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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

THE BATTLES OF WILDERNESS & SPOTSYLVANIA

During the winter of 1863-1864, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia faced each other across the Rapidan River in central Virginia. The Union forces, commanded by Major General George G. Meade, were quartered around Culpeper Court House. The Confederates, led by General Robert B. Lee, were camped around Orange Court House. Clark's Mountain, a prominent ridge on the river's southern bank, served as a lookout station for the rebels. The conical tents of Meade's army were clearly visible on the fields below.

The spring of 1864 opened the Civil War's fourth year. In March, Ulysses S. Grant—hero of Vicksburg and Chattanooga—was elevated to the rank of lieutenant general and placed in command of all Union armies in hope that he would bring unity to the Federal war effort. Grant decided to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. He was to concentrate on general strategy while his army commanders—including Meade—managed their forces and tended to tactical matters.

Grant planned to attack Lee from three directions. First, the Army of the Potomac, augmented by Major General Ambrose F. Burnside's Ninth Corps, was to cross the Rapidan east of Lee, flanking the rebels out of their strong earthworks along the Rapidan. Once over the river, Meade was to swing west and engage Lee in battle. At the same time, a second army under Major General Benjamin Butler was to depart from its camps at Fort Monroe and advance up the James River toward Richmond. Grant hoped that Butler would either capture the Confederate capital or, if that proved impossible, wait for Meade. Finally, a third Federal army under Major General Franz Sigel was to advance south through the Shenandoah Valley, menacing Lee's left flank and disrupting his supplies.

Lee had no choice but to assume a defensive posture. Meade's and Burnside's juggernaut numbered some 120,000 men, compared to Lee's 65,000 soldiers. And while the Federal hosts were well provisioned and supplied, Lee's veterans labored under deficiencies in food, clothing, and weapons.

FROM HIS VANTAGE POINT AT CLARK'S MOUNTAIN, LEE WAS ABLE TO SEE THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC'S CAMPS ACROSS THE RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER. UNION ARMY HEADQUARTERS, SHOWN HERE, STOOD NEAR BRANDY STATION. (BL)

A TRAIN OF 4,300 WAGONS FOLLOWED THE UNION ARMY INTO THE WILDERNESS. IF PLACED END TO END, THE WAGONS WOULD HAVE STRETCHED A DISTANCE OF 60 MILES FROM THE RAPIDAN RIVER TO RICHMOND. (LC)

In order to meet Grant's expected onslaught, Lee left Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps and Lieutenant General Ambrose P. Hill's Third Corps behind earthworks along the Rapidan. Lieutenant General James Longstreet's First Corps meanwhile waited in the rear at Gordonsville, from where it could reinforce the Rapidan works or shift to Richmond, depending on how matters developed. Lee's cavalry under Major General James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart patrolled the countryside past the ends of the Rapidan line. It was Lee's hope that his scouts and cavalry would alert him in time to respond once Grant revealed his intentions.

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