Category Archives: Overland Campaign – 1864

The Wilderness – May 6, 1864

150 YEARS AGO TODAY: Generals Grant, Meade, and Hancock used the overnight hours of May 5-6 to devise and implement a strategy for the complete destruction of A. P. Hill’s Corps of Confederates that opposed the Federal Second Corps along the Orange Plank Road. In the hours before dawn, three of the Second Corps’ four infantry divisions, along with Gen. Getty’s Division from the Sixth Corps, were massed for a dawn assault. Gen. Wadsworth Division of the Fifth Corps was supposed to help out, and Gen. Burnside’s entire Ninth Corps was ordered to advance and join the assault on the right of the Second Corps. (Click here to view a Wikipedia map of this dawn assault in a new tab.)

Col. Carroll deployed his brigade (3rd Brig, 2nd Div, 2nd Corps) in two lines. The first was under the command of Col. Coons (14th Indiana) and the second line was under the command of Col. Ellis (14th Connecticut). At exactly 5:00 a.m.,Birney’s and Getty’s men leaped over their low breastworks and went forward into the dark grayness of the foggy morning. Fire from Hill’s lines became intense, but the Federals pressed on despite heavy losses. Several Confederate brigades broke for the rear, and it seemed the day might yield a great victory for the Army of the Potomac.

But as the map linked above shows, Gen. Longstreet was coming up the Orange Plank Road and arrived just in time to turn the tide for the Confederates. The Federal advance stalled near the Widow Tapp farm. Leading lines of Union Infantry, tired and bloodied, their ammunition exhausted, gave way to fresh brigades coming up behind and soon the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut found themselves in the front of the battle in a desperate fight for survival. Sgt. E. B. Tyler described the scene in Charles Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Conn. Vol. Inf.:

There is a feeling of uneasiness in the stoutest heart in facing danger that one cannot see and know. The mystery is doubly intensified by the sudden, silent dropping dead, or fatally wounded, of men on either hand that somehow does not seem to connect itself with the constant roar of musketry that is going on. The zip, zip of the bullets as they pass so closely to your head that you cannot help but think that had the rebel aim been varied never so little your career had been ended. (Click here for a Wikipedia map of Longstreet’s assault on the Second Corps.)

Longstreet threw his men into the fight and very quickly the lines of infantry in front of Carroll’s Brigade began to fall back. Major William Hincks of the Fourteenth Connecticut reported:

There was intense fighting for about half and hour and in this brief space officers and men were falling. Among those seriously wounded during these moments was Captain (Samuel) Fiske of Company G, who died a few days later (May 22nd). The men stood like heroes to the work until a regiment at the right gave way, producing something of a panic among several regiments of the brigade, about half of whom fell back to the (Brock) crossroads and were seen no more that morning.

Sgt. Charles Blatchley (Company I) added this detailed description of the regiment’s narrow escape: Our regiment was partly armed (Cos. A and B) with Sharp’s breech-loading rifles, and this fact came very near resulting in our capture. The deadly fire which we had kept up in front of us had held back the enemy at that point until they had driven our troops back on both sides of us leaving our little regiment sticking out like the toe of a horseshoe in the line. The dense woods prevented us from discovering this until the break reached our own flanks. I was awakened from my absorption in the business of saving my country by looking up, as I did occasionally, to see if the flag was still there, to find it gone. In another second I realized the fact that I was almost alone, and that the flag was rapidly making its way to the rear. I followed it.

It doesn’t take long to expend all your ammunition when you carry only forty, or at most sixty rounds and you’re firing two or three rounds per minute. Col. Carroll was ordered by Gen. Hancock to withdraw to the defensive line established along the Brock Road, and the men Fourteenth withdrew, sometimes stopping to fire from behind fallen timber, and sometimes hiding behind trees and fighting “Indian style” to delay the enemy until they had reached safety of the Federal breastworks.

But their day was not done. During the afternoon brush fires swept through the woods and thickets west of the Brock Road. Thick smoke shrouded the Federal breastworks and soon a portion of the works was in flames. At 4:15 p.m., lines of Confederates burst from the woods and rushed toward the Federal line, using the smoke and flames to cover the assault. Hancock’s men were ready and put up a stubborn fight, but the burning portion of the works had to be abandoned. The Rebels jumped over the barricade, through the flames in may cases, and a wild fight developed for possession of the breastworks.

(Click here for a Wikipedia map and note the position of Carroll’s Brigade on the Plank Road just east of the Brock Road.) The Confederates broke through the Union line just south of the Plank Road (in Mott’s Division), but the breakthrough was doomed as soon as the Federals organized a defense. The Rebels were fired on from right and left and a battery of artillery directly in front opened fire on them at point blank range. Their fate was sealed when the artillery fell silent and Col. Carroll’s Brigade rushed toward the breech. Maj. Hincks described the brigade’s second battle that day:

The shattered ranks were reformed and ammunition dealt out. Col. Carroll coming up spoke in warm terms of commendation of the behavior of the regiment. The men were then moved a short distance in the rear of the line of battle and told they would have twenty minutes for rest and to make coffee. Hardly five minutes had passed before the Confederates advanced and the Fourteenth was at once called into action and the fiercest fighting of the day occurred. The men of the Fourteenth charged with fixed bayonets and met the enemy and repelled the charge.

Most of the Confederates who had vaulted over the Federal breastworks were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. The Battle of the Wilderness was at an end. The survivors of the Fourteenth Connecticut moved to a position along the Brock Road north of the Orange Plank Road and settled in for the night. But all night long they would hear the tramp-tramp-tramp of their comrades in arms marching south toward another rendezvous with destiny—Spotsylvania Courthouse.

The Wilderness – May 5, 1864

SPECIAL EDITION – 150 YEARS AGO TODAY the men of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac rose before daylight. It had been Gen. Grant’s objective to march the Army of the Potomac directly through the Wilderness to more open ground beyond before Lee could react. But it was not to be. The Fifth Corps, under Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren, ran into trouble almost immediately. A small body of Confederates were spotted to the west and Gen. George Meade ordered Warren to attack them. The small body turned out to be Lt. Gen. Ewell’s entire corps.(Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the early morning action in a new tab.)

The fighting grew intense. The Sixth Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was rushed forward and thrown into the fight. Grant sent a message off to Maj. Gen. Hancock telling him to turn his Second Corps around and hurry back toward the Wilderness ready to fight. In the following excerpt from my novel An Eye for Glory, Sgt. Michael Palmer tells what it was like for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut:

Thursday’s dawn found us already marching toward the southwest on Catherine Furnace Road. Several hours later at the Brock road, a great cheer  arose from the ranks when we turned left. “On to Richmond!” was the cry, a cry soon stifled when the column first halted, then about-faced and marched back toward the dense thickets and entrapments of the Wilderness. At about half past four, echoes like that of distant thunder rolled over us. Every man knew without being told that, before the day was out, he would likely face the enemy in the forbidding depths of the Wilderness. All men of sound judgement knew no battle should ever be fought there, but battle there would be, savage and bloody. The fighting and dying had commenced anew—our time was at hand, and this thought both thrilled and terrified me. “Close up, men.” I heard the urgency in my own voice. “Keep the pace. We’re needed at the front. Stay in line!”

(Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the late afternoon action in a new tab.) The Fourteenth Connecticut was near the front of the long column of the Second Corps when it came upon the Brock Road at Todd’s Tavern. When the orders came to turn around, they were now near the rear of the column. The map correctly shows the position of Carroll’s Brigade of Gibbon’s Division as the Second Corps filed into lines of battle on both sides of the Orange Plank Road west of the Brock Road. Sgt. Palmer narrates that evening’s fight:

The rattle of musketry came from somewhere ahead, but nothing could be seen. Close underbrush screened all but what was less than ten or twenty yards away. Onward we pressed. Musket balls cleaved the air above our heads and slapped into tree trunks. Yells and screams and, from time to time, the dreaded Rebel yell reached our ears. Bodies of Federal dead lay here and there; the walking wounded stumbled rearward through our strong and steady line. Volleys of musket fire erupted just out of sight in front of us.

We came up behind a line of men in blue firing into the darkness beyond. Muzzle flashes eerily silhouetted the forms of our men as they engaged in their deadly business. Some turned in panic at our approach, thinking perhaps the enemy had surrounded them, but “Friends! Friends!” we called out, and they turned back to the enemy. They fired off the last of their ammunition and made way for us to file into their places.

The Rebels saw us before we saw them and they fired a volley at close range. A few of our men fell dead, several more were wounded.

“Steady, men, steady!” I called out. I raised my own rifle and took careful aim. “Fire!”

Many of our foes fell. The Rebels began to fall back, retreating down a slope, turning to fire at us whenever they could. We pursued them, steadily driving them backward. After an advance of about two hundred yards, our officers called a halt. We lay down in the woods to avoid the Rebel sharpshooters and waited for night to fall.

After dark the men of Company C dug a shallow trench and piled branches and fallen logs atop the excavated earth. The position was as secure as the ground would allow. The men lay upon the low earthworks all night, muskets at the ready. Most fell quickly asleep, victims of fatigue. Not even the chilly night air or the occasional firing the flared from deep in the Wilderness disturbed their slumbers.

Tomorrow: The second day of the Fourteenth’s sojourn in the Wilderness.

On Hallowed Ground

On May 3rd, 1864, as darkness fell over the picket line of the Fourteenth Connecticut along the Rapidan River, orders came that they were to silently leave their posts and return to their camp on Stony Mountain. The regiment drew rations and ammunition from the quartermaster. Campfires were allowed to die out, and orders to maintain complete silence were strictly enforced.

The Third Brigade, to which the Fourteenth was attached, marched through the darkness to Stevensburg, where it was reunited with the Second Division and the rest of the Second Corps, all under the command of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. From Stevensburg, the corps marched east and then southeast along narrow country roads toward Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan. The other two army corps, the Fifth (Warren) and the Sixth (Sedgwick), marched southeast toward Germanna Ford, along what is now Route 3. (Click here to open a Wikipedia map in a new window.)

At dawn on the 4th, the Second Corps began to cross the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford on a pontoon bridge, but the men of the Fourteenth had to wait to cross until after nine o’clock, without campfires and thus without coffee. On the south side of the river stout breastworks had been constructed by th Rebels, but they were empty of defenders.

The men marched on as the sun beat down on them. Greatcoats and blankets were thrown by the wayside. The forest closed in on them, and they couldn’t see more than a few yards to right or left. The veterans in the ranks must have realized that they were headed for familiar, dreadful ground. Late in the day, their fears were realized when they came upon the battlefield at Chancellorsville. How eerily quiet it must have seemed, the only sounds those of their tramping feet and clanking equipment. Imagine the somber hush that fell over them as everywhere they looked they saw the unburied skeletal remains of men still clad in Union blue, men they had fought beside just the year before.

They had marched about twenty-five miles from Stony Mountain. That night, they camped south of the ruins of the Chancellor House. I have not been able to pinpoint the location, but referring to the map linked above, the spot between the Alrich place and Piney Branch Church, where the road crosses the Ni River, would be a likely location, because of the availability of fresh water.

Mud on the Wing

On Monday, May 2nd, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry looked eastward from their camp atop Stony Mountain and saw an ominous red cloud swirling in their direction. According to Capt. Samuel Fiske, “one of the boys exclaimed, ‘That’s genuine Virginia mud taking to itself wings.'”

Fiske termed the storm a “tornado of dust.” Within minutes, strong wind gusts buffeted the encampment. the men were driven to shelter in their huts. “We could readily believe,” Fiske wrote, “that the earth was whirling from west to east as rapidly as the astronomers tell us, and moreover that she evidently meant to leave us behind.” Tree limbs snapped. Some trees were blown down completely. One large pine crushed the hut of Col. Ellis, but he was elsewhere.

The storm passed on as quickly as it had come up. Despite its fury, injuries were few and minor. But the dust was everywhere. The men spent the remainder of the day beating the dust out of their clothing and bedding. They swept every nook and cranny of their humble log huts, fixed canvas roofs, and cleaned the wind driven debris throughout the camp. By evening, order had been restored to the entire encampment and the men settled in for a quiet night’s sleep.

The very next day orders came down the chain of command to pack everything up, draw rations and ammunition, and be ready to move out by dawn on May 4th. The 1864 campaign season had begun.

Communion Before Battle

On Sunday, April 24th, 1864, a final worship service was held in the brigade chapel at Stony Mountain. At the time, the Fourteenth Connecticut was without a chaplain. Captain Samuel Fiske, on extended leave as pastor of the Congregational church in Madison, CT, was offered the chaplaincy, but declined, preferring to remain in front lines in the fight to preserve the Union. In the following letter which was dated the following day, we see Fiske as a participant in worship while others led the worship and administered the sacrament.

Dear Republican: We had a very precious day yesterday, and the thought of it was a comfort all through the hard work of the evening; for we sat down at the Lord’s table, and held sweet communion with him and with one another. Twelve men (of the 108th New York mostly, but one or two from our regiment) were baptized; about twenty-five professed their solemn faith in, and made everlasting covenant with, Christ, to be his henceforth. We had a short, comprehensive creed and covenant for them to assent to and take upon themselves; and then seventy-five or eighty, perhaps, partook of the sacrament.

I never had a sweeter time in my life. I have no doubt of the perfect propriety of our action in having this season; for the Lord was evidently present to bless. Mr. Grassey (108th New York) was very happy in all his remarks and services; Mr. Murphy (1st Delaware) assisted; Capt. Hawley and Capt. Price passed the elements. We had just our usual soldiers’ bread, and the wine in two pewter cups, poured from a brown stone pitcher; and there was no white linen to represent that which was wrapped around the Savior’s body: but every thing seemed decent and in order, and we all enjoyed the season as if it were the very institution of the ordinance in that upper room in Jerusalem.

It was the last service we shall have, I suppose, in our little log chapel. The roof comes down today to be carried back to the Christian Commission again; and we worship God in the open air for the summer.


Lee Prepares to Meet Grant

Robert_Edward_LeeTo understand what Gen. Robert E. Lee was doing, thinking and feeling during the weeks leading up to the Spring Campaign of 1864, I find the following excerpts from his son Robert’s Recollections and Letters most revealing. Gen. Lee certainly knew what was coming and the great sacrifices that would be required of himself, his army, and indeed the entire Confederacy.

In this winter and spring of 1864, every exertion possible was made by my father to increase the strength of his army and to improve its efficiency. He knew full well that the enemy was getting together an enormous force, and that his vast resources would be put forth to crush us in the spring. His letters at this time to President Davis and the Secretary of War show how well he understood the difficulties of his position. In a letter to President Davis, written (late) March, 1864, he says:

“Mr. President: Since my former letter on the subject, the indications that operations in Virginia will be vigorously prosecuted by the enemy are stronger than they then were. General Grant has returned from the army in the West. He is, at present, with the Army of the Potomac, which is being organized and recruited…. Every train brings recruits, and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it…. Their plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume that, if General Grant is to direct operations on this frontier, he will concentrate a large force on one or more lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations as are in our power….”

On April 6th he again writes to the President:

“…All the information I receive tends to show that the great effort of the enemy in this campaign will be made in Virginia…. Reinforcements are certainly daily arriving to the Army of the Potomac…. The tone of the Northern papers, as well as the impression prevailing in their armies, goes to show that Grant with a large force is to move against Richmond…. The movements and reports of the enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen the belief that General Grant is preparing to move against Richmond.”

The question of feeding his army was ever before him. To see his men hungry and cold, and his horses ill fed, was a great pain m him. To Mr. Davis he thus writes on this subject (April12, 1864):

“Mr. President: My anxiety on the subject of provisions in the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a retreat into North Carolina. There is nothing to be had in this section for men or animals. We have rations for the troops today and tomorrow. I hope a new supply arrived last night, but I have not yet had a report. Every exertion should be made to supply the depots at Richmond and at other points. All pleasure travel should cease, and everything be devoted to necessary wants.”

In a letter written to our cousin, Margaret Stuart, of whom he was very fond, dated March 29th, he says:

“…The indications at present are that we shall have a hard struggle. General Grant is with the Army of the Potomac. All the officers’ wives, sick, etc., have been sent to Washington. No ingress into or egress from the lines is now permitted and no papers are allowed to come out—they claim to be assembling a large force….”

Again, April 28th, he writes to this same young cousin:

“…I dislike to send letters within reach of the enemy, as they might serve, if captured, to bring distress on others. But you must sometimes cast your thoughts on the Army of Northern Virginia, and never forget it in your prayers. It is preparing for a great struggle, but I pray and trust that the great God, mighty to deliver, will spread over it His almighty arms, and drive its enemies before it….”

One perceives from these letters how clearly my father foresaw the storm that was so soon to burst upon him. He used every means within his power to increase and strengthen his army to meet it, and he continually urged the authorities at Richmond to make preparations in the way of supplies of ammunition, rations, and clothing.

Grant Prepares to Meet Lee

Late in March 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Lincoln showed Grant a map on which he had drawn all the positions held by both opposing armies throughout the war. The president then explained how he would conduct the upcoming spring campaign. The general listened respectfully, but made no comment on the flaws he saw in Lincoln’s plan. Grant had other ideas, but “I did not communicate my plans to the President, nor did I to the Secretary of War or to General Halleck.” Grant had already learned that there were just too many leaks in Washington.

Gen. Grant wrote in his Personal Memoirs: “My general plan now was to concentrate all the force possible against the Confederate armies in the field. There were but two such…east of the Mississippi River and facing north. The army of northern Virginia, Gen. Robert E. Lee commanding, was on the south bank of the Rapidan, confronting the Army of the Potomac; the second, under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, was at Dalton, Georgia, opposed to Sherman who was still at Chattanooga.”

The first priority was to get as many troops in the field as possible. Grant’s basic premise was that if Lee was defeated, the rest of the Confederacy would shortly fall. He stripped 10,000 men from the coastal defenses of South Carolina and sent them to reinforce Butler’s Army of the James. When the garrison of Plymouth, NC fell into Rebel hands, he ordered Washington, NC abandoned as well, and kept troops only where they were most needed to blockade the seaports. Grant also ordered Gen. Burnside forward from Annapolis with his 20,000 man Ninth Corps, to be ready to go wherever they were most needed.

150 YEARS AGO TODAY, April 4th, 1864, another important change was made. Again from Grant’s Memoirs: “In one of my early interviews with the President I expressed my dissatisfaction with the little that had been accomplished by the cavalry so far in the war, and the belief that it was capable of accomplishing much more than it had done if under a thorough leader.” And Grant had just such a thorough leader in mind. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan was called back to the east and given command of all cavalry attached to the Army of the Potomac, replacing Maj. Gen. David M. Gregg.

Even into April, Gen. Grant was unsure whether to try to turn Lee’s eastern or western flank. Each approach had its advantages and disadvantages, but the deciding factor was one of logistics. If he chose the eastern route, the army could be constantly supplied from bases on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay and their many tributaries. If he went farther west, the army would have to rely heavily upon foraging in already war-ravaged country and upon railroad service that could be so easily disrupted.

His mind fixed on the objective (Lee’s army), and his general course established, Gen. Grant began to set his grand strategy in motion.

Next Week: How Lee prepared to meet Grant.