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."

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.

"Very well," was the quiet reply of General Grant.

The two commanders retire a little from the crowd, and stand by the road-side in earnest conversation. Grant is of medium stature, yet has a well-developed physique, sandy whiskers and moustache, blue eyes, earnest, thoughtful, and far-seeing, a cigar in his mouth, a knife in one hand, and a stick in the other, which he is whittling to a point. He whittles slowly towards him. His thoughts are not yet crystallized. His words are few. Suddenly he commences upon the other end of the stick, and whittles energetically from him. His mind is made up,--his plan matured. He is less reticent,--talks freely. He is dressed in plain blue; and were it not for the three stars upon his shoulder, few would select him as the Lieutenant-General commanding all the armies of the Union in the field.

Meade is tall, thin, a little stooping in the shoulders, quick, comprehending the situation of affairs in an instant, energetic,--an officer of excellent executive ability.


At the old Wilderness tavern the Stevensburg plank-road leading southeast from Germanna Ford crosses the Orange and Fredericksburg turnpike. Five miles beyond the tavern is Wilderness Church, at the junction of the Stevensburg with the Orange and Fredericksburg plank-road. Near by is the Brock road, which leads south to Spottsylvania Court-House. West of the old tavern, four miles on the turnpike, is Parker's store. In the early morning, General Ewell's brigades appeared in line of battle at the store, on both sides of the turnpike, while General A. P. Hill's corps was found to be pushing rapidly eastward along the Orange plank-road, to gain the junction of the roads at Old Church. Longstreet was following Hill.

The Second Corps, which had crossed at Ely's Ford, was already on the move towards Spottsylvania. A recall was sent, also orders directing Hancock to hold the junction of the roads. The Fifth Corps was thrown out upon the turnpike towards Parker's store. The Sixth was moved up from the Germanna road, west, into the woods, and placed in position to cover all approaches to the ford. The Ninth arrived during the day, and moved into the gap between the Fifth and Second. Divisions were moved to the right, to the left, and to the centre, during the two days' fight, but the positions of the corps remained unchanged.

civil war battles

Standing by the old tavern and looking west, you see the line of battle. At your feet is a brook flowing from the southwest to the northeast, and there is another smaller stream joining its waters at the crossing of the roads. Beyond the bridge the turnpike crosses a ridge of land. On the southern slope is the house of Major Lucy, with a smooth lawn, and meadows green with the verdure of spring. Beyond the meadows are hills wooded with oaks, pines, and cedar-thickets. At the right hand of the turnpike the ridge is closely set with pines and cedars. Farther out it breaks down into a ravine. Ewell has the western slope, and Warren with the Fifth Corps the eastern, with the Sixth on his right.

It is a mixture of tall trees and small underbrush,--dense, almost impenetrable. There are hills, knolls, dells, dark ravines. It is a battle-ground for Indians, but one not admitting of the military movements,--of advance by columns, or lines, as laid down in the books.

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