The Battle of Shiloh-The Afternoon of Day One

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series The Western Theater Part Two

The Battle of Shiloh-

The Afternoon of Day One

The Battle of Shiloh was characterized by stubborn fighting on both sides of the lines. The Confederate attackers continued to press the Union defenders back to Pittsburg Landing throughout the morning. The Union defense on the left end of their line was anchored at a position that later became known as the Hornet’s Nest along a road now popularly called the Sunken Road.

Troops from Prentiss’ and W.H.L. Wallace’s Divisions had rallied at this location and fortified it. The fighting here had begun at about 9:30 AM and was to continue for at least 7 hours. During this time, the Union forces to either side of the position were gradually forced back and the Hornet’s Nest became a salient. Historians estimate that the number of separate charges ranged from 8 to 14.

Battle of Shiloh, April 6, afternoonBy the early afternoon, the Union line had gradually gone from and east-west orientation to a north-south one with a hook at the most southern end. The troops within the salient were poorly coordinated. Individual commanders chose to withdraw their units without consulting with other commanders.

During the fighting Brig. Gen. W.H.L Wallace was shot in the back of the head with the bullet exiting through his eye. Wallace fell mortally wounded and was discovered several hours later by his men. He died three days later in his wife’s arms.  Unbeknownst to him, she had arrived earlier in the day by steamboat. His wounding increased the chaos in the Hornet’s Nest.

The Confederates brought up artillery batteries that numbered from 50 to 62, depending on the source. With them, they blasted the salient at point-blank range. After a seven hour fight, Prentiss’s troops were almost completely surrounded and he surrendered the position and his remaining men, between 2,200 and 2,400. Their stubborn defense allowed Grant to assemble sufficient forces to stop the Confederate advance.

About a half hour before the surrender at the Hornet’s Nest, the Confederate Army was to suffer a devastating loss. General Albert Sidney Johnson was shot in the left leg while leading his troops in an attack against the Union position at the Peach Orchard. Deeming it insignificant, he sent his surgeon away to care for other Confederate wounded.

He bled to death within an hour and deprived the Confederacy of one of its most effective generals in the opinion of Jefferson Davis. With his death, Beauregard became the commander of all Confederate forces on the field. His position in the rear, where Johnston had placed him, gave him only a vague idea of the situation at the front.

Grant had spent the entire morning and into the afternoon assembling sufficient infantry and artillery on the high ground at Pittsburg Landing. His position included an arc of at least 50 guns and two timberclads, the USS Lexington and the USS Tyler. The two naval vessels were to play a key role throughout the late afternoon and the night.

By the afternoon at least 5,000 troops had collected in what was once the Union rear. The rest of the Union Army had withdrawn to new defensive Gen Johnston with Arkansas troopspositions approximately 3 miles wide in an arc around Pittsburg Landing. Sherman continued to hold the extreme right with McClernand to his left. The remnants of Hurlbut’s, Prentiss’ and Wallace’s divisions were in the line from the center to the river. One of Nelson’s brigades had been ferried across the river and were inserted at the left end of the line.

By 6:00 PM, Beauregard called off any further attacks after a tw0-brigade assault against the  Union line was repulsed. The Confederate plan had failed. Instead of pushing the Yankees into the river, they had forced Grant’s men into a defensible position that was ready to be reinforced.

Sherman encountered Grant under a tree, sheltering himself from the pouring rain. He was smoking one of his cigars while considering his losses and planning for the next day. Sherman remarked, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant looked up. “Yes,” he replied, followed by a puff. “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”


The Battle of Shiloh-Background

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series The Western Theater Part Two

The Battle of Shiloh-Background

The Battle of Shiloh, often referred to as Pittsburg Landing, was to set the stage for Union successes in the Western Theater. After the losses of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and the clearing of eastern Kentucky by the Army of the Ohio, the Confederate Army of Mississippi, under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston, withdrew into western Tennessee, northern Mississippi and Alabama.

The Army of the Tennessee once more under the command of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, moved south to fill the vacuum. They were followed by the Army of the Ohio, under Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, which followed them to provide support.

General Albert Sidney JohnstonGeneral Johnston had the distinction of having held the rank of general in three different armies: Texas, the United States and the Confederate States. Born in Kentucky, Johnston lived most of his early life in Texas. He graduated from West Point in 1826, 8 out of 41 cadets. Resigning his commission in 1834, he returned to Texas after his wife died of tuberculosis.

In Texas, Johnston farmed but in 1836 joined the Texas Army of Independence. By January 1837, he was promoted to brigadier general. After an unsuccessful duel with another general, he resigned from the army but the second president of Texas named him Secretary of War in December 1838. Johnston resigned in 1840 but rejoined the Texas Army during the Mexican War.

After the war, Johnston stayed in the United States Army until the start of the Civil War when he resigned once again. He was appointed the second highest ranking Confederate general (after the little-known Samuel Cooper) as commander of the Western Department.

Johnston raised the Army of Mississippi to defend the western region of the Confederacy. His command stretched from the Mississippi River to the Allegheny Mountains. Before the Battle of Shiloh, General P.G.T. Beauregard was sent west to assist Johnston.Johnston had concentrated his army of 44,700 men to the south of the Union camps at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.

Johnston’s Army of Mississippi was formed into four corps. The First Corps under Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, had two divisions under Brig. Gen. Charles Clark and Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham. The Second Corps under Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg, had two divisions under Brig. Gens. Daniel Ruggles and Jones M. Withers.

The Third Corps under Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee, had three brigades under Brig. Gens. Thomas C. HindmanPatrick Cleburne, and Sterling A. M. Wood. The Fourth Corps under Brig. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, was his reserve force, with three brigades under Cols. Robert Trabue and Winfield S. Statham, and Brig. Gen.John S. Bowen, and attached cavalry.

Grant’s Army of the Tennessee had 48,894 men in six divisions, led by Maj. Gens. John A. McClernand and Lew Wallace, and Brig. Gens. W. H. L. General Ulysses GrantWallace (replacing Charles Ferguson Smith, disabled by a leg injury),Stephen A. HurlbutWilliam T. Sherman, and Benjamin M. Prentiss. The divisions were camped on the western side of the Tennessee River. Grant had developed a lack of concern for the enemy’s plans. He was more concerned with his own plans.

His army was spread out in bivouac style, many around the small log church named Shiloh (the Hebrew word that means “place of peace”). They spent their time for Buell’s Army of the Ohio, with drills for his many raw troops, without entrenchments or other awareness of defensive measures.

Sherman, for example, believed that Johnston’s Confederates were in the Corinth, Mississippi area, right up until the time that they almost overwhelmed his division.

On the eve of battle, April 5, the first of Buell’s divisions, under the command of Brig. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, reached Savannah, Tennessee.  Grant instructed him to encamp there rather than cross the river immediately. The rest of Buell’s army was still marching toward Savannah.

Only portions of four of his divisions, totaling 17,918 men, would reach the area in time to have any role in the battle, almost entirely on the second day. The other three divisions were led by Brig. Gens. Alexander M. McCookThomas L. Crittenden, and Thomas J. Wood, but Wood’s division appeared too late even to be of much service on the second day.

The Confederate troops had very little combat experience and many were poorly armed with antique weapons, including shotguns, hunting rifles, pistols, flintlock muskets, and even a few pikes. However, two of their regiments did have Enfield rifles.

At least half of Grant’s army, 32 out of 62 infantry regiments, were combat veterans of the fight at Fort Donelson. At least half of his artillery batteries and almost all of his cavalry had similar experience. This experience would be very important in the first hours of the Battle of Shiloh when the Confederates caught them by surprise.







“Unconditional Surrender” Grant and the Capture of Fort Donelson-Part 1

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series The Western Theater Part One



Grant and the

Capture of

Fort Donelson-Part 1

After the abrupt surrender of Fort Henry, it was Ulysses Grant’s intention to move quickly across the short, 11-mile space between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and take Fort Donelson. While Fort Henry was a relatively easy objective, the capture of Fort Donelson would prove to be a harder nut to crack due to a number of reasons.

Fort Donelson was sited on high ground at a bend of the Cumberland River. The Confederates had built entrenchments and fortifications in a wide arc that stretched almost 2 1/2 miles and not only included the fort but also the town of Dover. Within the defensive works were between 20,000 and 25,000 Confederates. There is a wide variance in their numbers due to the circumstances surrounding the surrender. In addition, some 2,500 men who had escaped from Fort Henry before its surrender had marched over the 11 mile distance and joined the Fort Donelson garrison.

Map of Fort Henry to Fort DonelsonWith the capture of Fort Henry, the Union penetration posed a serious problem for the Confederate forces in Tennessee. They were interposed between the two wings of General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Mississippi: General P.G.T. Beauregard’s 12,000 men at Columbus, Kentucky and Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee’s 22,000 men at Bowling Green.

After the surrender of Fort Henry, Grant’s nascent Army of the Tennessee had about 20,000 men. During the course of the next 10 days, they were to receive a constant stream of new units. Grant’s original plan was to move quickly across the narrow space and surprise the Confederates. It was not to be. Poor winter weather which created terrible road conditions forced the Union Army to sit in place around Fort Henry from February 6th until the morning of February 12th.

Grant had divided his army into two divisions. The First Division was under the command of Brig. Gen. John McClernand, a so-called political general and a Democrat, who was constantly singing his own praises to anyone who would listen. He was looking to take Grant’s job and Grant knew it.

The Second Division was commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith who was a West Pointer and a highly respected officer of the “Old Army”. Despite being senior to Grant, he supported his young commander loyally.

Initially, Grant had decided to leave Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace and his brigade behind at Fort Henry as an occupation force. Wallace protested this Fort Donelson Area Maporder vigorously and after the initial assaults, Grant brought Wallace’s brigade up and built the Third Division around it.

Back at St. Louis, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, the head of the Department of the Missouri and Grant’s superior, was fretful as usual. However, Grant never received his hectoring telegrams because of a disloyal telegraph operator in Cairo. This individual simply chose not to send any messages between the two men. While Halleck wondered nervously why Grant wasn’t responding to his inquiries, Grant thought that Halleck approved of his advance.

The operator thought that he was helping the Confederacy but his actions actually allowed Grant a free hand to move without Halleck’s timid tactical approach. Halleck, upset at Grant’s supposed ignoring of his orders, sought to get rid of Grant. He asked Gen. Don Carlos Buell, the neighboring department commander, to take over command of the operation. Buell ignored Halleck.

Arriving at the Fort Donelson outskirts, the initial Union forces dispersed the Confederate pickets and settled down for the night. Grant placed Smith’s Division on the left and McClernand’s on the right. Confederate prisoners revealed that Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd and a brigade had reinforced the garrison. Based on seniority, Floyd, the former Secretary of War under President James Buchanan, was now in command of the garrison.

Upon hearing from the prisoners that he was outnumbered by at least 5,000 men, Grant ordered Wallace’s brigade forward. By the morning of February 14th, the brigade was on the road.

General John B. FloydThroughout the 13th, lively skirmishing continued all along the opposing lines. Grant’s forces were stretched thin, trying to cover the entire long line. At either end of the positions, there were flooded backwaters and Grant was hard-pressed to fill his lines to these.

Grant gave both division commanders orders not to bring on a general engagement but both men ignored him. Both generals had been spoiling for a fight since the Navy’s triumph at Fort Henry.

The initial offender was Smith who launched two of his three brigades against the Confederate fortifications at about 10:00 AM. The Union troops advanced over rough country thick with trees and abatis fortifications. The field commanders realizing that a frontal assault was suicidal, ordered their men to take cover and fire from these positions. After two hours of crouching behind trees, they withdrew after sustaining over 100 casualties.

At about noon, McClernand, after an artillery bombardment, decided to seize one of the enemy redans opposite his lines. He ordered his two-regiment Third Brigade, reinforced by a third regiment, forward. The approach was over similar ground as Smith’s men encountered and after a fight that was reported to have lasted from 15 minutes to an hour, the Union assault faltered. Sending in a fourth regiment didn’t improve the situation and after sustaining 147 casualties, McClernand call off the attack.

That same afternoon Flag Officer Andrew Foote’s flotilla and the waterborne reinforcements arrived. Grant laid out a plan of attack for the following day. The gunboats would steam to a position off Dover and commence a bombardment of the Confederate positions on the Union right, blocking any enemy escape. McClernand would assault the Confederate lines on the right while Smith and Wallace would fix the remaining Confederates in place. The entire operation was to commence at 2:00 PM.

However, no plan survives contact with the enemy, which in this case was the weather. A cold front moved in with ice and snow. The Union troops were simply not prepared for the extreme temperatures that night. By morning, the men were exhausted from a long night without sleep or the warmth of fires, which Grant had forbidden so the enemy couldn’t target his troops.

At 3:00 PM Foote and his four gunboats commenced firing on the Confederate positions. But this was not Fort Henry. Fort Donelson was better sited and after a furious fight the Union gunboats withdrew after suffering heavy damage and sustaining serious casualties, including the injured Foote.

Meanwhile, Lew Wallace’s Brigade had arrived and joined Smith’s Second Division. Wallace was placed in command of the new Third Division which included all of the newly arrived regiments. They were placed between the two existing divisions at the center of the line.

The weather that night was as bad as the previous night with rain, sleet and slow, accompanied by extremely low temperatures. Unlike the previous night, the officers did a better job of keeping their men warm by rotating them out of the line to rear areas where campfires warmed them.

Part Two will complete this extraordinary battle which set the tone for all of Ulysses Grant’s subsequent career.



The Battle of New Market

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Lynchburg Campaign (May-June 1864)

The Battle of New Market

The Battle of New Market took place on May 15, 1864. New Market, Virginia was a small market crossroads in the central Shenandoah Valley. By this time in the war the South was reeling from a number of shattering defeats. On the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains Ulysses S. Grant’s armies were relentlessly pursuing Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

New Market was distinguished by the charge of the cadets from Virginia Military Institute. The Confederate forces, led by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, were small in numbers with between 4,000 and 4,500 men. Breckenridge needed as many men (or boys) that Gen John C. Breckenridgehe could collect so he asked the Commandant at VMI to dispatch the Cadet Corps to join his army. The cadets marched some 81 miles in four days to join the Confederate forces on the eve of the battle. The Corps was led by 24-year old Col. Scott Shipp and consisted of 257 cadets, some as young as 15 years of age. Breckenridge intended to use the cadets as a reserve force behind his main line.

The Federal force was led by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel who commanded a total force of 6,500 at New Market. Grant’s original intent was to have Sigel draw off Confederate forces from Lee’s army in central Virginia by threatening the Confederate breadbasket of the Valley. Sigel was a politician who even Gen Franz Sigelthough he was only in this country for ten years was a favorite of Lincoln’s because he could deliver votes from the German immigrant community for President Lincoln in the upcoming election.

Opposing him was Breckenridge, a Kentuckian, who had been the youngest Vice President of the United States under James Buchanan and came in second (of four) against Lincoln in the 1860 Presidential election. He also served in the House and the Senate. Breckenridge led Kentucky’s “Orphan Brigade”, a unit that could never go home since their state had remained in the Union. Breckenridge had been a commander in the Western Theater who had distinguished himself on the field of battle. He turned out that the politician was a fair commander, too. An antipathy between Braxton Bragg, the Army of Tennessee commander, and Breckenridge led to his transfer to the Eastern Theater where he was put in charge of Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley.

Sigel’s forces began their march down the Valley in early May 1864. Breckenridge began to collect his forces at Staunton, some 35 miles south of New Market. Breckenridge moved his forces north with the intention of bringing the Federal forces to battle. They met at New Market on May 15th in a drenching rain. The Confederate infantry brushed aside Federal skirmishers about a mile south of the Jacob Bushong Farm. They engaged the main Federal force with rifle and cannon fire about a mile north of the farm. The Federals using double grape and canister (essentially the cannons acted like giant shotguns) tore huge holes in the Confederate lines. At this point Breckenridge was forced to use the Cadets to plug a huge gap in his line. “Put the boys in,” Breckinridge ordered, “and may God forgive me for the order …” Col. Shipp ordered his Cadet Corps to advance. They split their force as they went to either side of the Bushong Farm, two companies to the east and two to the west. The fire was intense and cadets began to fall. They took cover to protect themselves, behind anything that would shield them from the enemy’s fire, tree stumps, rail fences, trees.

Sigel, realizing that the Confederates were disorganized, ordered a counterattack. It lurched forward and was ineffective. The counterattack failed and Sigel ordered his artillery to withdraw. The reduction of the Federal artillery fire encouraged Breckenridge. He ordered his infantry to advance against the Federal line. They moved across a rain-soaked wheat field that was later renamed the Field of Lost Shoes by one of the cadets. Many of the soldiers and cadets had the shoes literally sucked off their feet by the thick mud. VMI Cadets with FlagThe Federal line broke under the pressure and the Confederates swept over the position. General Sigel ordered his forces to retreat to Strasburg. An artillery battery commanded by Captain Henry A. DuPont covered the Federal retreat. Captain DuPont was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864.  On May 15th he simply saved his comrades from utter defeat.

The Battle of New Market was a small battle based on the slightly under 11,000 total soldiers engaged. Casualties totaled 1,380 total (840 Federals, 540 Confederates) killed, wounded, captured. The VMI Cadet Corps lost 10 killed, 45 wounded; a 23% casualty rate. The next month the Federals got their revenge on VMI by burning the school to the ground. It would not reopen until 1866 and it would take five years to recover.

Franz Sigel was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter as commander of the Army of the Shenandoah and the Department of West Virginia on May 21, 1864. Grant ordered Hunter to employ scorched earth tactics similar to those that would be used later in that year during Sherman’s March to the Sea; he was to move through Staunton to Charlottesville and Lynchburg, “living off the country” and destroying the Virginia Central Railroad “beyond possibility of repair for weeks.”


The Battle of Cold Harbor

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

The Battle of Cold Harbor

The Battle of Cold Harbor was Ulysses S. Grant’s worst tactical defeat of the entire Civil War. If he reported the actual casualties, Lincoln quite possibly might have removed him from command.

Cold Harbor was a strange name for a location that had no water near it. Apparently, it was adopted by the early settlers of Virginia who named it after a small village in Surrey. The original name meant a shelter for travelers. In June 1864 it was to be nothing of the kind.

Battle of Cold Harbor, June 1, 1864Cold Harbor was a dusty crossroads to the east of Mechanicsville. This crossroads was vital for both sides to control. If the Confederates controlled it, they would control the main east-west road that Grant needed to use should he decide to cross the James River. It also was the principal route to Grant’s supply base at White House. Both sides needed to hold Cold Harbor and the surrounding area.

Initially, the Confederate cavalry of Fitzhugh Lee (Robert E. Lee’s nephew) and the infantry of General Robert Hoke held this vital crossroads. On the evening of May 31, 1864 these forces were driven from their positions by a combined force of Federal cavalry and infantry under the command of General Philip Sheridan.

At the same time Lee was notified by General Richard Anderson that his corps was a mile north of Cold Harbor and was prepared to attack the Federal position. Lee saw an opportunity to crush the enemy. He planned on Hoke’s division of three, possibly four brigades to attack the next morning at first light.

Meanwhile, Grant realized the importance of this obscure crossroads and ordered Sheridan (who wished to fall back) to hold it “at all hazards”. Grant ordered Horatio Wright to make a night march to reinforce Sheridan’s force. The Federal cavalry spent a harrowing night, worrying about the Confederates while reinforcing their positions.

Sheridan’s men blocked the three roads that came into Cold Harbor: north, west and south. As they worked they could hear the Confederate officers giving their men orders and making preparations for their morning attack.

Sheridan’s force was outnumbered 12,000 to 6,500, an almost 2-to-1 advantage for the Confederates. The Confederate attack began after 5:00 AM when a brigade from Joseph Kershaw’s Division of Anderson’s Corps pushed forward in a reconnaissance-in-force. They ran into a buzzsaw of massed fire from the Spencer repeating rifles of 600 Federal cavalrymen. The leading Confederate officer, Colonel Lawrence Keitt of the 20th South Carolina, was killed in the first volley. His inexperienced regiment lasted perhaps five minutes before it broke and fled. The attack was over before Hoke’s men, on the right, realized that it had begun.

The second Confederate attack began before 10:00 AM and suffered a similar fate. Meanwhile, Horatio Wright’s Corps had begun to arrive and relieved Sheridan’s force by about 10:00 AM.

Richard Anderson who had seen his forces repulsed twice had moved into defensive mode. His battle line fell back to the west and began to entrench.

By mid-afternoon, William “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps began to take positions to the right of Horatio Wright. At 3:30 PM Grant ordered Winfield Scott Hancock to move his corps to Wright’s left.

Meade suggested to Grant that the Federals should attack that very evening in order to get positions closer to the Confederate lines. Grant agreed and orders were sent to Wright and Smith to attack along their fronts.

At about 5:00 PM Smith ordered two of his divisions forward. It was a long way to the Confederate lines over open fields against a fortified position. There was a second line of Confederate fortifications beyond the first. The Federals took the first line and captured about 250 prisoners but were stopped by the second line. They retreated to the initial Confederate position.

The Battle of Cold HarborAt this point Wright sent in two full divisions and part of a third. The position that they were attacking was heavily fortified and had abates in front. This slowed down the attacking force and the Confederates met them with massed volleys.

With their colonel killed the lead regiment, the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, was near panic. They were a converted artillery unit and this was their first fight. Emory Upton, the division commander, appeared on the scene a organized them into a defensive line. Displaying the courage made famous at Spotsylvania, Upton calmly stood behind a tree firing his rifles at the enemy, while he rallied his men.

As the Confederates were repulsing the attack of the Connecticut troops, other Federals had funneled through a gulley on their left. They fired on the Confederates from their rear and their left. Hoke’s men were captured and their line came into Federal hands. The neighboring brigade was also fired on from the rear and they too fell back.

Anderson saved the day for the Confederates by promptly sending in two of his brigades in the counterattack. They fought on into the dark until they pushed the Federals out of almost all that they lost but their lines were in very bad shape, according to one soldier.

By 10:00 PM the firing died away and Upton counted up his losses. The 2nd Connecticut had a total of 386 killed, wounded and missing. Overall, the VI Corps was estimated to have losses of 1,200 killed or wounded; the XVIII Corps had about 1,000 killed or wounded.

Anderson reported to Lee that he needed reinforcements. Lee had already ordered Breckinridge’s force from the Shenandoah Valley to strengthen the Confederate line.

Grant designated Hancock’s Corps to attack on June 2nd. They had only just arrived on the field and were exhausted from their long march. Realizing the state of Hancock’s men the attack was postponed until 4:30 AM June 3rd.

By the afternoon of the 2nd, Breckinridge’s men moved into position on Hoke’s right. Lee also ordered two divisions to extend Breckinridge’s line to the Chickahominy River.

Lee ordered actions on both ends of his line in the afternoon. Confederate forces at the southern end of the line assaulted and captured a slightlyBattle of Cold Harbor June 3 elevated spot known as Turkey Hill. At about the same time Jubal Early’s Corps attacked the Federal forward positions. They were repulsed when they reached the main line.

“Baldy” Smith had concerns about Grant’s plan of attack that called for a massive three corps wide assault. He called said that it “was simply an order to slaughter his best troops.”

At dawn on June 3rd the Federal attack commenced. Gibbons Division of the II Corps was slated to attack in two waves of two brigades each.

At 4:30 AM the Federal artillery began a general cannonade that was immediately returned by the Confederates. The cannonade was so loud that it could be heard in Richmond 12 miles away.

At 4:40 AM the first waves of the attack commenced. The men of Francis Barlow’s Division of the II Corps enjoyed immediate success. They captured the rifle pits and a number of troops. The rest withdrew to the rear in confusion.

However, Gibbon’s men ran into problems immediately, running into a deep swamp. The swamp acted like a wedge and split his force. Half of them immediately ran into heavy rifle fire from the Confederate line. The other half became stalled in a deep ravine close to the enemy line. Between the two obstacles, Gibbon’s attack was completely disrupted.

The VI Corps’ attack was stopped almost immediately with a great deal of casualties.

The XVIII Corps in the center of the attack ran right into an artillery position where the Confederate Colonel, William Oates, ordered rounds of double canister to be fired into them. A Massachusetts soldier who was watching from the reserve position said, “So intense was the fire that the division in front seemed to melt away like snow falling on moist ground.” In less than 10 minutes an entire Federal brigade ceased to exist as a cohesive fighting unit.

The second wave of Barlow’s Division was mercilessly flayed by concentrated rifle fire when they attempted to attacked the Confederate second line. As they tried to retreat to the captured Confederate rifle pits they sustained even more casualties. Some of the green troops retreated back to their starting point.

Cold Harbor Breastworks 1864Gibbon’s two brigades were ripped by terrific rifle fire. They too sustained heavy casualties. The colonel of the 36th Wisconsin received a mortal wound and Colonel Frank Haskell of Gettysburg fame took command of the unit. To preserve his men he ordered them to lie down. As they were carrying out his orders he was hit in the head and killed instantly.

The second wave of the VI Corps attacked with the reserve division of Brigadier General Thomas Neill. Neill’s men fell in heaps from the terrific volume of rifle fire that they received.

The second wave of the XVIII Corps under the personal command attempted to force the Confederate line. Again, the high volume of Confederate fire caused massive casualties to the point where Smith sent a message to General Meade that he had no hope of carrying the enemy works without the neighboring VI Corps helping him on the flanks. Horatio Wright sent a similar message with much the same import.

By 8:00 Am the Federals were entrenching all along the line. When ordered to attack again, the Federal troops remained in their rifle pits and behind their entrenchments.

By 1:30 PM the orders were sent that all further offensive operations were suspended.

The Federal losses for June 3rd have been estimated at over 5,000. Total Confederate losses were 4,595 (83 killed, 3,380 wounded, 1,132 captured or missing) for the entire battle. Total Federal losses for the entire battle of Cold Harbor were 12,737 (1,844 killed, 9,077 wounded, 1,816 captured or missing), an almost unbelievable imbalance.


The Battle of Spotsylvania (Part 4): The Final Maneuvers

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

The Battle of


(Part 4): The Final


The Battle of Spotsylvania lasted a relatively long time, almost two weeks. During that time there was the bloodiest combat of the war interspersed with days of relative quiet. The second half of this extended battle is an excellent example of this.

May 13, 1864

Sometime after 2:00 AM the new Confederate defensive line at the former Mule Shoe salient was completed and they began to disengage from the fight. The Federals did not hear them leave but when they peered over the breastworks they were empty.

At first it was thought that the Confederates were preparing to leave the field but it soon became apparent that they had only re-positioned their defensive line. The Federals spent the day caring for their wounded burying their dead.

Army of the Potomac StaffGrant sent a dispatch to Secretary Stanton reporting on the battle and proposing the promotion of George Meade. This last was over the objections of his staff. Grant explained to them that he was general of all of the armies not just the Army of the Potomac and he needed Meade in that position.

Lee had serious problems with his upper command structure. A number of general officers had been killed, captured or were seriously wounded. A.P. Hill was incapacitated. All needed to be replaced.

The butcher’s bill for the bloody fighting of May 12th added up to 6,820 men killed, wounded or missing on the Federal side. Many of the dead were not identified. The Battle of Spotsylvania was a truly bloody affair.

Meanwhile, in Richmond the funeral of J.E.B. Stuart was held at St. James Episcopal Church. Many members of the Confederate government attended, including President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. As the service was celebrated Federal cannon could be heard in the distance. Stuart was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

In the evening Meade issued orders to reorient the Army of the Potomac. By the time this maneuver was completed the entire Federal line was to move from the original semi-circular position north of Spotsylvania to a line roughly north to south and east of the town.

With the repositioning orders came an order to attack. Hancock and Burnside were ordered to prepare for an attack at 4:00 AM on their respective fronts. At 4:00 AM only parts of Warren’s Corps were in their new positions. The roads were a muddy mess and troops had gotten lost in the dark.

May 14, 1864

In the light of day the Confederate command began to realize that the Federals were no longer to their front. General Richard Ewell reported to Lee, “The enemy isMay 13 Map making movements here which are not yet fully understood. He seems to be extending to our right”.

Lee began to reorganize his army. Edward Johnson’s division was wrecked and only fragments remained. There were barely enough left of his four brigades to make one undersize brigade. They were joined to John Gordon’s Division.

There was skirmishing over some high ground east of Spotsylvania. The Federals took it in the morning but by the late afternoon the Confederates regained the high ground.

May 15, 1864

On this day Lee responded to the enemy’s shift of forces by twisting his own army to match them. No serious fighting occurred.

May 16, 1864

General Philip Sheridan reported on his expedition to the east of Spotsylvania. They had moved to the east then to the south, reaching the gates of Richmond. His cavalry had liberated a column of Federal prisoners who were on their way to captivity. On May 11th they fought a cavalry battle near Yellow Tavern. It was here that General J.E.B. Stuart was shot and mortally wounded by John Huff, a Michigan cavalryman. They then moved south and moved under the protective guns of Ben Butler’s Army of the James.

May 17, 1864

May 17 MapOrders went out from headquarters directing Hancock, Wright and Burnside to attack the enemy positions on the left on the morning of the 18th. They were to assault in the area of the Mule Shoe, now called Hell’s Half-Acre. Warren’s artillery formations were ordered to support this attack and his infantry was told to prepare for the offensive.

May 18, 1864

The Federal attack began at just after sunrise. The new Confederate position was screened by a heavy line of abatis and 29 cannon were emplaced there. The Federal attack never had a chance. At 10:00 AM Meade ordered the assault to stop. Grant and Meade observed the assault from a nearby artillery position.

Upon returning to his headquarters Grant was informed of Federal setbacks at New Market, Drewry’s Bluff on the east side of Richmond and in Louisiana. Grant took immediate action: Franz Sigel, commander in the Valley, was relieved as was Nathaniel Banks in Louisiana. Butler who had powerful political connections was left alone for the moment.

Grant proposed to set a trap for Lee by using Hancock’s Corps as bait. He was ordered to move out ahead of the army and march to the east toward the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, then turn south to Milford Station. This would place him on Lee’s flank and rear. Grant was betting that Lee would not pass up what seemed like a golden opportunity to destroy a Federal corps.

May 19, 1864

Throughout the night the Federal army maneuvered around Lee’s flank and east of Spotsylvania. Fresh regiments of troops had been brought down from Washington to reinforce the exhausted Army of the Potomac. Most of the troops were so-called guard units, untested in combat.

Grant had proposed to send his army around Lee’s right flank and then south. Lee suspected that this would be the case and ordered Ewell to push his troops forward to test the Federal strength on his front. At this point Ewell’s Corps had been cut in half from 12,000 to about 6,000. Rather than send a smaller reconnaissance force, Ewell decided to take his entire corps. The infantry was accompanied by two brigades of Wade Hampton’s cavalry. Almost immediately Ewell’s artillery commander reported that the cannon were unable to cross the muddy Ny River. After some thought Ewell decided to continue the advance. Facing his men were the men of one New York Heavy Artillery regiment who had been turned into infantrymen.

At 4:00 PM the two opposing armies met and heavy infantry firing ensued. Help was soon on the way from the Federal camps. By 5:30 PM units from the V and II Corps were on their way. Meanwhile, the New Yorkers were being hard-pressed. By 6:00 Pm the first reinforcements had arrived at the scene. A second unit of Maryland infantry was marching by and joined the fight.

Stephen Ramseur and his North Carolinians drove the advancing Federal line back, causing severe casualties to the enemy. Having gone too far, Ramseur found his force being overlapped on each flank. He retired and reformed his force about 200 yards back. Some of the Confederate formations retreated precipitously.

With the arrival of yet more Federal reinforcements the situation became very confusing and there were incidents of friendly fire.

With nightfall, the confederates disengaged and returned to their entrenchments around Spotsylvania. By 10:00 PM the fighting had stopped. Ewell had lost some 900 men while the Federal casualties were reported at 1,535 killed, wounded or missing.

With Ewell’s reconnaissance in force, Grant adjusted his trap by positioning Hancock’s force closer tio the rest of the army.

At Salem Church a small action took place that couldn’t be called anything more than a skirmish. Yet, in terms of significance it was to be much larger. In one of the first actions of United States Colored Troops, they turned back the enemy and rescued a captured wagon train. Word spread throughout the army that they had given a good account of themselves.

May 20, 1864

The Battle of Spotsylvania began to peter out and mail was distributed to the Federal soldiers. Meanwhile, Hancock’s Corps set out south at about 11:00 PM, destination unknown.

May 21, 1864

Confederate dead from Ewell's CorpsOrders had been given to all of the Federal Corps to move south. Lee received reports that the Federals were heading toward Hanover Junction. Without taking Grant’s bait, he moved his forces to a new blocking position along the North Anna River.

 Counting the Cost

The Battle of Spotsylvania was one of the bloodiest in the latter part of the American Civil War. As the attacking force the Federal casualties were higher than the Confederates with a total of 18,399 with 2,725 killed, 13,416 wounded and 2,258 captured or missing. The Confederates suffered 13,421 casualties with 1,467 killed, 6,235 wounded and 5,719 captured or missing.

The Federals were able to replace their losses from the Battle of Spotsylvania. The Confederates had less manpower resources and there were never enough reinforcements for Lee’s beleaguered army.


The Battle of North Anna

This entry is part 9 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

The Battle of

North Anna

After Spotsylvania the Confederates moved south to protect Hanover Junction. This key rail  town was at the junction of the Virginia Central Railroad and the Fredericksburg, Richmond & Potomac Railroad. Lee was determined not to lose it. He therefore made plans to defend the North and South Anna River crossings.

By May 22, 1864 Lee had established his headquarters at Hanover Junction. Grant, meanwhile, had steadily moved south with the Army of the Potomac. Lee ordered Richard Anderson to place his corps on the south side of the North Anna River about 2 miles directly north of Hanover Junction.

Battle of North AnnaThe strain of the campaign was beginning to show on the Confederate commanders and soldiers alike. Men observed that Lee “looked very worn and troubled”. He was overheard chastising Jubal Early who constantly tried to modify his orders.

Grant was concerned that Ben Butler’s Army of the James was not diverting enough Confederate troops from Lee’s forces. The manpower balance was slipping out of his favor. Butler had been sealed off in the Bermuda Hundred peninsula by a relatively small force of Confederates. Grant ordered Butler to detach as many troops as possible under the command of General William F. “Baldy” Smith and send them to the Army of the Potomac.

By May 23, 1864 Lee reported to Jefferson Davis that his troops were all in positions south of the North Anna River. General John Breckinridge’s force from the Shenandoah Valley was positioned around Hanover Court House. In a separate communication Lee urged General P.G.T. Beauregard to bring as many of his troops as possible north to reinforce him.

Winfield Hancock’s Corps came down Telegraph Road and took up positions on the Federal left in the east. Ambrose Burnside moved to Hancock’s right. Governeur Warren’s Corps moved to the west opposite A.P. Hill’s Corps with Horatio Wright’s Corps supporting him.

Jericho Mills

Around 1:00 PM Warren’s forces began to cross the North Anna River at a ford near Jericho Mills. As they expanded their bridgehead, Confederate troops were arriving by train and wagons to reinforce their blocking positions. The Federal troops began to construct fortifications. The engineers were constructing a pontoon bridge so that the artillery could be brought across the river. Warren reinforced the two brigades that were digging in with Samuel Crawford’s Division.

As soon as the pontoon bridge was complete, V Corps artillery chief Charles Wainwright or six batteries with four guns each across. More Federal troops crossed after the cannon filling in the incomplete defensive semi-circle.

At about 6:00 PM the Confederates attacked with the four brigades of Cadmus Wilcox’s division. The Federal right collapsed in confusion. In between the forces a herd of cows wandered across the battlefield, adding to the dust and noise of battle. The Federal brigade scattered in panic. TheNorth Anna River fortifications panic was contagious and spread to two neighboring brigades.  The soldiers retreated precipitously back to the river.

As the Georgians of General Edward Thomas’ brigade raced after the fleeing Union troops they were staggered by gunfire from stubborn defenders.  The Georgians were routed and fled in disarray. Charles Griffin’s Division in the Federal center bent but held. The rest of the Federal line also held firm. All along the line the Confederates were losing steam and without fresh troops were unable to continue the assault.

In the face of the Confederate assault Charles Wainwright’s artillery was the rock upon which the Federal line was built around. The brave Union gunners blasted the Confederates with grape and canister. Wainwright had two additional batteries moved into the forward position to reinforce the batteries that were already there. The Federal gunners took tremendous casualties. Before the Confederates could rush the guns, a Federal counterattack came from the right. The Confederate attack fell apart and they retreated in haste.

The Battle of Jericho Mills by most accounts had lasted about two hours. Southern losses were estimated at between 650 and 700; Federal losses were about 370. There was much finger pointing on the Southern side with much of the blame laid at the feet of Corps Commander A.P. Hill. Lee agreed with the assessment telling Hill the next day, “Why did you not do as Jackson would have done-thrown your whole force upon those people and driven them back?” The answer was simple: there was only one Stonewall Jackson and he was dead a year. Lee was never able to replace him.

Chesterfield Bridge

On the morning of May 24, 1864, Hancock started to send his corps across the Chesterfield Bridge. After successfully burning the railroad trestle the Confederates were unable to destroy the vehicular span. The crossing was lightly opposed and by midmorning Hancock had several brigades established on the south bank.

Grant was so confident that Lee’s army was retreating that he wired Halleck that the enemy was retreating and that he was in pursuit. He also suspended the transfer of “Baldy” Smith’s Corps to the Army of the Potomac.

During the night Horatio Wright’s Corps had come across the pontoon bridge at Jericho Mills and settled down. Warren’s skirmishers had pushed out to Noel’s Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. When they reached it they began to build earthworks. As they moved southeast down the rail line they ran into Confederate skirmishers who contested the ground stubbornly.

Only Burnside in the center was unable to cross at his selected location, Ox Ford. The Confederates were well-entrenched there so he was ordered to cross above and below the ford. Burnside was puzzled. If the Confederates were in full retreat, why were they holding to the center at Ox Ford?

As Hancock’s forces moved south along Telegraph Road they encountered increasing resistance. Burnside’s men were encountering the same type of resistance from strongly manned fortifications. Captured Confederates when questioned revealed that Hancock’s Corps was facing Ewell’s and Anderson’s Corps. Hancock realized that he was in an isolated position against an enemy that outnumbered him.

Lee had decided to coordinate what he hoped would be a crushing attack against Hancock himself. He felt that none of his three corps commanders was up to the task. At this critical juncture, Robert E. Lee’s body betrayed him. He was taken sick and lay prostrate in his tent. The orders for the attack were never given. The opportunity slipped away.

There were sporadic attacks by Federal forces along the front all day. By the evening Grant realized that Lee was not falling back to the South Anna River. He ordered Hancock to entrench; Burnside was to halt any further crossings of the North Anna River and Warren was to probe his front in the morning.

Grant also decided to end the unwieldy arrangement of the independence of Burnside’s IX Corps. They would now be part of the Army of the Potomac reporting to George Meade.

By midday on May 25th Grant had a complete picture of Lee’s defensive positions. It was shaped like a “U” anchored on the North Anna River at Ox Ford with one upright facing Warren in the west and one facing Hancock in the east. The western facing was about two miles, stretching from the ford to the Little River. The eastern facing was longer and ran southeast from Ox Ford to protect Hanover Junction, then south anchoring on swampy ground about a half mile away.

The Federal army was divided between the two sides of this giant salient and was unable to support each other. Grant decided not to attack in such a confined area and made plans for another flank march to his left. He ordered the wrecking of the railroads to prevent their use by the Confederates. Several miles of the Virginia Central were destroyed by Wright’s men. The rails were pried up, the wooden cross-ties were piled and set afire with the rails on top of the fires.

Lee moved his headquarters about three miles south to Taylorsville sometime during the day. He was still stricken and remained in bed.

After deciding to go to Lee’s left on the evening of the 25th Grant reversed his course and ordered a move to the Lee’s right. He reasoned that the initial plan would have forced his army to cross three rivers while the new plan would require crossing one river near Hanover Town. His army would also be closer to their supplies routes through the river ports.

Again the Federal high command posited that Lee’s army was “really whipped” not realizing the physical condition of the opposing general. By the 26th the disengagement of the Federal army had been accomplished.

The casualties of the Battle of North Anna were 1,973 killed or wounded for the Federals and a total of 1,251 killed, wounded or captured for the Confederates.


The Battle of Spotsylvania (Part 2): The Mule Shoe Salient

This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

The Battle of Spotsylvania

             (Part 2):

The Mule Shoe Salient

May 10, 1864

The Battle of Spotsylvania was a seesaw struggle where the military advantage changed from day to day, even hour to hour. Emory Upton’s assault on the Mule Shoe Salient was a major part of the struggle.

Winfield Scott Hancock was preparing to organize a flank attack when he received an order from Meade to transfer two of his divisions to Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps. Hancock was in control of the Shady Grove Road south and west of the Po River, giving him a path to the rear of Lee’s left flank. However, Grant was afraid that Hancock’s Corps was isolated from the rest of his army.

Hancock ordered David Birney and John Gibbon to cross back to the north side of the river and move in support of Warren. This left Francis Barlow’s Division isolated and the wrong side of the river. When Jubal Early attacked with Henry Heth’s Division, Meade decided to order Hancock to withdraw Barlow’s unit.

May 10 MapHancock and his staff created a withdrawal plan using three successive lines for Barlow to use. Under increasingly heavy Confederate fire Barlow’s men began to retreat. The fighting was bloody and at close quarters. The woods caught on fire adding to the confusion.  As the Confederates moved into the abandoned Federal trenches they poured a murderous fire into Barlow’s men. By early afternoon Barlow’s men were on the north side of the river having destroyed the bridges behind them.

In the morning Warren received a message from General Meade with the order for a combined attack of the VI and II Corps at 5:00 PM. To Warren’s disappointment Meade also informed him that Hancock would be in overall command of the operation due to his seniority.

Warren prepared his forces by first sending out scouts to reconnoiter the Confederate positions. Two regiments were ordered to occupy rifle-pits that covered the Confederate position. They did so but during their advance came under heavy Confederate fire.  An hour later two of Cutler’s regiments attempted an advance but were pinned down about 200 feet from the enemy main line. General Gibbon personally scouted his own front. He found it dense and nearly impassable. This opinion was not shared by General Warren or Meade’s headquarters.

General Hancock was still organizing Barlow’s withdrawal so Warren directed the attack on Laurel Hill.  A series of three assaults were made on Laurel Hill. The first took place at 4:00 PM and it was repulsed with heavy losses. The second attack started at 5:00 PM. Despite reaching the Confederate main line, it was also turned back with heavy losses. At this point Hancock arrived at the battle line. He ordered a full scale assault to start at 6:30 PM. This attack would include Birney’s Division in addition to Gibbon’s Division. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps was attacking and this assault was to support it.

The third assault failed as badly as the previous two with considerable losses. Hancock reported, “The troops encountered the same obstacles which had forced them to retire when they had assaulted this point at 5:00 PM. They were again repulsed with considerable loss”. A fourth assault was ordered but was called off at the last minute, to the great relief of the assault force. The second Battle of Laurel Hill was over with a loss of over 5,000 men. The confederates lost less than 1,000 defenders.

While the assaults of the combined VI and II Corps were taking place, Horatio Wright’s VI Corps was preparing for their own assault. Wright selected Colonel Emory Upton to lead the attack.

Emory UptonEmory Upton was several months shy of his 25th birthday when he was picked to lead the attack on the Confederate main line at a location nicknamed the Mule Shoe Salient. The young West Point-trained brigade commander had developed a new assault tactic. Up to now attacking units had used a wide battle line that slowly advanced, firing as they moved. This tactic caused heavy losses. By the time these units reached the enemy their offensive strength was sapped.

Rather than a wide battle line, Upton’s new assault tactic called for columns of massed infantry to swiftly attack the defensive positions of the enemy. On May 10th at about 6:10 PM Colonel Emory Upton led 12 regiments against the west face of the famous Mule Shoe salient.

The Mule Shoe salient was truly a formidable defensive position. It consisted of trenches, fronted by logs and dirt, with an abatis of felled trees.  The line had a series of right angles to prevent enfilade fire. To the front there was a killing ground of 200 yards with an open field of fire. Behind the main line there was a second defensive line, uncompleted but still formidable.

Upton divided his command into four battle lines of three regiments each. The first line would attack with their rifles loaded. Once they were in the enemy trench system, they would fan out right and left. The following regiments would advance with loaded rifles that were not yet capped, so that they couldn’t stop to fire. Once they reached the trench system they would await further orders.

Battle of Spotsylvania by Thure de ThulstrupThe attack against the Mule Shoe salient was preceded by a 9 minute artillery bombardment. Due to some delays the bombardment lasted until 6:10 PM. Upton personally led the assault. At 6:10 he gave the order, “Attention, battalions! Forward, double-quick! Charge!” After what seemed like hours to some soldiers, they were through the abatis, over a ditch and onto the breastworks. The blue wave poured over the fortification at the Mule Shoe salient while the men in gray retreated. The second line joined the first and opened the breach wider. The federals rushed forward and took the second line of defense.

Gershom Mott’s Division was assigned the task of supporting Upton’s left. The Federal troops lined up in a standard formation in preparation for their assault. Unfortunately, they were in full view of rows of Confederate cannon. Mott’s unit was torn to ribbons and fell back. Grant’s later verdict, “Mott failed utterly”.

This lack of support for Upton’s breakthrough at the Mule Shoe salient allowed the Confederates to attack the Federals in the salient on three sides. Upton realized that his position was untenable so after consulting with General David A. Russell, his division commander, he ordered a withdrawal. Upton reported losses of about 1,000 killed, wounded and missing. There were differences on Confederate losses. Upton claimed at least 100 Confederates killed and 1,000 to 1,200 captured. One Confederate brigade claimed their losses at 650 with 350 of those captured. A second brigade reported 225 enlisted men and 6 officers captured.

Grant immediately promoted Upton to Brigadier General and decided to adopt his tactics for future assaults. Grant was heard to say to Meade, “A brigade today-we’ll try a corps tomorrow”.

The final act of the day was an impromptu concert of the bands from both sides. The Confederates started with “Nearer My God to Thee”. The Union band followed with the “Dead March”. The Confederate band responded with the “Bonnie Blue Flag” and the Federals played “The Star-Spangled Banner”.  Finally, the Confederate closed out the musical interlude with “Home, Sweet Home”.

May 11, 1864

In the middle of a message that Grant sent to Lincoln and his Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, was Grant’s soon to be famous pronouncement, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer…”.

Lee, on the other hand, told two different conferences of generals that he believed the Federals were preparing to retreat in the direction of Fredericksburg. When Confederate scouts reported that the Federals appeared to be moving their artillery, Lee was convinced of a Federal retreat. Lee ordered the withdrawal of his own artillery. Incredibly, no one bothered to inform Edward Johnson, the Confederate commander of the Mule Shoe Salient.

Meanwhile, three divisions of Hancock’s Corp, Barlow’s, Birney’s and Gibbon’s Divisions, were moving in the dark. The movement was accomplished with a minimum amount of information and scant intelligence of the enemy positions they were ordered to assault.

Continued in Part 3



The Battle of the Wilderness (Days One and Two)

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

The Battle of the


(Days One and Two)

The Crossing: May 4th

The Battle of the Wilderness began with the crossing of the Rapidan River. In the early hours of May 4th the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan River according to Andrew Humphreys’ plan. Lee’s foresight in alerting the observers on Clark’s Mountain gave the Confederates advance warning of the crossings.

Wilderness MapBy mid-morning Hancock’s Corps had reached the old Chancellorsville battlefield and settled into their camps. According to one officer the area was strewn with the bones of both men and horses that had been hastily buried after that battle a year before.

By noon Warren’s V Corps began to arrive around the Wilderness Tavern and encamp. The units were exhausted. Some of them had been on the move for 12 hours.

By late morning elements of Richard Ewell’s Second Corp and A.P. Hill’s Corps had started to react to the Federal incursion. Down in Gordonsville about 40 miles to the south, James Longstreet had received orders from Lee to march his First Corps north. Longstreet made one suggested change from Lee’s orders. He proposed to take roads that would bring him along side of Hill’s Corps rather than behind him. Lee approved of this change. His soldiers began to march at 4:00 PM.

Meanwhile Ewell and Hill’s soldiers advanced on parallel roads. Hill’s Corps marched on the Orange Plank Road while Ewell’s were on the Orange Turnpike to their north. Robert E. Lee rode along with Hill’s Corps.

At Locust Grove in the late afternoon Federal cavalry scouting for James Wilson’s 3rd Cavalry Division narrowly missed spotting Ewell’s force and continued further south. Ewell’s men would camp this night at Locust Grove. They were miles closer to the Federal forces than anyone in the Federal command realized.

By 6:00 PM orders for the next day’s movement went out to the various commands. Hancock was to march southwest to Shady Grove Church. Warren was ordered to move from the Wilderness Tavern southwest to Parker’s Store. Sedgwick was to march from Germanna Ford to Wilderness Tavern. Finally, Burnside would take over the defense of the ford.

The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5th

In the early morning of May 5th it became apparent to Lee that Grant was neither moving east toward Fredericksburg nor west toward Min Run. Lee realized that he was heading south through the Wilderness. Lee felt that this would negate the advantage of his superiority in numbers. It was at this point that the Battle of the Wilderness began.

Hancock’s II Corps began their advance to Shady Grove Church at around 5:00 AM. He would not get there on this day.

Shortly after dawn the first firing began along the Orange Plank Road, the axis of advance for Warren. The 5th New York Cavalry was leading the advance and ran into skirmishers from the 47th North Carolina at the head of Hill’s column. The 500-men of the Federal cavalry unit were picked men armed with Spencer repeaters and pushed the Confederates back.

As in most engagements of this type reinforcements were brought forward as the engagement grew. The Confederate force began to overlap the Federal flanks. The New Yorkers made a fighting retreat as they waited for infantry support. By 8:00 AM elements of Warren’s V Corps had movedArmy of the Potomac Staff forward to reinforce the hard-pressed cavalry.

At this point the Confederate forces were separated by some 2 ¾ miles. Lee was anxious that the advance of Ewell and Hill be as synchronized as possible.

Hancock’s column was past Todd’s Tavern and well on its way to Shady Grove Church when a courier from Meade’s headquarters delivered a message to halt at Todd’s Tavern.

Meanwhile, over on the Orange Turnpike Warren continued to feed troops into the fight. The terrain on either side of the road was thick with undergrowth which made for hard going.

At about 10:00 AM Grant appeared at the front on the Orange Turnpike. Earlier Grant had ordered an attack against the Confederate forces but two hours later it had not been done. This confirmed his worst fears about the Army of the Potomac. He immediately ordered an attack by Charles Griffin’s Division. Sedgewick was to move his lead brigades into position on Griffin’s right. Grant realized that if his forces did not hold the vital intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank roads his army would be cut in two. The possibility of a defeat-in -detail would arise. Grant made a number of moves that essentially tried to tie his two wings together. Horace Porter, a member of Grant’s staff, observed that he then lit a cigar, sat down on a tree stump, took out his penknife and began to whittle.

Federal infantry from George Getty’s Division arrived at the intersection minutes before the Confederates and set up a line to protect the vital crossroads.

The Federal attack against Ewell’s forces along the Orange Turnpike was a bloody affair with horrendous casualties on both sides. Because of the thick undergrowth units could not maneuver properly. Many of the line officers were killed or severely wounded leaving the troops leaderless. Two New York regiments ceased to exist with their men killed, wounded or captured.

The woods in some areas became ignited by powder sparks and caught fire. Many of the cartridge boxes on dead and wounded troopers exploded adding to the horror.

By 2 PM Federal units at the Brock and Orange Plank roads intersection were being reinforced and had extended their defensive line on either side of the Orange Plank Road. The Federal soldiers erected light breastwork on the Brock Road. Meade ordered Hancock to attack down the Orange Plank Road. It seemed as if Meade thought that the II Corps was present in greater strength than it actually was.

All during the afternoon the Federal VI Corps reinforced Warren’s troops on the Orange Turnpike. Charles Griffin gradually pulled his men out of the line and reorganized them behind it.  As soon as Sedgewick felt that his troops were positioned properly they attacked the Confederates north of the Orange Turnpike. Soldiers remarked later that they did not see the enemy but fired by ear. The attempt was to no avail and was pushed back by sustained Confederate counterattacks.

Meade ordered George Getty’s Division to attack down the Orange Plank Road at about 3:25 PM. Despite misgivings Getty ordered the attack. Hancock had been ordered to position a division on each side of Getty’s force with two more divisions in reserve. Headquarters then began to micromanage the dispositions of Hancock’s Corps, ordering David Birney’s division to move from the left and reposition on the right while Gershon Mott’s division would move up and take its place in the front line. On good open ground this would have been challenging. In the dense undergrowth of the Wilderness it was courting disaster.

By this time Lee’s two wings had linked up. The two corps were now in the field were able to support each other.

Hancock’s worst fears came to pass. As Getty’s men moved forward in the dense undergrowth they were hit with relentless infantry fire. One North Carolinian called it “pure butchery”. The chaplain of 102nd Pennsylvania said the “thousands and thousands of Minnie balls” were fired at them. Due to the movement of the division on the left Getty’s flank unraveled. The regiments in the line were flanked one after the other. Some units were isolated and surrounded. Birney sent a brigade to attack the Confederate line, extricating a Vermont regiment. All of this fighting was taking place in the dense woods where men could only about 20 yards. The battle raged back and forth with fearful casualties on both sides. Streams of wounded men moved to the Federal rear while reinforcements and ammunition moved to the front line. Mott’s men moved to the attack but by then confusion reigned supreme. This was compounded by the incessant gunfire of the Confederates and the density of the woods.

As Mott’s units began to break, Hancock sent Gibbon’s unit to bolster his line. As the disorganized Federal soldiers fled from the woods onto the Brock Road, Hancock rallied them into an organized line. It was at this point in the battle that the body of Brigadier General Alexander Hays was carried from the woods by his men. He had been shot in the head while leading his troops on horseback. Hays and Grant had been at West Point together. It was now 5:00 PM.

Grant was not yet prepared to call it a day. Grant had sent Wadsworth’s division and a brigade from Robinson’s division to reinforce Hancock.

General James LongstreetMeanwhile, James Longstreet’s Corps was approaching the battle. By 5:00 PM they had marched 28 miles and were about 10 miles from the Orange Plank Road. At this point Longstreet had received orders to change the direction of his advance and “unite with the troops of the Third Corps on the Plank Road”. He was not reassured by this change.

As more troops on either side were fed into the battle the fighting intensified. Neither side was able to gain an advantage as attack after attack failed to break the opposing forces. Each side had brought up several artillery pieces and used them to fire down the narrow Plank Road. The exposed gunners on each side took fearful casualties and possession of the guns changed hands. However, by the fall of darkness all of the cannon were in the possession of their original owners.

Darkness brought a merciful end to the hellish combat and the troops on each side began to rest from the all-day combat. False alarms of night attacks continually roused the exhausted soldiers on each side.

The headquarters of both armies used the night to plan their tactics for the following day. At about 2:00 AM Longstreet’s Corps resumed their long march to the battle area. John Gordon’s Georgians were moved from the extreme right to the extreme left, where they rejoined their division. This move was to have a tremendous impact later. Meanwhile, the troops ate, rested and reorganized. In some place breastworks were reinforced. Ammunition was resupplied. Meade asked Grant for a delay in the morning attack from 4:30 AM until 6:00 AM due to the difficulty of the terrain and the exhaustion of the men. Grant modified his orders but only until 5:00 AM.


Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

From the beginning of the war Abraham Lincoln had searched for a military commander in the East. He was looking for a fighting general, one who had the ability to lead the Federal forces to victory in the East and end the war. It take him until March 1864 to find one: Ulysses S. Grant.

At first he appointed Irvin McDowell. McDowell was a professional soldier of no great ability. He led the Federal army to a crushing defeat at the First Bull Run (Manassas).

General George McClellanLincoln then replaced him with George B. McClellan who had served in western Virginia at the beginning of the war. He was a dashing, charismatic leader who forged the Army of the Potomac from the shattered fragments of McDowell’s army. However, McClellan was a perfectionist who did not wish to take his creation into battle under less than ideal conditions.

After a great deal of pressure McClellan embarked on a campaign to take Richmond. He embarked his massive force, moved them by water to Yorktown and marched them up the narrow Virginia Peninsula. After a number of battles, first against Joseph Johnston and then when he was wounded, against Robert E. Lee, McClellan forces where back where they began at Harrison’s Landing.

Rather than sacking McClellan Lincoln took the indirect approach and appointed a western general John Pope who was given the command of the Army of Virginia. Pope immediately blundered into a Confederate trap and was crushed at Second Bull Run. The Confederates then invaded Maryland.

Lincoln swallowed his pride and asked McClellan to resume complete command of the Army.  At Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland the Army of the Potomac fought what was to be the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. At Antietam McClellan was exposed as a timidBloody Lane at Antietam commander. Failing to use his overwhelmingly superior forces in a coordinated attack, he fed his forces into the battle piecemeal. The Confederates were able to blunt all of his assaults. He then compounded his mistakes and allowed the battered enemy to withdraw back to Virginia. Lincoln replaced McClellan for the final time.

He was replaced by Ambrose Burnside who in December 1862 tried to force the Confederate lines at Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. Showing his inability to improvise in the field Burnside persisted in frontal assaults on the main Confederate positions resulting in horrendous casualties. Burnside was replaced by debonair, self-promoting “Fighting Joe” Hooker.

Hooker proclaimed that his headquarters would be in the saddle. One newspaper said that Hooker had his headquarters in his hindquarters. At Chancellorsville Hooker was completely out-maneuvered and defeated by Robert E. Lee with a Confederate army half his army’s size. Lincoln was in complete despair saying: “My God! What will the country say?”

Hooker was replaced by George Gordon Meade in late June 1863 when Lee again led his Army of Northern Virginia on an invasion of the north. At Gettysburg Meade led the Federal army to victory in a three-day defensive battle. Like McClellan at Antietam, Meade failed to follow up his victory and the Confederates returned to the safety of Virginia to rest and refit. Lincoln again despaired for the Union.

That November Meade took his army on a half-hearted offensive that tried to force the Confederate entrenchments at Mine Run. The Army of the Potomac limped back to their encampments with nothing to show for it. Meade was not to answer Lincoln’s need for a fighting general.

Through all of the inept, timid commanders in the East one general in the West stood out as a commander who understood the need to destroy the General Ulysses S. Grantenemy’s army utterly: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was a West Point graduate who had served with some distinction in the Mexican War. After that war he had drifted into civilian life in St. Louis and Galena, Illinois where he worked at his father’s tannery.

At the onset of the war Grant recruited a company of volunteers and led them to Springfield. In the capitol he accepted a position from the governor to train troops. He was good at it but was anxious for a field command. At the end of August 1861 he was given the command of the District of Cairo. He was commanded to make an attack against Confederate forces at Belmont, Kentucky. In an amphibious assault he led 3,100 union troops against Fort Belmont on November 7, 1861. He initially held the fort but was forced to retreat by overwhelming force.

Grant then decided to work his way down the Mississippi River and capture Confederate water fortresses. The lightly manned Fort Henry fell on February 6, 1862. Fort Donelson was a different story. In cooperation with the Navy, his 25,000 man force took this fort ten days later. At Fort Donelson Grant coined what was to be his signature surrender demand:  “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender.” Lincoln promoted Grant to major general of volunteers.

By April the Federal army, known as the Army of the Tennessee, had increased to nearly 50,000 men. At Shiloh, Tennessee they fought a costly battle with Confederate forces number nearly 45,000. On the first day of the battle the Federal army was pushed back to the landing but on the second day Grant ordered a counterattack that defeated the Confederate force. The Confederate commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, was killed. Some 23,700 were killed or wounded at Shiloh making it the costliest battle of the war to date.

Grant was demoted by Henry Halleck to second-in-command of a combined 120,000 man army. It took the persuasions of his friend William T. Sherman to stop him from resigning his commission. Eventually, this massive force was broken up and Grant returned to his command of the Army of the Tennessee.

By December 1862 Grant was resolved to take the Confederate fortress city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi. At first he attempted an overland campaign that became stalled by Confederate cavalry attacks. After a series of unsuccessful river and bayou battles Grant changed his strategy andThe Mississippi River Squadron running the Confederate Blockade at Vicksburg moved his troops down the west side of the Mississippi. He then crossed over to the east side and attempted to take the city by storm. When that was unsuccessful he settled down for a seven week siege. Confederate commander John C. Pemberton surrendered on July 4, 1863.

With the fall of Vicksburg the Mississippi River was completely controlled by the Federal Army and Navy. The Confederacy was now cut in two. Lincoln gave Grant command of the entire Federal war front in the West with the exception of Louisiana.

Grant then commanded his combined armies in a series of battles in and around Chattanooga, Tennessee. These resulted in the eventual defeat of Confederate forces in this region. The decisive 1863 Chattanooga battle opened Georgia and the heartland of the Confederacy to Union invasion by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

Grant was promoted to Lieutenant-General, only the third man to hold that rank; George Washington and Winfield Scott being the other two. He was given complete command of all Federal armies in the field. Grant traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln and plan the next moves in the war. After realizing that eventual victory would need to come from the East he decided to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac.

In short order the country would come to learn more about the man that Lincoln had given the entire Federal army to. When some complainers spoke to Lincoln about rumors of Grant’s drinking, he exclaimed: “I can’t spare the man, he fights”.  Over the next year Grant’s armies would batter the Confederate forces on all fronts into utter defeat.