Tag Archives: A.P. Hill

The Battle of the North Anna: Lee Sets a Trap

May 24, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee positioned his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to invite a Federal attack and waited for Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to take the bait.

Lee’s army formed an inverted “V” with its apex pointing north, anchored at Ox Ford on the North Anna River. The left side of the V ran southwest, and the right side ran southeast, guarding the vital railroad intersection at Hanover Junction.

Army positions as of 24 May | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac, with Grant in overall command, held a line running from northwest to southeast of Ox Ford. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps was on the southern bank of the river at Jericho Mills to the northwest. Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps crossed behind Warren on the morning of the 24th, and both corps marched to the Virginia Central Railroad around 11 a.m.

To the southeast, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps faced Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Confederates guarding Ox Ford. To Burnside’s left, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps threatened the river crossings at Chesterfield Bridge and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad bridge farther downstream.

The bulk of Hancock’s corps pushed its way across the Chesterfield Bridge at 8 a.m. Major General John Gibbon’s division under Hancock approached the railroad bridge but discovered that Confederates had destroyed it. The Federals improvised by felling a tree and using it to span the river.

Grant saw that the Federals were crossing with ease, unaware that this was part of Lee’s trap. He telegraphed Washington, “The enemy have fallen back from North Anna. We are in pursuit.” Assuming that Lee would retreat to at least the South Anna River, six miles farther south, Grant wrote, “I will probably know to-day if the enemy intends standing behind South Anna.”

The Confederates opposed the Federal crossing at Ox Ford, and as Lee hoped, the Federals believed this was just a rear guard action. Burnside directed one of his divisions to move upriver and cross at Quarles Mill. Once across, they were to march back downriver to Ox Ford and attack the Confederate line from the northwest.

The Federals crossed as ordered, with Brigadier General James Ledlie’s brigade in the lead. Ledlie ordered an attack, despite signs of strong Confederate opposition ahead. Confederate infantry and artillery easily repelled the assault, during which Ledlie was drunk. A storm broke as the Federals fell back to Quarles Mill, where Ledlie actually received praise (and later a promotion) for his brigade’s gallantry under fire, despite his noticeable drunkenness.

Meanwhile, Hancock’s corps moved south from the Chesterfield and railroad bridges. The Federals were stopped by the Confederate defenders under Major General Richard H. Anderson and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. The fighting was suspended due to the thunderstorm, but when the rain slackened, the Federals still could not penetrate the strong enemy lines.

Lee now had the Federals right where he wanted them. They were divided into three segments (Warren/Wright, Burnside, and Hancock) with each one vulnerable to an overwhelming attack. But Lee could not coordinate such an assault due to exhaustion and debilitating diarrhea. Bedridden, Lee said, “We must strike them a blow–we must never let them pass again–we must strike them a blow.”

But Lee had no subordinate on which he could depend to lead the way. James Longstreet was gone with a serious wound, Jeb Stuart was dead, Richard Ewell was suffering from exhaustion, A.P. Hill was battling illness, and Richard H. Anderson was unproven as a corps commander. The Confederates stayed on the defensive.

Hancock informed Meade at 6:30 p.m. that the Confederates were dug in too strongly to be dislodged. Grant ordered a halt to all advances. He directed Burnside to use two of his divisions to connect with Hancock while keeping one at Ox Ford and one at Quarles Mill. Grant and Lee now held lines similar to each other’s, both of which were virtually impregnable. As Grant later wrote:

“Lee now had his entire army south of the North Anna. Our lines covered his front, with the six miles separating the two wings guarded by but a single division. To get from one wing to the other the river would have to be crossed twice. Lee could reinforce any part of his line from all points of it in a very short march; or could concentrate the whole of it wherever he might choose to assault. We were, for the time, practically two armies besieging.”

The next morning, Warren probed Hill’s defenses and reported they were too strong to attack. Wright tried moving around Hill’s left flank but found that it was protected by Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. Burnside and Hancock held their lines but did not try advancing any further. Skirmishing broke out at various points as Federal troops wrecked about five miles of the Virginia Central Railroad, which the Confederates relied upon for supplies from the Shenandoah Valley.

The armies remained stationary on the 26th, ending major operations on the North Anna River. In the four days of fighting from the 23rd through the 26th, the Federals sustained 2,623 casualties, while the Confederates lost between 1,500 and 2,000. Lee did not consider this a Confederate success because he could not draw Grant into an open battle, but his army remained between the Federals and Richmond, and Lee retained his supply line.

Grant’s forward progress had been stopped a third time by Lee, and while Grant had skirted around Lee’s right the first two times, he was now deep in enemy territory and running out of ground to continue that maneuver.

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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. 483; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20312-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412-13; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443-44; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7210, 7222; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 432; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135-37; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507-09; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 428

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The Battle of the North Anna

May 23, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked a force from the Federal Army of the Potomac as it crossed the North Anna River.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

On the morning of the 23rd, Lee reunited his army when Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps arrived. Lee arranged the forces to defend both Richmond and the vital railroad intersection at Hanover Junction:

  • Hill’s corps held the army’s left flank, extending northwest
  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps held the right flank, extending east
  • Major General Richard H. Anderson’s corps held the center, which curled along the North Anna
  • Confederates from both Ewell’s and Anderson’s corps guarded Hanover Junction
  • Confederates under Major Generals John C. Breckinridge and George Pickett were in reserve

Meanwhile, the Federal army began gathering near Mount Carmel Church, about a mile north of the North Anna on the Telegraph Road. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, issued orders:

  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps would move west and cross the North Anna at Jericho Mills
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps would move south down the Telegraph Road and cross the North Anna using the Chesterfield Bridge
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps would follow Warren
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps would follow Hancock

Lee did not expect a confrontation; he guessed that any activity in his front would be just a diversion for another effort by Grant to move southeast around the Confederate right flank. He wrote his wife that Grant had “become tired of forcing his passage through us.” As such, only a small Confederate force guarded Chesterfield Bridge, and all other crossings on the line were undefended. Moreover, Lee was suffering from exhaustion and acute diarrhea, making him unable to ride his horse. This gave Grant a great opportunity to smash through Lee’s army if he brought his full force to bear.

The Confederates rested during the day, but due to dwindling supplies, the men received just a pint of cornmeal and a quarter-pound of bacon. They were unaware that the Federals were approaching. On the Confederate left, Warren’s men finally found the undefended Jericho Mills after getting lost in the woods, and the three divisions were across the North Anna by around 4:30 p.m.

Based on the ease in which he crossed, Warren reported to headquarters, “I do not believe the enemy intends holding the North Anna.” Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac under Grant, ordered Warren to establish a beachhead on the southern bank and build defenses. Learning that the Confederates were guarding the Virginia Central Railroad ahead, Warren deployed his men in line of battle and advanced.

Lee received word that Federals had crossed on his left flank, but he still believed that this was either just a scouting expedition or a ruse. He directed A.P. Hill to dispatch just one division, under Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox, with artillery support to meet the threat. The Confederates were outnumbered five-to-two (i.e., 15,000 to 6,000).

Wilcox’s Confederates attacked the surprised Federals around 6 p.m. and nearly broke their line. However, the Federals regrouped, and their artillery atop a bluff overlooking the North Anna held the Confederates at bay. Warren’s overwhelming forces began flanking Wilcox, who ordered a withdrawal when no reinforcements were forthcoming.

Warren sustained 377 casualties while Wilcox lost 730. Warren’s men built defenses on their beachhead at Jericho Mills. Lee admonished Hill for failing to bring up the rest of his corps to support Wilcox: “General Hill, why did you let those people cross here? Why didn’t you throw your whole force on them and drive them back as (‘Stonewall’) Jackson would have done?”

To the southeast, Hancock’s corps approached Chesterfield Bridge. Hancock dispatched a probing force, and then reported upon their return, “No crossing of the river can be forced here at present, as all accounts agree that the enemy are in force, and there is a creek between us and the river, with obstacles.” Hancock deployed his artillery, and a two-hour cannon duel ensued. Lee was nearly killed by a cannonball that lodged in the door of the house where he was observing the action.

When the duel ended, Hancock ordered an attack. Quickly overwhelmed, the Confederates fled across the bridge to the south bank. Grant later wrote, “The bridge was carried quickly, the enemy retreating over it so hastily that many were shoved into the river, and some of them were drowned.” Federal sharpshooters prevented the Confederates from burning the bridge after crossing, and Confederate artillery fire prevented Hancock’s men from crossing the bridge. The Federals dug entrenchments on the northern bank instead.

That night, Wright’s VI Corps arrived on the opposite bank in support of Warren. Burnside’s IX Corps came up on Wright’s left near Ox Ford, and Hancock remained entrenched in front of Chesterfield Bridge to Burnside’s left.

Lee finally realized that a major engagement was developing, and he would not give up Hanover Junction without a fight. He worked with his engineers through the night to establish an inverted V-shaped line. The apex was at Ox Ford, with the left extending southwest and the right extending southeast to Hanover Junction.

As the Confederates formed this new line, it appeared to the Federals as if they were retreating and leaving just a token force at Ox Ford. But if Grant tried attacking that point, the two sides of the inverted V could split his army. A.P. Hill’s corps would hold Warren and Wright at Jericho Mills, while Anderson and Ewell faced Burnside and Hancock at Ox Ford and Chesterfield Bridge. Breckinridge and Pickett remained in reserve. Lee said of Grant, “If I can get one more pull at him, I will defeat him.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20312; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-34; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551

Northern Virginia: Showdown at the North Anna

May 22, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia arrived at the North Anna River ahead of the Federal Army of the Potomac, once again blocking Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s southeastern movement toward Richmond.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee had anticipated that Grant would move southeast again and shifted his forces to protect Hanover Junction, where the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads intersected two miles south of the North Anna. From this point, Lee could defend Richmond, secure his right flank, and protect the railroads. But he would be just 23 miles from the Confederate capital.

Grant had hoped to either coax Lee into a battle on open ground or reach the North Anna first, but he did neither. When he realized that Lee’s Confederates were already on the North Anna, he halted the brief Federal pursuit down the Telegraph Road. The remaining Confederates moved south down this road and joined the main army:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps guarded the railroad intersection at Hanover Junction
  • Major General Richard H. Anderson’s corps lined up on Ewell’s left around 12 p.m.
  • Major General John C. Breckinridge’s two brigades from the Shenandoah Valley and Major General George Pickett’s five brigades from Richmond were held in reserve behind Ewell
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps was still heading south to join the main army

Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that Grant may stay on the other side of the Mattapony (now Mattaponi) River from the Confederates so he could relink with Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, which had joined the Army of the James after their raid and fight at Yellow Tavern. Lee reported:

“It appeared… that he (Grant) was endeavoring to place the Matapony river between him and our army, which secured his flank, and by rapid movements to join his cavalry under Sheridan to attack Richmond–I therefore thought it safest to move to the Annas to intercept his march, and to be within easy reach of Richmond.”

Grant transferred the Federal supply base from the depots at Belle Plain, Aquia Landing, and Fredericksburg to Port Royal, farther down the Rappahannock River. Through the day, Grant and Major General George G. Meade positioned their Federals:

  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps moved west of Milford Station, north of Hanover Junction
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps moved between Milford Station and Hanover Junction
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps moved between Warren and Hancock
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps held Guinea Station in the rear

Meade wrote his wife:

“We expected to have another battle, but the enemy refuses to fight unless attacked in strong entrenchments; hence, when we moved on his flank, instead of coming out of his works and attacking us, he has fallen back from Spottsylvania Court House, and taken up a new position behind the North Anna River; in other words, performed the same operation which I did last fall, when I fell back from Culpeper, and for which I was ridiculed; that is to say, refusing to fight on my adversary’s terms. I suppose now we will have to repeat this turning operation, and continue to do so, till Lee gets into Richmond.”

Lee wrote Davis the next morning, assessing the situation and opining that the Federal army, “as far as I am able to judge, has been very much shaken.” Lee also responded to a proposal in which his army would fall back and join forces with the Confederates under P.G.T. Beauregard bottling up Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred; the combined force would move north to defeat Grant and then move south to defeat Butler.

Lee stated that if Beauregard did not plan to attack Butler, “no more troops are necessary there than to retain the enemy in his entrenchments.” Meanwhile, “General Grant’s army will be in the field, strengthened by all available troops from the north, and it seems to me our best policy to unite upon it and endeavor to crush it. I should be very glad to have the aide of General Beauregard in such a blow, and if it is possible to combine, I think it will succeed.”

In response to Davis’s fear that a retreat by Lee’s army might damage troop morale, Lee wrote, “The courage of this army was never better, and I fear no injury to it from any retrograde movement that may be dictated by sound military policy.”

Lee did not expect Grant to attack at Hanover Junction; he guessed that Grant would try flanking him to the southeast again. However, the Federals began deploying for battle on the night of the 22nd, determined to cross the North Anna. The relentless marching and fighting that had not stopped since May 5 would continue.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507

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

The Battle of the Wilderness: Day One

May 5, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia caught the Federal Army of the Potomac in the forbidding Wilderness, and a chaotic battle opened the spring campaign.

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal army, under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command, had begun moving around Lee’s right the previous day before stopping in the Wilderness, an uninhabitable forest of undergrowth, brush, vines, trees, and ravines. The Federals resumed their march at 5 a.m., as Grant was anxious to get out of the Wilderness and into open ground, where he could use his superior numbers and artillery to attack the Confederates.

Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates moved to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. The Federal cavalry did not warn of Lee’s approach mainly because Meade had dispatched most of the troopers eastward to confront Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen operating in the Fredericksburg area. The rest of the Federal troopers were not adequately deployed because Grant did not expect Lee to rush forward and meet him. By early on the 5th, Lee’s three corps were on the move:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps moved northeast along the Orange Turnpike
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps moved along the parallel Orange Plank Road, farther south
  • Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps, stationed back at Gordonsville, was to join Ewell and Hill via the Brock Road

As Major General Gouverneur Warren’s Federal V Corps moved southeast, one of his divisions on the Orange Turnpike was suddenly stopped by Ewell’s Confederates to the west. Warren reported this to headquarters, unaware that Ewell’s entire corps was approaching. Grant instructed Meade, “If any opportunity presents itself of pitching into a part of Lee’s Army do so without giving time for disposition.” At 7:30 a.m., Meade ordered Warren to attack, and the first major battle of the year between these armies began.

The Federals advanced slowly, as men got lost in the thick brush, officers could not convey orders, signalmen could not convey signs, and gun smoke obscured vision. By 9 a.m., Ewell had deployed his entire corps on either side of the Orange Turnpike, and Warren directed his remaining three divisions to come up and reinforce the one facing the Confederates.

Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps moved to come up on Warren’s right (north). Meade informed Grant, “Warren is making his dispositions to attack, and Sedgwick to support him.” Grant approved and called for Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps, held back in reserve, to cross the Rapidan River and join the action.

Fighting in the Wilderness | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Warren’s Federals nearly broke Ewell’s line, but as Ewell’s men fell back behind breastworks, they began overlapping Warren’s right flank. Warren asked Meade for permission to suspend the attack until Sedgwick could come up. Meade consented, thus giving Ewell time to bring up reinforcements. When Sedgwick still had not arrived by 1 p.m., Meade ordered Warren to resume the assault without him.

The Federals advanced, but as Warren feared, they quickly wavered under enfilade fire from the right. Some units made progress against the Confederate line, while others were repulsed. The famous Federal Iron Brigade, now filled with raw recruits after losing most of its veterans at Gettysburg, broke and ran for the first time.

The fighting turned chaotic as the dense brush of the Wilderness disoriented the combatants. Many soldiers were killed by friendly fire. Gaps in the lines went unexploited because the enemy could not see them. Officers tried using compasses to determine which direction they were facing. Sparks from the guns caused brush fires, and men too wounded to move were burned to death.

Sedgwick’s Federals arrived on Warren’s right around 3 p.m. and attacked Ewell north of the turnpike in an effort to turn Ewell’s left. The Confederates repulsed the effort, and fighting surged back and forth for about an hour before both sides disengaged to build defenses.

On Warren’s left, the Confederates repelled several attacks and captured a section of a Federal artillery battery. However, the Confederates were soon pinned down by fire from Federal reinforcements, and by nightfall, the fighting in this sector of the field ended in stalemate.

To the south, Federals spotted A.P. Hill’s Confederates advancing up the Orange Plank Road. Lee directed Hill to seize the intersection of the Orange Plank and Brock roads, since Longstreet was expected to come up via the Brock. Meade also needed the crossroads to continue his southward advance out of the Wilderness, and so he detached Brigadier General George W. Getty’s division from Sedgwick’s corps to hold it.

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

Intense fighting took place at close quarters in dense brush, with the smoke causing mass confusion and disorientation. The Federals finally repelled the initial attack and forced the Confederates back west. Meade ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, in the Federal vanguard marching out of the Wilderness, to come back north and reinforce Getty. Hancock’s troops began arriving around 4 p.m.

The Federals attacked, but Confederates from Major General Henry Heth’s division soon pinned them down. Hancock told a courier, “Report to General Meade that it is very hard to bring up troops in this wood, and that only part of my Corps is up, but I will do as well as I can.” Hancock then sent another division forward, nearly breaking the Confederate line until it was reinforced by Hill’s reserve division under Major General Cadmus Wilcox.

The brutal fighting ended at nightfall with the Federals controlling the Brock Road. Lee sent orders to Longstreet to come up using the Orange Plank Road instead. Longstreet later wrote, “The change of direction of our march was not reassuring.” Elsewhere, opposing cavalry forces under Federal Brigadier General James H. Wilson and Confederate Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser also fought to a stalemate on the southern end of the field.

President Abraham Lincoln received no news about the battle because Grant had barred the reporters from using the military telegraph. A witness at the War Department saw Lincoln “waiting for despatches, and, no doubt, sickening with anxiety.”

Grant recognized that Lee’s right had been weakened and issued orders that night to concentrate on destroying Hill’s corps the next day. Warren and Sedgwick were to continue their assaults on Ewell to prevent him from aiding Hill, and Burnside’s IX Corps would come up between the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road to attack Hill’s flank and rear. After Hill was destroyed, the Federals would then turn to destroy Ewell.

Lee retired to his headquarters at the Widow Tapp farm, about a mile to the rear of his army and just four miles south of Grant’s headquarters. It became immediately apparent to Lee that Grant, unlike his predecessors, would not commit his forces piecemeal. From this point on, the Confederates would face the full power of the Army of the Potomac.

Nevertheless, Ewell had held firm, and Hill, despite having just 15,000 men and being scattered like “a worm fence, at every angle,” also held with Longstreet coming up to reinforce him. Lee permitted Hill’s men to rest, expecting Longstreet to come up next morning on Hill’s right (south). Hill would then close with Ewell to form a more compact line. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon at 11 p.m.:

“The enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday at Ely’s and Germanna Fords. Two Corps of this army moved to oppose him–Ewell’s, by the old turnpike, and Hill’s by the plank road. They arrived this morning in close proximity to the enemy’s line of march. A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it, capturing many prisoners and four pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon General Hill, who, with Heth’s and Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated and desperate assaults… By the blessing of God we maintained our position against every effort until night, when the contest closed. We have to mourn the loss of many brave officers and men.”

Both Grant and Lee ordered hostilities to resume early next morning.

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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. 449, 452; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 443-44, 446; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 400; 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 3514-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 428; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61-69; 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. 492-93; 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; 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. 288-90; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551

The Army of the Potomac Moves Out

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.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

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.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 446-48; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 446; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20197-214, 20232; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 399; 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 3069-88, 3108-18; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 428; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6761; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 618-19; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 57-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 492; 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. 285-88; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551

The Mine Run Campaign Ends

December 1, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac ended its short-lived campaign in northern Virginia before it ever truly began.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As December began, the Federal army and General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia remained within striking distance of each other on either side of Mine Run. Meade had aborted an assault on Lee’s right flank upon receiving word that it was too strong to break. After finding no other weak points in the line, Meade ordered a halt to his brief campaign.

The Federals would withdraw back across the Rapidan River. Lee’s Confederates remained in their defenses, waiting for the attack that they still expected to come. Lee reported, “Preferring to receive an attack rather than assume the offensive, our army remained in its position all day.”

Major General Jubal Early, temporarily commanding the Confederate Second Corps on the left, reported that the Federals were withdrawing their guns in his front. Lee guessed that they were being moved to support an attack on Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps holding the right. However, it was part of the general Federal withdrawal.

The Federals began pulling out in the early, freezing twilight of December 1 without a fight. As Lee realized the Federals would not attack that day, he resolved to launch an attack of his own the next morning. According to Early:

“Having waited in vain for the enemy to attack us, the commanding general determined to take the initiative, and for that purpose directed me on the afternoon of the 1st to extend my line during the night to the right as far as the plank road, so as to enable two divisions to be withdrawn from General Hill’s part of the line, for the purpose of attacking the enemy’s left next morning.”

Lee directed Hill’s divisions under Major Generals Richard H. Anderson and Cadmus M. Wilcox to advance against Meade’s left. But when they marched forward on the morning of the 2nd, they saw that the Federals had retreated. Regretting the missed opportunity to give battle, Lee said, “I am too old to command this army; we should never have permitted those people to get away.” The Confederates did not pursue.

The Mine Run campaign cost the Federals 1,653 total casualties, while the Confederates lost 629. Meade acknowledged that he faced “certain personal ruin” for withdrawing without giving battle, bitterly remarking that those critical of his conduct thought it “would be better to strew the road to Richmond with the dead bodies of our soldiers than that there should be nothing done.” But by not attacking such strong fortifications, Meade probably saved thousands of lives and prevented another demoralizing failure.

Meade reported to his superiors at Washington, “I am free to admit that the movement across the Rapidan was a failure, but I respectfully submit that the causes of this failure… were beyond my control.” The Lincoln administration had refused to allow him to establish a base of operations at Fredericksburg to the east, thus forcing him to try confronting Lee to the west. Also, several corps commanders did not adhere to Meade’s orders that the campaign be carried out with speed and stealth.

Anticipating an administration rebuke for not personally reconnoitering the enemy positions beforehand, Meade asserted, “It is impossible (that) a commanding general can reconnoiter in person a line over seven miles in extent, and act on his own judgment as to the expediency of attack or not.” In a letter to his wife, Meade concluded that this “fiasco” sealed his fate as army commander. But he added:

“I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing. It was my deliberate judgment that I ought not to attack; I acted on that judgment, and I am willing to stand or fall by it at all hazards. As it is, my conscience is clear. I did the best I could.”

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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 19153-62; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 349; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 876-77; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 380; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6522-34; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 497; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 441-42