe.”

These were the strongest fieldworks of the war up to this time, featuring two lines of trenches, breastworks, abatis, artillery, and traverses. Major General Jubal Early’s (formerly A.P. Hill’s) Third Corps held the left, Major General Richard H. Anderson’s (formerly James Longstreet’s) First Corps held the center, and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps held the right. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis at 3 a.m.:

“We have succeeded so far in keeping on the front flank of that army, and impeding its progress, without a general engagement, which I will not bring on unless a favorable opportunity offers, or as a last resort. Every attack made upon us has been repelled and considerable damage done to the enemy. With the blessing of God, I trust we shall be able to prevent General Grant from reaching Richmond.”

Davis responded, “Your dispatches have cheered us in the anxiety of a critical position… I will volunteer to say that I am very glad at what has happened; but there is a great deal still to be done.”

The Federals’ line consisted of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps on the right (west), Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps in the center, and Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps on the left (east). Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps was on its way from Aldrich, northeast of the Federal line. The Federal army numbered about 100,000 men, while Lee had approximately 60,000.

As the men of VI Corps dug rifle pits, random fire from Confederate sharpshooters scattered them. Standing nearby, Sedgwick exclaimed, “What! What! Men dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” More fire erupted, and this time Sedgwick fell dead with a bullet through his face.

News of the beloved commander’s death shocked and demoralized the army. Sedgwick’s surgeon George Stevens wrote, “Never had such a gloom rested upon the whole army on account of the death of one man as came over it when the heaving tidings passed along the lines that General Sedgwick was killed.” Grant equated Sedgwick’s loss with that of a whole division. Sedgwick’s body was placed upon a funeral bier of evergreen boughs, and command of VI Corps passed to Brigadier General Horatio G. Wright.

When Hancock reported that Early’s Confederates were pulling back, Grant saw an opportunity to attack Lee’s left. Hancock’s Federals advanced but had to cross the Po River twice. By the time they reached their attack point, Brigadier General William Mahone’s division stood in their way behind strong defenses. Hancock opted to wait until next morning to attack, and the narrow opportunity that Grant had seen was lost.

By the morning of the 10th, Lee had shifted Major General Henry Heth’s division to join Mahone in opposing Hancock. This led Grant to believe that Lee had weakened his line on the center and right. Abandoning his plan to attack the Confederate left, Grant directed Hancock to leave a division to oppose the Confederates in that sector and move his remaining force alongside Warren for a coordinated attack on Laurel Hill at 5 p.m.

That morning, Grant telegraphed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at Washington, “Enemy hold our front in very strong force and evince strong determination to interpose between us and Richmond to the last. I shall take no backward step…”

As Hancock shifted, Heth’s Confederates attacked his lone division, pushing the Federals north of the Po River before disengaging. Meanwhile, Warren asked Meade to consent to an immediate attack without waiting for Hancock or the 5 p.m. scheduled time; Warren wanted to prove his aggressiveness after Meade accused him of losing his nerve two days ago. Meade consented.

Warren’s Federals advanced through unforgiving forest and brush before meeting fire from Anderson’s Confederates. Warren was forced to order a withdrawal, and Meade rescheduled the Warren-Hancock attack for 6 p.m.

During this time, Colonel Emory Upton of VI Corps received permission to lead 12 regiments (about 5,000 men) in attacking the left side of the “Mule Shoe” salient. Upton had developed a theory that entrenched defenders could be defeated by tightly compacted attackers. His plan was to charge the Confederate works with bayonets, and once they were taken, Federal reinforcements would pour in and spread along the line. He was to be supported by a division in his rear, and Burnside’s IX Corps attacking the Confederate right.

The Federals charged across 200 yards of open field and penetrated the line just as Upton expected. He later wrote, “Like a resistless wave, the column poured over the works, putting hors de combat those who resisted, and sending to the rear those who surrendered.”

But the supporting division was driven off by Confederate artillery, leaving Upton’s men isolated in the enemy trenches. Lee personally shifted troops from his right to counterattack; when the men shouted for him to return to safety, Lee said he would only if they drove the Federals out. The Confederates did, closing the gap and securing the line once more.

Burnside, unaware he faced just a single division, stopped and dug trenches after coming under fire (Grant later blamed himself for not knowing Burnside’s situation and ordering him to advance). Upton lost a quarter of his men, but he took about 1,000 prisoners. Grant promoted him to brigadier general and remarked, “A brigade today–we’ll try a corps tomorrow.”

Lee reported that night, “Thanks to a merciful Providence, our casualties have been small.” President Davis had been anxiously awaiting news from both this front and the one to the south, where Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James was threatening both the capital and Petersburg. Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Cavalry Corps had also been detached to threaten Richmond. Davis pledged to try sending reinforcements to Lee, but “we have been sorely pressed by enemy on south side. Are now threatened by the cavalry…”

Combat was suspended the next day due to rain. As Lee and his subordinates assessed their situation, Lee took exception to an aide accusing Grant of butchery: “I think General Grant has managed his affairs remarkably well up to the present time.” Receiving intelligence that Federal wagons were moving to the rear, Lee guessed that Grant was pulling back toward Fredericksburg. As such, he pulled 22 guns out of the “Mule Shoe” salient, unaware that this was the exact point that Grant planned to attack the next day.

Lee then issued orders: “I wish you to have everything in readiness to pull out at a moment’s notice… We must attack those people if they retreat.” When A.P. Hill suggested staying put and letting the Federals continue their futile attacks on the Confederate defenses, Lee replied, “The army cannot stand a siege, we must end this business on the battlefield, not in a fortified place.”

On the morning of the 11th, Grant had breakfast with his political benefactor, Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois. Before returning to Washington, Washburne told Grant that President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton “would be deeply gratified if I could carry a message from you giving what encouragement you can as to the situation.” Grant wrote:

“We have now ended our sixth day of very hard fighting. The result up to this time is much in our favor. But our losses have been heavy, as well as those of the enemy. We have lost to this time 11 general officers, killed, wounded, and missing, and probably 20,000 men. I think the loss of the enemy must be greater, we having taken over 4,000 prisoners in battle, while he has taken but few, except stragglers. I am satisfied the enemy are very shaky, and are only kept up to the mark by the greatest exertions on the part of their officers and by keeping them intrenched in every position they take. I am now sending back to Belle Plain all my wagons for a fresh supply of provisions and ammunition, and propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

This message caused a sensation both in Washington and across the North. When Lincoln read it, he told his secretary John Hay, “It is the dogged pertinacity of Grant that wins.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 466-69; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 168-70; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 455; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 403-05; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10658; 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 4167-87, 4450-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 432, 434, 436; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 9104; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88-89, 92-93; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 238; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 496-99; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 728-29; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 665; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 175-76; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 290-91; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 516-17, 551, 709

The Battle of Spotsylvania Begins

May 8, 1864 – After two terrible days in the Wilderness, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant led the Federal Army of the Potomac into a new battle that promised to become even more terrible.

The Battle of the Wilderness resulted in nearly 18,000 Federal casualties, leading Grant and Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, to conclude that the Confederate positions were too strong to assault again. This left them with just two options: retreat as all their predecessors had done, or push forward and try getting around the Confederate right. Grant chose the latter, directing Meade at 6:30 a.m. on the 7th: “Make all preparations during the day for a night march to take position at Spotsylvania Court House with one corps–”

The Federals would continue moving southeast. This would force General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, to follow to keep his army between them and Richmond. Grant’s decision to advance turned a tactical defeat into a strategic victory. It also raised the morale of the troops, who had been accustomed to retreating after battles. When word spread that they would be moving forward instead of back, the men cheered until Grant ordered them to stop; he did not want the Confederates learning his intentions.

But Lee already guessed his intentions. Confederates from Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps probed forward and found that the Federals had disappeared from their front. Since this was on the northern flank, Lee figured that the Federals had either moved east toward Fredericksburg or southeast along the Brock Road. Lee began preparing to move to Spotsylvania, where he could block the Federals should they come from either direction.

Both Grant and Lee recognized that Spotsylvania was important because the crossroads there led to Wilderness Tavern, Hanover Junction, and Fredericksburg. It was also the point where two major railroads–the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac and the Virginia Central–intersected, both of which supplied the Confederate army. And it was 12 miles closer to Richmond than the Wilderness. Whoever won the race to Spotsylvania would have a distinct advantage in the struggle between the two armies.

Gen R.H. Anderson | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General Richard H. Anderson, replacing the wounded Lieutenant General James Longstreet in command of First Corps, received orders from Lee to start moving after dark to get to Spotsylvania first. Meade directed Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps to lead the march down the Brock Road, followed by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps. VI and IX corps under Major Generals John Sedgwick and Ambrose E. Burnside respectively would move east along the Orange Turnpike.

Meade ordered Major General Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps to clear the Brock Road for Warren and Hancock. However, Sheridan’s troopers clashed with elements of Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry at Todd’s Tavern. This prevented Sheridan from clearing the road before Anderson’s Confederates passed by during the night. Stuart’s men felled trees which, along with traffic jams among the troops and wagons, delayed the Federal advance.

As the Federals struggled southward early on the 8th, they came upon Confederate cavalry blocking their path on a ridge called Laurel Hill, just north of Spotsylvania Court House. Anderson’s infantry arrived behind the cavalry just as the Federals came within 100 yards. The Confederates had won the race to Spotsylvania, with Lee himself arriving around 3 p.m.

Maj Gen Gouverneur Warren | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Warren, thinking that only cavalry blocked his way, ordered an attack. However, the Confederates repelled several thrusts and inflicted heavy casualties. Warren notified Meade at 12:30 p.m., “I have done my best, but with the force I now have I cannot attack again.” Frustrated, Meade fumed that Warren “lost his nerve.” Meade ordered him to renew the attack as soon as Sedgwick came up on his left (east), but Warren objected. The commanders discussed the situation at Meade’s headquarters and, as Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff recalled:

“In fact the sudden transition from a long winter’s rest to hard marching, sleepless nights, and protracted fighting, with no prospect of cessation, produced a powerful effect on the nervous system of the whole army. And never, perhaps, were officers and men more jaded and prostrated than on this very Sunday.”

Meanwhile, Hancock guarded the Federal rear at Todd’s Tavern and sent a division forward to probe for Confederates. The Federals encountered Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, led by Brigadier General William Mahone’s division. After some fighting, the Federals pulled back and the Confederates resumed their march toward Spotsylvania.

Back in front of Laurel Hill, the Federals finally got into attack positions around 6 p.m., but by that time Ewell’s corps was coming up on Anderson’s right (east). Hill’s corps (led by Major General Jubal Early because Hill was sick) would soon arrive on Ewell’s right. The Federals attacked around 7 p.m. but were repulsed with heavy losses.

The action on the 8th greatly frustrated Meade. In addition to being angry with Warren, he accused Sheridan of not properly clearing the Brock Road, and he called Sedgwick “constitutionally slow.” As the fighting stopped that night, both sides began digging trenches and building earthworks for the fight that was sure to resume the next day.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 462-65; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 444, 456-57; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20268-77; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 401-03; 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 4728-48; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 431-32; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6938; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 82-85, 114; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 238; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 495-96; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 727-28; Mullins, Michael A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 825-27; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 290-91; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551, 709

The Battle of the Wilderness: Day Two

May 6, 1864 – Fighting raged a second day as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant learned that General Robert E. Lee would not be an easy foe to overcome.

The battle between Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac (under Grant’s overall direction) and Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia had been terrible on the 5th. Since then, the battlefield had split into two sectors:

  • In the southern sector, Grant expected Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to attack and destroy Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s weakened Third Corps at dawn.
  • In the northern sector, VI and V corps under Major Generals John Sedgwick and Gouverneur Warren would attack Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, preventing Ewell from helping Hill.
  • In the center, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s reserve IX Corps would come up and attack Hill’s left flank and rear.

Confederate Lieut Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Lee expected Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps to be up on Hill’s right at dawn, but the troops had gotten lost in the brush and would be delayed. Ewell renewed the battle at 4:45 a.m. by assaulting Sedgwick’s and Warren’s Federals as they were preparing to launch an attack of their own. After Ewell made no progress, the Federals counterattacked. The Confederates held their ground, but Ewell could spare no men for Hill on his right.

President Abraham Lincoln had been anxiously awaiting news from the battlefield all day on the 5th. He finally received a dispatch from Grant on the morning of the 6th, but it simply read, “Everything pushing along favorably.” Throughout the day, Grant sat and smoked his cigar as he whittled pieces of wood, awaiting reports from the field.

In the southern sector, Hancock launched his attack at 5 a.m., pushing Hill’s Confederates back toward Lee’s headquarters at the Widow Tapp farm. The Confederate guns at the farm continuously fired canister into the oncoming Federals to no avail. Hancock told a courier, “Tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully!”

Grant had expected Burnside’s IX Corps to come up between Warren and Hancock by dawn. But Burnside was running late, which did not surprise Meade, who had previously served under him. Hancock continued pushing the Confederates back without waiting for Burnside’s troops. Hill’s line eventually broke as the Federals closed in on the Tapp house.

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Suddenly, Brigadier General John Gregg’s Texas brigade, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps, arrived on the scene around 6 a.m. Lee, who had been anxiously awaiting Longstreet’s arrival, asked them, “What brigade is this?” When told they were the Texas brigade, Lee said, “I am glad to see it. When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel–they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.”

Then, in a rare display of excitement, Lee raised his hat and urged them forward, shouting, “Texans always move them!” Lee began advancing with the troops, but when they saw this, they began hollering, “Go back, General Lee, go back!” They stopped Lee’s horse and refused to proceed until Lee went back to safety. Lee complied, and the Texans charged furiously into the stunned Federals.

Soon after, Longstreet arrived with the rest of his two divisions. They, along with Gregg’s men, replaced Hill’s Confederates and counterattacked. The fighting was vicious and confused in the tangled brush and vines of the Wilderness. Gregg lost 550 of his 800 Texans, but the momentum began shifting as the Confederates slowly pushed the Federals back.

Around 10 a.m., Longstreet learned from commanders familiar with the area that the bed of an unfinished railroad lay south of the Orange Plank Road, hidden by the brush. This was an excellent spot from which to assault Hancock’s left flank. Longstreet directed his aide, Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrell, to lead four brigades in an attack that began at 11 a.m.

Maj Gen W.S. Hancock | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federals wavered under this sudden assault, which Hancock later said rolled up his flank “like a wet blanket.” Longstreet renewed the main attack on Hancock’s front, adding to the pressure and pushing the Federals back to the Brock Road. Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth, commanding a Federal division, was mortally wounded.

Longstreet and his aides followed their advancing troops along the Orange Plank Road. To their right, Sorrell’s Confederates suddenly appeared and, mistaking them for Federals, fired on them. Brigadier General Micah Jenkins, commanding a brigade, was killed. Longstreet was severely wounded when a bullet passed through his throat and lodged in his right shoulder.

Coincidentally, Longstreet was just four miles from the spot where Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire almost exactly one year before. The surviving aides helped Longstreet from his horse, and his doctor pronounced the wounds “not necessarily mortal.” Longstreet would survive, but rumors of his death spread through the ranks and demoralized the troops. A lull fell over the battlefield.

Lee temporarily took over Longstreet’s corps and looked to renew the attack. Grant had ordered Hancock to counterattack at 6 p.m., but Lee hit Hancock’s line with an attack of his own at 4 p.m. Brush fires came up between the armies, forcing the Federals back to their breastworks along the Brock Road. The Confederates could not dislodge them, and the fight ended in stalemate.

In the center, Burnside finally arrived around 2 p.m. to fill the gap between Hancock and Warren. But instead of flanking Hill as planned, he now ran into the survivors of Hill’s corps who had shifted to the center to fight alongside Longstreet’s men. The Confederates held firm against Burnside’s assaults.

Confederate General John B. Gordon | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Back in the northern sector, Brigadier General John B. Gordon, commanding a brigade in Major General Jubal Early’s division, saw that Sedgwick’s right flank was vulnerable and urged Early, and then Ewell, to approve an attack. After several hours of vacillation, Gordon sought permission directly from Lee, who approved. Gordon’s men finally attacked at 6 p.m., overwhelming the Federals just as Gordon hoped.

The Confederates captured two Federal generals, 600 other prisoners, and nearly cut the Federal supply line. However, the advance was stopped by darkness. Gordon later asserted that had his plan been approved earlier, his men would have destroyed the Federal right. Instead, “the greatest opportunity ever presented to Lee’s army was permitted to pass.”

News of this unexpected flank attack caused panic at Federal headquarters. One brigadier told Grant, “I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Grant angrily replied:

“Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Elsewhere on the field, opposing cavalries skirmished lightly at Todd’s Tavern, as Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen met the Federals under their new commander, Major General Philip Sheridan, for the first time.

Fighting gradually ended all along the line as night fell. Troops began scrambling to rescue wounded comrades before they burned to death in the raging forest fires. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon that the Federal advance, “thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed.”

The Federals knew they had gotten the worst of this battle. An army half their size had nearly routed both VI Corps on the right and II Corps on the left. In fact, the Federals had been more thoroughly defeated here than at Chancellorsville a year ago:

  • Joseph Hooker only had one flank turned last year, but this time Grant had both turned
  • Hooker had nearly surprised Lee last year, but this time Lee surprised Grant
  • Lee lost 13,000 men last year, but this time he lost just over half that amount

The Federals sustained 17,666 casualties (2,246 killed, 12,037 wounded, and 3,383 missing) while the Confederates lost about 7,500. These totals were more one-sided than any other battle except Fredericksburg. With Lee scoring such a decisive tactical victory, most Federal troops believed that Grant would do what his predecessors had done and retreat.

In Grant’s less than impressive debut in the Eastern Theater, he learned that unlike most of the western commanders he faced, Lee would take the fight to him. Grant retired to his headquarters that night and wept, but when he was done, he emerged with a new resolve. He told a Washington correspondent preparing to return to the capital, “If you see the president, tell him, from me, that whatever happens, there will be no turning back.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 457, 459; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 448, 453, 456-57; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 400-01; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10637; 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 3929-39, 3968-87; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 429-30; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6880-92; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 73-81; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 268-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 493-95; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 724-27; Mullins, Michael A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 825-27; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 175-76; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 288-90