“VIRGINIA IS FOR Lovers" is the motto of the state tourist board of Virginia, but New Jersey can as plausibly make that boast. Virginia's comparative advantage in tourism is not libidinal but historical. Among its thousands of historical sites are some famous battlefields of the Civil War-among them the battlefields of the last great campaign ever fought in the United States. That campaign opened in May of 1864, when Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, twenty miles west of Fredericksburg, to seek out Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia; it closed with Lee's surrender at Appomattox, a hundred and fifty miles to the southwest, one month short of a year later. Curious to know what traces of that epic contention have survived, my family and I recently traveled the route of the last campaign.
Grant was small and slight and famously unprepossessing. At fortyone he was a taciturn yet passionate man, who, just a few years before the war began, had been reduced to selling wood on a St. Louis street corner. The war was his big chance; an ordinary man rising to the occasion of his life, he made the most of it, becoming on the strength of his victories at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg the generalinchief of all the Union armies. Lee, in Grant's own words, was "six feet high and of faultless form," aristocratic where Grant was plebeian, successful where Grant, in everything but war, had been a failure. At fiftyseven Lee was already suffering from the heart condition that would kill him six years later (his last words would be "Strike the tent"). Grant would live twentyone more years, dying in agony from cancer of the throat, but not before he had secured his family's future by finishing his last campaign, the writing of his twovolume Memoirs. Grant and Lee met three times: once in 1947, during the war against Mexico, once at Appomattox, and once at the White House, when Grant was president.
Grant was new to the Virginia theater of the war in 1864, and he brought with him a new idea of how to fight there. The Union commanders before him -- McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade - had tried to capture Richmond; he would try to destroy Lee's army. Lee, outnumbered (61,953 men to Grant's 122,146), sought not to destroy Grant's army but to punish it so badly that the northern public, three years into our most horrific war, would vote President Abraham Lincoln out of office in November in favor of a Peace Democrat, who would call a halt to Grant's offensive (and Sherman's matching drive in Georgia) if Lee had not already stopped it himself.
The first battle of the campaign came just a few miles southeast of the Getmanna Ford of the Rapidan, in a thickly wooded district called the Wilderness. Ending the winter's long "mud truce" between the armies, Grant crossed the Rapidan on May 4; Lee attacked on the fifth. The ensuing battle lasted two days. It was fought in dense woods, for the most part, and was, in the words of one veteran, "simply bushwhacking on a grand scale." The gunfire ignited the trees, and wounded men caught between the lines were burned to death, their shrieks carrying back to unnerve their comrades. Grant went to pieces at one point - retired to his tent to have a good cry - and Lee's ablest general, James Longstreet, was seriously wounded by his own men. Lee himself barely escaped a bullet when he tried to lead a charge. "Lee to the rear! Go back, General Lee, go back!" a company of Texans pleaded with him. He agreed to retire if they would make a seemingly impossible attack. They did, and it worked. His men loved Robert E. Lee, and he regularly put their love to the test by asking them to die for him.
I visited the meadow where Lee used love to make war; I inspected the vestigial earthworks, read all the signs, and plunged into the eponymous wilderness. All of this is part of the Wilderness Battlefield, just off Route 3, a twenty-minute drive from Fredericksburg. I wish I had planned a family picnic in one of the bosky dells set apart for that purpose on the mossy shoulder of the park road; equipped with charcoal braziers and picnic tables, they looked inviting.
The battle ended in a stalemate, with neither side able to break the other's entrenched line. Yet for all its futility, the Wilderness decided something. The veteran soldiers of the Army of the Potomac expected that Grant would do what all their generals had done after tangling with Lee - scoot back over the nearest river. But retreat was not in Grant's nature. South, deeper into Rebel territory, was where he aimed to go. When the first columns of troops reached a crossroads in the middle of the Wilderness and their officers ordered them to march south, the men cheered. Grant had given them back their selfrespect. It was a turning point in the Civil War.
Lee, moving on longer lines, turned south too; and when Grant neared the crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House, twelve miles beyond the Wilderness, Lee was there, blocking his path. From May 8 to 20 Grant assaulted Lee's trenches in attack after attack. The result was inhuman slaughter. Battered, bled, Grant finally gave it up, moving off to his left, always heading south.