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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

MAY 7: GRANT TO LEAVE THE WILDERNESS

On the morning of May 7, Grant and Lee faced each other across a smoldering wasteland. Neither general could claim victory. Lee had fought Grant to an impasse but had failed to drive him away. And Grant had failed in his objective of destroying Lee. "There lay both armies," a Union aide wrote home, "each behind its breastworks, panting and exhausted, and scowling at each other."

DURING THE FIGHTING, GRANT BETRAYED HIS ANXIETY BY CONSTANTLY WHITTLING STICKS. "THE OCCUPATION PLAYED HAVOC WITH THE THREAD GLOVES," OBSERVED A MEMBER OF HIS STAFF, "AND BEFORE NIGHTFALL SEVERAL HOLES HAD BEEN WORN IN THEM." (BL)

Lee held a strong position along high ground. Rather than attacking Lee's formidable earthworks, Grant decided to rely on maneuver. By dropping south on Brock Road to Spotsylvania he hoped to interpose between Lee and Richmond, leaving Lee no choice but to abandon the Wilderness and fight on ground of Grant's choosing. His goal for the first day's march was the crossroads hamlet of Spotsylvania Court House, some ten miles south on Brock Road.

At 6:30 A.M., Grant ordered Meade to make "all preparations for a night march" to Spotsylvania. The army was to move south by two routes. Hancock's Second Corps would remain in place while Warren's Fifth Corps slid behind it and continued down Brock Road to Spotsylvania. Once Warren had passed, Hancock would follow. At the same time, Sedgwick was to start along Orange Plank Road toward Chancellorsville, followed by Burnside's Ninth Corps. By morning on the eighth, Grant expected his army to mass near the court house hamlet.

Meade began by ordering Major General Philip Sheridan's cavalry to clear the way. Thus far, the Federal mounted arm had performed poorly. On May 5, Wilson's division had been isolated on Catharpin Road by Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser's Rebels and had fought a bitter action before escaping. On the sixth, Brigadier General George A. Custer had inflicted serious casualties on Rosser north of Todd's Tavern, but Sheridan had been compelled to withdraw to protect the army's supply wagons. Thus, on the morning of May 7, Sheridan's mission was to recapture the ground that he had forfeited on the sixth and to clear Brock Road to Spotsylvania.

BY 1864, THE CONFEDERATE ARMY HAD BECOME PROFICIENT AT DIGGING BREASTWORKS. ONE OF MEADE'S AIDES NOTED THAT "WHEN THE REBELS HALT, THE FIRST DAY GIVES THEM A GOOD RIFLE-PIT; THE SECOND, A REGULAR INFANTRY PARAPET WITH ARTILLERY POSITION; AND THE THIRD A PARAPET WITH AN ABATIS IN FRONT AND ENTRENCHED BATTERIES BEHIND. SOMETHING THEY PUT THIS THREE DAY'S WORK INTO THE FIRST TWENTY-FOUR HOURS." (LC)

Sheridan started south but was blocked above Todd's Tavern by Virginia cavalrymen under Major General Fitzhugh Lee. During early afternoon, Sheridan was able to bring most of his corps into play and drove Lee from the tavern. A cavalry battle took shape on two fronts. Colonel J. Irvin Gregg's Federal horsemen elbowed west on Catharpin Road but were stopped at Corbin's Bridge by Rebel horsemen under Major Generals Wade Hampton and William H. F. "Rooney" Lee. Gregg retired to a field west of Todd's Tavern, formed his brigade behind makeshift earthworks of logs and fence rails, and repelled a series of Confederate assaults. For the rest of the day, Hampton and Rooney Lee waged a bitter but inconclusive fight against Gregg on Catharpin Road.


GRANT PUSHES SOUTH

For the Union army, the Battle of the Wilderness had been a decided failure. Two days of fighting in the tangled thickets had resulted in some 18,000 Union casualties, almost as many as Hooker had sustained at Chancellorsville and considerably more than Burnside had suffered at Fredericksburg. Lee, by contrast, probably suffered fewer than 12,000 casualties. Both Burnside and Hooker had retreated across the Rappahannock following their battles with Lee, but Grant did not. In one of the most far-reaching decisions of the war, he directed his engineers to take up the pontoon bridges at Germanna Ford on May 7 and issued orders to his corps commanders to march toward Spotsylvania Court House that night. When Union soldiers discovered that Grant was pushing ahead despite his losses, they cheered him. They had finally found a general who would continue to fight Lee until he beat him. In the following excerpt, Grant's aide-de-camp, Colonel Horace Porter, describes this unexpected ovation that took place in the depths of the Wilderness.

UNION TROOPS CHEERED GRANT ON THE MARCH TO SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE. (LC)

"Soon after dark, Generals Grant and Meade, accompanied by their staffs, after having given personal supervision to the starting of the march, rode along the Brock road toward Hancock's headquarters, with the intention of waiting there till Warren's troops should reach that point. While moving close to Hancock's line, there occurred an unexpected demonstration on the part of the troops, which created one of the most memorable scenes of the campaign. Notwithstanding the darkness of the night, the form of the commander was recognized, and word was passed rapidly along that the chief who had led them through the mazes of the Wilderness was again moving forward with his horse's head turned toward Richmond. Troops know but little about what is going on in a large army, except the occurrences which take place in their immediate vicinity; but this night ride of the general-in-chief told plainly the story of success, and gave each man to understand that the cry was to be 'On to Richmond!' Soldiers weary and sleepy after their long battle, with stiffened limbs and smarting wounds, now sprang to their feet, forgetful of their pains, and rushed forward to the roadside. Wild cheers echoed through the forest, and glad shouts of triumph rent the air. Men swung their hats, tossed up their arms, and pressed forward to within touch of their chief, clapping their hands, and speaking to him with the familiarity of comrades. Pine-knots and leaves were set on fire, and lighted the scene with their weird, flickering glare. The night march had become a triumphal procession for the new commander. The demonstration was the emphatic verdict pronounced by the troops upon his first battle in the East. The excitement had been imparted to the horses, which soon became restive, and even the general's large bay, over which he possessed ordinarily such perfect control, became difficult to manage. Instead of being elated by this significant ovation, the general, thoughtful only of the practical question of the success of the movement, said: 'This is most unfortunate. The sound will reach the ears of the enemy, and I fear it may reveal our movement.' By his direction, staff-officers rode forward and urged the men to keep quiet so as not to attract the enemy's attention; but the demonstration did not really cease until the general was out of sight."


AFTER TWO DAYS OF BLOODY FIGHTING, GRANT DECIDED TO LEAVE THE WILDERNESS, ON MAY 7. HE ORDERED MEADE TO "MAKE ALL PREPARATIONS DURING THE DAY FOR A NIGHT MARCH TO TAKE POSITION AT SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE." THE NEXT STAGE OF THE CAMPAIGN WAS ABOUT TO BEGIN. (NPS)

Brigadier General Wesley Merritt meanwhile continued south in pursuit of Fitzhugh Lee. He met his quarry about a mile below Todd's Tavern, where Lee's men had dismounted and formed behind makeshift barricades. From about 4:00 P.M. until dark, Merritt and Lee fought one of the war's bloodiest cavalry engagements. Federal horsemen charged down the road way only to be shot from their horses. Then Lee's barricades caught fire, which forced the Rebels to retire to a second line of works. More Federals reinforced Merritt, and it looked as though Lee would be defeated. Night, however, intervened, and Sheridan decided against continuing to fight in darkness. In a move reminiscent of his actions on the sixth, he abandoned much of the road that he had opened and ordered his troopers to bivouac at Todd's Tavern. A Confederate cavalryman echoed a common sentiment as he contemplated the corpse-strewn road. "What a curse war is," he scrawled in his diary. "The dreadful sights I have seen this week in the Wilderness will never be banished from my memories."

GRANT AND MEADE SPENT THE NIGHT OF MAY 7 AT TODD'S TAVERN, ABOUT HALFWAY BETWEEN THE WILDERNESS AND SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE. ONE NORTHERN JOURNALIST DESCRIBED IT AS "A PLACE OF TWO OR THREE HOUSES, EXHIBITING THE LEGAL DEGREE OF THRIFTLESSNESS WHICH CHARACTERIZES THE OLD DOMINION." (BL)

Around 8:00 P.M., Grant's infantrymen began pursuing their assigned routes south. They proceeded at a snail's pace. Slow wagons and ambulances blocked the way, traffic jams occurred at unexpected places, and exhausted foot soldiers slogged along without enthusiasm. Meade's provost marshal termed the episode "one of the most fatiguing and disgraceful rides I ever took." Meade, who rode at the army's head, did not reach Todd's Tavern until after midnight and was infuriated to find Sheridan's cavalry camped there. The army ground to a halt as Meade dispatched the horsemen to try again to clear the way south.


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE RACE TO SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE: NIGHT MAY 7-8
Stymied in the Wilderness, Grant orders Meade to march to Spotsylvania Court House. Warren's Fifth Corps leads the march down the Brock Road, followed by Hancock, while Burnside and Sedgwick swing farther east. Anticipating Grant's move, Lee likewise orders his army to Spotsylvania. Anderson's corps follows a military road to the Catharpin Road, then follows the Shady Grove Church Road to Spotsylvania. Ewell's corps follows Anderson to Spotsylvania, marching by way of Parker's Store, leaving Hill to hold the Wilderness line.

Lee had been trying to fathom Grant's intentions and concluded that Grant meant either to retire to Fredericksburg or push south. In either event, Spotsylvania loomed importantly, so Lee directed his artillery chief Brigadier General William N. Pendleton to cut a road through the woods from the lower Confederate flank to Catharpin Road. Toward the end of the day, Lee instructed Longstreet's replacement—General Richard H. Anderson—to start south along the makeshift road. Lee did not perceive the need for haste, but smoke from the burning woods and stench from unburied bodies induced Anderson to start early. He was under way around ten o'clock and followed the woods path to Catharpin Road. There he turned west, crossed the Po, then cut southeast on Shady Grove Church Road toward Spotsylvania.

SOLDIERS IN BOTH ARMIES LONG REMEMBERED THE NIGHT MARCH TO SPOTSYLVANIA. THE DUSTY ROADS, BURNING WOODS, AND FREQUENT HALTS MADE IT ONE OF THE MOST DISAGREEABLE MARCHES OF THE WAR. (BL)

Lee and Grant were in a race to Spotsylvania. The fate of the campaign would turn on who got there first.

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