The Battle of the Wilderness


IT will be remembered that the Germanna Ford Road strikes the Fredericksburg and Orange Court House Pike where the latter crosses Wilderness Run, and that the Lacy Farm lies immediately south, in the angle between the run and the Pike. The head of Griffin’s division, on reaching this famous old highway, wheeled into it to the right, and mounted with it as it rose to the woods which skirt the Lacy Farm on the west. There, somewhat over a mile from the run, they went into bivouac; and, unknowingly, within a half-mile of their lines of battle for the next two days. Crawford, next in column, on reaching the Pike, took the road for Parker’s Store, which sets off southwardly at this point, and after passing the dooryard runs wavering through the Lacy Farm. He made his headquarters in the old mansion, which faces east, and camped his division along the west side of the run. Wadsworth led his men to the fields and ridge east of the run; while Robinson, who brought up the rear of the corps, camped on the Germanna Road, the middle of his division about where Caton’s Run comes down through the woods from the west.

The day had been very warm; and, having marched since midnight, the troops were fairly tired, and glad to rest. Some of the batteries parked on the Lacy Farm, others with the trains in the fields back of the deserted old Wilderness Tavern. This old stage-house, indicated on all the maps and mentioned many times in orders and reports, was a two-storied, hewn-log house in its day, standing on the north side of the Pike, at the top of the ridge east of Wilderness Run. It overlooked all the Lacy estate, and had the reader stood in its lonely, weedy dooryard as the sun was going down and the shadows of the woods were reaching into the fields, the men of Crawford’s and Wadsworth’s divisions, all preparing their evening meals, the smoke of their little separate fires lifting softly over them, would have been in full view below him. From the same point, should some one have directed his eye to a flag with a blue field and a red Maltese cross in the centre, a mile or so to the west, at the edge of the woods, it would have been Griffin’s. The field-hospital during the battle of Chancellorsville, to which Stonewall Jackson was taken, — he was carried at first on a litter, and the way lit by pine-knot torches till an ambulance came up, — was located near this old Tavern.

Warren’s headquarters were on the Germanna Road, not far from the Pike and nearly opposite the knoll which Grant and Meade occupied during the battle. At supper that night Warren was in fine spirits, cheerier at heart, I believe, than ever afterwards, unless it was on the field of Five Forks just before he met Sheridan, who, in that passionate moment, then and there peremptorily relieved him, just as the veterans of the Fifth Corps, whom he had led so often, were cheering him over the victory he had helped to win. Sheridan’s harsh dealing with him, however, was not wholly unstudied; for Warren’s relations with Grant, which felt their first strain in the Wilderness and at Spottsylvania, were at the breaking point, and Sheridan knew it. After supper I filled my pipe and sat alone, on an old gray rail-fence near by, till the sun went down and the twilight deepened into an evening of great peace. A brigade camped up the run was singing hymns and songs that I had heard at home as a boy; and, probably with feelings deeper than my own, the timber of the Wilderness listened also. Over us all, — woods, men, the Lacy Mansion, the old tavern, and the softly murmuring run, — bent kindly the still, pondering sky, and soon on came Night. Sedgwick’s divisions were in bivouac along the Germanna Ford Road, between Warren and the river: first Getty, as far as Flat Run; then Wright, in the old Beale plantation fields; and behind him, just this side of the river, Ricketts, who had crossed the Rapidan about a quarter of four.

Sheridan had pitched his headquarters a quarter of a mile or so east of the Sixth Corps, near the workings of an old gold mine. Custer, perhaps the lightesthearted man in the army, with whom as a cadet I whiled away many an hour, was back just this side of Stevensburg, his brigade guarding the rear of the army and especially the trains at Richardsville. Davies, with another brigade of cavalry, was at Madden’s; in fact, all of Sheridan’s first division was posted from the Rapidan to the Rappahannock at eight o’clock that beautiful May night.

Grant and Meade, after crossing the river, established their headquarters near a deserted house whose neglected fields overlooked the ford. At 1.15 P. M., Hancock and Warren having met with no opposition in their advance to the heart of the Wilderness, Grant telegraphed for Burnside, whose Ninth Corps was stretched from the Rappahannock to Manassas, to make forced marches until he reached Germanna Ford. There is reason to believe, it seems to me, that it would have been better had Burnside been brought up nearer before the movement began. For, as it was, his men were nearly marched to death to overtake us; and as a result, they were altogether too fagged out for the work they were called on to do the morning of the second day. The same criticism, however, can be made on Lee’s failure to bring Longstreet within striking distance. Though, to be sure, in his case, he did not know whether Grant would cross the Rapidan at the fords above or below him; if above, then Longstreet was just where he would have needed him. I have always suspected that Lee feared a move on that flank more than on his right, for there the country was so open that he could not conceal the paucity of his numbers, as in the Wilderness. While Hancock’s, Warren’s, and Sedgwick’s men on our side, and Hill’s and Ewell’s on Lee’s, were resting around their camp-fires, Burnside’s and Longstreet’s corps were still plodding away, long after their comrades in the Wilderness were asleep. Such, then, were the movements and the camping-places of the Army of the Potomac on the 4th of May.

Meanwhile the enemy had been moving also. Ewell reports that, by order of General Lee, his corps and division commanders met him on Monday, May 2, at the signal station on Clark’s Mountain, and that he then gave it as his opinion that Grant would cross below him. His forecast was right, and I suspect Meade’s aides were even at that hour carrying the orders for the movement. It was the last time that Lee and his valiant subordinates ever visited that charming spot with its wide, peaceful view. If ever the reader should be in that vicinity, I hope he will not fail to go to the top of the mountain.

At an early hour on Wednesday it had been reported from various sources to Lee that Grant was under way. By eight o’clock this news was fully confirmed and he transmitted it through the proper channels to his corps commanders, with orders to get ready to move. Sorrel, Longstreet’s adjutant-general, at nine o’clock notified General E. P. Alexander — a soldier and a gentleman whose name will last long — as follows: “ Many of the enemy’s camps have disappeared from the front, and large wagon-trains are reported moving through Stevensburg. The lieutenantgeneral commanding desires that you will keep your artillery in such condition as to enable it to move whenever called upon.” It was the artillery that under Alexander tried to shake our lines at Gettysburg before Pickett’s charge. The same despatch was sent to Longstreet’s division commanders, Field and Kershaw. The former was our instructor in cavalry at West Point, and the present King of England saw, I believe, no finer type of American cavalryman than Field, as he rode at the head of the troop that escorted him when he came to West Point in the fall of ’60.

It is reasonably clear that by eleven o’clock at the latest Lee was convinced that Wilson’s and Gregg’s crossings of the Rapidan were not the beginning of a raid, or a feint to cover an advance up the river, but the opening of the campaign. Apparently he seems not to have hesitated, but set his army of sixty-odd thousand men in motion for the Wilderness; taking the precaution to hold Ramseur back with three brigades at Rapidan station, to meet any possible danger behind the mask of our cavalry under Custer. Ewell, who commanded his Second Corps, consisting of Rode’s, Johnson’s, and Early’s divisions, was to draw back from the river to the Pike and, once there, to march for Locust Grove, some eighteen miles to the eastward and within three and four miles of where Griffin camped. His Third Corps, A. P. Hill’s, at Orange Court House, was to take the Plank Road for Verdierville or beyond. It had about twenty-eight miles to go.

Longstreet at Gordonsville and Mechanicsburg was first ordered to follow Hill, but later, at his suggestion, he took roads south of the Plank which strike the Brock Road, the key of the campaign, at Todd’s Tavern. From his camp to where his men met Hancock the morning of the second day, east of Parker’s Store, was forty-two miles. None of Lee’s corps got well under way before noon; and by that time over half of Hancock’s and all of Warren’s were across the river. It was after dusk when Ewell passed through Locust Grove; and the bats were wavering through the twilight over the heads of Hill’s men as they dropped down to rest at Verdierville. Longstreet’s veterans, those who in the previous autumn smashed our lines at Chickamauga and who left so many of their dead at Knoxville, were still on the march.

Sometimes, when alone before my wood-fire, my mind floating as it were over the fields of this narrative, and one after another of its scenes breaking into view, I have been conscious of wishing that with you, reader, at my side, I could have stood near their line of march. I should like to have seen those men, — and so would you, — the heroes of the Peach Orchard and Round Top at Gettysburg, as well as of Chickamauga. I should like to have seen also the North Carolinians of Hill’s corps who, with the Virginians, made Pickett’s charge. But above all the men in gray that afternoon, I should like to have seen the face of the officer who, on the succeeding night, hearing the pitiful cries for water of our wounded in Griffin’s front, could stand it no longer and crawled over the breastworks, notwithstanding the persistent fire from our lines, made his way to where one of our wounded men lay, took his canteen and, groping to a little branch of Wilderness Run, filled it and brought it to his stricken enemy and then went back to his own lines. If ever the spirit of that Good Samaritan should come to my door, he shall have the best chair before my fire; I’ll lay on another stick of wood and let its beams kiss his manly face as we talk over those bygone days. Yes, I wish that with a reader who would enjoy such a scene I could have stood under a spreading-limbed tree on the roadside and seen Field and Kershaw, Ewell and Gordon, Heth and Alexander, march on their way to the Wilderness.

Lee encamped in the woods opposite the home of Mrs. Rodes, near Verdierville. Able critics have blamed him for fighting Grant in the Wilderness. They maintain that he might have avoided all of his losses there by going at once to Spottsylvania, intrenching, and inviting Grant to assault him.

In that case they assume that Grant would have followed the same system of repeated assaults that he did after the Wilderness, and that he would have met with severer repulses. It will be conceded, knowing Grant as we do, that in all probability he would have gone straight at his adversary, and that no works which Lee could have thrown up at Spottsylvania or elsewhere would have daunted him: the appalling record of that battle summer would certainly seem to justify such a conclusion. And, by the way, one among the reasons which contributed to make it so deadly may be found possibly in the fact that Grant came to the army with an impression that in many of its big engagements under McClellan, Pope, Hooker, and Meade, it had not been fought to an end. However this may have been, long before we got to the James River the grounds for a like impression, I think, were gone. At any rate, go ask the slopes before the Confederate works at Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor what they think about it, — if they think the Army of the Potomac was not fought to its limit. Gallant old Army of the Potomac, my heart beats when I think of the trials this half-way well-founded impression brought to you, as again and again you were called on to carry the enemy’s works by direct assaults,— assaults glorious in the splendid courage of your attack, and appalling in your losses.

True, there could have been no end to the war till one or the other of the parties to it was utterly and finally defeated: and neither party would acknowledge defeat until after complete exhaustion of men and resources. I am only sorry so much blood had to flow. With the way Grant fought I find no fault. It was a war of deep-seated principles, and the sacrifice of blood with tears had to be made.

In regard to the wisdom of Lee fighting in the Wilderness, I think we can be sure of one thing, that his decision was not the result of sudden impulse. For what he should do with his army, little as compared with Grant’s, when spring should open, had no doubt been weighed and re-weighed, as night after night he sat before his green-oak fire at the foot of Clark’s Mountain. His critics, moreover, will agree that he was too good a tactician not to know that, if he should adopt the defensive from the outset and go to Spottsylvania, Grant could flank not only that position but any position he might take between there and Richmond. Again, those who find fault with him for fighting in the Wilderness will have to acknowledge also, we believe, that he was too good a general not to realize that any backward steps he might be forced to make, for any reason whatsoever, would have a bad effect on the spirit of his army. Of course, he knew that sooner or later in the campaign he would have to assume the offensive, and take his chances. It is obvious that in case of defeat, the nearer Richmond he should be the more serious might be the results; he had had one experience of that kind at Malvern Hill, which is within ten miles of Richmond, and I am sure he never wanted another like it; for all accounts agree, and are confirmed by what I have heard from Confederates themselves, that his army and Richmond were on the verge of panic.

In justification of the plan that he followed, where is there a field between the Rapidan and Richmond on which his 65,000 men could have hoped to attack Grant’s 120,000 and more under such favorable conditions? where his numbers would be so magnified in effectiveness, and Grant’s so neutralized, by the natural difficulties and terror of woods ? — for dense woods do have a terror. Again, where on the march to Richmond would the Army of the Potomac, from the nature of the country and the roads, be more embarrassed in the use of its vastly superior artillery, or in concentrating its strength, if battle were thrust upon it suddenly ?

Save right around Chancellorsville, the region was an almost unknown country to our people, while to Lee and his men it was comparatively familiar. He himself was thoroughly acquainted with its wooded character, paths, runs, and roads. Moreover, he knew the military advantages they afforded, for he had tested them in his campaign against Hooker. Taking all this into account, then, it seems to me that in planning his campaign to strike at Grant just when and where he did, he planned wisely. For it presented the one good chance to win a decisive victory, which, as I have said before, was absolutely necessary to save the life of the Confederacy. It is true Lee failed to win the victory he had planned and hoped for; but at the moment of his tiger-like spring at the flank of our army there intervened, in the fluttering screen of leafing bough and twig which hid Longstreet from the clear view of his men, that spirit of Fate ever dwelling in the Wilderness to strike down the leaders of his veterans and arrest the advance.

Of the fateful, the mysterious, the unseen, agents of destiny which walk by the side of nations, as go the better angels with the children of men from their cradles, you, my reader, may find no suggestions in the events and circumstances of the battles of the Wilderness and Chancellorsville. If it be so, well and good; but to me, at all events, their presence is very real.

A little before sundown, when all were in camp for the night, Grant issued his orders for the next day. Sheridan was to move with Gregg and Torbert against the enemy’s cavalry, who at that hour were supposed to be at Hamilton’s Crossing, and who, as a matter of fact, were not there at all. Wilson, with his Third Cavalry Division, was to move at 5 A. M. to Craig’s Meeting House, on the Catharpin Road, the one that Longstreet had chosen for his approach. Warren was to take Wilson’s place at Parker’s Store; Sedgwick to move up to Old Wilderness Tavern, leaving one division at Germanna Ford till the head of Burnside’s corps appeared; in other words, he was to occupy Warren’s present position with his whole corps across the Pike. Hancock was to advance by way of Todd’s Tavern to Shady Grove Church on the Catharpin Road, and from there, about three and a half miles south of Warren, throw out his right and connect with him at Parker’s Store. Of the infantry, Hancock had by far the longest march to make, about twelve miles; the others only very short ones, not more than three or four miles. The trains were to be parked at Todd’s Tavern.

None of the moves, as we have stated, were long, or apparently any part of a well-defined campaign, but, rather, precautionary. They neither seriously threatened Lee’s communications with Richmond, nor indicated an active offensive, but were clearly made with a view to allow Burnside to overtake the army, and to get the big, unwieldy supply-trains a bit forward; for there was practically only one narrow road, and not a very good one at that, from Richardsville, where the trains were then halted, to Todd’s Tavern. It was for these reasons, I think, that Grant’s orders did not push the army on clear through the Wilderness the second day. But whatsoever may have been the reason for Grant’s unenergetic move, there is something very striking in his repetition of Hooker’s delay of the year before, when once within the gloom of the fated region. Hooker, all vitality — and bluster for that matter — till he reached the heart of the Wilderness, became then mentally numb and purposeless, as if he were narcotized by some deep, stagnating potion. Just a year later our army marched over twentyodd miles briskly and cheerily, ready to meet the enemy at every turn, all life as they bivouacked, but by six o’clock, before camp-fires were lit or twilight had begun her journey, the lotus apparently was again at work. While aides are carrying the orders to their respective destinations for the next day’s march, the day ends, and twilight comes on through the Wilderness.

After night had set in, Meade, having disposed of all his current official duties for the day, came over from his headquarters — they were only a few steps away — and joined Grant before a large camp-fire made of rails. Grant’s staff withdrew to a fire of their own, and left them alone. From all accounts they were both cheery over having the army across the Rapidan, and on the flank of Lee, without a battle. And now, as it were, a living mysterious being is hovering over them; neither Grant nor Meade, nor a soul in the army under them, dreams that Lee’s advance is within three miles and ready to strike. Why they did not know it, I shall try to explain, but it will only add to the mystery. Meanwhile there they sit before the fire, the wavering, upshooting, and subsiding yellow flames throwing their beams into their faces, anxiety over the first move all gone. The stubborn resistance that Lee might have offered to their crossing of the river had not been made; and now that they were well established on his flank, he would be forced to decisive action. It meant one of two courses for Lee: he would either have to fight it out at once, or fall back and ultimately undergo a siege. In the way they misconceived what he would do, there is almost a suggestion of fatality. For although there is no absolute corroborative evidence to support the conclusion, yet the movements show that what they expected was this: that he would hastily withdraw from his works and place his army to receive, but not to give, attack. Hooker had yielded to the same illusion. In forecasting his Chancellorsville campaign, he had imagined that when Lee at Fredericksburg found that he was on his flank at Chancellorsville, he would fall back and contest the way to Richmond. The difference between the results in Hooker’s case and in Grant’s was wide: the former was driven from the field in almost utter disaster; Grant met Lee’s attack in the Wilderness, threw him back, and pushed on undaunted.

We left Meade and Grant before a camp-fire; the stars were out, and not far away the Rapidan was murmuring on, and close by were the thick night-blackened pines of the still Wilderness. Meade was Grant’s senior by about ten years, and the lines of their lives had run widely apart, sunshine and success on one, adversity’s blasts across the other. They were practically utter strangers when they met before this camp-fire. We may credit Meade, for he would not have been human without it, with a natural wondering curiosity as to Grant’s character, that must have been greatly deepened by his of knowledge Grant’s army career and his marvelous advancement. Knowing ourselves and our fellow men as we do, it is not unreasonable to imagine Meade, a man of the world, of cultivation, and at home in society and clubs, following Grant’s motions and speech with the unobtrusive yet keen observation of men of his class; or to imagine Grant having to meet from him, as from all his old fellow officers of the army, that searching look which had met him from them all since his emergence from obscurity. But I can easily see Meade’s curiosity disarming, and his noble, sensitive nature breathing naturally and strengthening in the soothing influence of Grant’s deep calm; every utterance of his low vibrating voice gliding modestly from one grasp of a subject to another, every tone simple and un-self-conscious.

Our country owes a great deal to both of these men; justice, but not more than justice, has been done to Grant. Meade has never had his due. As I look back and see his devotion day and night in that last great campaign, his hair growing grayer, and the furrows in his face deeper, under its trying burden, and then when it is all over and the cause is won, see him relegated to the third or fourth place in official recognition and popular favor, I feel deeply sorry, knowing, as I do, how the country’s fate hung in the balance when he was called on to take command of the Army of the Potomac. I hope his last hour was comforted, that there came to him out of the Past the cheers of his countrymen, greeting his victory at Gettysburg.

After his death, it was discovered that his system had never recovered from the wound he received at Charles City Cross Roads.

I have no doubt, then, that Grant’s naturally sweet, modest nature, together with the auguries, which were all good, made Meade’s first camp-fire with him a pleasant one; and that, before its flames and in the wild charm of the place, was born the spirit of loyal coöperation which he showed to his chief on every field, and clear to the end. Had they known Lee was so near, it would have been, I think, quite another camp-fire, and Meade might never have gained those fine impressions of Grant which were so honorable to him and so valuable to the country; for which, I sincerely believe, Fortune so turned her wheel that they might be made that night. It is a matter of singular interest that all this time Lee’s position was barely suspected, and his purpose entirely unknown to either of them. And how it all came about is one of the mysterious features of the battle of the Wilderness. Let me state the circumstances, and I promise to make the account as short and comprehensible as I can.

Wilson, with his Third Division of cavalry, reached the Lacy Farm about half-past eight in the forenoon; halted, and sent patrols westward and southward, that is, out the Pike toward Locust Grove and toward Parker’s Store. At noon, when the head of Warren’s corps bore in sight, he set off for Parker’s, first sending orders to the scouting party on the Pike to push out as far as Robertson’s Tavern (now, and by the Confederates during the war, called Locust Grove), and after driving the enemy away from that place, to ride across country and join the division in the neighborhood of Parker’s Store. Wilson, with the bulk of his division, on arriving at the store about two o’clock, sent a strong reconnaissance up the Plank Road, with directions to keep an active lookout for the enemy. In a despatch to Forsythe, Sheridan’s chief of staff, dated 2.10 P. M., he said, “I send herewith a civilian, Mr. Sime, a citizen of Great Britain. He says lie left Orange yesterday 2 P. M.; Longstreet’s corps lies between there and Gordonsville; passed at the latter place Ewell and Hill about Orange Courthouse. Troops well down towards Mine Run [about halfway between the Lacy Farm and the Courthouse], on all the roads except this one [the Plank]; none on this nearer than seven miles. I have sent patrols well out in all directions, but as yet hear nothing from them.”

Sheridan sent the following despatch to Meade, — the hour not given, but presumably toward sundown: “ I have the honor to report that scout sent out the first road leading to the right from Germanna Ford went as far as Barnett’s Mill at or near Mine Run [Barnett’s Mill is on Mine Run], found the enemy’s pickets. Also the scout sent out on the second road to the right [the Flat Run Road that intersects the Pike where the battle began] went to within one-half mile of Robertson’s Tavern, found a small force of the enemy’s cavalry on picket. It was also reported that a brigade of rebel infantry was sent down to Barnett’s Mill or Mine Run yesterday.”

These scouts referred to were probably individuals in Confederate uniform, for Sheridan always kept a group of these quiet, daring men about him on whom he called for hazardous service.

At 7.40 P. M. Wilson again reported to Forsythe, “ I have executed all orders so far. My patrols have been to the Catharpin Road. Did not see Gregg, and only two of the enemy; also to within one mile of Mine Run on Orange Pike [Plank ?] skirmishing with small detachments of the enemy. Patrol to Robertson’s Tavern not yet heard from.”

Ten minutes later, or at 7.50 P. M., Wilson sent this despatch to Warren: “ My whole division is at this place [Parker’s Store]. Patrols well out on the Spottsylvania and Orange Roads. No enemy on former, and but small portion in this. Drove them six miles or to within one mile of Mine Run. Patrol from here toward Robertson’s not yet reported. Rodes’s division reported to be stretched along the road as far as twelve miles this side of Orange. Will notify you of any changes in this direction.” The italics are mine, and as we know now, not only Rodes’s, but Lee’s entire army was on the move. Here we have all the recorded information that Meade could have received of the enemy up to when he joined Grant at his camp-fire.

There is no evidence, so far as I have discovered, that any inquiries were made of Wilson as to the enemy’s movements, either before or after his despatches to Sheridan and Warren. Apparently they were satisfied at headquarters that Sheridan’s scouts and Wilson’s patrols had reported the situation truly, that there was no movement this side of Mine Run. It is quite obvious, too, that no heed was paid by Warren or Sheridan to the ominous statement in Wilson’s despatch as to Rodes. Possibly this information never reached either Meade or Grant; and evidently, if it did, it made but little, if any, impression. This can have but one explanation: namely, that they were possessed with the delusion that Lee, as soon as he found we had crossed the Rapidan, would hasten from his lines to some position beyond the Wilderness. No fog ever drifted in from the sea, wrapping up lighthouses and headlands, that was deeper than this delusion which drifted in over the minds of Grant and Meade, and, so far as I know, over corps and division commanders as well.

But how about Wilson’s patrols ? And especially that one he had sent toward Locust Grove? This is probably what happened. It got to Locust Grove before noon, having scattered into the byroads and paths the videttes of the First North Carolina cavalry whom they had brushed away from the ford at daybreak. From there I assume they went on to Mine Run, which they found glinting brightly from one clump of willows to another. Beyond the run, and in full sight, rose Lee’s breastworks of the year before, not a flag flying on them or a soul in them. All was peaceful at Mine Run. After a while, having scouted up and down the run as far as Barnett’s Mill on the north, and off toward the head of the run on the south, they rejoined the main patrol at Locust Grove. No one disturbed them, and there they waited till they saw the sun approaching the treetops, and then they obeyed their orders and struck off through the woods for Parker’s Store. Their dust had barely settled before on came Ewell. Had they stayed at Locust Grove a few hours longer, the Army of the Potomac would have left their bivouacs and been on the move. Hancock would have been brought up to Parker’s Store, and both Ewell and Hill would have been crushed, probably before noon of the next day.

Is there nothing mysterious in all this ? Knowing the situation as we now do, does it not add interest to that camp-fire of old rails, before which Grant and Meade are sitting smoking? Does it not give a weird echo to the cheery bursts of laughter of their staffs at the humor and wit of the light-hearted members ?

And all this time the spirit of the Wilderness is brooding.

Lee’s camp-fire was in the woods near Verdierville; and General Long, his military secretary, says that at breakfast the following morning he was in unusually fine spirits, chiefly over the fact that Grant had put himself in the meshes of the Wilderness, just as Hooker had done before him, giving him the one chance to overbalance his 120,000 men.

It may freshen the understanding to bring clearly to mind once more the relative positions of the camps of the two armies. Wilson is at Parker’s Store within five miles of Heth, Hill’s leading division. When I was there last May a couple of old straggling orchards were in bloom, and in the road beside one of them I met an old Confederate, whose tawny beard is now streaked with frost, going home from the store. “ Can you tell me where General Wilson was camped ? ” I asked. He replied, sweepingly waving his hand, “ Stranger, he was camped all over that field and all around here; but I was off with Rosser’s cavalry. It is very quiet now, sir.” And so it was.

Ewell is on the Pike within a few miles of Griffin. The positions of the rest of Warren’s corps and of those of Sheridan, Sedgwick and Hancock have already been indicated. From Grant’s headquarters to where Lee was in camp in the woods opposite the house of Mrs. Rodes is, as the crow flies, between nine and ten miles; and a circle with its centre where Warren was in camp and a radius of six miles would have taken in all of the Army of the Potomac save a part of Burnside’s corps and the bulk of Ewell’s and Hill’s corps. And yet the Army of the Potomac lay down to rest, not dreaming that they were almost within gunshot of their old foe!

Happily all of their camps were on less gloomy and fated ground than Hancock’s. His were on the old battlefield of Chancellorsville, and some of his regiments found themselves on the identical lines where they had fought in that engagement. The ground around them, and for that matter everywhere, was strewn more or less with human bones and the skeletons of horses. In a spot less than ten rods square, fifteen skulls with their cavernous eyes were counted, their foreheads doming in silence above the brown leaves that were gathering about them. In sight of a good many of their camp-fires, too, were half-open graves, displaying arms and legs with bits of paling and mildewed clothing still clinging to them. Oh, war’s glory, this is your reverse side! On all hands there were tokens of the battle: shriveling cartridge-boxes, battered and rickety canteens, rotting caps and hats, broken artillery-carriages, barked and splintered trees with dead, or half-dead, dangling limbs, and groves of saplings, in which the woods abound, that had been topped by volleys as if sheared by a blast. Of course, there was line after line of confronting, settling breastworks, whose shallowing trenches nature was quietly filling with leaves and dead twigs. All these dismal reminders met the eyes of Hancock’s men until they were closed in sleep. I do not know how it would have affected others, but I think that if I had been sitting before one of those campfires, — night having well come on and the whip-poor-wills, of which there are thousands that make their homes in the Wilderness, having begun their lonely cries, — and the fire drawing to its end had suddenly kindled up as fires do — and mortals too —sometimes before they die, and thrown off a beam into the darkness upon one of those skulls, it seems to me that I should have felt a low, muffling beat in my heart.

Hancock’s tent was in the old peach orchard. (What is there about a peach orchard that war should choose it for the scene of battles ? There was the battle of Peach-tree Creek near Atlanta, the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg, and now Hancock is in the old peach orchard at Chancellorsville, where the battle raged fiercest. Does war love the red blossom, or did the blood of some noble soldierheart quicken the first peach of the world ?) The whole disastrous scene must have passed in review before Hancock went to sleep. But the feature of the battle that would come back to him, I think, with most vividness, and make the deepest impression on him as a corps commander, was the flank attack that Stonewall Jackson made. In fact, judging from Hancock’s own reports of the first two days’ fighting at the Wilderness (which took place within less than three miles of where he slept), he not only thought about it, but possibly dreamed about it. For the entire time he was fighting Hill, he seemed haunted with the fear that Longstreet would come up on his left by way of Todd’s Tavern and give him a blow on his flank such as Jackson had given Howard, thus paralyzing a great share of his customary aggressive and magnetic usefulness.

I wonder if the ghost of Stonewall did not come back; it was about the anniversary of the night on which he received his mortal wound. The old armies that he knew so well were on the eve of meeting again. Did he cross back over the river that he saw just before he died, that river whose beckoning trees offered such sweet shade to the dying soldier? Did I hear you say that you thought he did? Yes, and lo! he is on the field of Chancellorsville looking for his brigade, for his old legion of the Valley. “ They are not here, Stonewall; these men you see are Hancock’s men.” And now he goes to the peach orchard, for no soldier ever took part in a battle who does not have a longing to see the ground the enemy defended. He approaches Hancock’s tent, — they had known each other in the old army, — draws its walls softly, and looks in on the gallant fellow. Perhaps it was then that Hancock dreamed Longstreet was on his flank.

Stonewall closes the tent-walls and seems to ponder; is he debating where he shall go next? Shall it be off to where he parted with Lee to make his great flank movement, or shall it be back to where he fell ? He is retracing his steps. If you will follow him, so will I, for the road he is on, the woods that border it so sullenly, and the spot to which he is going, I know right well. And now that he has reached it his lips seem to move; is it a prayer he is offering ? Or is he addressing some aide, telling Hill to come up and Pender to push right on, as the old scene comes back to him ? But what is that figure emerging from whence his own men fired on him, that so engages his attention ? Is it the spirit of the Wilderness, and does he read in its relentless eyes the fate that is to befall Longstreet ? Off up the Orange Plank Road towards Parker’s Store then turns the spirit of Stonewall, his heart yearning to be with Lee and his valiant corps once more; and now he is passing the spot where Longstreet is to be stricken down almost mortally by a volley from his own men. Whose hands are those pulling the bushes and overhanging limbs aside ? Lo! there again is the spirit of the Wilderness, with the same ominous, relentless look in her eyes. The figure withdraws, the branches swing back into place, and the ghost of Stonewall moves on, with troubled brow.

Hark! he hears something. It draws nearer, and now we can distinguish footsteps; they sound as if they were dragging chains after them through the rustling leaves. Presently, off from the roadside where two oaks admit a bit of starlight, Stonewall sees a gaunt, hollowbreasted, wicked-eyed, sunken-cheeked vision. Behold, it is addressing him! “ Stonewall, I am Slavery and sorely wounded. Can you do nothing to stay the spirit of the Wilderness that, in striking at me, struck you down ? ”

“No, no,” says the ghostly commander, impatiently waving the staring creature away. “ Your day, thank God! has come. To-morrow morning Lee will strike, but it will not be for you.”

“ And is this history ? ” comes a peevish voice from the general level of those who are as yet only dimly conscious of the essence and final embodiment of History. Yes, it is a little sheaf out of a field lying in one of its high and beautifully remote valleys.

At Warren’s headquarters we breakfasted early, and at 5 A. M. he sent this despatch to Humphreys: —

“ My command is just starting out.

As I have but little ways to move, I keep my trains with me instead of sending them around by the plank road, which I fear might interfere with the main trains, which I understand to be those to be assembled at Todd’s Tavern.”

A half-hour later he notified Getty, camped back at Flat Run on the Germanna Road, that Griffin would hold the Pike till he (Getty) got up. At the same time he sent word to the officer in charge of the pickets in front of Griffin not to withdraw till the column got well in the road on the line of march to Parker’s Store. He then mounted his big, logy dapple gray, wearing as usual his yellow sash of a major-general, and started to follow Crawford and Wadsworth. From his camp he could see that they were already under way, passing the Lacy House. Just as he was reaching the Pike—we had not left camp three minutes — a staff officer, riding rapidly, met him and, saluting, said that General Griffin had sent him to tell General Warren that the enemy was advancing in force on his pickets.

I do not believe that Warren ever had a greater surprise in his life, but his thin, solemn, darkly sallow face was nowhere lightened by even a transitory flare. Hancock’s open, handsome countenance would have been all ablaze. There was with Warren at this time, as I recall, only Colonel Locke, Dr. Winne, the general’s brother Robert, and Lieutenant Higbee, an aide who had been on his staff for a good while, and who was a very brave man. Warren first turned to me and said, “ Tell Griffin to get ready to attack at once; ” then, for some reason, perhaps because of my youth and inexperience, he told Higbee to take the message; and at once notified Meade as follows: —

“ 6 A. M. General Griffin has just sent in word that a force of the enemy has been reported to him coming down the turnpike. The foundation of the report is not given. Until it is more definitely ascertained no change will take place in the movements ordered.”

And now he yielded to one of his weaknesses, referred to by Grant in his Memoirs, namely, informing his commanding officer what should be done. (He had another and more fatal one, that of commenting at times unfavorably, regardless of who were present, on the orders he received.)

“ Such demonstrations are to be expected, and show the necessity for keeping well closed and prepared to face Mine Run and meet an attack at a moment’s notice. G. K. WARREN.”

Before the above despatch left headquarters another aide came in and Warren added, —

“ 6.20. Bartlett (Griffin’s advanced brigade) sends in word that the enemy has a line of infantry out advancing. We shall soon know more. I have arranged for Griffin to hold the pike till the 6th corps comes up at all events. G. K. W.”

He then sent this order to Griffin: —

“ Push a force out at once against the enemy, and see what force he has.”

Even Warren had not quite thrown off the mysterious delusion that Lee was falling back; but within three hours, like a fog, it lifted, not only from his mind but from Meade’s and Grant’s also.

Griffin, on receipt of these orders, forwarded them to Bartlett, who sent at once the Eighteenth Massachusetts and Eighty-third Pennsylvania, the former on the right, the latter on the left of the Pike. When they reached the pickets, skirmishers were thrown out, who promptly engaged those of Ewell, driving them back to their lines, and who quickly ascertained that the enemy was there in strong force and busy throwing up breastworks. On this reconnaissance Charles H. Wilson of Wrentham, Company I, Eighteenth Massachusetts, was killed, the first to fall in the campaign. He was only eighteen years old, and the son of a farmer.

In a short time after these orders were sent to Griffin, Meade with his staff came up hurriedly to Warren, and, hearing what he had to say, exclaimed emphatically, “ If there is to be any fighting this side of Mine Run, let us do it right off.”

I have seen many statements as to what Meade said, but I was within ten feet of him and recall with distinctness his face, his language, and its tones. Meade then sent this despatch back to Grant, who was still at his camp waiting for Burnside. It was received at 7.30 A. M.

“ The enemy have appeared in force on the pike, and are now reported forming line of battle in front of Griffin’s division, 5th Corps. I have directed Gen. Warren to attack them at once with his whole force. Until this movement of the enemy is developed, the march of the corps must be suspended. I have, therefore, sent word to Hancock not to advance beyond Todd’s Tavern. I think the enemy is trying to delay our movements and will not give battle, but of this we shall soon see.”

General Meade, may I ask when Lee ever declined battle with you ? All your doubts on this point will soon be removed, however; for he is right on you and means to deliver a blow, if he can, that will send you reeling, as he sent Hooker, back across the Rapidan.

Grant, on receipt of this unexpected news from Meade, replied, “ If any opportunity presents itself for pitching into a part of Lee’s army, do so without giving time for disposition.” Meanwhile Warren, having hurried aides off to Crawford and Wadsworth, the former to halt, the latter to move up on Griffin’s left, established his headquarters at the Lacy House. From there he sent this message, dated 7.50 A. M., to Griffin: —

“ Have your whole division prepared to move forward and attack the enemy, and await further instructions while the other troops are forming.”

He then rode, and I went with him, to Wadsworth, who had halted about a mile beyond the Lacy House. Where we overtook him there was an old chimney that probably marked the home of one of Major Lacy’s overseers. I remember it very distinctly, for one of Warren’s staff having observed that a bare little knoll near the chimney would be a good place for a battery, he observed coolly that when he wanted advice from his staff he would ask for it. I have always thought that it was an uncalled-for snub on the part of Warren, but a great deal must be excused when a battle is pending; I doubt, however, if Grant or Sedgwick or Thomas under any stress ever spoke to a young officer or soldier in a way or tone that made him uncomfortable. Wadsworth was just forming his division, facing it west. Warren said to him, pointing toward the woods, —we were on the bank of Wilderness Run near where its biggest western branch comes in, and its listening waters, whose cradle is in those glooming woods, heard every word he said, — “ Find out what is in there.” And did they find it? Yes indeed they did.

We then went back to the Lacy House and Warren set off to see Griffin. By the time the aide overtook Crawford, — it was just eight o’clock, — the head of his division had cleared the basin of Wilderness Run and reached the east side of the Chewning Farm, which is on the same heavily wooded broken ridge that Wadsworth and Griffin were forming on, a mile or so to the north. This ridge, with abrupt ascents, bends eastward at Chewning’s like the rim of a great kettle, and after a while falls away into the swampy heads of the easterly branches of Wilderness Run. The farm is an irregular opening, its gently rolling fields —in the midst of which stands the old house that was filled with Confederate wounded during the battle — were beginning, when I saw them last, to clothe themselves in springtime green. Parker’s Store is only about a mile south from them through the woods, the ground declining gradually in that direction.

In acknowledging the receipt of his orders, Crawford said, —

“ There is brisk skirmishing at the store between our own and the enemy’s cavalry. I am halted in a good position.”

The cavalry he saw were the Fifth. New York, five hundred strong, whom Wilson had left to hold the place till Crawford should arrive. They were not skirmishing, however, with cavalry, but with the head of Heth’s division of Hill’s corps, that opened the battle of Gettysburg. Had Warren’s orders to Crawford been delayed twenty or thirty minutes in delivery, the entire day’s operations would have been changed, for his advance would have brought him into immediate contact with the Confederate infantry and Lee’s plans would have been disclosed at once. It is all conjecture what would have been the moves Grant would have made in that case, but the chances are, however, that Hancock would have been diverted to the junction of the Brock and Plank Roads; that Getty would have been pushed immediately to the Chewning Farm, and with Hancock forcing his way to Parker’s Store, and those open fields firmly in our possession, it would have made Lee’s position very critical. But that was not to be; in the May nights of years to come, the phantom regiments of the Confederacy and not ours were to form in the fields and march across them with spectral colors flying.

When Crawford’s despatch, quoted above, reached corps headquarters, Warren was still with Griffin ; and it was sent to Meade, who, judging from the indorsement he put upon it, was not even at that early hour — it was just after nine — in a very good humor. Crawford found that the enemy were in force on the Plank Road, and later asked — his despatch was received at a quarter after eleven —if he should abandon his position to connect with Wadsworth, having received orders to that effect from Warren, who had been impressed with the seriousness of the situation in front of Griffin. Warren replied to this, “ You will move to the right as quickly as possible.” Roebling, Warren’s right-hand man, who presumably was with Crawford at the time, sent this despatch to his chief: “ It is of vital importance to hold the field where General Crawford is. Our whole line of battle is turned if the enemy get possession of it. There is a gap of half a mile between Wadsworth and Crawford. He cannot hold the line against attack.” 1

It is only necessary to visit the field, to follow the old works and gun-emplacements, — when I was there last spring I saw in one of the latter where wild turkeys had been scratching for snails in the leaves, — I say follow the lines, and you will agree with Roebling that we ought to have held the Chewning Farm at all hazards. But before sending the above despatch to Crawford, Warren sent the following, dated 10.30, to Wadsworth: —

“ Push forward a heavy line of skirmishers followed by your line of battle, and attack the enemy at once and push him. General Griffin will also attack. Do not wait for him, but look out for your left flank.”

This order to Wadsworth is so inconsistent with what actually transpired that it can only be accounted for by the fretful nagging which had begun on Warren from headquarters. Morever, Griffin, Ayres, and Bartlett, having visited their skirmish lines and discovered that the enemy were in strong force, were averse to moving unpreparedly, and had so notified Warren. Colonel Swan of Ayres’s staff, whose account is altogether the clearest and most comprehensive yet written of that part of the field, says he went back to Warren at least twice, at Griffin’s behest, to report the gravity of the situation, and that Warren used sharp language to him the second time. Colonel Swan says, “ I remember my indignation. It was afterwards a common report in the army that Warren had just had unpleasant things said to him by General Meade, and that General Meade had just heard the bravery of his army questioned.” The ground for the latter might have been some heedless remark from one of Grant’s aides who had come with him from the West. But however this may be, as soon as Grant could communicate the necessary orders to Burnside as to the disposition of his troops at the ford, he came to the front with all speed. On his arrival he found Meade and Sedgwick standing near the Pike, and after short consultation he and Meade pitched their headquarters near by. They were on a knoll covered with pines from four to seven inches in diameter, the ground strewn with needles and bits of dead limbs. It is now part of an open leaning field, with here and there an old tree dreaming of the past; and nearly opposite, on the Pike, is a little frame chapel, its bell on Sunday mornings pealing softly over it.

They had barely dismounted before news of importance besides Crawford’s first despatch came in. Captain Michler of the engineers, whom Meade had sent to reconnoitre to the right of Griffin, had been suddenly fired on while making his way through the thickety heads of Caton’s Run. After satisfying himself that trouble was brewing, he hurried down the Flat Run Road to its junction with that from Germanna, and notified Meade of the situation. Wright’s division of the Sixth Corps was moving along unconscious of danger. As soon as Wright heard Michler’s story he formed his division, facing it west, and soon orders came to move up and join the right of Griffin. He had to advance through about the most broken and confusing district of the Wilderness. His left, under Upton, had to cross all the feathery branches of Caton’s Run, which are densely packed with bushes, vines, and low-limbed trees. By this time, too, definite news had reached headquarters from Parker’s Store. The five hundred men of the Fifth New York whom Wilson had left there under command of the gallant Colonel Hammond, had dismounted, and fighting as infantry, were falling back, though gamely, under his inspiring example and that of General McIntosh, who on his way from Sheridan to report to Wilson for the command of a brigade, had joined him. Meade realized the danger those brave men were stalling off, that Lee was aiming for the junction of the Brock and Plank Roads. With this in his possession, Warren’s position would be turned and Hancock at Todd’s Tavern completely isolated from the other corps. So about half-past ten Getty, who had been lying near headquarters, — waiting, shall I say for the delusion to lift that Lee was retreating, — was ordered to move thither with all haste, and head off Hill. At the same time Hancock, who, dismounted, was resting in a pine grove beyond Todd’s Tavern, was told to come up without delay and support Getty.

Meanwhile Winne and the other surgeons were busy locating their hospitals and getting ready for what they knew was coming. And by ten o’clock the yellow flags of the First, Second, and Third divisions of the Fifth Corps were flying on the ridge east of Wilderness Run; that of the Third was first near the Lacy House, but later moved back with the rest; those of Wright’s and Rickett’s divisions of the Sixth Corps were behind them respectively to the east of the Germanna Road; that of Getty, and later those of Hancock’s corps, were pitched near Lewis Run among the fields of the Carpenter Farm, which when I saw them last were in blading corn.

To the wonder of headquarters, no news had come from Wilson; but it is easy of explanation. Not having received counter-instructions and the enemy having made no demonstration, he had set off promptly for Craig’s Meeting House on the Catharpin Road. His division got there at eight o’clock; and shortly after, its leading brigade engaged Rosser and drove him westward several miles. Rosser was soon reinforced, and pushing Wilson back got possession of the road to Parker’s Store, thus cutting him off from communicating with Meade. About noon Fitz Lee, having joined Rosser, after some severe fighting finally drove Wilson rapidly toward Todd’s Tavern. There Gregg, with the Second Cavalry division, interposed and checked the enemy. In the mean time, every little while, as the morning had worn on, wounded men had come down Wilderness Run from the gallant Hammond’s command, all telling the same story of the advance of Hill toward the Brock Road. This, and the absence of any news from Wilson himself, added to the intensity of the situation, and impatience grew apace.

Again and again inquiries were made of Warren when Griffin would move, and each time with more edge. No one at headquarters shared Warren’s conviction that the situation called for a thoroughly organized and formidable attack, one that would leave no doubt of results. Had any one of the headquarters staff, however, tried to put a division or even a regiment in line, he would soon have realized the difficulties and would have had abundant charity for Warren. It is true that the delay that morning was almost inexplicable. But once a division left the roads or fields it disappeared utterly, and its commander could not tell whether it was in line with the others or not. As it turned out, they were almost as disconnected when they struck the enemy as if they had been marching in the dark. Yet it took nearly four hours to get ready to form, and when the orders came to go ahead, divisions were still looking for each others’ flanks. By halfpast eleven Meade could stand the delay no longer, and, whether or not Wright was abreast with Griffin, “ Send him ahead,” was the firm command from headquarters.

The situation, then, on our side, thirty minutes before the battle began, is as follows: Bartlett’s brigade of Griffin’s division is formed in two lines of battle on the south of the Pike. The first line is the Eighteenth Massachusetts and Eighty-third Pennsylvania, the latter next the road; the second line, the One Hundred and Eighteenth Pennsylvania, and Twentieth Maine, the First Michigan deployed as skirmishers. Ayres is moving up by the flank of regiments in column of fours, through the tangled cedars and pines on the right of the Pike, the One Hundred and Fortieth New York, Pat O’Rorke’s old regiment, on the left of the first line, and then the Regulars. In the second line, its left on the Pike, is the One Hundred and Forty-sixth New York, then the Ninety-first and One Hundred and Fifty-fifth Pennsylvania. I doubt if a single captain in Ayres’s brigade or that of Upton, the left of Wright’s division of the Sixth Corps, who were elbowing their way through the bushes and buck-horned, dead limbs of morose, moss-tagged pines to overtake and connect with Ayres, saw the entire length of his company, let alone the battalion, as he moved forward.

Wadsworth, mounted on his iron gray, lighter in color than Warren’s, is following up his division that is trying to advance in line of battle to join Bartlett’s left. Cutler is on the right with the Iron Brigade, the Twenty-fourth Michigan on its left. Stone is in the centre of the division, Rice on the left next to Crawford. The Maryland brigade is in reserve behind Stone. Daniel W. Taft, a brave, one-armed Vermont veteran, who was with Rice in the Ninety-fifth New York, tells me that, as they advanced, a wild turkey, the first and only one he ever saw, broke from a thicket ahead of them.

Getty is nearing the junction of the Brock and Plank Roads. Wheaton, commanding his leading brigade, catches sight of the tall North Carolinians who are about to overwhelm Hammond making his last stand, breaks into a run, forms behind the tired, gallantly-fought cavalrymen, and is saving the key of the battlefield. There were bodies of Confederate dead within less than 200 feet of this vital point. Hancock, urged by orders from Meade, is riding rapidly ahead of his corps up the Brock Road to join Getty. His troops are coming on too, as fast as they can, sometimes at double-quick, but all are greatly delayed in their march by artillery, trains, and horsemen, the road being very narrow and bordered by such thick woods that the guns and trains cannot draw off into them to clear the way for the infantry. For three or four miles this side of Todd’s Tavern the road is packed with his sweltering troops, for it is very hot in the still woods. The trains that had set out to follow him to Todd’s Tavern have faced about and are making all speed for Chancellorsville, where the artillery reserve is going into park.

The bulk of Burnside’s corps, suffering with heat and marching as fast as it can, is away between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock. The batteries around the Lacy House and on the overlooking ridge east of Wilderness Run stand ready to move, the buglers following their captains as they go from section to section of their batteries, the gunners lying down or leaning against their well-loved pieces. There is one battery close behind Griffin. Ammunition wagons from the various supply-trains have drawn out and taken positions as close as they dare to their respective brigades. The ambulances too have come forward and are ready.

At headquarters, anxiety with Meade and Humphreys is increasing over Hill’s move toward the Brock Road. The eagle spirit in Meade is up, and a captious wonder pervades the staff why Warren does not attack. No one seems to know or care whether Upton is within reach of Ayres or not. In fact, impatience born of a delusion that there was nothing very serious in front of Warren blinded every one from taking the ordinary safeguarding steps. Grant is sitting with his back against a young pine, whittling and smoking, his modest, almost plaintive, face as calm as though he were sitting on a beach and waves were breaking softly below him.

At last Meade’s imperative orders have reached Warren, and Griffin’s lines are moving. The sun is in the meridian, not a cloud in the sky, and Wilderness Run is glistening down through the fields. In the woods not a living leaf is stirring, and the dead ones are waiting to pillow softly the maimed and dying. “The mortally wounded will be so thirsty! ” says a spring beauty blooming in the woods on the bank of the little run that crosses the Pike in front of Griffin. “ And some of them I know will cry for water,” observes a violet sadly. “And if they do, I wish I had wings, for I’d fly to every one of them,” exclaims the brooklet. “We know you would, sweetheart,” reply violet and spring beauty to their lighthearted companion of the solitude. “ And if one of them dies under me, I’ll toll every bell that hangs in my outstretched, blooming branches,” declares a giant huckleberry-bush warmly. “But hush! hush! ” cries the bush, “ here they come! ”

(To be continued.)

  1. I beg to acknowledge my obligations to Col. Washington A. Roebling, Warren’s chief of staff, for the valuable aid his notes have given me ; and to Professor Theodore Lyman, son of Col. Theodore Lyman, Meade’s most confidential staff officer, who has allowed me to consult his gallant father’s notes of the battle.