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Chapter 46:

  • General Grant assumes command in Virginia
  • -- positions of the armies -- plans of campaign open to Grant's choice -- the Rapidan crossed -- battle of the Wilderness -- danger of Lee -- the enemy driven back -- Longstreet wounded -- results of the contest -- rapid flank movement of Grant -- another contest -- Grant's Reenforcements -- Hanover Junction -- the enemy Moves in direction of Bowling Green -- battle at Cold harbor -- Frightful slaughter -- the enemy's soldiers decline to renew the assault when ordered -- strength of respective armies -- General Pemberton -- the enemy crosses the James -- siege of Petersburg begun.

It was in March, 1864, that Major General Ulysses S. Grant, having been appointed lieutenant general, assumed command of the armies of the United States. He subsequently proceeded to Culpeper and assumed personal command of the Army of the Potomac, although nominally that army remained under the command of General Meade. Reenforcements were gathered from every military department of the United States and sent to that army.

On May 3d General Lee held the south bank of the Rapidan River, with his right resting near the mouth of Mine Run and his left extending to Liberty Mills, on the road from Gordonsville to the Shenandoah Valley. Ewell's corps was on the right, Hill's on the left, and two divisions of Longstreet's corps, having returned from East Tennessee, were encamped in the rear near Gordonsville. The army of General Grant had occupied the north bank of the Rapidan, with the main body encamped in Culpeper County and on the Rappahannock River.

While Grant with his immense and increasing army was thus posted, Lee, with a comparatively small force, to which few reenforcements could be furnished, confronted him on a line stretching from near Somerville Ford to Gordonsville. To Grant was left the choice of moving directly on Lee and attempting to defeat his army, the only obstacle to the capture of Richmond, and which his vast means rendered supposable, or crossing the Rapidan above or below Lee's position. The second would fulfill the condition, so imperatively imposed on McClellan, of covering the United States capital; the third would be in the more direct line toward Richmond. Of the three he chose the last, and so felicitated himself on his unopposed passage of the river as to [434] suppose that he had, unobserved, turned the flank of Lee's army, got between it and Richmond, and necessitated the retreat of the Confederates to some point where they might resist his further advance. So little could he comprehend the genius of Lee that he expected him to be surprised, as appears from his arrangements contemplating only combats with the rear guard covering the retreat. Lee, dauntless as he was sagacious, seized the opportunity, which the movement of his foe offered, to meet him where his artillery would be least available, where his massive columns would be most embarrassed in their movements, and where Southern individuality and self-reliance would be specially effective. Grant's object was to pass through ‘the Wilderness’ to the roads between Lee and Richmond. Lee resolved to fight him in those pathless woods, where mind might best compete with matter.

Providence held its shield over the just cause, and heroic bands hurled back the heavy battalions shattered and discomfited, as will be now briefly described.

In order to cross the Rapidan, Grant's army moved on May 3d toward Germania Ford, which was ten or twelve miles from our right. He succeeded in seizing the ford and crossing. The direct road from this ford to Richmond passed by Spotsylvania Court House, and when Grant had crossed the river he was nearer than General Lee to Richmond. From Orange Court House there are two nearly parallel roads running eastwardly to Fredericksburg. The one nearest the river is called the ‘Stone Turnpike,’ and the other the ‘Plank-road.’ The road from the ford to Spotsylvania Court House crosses the Old Stone Turnpike at the ‘Old Wilderness Tavern,’ and, two or three miles farther on it crosses the plank road.

As soon as Grant's movement was known, Lee's troops were put in motion. Ewell's corps moved on the Stone Turnpike, and Hill's corps on the plank road, into which Longstreet's force also came from his camp near Gordonsville. Ewell's corps crossed Mine Run and encamped at Locust Grove, four miles beyond, on the afternoon of the 4th. On the morning of the 5th it was again in motion, and encountered Grant's troops in heavy force at a short distance from the Old Wilderness Tavern, and Jones's and Battle's brigades were driven back in some confusion. Early's division was ordered up, formed across the pike, and moved forward. It advanced through a dense pine thicket and, with other brigades of Rodes's division, drove the enemy back with heavy loss, capturing several hundred prisoners and gaining a commanding position on the right. Meantime Johnson's division, on the left of the [435] pike and extending across the road to Germania Ford, was heavily engaged in front, and Hays's brigade was sent to his left to participate in a forward movement. It advanced, encountered a large force, and, not meeting with the expected cooperation, was drawn back. Subsequently Pegram's brigade took position on Hays's left, and just before night an attack was made on their front, which was repulsed with severe loss to the enemy. During the afternoon there was hot skirmishing along the whole line, and several attempts were made by the foe to regain the position from which he had been driven. At the close of the day Ewell's corps had captured over a thousand prisoners, besides inflicting on the enemy very severe losses in killed and wounded. Two pieces of artillery had been abandoned and were secured by our troops.

A. P. Hill, on the 4th, with Heth's and Wilcox's divisions of his corps, moved eastwardly along the plank road. They bivouacked at night near Verdiersville, and resumed their march on the 5th with Heth in advance. About 1 P. M. musketry firing was heard in front; the sound indicated the presence of a large body of infantry. Kirkland's brigade deployed on both sides of the plank road, and the column proceeded to form in line of battle on its flanks. Hill's advance had followed the plank road, while Ewell's pursued the Stone turnpike. These parallel movements were at this time from three to four miles apart. The country intervening and round about for several miles is known as the ‘Wilderness,’ and, having very little open ground, consists almost wholly of a forest of dense undergrowth of shrubs and small trees. In order to open communication with Ewell, Wilcox's division moved to the left and effected a junction with Gordon's brigade on Ewell's extreme right. The line of battle thus completed extended from the right of the plank road through a succession of open fields and dense forest to the left of the Stone turnpike. It presented a line of six miles, and the thicket that lay along the whole front of our army was so impenetrable as to exclude the use of artillery save only at the roads. Heth's skirmishers were driven in about 3 P. M. by a massive column that advanced, firing rapidly. The struggle thus commenced in Hill's front continued for two or three hours unabated. Heth's ranks were greatly reduced when Wilcox was ordered to his support, but the bloody contest continued until night closed over our force in the position it had originally taken. This stubborn and heroic resistance was made by the divisions of Heth and Wilcox of Hill's corps, fifteen thousand strong, against the repeated and desperate assaults of five divisions—four divisions of Hancock's and one of Sedgewick's corps, numbering about [436] forty-five thousand men. Our forces completely foiled their adversaries, and inflicted upon them most serious loss.1 During the day the Ninth Corps of the enemy under General Burnside had come on the field. The third division of Hill's corps, under General Anderson, and the two divisions of Longstreet's corps, did not reach the scene of conflict until dawn of day on the morning of the 6th. Simultaneously the attack on Hill was renewed with great vigor. In addition to the force he had so successfully resisted on the previous day, a fresh division of the enemy's Fifth Corps had secured position on Hill's flank, and cooperated with the column assaulting in front. After a severe contest, the left of Heth's division and the right of Wilcox's were overpowered before the advance of Longstreet's column reached the ground, and were compelled to retire. The repulsed portions of the divisions were in considerable disorder. General Lee now came up, and, fully appreciating the impending crisis, dashed amid the fugitives, calling on the men to rally and follow him.

The soldiers, seeing General Lee's manifest purpose to advance with them, and realizing the great danger in which he then was, begged him to go to the rear, promising that they would soon have matters rectified. The General waved them on with some words of cheer.2

The assault was checked.

Longstreet, having come up with two divisions, deployed them in line of battle and gallantly advanced to recover the lost ground. The enemy was driven back over the ground he had gained by his assault on Hill's line, but reformed in the position previously held by him. About midday an attack on his left flank and rear was ordered by Longstreet. For this purpose three brigades were detached and, moving forward, were joined by General J. R. Davis's brigade, which had been the extreme right of Hill's line. Making a sufficient detour to avoid observation, and rushing precipitately to attack the foe in flank and reverse while he was preparing to resist the movement in his front, he was taken completely by surprise. The assault resulted in his utter rout, with heavy loss on that part of his line.

Preparations were now made to follow up the advantages gained by a forward movement of the whole line under General Longstreet's personal direction. When advancing at the head of Jenkins's brigade, with that officer and others, a body of Confederates in the wood on the roadside, supposing the column to be a hostile force, fired into it, killing General Jenkins, distinguished alike for civil and military virtues, and [437] severely wounding General Longstreet. The valuable services of General Longstreet were thus lost to the army at a critical moment, and this caused the suspension of a movement which promised the most important results; time was thus afforded to the enemy to rally, reenforce, and find shelter behind his entrenchments. Under these circumstances the commanding general deemed it inadvisable to attack.

On the morning of the 6th the contest was renewed on the left, and a very heavy attack was made on the front occupied by Pegram's brigade, but it was handsomely repulsed, as were several subsequent attacks at the same point. In the afternoon an attack was made on the enemy's right flank, resting in the woods, when Gordon's brigade, with Johnson's in the rear and followed by Pegram's, succeeded in throwing it into great confusion, doubling it up and forcing it back some distance, capturing two brigadier generals and several hundred prisoners. Darkness closed the contest. On the 7th an advance was made which disclosed the fact that Grant had given up his line of works on his right. During the day there was some skirmishing, but no serious fighting. The result of these battles was the infliction of severe loss upon the foe, the gain of ground, and the capture of prisoners, artillery, and other trophies. The cost to us, however, was so serious as to enforce by additional considerations the policy of Lee to spare his men as much as was possible.

A rapid flank movement was next made by Grant to secure possession of Spotsylvania Court House. General Lee comprehended his purpose, and on the night of the 7th a division of Longstreet's corps was sent as the advance to that point. Stuart, then in observation on the flank and ever ready to work or to fight as the one or the other should best serve the cause of his country, dismounted his troopers, and by felling trees obstructed the roads so as materially to delay the march of the enemy. The head of the opposing forces arrived almost at the same moment on the 8th; theirs, being a little in advance, drove back our cavalry, but in turn was quickly driven from the strategic point by the arrival of our infantry. On the 9th the two armies, each forming on its advance as a nucleus, swung round and confronted each other in line of battle.

The 10th and 11th passed in comparative quiet. On the morning of the 12th the enemy made a very heavy attack on Ewell's front, and broke the line where it was occupied by Johnson's division. At this time and place the scene occurred of which Mississippians are justly proud. Colonel Venable of General Lee's staff states that, on the receipt of one of the messages from General Rodes for more troops, he was sent by General Lee to bring Harris's Mississippi brigade from the extreme [438] right; General Lee met the brigade and rode at its head until under fire, when a round shot passed so near to him that the soldiers invoked him to go back; when he said, ‘If you will promise me to drive those people from our works, I will go back,’ the brigade shouted the promise, and Colonel Venable says:

As the column of Mississippians came up at a double quick an aide-de-camp came up to General Rodes with a message from Ramseur that he could hold out only a few minutes longer unless assistance was at hand. Your brigade was thrown instantly into the fight, the column being formed into line under a tremendous fire and on very difficult ground. Never did a brigade go into fiercer battle under greater trials; never did a brigade do its duty more nobly.3

A portion of the attacking force swept along Johnson's line to Wilcox's left, and was checked by a prompt movement on that flank. Several brigades sent to Ewell's assistance were carried into action under his orders, and they all suffered severely. Subsequently, on the same day, some brigades were thrown to the front for the purpose of moving to the left and attacking the flank of the column which broke Ewell's line, to relieve the pressure on him, and recover the part of the line which had been lost. These, as they moved, soon encountered the Ninth Corps, under Burnside, advancing to the attack. They captured over three hundred prisoners and three battle flags, and their attack on the enemy's flank, taking him by surprise, contributed materially to his repulse.

Taylor, in his Four Years with General Lee, says that Lee, having detected the weakness of the ‘salient’ occupied by the division of General Edward Johnson, of Ewell's corps, directed a second line to be constructed across its base, to which he proposed to move the troops occupying the angle. Suspecting another flank movement by Grant before these arrangements were quite completed, he ordered most of the artillery at this portion of the lines to be withdrawn so as to be available. Toward dawn on the 12th, Johnson, discovering indications of an impending assault, ordered the immediate return of the artillery, and made other preparations for defense. But the unfortunate withdrawal was so partially and tardily restored that a spirited assault at daybreak overran that portion of the lines before the artillery was put in position, and captured most of the division, including its brave commander.

The above-mentioned attacking column advanced, under cover of a pine thicket, to within a very short distance of a salient defended by Walker's brigade. A heavy fire of musketry and artillery, from a [439] considerable number of guns on Heth's line, opened with tremendous effect upon the column, and it was driven back with severe loss, leaving its dead in front of our works.4

Several days of comparative quiet ensued. During this time the army of General Grant was heavily reenforced from Washington.

In numerical strength his army so much exceeded that under General Lee that, after covering the entire Confederate front with double lines of battle, he had in reserve a large force with which to extend his flank and compel a corresponding movement on the part of his adversary, in order to keep between him and his coveted prize—the capital of the Confederacy.5

On the 18th another assault was made upon our lines, but it produced no impression. On May 20th, after twelve days of skirmish and battle at Spotsylvania against a superior force, General Lee's information led him to believe that the enemy was about to attempt another flanking movement, and interpose his army between the Confederate capital and its defenders. To defeat this purpose Longstreet was ordered to move at midnight in the direction of Hanover Junction, and on the following day and night Ewell's and Hill's corps marched for the same point.

The Confederate commander, divining that Grant's objective point was the intersection of the two railroads leading to Richmond at a point two miles south of the North Anna River, crossed his army over that stream and took up a line of battle which frustrated the movement.

Grant began his flanking movement on the night of the 20th, marching in two columns: the right, under General Warren, crossing the North Anna at Jericho Ford without opposition; the left, on the 23d, under General Hancock, crossing four miles lower down, at the Chesterfield or County Bridge, where it was obstinately resisted by a small force, and the passage of the river not made until the 24th. After crossing the North Anna, Grant discovered that his movement was a blunder and that his army was in a position of much peril.

The Confederate commander established his line of battle on the south side of the river, both wings refused so as to form an obtuse angle with the apex resting on the river between the two points of the enemy's crossing, Longstreet's and Hill's corps forming the two sides, and Little River and the Hanover marshes the base. Ewell's corps held the apex or center.

The hazard of Grant's position appears not to have been known to him until he attempted to unite his two columns, which were four miles apart, by establishing a connecting line along the river. Foiled in the [440]

Map of Fredericksburg.

[441] attempt, he discovered that: the Confederate army was interposed between his two wings, which were also separated by the North Anna, and that the one could give no support to the other except by a double crossing of the river. That the Confederate commander did not seize the opportunity to strike his embarrassed foe and avail himself of the advantage which his superior generalship had gained, may have been that, concluding from past observation of Grant's tactics, he felt assured that the ‘continuous hammering’ process was to be repeated without reference to circumstances or position. If Lee acted on this supposition, he was mistaken, as the Federal commander, profiting by the severe lessons of Spotsylvania and the Wilderness, with cautious, noiseless movement withdrew under cover of the night of the 26th to the north side of the North Anna, and moved eastward down to the Pamunkey River.

At Hanover Junction General Lee was joined by Pickett's division of Longstreet's corps, which had been on detached service in North Carolina, and by a small force under General Breckinridge from southwestern Virginia, twenty-two hundred strong. Hoke's brigade of Early's division, twelve hundred strong, which had been on detached duty at the junction, here also rejoined its division. On the 29th the whole of Grant's army was across the Pamunkey, while General Lee's army on the next day was in line of battle with his left at Atlee's Station. By another movement eastward the two armies were brought face to face at Cold Harbor on June 3d. Here fruitless efforts were made by General Grant to pierce or drive back the forces of General Lee. Our troops were protected by temporary earthworks, and while under cover of these were assailed by the enemy:

But in vain. The assault was repulsed along the whole line, and the carnage on the Federal side was fearful. I6 well recall having received a report, after the assault, from General Hoke—whose division reached the army just previous to this battle—to the effect that the ground in his entire front, over which the enemy had charged, was literally covered with their dead and wounded; and that up to that time he had not had a single man killed. No wonder that, when the command was given to renew the assault, the Federal soldiers sullenly and silently declined. The order7 was issued through the officers to their subordinate commanders, and from them descended through the wonted channels; but no man stirred, and the immobile lines pronounced a verdict, silent yet emphatic, against further slaughter. The loss on the Union side in this sanguinary action was over thirteen thousand, while on the part of the Confederates it is doubtful whether it reached that many hundreds. After some disingenuous proposals, General Grant finally asked a truce to enable him to bury his dead. Soon after [442] this he abandoned his chosen line of operations, and moved his army so as to secure a crossing to the south side of James River. The struggle from the Wilderness to this point covered a period of over one month, during which time there had been an almost daily encounter of arms, and the Army of Northern Virginia had placed hors de combat, of the army under General Grant, a number exceeding the entire numerical strength, at the commencement of the campaign, of Lee's army, which, notwithstanding its own heavy losses and the reenforcements received by the enemy, still presented an impregnable front to its opponent.

By the report of the United States Secretary of War (Stanton), Grant had, on May 1, 1864, two days before he crossed the Rapidan, 120,380 men, and in the Ninth Army Corps 20,780, or an aggregate with which he marched against Lee of 141,160. To meet this vast force, Lee had on the Rapidan less than 50,000 men. By the same authority it appears that Grant had a reserve upon which he could draw of 137,672. Lee had practically no reserve, for he was compelled to make detachments from his army for the protection of West Virginia and other points, about equal to all the reenforcements which he received. In the Southern Historical Papers, Vol. VI, page 144, upon the very reliable authority of the editor, there appears the following statement:

Grant says he lost, in the campaign from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, 39,000 men; but Swinton puts his loss at over 60,000, and a careful examination of the figures will show that his real loss was nearer 100,000. In other words, he lost about twice as many men as Lee had, in order to take a position which he could have taken at first without firing a gun or losing a man.

On June 12th the movement was commenced by Grant for crossing the James River. Pontoon bridges were laid near Wilcox's Wharf for the passage of his army. J. C. Pemberton, who, after the fall of Vicksburg, was left without a command corresponding to his rank of lieutenant general in the provisional army, in order that he might not stand idle, nobly resigned that commission and asked to be assigned to duty according to his rank in the regular army, which was that of lieutenant colonel. He was accordingly directed to report to General Lee for service with the Army of Northern Virginia. Being a skillful artillerist, he was directed to find a position where he could place a mortar so as to throw shells on the enemy's bridge when it should be put into use. By a daring reconnaissance and exact calculation, he determined a point from which the desired effect might be produced by vertical fire over a wood. At the proper moment he opened upon the bridge, and his expectations were verified by the shells falling on the troops harassingly. This, his first service with the Army of Northern Virginia, was interrupted by the failure to send promptly a covering force to protect the mortar, the position of which was disclosed by its fire. The injury it [443] inflicted caused the Federal commander to send a detachment which drove away the gunners and captured the mortar.

On June 14th and 15th the crossing of Grant's army was completed. It will be remembered that he had crossed the Rapidan on May 3d. It had therefore taken him more than a month to reach the south side of the James. In his campaign he had sacrificed a hecatomb of men, a vast amount of artillery, small arms, munitions of war, and supplies, to reach a position to which McClellan had already demonstrated there was an easy and inexpensive route. It is true that the Confederate army had suffered severely, and though the loss was comparatively small to that of its opponents, it could not be repaired, as his might be, from the larger population and his facility for recruiting in Europe. To those who can approve the policy of attrition without reference to the number of lives it might cost, this may seem justifiable, but it can hardly be regarded as generalship, or be offered to military students as an example worthy of imitation. After an unsuccessful attempt, by a surprise, to capture Petersburg, General Grant concentrated his army south of the Appomattox River and commenced the operations to be related hereafter.

1 Four Years with General Lee.

2 Ibid.

3 Letter from Colonel C. S. Venable, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol VIII, p. 106, March, 1880.

4 Memoir of the Last Year, etc., by General Early.

5 Four Years with General Lee.

6 Taylor, Four Years With General Lee.

7 Swinton, Army of the Potomac, p. 487.

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