Recollections of Tire Civil War

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Author: Charles A. Dana  | Date: 1898

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CHAPTER XXII—YEAR OF VICTORY

In the Wilderness (1864)

BY CHARLES ANDERSON DANA (1897)

. . . IT was Grant, the lieutenant general of the armies of the United States, who was really directing the movements. The central idea of the campaign had not developed to the army when I reached headquarters, but it was soon clear to everybody. Grant’s great operation was the endeavor to interpose the Federal army between Lee’s army and Richmond, so as to cut Lee off from his base of supplies. He meant to get considerably in advance of Lee—between him and Richmond—thus compelling Lee to leave his intrenchments and hasten southward. If in the collision thus forced Grant found that he could not smash Lee, he meant to make another move to get behind his army. That was to be the strategy of the campaign of 1864. That was what Lee thwarted, though he had a narrow escape more than once.

The first encounter with Lee had taken place in the Wilderness on May 5th and 6th. The Confederates and many Northern writers love to call the Wilderness a drawn battle. It was not so; in every essential light it was a Union victory. Grant had not intended to fight a battle in those dense, brushy jungles, but Lee precipitated it just as he had precipitated the battle of Chancellorsville one year before, and not six miles to the eastward of this very ground. In doing so he hoped to neutralize the superior numbers of Grant as he had Hooker’s, and so to mystify and handle the Union leader as to compel a retreat across the Rapidan. But he failed. Some of the fighting in the brush was a draw, but the Union army did not yield a rood of ground; it held the roads southward, inflicted great losses on its enemy, and then, instead of recrossing the river, resumed its march toward Richmond as soon as Lee’s attacks had ceased. Lee had palpably failed in his objects. His old-time tactics had made no impression on Grant. He never offered general battle in the open afterward.

The previous history of the Army of the Potomac had been to advance and fight a battle, then either to retreat or to tie still, and finally to go into winter quarters. Grant did not intend to proceed in that way. As soon as he had fought a battle and had not routed Lee, he meant to move nearer to Richmond and fight another battle. But the men in the army had become so accustomed to the old methods of campaigning that few, if any, of them believed that the new commander in chief would be able to do differently from his predecessors. I remember distinctly the sensation in the ranks when the rumor first went around that our position was south of Lee’s. It was the morning of May 8th. The night before the army had made a forced march on Spottsylvania Courthouse. There was no indication the next morning that Lee had moved in any direction. As the army began to realize that we were really moving south, and at that moment were probably much nearer Richmond than was our enemy, the spirits of men and officers rose to the highest pitch of animation. On every hand I heard the cry, "On to Richmond!"

But there were to be a great many more obstacles to our reaching Richmond than General Grant himself, I presume, realized on May 8, 1864. We met one that very morning; for when our advance reached Spottsylvania Courthouse it found Lee’s troops there, ready to dispute the right of way with us, and two days later Grant was obliged to fight the battle of Spottsylvania before we could make another move south.

. . . The battle had begun on the morning of May 10th, and had continued all day. On the 11th the armies had rested, but at half past four on the morning of the 12th fighting had been begun by an attack by Hancock on a rebel salient. Hancock attacked with his accustomed impetuosity, storming and capturing the enemy’s fortified line, with some four thousand prisoners and twenty cannon. The captures included nearly all of Major-General Edward Johnson’s division, together with Johnson himself and General George H. Steuart. . . .

It was quite early in the morning when Hancock’s prisoners were brought in. The battle raged without cessation throughout the day, Wright and Hancock bearing the brunt of it. Burnside made several attacks, in which his troops generally bore themselves like good soldiers. The results of the battle of Spottsylvania were that we had crowded the enemy out of some of his most important positions, had weakened him by losses of between nine thousand and ten thousand men killed, wounded, and captured, besides many battle flags and much artillery, and that our troops rested victorious upon the ground they had fought for.

After the battle was over and firing had nearly ceased, Rawlins and I went out to ride over the field. We went first to the salient which Hancock had attacked in the morning. The two armies had struggled for hours for this point, and the loss had been so terrific that the place has always been known since as the "Bloody Angle." The ground around the salient had been trampled and cut in the struggle until it was almost impassable for one on horseback, so Rawlins and I dismounted and climbed up the bank over the outer line of the rude breastworks. Within we saw a fence over which earth evidently had been banked, but which now was bare and half down. It was here the fighting had been fiercest. We picked our way to this fence, and stopped to look over the scene. The night was coming on, and, after the horrible din of the day, the silence was intense; nothing broke it but distant and occasional firing or the low groans of the wounded. I remember that as I stood there I was almost startled to hear a bird twittering in a tree. All around us the underbrush and trees, which were just beginning to be green, had been riddled and burnt. The ground was thick with dead and wounded men, among whom the relief corps was at work. The earth, which was soft from the heavy rains we had been having before and during the battle, had been trampled by the fighting of the thousands of men until it was soft, like thin hasty pudding. . . .

The first news which passed through the ranks the morning after the battle of Spottsylvania was that Lee had abandoned his position during the night. Though our army was greatly fatigued from the enormous efforts of the day before, the news of Lee’s departure inspired the men with fresh energy, and everybody was eager to be in pursuit. Our skirmishers soon found the enemy along the whole line, however, and the conclusion was that their retrograde movement had been made to correct their position after the loss of the key points taken from them the day before, and that they were still with us in a new line as strong as the old one. Of course, we could not determine this point without a battle, and nothing was done that day to provoke one. It was necessary to rest the men.

In changing his lines Lee had left more uncovered the roads leading southward along his right wing, and Grant ordered Meade to throw the corps of Warren, which held the right, and the corps of Wright, which held the center of Meade’s army, to the left of Burnside, leaving Hancock upon our right. If not interrupted, Grant thought by this maneuvre to turn Lee’s flank and compel him to move southward.

The movement of the two corps to our left was executed during the night of May 13th and 14th, but for three days it had rained steadily, and the roads were so bad that Wright and Warren did not get up to surprise the enemy at daylight as ordered. . . .

The two armies were then lying in a semicircle, the Federal left well around toward the south. We were concentrated to the last degree, and, so far as we could tell, Lee’s forces were equally compact. On the 15th, 16th, and 17th, we lay in about the same position. This inactivity was caused by the weather. A pouring rain had begun on the 11th, and it continued until the morning of the 16th; the mud was so deep that any offensive operation, however successful, could not be followed up. . . .

While waiting for the rain to stop, we had time to consider the field returns of losses as they were handed in. The army had left winter quarters at Culpeper Courthouse on May 4th, and on May 16th the total of killed, wounded, and missing in both the Army of the Potomac and the Ninth Corps amounted to a little over thirty-three thousand men. The missing alone amounted to forty-nine hundred, but some of these were, in fact, killed or wounded. When Grant looked over the returns, he expressed great regret at the loss of so many men. Meade, who was with him, remarked, as I remember, "Well, General, we can’t do these little tricks without losses."

By the afternoon of May 17th the weather was splendid, and the roads were rapidly becoming dry, even where the mud was worst. Grant determined to engage Lee, and orders for a decisive movement of the army were issued, to be executed during the night. . . . Hancock and Wright . . . attacked at daylight . . . but . . . both corps having artfully but unsuccessfully sought for a weak point where they might break through, Grant, at nine o’clock, ordered the attack to cease. The attempt was a failure. Lee was not to be ousted; and Grant, convinced of it, issued orders . . . to slip away from Lee and march on toward Richmond again.

Charles A. Dana, (New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1898), 192–201 passim.

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Chicago: Charles A. Dana, "In the Wilderness (1864)," Recollections of Tire Civil War in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=X9DVNPSE3S2HWL8.

MLA: Dana, Charles A. "In the Wilderness (1864)." Recollections of Tire Civil War, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=X9DVNPSE3S2HWL8.

Harvard: Dana, CA, 'In the Wilderness (1864)' in Recollections of Tire Civil War. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=X9DVNPSE3S2HWL8.