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 battle commenced on Thursday afternoon and closed Saturday morning. It was fierce, terrible, bloody, and yet indecisive. It was one unbroken roll of musketry. There was a hostile meeting of two hundred thousand men. There were bayonet-charges, surgings to and fro of the opposing lines, a meeting and commingling, like waves of the ocean, sudden upspringings from the underbrush of divisions stealthily advanced. There was the continuous rattle, the roll deepening into long heavy swells, the crescendo and the diminuendo of a terrible symphony, rising to thunder-tones, to crash and uproar indescribable, then dying away to a ripple, to silence at last!

Lee hastened from his intrenchments beyond Mine Run to strike Grant a damaging blow,--to fall upon him while his line was thin and attenuated. Grant was in column, moving southeast,--Lee in two columns, moving northeast. These lines show it to the eye:--

civil war battles

The advance of Lee has its parallel in naval warfare,--in Nelson's lines of battle at Trafalgar. But there the comparison fails. The advance is the same,--the result, instead of a victory, a defeat. He fell upon the Fifth Corps, first at Parker's store, then on the right centre, then on the left, then upon the Sixth, then upon the Second,--then upon the whole line, renewing and repeating the assaults. Grant stood throughout upon the line selected at the beginning of the battle. Lee began the attack on the 5th, and renewed it at daybreak on the 6th.

Through all those long hours of conflict, there was patient endurance in front of the enemy. There were temporary successes and reverses on both sides. In only a single instance was there permanent advantage to the enemy, and that he had not the power to improve. It was at the close of the contest on the 6th. The sun had gone down, and twilight was deepening into night. The wearied men of Rickett's division of the Sixth Corps, in the front line of battle on the right, had thrown themselves upon the ground. Suddenly there was a rush upon their flank. There was musketry, blinding flashes from cannon, and explosions of shells. The line which had stood firmly through the day gave way, not because it was overpowered, but because it was surprised. General Seymour and a portion of his brigade were taken prisoners. There was a partial panic, which soon subsided. The second line remained firm, the enemy was driven back, and the disaster repaired by swinging the Sixth Corps round to a new position, covered by the reserve artillery. It was the only substantial advantage gained by Lee during the battle.

There were indications in the forenoon of Saturday, the 7th, that Lee was withdrawing his army. A reconnoissance in force made it more apparent. Orders were issued for the removal of the wounded to Fredericksburg. At two o'clock in the afternoon the Ninth Corps was on the march to Spottsylvania. The first step towards Richmond had been successfully taken. If Grant had not gained what he desired, a position between Lee and Richmond, Lee on the other hand had utterly failed in his attempt to crush Grant by a sudden blow upon his flank. He had not been able, in the language of the President, even to "jostle him from his chosen line of march."

SPOTTSYLVANIA.

At sunrise on the 8th, the Fifth Corps was at Todd's Tavern, four miles from Spottsylvania, where Gregg had just defeated Fitz Hugh Lee, in a hard-fought contest on Saturday. The Sixth and Second Corps arrived during the day. The Ninth moved with the teams through Chancellorsville farther to the east.

The natural defences of Spottsylvania are two small streams,--the Po and the Ny, affluents of the Mattapony. The advance of the Fifth Corps was checked, three miles west of the Court-House, by Longstreet's and Ewell's corps, which had left Wilderness on the night of the 6th. The Sixth came up at five o'clock and joined in the conflict, driving the enemy from the position he had taken on the north bank of the Ny.

On Monday morning, the 9th, it was apparent that Lee, having failed on Grant's flank, had now placed himself squarely in front, with his entire army.

One of the great battles of the campaign was fought on Tuesday, the corps occupying positions as in the diagram:--

civil war battles

The line of battle was formed with the Second Corps on the right, the Fifth on the right-centre, the Sixth on the left-centre, with the Ninth nine miles distant, approaching by the Fredericksburg road. There was a severe engagement in the afternoon, brought on by the advance of the Second Corps, which pushed across an affluent of the Po, west of the Court-House. On the left, the Rebels made an attack upon Wilcox's division of the Ninth, but were repulsed.

The battle was fought in the forest,--in the marshes along the Ny,--in ravines,--in pine-thickets, densely shaded with the dark evergreens that shut out the rays of the noonday sun,--in open fields, where Rebel batteries had full sweep and play with shell and grape and canister from intrenched positions on the hills.

It began in the morning. There was an hour of calm at noon, but at one o'clock artillery and infantry became engaged all along the line. Grant was the attacking party. There was no cessation or diminution of effort during the afternoon. The Rebel outer line of works in the centre was carried by Upton's brigade of the first division, and Russell's brigade of the third division of the Sixth Corps. The men of these brigades, (and among them were the stalwart sons of Vermont,) without firing a shot, moved steadily to the charge with fixed bayonets; they were cut through by solid shot, their ranks torn by shells, thinned by constant volleys of musketry, but, with matchless ardor and unconquerable will, they went up to the line of earthworks, leaped over them, and gathered a thousand prisoners; they held the ground, but their valor had carried them so far beyond their supports that it was deemed prudent to withdraw them.

There was some fighting on the 11th. General Lee sent in a flag of truce for a cessation of hostilities to bury the dead; but the request was not acceded to by General Grant.

The early dawn of Thursday, the 12th, beholds the Second Corps in motion,--not to flank the enemy, but moving, with fixed bayonets, straight on towards his intrenchments. Barlow's and Birney's divisions in columns of battalions, doubled on the centre, to give strength and firmness, lead in the assault. They move silently through the forest,--through the ravine in front of them,--up to their own skirmish-line,--past it,--no longer marching, but running now, dashing on with life and energy and enthusiasm thrilling every nerve. They sweep away the Rebel picket-line as if it were a cobweb. On,--into the intrenchments with a hurrah which startles the soldiers of both armies from their morning slumbers. Major-General Johnson and Brigadier-General Stewart and three thousand men of Ewell's division are taken prisoners, eighteen cannon and twenty-two standards captured.

It is the work of five minutes,--as sudden as the swoop of an eagle. The uproar of the day began. The second line of the enemy's works was assaulted; but, exasperated by their losses, the Rebels fought with great stubbornness. The Ninth Corps was moved up from the left to support the Second. Longstreet, on the other hand, was brought over to help Ewell. The Fifth and Sixth became partially engaged. There were charges and counter-charges. Positions were gained and lost. From morning till night the contest raged on the right, in the centre, and on the left, swaying to and fro over the undulations and through the ravines. It was a battle of fourteen hours' duration,--in severity, in unflinching determination, in obstinacy and persistency, not exceeded by any during the war. Between forty and fifty pieces of artillery were at one time in the hands of General Hancock; but, owing to the difficulties of removal, and the efforts of the enemy, he could secure only eighteen. During the day, Grant advanced his lines a mile towards the Court-House, and repulsed Lee in all his counter-attacks.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."


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

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In