Battles in the East

Moving Out of the Wilderness

Almost nothing had been going right for Ulysses Grant in the Wilderness. His usual style of giving general orders and letting his subordinates fill in the details was not serving him well. Ambrose Burnside, acting in independent command with his IX Corps, dropped the ball and arrived too late to do any real damage as Grant intended. Winfield Scott Hancock of the II Corps and John Sedgwick of the VI Corps were uncharacteristically negligent of their flanks, allowing not one but two surprise charges upon their works that nearly crumbled the wings of the Army of the Potomac. Gouverneur Warren with his V Corps was equally disappointing, as his cautious nature to assault the Rebel works bordered on gun-shy. Not to mention the headbutting between Phillip Sheridan’s cavalry and George Gordon Meade.

These frustrations mounted and Grant had decided enough was enough. He wouldn’t take a backseat any longer and would direct the corps movements himself. Orders began to take shape for the army to move on May 7th, 1864. But to where? Many believed that the Army of the Potomac would retreat again, as it had before, across the Rapidan and out of the Wilderness, giving Robert E. Lee and his Confederates the Wilderness again as it had the previous winter (Battle of Mine Run). If he didn’t retreat, he would need to move either east toward Fredericksburg or south to get between Lee and Richmond and threaten his supply lines.

Lee knew his numbers were too low to pull an offensive after the bloodbath of May 5th and 6th. He had lost about 11,000 soldiers in the nearly impenetrable thicket that was the Wilderness. He had also lost one of his best corps commanders, James Longstreet, in an episode of friendly fire along the unfinished railroad cut. Though wounded, the Georgian was out of action and Lee had to do some command shuffling to fill the void. His choices were Jubal Early and his wild temper, Edward “Allegheny” Johnson who had no rapport with the First Corps he was to command, and then Richard Anderson who had both a fair demeanor and rapport. With the advice from one of Longstreet’s aides, Moxley Sorrel (the same aide who helped to lead the surprise flank attack on May 6th), he made his decision. Richard Anderson was to take the reins of the First Corps and Mahone would move up to take his former division. In the meantime, while he tried to assess Grant’s next move, he’d hold his defensive line of fortifications that stretched nearly to the Rapidan above the Orange Turnpike down clear to the Orange Plank Road to the south. 

Grant made his decision on the evening of May 6th. They couldn’t continue their fight in the Wilderness and they would not retreat. He had to get Lee into some open ground of his own choosing and destroy him there. The plan was laid out that Warren, settled just above the Turnpike, would slip down the Brock Road that led south out of the Wilderness. Hancock with his II Corps around the intersection of Brock and Orange Plank, would follow once the V Corps was safely through. Defending this important crossroad had worked in Grant’s favor. Sedgwick – sitting between the Turnpike and Rapidan – would join with Burnside and head straight east toward Chancellorsville, then southwest down Catharpin Road and swing around to Piney Branch Road. The supply base would then also be shifted to Fredericksburg, as well as the stream of wounded soldiers. Grant would make sure that all of the corps would be close enough to assist one another this time – correcting a mistake from May 5th. The march would begin on the night of May 7th, their objective being Spotsylvania Courthouse.

Some good news for the Union did reach Grant’s weary ears. General Benjamin Butler had successfully reached City Point where the Appomattox River and James River met. His friend, William Sherman, also reported that he was pressing Confederate General Joseph Johnston into Georgia, beginning what would become his famous “March to the Sea” later in 1864. The Shenandoah Valley was also on the verge of invasion by Franz Sigel’s troops. All of this was to make Lee sweat as a flood of blue was coming in on all sides.

Skirmishing continued all through May 7th with both sides gathering intel on the other to see what they would do. Warren skittishly continued to shoot down Orange Turnpike, fearing a charge from the Third Corps on the other side of Saunders Field. False reports from a Colonel Crooks filtered back to Meade that there was a mass of Confederates forming on the Federal’s northern flank. When the contrary was discovered by McIntosh, Meade promptly had Crooks arrested. They don’t call him the “Goggle-Eyed Snapping Turtle” for nothing. More erroneous rumors came from Warren, saying that he was convinced that the Confederates had fallen back to the west toward their previous fortifications along Mine Run. Grant believed differently, but the constant flow of attacks and repulses throughout the day succeeded in getting the high command all riled up for what would come next. A Union soldier recorded the see-saw action, “We drove them back, then their line got reinforced and drove us back, then we soon drove them back, and that is the way we kept it up all day.”

What Grant didn’t know, was that through the probing, Lee had sniffed out Grant’s plan. Primarily because of word from Armistead Long that the pontoons and supply line had been diverted from Germanna Ford along the Rapidan. If Grant intended to retreat, he wouldn’t have pulled back his logistics that way. A.P. Hill’s aide, William Palmer, had an ideal view from the Chewning Farm and also sent word that it appeared Union artillery was moving south, away from Federal headquarters around Ellwood House. He knew that the newly appointed Lieutenant General was going east to Fredericksburg or south to Spotsylvania and he would need to make preparations to intercept.

Lee gave orders for his men to make a direct route that cut through the Wilderness from the Orange Plank Road to the Catharpin Road to the south, which would expedite their maneuvering. Pendleton’s Road, as it would be called, was instrumental in the race that would erupt between these two armies. Anderson was to move first down Pendleton Road by 3am on May 8th. Ewell would stay around the Turnpike until further notice and Hill – who was sitting between the two – would move to take Anderson’s place to keep the bluecoats ahead of them occupied. As the boys in gray were moving south, waves of cheers rippled from the head to the rear, “and sent the grand chorus echoing along the lines of Ewell to the distant left.” One Confederate remembered, “Heard at first faintly, in the far distance, it comes like a breath of a wind, drawing nearer and nearer, till it reaches you with the blast of trumpets.” The Army of Northern Virginia was glad to be getting out of the Wilderness and on a collision course with their enemy one more time. A Virginia recorded the moment, “At least we are out of the woods and the difference between the two, coming out of the Wilderness, is about the same as coming out of a dark house or room into the open air where the sun is shining.” 

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