Tag Archives: Richard Ewell

Spotsylvania: Federals Attack Again

May 18, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed his Federals to launch another attack in hopes of turning the flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

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

Since the horrible battle on the 12th, both armies had shifted positions and skirmished without provoking a major confrontation. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sought to slide Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac to the left, or southeast, to try turning Lee’s right flank.

Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps had begun moving from its spot on the far right of the Federal line to the left, beside Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps, on a line running roughly north to south. Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps had followed Warren and took positions on Warren’s left, securing the high ground on Myers Hill after an all-day skirmish on the 14th.

Both Burnside’s corps and II Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock held their positions in front of what was once the Mule Shoe salient of the Confederate line. Hancock now held the extreme Federal right. Heavy rain fell for several days, suspending any plans Grant had to renew his large-scale attacks.

The Federals had inflicted heavy damage on Lee’s army, but they had not scored any major advantages. The Confederates still held Spotsylvania Court House, including the vital intersection of the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads. This enabled supplies to continue reaching the Confederate troops without interruption. Nevertheless, President Jefferson Davis asked Lee to better protect himself from enemy fire because “The country could not bear the loss of you…”

Lee did not immediately react to the new Federal threat to his right. As Wright’s corps got into position on the 14th, Lee left Spotsylvania Court House undefended. But the Federals were too exhausted to capitalize, and Lee finally directed Major General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps to shift from the Confederate left to the right. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps now faced Hancock, with the men from Major General Jubal Early’s Third Corps and Anderson’s corps facing Burnside, Warren, and Wright.

On the 17th, Grant learned from Confederate prisoners that Lee was shifting men from his left to his right flank to counter the Federal movement. Guessing that this made Lee’s left vulnerable, Grant ordered Wright’s Federals to countermarch from their position on the Federal left to the position they had held four days ago, on the right of Hancock’s troops.

Actions of May 17-18 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Ewell’s Confederates held strong defensive positions, covered by artillery. And they would not be surprised like they had been on the 12th. The men under Wright and Hancock advanced slowly on the morning of the 18th, seizing the “Bloody Angle” of what had been the Mule Shoe salient. Around 8 a.m., Ewell ordered his 29 guns to open fire, and after sustaining about 2,000 casualties in two hours, the Federals fell back. A Federal officer recalled:

“Moments seemed like hours. Then the cheering ceased and dark masses of our men were seen through the openings in the uprising smoke returning as they went but with awfully suggestive gaps in their ranks. The assault had failed. Soon the smoke cleared away and disclosed the ground for long distances thickly strewn with our dead and dying men. It was an awfully grand spectacle, one often repeated around that ground which has been justly styled ‘Bloody Spotsylvania.’”

Colonel Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff noticed a pattern emerging in this campaign:

“It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good riflepit; the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abattis in front and entrenched batteries behind. Sometimes they put this three days’ work into the first 24 hours.”

Lee informed Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “The enemy opened his batteries at sunrise on a portion of Ewell’s line, attempted an assault, but failed. He was easily repulsed.” Meade wrote his wife after the engagement, “We found the enemy so strongly entrenched that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads against a brick wall. We shall now try to maneuver again so as to draw the enemy out of his stronghold.” Lee reported the situation to Davis:

“(Grant’s) position is strongly entrenched, and we cannot attack it with any prospect of success without great loss of men which I wish to avoid if possible. The enemy’s artillery is superior in weight of metal and range to our own, and my object has been to engage him when in motion and under circumstances that will not cause us to suffer from this disadvantage. I think by this means he has suffered considerably in the several past combats, and that his progress has thus far been arrested. I shall continue to strike him wherever opportunity presents itself, but nothing at present indicates any purpose on his part to advance. Neither the strength of our army nor the condition of our animals will admit of any extensive movement with a view to drawing the enemy from his position. I think he is now waiting for reenforcements… The importance of this campaign to the administration of Mr. Lincoln and to General Grant leaves no doubt that every effort and every sacrifice will be made to secure its success.”

Later, Lee repeated his request for Davis to send him the troops currently guarding Richmond, adding, “The question is whether we shall fight the battle here or around Richmond. If the troops are obliged to be retained at Richmond I may be forced back.”

After this sharp Federal defeat, Grant returned to headquarters, where he received more bad news: the armies of Major Generals Franz Sigel and Benjamin F. Butler had also been defeated. Grant tried remaining optimistic, but he conceded:

“I thought the other day that they must feel pretty blue in Richmond over the reports of our victories; but as they are in direct telegraphic communication with the points at which the fighting took place, they were no doubt at the same time aware of our defeats, of which we have not learned till to-day; so probably they did not feel as badly as we imagined.”

Early on the 19th, Lee directed Ewell to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine the location of the Federal right flank. Ewell dispatched two divisions that came up against Wright’s corps around the Harris farm, and vicious fighting ensued. Lee recalled the Confederates before they were caught in a full-scale battle while isolated from the rest of the army, but they did not disengage until 9 p.m., and many were captured after getting lost in the dark. The Confederates lost 900 killed, wounded, or missing.

This ended active operations around Spotsylvania Court House. Two weeks of constant marching and fighting, combined with enlistment expirations, had cut the Army of the Potomac nearly in half since the campaign began. Lee, having lost nearly 18,000 men in that same span, now had just about 40,000 troops left. He had also lost top lieutenants James Longstreet, Jeb Stuart, and A.P. Hill. Lee soon learned that Grant was maneuvering around his right flank once more, prompting him to shift his Confederates south toward the North Anna River.

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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. 478; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 460; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 407, 409-10; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 440-41; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7094, 7118-29; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-25, 130; 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. 501-02, 504-05; 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. 732; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 709

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

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

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