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”.
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.