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."

"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.

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.

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