Tuesday, April 17, 2007
The Wilderness Campaign
Earlier in 1864, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant had been placed in command of all Union Armies by President Lincoln. Grant planned a direct attack on General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. He intended to” fight it out along this line if it takes all summer.” The argument has been made that Grant had no strategy, other than to utilize the superior military might of the Union forces to eventually wear down the Confederates. Grant was aware that a large number of the three year troops who enlisted in 1861 were due to leave his army at the expiration of service, and it appears he wanted to get all the use out of them that he could.
Grant planned to use Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac, which woulde be coordinated with advances by Major General Franz Sigel along the Shenandoah Valley and Benjamin F. Butler on the Yorktown Penisula to divert Lee's attention. Grant would travel with Meade, but Meade would retain nominal command of the army. Meade's troops had been camped on the Northern bank of the Rapidan River in Virginia since Meade's unsuccessful foray south towards Lee's army in November of 1863.
At 4:00 A.M. on May 4, 1863 the Union army crossed the Rapidan and headed towards the heavily wooded area known as the Wilderness, where the Battle of Chancellorsville had been fought the previous year. Near dawn on May 4,1864, the leading division of the Army of the Potomac reached Germanna Ford, 18 miles west of Fredericksburg. The spring campaign was under way and it superficially mirrored the strategic situation prior to the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. A numerically superior Union force (100,000 men), well-supplied, in good spirits, and led by a new commander, moved south toward the Confederate capital. There, however, the similarities ended.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress)
Ulysses S. Grant now directed the Army of the Potomac, although George Meade technically retained the authority he had inherited from Hooker just before the Battle of Gettysburg. Grant now carried the new rank of lieutenant-General and bore responsibility for all Federal armies. The General-in-chief told Meade, "Lee's army will be your objective. Where he goes, there you will go also."
The Confederates also entered the 1864 campaign brimming with optimism and anxious to avenge their defeat at Gettysburg. As usual, the 62,000-man Army of Northern Virginia found itself vastly outgunned and scrambling for supplies, but based on past experience, these handicaps posed little concern. Confederate generalship in the post-Jackson era created more serious problems. Lee elevated both A. P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell to corps command following "Stonewall's" death, but neither officer performed particularly well. Only Longstreet provided Lee with experienced leadership at the highest army level.
Gen. Robert E. Lee © Mort Kunstler
The entrenched Confederate forces easily spotted the Federal advance from their signal stations and alerted General Lee. Lee planned to attack Grant in the Wilderness, hoping to take advantage of the difficulties of visibility and movement in the dense brush and thus, to nullify the disparity in mumbers.
Grant, although anxious to confront Lee at the earliest good opportunity, preferred not to fight in the green hell of the Wilderness. On the morning of May 5, he directed his columns to push southeast through the tangled jungle and into open ground. Word arrived, however, that an unidentified body of Confederates approaching from the west on the Turnpike threatened the security of his advance.
Four Confederate brigades crept astride the Union left flank. The Southerners poured through the woods, rolling up unwary Federal troops "like a wet blanket." The fighting soon became a melee, the gunsmoke in the impenetrable underbrush reducing visibility still further. The fighting intensified as Grant and Lee threw more reinforcements into the battle. Patches of the woods were set ablaze by the gunfire and many of the fallen wounded burned to death. The fighting continued until nightfall, and then the two armies established their positions along the five mile front to await daylight.
Fire consumes wounded in the Wilderness
Fighting along the Turnpike on May 6 was also vicious if indecisive. The Union forces struck at the center of the Confederate line, but reinforcements arrived and the Union troops were driven back. Lee sensing that the battle was turning his way, and sent additional troops into the fight, but the Federals held their position until the attack ground to a halt and the battle died out as night fell. Both sides had suffered heavy casualties, but neither side retreated.
Both armies expected more combat on May 7, but neither side initiated hostilities. The Battle of the Wilderness marked another tactical Confederate victory. Grant watched both of his flanks crumble on May 6 and lost more than twice as many soldiers (about 18,000 to 8,000) as did Lee. Veterans of the Army of the Potomac had seen this before: cross the river, get whipped, retreat -- the story of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville reprised. But Grant, not Burnside or Hooker, now was in command. Late on May 7, the general-chief rode at the head of his army and approached a lonely junction in the Wilderness. A left turn would signal withdrawal toward the fords of the Rapidan and Rappahannock. To the right lay the highway to Richmond via Spotsylvania Court House. Grant pointed right. The soldiers cheered. There would be no turning back.
Grant in the Wilderness © Mort Kunstler
Subscribe to Posts [Atom]