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