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Part 1. Grant versus Lee

Henry W. Elson

The battles in the Wilderness

Wreckage of trees and men, as they fell in the dense forest — victims of the month's advance that cost 40,000 Union dead and wounded


Ulysses S. Grant: General-in-chief of the Federal army in 1865. born 1822; West Point 1843; died 1885.


Robert E. Lee: General-in-chief of the Confederate army in 1865. born 1807; West Point 1829; died 1870.


Grant's first move against Lee: advance of the army of the Potomac, May 5, 1864: pontoons at Germanna ford on the Rapidan beginning the “simultaneous movement” to end the war The gleaming bayonets that lead the winding wagons mark the first lunge of one champion against another — the Federal military arm stretching forth to begin the “continuous hammering” which Grant had declared was to be his policy. By heavy and repeated blows he had vanquished Pemberton, Bragg, and every Southern general that had opposed him. Soon he was to be face to face with Lee's magnificent veterans, and here above all other places he had chosen to be in person. Profiting by the experience of Halleck, he avoided Washington. Sherman pleaded in vain with him to “come out West.” Grant had recognized the most difficult and important task to be the destruction of Lee's army, and therefore had determined “to fight it out on this line.” The Army of the Potomac was but one body of the 533,447 Federal troops set in motion by the supreme word of Grant at the beginning of May, 1864. East and West, the concentrated forces were to participate as much as possible in one simultaneous advance to strike the vitals of the Confederacy. The movements of Sherman, Banks, Sigel, and Butler were intended to be direct factors in the efficiency of his own mighty battering on the brave front of Lee's army. All along the line from the Mississippi to the Atlantic there was to be cooperation so that the widely separated armies of the South would have their hands full of fighting and could spare no reenforcements to each other. But it took only a few weeks to convince Grant that in Robert E. Lee, he had met more than his match in strategy. Sigel and Butler failed him at New Market and Drewry's Bluff. The simultaneous movement crumbled.

[25] [26]

Lee's men: Confederate soldiers in Virginia, 1864 The faces of the veterans in this photograph of 1864 reflect more forcibly than volumes of historical essays, the privations and the courage of the ragged veterans in gray who faced Grant, with Lee as their leader. They did not know that their struggle had already become unavailing; that no amount of perseverance and devotion could make headway against the resources, determination, and discipline of the Northern armies, now that they had become concentrated and wielded by a master of men like Grant. But Grant was as yet little more than a name to the armies of the East. His successes had been won on Western fields — Donelson, Vicksburg, Chattanooga. It was not yet known that the Army of the Potomac under the new general-in-chief was to prove irresistible. So these faces reflect perfect confidence.

Though prisoners when this picture was taken — a remnant of Grant's heavy captures during May and June, when he sent some ten thousand Confederates to Coxey's Landing, Virginia, as a result of his first stroke against Lee — though their arms have been taken from them, though their uniforms are anything but “uniform,” their hats partly the regulation felt of the Army of Northern Virginia, partly captured Federal caps, and partly nondescript — yet these ragged veterans stand and sit with the dignity of accomplishment. To them, “Marse Robert” is still the general unconquerable, under whom inferior numbers again and again have held their own, and more; the brilliant leader under whom every man gladly rushes to any assault, however impossible it seems, knowing that every order will be made to count.

[27] [28]
The volunteers who composed the armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia were real soldiers now, inured to war, and desperate in their determination to do its work without faltering or failure. This fact — this change in the temper and morale of the men on either side — had greatly simplified the tasks set for Grant and Lee to solve. They knew their men. They knew that those men would stand against anything, endure slaughter without flinching, hardship without complaining, and make desperate endeavor without shrinking. The two armies had become what they had not been earlier in the contest, perfect instruments of war, that could be relied upon as confidently as the machinist relies upon his engine scheduled to make so many revolutions per minute at a given rate of horse-power, and with the precision of science itself. --George Cary Eggleston, in The History of the Confederate war.

After the battle of Gettysburg, Lee started for the Potomac, which he crossed with some difficulty, but with little interruption from the Federals, above Harper's Ferry, on July 14, 1863. The thwarted invader of Pennsylvania wished to get to the plains of Virginia as quickly as possible, but the Shenandoah was found to be impassable. Meade, in the mean time, had crossed the Potomac east of the Blue Ridge and seized the principal outlets from the lower part of the Valley. Lee, therefore, was compelled to continue his retreat up the Shenandoah until Longstreet, sent in advance with part of his command, had so blocked the Federal pursuit that most of the Confederate army was able to emerge through Chester Gap and move to Culpeper Court House. Ewell marched through Thornton's Gap and by the 4th of August practically the whole Army of Northern Virginia was south of the Rapidan, prepared to dispute the crossing of that river. But Meade, continuing his flank pursuit, halted at [29]

The coming of the stranger Grant Hither, to Meade's headquarters at Brandy Station, came Grant on March 10, 1864. The day before, in Washington, President Lincoln handed him his commission, appointing him Lieutenant-General in command of all the Federal forces. His visit to Washington convinced him of the wisdom of remaining in the East to direct affairs, and his first interview with Meade decided him to retain that efficient general in command of the Army of the Potomac. The two men had known each other but slightly from casual meetings during the

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