Bloody Spring: Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy's Fate
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In the spring of 1864, Virginia remained unbroken, its armies having repelled Northern armies for more than two years. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had defeated the campaigns of four Union generals, and Lee's veterans were confident they could crush the Union offensive this spring, too. But their adversary in 1864 was a different kind of Union commander—Ulysses S. Grant. The new Union general-in-chief had never lost a major battle while leading armies in the West. A quiet, rumpled man of simple tastes and a bulldog's determination, Grant would lead the Army of the Potomac in its quest to destroy Lee's army.
During six weeks in May and June 1864, Grant's army campaigned as no Union army ever had. During nearly continual combat operations, the Army of the Potomac battered its way through Virginia, skirting Richmond and crossing the James River on one of the longest pontoon bridges ever built. No campaign in North American history was as bloody as the Overland Campaign. When it ended outside Petersburg, more than 100,000 men had been killed, wounded, or captured on battlefields in the Wilderness, near Spotsylvania Court House, and at Cold Harbor. Although Grant's casualties were nearly twice Lee's, the Union could replace its losses. The Confederacy could not.
Lee's army continued to fight brilliant defensive battles, but it never mounted another major offensive. Grant's spring 1864 campaign had tipped the scales permanently in the Union's favor. The war's denouement came less than a year later with Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House.
Union left by VI and XVIII Corps with mounting concern, Lee ordered John Breckinridge’s division to march during the night from the Confederate left to its right, six miles away—mirroring II Corps’ movement. Like the guide on II Corps’ overnight march, the Confederate guide had neither a decent map nor a clear notion of how to get where he was going. When the division had not arrived by mid-morning of June 2 and Lee observed the Union II Corps filing into positions opposite his right, he went
Warrior. New York: Random House, 1987. ———. The Stonewall Brigade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963. Robertson, William G. The Petersburg Campaign: The Battle of Old Men and Young Boys, June 9, 1864. Lynchburg, Virginia: H.E. Howard, 1989. Roe, Alfred, and Charles Nutt. History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteers. Boston: The Regimental Association, 1917. Royall, William Lawrence. Some Reminiscences. New York: The Neal Publishing Company,
war. —J. M. WADDELL, HISTORIAN FOR THE 46TH NORTH CAROLINA, WHICH LOST 201 OF ITS 340 SOLDIERS IN THE WILDERNESS2 1 Wednesday, May 4, 1864 Along the Rapidan River THE UNION CAVALRY went first. Breaking camp just after midnight, David Gregg’s 2nd Cavalry Division and James Wilson’s 3rd Division rode toward two Rapidan River crossings: for Wilson’s men, Germanna Ford, nine miles east of the Rebels’ right wing; and for Gregg, Ely’s Ford, six miles downriver from Germanna. A year ago nearly to
Rapidan was jammed with blue-clad troops. “From the summit of the swells of ground we could see the long, dark lines, which looked like fences dividing the country, but the glitter of many thousand musket-barrels showed them to be masses of men moving in columns,” wrote Chaplain Alanson Haines of the 15th New Jersey, part of VI Corps and following V Corps to Germanna Ford, where 3,000 men began crossing the Rapidan every hour. “As far as you could see in every direction, corps, divisions and
the long, open approaches to the concealed Rebel breastworks along Laurel Hill. V Corps had been bloodied during a large-scale probe there earlier that day, and its men knew they were going back up the hill soon. That morning, Warren sent two divisions “to ascertain where the enemy’s main line of battle is. I want them well pressed to drive back his covering force if it can be done,” Warren told General Samuel Crawford and Lysander Cutler. He hoped to expose weaknesses in the Confederate