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."

By this success Lee was compelled on Thursday night to withdraw his troops from the line he had held so tenaciously, and concentrate them in a smaller semi-circle. Lee had the advantage of Johnston. It was Gettysburg reversed.

There was constant skirmishing and continuous artillery-firing through the 13th, and a moving of the army from the north to the east of the Court-House. A rain-storm set in. The roads became heavy, and a contemplated movement--a sudden flank-attack--was necessarily abandoned.

There was a severe skirmish on the 14th, constant picket-firing on the 15th, and on the 16th another engagement all along the line,--not fought with the fierceness of that of the 12th, but lasting through the forenoon, and resulting in the taking of a line of rifle-pits from the enemy.

On Wednesday, the 18th, there was an assault upon Lee's outer line of works. Two lines of rifle-pits were carried; but an impassable abatis prevented farther advance, and after a six hours' struggle the troops were withdrawn.

On the afternoon of the 19th Ewell gained the rear of Grant's right flank, came suddenly upon Tyler's division of heavy artillery, armed as infantry, just arrived upon the field. Though surprised, they held the enemy in check, forced him back, and with aid from the Second Corps compelled him to retreat with great loss. This attack was made to cover Lee's withdrawal to the North Anna. His troops were already on the march.

Grant was swift to follow.


It is a two days' march from Spottsylvania to the North Anna. The crossings of the Mattapony were held by Rebel cavalry, which were quickly driven. For want of space I am forced to pass over the operations on that natural line of defence,--the gallant crossing of the Fifth Corps at Jericho Ford, the irresistible charge of Birney and Barlow at Taylor's Bridge, the sweeping-in of five hundred prisoners, the severe engagements lasting three days,--all memorable events, worthy of prominence in the full history of the campaign.

Instead of walking over the obstacle, Grant decided to go round it. Stealing a march upon Lee, he moved suddenly southeast, and crossed the Pamunky at Hanover Town, opened a new base of supplies at White House, forcing Lee to fall back on the Chickahominy.

civil war battles


On Sunday, the 29th, there was one of the severest cavalry-engagements of the war, at Hawes's shop, west of Hanover Town, where Sheridan drove the Rebels back upon Bethesda Church. The array came into position on the 30th, its right towards Hanover Court-House. Lee was already in position, and during the day there was firing all along the line. Each corps was engaged. The Second Corps by the Shelton House with a bayonet-charge pushed the enemy from the outer line of works which he had thrown up, while the Fifth Corps rolled back, with terrible slaughter, the mass of men which came upon its flank and front at Bethesda Church. At Coal Harbor, the Sixth, joined by the Eighteenth Army Corps, under Major-General W. F. Smith, from Bermuda Hundred, met Longstreet and Breckenridge and troops from Beauregard. Sheridan had seized this important point,--important because of the junction of roads,--and held it against cavalry and infantry till the arrival of the Fifth and Eighteenth. The point secured, a new line of battle was formed on the 1st of June. The Ninth held the right at Bethesda Church; the Fifth was south of the church, joining the Eighteenth; the Sixth held the road from Coal Harbor to Gaines's Mill; while the Second was thrown out on the left, on the road leading to Despatch Station and the Chickahominy, as indicated by the diagram (p. 131).

Such was the position of the army within ten miles of Richmond,--the line of battle crossing the ground occupied by Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Gaines's Mill.

Sanguinary conflicts have since taken place,--bayonet-charges, desperate encounters with varying success and reverse,--but the record of the month has closed. There, face to face, cannon fronting cannon, with less than two hundred feet between, are the two armies on the 31st of May, at midnight. Without losing a train of supplies, cutting loose from one base after another,--from Washington, Belle Plain, and Port Royal successively,--establishing new depots at pleasure, General Grant has moved from the Rappahannock to the Chickahominy, against the utmost efforts of General Lee to turn him back. General Grant believes that the military power of the Rebels must be broken before the Rebellion can be crushed. Continued hammering produces abrasion at last, in the toughest iron. Break the iron pillars, and the edifice tumbles. There is a manifest weakening of the Rebel army. Longstreet's veterans have lost their fire; and since the Battles of the Wilderness, the Rebel troops have had no heart for a bayonet-charge.

The line of advance taken by General Grant turned the Rebels from Washington. The country over which the two armies marched is a desolation. There is no subsistence remaining. The railroads are destroyed. Lee has no longer the power to invade the North. On the other hand, General Grant can swing upon the James and isolate the Rebel army from direct connection with the South. That accomplished, and, sooner or later,--with Hunter in the Shenandoah, with Union cavalry sweeping down to Wilmington, Weldon, and Danville, and up to the Blue Ridge, cutting railroads, burning bridges, destroying supplies of ammunition and provisions,--the question with Lee must be, not one of earthworks and cannon and powder and ball, but of subsistence. Plainly, the day is approaching when the Army of the Potomac, unfortunate at times in the past, derided, ridiculed, but now triumphant through unparalleled hardship, endurance, courage, persistency, will plant its banners on the defences of Richmond, crumble the Rebel army beyond the possibility of future cohesion, and, in conjunction with the forces in other departments, crush out the last vestige of the Rebellion.

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

This Short Film Skewers Hollywood, Probably Predicts Disney's Next Hit

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

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


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

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


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

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


What Is a Sandwich?

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


How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.


The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

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


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In