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."

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 Or, if failing in the assault, it would at least compel Johnston to send back the troops withdrawn, thus making it easy work for Sherman.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.

These are the general features of the campaign as a whole; but, separate and distinct from the movements of all other armies and bodies of men, are the operations of the Army of the Potomac, which has a campaign of its own,--forever memorable!


There have been four movements by the left flank:--

From Culpepper to Wilderness.

From Wilderness to Spottsylvania.

From Spottsylvania to the North Anna.

From the North Anna to the Chickahominy.

It has been a month of marching and fighting,--fighting and marching,--day and night,--night and day,--winning no great, decisive victory, nor suffering defeat, yet getting nearer the while to Richmond, and compelling the enemy to choose new positions or be cut off from his capital.

The accompanying diagram will convey to the eye the relative movements of the two armies,--General Grant moving on the arcs of the circles, as represented by the dotted lines, and Lee upon the chords of the arcs, as indicated by the continuous lines.

civil war battles


On Tuesday afternoon, May 3d, the cavalry broke camp on the Orange and Alexandria railroad, and moved eastward,--General Gregg's division toward Ely's Ford, and General Wilson's division towards Germanna Ford, each having pontoons. At midnight the Second Corps, which had been encamped east of Culpepper, followed General Gregg. At daylight on the morning of the 4th of May, the Fifth and Sixth Corps and the reserve artillery were moving towards Germanna Ford. The supply-train--sixty miles in length, eight thousand wagons--followed the Second Corps. There were but these two available roads.

The enemy was at Orange Court-House, watching, from his elevated lookout on Clark's Mountain, for the first sign of change. In the light of the early dawn he saw that the encampments at Culpepper were broken up, while the dust-cloud hanging over the forest toward the east was the sure indication of the movement.

General Lee put his army in instant motion to strike the advancing columns as they crossed the Rapidan. The movement of Grant was southeast, that of Lee northeast,--lines of advance which must produce collision, unless Grant was far enough forward to slip by the angle. There is reason to believe that General Grant did not intend to fight Lee at Wilderness, but that it was his design to slip past that point and swing round by Spottsylvania, and, if possible, get between Lee and Richmond. He boldly cut loose his connection with Washington, and sailed out into the unknown and untried, relying upon the ability of his soldiers to open a new base for supplies whenever needed.

In this first day's movement he did not uncover Washington. Burnside was still lying on the north bank of the Rappahannock. It was understood in the army that the Ninth Corps was to be a reserve to protect the capital. So, perhaps, Lee understood it. But at nightfall, on the 4th, the shelter-tents are folded, and the men of the Ninth, with six days' rations in their haversacks, are on the march along the forest-road, lighted only by the stars, joining the main army at Germanna Ford on the morning of the 5th.

Although the movement of the troops was well timed, and the march made with great rapidity, the trains were delayed, and it was not possible for General Grant to swing past the enemy advancing upon his flank.

Early in the morning of the 5th, Generals Meade and Grant, with their staffs, after riding five miles from Germanna Ford, halted near the old mill in the Wilderness. General Sheridan's cavalry had been pushing out south and west. Aids came back with despatches.

"They say that Lee intends to fight us here," said General Meade, as he read them.

Presented by

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In