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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

MAY 4: THE CAMPAIGN OPENS

Meade had the Army of the Potomac in motion well before daylight on May 4 to steal a march on Lee. The Federals advanced in two columns, each preceded by cavalry. One wing, consisting of Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's Fifth Corps and Major General John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps, crossed on pontoon bridges at Germanna Ford. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's Second Corps crossed a few miles east at Ely's Ford. By noon, Hancock's men were settling into camps at Chancellorsville. Warren's troops continued about five miles below the river to Wilderness Tavern, where Orange Turnpike struck Germanna Plank Road, and Sedgwick's corps occupied the road back to Germanna Ford.

Grant and Meade camped on a knoll near Wilderness Tavern. Nearby was Ellwood, home of the Lacy family, that served as Warren's headquarters. Grant expressed relief that the army had crossed the Rapidan without incident. He planned to continue his maneuver toward Lee the next morning, with Warren cutting over to Orange Plank Road and bivouacking near Parker's Store, Sedgwick occupying Warren's former camp at Wilderness Tavern, and Hancock proceeding west along Catharpin Road until he reached a point roughly south of Warren. The delay would give Burnside time to arrive. By noon, Grant expected to be drawn up in a line roughly north to south and oriented toward Lee.


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THE ARMIES MARCH INTO THE WILDERNESS, MAY 14
On May 4, the Army of the Potomac crosses the Rapidan River at Germanna and Ely's Fords, entering the area known as the Wilderness, leaving Burnside's Ninth Corps to guard the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Lee moves east to intercept Grant in the Wilderness, sending Ewell's corps down the Orange Turnpike and A. P. Hill's corps down the Orange Plank Road. Longstreet's corps, camped near Gordonsville, hastens toward the battlefield by way of Brock's Bridge.

Two miscalculations, however, marred Grant's plan. First, by halting early on May 4, the Union army was forced to camp overnight in the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. The area had been stripped of trees during colonial times and later to provide fuel for smelting operations, and by 1864, thick stands of second-growth forest blanketed the region. If Grant tried to fight there, he would lose many of his advantages. Artillery and cavalry were useless and infantry maneuvers virtually impossible. "This, viewed as a battle ground, was simply infernal," a Union staffer remarked. Meade, however, recommended spending the night in the Wilderness to give the army's wagons time to catch up.

Grant's second miscalculation was that Lee could not reach the Wilderness before late on May 5. Acting on that assumption, Meade neglected to ensure that the roads toward Lee were adequately patrolled. Brigadier General James H. Wilson, whose cavalry division was charged with protecting the army's western flank, failed to leave pickets on Orange Turnpike, opening the way for a surprise attack by Lee.

AT THE END OF THE FIRST DAY'S MARCH. WARREN'S FIFTH CORPS CAMPED AROUND WILDERNESS TAVERN, THE SAME PLACE WHERE CONFEDERATE SURGEONS HAD AMPUTATED STONEWALL JACKSON'S LEFT ARM ONE YEAR EARLIER. (NPS)

By noon on the fourth, Lee had reacted to the Federals swarming over the Rapidan. Ewell's corps filtered from its Rapidan entrenchments to Orange Turnpike and marched toward the Wilderness. That night Ewell's lead units reached Robertson's Tavern and bedded down within three miles of Warren's unsuspecting troops. Hill's corps meanwhile advanced in tandem with Ewell's along Orange Plank Road and stopped at the hamlet of New Verdiersville. Around 4:00 P.M., Longstreet started from Gordonsville toward the Wilderness by a more southerly route.

During the night, Stuart's scouts confirmed that Grant was still in the Wilderness. Lee decided to attack right away. At first light, Ewell was to push along the turnpike toward Grant while Hill continued east on the Plank Road. The two corps were to pin Grant in place until Longstreet could arrive and slam into Grant's exposed southern flank. Lee was a bold strategist, and he was counting on the Wilderness to help neutralize Grant's numbers. But Lee's was a dangerous scheme. To succeed, he would have to immobilize Grant's entire force for a day with fewer than 40,000 men, and Longstreet would have to arrive precisely as planned.

IN THE EARLY MORNING HOURS OF MAY 4, THE THIRD INDIANA CAVALRY SPLASHED ACROSS THE RAPIDAN RIVER AND SEIZED CONTROL OF GERMANNA FORD FOR THE UNION ARMY. WITHIN HOURS, ENGINEERS HAD CONSTRUCTED TWO PONTOON BRIDGES AND THE ARMY STARTED POURING ACROSS. (LC)
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