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
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)|