By the spring of 1864, the Civil War had a new face and a new attitude in a number of ways.
In Virginia, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia have stalemated on either side of the Rapidan River.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee was not fairing well, despite some small recent repulses of the Federal army along the Rapidan that winter. His army was ragged and suffering at this late stage in the war as supplies were harder and harder to come by. Foraging in central Virginia was a joke, as the landscape had become scarred and scorched by the armies who played tug-of-war over the last three years. Lee’s command structure, though intact, wasn’t doing so hot either. The two corps on hand were commanded by Richard Ewell and A.P Hill, both of whom were in ill health of their own accord, which caused some anxiety amongst their subordinate division commanders who were not up to the task of replacing them should their generals be taken out of commission. Lee’s “War Horse”, James Longstreet, had acted on independent command since the fall of 1863 but didn’t fair well in that capacity. While he did manage to help rout Rosecrans’ army from Chickamauga and push them back into Chattanooga, the eastern commander bashed skulls with the cantankerous Braxton Bragg. After failing to take Knoxville the following November, Longstreet was ordered back to Lee’s side in Virginia. Ewell and Hill were kept close to guard the Rapidan against any Union advance over the river, but Lee saw wisdom in keeping Longstreet at Gordonsville to the south, as he could see that something was brewing within the Federal army that could spell disaster if he didn’t act quickly when the time was right.
Union General George Gordon Meade (“The Goggle-Eyed Snapping Turtle”) enjoyed praise for the victory at Gettysburg in July of the previous year, but his reputation had become tarnished in the fall and winter following. Failures in moving quickly to catch the Confederate Army put him on the same list as previous generals before him. Further failed exploits in the Mine Run Campaign in November of 1863 and the botched assault at Morton’s Ford in February began to tarnish a bit of his brass. Rumors and speculative eyes were falling upon Meade’s most outstanding corps commander, Winfield Scott Hancock, as a replacement. While Meade esteemed Hancock, he remarked that he couldn’t congratulate the man if he was truly set up to take his place. Not because the army wasn’t in fighting shape. With the constant flow of supplies from Alexandria along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, the Union Army had never looked so good. The command structure, as well, looked decidedly healthier than the Confederates. With the famed Winfield Scott Hancock heading the 2nd Corps and “Uncle John” Sedgwick leading the 6th Corps, the only odd-man out was up and coming Gouverneur Warren with his new position over the 5th Corps. The former two had been with their commands for some time, but Warren was a wildcard and generally rubbed people the wrong way. However, his success at Little Round Top at Gettysburg suggested that he’d be a good choice for command in the coming campaign.
Morale was up, stomachs were filled, and all that was left was to find a way around Lee to get to Richmond. Lincoln chose western theater star, General Ulysses S. Grant, to do just that. His capture of Vicksburg and aid in lifting the siege on Chattanooga made him a hero in the Washington political circle. As Lincoln had stated before, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” With the newly reinstated rank of lieutenant general, Grant had a plan to completely decimate the Confederate Army and bring the war to a grinding halt. But he made it clear to Washington that he would do it his way. His goal was to apply hard, continuous pressure on Lee and Virginia from all sides. Meade would have the task of facing off Lee himself north of Richmond. General Benjamin Butler, the man who captured New Orleans two years prior, had been given orders to send his army along the James River and straight toward the Confederate capitol. The city was heavily fortified and entrenchments would give its defenders an upper hand, but the idea was to scare Lee into sapping the numerical strength of his main body to send more men south to head off Butler. Using the same principle, Grant sent General Franz Sigel down the Shenandoah Valley. Further south, Grant’s good buddy William Tecumseh Sherman was taking the Army of the Tennessee straight into Georgia to chase down Joseph Johnston as it tried to protect the vital railroad and supply hub in Atlanta. All of this, added with the clear disadvantage that the Confederacy possessed during this late stage in the war (low supplies because of the blockade, no Mississippi, and less manpower), Grant had the dogged persistence to really deal the final crushing blow to the Confederacy. He just had to get around Lee’s defenses.
Lee, though he was outnumbered 2-to-1 (65k men versus about 120k), he had some advantages from where he sat that spring. A good percentage of the men on the Union side were either green (fresh troops who never saw battle) or were coming toward the end of their 3-year stint in the army. Many of Lee’s troops were hardened veterans and esteemed their commanders enough that despite all the shortages and losses over the last year, according to many soldiers who wrote about the condition of the army, “spirits were high”. I’d wager that a bit of their confidence came from their heavily entrenched position along the Rapidan and the assurance of old trenches along their former battleground at Mine Run. It was these earthworks that helped them to defend the route to Richmond when Sedgwick (in temporary command of the army in February) took a stab at hitting the rebels. As the old commander predicted, it didn’t go well and Lee beefed up his line in response. He also sent out cavalry on either flank to alert him when the Union tried to run the gauntlet upriver or downriver of his position. And even though the white-haired general had an inkling that the Federals would make a crossing at Germanna and Ely’s Ford as they had done in the past, he didn’t move troops from their earthworks to intercept them until it was too late.
Back in the Union high command headquarters at Brandy Station (site of the massive cavalry battle), Grant and Meade came to a general understanding (no pun intended). Meade, upon having his first sit-down with Grant, had told him flat-out that he was willing to give up his command, knowing how he stood against recent events and the momentous undertaking ahead. Appreciating this, Grant opted not to do anything of the sort. Though he decided that his place would be with the Army of the Potomac, the only commander he carried over with him from the west was General Phillip Sheridan to take charge of the cavalry, which until this point had been run ragged on picket duty. Grant had no intention of superseding what had already been established otherwise. Meade and Grant worked in tandem, the former’s caution balancing with Grant’s tenacity and boldness to create the team that would drive the Union to ultimate victory.
The one thing that stood in the way of either army was a stretch of nearly impenetrable woods dubbed The Wilderness. This land had been at the center of fighting just a year ago around Chancellorsville. Echoes of that Confederate victory would come back to haunt both soldiers in blue and gray. Lee saw the Wilderness as a strategic tool to ensnare his enemy, while Grant saw it as something he would desperately need to get around quickly so he could catch Lee on open ground for the battle. The Federal commander also needed to make sure that Lee could not get into his former entrenchments around Mine Run or retreat to Richmond too soon.
The proposed plan of attack for the Army of the Potomac would be to divide into two columns and funnel them across the two fords (Germanna and Ely’s). The troops who crossed at the Germanna Ford would be the nearest to Lee’s defenses as they arrive at the Wilderness Tavern, a two-story wooden building that had served as a pitstop for many travelers along the Orange Turnpike. General Ambrose Burnside and his 9th Corps would be treated as an independent command and were held in reserves beyond the Wilderness Tavern. Those coming out from Ely’s Ford would find themselves at the old Chancellorsville intersection. Both divisions, led by escorting cavalry units, would then turn to their right (to the west) and travel down the Turnpike, Orange Plank Road, and Catharpin/Pamunkey Road to face Lee on the other side of the Wilderness on that ideal open ground. They took for granted that Lee would take the same 30 hours that it had taken him back in November to occupy his earthworks on the other side of Mine Run. Now that Lee was watching for their approach along these exact routes, he would move quickly and more decisively to utilize the Wilderness and all its “close, dark wood” advantage.
Down Germanna Ford, Warren and Sedgwick’s corps filed across pontoons with Wilson’s 3,500 cavalry in the lead. Hancock with his 2nd Corps were to take Ely’s Ford with Gregg’s cavalry ahead of them.
The movement wasn’t lost on the Confederates. Cavalry confirmed emphatically that Grant was shifting south toward Richmond. Lee gave the orders for his two corps to take up their respective routes east to smash into the enemy’s flank. Longstreet was ordered up from Gordonsville, but was given the unreasonable instructions to proceed up to the Plank Road to come up behind Hill’s corps, which would take longer and possibly cause congestion for his troops and supplies. At the rate they were going, they wouldn’t arrive to the battle – about 32 miles away – until well into the afternoon of May 5th. As Lee saw it, there was no room for delay but he couldn’t risk the defensive strategy either. He had received word from the president that Butler was making his way up the James to Bermuda 100 while Sigel was spotted coming from Winchester. Lee sent out dispatches to his other army commanders. Former vice president John C. Breckinridge would take his men down (north) the Shenandoah Valley to stall Sigel from coming to Richmond’s backdoor, while P.G.T Beauregard would take his men from the Carolinas and block Butler’s way. (Part of me wants to think the Creole Beauregard would have relished the thought of getting at Butler after the way the Federal general occupied New Orleans with an iron fist)
The Army of the Potomac made good time on May 4th and Meade allowed his men the luxury of a rest before setting off for their new objectives the following morning. From what he could tell, everything was going according to plan. Much better than the previous November when they executed a similar strategy. The men had quickly caught onto the fact that they were camping on their old battleground around the Chancellorsville mansion. Where their comrades had fallen or been buried, they found protruding bones and patches of rich grass where blood had fertilized it the previous year. One soldier wrote home and included a strange memento of the war, “Inclosed you will find two or three pretty violets that I picked upon the very ground where my regiment stood and fought so splendidly.” Others remarked in their diaries, remembering the horrors of May 1863, “This region is an awful place to fight in. The utmost extent of vision is about one hundred yards. Artillery cannot be used effectively. The wounded are liable to be burned to death. I am willing to take my chances of getting killed, but I dread to have a leg broken and then to be burned slowly; and these woods will surely be burned if we fight here.”
Despite everything, both armies were in good spirits. One account from Private William Dame of the Howitzers remembered on the morning of May 5th, “All nature seems smiling on this spring morning. What a grant sight is the [Army of Northern Virginia] in motion. The whole brigade is all life – seems as though they are never to be conquered.” The odds were not in their favor with 5 divisions on the Confederate side against 10 divisions on the Union side – as things currently stood with Longstreet not in action. “And yet, knowing all this, these lunatics were sweeping along to that appallingly unequal fight, cracking jokes, laughing, and with not the least idea in the world of anything else but victory. I did not hear a despondent word, nor see a dejected face among the thousands I saw and heard that day.”
Union cavalry of the right column, once their infantry parties were well settled, moved ahead to screen and scout. Warren was to march to Chewning Farm and Parker’s Store while Sedgwick hurried his division to follow from Germanna Ford. Wilson, however, misunderstood his instructions and overshot his objective, leaving a void in his rear between himself and the rest of Meade’s right column. When he came to the Catharpin Road to the far south, he did as he thought he was supposed to do and turned west to Robertson’s Run. In this move, he had done two things to set up Warren’s men for a potential disaster. He did not send a scouting party down Orange Plank Road. If he had, he would have known that A.P Hill’s 2nd Corps were coming up fast, just as Ewell’s 3rd Corps was taking positions on the Turnpike. Meade knew none of this and would suffer a similar disadvantage that Lee had during the Gettysburg Campaign. Without cavalry, he had no idea that Confederates were driving headlong into Warren’s Corps.
Thankfully, pickets on Warren’s right flank spotted troops funneling down the Orange Turnpike and slipping into the thicket on either side of the road to begin their hasty fortifications. This didn’t exactly help Warren’s already frayed nerves and snappy disposition as he was the closest to the enemy from the start and in a new command role that warranted some need to prove himself. Word was sent to Meade, and Grant backed up the general’s order to attack immediately at this sudden rush of gray coats. The four disconnected divisions within Warren’s corps were to link up and face west, where the main body of Confederates seemed to be coming from. Copying the enemy’s moves, Federals cut down trees on their side of the Wilderness to create breastworks for the divisions to fall back to, should the worst come.
But as events began to develop by 11am on May 5th around the 400 yard by 800 yard swelling terrain of Saunder’s Field that was bisected by the turnpike, more trouble further south would be discovered by a small detachment of Union cavalry around Parker’s Store on the Plank Road. Hill forced back this thin bit of resistance, an entire corps against a brigade, and carried on toward a stretch of open ground around Widow Tapp’s Farm. This effectively cut off Wilson’s cavalry division from the rest of the army. Meade would have little to no cavalry to sustain him in the coming battle.
Little did they know, Lee did not intend to engage. Not until Longstreet was well in position and helped even the odds as much as humanly possible. Their chances of a victory were better with Longstreet and with the two corps advancing along roads that spanned three miles apart, it left both vulnerable if they should need support from the other at a moment’s notice. So, that was the order he stuck to when Ewell discovered Warren’s men on the east side of Saunder’s Field.
By noon, about ten thousand Confederates had created their lines of battle, half extending into the Wilderness on either side of the Orange Turnpike, and Early’s division of 4,500 were in reserves behind them. Around the time Ewell and Hill were confronting Meade’s right column of Warren’s division, a chaotic melee erupted between Wilson and Thomas Rosser’s Virginia cavalry along the Catharpin Road. The pop of musketry and boom of horse artillery inspired more soldiers to thinking they were to throw their all into this fight. The lead elements of Hill’s corps along the Plank Road did just that and the casualties began to mount.
(To be continued…)