The May Campaign in Virginia

"An outline of the operations of the Army of the Potomac in its march from its encampment on the Rapidan, through the tangled thickets of the Wilderness, to the bloody fields of Spottsylvania, across the North Anna, to the old battle-ground of Cold Harbor."

There are few months in the calendar of centuries that will have a more conspicuous place in history than the month of May, 1864. It will be remembered on account of the momentous events which have taken place during the present military operations. It inaugurates one of the greatest campaigns of history. We who are in it are amazed, not by its magnitude merely, for there have been larger armies, heavier trains of artillery, greater preparations, in European warfare,--but we are overwhelmed by a succession of events unparalleled for rapidity. We cannot fully comprehend the amount of endurance, the persistency, the hard marching, the harder fighting, the unwearied, cheerful energy and effort which have carried the Army of the Potomac from the Rappahannock to the Chickahominy in thirty days, against the stubborn opposition of an army of almost equal numbers. There has not been a day of rest, scarcely an hour of quiet. Morning, noon, and midnight, the booming of cannon and the rattling of musketry have echoed unceasingly through the Wilderness, around the hillocks of Spottsylvania, along the banks of the North Anna, and among the groves of Bethesda Church and Coal Harbor.

A brief résumé of the campaign, thus far developed, is all that can be attempted in the space assigned me. I must pass by the efforts of individuals, as heroic and soul-stirring as those of the old Cavaliers renowned in story and song, where all the energies of life are centred in one moment,--the spirited advance of regiments, the onset of brigades; and the resistless charges of divisions. I can speak only of the movements of corps, without dwelling upon those scenes which stir the blood and fire the soul,--the hardihood, the endurance, the cool, collected, reserved force, abiding the time, the calm facing of death, the swift advance, the rush, the plunge into the thickest of the fight, where hundreds of cannon, where fifty thousand muskets, fill the air with iron hail and leaden rain!


The army wintered between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan. There had been a reduction and reconstruction of its corps,--an incorporation of the First and Third with the Fifth and Sixth, with reinforcements added to the Second. The Second was commanded by Major-General Hancock, the Fifth by Major-General Warren, the Sixth by Major-General Sedgwick. No definite statement of the number of men composing the army can be given, for the campaign is not yet ended; and no aid or comfort, no information of value to the enemy, can be tendered through the columns of the loyal "Atlantic."

These three corps, with three divisions of cavalry commanded by General Sheridan, composed the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major-General Meade. The Ninth Corps, commanded by Major-General Burnside, was added when the army took up its line of march.

There was concentration everywhere. General Gillmore, with what troops could be spared from the department of the South, joined his forces to those already on the Peninsula and at Suffolk; Sigel had several thousand in the Shenandoah; Crook and Averell had a small army in Western Virginia; while at Chattanooga, under Sherman and Thomas, was gathered a large army of Western troops.

The dramatis personae were known to the public, but the part assigned to each was kept profoundly secret. There was discussion and speculation whether Burnside, from his encampment at Annapolis, would suddenly take transports and go to Wilmington, or up the Rappahannock, or the James, or the York, uniting his forces with Butler's. Would Meade move directly across the Rapidan and attack Lee in front, with every passage, every hill and ravine enfiladed by Rebel cannon? Or would he move his right flank along the Blue Ridge, crowding Lee to the seaboard? Would he not make, rather, a sudden change of base to Fredericksburg? None of the wise men, military or civil, in their speculations, indicated the line which General Grant adopted. The public accepted the disaster at Chancellorsville and the failure at Mine Run as conclusive evidence that a successful advance across the Rapidan by the middle fords was impossible, or at least improbable. So well was the secret kept, that, aside from the corps commanders, none in or out of the army, except the President and Secretary of War, had information of the line of march intended.

We know now how General Burnside marched to Washington, contrary to the expectations of the public; how his troops passed in review before the President,--a few veterans, with Roanoke, Newbern, all the seven days before Richmond, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Knoxville on their tattered ensigns; how they were cheered by the crowd; how, following them, came a division for the first time shouldering a musket for their country,--who till a year ago never had a country,--who even now, although Americans, are not citizens,--disfranchised, yet fighting for the flag,--beholding now for the first time the careworn, yet benevolent face of their benefactor, and rending the air with their hurrahs. There was swinging of hats, waving of handkerchiefs and banners. They marched to victory or certain death. For them there was no surrender, after the massacres of Milliken's Bend, Plymouth, and Fort Pillow.

We know how Butler went up to White House, and then suddenly down the York and up the James to Bermuda Hundred. We know of the movements of Sigel and Crook and Averell,--minor, yet important in the general plan. We have had the victorious march of Sherman, flanking and defeating Johnston. All these movements were parts of the well-considered plan of operations.

The expedition of General Banks up the Red River was in process of execution when General Grant was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all the forces in the field. He sent a messenger recalling it; but, through some miscarriage or misconception of orders, or from some cause yet unexplained, the expedition kept on its way, resulting in disaster. The withdrawal of the gunboats which had been demonstrating off Mobile, and the departure of troops from the Mississippi, enabled General Johnston to gather all the forces of the Southwest in front of Sherman. General Grant designed that General Banks, with troops and flotilla, should suddenly fall upon Mobile, front and rear. If the works were carried by assault, then gunboats and transports could appear at Montgomery, flanking Johnston. It would be the thrusting of a probe deep into the tenderest and sorest parts of the Confederate body-politic. It would sever Alabama and Mississippi from the other Rebel States. Or, if failing in the assault, it would at least compel Johnston to send back the troops withdrawn, thus making it easy work for Sherman.

The failure of any part in a concerted movement affects all other parts. General Banks not appearing at Mobile has retarded Sherman. The failure of Butler to close the Southern portal, and the defeat of Sigel, who, instead of knocking loudly at the back-door of the Rebel capital, was himself knocked back, have enabled Lee to concentrate all his troops against the Army of the Potomac. Finnegan's troops from Florida, Beauregard's from Charleston, Pickett's from North Carolina, Buckner's from Western Virginia, and Breckenridge's from the Shenandoah, at the close of the month, are fighting against General Grant at Coal Harbor.

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