When we left the armies in Virginia last week, Confederate General Robert Lee had just gotten his nose bloodied at Rappahannock Station by Union General George Meade. The Army of Northern Virginia had made the strategic move to protect its flanks and fall back all the way to the Rapidan River. Lee’s two corps straddle the Orange and Alexandria Railroad on the southern bank, the Second Corps under A.P Hill extended to the south – Lee’s right wing – while the Third Corps under Jubal Early – filling in for Richard Ewell – stretched north – Lee’s left wing.
Meade, who had been inching his way further south, pushing the Southern army back towards its capitol city, Richmond, couldn’t see the prudence in attacking dead-on. Instead, he devised a plan to cross the Rapidan further downriver, sweep around Lee’s rear and attack both wings simultaneously. The plan’s success depended on secrecy, alacrity, and top-notch coordination between all five of Meade’s corps commanders… While there are some examples of fail-free assaults, Meade might as well have been asking for a unicorn to manifest in his tent.
The Army of the Potomac would split into three columns and cross the Rapidan as follows:
Gouverneur Warren, II Corps, by way of Germanna Ford would march to the Orange Turnpike and hang a right at Locust Grove to go toward Robinson’s Tavern.
George Sykes – V Corps – and John Newton – I Corps – would take the winding road from Culpeper Mine Ford to Parker’s Store just southeast of Locust Grove. Sykes would then carry on to New Hope Church nearly directly south of Locust Grove, while Newton would divert west to join up at Robinson’s Tavern.
William “Blinky” French with his III Corps would lead ahead of John Sedgwick and his VI Corps across Jacob’s Ford and due south to line up with Warren, Newton, and Sykes.
Meanwhile, General Armstrong Custer would deploy cavalry to make demonstrations and distract the Confederates while all three columns took up their positions.
They would then all push west and swing north to hit Lee from behind, pinning him to the Rapidan.
From the start, this plan didn’t go swimmingly. Orders were explicitly issued on November 23rd to each commander that the men should make ready to move out the following day. A storm intervened and forced the general to delay the move. But on November 26th, Thanksgiving Day, they tried again. That rain, as it always seems to do, threw a massive wrench in the army’s plans. The roads were so muddy and churned up by marching feet that the artillery and wagon wheels “sank to the hubs”, according to one soldier from the 10th Massachusetts. Brigades and divisions were forced to stop or slow down their advance.
Contrary to his nickname, “Tardy George” Sykes, the V Corps was making good time and crossed first at the Culpeper Ford before Meade had to tell him to wait for the rest of the army or he’d be isolated. He wouldn’t resume the crossing until that afternoon and Newton followed later in the evening and had to catch up with Sykes. Warren at Germanna Ford was given a similar order to halt as French held up the army. By the time the Gettysburg hero was ready to cross, he realized how much the storm had affected his own enterprises. The nine pontoons he had would have been enough to help his army across the Rapidan a week before, but now, with the river swollen from rainfall, it was one pontoon short of a full bridge. Engineers got to work on jerry rigging with trestles, but this knocked off valuable time.
French had the least amount of ground to cover, but took the most time to do it, seeing as he was also the closest to the Confederates. The entire column was led by Brigadier General Henry Prince, who was blamed for the column’s slow pace by French himself, even when a reconnaissance gave Prince reason to believe Confederates were nearby. At Jacob’s Ford, they also faced the same problem as Warren had, and realized their pontoons needed a little help from the engineers. By 4pm, Prince’s division had fully crossed, but the artillery had to be sent downriver to Germanna Ford due to the steep terrain of the southern bank. An hour later, all of French’s III Corps had crossed the Rapidan and had to make way for Sedgwick to come up. Instead of meeting at Robinson’s Tavern as Meade had planned, his army sat in exhausted fragments on the south bank of the Rapidan. Now, they faced not just the Confederate army, but the thick, ominous Wilderness that had bested them that previous May, just six months prior.
That unicorn is looking a little more plausible right now.
One thing lay in the Union’s favor. Lee had gotten a tipoff on their movement the day before on the 25th and he sent word to Richmond to make sure troops were ready to shuttle to the front, should the need come. Upon Clarke Mountain, an invaluable piece of high ground, the general could see Meade’s mobilization. Well, he could if there weren’t a fog problem. But even with the fog, the Confederates weren’t fooled by Custer’s distractions. General Jubal Early then ordered Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson down Raccoon Ford Road to intercept French as they both tried to make their way toward Locust Grove. Likewise, the rest of Early’s men would line up perpendicular to the Rapidan, facing east. A.P. Hill would travel down the Orange Plank Road to fall in on Early’s right flank to make a complete front.
Walter Taylor, one of Lee’s aides, said what was on the minds of most as they approached the Wilderness. “Matters seem to be drifting toward our old and renowned battle-fields, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg.” But while the Confederates hoped for another victory, the Federals prayed for a turn of fortune. As November 27th dawned, cold and bleak for the soldiers in blue as they continued their march to Robinson’s Tavern, one account from the 121st New York sets the mood rather well, “You may, therefore imagine our feelings as we onward tread our way over frozen hubs and ice covered streams, and not even a song (those sure and pleasant evidences that we were still alive and ready to execute orders) escaped the purple lips of a half frozen face, but sullen silence, broken once in a while by an oath as some poor fellow fell headlong into a frozen pool or sluggish stream of water, from whence he emerged dripping with ice and frozen mud.”
Trudging through the same icy sludge, was General Jubal Early, temporarily in charge of the Second Corps as Ewell had become sick and unable to command. Remembering the disaster at Rappahannock Station, Early was looking for some revenge. On a collision course with Locust Grove as the epicenter of attack, was Warren’s II Corps and Early’s Second Corps. The two divisions under Early split and straddled the turnpike and expected his third division under Johnson to arrive any minute to back him up. But Johnson had been informed that Federal cavalry were encroaching from behind, pulling him away from the fight.
That morning, French’s forces were stalled not far from the banks of the Rapidan. In the lead, Prince was to blame. Even though he was specifically told to take the left road at the fork at Widow Morris’ house, French sent scouts on both routes and waited for two hours to hear back. To the right was the more direct route to Robinson’s Tavern, but was closer to the Confederates. The left was the safer route, but with this confusion, their arrival to Warren’s aid would be severely delayed. Along with the indecision about the route, French was content to wait for Warren, oblivious to the trouble brewing further south. Word was sent that he needed to get his ass in gear and move to Robinson’s Tavern.
Through a confuddled mess of communications and delays, word was given to Prince at 2pm, four hours after he stopped at the fork in the road, to proceed onto Robinson’s Tavern. Reconnaissance came back that the left road was clear of Confederates and led straight to Warren, so he proceeded down that path with skirmishers in front and brigades deployed on both sides of the road. Doubt crossed the division commander’s mind, but French assured him the left road was the correct road.
The trouble Johnson had been alerted to were the same skirmishers that Prince had sent ahead of his division. The Confederates double-backed, cancelling their hookup with Rodes’ left flank, to address this threat of 30,000 men. Johnson only had 5,300 to match him. Skirmishing began for Johnson and part of French’s corps as divisions were thrown onto the left flank to try and stretch just far enough to connect with Warren. But with Johnson’s troops fanned out to receive them, combined with the distance and the difficulty of the woods around them, it was nearly impossible. Unable to move, Prince halted – again.
Johnson, puzzled by the frozen Federals, took the chance to act. His troops took 50 paces from the road to clear for supplies, and then erected light breastworks as a fallback point. His entire division charged forward, planning to envelope the Union column around both flanks, unaware that troops were working to elongate their line. Brigades and regiments soon lost track of one another, as one commander put, “The extraordinary density of the thicket prevented the different parts of the line from conforming to the movement with regularity and promptitude.” However, thanks to a diversion by the disconnected 37th Virginia on the far left flank, portions of the Federal right flank were unsupported and weakened that section of the column for the Confederates. The right flank, however, held strong against the gray coats sweeping in and both sides put up a fierce contest. This not only took the III Corps from the fight further south, but stymied the VI Corps altogether, since they were left in the rear and had no opportunity to advance to the II Corps’ assistance.
(To Be Continued…)