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Chapter 4

  • Grant's preparations for the Second day in the Wilderness
  • -- Hancock flushed with victory -- Grant at a critical moment -- the crisis of the Wilderness -- Grant's demeanor on the field -- Grant's peculiarities in battle -- Grant's confidence in success -- the General-in -- chief as aid to a Drover -- confusion caused by a night attack -- Grant Administers a reprimand -- Grant after the battle -- the Wilderness a Unique Combat

At four o'clock the next morning, May 6, we were awakened in our camp by the sound of Burnside's men moving along the Germanna road. They had been marching since 1 A. M., hurrying on to reach the left of Warren. The members of the headquarters mess soon after assembled to partake of a hasty breakfast. The general made rather a singular meal preparatory to so exhausting a day as that which was to follow. He took a cucumber, sliced it, poured some vinegar over it, and partook of nothing else except a cup of strong coffee. The first thing he did after rising from the table was to call for a fresh supply of cigars. His colored servant “Bill” brought him two dozen. After lighting one of them, he filled his pockets with the rest. He then went over to the knoll, and began to walk back and forth slowly upon the cleared portion of the ridge. While listening for Hancock's attack on the left, we heard the [57] sound of heavy firing on the right, and found that the enemy had attacked Sedgwick and Warren. Warren afterward had one brigade pretty roughly handled, and driven back some distance; but no ground was permanently lost or gained by either side on that part of the line. Promptly at five o'clock the roar of battle was heard in Hancock's front, and before seven he had broken the enemy's line, and driven him back in confusion more than a mile. The general now instructed me to ride out to Hancock's front, inform him of the progress of Burnside's movement, explain the assistance that officer was expected to render, and tell him more fully the object of sending to his aid Stevenson's division of Burnside's corps.

I met Hancock on the Orange plank-road, not far from its junction with the Brock road, actively engaged in directing his troops, and restoring the confusion in their alinement caused by the desperate fighting and the difficult character of the ground. All thought of the battle which raged about us was to me for a moment lost in a contemplation of the dramatic scene presented in the person of the knightly corps commander. He had just driven the enemy a mile and a half. His face was flushed with the excitement of victory, his eyes were lighted by the fire of battle, his flaxen hair was thrust back from his temples, his right arm was extended to its full length in pointing out certain positions as he gave his orders, and his commanding form towered still higher as he rose in his stirrups to peer through the openings in the woods. He was considered the handsomest general officer in the army, and at this moment he looked like a spirited portrait from the hands of a master artist, with the deep brown of the dense forest forming a fitting background. It was itself enough to inspire the troops he led to deeds of unmatched [58] heroism. He had been well dubbed “Hancock the superb.” This expression dated back to the field of Williamsburg. At the close of that battle, General McClellan sent a telegram to his wife in New York announcing his victory, and as she and Hancock were old friends, he added the words, “Hancock was superb.” The newspapers got hold of the despatch, and the designation was heralded in prominent head-lines throughout the entire press. The description was so appropriate that the designation clung to him through life.

Along the line of Hancock's advance the enemy's dead were everywhere visible; his wounded strewed the roads; prisoners had been captured, and battle-flags had been taken: but Hancock was now compelled to halt and restore the contact between his commands. Before nine o'clock, however, he was pushing out again on the Orange plank-road, and another fierce fight soon began.

Sheridan had become engaged in a spirited contest with Stuart's cavalry on the left at Todd's tavern, in which our troops were completely victorious. The sound of this conflict was mistaken for a time for an attack by Longstreet from that direction, and made Hancock anxious to strengthen his exposed left flank. His embarrassments were increased by one of those singular accidents which, though trivial in themselves, often turn the tide of battle. A body of infantry was reported to be advancing up the Brock road, and moving upon Hancock's left and rear. A brigade which could ill be spared was at once thrown out in that direction to resist the threatened attack. It soon appeared that the body of infantry consisted of about seven hundred of our convalescents, who were returning to join their commands. The incident, however, had caused the loss of valuable time. These occurrences prevented Hancock from further taking the offensive. [59]

After waiting for some time, and hearing nothing of Burnside's contemplated assault, I told Hancock I would ride over to Burnside, explain to him fully the situation on the left, and urge upon him the importance of making all possible haste. Upon reaching his position, I found that he was meeting with many difficulties in moving his men into position, and was making very little progress. I explained the absolute necessity of going to the relief of Hancock, and Colonel Comstock and I labored vigorously to help to find some means of getting the troops through the woods. Seeing the difficulties in the way, I returned to General Grant to let him know the true situation, and that an early attack from that quarter could not be depended upon.

Warren's troops were driven back on a portion of his line in front of general headquarters, stragglers were making their way to the rear, the enemy's shells were beginning to fall on the knoll where General Grant was seated on the stump of a tree, and it looked for a while as if the tide of battle would sweep over that point of the field. He rose slowly to his feet, and stood for a time watching the scene, and mingling the smoke of his cigar with the smoke of battle, without making any comments. His horse was in charge of an orderly just behind the hill, but he evidently had no thought of mounting. An officer ventured to remark to him, “General, would n't it be prudent to move headquarters to the other side of the Germanna road till the result of the present attack is known?” The general replied very quietly, between the puffs of his cigar, “It strikes me it would be better to order up some artillery and defend the present location.” Thereupon a battery was brought up, and every preparation made for defense. The enemy, however, was checked before he reached the knoll. In this instance, as in many others, the general [60] was true to the motto of his Scottish ancestors of the Grant clan: “Stand fast, Craig Ellachie.”

About eleven o'clock the battle raged again with renewed fury on Hancock's front. He had been attacked in front and on the flank by a sudden advance of the enemy, who, concealed by the dense wood, had approached near at several points before opening fire. This caused some confusion among Hancock's troops, who had become in great measure exhausted by their fighting since five o'clock in the morning, and they were now compelled to fall back to their breastworks along the Brock road. The enemy pressed on to within a few hundred yards of the intrenchments, but did not venture to assault. In this attack Longstreet was badly wounded, and the Confederate general Jenkins was killed, both having been accidently shot by their own men. We suffered a severe loss in the death of the gallant General Wadsworth. After Longstreet's removal from the field, Lee took command of his right in person, as we learned afterward, and ordered that any further assault should be postponed till a later hour.

Colonel Leasure's brigade of Burnside's corps now executed a movement of striking brilliancy. It had been sent to Hancock, and posted on the left of his line, and was ordered by him to sweep along his front from left to right. Leasure moved out promptly, facing to the right, with his right flank about a hundred yards from our line of breastworks, and dashed along the entire front with such boldness and audacity that the portions of the enemy he encountered fell back without attempting to make any serious resistance.

General Grant was becoming more anxious still about Burnside's attack, and I soon after galloped over to the latter with instructions to move on without a moment's delay, and connect with Hancock's right at all hazards. [61] I found his troops endeavoring to obey orders as best they could, but, in struggling through underbrush and swamps, all efforts to keep up their alinement were futile. General Burnside, when I met him this time, was dismounted and seated by the roadside. A champagne basket filled with lunch had been brought up, and at his invitation I joined him and some of his staff in sampling the attractive contents of the hamper. In doing so we acted upon the recognized principle of experienced campaigners, who always eat a meal wherever they can get it, not knowing where the next one is to come from. It was called “eating for the future.”

A little after noon Burnside's advance became engaged for about a quarter of an hour, but did not accomplish any important result. I worked my way out on foot to his extreme front line at this time, to obtain a more accurate knowledge of the difficulties which impeded the advance of his troops, and then returned again to headquarters to report the situation.

About half the army was now under Hancock's command, and it was probable that he would need still more reinforcements, and the general-in-chief was devoting a good deal of thought to our right, which had been weakened. At 10:30 A. M. Sedgwick and Warren had been ordered to intrench their fronts and do everything possible to strengthen their positions. A portion of the wagon-train guards had been ordered to report to Sedgwick for duty on his front. Every one on the right was on the alert, and eager to hear particulars about the fighting on the left. The various commands had been advised from time to time of the events which occurred, for it was General Grant's invariable custom to have commanding officers on different points of the line promptly informed of what occurred at other points.

Generals Grant and Meade, after discussing the situation, [62] now decided to have Hancock and Burnside make a simultaneous attack at 6 P. M. It was then supposed that Burnside would certainly be in position by that hour to unite in such an assault. I started for Hancock's front to confer with him regarding this movement, and just as I joined his troops, the enemy, directed by Lee in person, as we afterward discovered, made a desperate assault upon our line. It began at 4:15 P. M. The woods in front of Hancock had now taken fire, and the flames were communicated to his log breastworks and abatis of slashed timber. The wind was, unfortunately, blowing in our direction, and the blinding smoke was driven in the faces of our men, while the fire itself swept down upon them. For a time they battled heroically to maintain their position, fighting both the conflagration and the enemy's advancing columns At last, however, the breastworks became untenable, and some of the troops who had displayed such brilliant qualities during the entire day now fell back in confusion. The enemy took advantage of the disorder, and, rushing forward with cheers, succeeded in planting some of his battle-flags upon our front line of breastworks; but Hancock and all the staff-officers present made strenuous exertions to rally the men, and many of them were soon brought back to the front. General Carroll's brigade was now ordered to form and retake the line of intrenchments which had been lost. These gallant troops, led by the intrepid Carroll in person, dashing forward at a run, and cheering as they went, swept everything before them, and in a few minutes were in possession of the works. Both the attack and counterattack were so handsomely made that they elicited praise from friend and foe alike. Some of Hancock's artillery was served with great efficiency in this engagement, and added much to the result. At five o'clock [63] the enemy had been completely repulsed, and fell back, leaving a large number of his dead and wounded on the field.

Burnside made an attack at half-past 5, but with no important results. The nature of the ground was a more formidable obstruction than the enemy. Warren and Sedgwick had been engaged during part of the day, and had prevented the enemy in front of them from withdrawing any troops, but notwithstanding their gallant fighting they had substantially gained no ground.

While the most critical movements were taking place, General Grant manifested no perceptible anxiety, but gave his orders, and sent and received communications, with a coolness and deliberation which made a marked impression upon those who had been brought into contact with him for the first time on the field of battle. His speech was never hurried, and his manner betrayed no trace of excitability or even impatience. He never exhibited to better advantage his peculiar ability in moving troops with unparalleled speed to the critical points on the line of battle where they were most needed, or, as it was sometimes called, “feeding a fight.” There was a spur on the heel of every order he sent, and his subordinates were made to realize that in battle it is the minutes which control events. He said, while waiting for Burnside to get into position and attack: “The only time I ever feel impatient is when I give an order for an important movement of troops in the presence of the enemy, and am waiting for them to reach their destination. Then the minutes seem like hours.” He rode out to important points of the line twice during the day, in company with General Meade and two officers of the staff. It was noticed that he was visibly affected by his proximity to the wounded, and especially [64] by the sight of blood. He would turn his face away from such scenes, and show by the expression of his countenance, and sometimes by a pause in his conversation, that he felt most keenly the painful spectacle presented by the field of battle. Some reference was made to the subject in camp that evening, and the general said: “I cannot bear the sight of suffering. The night after the first day's fight at Shiloh I was sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree, trying to get some sleep. It soon began to rain so hard that I went into a log-house near by to seek shelter; but I found the surgeons had taken possession of it, and were amputating the arms and legs of the wounded, and blood was flowing in streams. I could not endure such a scene, and was glad to return to the tree outside, and sit there till morning in the storm.” I thought of this remark while sitting by his bedside twenty-one years afterward, when he, in the last days of his fatal illness, was himself undergoing supreme physical torture.

As the general felt that he could be found more readily, and could issue his orders more promptly, from the central point which he had chosen for his headquarters, he remained there almost the entire day. He would at times walk slowly up and down, but most of the day he sat upon the stump of a tree, or on the ground, with his back leaning against a tree. The thread gloves remained on his hands, a lighted cigar was in his mouth almost constantly, and his penknife was kept in active use whittling sticks. He would pick up one small twig after another, and sometimes holding the small end away from him would rapidly shave it down to a point; at other times he would turn the point toward him and work on it as if sharpening a lead-pencil; then he would girdle it, cut it in two, throw it away, and begin on another. We had long been accused [65] of being a nation of whittlers, and this practice on the part of such a conspicuous representative American seemed to give color to the charge. He seldom indulged in this habit in subsequent battles. The occupation played sad havoc with the thread gloves, and before nightfall several holes had been worn in them, from which his finger-nails protruded. After that day the gloves disappeared, and the general thereafter went without them in camp, and wore the usual buckskin gauntlets when on horseback. It was not till the Appomattox campaign that another pair of thread gloves was donned. There was a mystery about the use of those gloves which was never entirely solved. The impression was that Mrs. Grant had purchased them, and handed them to the general before he started from Washington, and that, either in deference to her, or because he had a notion that the officers in the Eastern armies were greater sticklers for dress than those in the armies of the West, he wore the gloves continuously for the first three days of his opening campaign in Virginia; that is to say, as long as they lasted under the wear and tear to which he subjected them.

His confidence was never for a moment shaken in the outcome of the general engagement in the Wilderness, and he never once doubted his ability to make a forward movement as the result of that battle. At a critical period of the day he sent instructions to have all the pontoon-bridges over the Rapidan in his rear taken up, except the one at Germanna Ford. A short time after giving this order he called General Rawlins, Colonel Babcock, and me to him, and asked for a map. As we sat together on the ground, his legs tucked under him, tailor fashion, he looked over the map, and said: “I do not hope to gain any very decided advantage from the fighting in this forest. I did expect excellent results from [66] Hancock's movement early this morning, when he started the enemy on the run; but it was impossible for him to see his own troops, or the true position of the enemy, and the success gained could not be followed up in such a country. I can certainly drive Lee back into his works, but I shall not assault him there; he would have all the advantage in such a fight. If he falls back and intrenches, my notion is to move promptly toward the left. This will, in all probability, compel him to try and throw himself between us and Richmond, and in such a movement I hope to be able to attack him in a more open country, and outside of his breastworks.” This was the second time only that he had looked at the maps since crossing the Rapidan, and it was always noticeable in a campaign how seldom he consulted them, compared with the constant examination of them by most other prominent commanders. The explanation of it is that he had an extraordinary memory as to anything that was presented to him graphically. After looking critically at a map of a locality, it seemed to become photographed indelibly upon his brain, and he could follow its features without referring to it again. Besides, he possessed an almost intuitive knowledge of topography, and never became confused as to the points of the compass. He was a natural “bushwhacker,” and was never so much at home as when finding his way by the course of streams, the contour of the hills, and the general features of the country. I asked him, one day, whether he had ever been deceived as to the points of the compass. He said: “Only once-when I arrived at Cairo, Illinois. The effect of that curious bend in the river turned me completely around, and when the sun came up the first morning after I got there, it seemed to me that it rose directly in the west.”

During a lull in the battle late in the afternoon, General [67] Grant, in company with two staff-officers, strolled over toward the Germanna road. While we stood on the bank of a small rivulet, a drove of beef-cattle was driven past. One of the animals strayed into the stream, and had evidently made up its mind to part company with its fellows and come over to our side. One of the drovers yelled out to the general, who was a little in advance of his officers: “I say, stranger, head off that beef-critter for me, will you?” The general, having always prided himself upon being a practical farmer, felt as much at home in handling cattle as in directing armies, and without changing countenance at once stepped forward, threw up his hands, and shouted to the animal. It stopped, took a look at him, and then, as if sufficiently impressed with this show of authority, turned back into the road. The general made no comment whatever upon this incident, and seemed to think no more about the salutation he had received than if some one had presented arms to him. He knew, of course, that the man did not recognize him. If he had supposed the man was lacking in proper military respect, he would perhaps have administered to him the same lesson which he once taught a soldier in the Twenty-first Illinois; when he commanded that regiment. An officer who had served under him at the time told me that Colonel Grant, as he came out of his tent one morning, found a strapping big fellow posted as sentinel, who nodded his head good-naturedly, smiled blandly, and said, “Howdy, colonel?” His commander cried, “Hand me your piece,” and upon taking it, faced the soldier and came to a “present arms” ; then handing back the musket, he remarked, “That is the way to say ‘How do you do’ to your colonel.”

It was now about sundown; the storm of battle which had raged with unabated fury from early dawn had [68] been succeeded by a calm. The contemplated general attack at six o'clock had been abandoned on account of the assault of the enemy on Hancock's front, and the difficulty of perfecting the alinements and supplying the men with ammunition. It was felt that the day's strife had ended, unless Lee should risk another attack. Just then the stillness was broken by heavy volleys of musketry on our extreme right, which told that Sedgwick had been assaulted, and was actually engaged with the enemy. The attack against which the general-in-chief during the day had ordered every precaution to be taken had now been made. Meade was at Grant's headquarters at the time. They had just left the top of the knoll, and were standing in front of General Grant's tent talking to Mr. Washburne. Staff-officers and couriers were soon seen galloping up to Meade's headquarters, and his chief of staff, General Humphreys, sent word that the attack was directed against our extreme right, and that a part of Sedgwick's line had been driven back in some confusion. Generals Grant and Meade, accompanied by me and one or two other staff-officers, walked rapidly over to Meade's tent, and found that the reports still coming in were bringing news of increasing disaster. It was soon reported that General Shaler and part of his brigade had been captured; then that General Seymour and several hundred of his men had fallen into the hands of the enemy; afterward that our right had been turned, and Ferrero's division cut off and forced back upon the Rapidan. General Humphreys, on receiving the first reports, had given prompt instructions with a view to strengthening the point of the line attacked. General Grant now took the matter in hand with his accustomed vigor. Darkness had set in, but the firing still continued. Aides came galloping in from the right, laboring under intense excitement, [69] talking wildly, and giving the most exaggerated reports of the engagement. Some declared that a large force had broken and scattered Sedgwick's entire corps. Others insisted that the enemy had turned our right completely, and captured the wagon-train. It was asserted at one time that both Sedgwick and Wright had been captured. Such tales of disaster would have been enough to inspire serious apprehension in daylight and under ordinary circumstances. In the darkness of the night, in the gloom of a tangled forest, and after men's nerves had been racked by the strain of a two days desperate battle, the most immovable commander might have been shaken. But it was in just such sudden emergencies that General Grant was always at his best. Without the change of a muscle of his face, or the slightest alteration in the tones of his voice, he quietly interrogated the officers who brought the reports; then, sifting out the truth from the mass of exaggerations, he gave directions for relieving the situation with the marvelous rapidity which was always characteristic of him when directing movements in the face of an enemy. Reinforcements were hurried to the point attacked, and preparations made for Sedgwick's corps to take up a new line, with the front and right thrown back. General Grant soon walked over to his own camp, seated himself on a stool in front of his tent, lighted a fresh cigar, and there continued to receive further advices from the right.

A general officer came in from his command at this juncture, and said to the general-in-chief, speaking rapidly and laboring under considerable excitement: “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. 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 [70] communications.” The general rose to his feet, took his cigar out of his mouth, turned to the officer, and replied, with a degree of animation which he seldom manifested: “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.” The officer retired rather crestfallen, and without saying a word in reply. This recalls a very pertinent criticism regarding his chief once made in my presence by General Sherman. He said: “Grant always seemed pretty certain to win when he went into a fight with anything like equal numbers. I believe the chief reason why he was more successful than others was that while they were thinking so much about what the enemy was going to do, Grant was thinking all the time about what he was going to do himself.”

Hancock came to headquarters about 8 P. M., and had a conference with the general-in-chief and General Meade. He had had a very busy day on his front, and while he was cheery, and showed that there was still plenty of fight left in him, he manifested signs of fatigue after his exhausting labors. General Grant, in offering him a cigar, found that only one was left in his pocket. Deducting the number he had given away from the supply he had started out with in the morning showed that he had smoked that day about twenty, all very strong and of formidable size. But it must be remembered that it was a particularly long day. He never afterward equaled that record in the use of tobacco.

The genera], after having given his final orders providing for any emergency which might arise, entered [71] his tent, and threw himself down upon his camp-bed. Ten minutes thereafter an alarming report was received from the right. I looked in his tent, and found him sleeping as soundly and as peacefully as an infant. I waked him, and communicated the report. His military instincts convinced him that it was a gross exaggeration, and as he had already made every provision for meeting any renewed attempts against the right, he turned over in his bed, and immediately went to sleep again. Twenty-one years thereafter, as I sat by his death-bed, when his sufferings had become agonizing, and he was racked by the tortures of insomnia, I recalled to him that night in the Wilderness. He said: “Ah, yes; it seems strange that I, who always slept so well in the field, should now pass whole nights in the quiet of this peaceful house without being able to close my eyes.”

It was soon ascertained that although Sedgwick's line had been forced back with some loss, and Shaler and Seymour had been made prisoners, only a few hundred men had been captured, and the enemy had been compelled to withdraw. General Grant had great confidence in Sedgwick in such an emergency, and the event showed that it was not misplaced.

The attack on our right, and its repulse, ended the memorable battle of the Wilderness. The losses were found to be: killed, 2246; wounded, 12,037; missing, 3383; total, 17,666. The damage inflicted upon the enemy is not known, but as he was the assaulting party as often as the Union army, there is reason to believe that the losses on the two sides were about equal. Taking twenty-four hours as the time actually occupied in fighting, and counting the casualties in both armies, it will be found that on that bloody field every minute recorded the loss of twenty-five men.

As the staff-officers threw themselves upon the [72] ground that night, sleep came to them without coaxing. They had been on the move since dawn, galloping over bad roads, struggling about through forest openings, jumping rivulets, wading swamps, helping to rally troops, dodging bullets, and searching for commanding officers in all sorts of unknown places. Their horses had been crippled, and they themselves were well-nigh exhausted. For the small part I had been able to perform in the engagement, the general recommended me for the brevet rank of major in the regular army, “for gallant and meritorious services.” His recommendation was afterward approved by the President. This promotion was especially gratifying for the reason that it was conferred for conduct in the first battle in which I had served under the command of the general-in-chief.

There were features of the battle which have never been matched in the annals of warfare. For two days nearly 200,000 veteran troops had struggled in a death-grapple, confronted at each step with almost every obstacle by which nature could bar their path, and groping their way through a tangled forest the impenetrable gloom of which could be likened only to the shadow of death. The undergrowth stayed their progress, the upper growth shut out the light of heaven. Officers could rarely see their troops for any considerable distance, for smoke clouded the vision, and a heavy sky obscured the sun. Directions were ascertained and lines established by means of the pocket-compass, and a change of position often presented an operation more like a problem of ocean navigation than a question of military maneuvers. It was the sense of sound and of touch rather than the sense of sight which guided the movements. It was a battle fought with the ear, and not with the eye. All circumstances seemed to combine to make the scene one of unutterable horror. At times [73] the wind howled through the tree-tops, mingling its moans with the groans of the dying, and heavy branches were cut off by the fire of the artillery, and fell crashing upon the heads of the men, adding a new terror to battle. Forest fires raged; ammunition-trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing. It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.

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