May 7th, 1864; The Turn South

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Such an occurrence would seem absolutely implausible today, the stuff of trite Hollywood hyperbole.   Yet, it unquestionably happened.  And it is a tribute to the magnificent courage and spirit of men who comprised the Army of the Potomac.

In May of 1864, the war was entering its fourth, and bloodiest, year.  For the previous three, the long-suffering blue-clad soldiers of the Army of the Potomac had suffered from poor leadership and lack of training as they punched and parried with their skilled and elusive foe, Robert E. Lee’s legendary Army of Northern Virginia.   Whatever the shortcomings of the generalship of this Union Army, its soldiers and junior officers had proven time and again to be a match for Lee’s men in the two areas that mattered most:  willingness to endure, and raw courage.   Failures to exploit advantages gained in the Seven Days, at Antietam, and and Gettysburg, rested with the leadership of the Army of the Potomac, not with its soldiers.

But now General Ulysses Grant called the shots.  The aggressive and determined hero of Shiloh and Vicksburg encamped alongside Meade, who still commanded the Army of the Potomac.  In the first week of May, 1864, that army marched into the densely tangled undergrowth of the Wilderness in pursuit of their foes.  Grant, it is said, passed a personal message to Lincoln even as the confused savagery of the Battle of the Wilderness began.  That message said; “Whatever happens, we will not turn back”.

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From 5-7 May, the two armies fought a brutal and unrelenting brawl in the dense woods and small clearings of the Wilderness.  Lee, significantly outnumbered, fought the Federal forces, which included Burnside’s IX Corps, to a frustrating standstill.  Union casualties were enormous, nearly 18,000, as the terrain and foliage worked against Grant’s desire to mass overwhelming force anywhere on the field.  Confounded by an enemy that seemed to thwart each maneuver, exhausted from the furious and bloody combat, with dead and wounded strewn everywhere, fires burning, choked with smoke, dust, and the stench of rotting corpses, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac seemed to be at the end of their tether.

On the afternoon of the 7th, Grant gave the order for the Army of the Potomac and Burnside’s Corps to move after dark.  In the pitch black, along dusty roads jammed with troops, ambulances full of wounded, cannon, supply wagons, and staff officers, the Army moved agonizingly slowly.  Filthy and exhausted, they shuffled onto Orange Plank Road and away from the burning furnace of the Wilderness.  Then, as the lead columns continued east along the road, an absolutely extraordinary thing occurred.  Officers at the scene reported that a palpable murmur arose in the ranks of marching men.  The soldiers knew instinctively that what occurred at the next road intersection would determine the future course of the war.  If the army was ordered to continue east (toward Chancellorsville) or turn left (north), it would be clear that the Army of the Potomac would again disengage from Lee, and the Army of Northern Virginia would be allowed to recover its strength.  If the column instead turned right, to the south along Brock Road, they would be marching toward Richmond.   It would mean Grant, now that he had his claws in Lee, would not let go.

As the columns drew toward the intersection, the orders came for the column to turn right onto Brock Road.  They were heading south, moving toward their enemy.  Grant was going to hold onto Lee and continue the hammer blows that he and his troops knew to be necessary to bring the South to its knees.  In the darkness, the somnambulent men who’d been stumbling along a few minutes earlier exploded with wild and deafening cheers, loud enough to draw fire from Rebel cannon.   Despite all of the suffering and sacrifice of the previous days, and indeed the three years of war, these filthy and exhausted Veterans were cheering, even knowing the grim tasks that lay ahead.  Yet to come would be Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the Bloody Angle, Cold Harbor, the Bermuda Hundred, and Petersburg.   And Appomattox, which the weary men in blue knew all too well would never happen without more bitter hammering at their enemy, and without a man like Grant.  Their bravery and fearful sacrifice in the tangled hell of the Wilderness was not to be squandered.

6 thoughts on “May 7th, 1864; The Turn South”

  1. Not squandered in terms of the war itself. The sad thing is the butchery continued for several more battles while Grant tactically murdered half the Army of The Potomac.

    1. Actually the proportional casualties were higher for Lee. And the Wilderness, though a stalemate tactically, was a strategic defeat for Lee. Federal casualties were almost 18,000, but Rebel casualties numbered almost 12,000. Those casualties for the South could not be replaced. Indeed, other than very local initiative, the ANV was finished as anything other than a defensive force after Wilderness.

    2. All true. But that does not change the fact that the overland campaign was a campaign of butchery. Grant committed tactical murder and the only reason that Grant was able to finally bring the war to a conclusion when he did was by the ghastly expedient of piling Yankee bodies on his problem. Grant was no tactical genius, but a butcher.

      One point I disagree with, however. The ANV was finished as an offensive weapon after Gettysburg.

    3. We will have to disagree about Grant. He did what needed to be done to win. Had others, when the advantage was at times even more in favor of the Army of the Potomac, done the same, the war might never have lasted until May of 1864.

    4. Butchery was the state of the art in tactics. Lining up shoulder to shoulder and advancing into the fire of rifled muskets and artillery is unavoidable butchery, no matter who is in charge. The difference was, Grant made it count. As the post told, after the butchery Grant advanced where his predecessors retreated.

    5. Perhaps. What ifs are fun to argue, even if the accomplish nothing. Time is right in the sense that Napoleonic tactics were butchery in the face of rifled muskets. Lee, at the end, seemed to understand the effect rifled muskets had on war, and took advantage of it at Cold Harbor and later.

      The CSA had the odds stacked against it from the opening shot. Only the stupidity of USA leadership saved it time and again. As Lee said after Wilderness, “The Army of the Potomac has a head,” and he wasn’t talking about Meade. Grant may have done what he had to, but it was still butchery and there was no excuse for it. Any officer that does what he did is not worthy of accolades. I have the same problem with Lee.

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