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5-7th May1864: Grant and Lee meet in battle at last
Grant had come East with the purpose of defeating Lee’s invincible army and finishing the war for good. In two years he had beaten his enemies and forced the surrender of two armies in the West and brought the Union armies deep into Dixie after routing the strongest Western Rebel army in November of 1863. Like so many Eastern commanders before him, he commanded a massive army, 4 Infantry Corps and 1 Cavalry one, of 120000 men.
His problem was that Lee’s Southern army was on the Southern side of the large Rappahannock River and with Lee at its head had always defeated the Northern host and saved the capital, Richmond, from capture.
Lee had 8 Infantry Divisions and 6 Brigades of Cavalry(60000 men), but numbers meant nothing to him: his men had faced worse odds. He had his Divisions spread out as he knew Grant was coming, but was unsure by which Ford he would cross. He was not worried as he knew his Infantry could march fast and hold the lead elements of Grant’s army while the rest caught up. An opportunity would arise to strike and wound the larger army and send it retreating back towards Washington.
There were elections in the North in November; the hope was a victory for the peace parties and an end to the war.
On the 4th May Grant crossed the Rapidan, a tributary of the Rappahannock at two Fords and entered the Wilderness. This was the same tangled growth of woodland, with little visibility and little opportunity to control large units, in which General Hooker had come to a bad end a year ago almost to the day. Grant wanted to exit it as quickly as possible.
Lee reacted by sending the 5 nearest Divisions on the 2 main roads with the express intention of blunting Grant’s advance and holding him in this horrid terrain for offensive manoeuvres.
Confederate Ewell’s Corps held up Warren’s 5th Corps, whilst APHill’s small 8 Brigade Corps fought Hancock’s 2nd Corps. Both sides lost heavily as they slogged it out(2 Confederate Brigadiers were killed),but the North’s larger numbers were hard to bring to bear, so Lee held on.
Lee still had 3 Divisions to throw into the fray and his plan was to tip the balance with these men. Grant also had 2 more Corps to throw into tomorrow’s battle, but he was finding it hard to manoeuvre troops in the tangle that was the Wilderness. Commanders simply could not find their way, let alone position themselves for an assault.
Grant was determined to inflict as many casualties on Lee as he could, knowing it was the only way to defeat him. He wanted his numbers to count and tried getting his subordinates to understand and implement his plan.
May 6th: Grant ordered an attack. He realised AP Hill’s 3rd Corps was vulnerable and thought he could destroy him, then move on Ewell’s 2nd Corps. He gave the job to the best Corps commander, Winfield Scott Hancock. Numbers sufficed and Ewell’s men broke.
It was then the first of Longstreet’s 1st Corps arrived. These Deep South Infantry stemmed the rout just in time. As more of his 2 Division Corps arrived Longstreet was able to counterattack and push the Northern troops back.
It was in moving up that men of Longstreet’s Corps discovered an unfinished railroad which fortuitously led around the Union Left. Lee saw this as the opportunity to punish Grant’s larger army and detached 4 Brigades that evening and sent them up the flanking road.
The flank attack was a total success, rolling up the Northern Corps commander Hancock, in his words, “like a wet blanket”.
Unfortunately, like a year ago in the same place, Lee’s best Lieutenant, Longstreet this time, was wounded by friendly fire when reconnoitering the enemy lines.
Surprisingly, the right flank of Grant’s army was also “in the air”.
This flank was also assailed by Lee’s smaller army, with much the same results: the Union 6th Corps was routed and forced back.
The 6th May had been a bad day for Grant and a lesson in warfare, Eastern style.
Grant was unperturbed, despite his subordinates’ fears a d his army though bloodied, was still intact.
11th May 1864 Lee’s Cavalry Commander Major General JEB Stuart was shot at close range in the gut by a Private Huff from Michigan. He wound die in agony the next day.
He had been wounded defending his capital from Grant’s Cavalry commander Major General Phillip Sheridan at the battle of Yellow Tavern.
Stuart had fought with the Army of North Virginia since before it was named that by Lee. He had been the 1st Virginia Cavalry commander at Bull Run, then Brigade commander, finally commanding 6 or 7 Brigades. He would be sorely missed by Lee, especially after the loss of Jackson and the wounding of Longstreet only a week ago.
Stuart was a Virginian, who attended West Point and former Captain in the US Cavalry. He is buried in Richmond. Some say he was the best Cavalry commander America produced.
May 12 1864: this was Grant’s best day fighting Lee. His Northern casualties were not much more than Lee’s Southern ones(9-8000).
His grams assault, based on a similar one two days ago by a Union Colonel called Upton, ruptured Ewell’s 2nd Corps line and almost broke his centre. For the first time in its history the Army of Notth Virginia had a Major General and Division commander captured, Edward Johnson. His Division, formerly Jackson’s own, was wrecked.
Lee’s line was stabilised at a point further back by the sterling work of Ewell and two Divisions, those of Mahone and Gordon(both new to their positions).Much of the defence was also due to the attack losing steam and purpose once inside Lee’s lines. The victorious Northern troops were unsure what to do next!
As many as 30 guns were captured today too. Lee was lucky today and his subordinates and men did a fine job.
Grant would not get a better chance to smash Lee’s army and end the war in Virginia in 1864. There yet remained much bloodletting this Summer.
On the 24th May 1864 Grant gifted Lee the kind of opportunity that rarely happens in a campaign: to wreck the other’s army.
After the bloodletting of May 5-12th, that cost Lee 22000 casualties and Grant 34000,'weakening both armies by 33% and 25% respectively, Grant again disengaged and moved South towards Richmond. Lee had followed and had been reinforced with 7 small Brigades from his capital.
Grant had inadvertentally straddled his large army across the North Anna river.
Lee saw the way to take advantage of his smaller numbers and punish the Federal II Corps, Grant’s best. He could throw 30000 men at the 24000 that were over the V in the river separating Grant’s two halves of his army. Hancock’s 24000 could not be reinforced, because of the V of the river, so he readied his assault.
On the afternoon of the 24th Lee fell violently sick with diarrhoea. He lay helplessly for hours while the opportunity to assault, before the Union commanders realised the sure situation were in.
The reason Lee’s defensive strike could not be undertaken was simple: the attrition of the last 19 days had robbed him of a subordinate able to manage it.
Time and opportunity passed. Grant and Hancock’s isolated Corps were extremely lucky.
We all know the loss of a quarter of Grant’s force would never have changed his resolve to “fight it all out, even if it takes all Summer”, but another battering would have diminished his potential to do so sooner.