[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


[image ALT: link to next section]
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. III
Chapter XVII

History Fails to Repeat Itself

(MAY 6‑7, 1864)

When Lee learned from Major McClellan that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet could not arrive until nearly daylight on May 6, he did not communicate that fact to Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wilcox or to Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Heth. He probably reasoned that as the First Corps and Anderson of Hill's corps would come on the ground before the enemy would attack, nothing was to be gained by arousing the apprehension of the tired commanders. Nor did he order the front of the Third Corps fortified, because he intended Longstreet's men, upon their arrival, to take up and to entrench a line that had been drawn early the previous evening a short distance in rear of Wilcox and Heth.1

At 3:30 A.M., however, Wilcox became alarmed over the non-arrival of the expected reinforcements. He sent a summons to the rear for all the corps pioneers to come forward and entrench. Before they could reach the front, day had broken, and by the time they had started felling timber, they were visible to the enemy and were quickly driven from their work. Sunrise found the men of the Third Corps still scattered through the Wilderness, with little semblance of a line and with no cover except that afforded by the young trees.​2 At 5 o'clock, almost with the sun, the Federal infantry opened fire at close range and soon was attacking hotly in front and on both flanks. The Confederates made such resistance as they could — here good and there feeble — and contrived for perhaps half an hour to retard the enemy. To their calls for assistance, Lee sent back an urgent appeal that they hold on until Longstreet was at hand. Soon stragglers began to leave the front; their number multiplied; presently Wilcox's line began to give ground; then it went to pieces, except directly on the road, and men came pouring to the westward. Some were running. Others  p286  walked swiftly to the rear with never a look at the enemy. A few loaded and halted and fired and moved on. It was a sudden crisis of a sort the army had never known except at Sharpsburg. The minds of the weary men were in flux. In a minute they might be in a mad panic.

One glance showed Lee that the fate of the day and the control of the army were in the balance. Swiftly he ordered Taylor to gallop to Parker's Store and to prepare the wagon train for instant retreat in case the corps could not be halted. Then out into the road he hurried to help rally the retreating soldiers. He found himself in the midst of McGowan's South Carolinians who so often had proved their valor.

"My God, General McGowan," he cried in a loud voice to their commander, "is this the splendid brigade of yours running like a flock of geese?"

"General," answered McGowan, "these men are not whipped. They only want a place to form, and they will fight as well as they ever did."3

Still Wilcox's men were rushing down the road and across the fields. A little more and the whole divisional front would be bare. The enemy would sweep on — and what was there to stop him? Only the hope that Longstreet would come up at that moment! If the old luck of the Army of Northern Virginia held, and reinforcements arrived before actual rout began, all would be well. But if Longstreet were delayed much longer, then . . . here was General Wilcox telling of the break and asking for orders.

"Longstreet must be here," Lee told him, his voice anxious, and the strain showing plainly now in his face, "go bring him up!"

Wilcox turned and made off. Lee rode back into Mrs. Tapp's field. There were still some Confederates east of the house, though the number was small — wounded men mostly. Should the artillery wait until these troops passed, or should it open now and try to keep off the Federals who were gathering thickly, there where vision ended in that maze of green boughs and blue coats? Not one minute longer, said Hill, could the artillery delay! If it did, the guns would all be captured.

Open, then, Colonel Poague, with your valiant old batteries —  p287  give them grape! Poague's guns were already loaded; the command rang out; twelve belching pieces filled the woods with fire. Another round, and then another, Colonel Poague, if there's time; the enemy is still 200 yards away.4

Around Lee the choking smoke and the excited cannoneers; behind him a wild scene of confusion, officers shouting and waving their sabres, soldiers numbed with exhaustion or with fear, scarcely conscious of the orders given them. A long, agonizing minute of this, and then, through the smoke, twenty or more ragged soldiers running with their muskets in their hands — not to the rear but into the space where Poague's guns were still vomiting grape.

"Who are you, my boys?" Lee cried out as he saw them gathering.

"Texas boys," they yelled, their number multiplying every second.

The Texans — Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood's Texans, of Longstreet's corps, just at the right place and at the right moment! After the strain of the dawn, the sight of these Grenadier Guards of the South was too much for Lee. For once the dignity of the commanding general was shattered; for once his poise was shaken.

"Hurrah for Texas," he shouted, waving his hat; "Hurrah for Texas."

In rising excitement, he yelled to them to form line of battle at once. As the willing veterans sprang into position, a brigade of them now, he rode to the left of the line. He would lead them in the countercharge. The line started forward. He spurred frantic Traveller through an opening in the gun pits, and was on the heels of the infantry men.

Then, for the first time they realized what he intended to do. "Go back, General Lee, go back!" they cried. He paid no heed to them. They began to slacken their pace: "We won't go on unless you go back!" He did not hear them. His face was aflame and his eyes were on the enemy in the front. General Gregg tried to head him off; a tall sergeant seized his bridle rein; nothing stopped him until Colonel Venable arrived. Longstreet was at hand, Venable shouted into the General's ear; had he not better  p288  turn aside and give Longstreet his orders? For a moment there was a hard conflict between the impulse of the warrior and the commander's sense of responsibility. Then, like a man coming out of a trance, Lee slowly pulled back his horse, his glare still to the front; he waved his hat to the onrushing Texans and went back to Longstreet — to be told bluntly that he should go farther behind the lines.5

While Lee had been rallying Hill's men and cheering the Texans, the First Corps had been forming, Kershaw on the right and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Field on the left of the Plank road. The retreating troops of Heth and of Wilcox had reached Longstreet's men just as the First Corps had established its line, but it had opened ranks, had allowed the fugitives to pass through, and then, in perfect order, had begun its advance.​6 As soon as these veterans moved forward, Lee regained his poise. He left Longstreet to direct the countermovement and busied himself with providing the slight artillery support that could be used in that tangled terrain.​7 Quickly, too, he began reforming Wilcox and Heth on the left of Longstreet. This was not a difficult task, for McGowan's statement proved correct. Most of the troops of the Third Corps retreated only some 300 yards and now were ready to fight again. As soon as they were organized, Lee sent them to fill the gap between their flank on the Plank road and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell's on the turnpike.8

 p289  Not long after Hill had set off to the northward with his troops, his adjutant general, Colonel William H. Palmer, came galloping back to Lee to report that Hill had found a force of the enemy in the gap between the Second and Third Corps and wished the loan of a brigade of Anderson's division, if Anderson had arrived, in order that he might have enough men to capture the Federals who had ventured so far to the front. Anderson​9 had found Longstreet ahead of him on the Plank road and had been compelled to wait until Longstreet had cleared it. Lee had already given orders for Anderson to report to Longstreet and he was loath, now, to detach any part of the division without the knowledge of its temporary chief.

"Well," said Lee when Palmer asked for the brigade, "let's see General Longstreet about it."

They rode together through the copses, to the swelling accompaniment of a violent fire on a lengthening front, and reached Longstreet just as Anderson's division was reporting, about 8 A.M.10

"General Hill," said Lee, "wants one of Anderson's brigades."

Old Pete was in his glory then. His troops were all in position and were advancing faultlessly. He answered with the ease of a confident victor. "Certainly, Colonel," he said, addressing himself to Palmer, "which one will you take?"

"The leading one," said Palmer, with the inference that all brigades of the Third Corps were equally good.

As quickly as he could, Palmer led the troops off, and Lee returned to the field on the left of the road to follow the furious fighting up the Plank road.​11 The counterattack of Longstreet's veterans had halted the Federals and now was forcing them back slowly toward temporary works from which they had advanced against Hill earlier in the morning.​12 Kershaw, in particular, having favorable ground on the right of the road, organized a charge, dislodged the enemy, and hurled him back to a second line.​13 These gains were made by sheer valor, for the Federals fought with the magnificent determination that had been observed the previous day.

 p290  The ground was incredibly difficult. It was bad enough at any time, with its endless mazes of low-spreading pines and its stunted oaks, many of them only an inch or two in diameter; but now, as one witness has put it, almost every bush "had a bullet through it, causing these white oak runners to bend down from being top heavy. These bullets all seemed to go through about the height of a man's waist. In tumbling down, [the bushes] made almost an impassable barrier. Together with this obstacle the dead and the dying were so thick that we could not help stepping on them."​14 Through this treacherous tangle, Field and Kershaw continued to press forward, but with heavy casualties. The Texans lost nearly two-thirds of their numbers,​15 and the other brigades suffered heavily.

Before 10 o'clock the first stage of the battle was over. The Federal attack on Hill had been beaten off; the enemy on the whole of the Confederate right flank had been driven back beyond the positions he had occupied at the opening of the engagement; the front was momentarily stabilized.

What next? Lee had planned the previous evening to turn the Union left south of the Plank road. It had been with this in view that he had directed the march of Longstreet and of Anderson on his right flank. Doubtless he had communicated his general plan to Old Pete. Now, while Lee was still working to effect a junction between Hill and Ewell, General Wofford suggested to Longstreet that he use Anderson and part of his own  p291  corps to get on the left flank of the Federals and roll up the line while the rest of the infantry attacked in front.​16 Longstreet was agreeable. General M. L. Smith, the new chief engineer of the army, had reported to Longstreet, under Lee's orders, and was now sent off to see if there was a route through the woods by which the turning movement could be executed.​17 He had not gone far to the south of the Plank road when he found the cut of an unfinished railroad from Orange to Fredericksburg,​18 similar in nearly all respects to that which had formed Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson's line of defense on part of his front at Groveton. This railroad cut was not on the map issued for the campaign and its location was not known, apparently, until Smith came upon it.19

As soon as General Smith returned, about 10 A.M.,​20 Longstreet ordered his adjutant general, Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrel, to conduct three brigades to the railroad cut, under Smith's direction, and to throw them against the enemy's flank which, Smith said, extended only a short distance south of the Plank road. Lee was of course apprised and was willing for the manoeuvre to be made, but as usual he left the execution entirely to the corps commander. He had completely recovered his composure by this time, and had none of the excitement he had displayed when the enemy had broken through Hill's lines. When a courier brought him a message from Anderson and sat on his weary, panting animal after he had delivered the paper, Lee rebuked him sharply: "Young man," he said, "you should have some feeling for your horse; dismount and rest him." Without another word, he  p292  reached into the saddle-bag on Traveller's back, took out half a buttered biscuit and gave it to the courier's mount.21

Presently an officer came back from the front of Wilcox's division. Lee quizzed him closely. What was the meaning of the firing in that quarter? Had Wilcox found the right of Ewell's corps? Had the enemy been located in front of the division? When the officer explained that he had seen the wood where Wilcox's flank was said to rest, and had observed the glint of the sun on the rifles of the enemy, Lee pondered. He evidently was in doubt as to whether this indicated that the foe was planning to drive a wedge between Ewell and Hill. If so, then obviously  p293  a delay in launching the attack against the Federal left might throw the army back on the defensive. To the officer Lee only said, "Those bullets keep coming this way,"​22 but he must have counted the seconds and weighed the miniés that continued to fly from the Federal left toward the centre.

[image ALT: missingALT]

Manoeuvre of parts of First and Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, designed to turn the left flank of the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness of Spotsylvania,
May 6, 1864.

At length, about 11 o'clock,​23 there swelled from the Confederate right the sudden roar of a new attack. Led by Colonel Sorrel, four brigades had moved to the railroad cut, and now were advancing northward against the left of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Meade's army. Soon the joyful news was received that the enemy's line was being rolled up. Some of the Union brigades were already routed. The victorious Confederates were close to the Plank road; a general advance of the whole right wing was ordered. Longstreet had sufficient men — five of the brigades at his disposal had not yet gone into action. With their help and that of the troops already in line, Longstreet believed that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant's army could be hurled back, a broken and confused mass, against the fords of the Rapidan. A triumph, Longstreet thought, akin to that which might have been won the previous year, if Jackson had not fallen, was now awaiting the army.​24 A tragic morning was trending to a glorious noon!

And now Longstreet's troops started forward again, some for a new flanking movement,​25 some driving eastward to find the Federals who had retreated from the weakened front along the Plank road. Lee hurried over to that highway and hastened toward the battle-line, in order to sustain Longstreet's attack with Hill's corps and with the artillery, if the advance carried the army where the guns could be employed. When he reached the front, the eastward advance up the Plank road had already carried the troops opposite the point where the four brigades had attacked northward from the railroad cut. The two columns thus formed a right angle. A few units of the flanking column, in fact, had already crossed the Plank road. Lee paused to see that some logs were cleared away, so that the artillery could pass;​26 Longstreet,  p294  confident, almost exuberant, was just setting off with his entourage to follow the wild, cheering troops. If Lee looked after his senior lieutenant, there might have flashed before him, for an instant, the picture of Jackson as he, too, ahead ridden out of sight into the devouring shadows of that same Wilderness, on his way to turn the flank of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hooker. The atmosphere was the same, the atmosphere of victory. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pope, Burnside and Hooker, Meade and Grant — all were one when the Army of Northern Virginia got under way!

Only an instant for reflection, and then a rattle of small arms up the road, a strong voice frantically crying "Friends," the sound of maddened horses galloping off, staff officers calling for surgeons . . . the Confederate troops parallel to the road evidently had fired on their own comrades advancing up it . . . some one had been hit. In a few seconds the evil tidings were passed to Lee. The Erinyes were still pursuing! Whenever a decisive victory had been in the making, rain or accident or death had snatched it away. And now, at what had seemed the most hopeful moment in the opening battle of the decisive campaign, Longstreet, the most experienced and the ablest of the surviving corps leaders, had been wounded! It was the fate of the Confederacy!27

Colonel Sorrel came quickly to give Lee the facts and to say that Longstreet, coughing blood at every breath, urged Lee to continue the manoeuvre, which he had entrusted to General Field as ranking division commander of the corps. Lee paused long enough to make solicitous inquiry about the nature of Longstreet's wound​28 and then he rode up to the temporary commander. He did not take the battle from Field's hands, but remained nearby, where the acting chief of the corps had the good sense to consult him.29

It was immediately apparent that the advantage had been pushed to the limit and that Longstreet had been wrong in assuming that he could hurl the enemy back to the Rapidan without disposing his troops anew. "My division and some others probably," Field wrote, "were perpendicular to the road and in  p295  line of battle, whilst all those which had acted as a turning force were in line parallel to the road, and the two were somewhat mixed up. No advance could possibly be made till the troops parallel to the road were placed perpendicular to it, otherwise, as the enemy had fallen back down the road, our right flank would have been exposed to him. . . . Our two bodies being on the road at the same point, one perpendicular and the other about parallel to it, neither could move without interfering with the other."30

In the Wilderness jungle, where the smoke from burning leaves was adding to the confusion, the recall of the flanking column and the drawing of a new line of battle were exasperatingly slow tasks. Meantime, of course, the enemy was recovering from his near-panic and was bracing himself in strengthened works along the Brock road to meet a new assault. When Longstreet's troops were all in position, and the offensive could be renewed, it was 4:15, and the Federals could not be shaken.31

Finding that nothing further could be achieved on the right, Lee rode over to the left, where, at 5:30 P.M., he found Ewell in consultation with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early and with John B. Gordon, commander of one of Early's brigades. Little had been accomplished all day by the Second Corps, except to beat off a few minor attacks.32

"Cannot something be done on this flank," Lee asked, "to relieve the pressure upon our right?"

Ewell and Early had nothing to propose, but Gordon, after listening silently for a few minutes, said that he had found the extreme right of the Federal army exposed. He had asked permission to attack it but had not been allowed to do so. Early had been arguing against the proposal ever since Gordon had made it before 9 o'clock, and now he insisted once more that the enemy's flank was not "in the air" — that the IX Corps was in support.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Approximate position of the Confederate right and right centre, about noon, May 6, 1864, after Longstreet's advance.

At Lee's instance, Gordon explained. He had reconnoitred in person, he said, and had been several miles in the rear of the flank of the opposing force, which was the VI Corps. His conviction  p296  was fixed that no troops were in support of the weak Federal right. On this statement of fact, Lee sided with the brigade commander. "His words were few," Gordon wrote at a later time, "but his silence and grim looks while the reasons for that long delay were being given, and his prompt order to me to move at once to the attack, revealed his thoughts almost as plainly as words could have done."​33 Gordon immediately went forward with the impetuous ardor of youth — he was not yet thirty-two.  p297  Having Robert D. Johnston's brigade in support,​34 he swept a mile of the front of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sedgwick's corps, cut off from the Army of the Potomac temporarily from its base across the Rapidan, and captured some 600 prisoners.​35 But twilight caught the Confederates on the Union trenches and forced them back, with only their prisoners, their scant booty, and their tale of another lost opportunity. If Lee had elected that day to remain on the left, rather than on the right, where he had projected his turning movement, the attack on Sedgwick's flank might have come in the forenoon instead of close to sunset, and a different record might have been written. As Lee rode glumly back to headquarters at the Tapp house, he must have lamented anew that fatal volley in the battle of Chancellorsville, which had taken the Second Corps from the masterly hands of Jackson, and had led him, in the absence of a better choice, to entrust that magnificent body of fighting men to Ewell.

Night now fell on the confused field, yet such a night as even the Army of Northern Virginia, in all its desperate adventures, had rarely known before. The woods were now on fire in many places. Distant flames cast weird shadows. Choking smoke was everywhere. And from the thickets came the cries of the wounded, frantic lest the flames reach them ere the litter-bearers did.​36 It was war in Inferno.

The situation, in other respects, was not gloomy. Lee's casualties during the day had been severe, but, judging from the dead on the ground, those of the Federals had been much heavier.​37 The enemy had attacked with greater ferocity than ever before, but he  p298  had been halted in his advance, repulsed on his centre, defeated on his left, and roughly handled on his right.

In like circumstance, and with losses no greater, Hooker had retreated the previous year: Would Grant do so now? Would history repeat itself? Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart and Fitz Lee reported the Federal cavalry withdrawn, as if concentrating on Charlottesville.​38 That might indicate either a retreat or a movement down the Rappahannock, but the first of these alternatives did not seem probable to Lee. He felt that there was at least one day's more fight in the Army of the Potomac. It would be well to strengthen the Southern lines and to invite attack. Then, if the enemy were repulsed, a chance might come to destroy him.39

The Confederates of the right wing built themselves stout entrenchments during the night of May 6‑7, in anticipation of Grant's assaults, and by the morning of the 7th, they had a strong front.​40 But they did not receive their expected reward at dawn. No attack came. In contrast to the roaring desperate action of the preceding day, the forenoon was so quiet that it seemed bewildering. Hours passed with only an exchange of picket fire. Nowhere was there a sign of impending action. More than that, from the extreme left of the Confederate line, General Early reported that the Union troops had abandoned their ground opposite his division and for part of the front of Johnson's command.41

This was significant news to Lee. It meant that Grant had severed his line of communications via Germanna. And that implied, of course, that he was not contemplating a retreat, at least not at that point. History was failing to repeat itself. Grant was not willing to withdraw incontinently across the Rappahannock, as Burnside and Hooker had done when they had been defeated. He had, however, to move before he exhausted the supplies in his wagons. If he was about to march, in what direction was Grant going? Obviously, either eastward toward Fredericksburg, or southeastward in the direction of Spotsylvania Courthouse. If his purpose was to open a new line of supply, he  p299  would logically go to Fredericksburg; but if he intended an advance on Richmond, the direct road to Spotsylvania Courthouse was less than half as long as that by way of Fredericksburg.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Alternative routes to Spotsylvania Courthouse from Grant's position in the Wilderness, May 7, 1864.

Besides, Spotsylvania was of strategic importance, in the angle between the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac and the Virginia Central Railroad. The place was an excellent approach to Hanover Junction, where the two railroads met. An adversary seeking to drive the Army of Northern Virginia back on Richmond, by cutting off its supplies, would almost certainly strike for the junction.

[image ALT: missingALT]
The approaches to Hanover Junction from the Wilderness-Spotsylvania front.

It was likely, for these reasons, then, though it was not yet certain, that when Grant moved it would be toward Spotsylvania. The army must be ready to meet him there. As a first step, Lee directed General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton to cut a way southward through the forest from the Plank road to the highway running from Orange Courthouse to Spotsylvania. This would give the Confederates an  p300  inner line, roughly parallel to that which the Federals would probably follow.​42 Longstreet's corps, then on the extreme right, would naturally be the first to march over the new route to meet an advance on Spotsylvania. But who was to lead that corps? The news from Longstreet was that his wound in the throat and shoulder would not necessarily be fatal,​43 but, if he escaped Jackson's fate, months would elapse before he could resume his duties. It was no light matter to choose even a temporary successor to the senior corps commander. Three men in the army were entitled by service and ability to be considered for the post — Early, Edward Johnson, and "Dick" Anderson. In choosing among them, much depended on the preference of the men of the First Corps: they must have the chief under whom they would fight best. To ascertain their sentiments, Lee sent for Longstreet's dapper and  p301  capable adjutant general, the same Colonel Sorrel who had led the flanking column so brilliantly the previous day.

"You have been with the corps since it started as a brigade," Lee said when he had explained the case, "and should be able to help me."

Sorrel answered candidly that Early probably was the ablest of the three under consideration, but would certainly be the most unpopular with Longstreet's men. "His flings and irritable disposition had left their marks," Sorrel subsequently recorded, "and there had been one or two occasions when some ugly feelings had been aroused while operating in concert."

"And now, Colonel," Lee went on, "for my friend Ed. Johnson; he is a splendid fellow."

"All say so, General, but he is quite unknown to the corps. His reputation is so high that perhaps he would prove all that could be wished, but I think that some one personally known to the corps would be preferred."

That, of course, brought the conversation around to "Dick" Anderson. "We know him, Sorrel said, "and shall be satisfied with him," mindful of the days of victory when Anderson had led a division of the First Corps, ere he had been transferred to the Third.

"Thank you, Colonel," Lee concluded. "I have been interested, but Early would make a fine corps commander." He probably preferred Early,​44 but he could not ignore the considerations Sorrel urged, and later in the day he announced the temporary appointment of Anderson, with Mahone to command Anderson's division.​45 He took pains, however, during the operations that followed, to keep a close eye on Anderson and to give him a measure of direction he never exercised in dealing with the more experienced corps commanders.46

After his conference with Sorrel, Lee rode across to the Confederate left. In the company of General Gordon he went over the scene of that officer's attack on the evening of the 6th, and talked with less restraint than usual of the enemy's probable  p302  movements. "Grant is not going to retreat," he said. "He will move his army to Spotsylvania."

Gordon had not studied the larger strategy of the campaign and he asked in some surprise if there were any evidence that Grant was moving in the direction of the courthouse.

"Not at all, not at all," Lee answered, "but that is the next point at which the armies will meet; Spotsylvania is now General Grant's best strategic point."​47 Bidding farewell to Gordon, Lee rode back to the right. He examined the line closely as he went and found his men ready and confident. Nowhere was any action in progress more serious than a "feeler" or a minor demonstration.

The news that began by this time to sift in from the outposts was in part contradictory but was rather specific as to the presence of the enemy's cavalry at Todd's Tavern on the road from Grant's position to Spotsylvania Courthouse.​48 During the early afternoon, Lee cautioned Stuart to study the roads in the direction of Spotsylvania,​49 and then, for the second time that day, he rode over to visit General Ewell's lines.​50 Returning, he halted for a conference at Hill's headquarters. While he was there, Colonel Palmer came down from the attic of the house to report that a large park of heavy guns had been set in motion from the opposite hill, where Grant's headquarters were believed to be located. The guns had started toward Confederate right — in the direction of Spotsylvania.51

Lee, of course, had been studying closely every intelligence report on Grant's probable movements. All day the evidence had been cumulative that his adversary's objective was Spotsylvania. This final item of confirmation proved decisive. Without further  p303  inward debate, he sent Anderson orders to withdraw the First Corps from the line after dark and, when it had been rested, to put it in motion for the courthouse. Hill and Ewell were directed to follow Anderson as soon as the situation in their front justified that course.52

Word somehow reached the men in the works that Grant was on the move and they interpreted this to mean that he had given up hope of taking Richmond by the overland route. Confident and rejoicing, they raised the rebel yell in Anderson's corps and took it up along the whole line. At a given point, one could hear it on the right, then in front and then dying away in the distance on the left. "Again the shout arose on the right — again it rushed down upon us from a distance of perhaps two miles," one officer wrote, "— again we caught it and flung it joyously to the left, where it ceased only when the last post had huzzahed. The effect was beyond expression. It seemed to fill every heart with new life, to inspire every nerve with might never known before. Men seemed fairly convulsed with the fierce enthusiasm; and I believe that if at that instant the advance of the whole army upon Grant could have been ordered, we should have swept [him] into the very Rappahannock."53

With the sound of that great demonstration in his ears, Lee sent off Colonel Venable and Colonel Taylor to notify Stuart that Anderson was to move that night to Spotsylvania Courthouse. As the two rode together through the dark forest, they talked of their chieftain, and of the new operation he was launching. They had faith that he was right in weakening his front and in marching off two of his eight divisions, but how did he know Grant's purpose? The enemy seemed as strong on the front as he had been since the battle opened: by what process had he concluded that the morning would find the enemy gone? They asked, they pondered, they wondered, but they could not answer.​54 Behind them, undismayed, Longstreet's veterans were waiting, their faces toward the South.

The Author's Notes:

1 Wilcox, loc. cit., 495.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Wilcox, loc. cit., 495.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Alexander, 503.

[decorative delimiter]

4 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1054‑55, 1063; Pendleton, 325‑26; Palmer in Royall, 31; Wilcox, loc. cit., 496.

[decorative delimiter]

5 The facts of this, the first of four incidents of "Lee to the rear," are singularly difficult to establish in their sequence, chiefly because most of those who recorded his meeting with the Texans did so long afterwards, when much telling had put a robe of rhetoric over the actual happenings. The writer has followed the account of Colonel Venable, who was with Lee through the whole episode, and wrote of it in 1873. See 14 S. H. S. P., 525‑26. In Pendleton, 326, there is an account that has some claim to authenticity because it, too, was written early, but it was penned in the old age of the author and probably for a lecture. Its climaxes seem a little too theatrical. For other accounts, see Longstreet, 560, where the chronology is almost certainly confused; W. H. Palmer in Royall, 322; Taylor's General Lee, 234, which agrees with Venable's account; Polley, Hood's Texas Brigade, 321, which is very dramatic and not accurate in detail; Sloan, 84‑85; Jones, 316; Grimes, 52; "R. C. of Hood's Texas Brigade," in 5 Land We Love, 481‑86, the most florid of all accounts by an eye-witness; J. C. Wheeler in 11 Confederate Veteran, 116‑17; A. C. Jones in the Lexington, Va., Gazette, May 20, 1880.

[decorative delimiter]

6 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1054‑55, 1061, 1063; Longstreet, 560; Alexander, 503. Cf. Sorrel, 235: "I have always thought that in its entire splendid history the simple act of forming line in that dense undergrowth, under heavy fire and with the Third Corps men pushing to the rear through the ranks was perhaps [the First Corps's] greatest performance for steadiness and inflexible courage and discipline."

[decorative delimiter]

7 Pendleton, 326.

[decorative delimiter]

8 MS. report of General C. M. Wilcox on the operations of 1864, among the Lee Military MSS. (cited hereafter as Wilcox's MS. report), 34; Venable in 14 S. H. S. P., 525.

[decorative delimiter]

9 Who had camped for the night of May 5‑6 at Verdiersville (Longstreet, 559).

[decorative delimiter]

10 Longstreet, 561; Alexander, 504.

[decorative delimiter]

11 W. H. Palmer in Royall, 34.

[decorative delimiter]

12 O. R., 36, part 1, p1055.

[decorative delimiter]

13 O. R., 36, part 1, p1061.

[decorative delimiter]

14 Mixson, 70. The most familiar description of the Wilderness is perhaps that given in General Hancock's report (O. R., 36, part 1, p325): "It was covered by a dense forest, almost impenetrable by troops in line of battle, where maneuvering was an operation of extreme difficulty and uncertainty. The undergrowth was so heavy that it was scarcely possible to see more than 100 paces in any direction. No movements of the enemy could be observed until the lines were almost in collision; only the roar of the musketry disclosed the position of the combatants, to those who were at any distance. . . ." McHenry Howard's description in 4 M. H. S. M., 97 referred more specifically to conditions on the left and was equally accurate: "It is in places level and marshy, or with numerous wet spring-heads, but for the most part rugged or rolling, with very few fields of thin soil, easily washing into gullies, and still fewer houses scattered here and there. The woods, which seem to stretch out interminably, are in some places of pine with low spreading branches, through which a horseman cannot force his way without much turning and twisting, but generally the oak predominates. In many places the large trees had been cut down in years past and a jungle of switch had sprung up ten or twenty feet high, more impenetrable, if possible, than the pine. A more difficult or disagreeable field of battle could not well be imagined. There is no range for artillery. It is an affair of musketry at close quarters, from which one combatant or the other must soon recoil, if both do not construct breastworks, as they learned to do with wonder­ful rapidity."

[decorative delimiter]

15 14 S. H. S. P., 544; Reagan, 189.

[decorative delimiter]

16 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1061‑62. This is the only reference to General Wofford's author­ship of this historic move, but as it was made specifically by General Kershaw, who was in a position to know the facts, there is no reason to question it.

[decorative delimiter]

17 Longstreet, 561; O. R., 36, part 1, p1055.

[decorative delimiter]

18 This railroad, of narrow gauge, was subsequently completed and was styled the Piedmont, Fredericksburg, and Potomac. It is still in operation and is known as the Virginia Central, after its famous neighbor to the southward, which is now a part of the Chesapeake and Ohio.

[decorative delimiter]

19 Although good for the country both to the east and to the west, the Confederate map of Orange and Spotsylvania showed only the main roads through the Wilderness. Had the map been more accurate and detailed, Lee doubtless would have ordered Longstreet to advance up the line of the unfinished railroad on his move from Parker's Store. A copy of this map is among the Lee Military MSS. The lines of the railroad and of most of the lesser roads of the Wilderness are crudely traced in pencil. This would indicate that they were inserted on the field, for if these data had been available at headquarters before the opening of the campaign, they would almost certainly have been entered in ink. General Stuart's copy, now in the Confederate Museum, and unquestionably used by him during the Wilderness campaign, lacks the pencilled lines on Lee's copy.

[decorative delimiter]

20 Alexander, 504.

[decorative delimiter]

21 Walter B. Barker in 12 S. H. S. P., 329.

[decorative delimiter]

22 W. W. Chamberlaine, 94‑95.

[decorative delimiter]

23 For the varying statements as to the time of Longstreet's attack, see O. R., 36, part 1, pp353, 489, 493.

[decorative delimiter]

24 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1055, 1062, 1090; Longstreet, 561‑63; Sorrel, 236 ff.; Wilcox, loc. cit., 498; 14 S. H. S. P., 544 ff.; 20 ibid., 69; Alexander, 504‑6.

[decorative delimiter]

25 Alexander, 505.

[decorative delimiter]

26 14 S. H. S. P., 545.

[decorative delimiter]

27 A Virginia regiment that had crossed the road had been returning to its brigade, had been mistaken for the enemy, and was fired upon; the volley struck the horsemen who had been going forward. General Jenkins was killed (Longstreet, 564‑65).

[decorative delimiter]

28 Sorrel, 238, 239.

[decorative delimiter]

29 Field in 14 S. H. S. P., 547.

[decorative delimiter]

30 14 S. H. S. P., 545.

[decorative delimiter]

31 14 S. H. S. P., 545‑46; Alexander, 507; O. R., 36, part 1, p1062. Longstreet (op. cit., 565) sought to leave the impression that Lee delayed from overcaution, and that if he had not been wounded a complete victory would have been won.

[decorative delimiter]

32 O. R., 36, part 1, p1071.

[decorative delimiter]

33 Gordon, 258.

[decorative delimiter]

34 Johnston had arrived that day from Hanover Junction. Cf. 14 S. H. S. P., 523, where his starting-point is wrongly given as Hanover Courthouse.

[decorative delimiter]

35 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1071, 1077‑78; Gordon, 258; Taylor's General Lee, 237. Early maintained (op. cit., 348) that Burnside's corps was not moved until after Gordon had advocated an attack on the flank of the VI Corps. Gordon (op. cit., 258 ff.) refuted this, but, oddly enough, used only a small part of the evidence. Burnside's report, Hancock's and those of the division commanders of the IX Corps (O. R., 36, part 1, pp321, 906, 927, 928, 942) make it plain that from the beginning of the day's fighting, only the 4th Division of the IX Corps was on the Federal right. This division, consisting principally of new Negro troops, was not in support of the VI Corps, but was spread out on guard duty all the way to the Rapidan (O. R., 36, part 1, p988). There can be no question that Early had been completely deceived as to the strength and dispositions of the enemy in his front. Ewell, as he did all too often, accepted Early's view.

[decorative delimiter]

36 Cf. Sorrel, 244.

[decorative delimiter]

37 Grant's losses, May 5‑7, 1864, were 17,666 (O. R., 36, part 1, p133). Alexander (op. cit., 508) gave the correct figures for killed, wounded, and missing. The Confederate losses, on the same basis, would have been approximately 7600.

[decorative delimiter]

38 O. R., 51, part 2, p894.

[decorative delimiter]

39 Taylor's Four Years, 129; for the bivouac of the army, see 14 S. H. S. P., 546. Grant was overwhelmed at his failure. He "went into his tent, and throwing himself face down on his cot, gave way to the greatest emotion." Charles Francis Adams said: "I never saw a man so agitated in my life" (Eben Swift: "The Military Education of Robert E. Lee," 35 Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 149).

[decorative delimiter]

40 Palmer in Royall, 34‑35.

[decorative delimiter]

41 Early, 350.

[decorative delimiter]

42 O. R., 36, part 1, p1041. The road struck the Orange-Spotsylvania highway in the vicinity of Shady Grove Church. See 3 C. M. H., 445, which reference, however, confused the Po with the Ny River.

[decorative delimiter]

43 O. R., 51, part 2, p893.

[decorative delimiter]

44 Cf. 14 S. H. S. P., 453.

[decorative delimiter]

45 Sorrel, 242‑43; 14 S. H. S. P., 546; O. R., 36, part 2, p967.

[decorative delimiter]

46 His letters to Anderson in O. R., 36, part 3, are much more numerous than those to any other officer, except perhaps Breckinridge, after that officer joined him from the Shenandoah Valley.

[decorative delimiter]

47 Gordon, 268‑69. The account of this interview well illustrates the difficulties of historical criticism that arise in using General Gordon's Reminiscences. General Gordon had General Lee add to the quotation given in the text: "I am so sure of his [Grant's] next move that I have already made arrangements to march by the shortest practicable route, that we may meet him there. As it was early morning when this conversation occurred, it is historically demonstrable that Lee had not "made arrangements" beyond ordering Pendleton to cut a road. The writer has often been perplexed, as in this instance, to know where General Gordon's memory ended and where his imagination began, the more so as there was never the slightest question as to that splendid gentleman's desire to state the facts accurately.

[decorative delimiter]

48 O. R., 36, part 2, pp969‑71; ibid., 51, part 2, pp897‑98.

[decorative delimiter]

49 O. R., 36, part 2, pp969‑70. It has long been assumed, doubtless on the authority of Long (op. cit., 334), that Stuart gave Lee his first definite news that the Federals were moving on Spotsylvania. This may have been the case. It is proper to note, however, that at 3 P.M. on May 7 (O. R., 51, part 2, pp897‑98), Stuart informed Lee that "the enemy is not advancing toward Spotsylvania Court House on the Brock road."

[decorative delimiter]

50 O. R., 36, part 2, p970.

[decorative delimiter]

51 Palmer in Royall, 35.

[decorative delimiter]

52 Palmer in Royall, 35; O. R., 36, part 1, pp1041, 1071; ibid., part 2, p968. For the details of Anderson's orders, see infra, p306, note 7.

[decorative delimiter]

53 History of McGowan's Brigade, 135‑36. Cf. G. C. Underwood: History of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina, 81.

[decorative delimiter]

54 Taylor's General Lee, 238.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 26 Jan 15