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8-08-2015, 23:52

The Killing Season

MAYIS A beautiful month in Virginia; the trees and shrubs are in bloom, the roads are dry, the weather is generally pleasant, with the stifling summer heat yet to come. The thickets and meadows are alive with insects, birds, and small furry creatures; the earth swells with life. On the night of May 3-4, there were other sounds as well: the clink of harness and equipment, muffled commands, the sound of hooves, heavy breathing, and the steady tramp of infantry. The Army of the Potomac was on the move, heading south. Ulysses Grant had wanted a quick march, and he had ordered that all unnecessary baggage be left behind; he even marched without a large portion of his artillery. Still, this was an army that always moved at a stately pace, and that liked its creature comforts; even stripped down for action, it had sixty miles of wagon trains in its rear. The army moved in two large columns. On the eastern flank, Hancock's II Corps led the way across Ely's Ford of the Rapidan, moving southeast toward Chancellorsville. To the west, Warren's V Corps crossed at Germanna Ford, and paralleled Hancock's march. General Meade had split the cavalry corps, and there was a division leading each column, and supposedly scouting to the south and west. They were not doing much good, for as the troops moved into the tangles of the vast area known as the Wilderness, scouting was almost impossible. The roads were little tracks, poorly mapped, often leading to nothing more than abandoned clearings or poor, isolated farmhouses where they trailed off into nothing. The cluttered second-growth forest grew right down to the sides of the roads, and often arched over them. so the troops moved in an all-encompassing blackness that turned slowly to dappled shadow as the sun rose to their left. It was eerie, disturbing country, the atmosphere made even heavier as the troops occasionally came across some pathetic remnant of the fighting in the area the year before, rusted rifles, rotten leather equipment, piles of bones. By mid-afternoon of the 4th, they were all tangled up. Grant had wanted to march through and get out on the southern side of the tangle in one day, but his trains were so mixed up and falling so far behind the infantry that he ordered a halt. With several hours' daylight left, II Corps bivouacked around Chancellorsville, and Warren's men stopped and took up positions around Old Wilderness Tavern, about five miles west. It was a less than auspicious beginning for a lightning campaign. As always Robert E. Lee knew what was going on, but he was not in a very good position to do much about it. His army was spread out over a front of more than forty miles, the dispersion made necessary by the Confederates' scarcity of rations. His right flank was covered by Stuart's cavalry, over near Fredericksburg and east of the Federal advance, but on his left, Longstreet's corps was away back around Mechanicsburg, out of easy supporting distance. He had, of course, been thinking of taking the offensive himself, but had been at least slightly lulled by the mistaken assessment that the Federal force was only half the size it actually was. When his patrols brought in the news that the Yanks were on the march, he moved to counter. He sent off orders to Longstreet to bring up his I Corps, and he sent Ewell's II Corps moving northeast to intercept Warren, and A. P. Hill's in support, aiming for Hancock. The Confederates were outnumbered, but they were used to that. Lee thought that if he could catch the Federals while they were still stuck in the Wilderness, his troops' better cross-country skills and superior knowledge of the terrain would offset the numbers problem. On the morning of the 5th, then, as Griffin's division of Warren's corps moved south, it bumped into Ewell's advance moving east. Neither force knew what it was facing, and the battle quickly grew in size, as more and more units marched to the sound of the guns on either side, and degenerated, as all order and cohesion collapsed in the tangled country. Lee actually did not want a full-scale battle until Longstreet should be able to come in, and Meade and Grant were uncertain exactly what they were facing anyway. While the generals tried to figure out what was going on, and retain some control of their armies, the soldiers took to fighting. It was a terrible battle; units could barely form, the underbrush was quickly smothered in the low-lying smoke of thousands of rifles, regiments blundered into each other, fired at shadowy forms in the fog, thought they were in line, suddenly to find their flanks were in midair, friends fired on each other, and foes backed into each other. Officers tried to advance by compass bearing, only to look over their shoulders and find that what they thought was a regiment had dwindled to a color guard; the rest had wandered off into the brush. In the gloom men grunted and shoved and fired their rifles and died. Afterwards, it was possible to make some kind of sense out of the affair. Warren had got his corps into line, and Sedgwick, following him with his VI Corps, had fallen in on his right, northern flank. Together they had about 35,000 men. Ewell faced them off with half that number, and the two sides gradually stabilized west of Old Wilderness Tavern, on either side of the Orange Court House Turnpike. Through the morning Hancock had moved his II Corps to the west, falling in on Warren's left flank, but his men had bumped into A. P. Hill's corps, and together they had simply extended the battle line farther to the south. With its five big divisions, Hancock's corps outnumbered A. P. Hill by even more of a margin than Warren did Ewell, but the Confederates again held their own, and a little better. Both sides tried to dig in, as neither was sure who was attacking and who was defending. By nightfall, after a terrible day of charge and countercharge, the soldiers on both sides were exhausted and fought to a frazzle. Yet for both, it seemed that help was on the way. Longstreet was coming near now, so Lee ordered an attack for early morning of the 6th. A. P. Hill was to lead off from the Confederate right, and the plan was to turn the Federal flank and roll them up back against the river. But on the blue side, Grant had Burnside's big IX Corps south of the Rapidan, and he ordered it to move across the back of the Union position, fall in with Hancock, and to attack A. P. Hill at dawn. Sedgwick and Warren would both attack, almost simultaneously, in support. In other words, both commanders were planning to do the same thing at the same time at the same place: hit the enemy's southern flank and roll him up to the river. The result was an even worse day, if that were humanly possible, than the day before. Ewell held Warren and Sedgwick with no gain and heavy losses, but Hancock crashed into Hill's front and flank, and the Rebels broke under the strain. They gave way slowly, and then with increasing speed as the collapse spread. Disaster stared the Army of Northern Virginia in the face, and Robert E. Lee himself rode among his retreating men and asked them to stand and do the impossible. But then, up the road at a steady pace came Longstreet's corps, the men of Chickamauga and a hundred other hard-fought fields. They casually brushed through their retreating comrades, who took time to catch their breath and rally. Anderson's division of Longstreet's advance crashed into Birney's division, leading Hancock's assault, caught it past the crest, and sent it reeling back on its supports. By late morning Old Pete's men had stabilized the battle once again. Neither side could get far enough south to flank the other, and once more there was a straightforward, stand-up fight, no quarter asked and little given. The trees were stripped by the bullets and shells, hundreds of men went down, the leaves and brush caught fire, and the wounded screamed in agony and were burned alive where they lay. Lee still had a trick up his sleeve. He sent his aide, Moxley Sorrel, to gather some of Longstreet's brigades and try a wide envelopment. It took most of the mid-day to get these men together, and to march by little-known tracks around the Union left, but they finally managed it, and they hit Hancock's flank late in the afternoon. For a few moments it looked like Chancellorsville all over again. But this was Hancock the Superb, one of the finest combat leaders of one of the finest corps in the Union army. He personally rallied and placed his men, and they dug in, taking what bits of cover they could, little knots of resistance here and there, and they finally broke the momentum of Sorrel's drive. As welcome dusk came down, the two armies virtually collapsed on their respective lines. Thus ended the Battle of the Wilderness, two days of shockingly bitter fighting. Neither Grant and Meade on the one side, nor Lee on the other, had been able to master the terrain, though Lee had done marginally better in that respect. But both had been ready to fight it out to the finish, and it was as if the two armies had been infected with that same berserk quality. The casualties had been enormous. On the Confederate side no one knew how many they had lost in the horrible tangle, but returns showed a bill of between 7,500 and 1 1,000. Longstreet himself was wounded, along with several other generals; he turned his corps over to R. H. Anderson. A. P. Hill went off sick, giving his corps to Jubal Early. On the Federal side losses were even worse, and the more careful returns kept there showed a loss of 17,500 men. More significant than the actual numbers were two things. The Union casualty rate was about 17 percent, the Confederate between 12, if the lower figure of losses was accepted, and 18, if the higher figure was taken. The Union figure was higher, of course, especially if one applied losses solely to the troops actively engaged, for Burnside's corps did little fighting in the two days. So one important consideration was the scale of the fighting, and the willingness of the armies, or at least of their commanders, to accept losses of such magnitude. Perhaps one should suggest less "willingness" than inability to accomplish results without incurring almost prohibitive costs. The second factor is, of course, that the Union could afford these losses, heavy as they were, and perhaps disproportionately so, better than the Confederacy could. It came back to the old equation—that if this war were ultimately reduced to a matter of attrition, the Union was going to win it. Or as Lee had remarked so long ago, "If you go to ciphering, we are whipped beforehand." Maybe so, but it did not appear as if they had been whipped this time. Once again the Army of Northern Virginia, by better luck and marginally superior tactical handling, had stopped the Army of the Potomac. On the 7th, the two sides stayed where they were, each holding its lines and waiting to see if the other might try a move. The long day wore on, as the soldiers tried to get a little rest, a little food, and to do what they could for the tragic wreckage of the previous days' fighting, always a grisly task, and now made more so by the fires that had run through the battle lines. As the day passed, Grant looked at his maps and talked things over with Meade and his senior commanders. But he had already decided upon his next move, and he issued orders to the corps commanders. The army would leapfrog, by corps, to its left, in a southerly direction. March orders to and through Meade's headquarters desired that Warren should lead off, followed by Sedgwick, pass behind Hancock, and move on the next road junction, south of the Wilderness, a place called Spotsylvania Court House. Grant wanted to keep the pressure on Lee, partly for its own sake, partly because he received reports through the day that Butler with the Army of the James was advancing, and had reached City Point on the way to Richmond. Grant wanted if possible to prevent Lee from detaching any troops to stop this other move. So after dark Warren's men quietly pulled out of the line, and started east. They were not happy; it looked to them as if they had been beaten again, and as if they were on their way back to Washington; just the way it always was, you advance, you fight, you get beat, you go back and think it all over, and then you start again from the beginning. These men had learned in a hard school the patience that long endureth, but they were far from happy about it. Then a remarkable thing happened. As the heads of the columns made their way out of the Wilderness, they were met by guides who took up the trail; then at one crossroads there sat a little clump of mounted officers, among them George Meade and General Grant himself. Silently the officers waved them on, to the roads turning not back to the Rapidan fords and safety and Washington, but south, deeper into the enemy's territory. Suddenly, as they realized where they were going, the men began cheering, a deep spontaneous roar that caught from regiment to regiment and echoed back down the long blue columns. Hancock's men took it up, and Sedgwick's and Burnside's, the whole army carried forward on a deep welling tide of exultation. If ever there was a moment of apotheosis for the Army of the Potomac, it was that one, when all those men, so long hard-used and abused, eagerly turned their backs on safety and salvation, and went forward to suffering, destruction, and quite probable death. The Confederates, hearing the widespread cheering, thought it presaged a night attack, and fired volleys in the dark. It really meant more than that: it meant the death knell of the Confederacy. With Grant moving south, Lee must move as well. Stuart's cavalry was out there, bickering with some Union horsemen, but that was not going to be enough to hold them. Lee quickly sent out his orders, and off they went. He had hoped to destroy the Union army in the Wilderness, and had not managed to do it. The next important position was the road junction around Spotsylvania Court House; he could see that just as readily as Grant, and he told his people to get there first. As usual, they had to cover only the chord of the circle while the Federals had to march along the arc, and since the Confederates were the faster marchers anyway—no sixty miles of trains for this army — they were soon on the roads and hastening southeast. But the larger significance of all this was not immediately apparent: for almost the first time in the war, Lee was responding to the Union strategic moves rather than the other way round. Less than a week into the campaign, Grant had wrested the initiative from Robert Lee. The Federals almost won the race. General James H. Wilson, one of the "boy general" horsemen who were remaking the Union cavalry arm in their own image, got his division to Spotsylvania in the early hours of May 8, and he held the position for most of the morning against growing Confederate strength. But Anderson, now commanding Longstreet's corps, got his foot soldiers in front of Warren's advance, and before the infantry could force their way through, Wilson's troopers were finally pushed off their ground. As the Rebel infantry swarmed around the little road junction and immediately began digging, it was apparent that there was going to be another big fight. In fact, it need not have been so. Hancock's II Corps in its advance swung a little to the westward, and at one point, he was in danger of marching across the Confederate route and getting behind the whole Spotsylvania position. But this was good luck, not good management, and once more the tangled roads and tracks of northern Virginia played the Federals false. After blundering around a while, totally unaware of how much good they might be doing, the bluecoats pulled back, and all unknowingly lost a great opportunity to flank Lee's army. In part this was a failure of cavalry to obtain the intelligence the army needed, and that in turn stemmed from a personality clash and a doctrinal difference between Meade and Sheridan. Like most foot soldiers, Meade thought cavalry was a bit of a nuisance, generally more trouble than it was worth, and that was the way he used it: to provide headquarters guards, to do a bit of screening, and not much else. Sheridan, a feisty little Irishman from the bottom of his West Point class, had taken over the Army of the Potomac's cavalry corps on condition he be given a free hand to do something with it, and so far his condition had not been fulfilled. Now he and Meade fell to quarreling over this, and went to Grant about it. Grant's response was, Well, if you think you can do something, go ahead and do it. Within hours, Sheridan's troopers were saddling up, drawing rations and ammunition, and moving out, three divisions of horsemen, 10,000 men, a column thirteen miles long. They were looking for a fight; this was not to be one of those wild will-o'-the wisp rides that covered a lot of ground but garnered only headlines. Sheridan's intent was quite clear: he was going to whip Jeb Stuart, and anything else that got in the way was purely incidental. The column advanced at a steady walk. With 10,000 Federals between him and Richmond, Lee had to do something about it, and he detached Stuart's cavalry to catch Sheridan. Stuart, however, had a mere 4,500 men. He soon caught up with the Union rear guard, and dropped one brigade to harass them; with the rest of his force he sped ahead cross-country, hoping to catch the advance and halt it. There was a good bit of skirmishing between flanking parties, but the main Federal force rode stolidly on, taking time to wreck bridges, tear up the odd bit of rail line, and generally raising the devil as they passed by. They had almost reached Richmond before Stuart and his hurrying followers got in front of them, and the two forces met at a place called Yellow Tavern, a mere six miles north of the Confederate capital. Here Stuart deployed his force across the road, and about noon the Federals came on in strength against him. The two sides fought for the whole afternoon, carbines, pistols, and sabers, and as the day went on, a series of charges by General George Custer's Michigan brigade began to press Stuart's left flank. Stuart himself rode over to shore up his line, and in one of the exchanges, a passing Union private got off a pistol shot at him. The bullet took Stuart in the stomach, a fatal wound in those days before antiseptic. The Confederates were driven off the field, and Stuart was carried into Richmond, where he died the next evening at his brother-in-law's home. Sheridan then went on around the capital, bivouacked on the southeast side of it, and linked up with Butler's Army of the James. He stayed there for week, and then took his command back the way it had come, joining up with Meade and Grant on the 24th. He and his troopers were very pleased with themselves, and Lee, who lamented that he had lost his right arm with Jackson, said he had now lost his eyes with Stuart, another of the South's paladins gone fotever. By the time Stuart died, so had a good many other men, for as the Union cavalry rode south, Grant attacked the Confederate position at Spotsylvania Court House, and the result was some of the most desperate fighting in a war filled with desperation. As usual, the position was a bit uncertain, for the armies were still in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House being a little hamlet toward the southeastern extremity of the area. The Confederates dug a long trench line, extending roughly north from the hamlet for about a mile and a half, then bending abruptly west for another couple of miles. Early held the eastern side, Ewell the angle, and Anderson the western side of the position. Hancock had blundered past this left, western, flank without realizing exactly where he was. Meanwhile, Warren and Sedgwick had come up on Hancock's left, and began feeling out Anderson's line, trying to figure out just what they were up against. The growth was tangled, entrenchments could be seen through the trees, but it was difficult to get the lie of the land. When "Good Uncle John," as his troops called Sedgwick, went forward to get a look, one of his soldiers said, "You better keep down; there's snipers up there." Sedgwick replied jokingly, "Nonsense, they couldn't hit an elephant from here," and dropped, struck below the eye by a rifle bullet, dead before he hit the ground. Horatio Wright took over his VI Corps. That was on the 9th. On the next day, Warren launched a heavy attack against Anderson late in the afternoon. Warren himself put on full-dress uniform and led from the front, a target for all to see, and it was a wonder he escaped. The Confederates, well dug in and with artillery support, drove his troops off. Later that afternoon Wright followed with a carefully planned attack on the angle of the Confederate position, known to them in homely terms as the "the mule shoe," from its rounded shape. Led by Colonel Emory Upton, twelve Federal regiments swept over the position, and momentarily occupied it, only to be driven back out for failure of their supports to come up. On the 11th, Grant and Meade shuffled their units about a little, allowing Lee to think they were going to retreat. But they were not done yet. They were merely organizing a large-scale repeat of Upton's attack, and this time they were going to do it right. Hancock was going to hit the mule shoe with four whole divisions of his II Corps, and as soon as he did so, Burnside would attack from the east and Wright from the west, and they would go right over the Rebels. So they thought. Actually, Lee was thinning out his line while they were preparing, getting ready for an attack of his own. Just to be on the safe side, he began his troops digging a fallback position across the base of the mule shoe. Many of his guns were moved out, but when the pickets heard heavy movement to their front during the night of the llth-12th, the Confederates began bringing their artillery back. They were thus caught on one foot at daybreak of the 12th, when Hancock launched his attack. The Confederate pickets heard a deepthroated cheer, and out of the early morning rain came 20,000 men, huge deep columns like something from the Napoleonic Wars. They came right up to and over the ditch and escarpment and burst into the mule shoe in a tidal wave of blue. Confederate regiments were swept away like chaff, and the entire Stonewall Brigade, what was left of it by now, was hustled off as prisoners to the rear, with hardly time to fire a shot. The Army of Northern Virginia was torn asunder, its life hanging by a thread. But the Rebels rallied; John B. Gordon's division of Anderson stuck at the fallback line, and he quickly organized a counterattack. The Federals in their dense masses were momentarily confused by the ease of their success, milling about with their units mixed up. Gordon threw together a line and back they went, literally to do or die. Robert Lee himself brought up supports, and for the second time in a week he rode among his men, his sword drawn, arm uplifted, intending to lead the charge himself. The soldiers screamed, "General Lee to the rear! General Lee to the rear!" and he replied, "We must take that position," and again they cried, "General Lee to the rear! We'll take it, we'll take it!" and went forward yelling, swearing, crying, a furious burst of energy and emotion that transcended humanity. With fire and bayonets and butts they pushed and shoved the Federals back, to the firing step, to the parapet, and out of the mule shoe and into its outer ditch. Yet the Federals were as determined as their foes, and they stuck on the outer side of the entrenchment, and would not go farther. After an hour and a half, by a mere six in the morning, they were still there, when Wright's VI Corps attacked on their right. His people too got as far as the parapet, and there the two sides remained, locked in battle. Men clawed at the bank with their bayonets and hands, trying to fire through it. Others from both sides jumped up onto the top and fired down into the enemy, fed a succession of loaded weapons by their friends until they were shot. Each side went up and over for a few minutes, here and there, before being shot down or driven back, and this went on for hours, men going temporarily crazy in their frenzy. Historians say this cannot be done, that men cannot stand on slippery piles of dead and wounded in the wet and mud and continue to fight, that human beings cannot behave and endure as these men behaved and endured. Yet the evidence is clear enough, from hundreds of eyewitness survivors and contemporary photographs. The fighting here went on for twenty hours, Hancock finally contained and fought out, Wright exhausted, and a later attack on the eastern flank by Burnside turned back after some little success. By midnight Lee had finally got his line redug across the mouth of the mule shoe, and his people, what was left of them, went sullen and exhausted back to the new position. By the end of the day the mule shoe had a new name, and has been known ever since then as The Bloody Angle, the article capitalized as in The Cornfield at Antietam, or The Peach Orchard at Gettysburg, or The Sunken Road at Shiloh. Appellations such as that are dearly bought; Spotsylvania Court House cost both armies a heavy price in dead and wounded. On the two days of the 10th and 12th, the Federals lost another 11,000 men. Lee could not even manage a correct count of his losses; his army was too exhausted to file proper returns. On both sides, behind the lines, people were shocked and appalled by the stories coming out of the Wilderness. Yet Grant had telegraphed Washington on the 11th: "We have now ended the 6th day of very hard fighting. . . . Our losses have been heavy as well as those of the enemy. I . . . purpose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." Lincoln had wanted a man who fought, and that was what he got. Reports indicated that Sheridan was cutting up Confederate communications and destroying their stores and rations, that Butler's cavalry was operating down around Petersburg, threatening the southern approaches to Richmond, and Grant saw little reason to alter his original strategy. It was costly, but it was working. Confederate prisoners were downhearted, and there were rumors of substantial desertions in their ranks. Grant thus issued orders for another leapfrog to the south, and at dark on the 13th Warren set off, moving behind the army from its right to its left flank. Wright followed on a wider swing several hours later. This night the Confederates got lucky; it poured all night, the roads turned to glue, the creeks rose, and the Federals, trying to march cross-country, floundered around in the wet, cursing and stumbling and wading. This gave Lee just enough time to extend his right flank to the south, a precious day gained and lost by the heavy rain. For the Federals, things went from bad to worse. Grant received word that Butler had let himself get beaten at Drewry's Bluff, by a scratch force gathered under Beauregard, and he was thus stalled. Even worse, over in the Shenandoah Valley, Sigel also got beaten, by a gaggle of Confederates that included 247 ever-glorious cadets from Virginia Military Institute, and he retreated hastily north down the Valley. Instead of having the balanced campaign he wanted, Grant was now going to have to do it all alone, and that significantly altered the picture of the overall strategy. On the 18th, Grant shifted back to the north, and hit The Bloody Angle hard with Wright, Hancock, and Burnside. Again there was bitter fighting, but the Confederates had been well dug in and ready, and there were substantial losses but no real gain. While all this was in train, both sides were reinforced. Grant got units sent out from the Washington garrison forces, large regiments of so-called heavy artillery that had already served for a couple of years without seeing any fighting, and were now suddenly transformed into infantry. At full strength and burdened with all their parade-ground impedimenta, these units got the usual joking welcome from the oldtimers; a full-strength regiment of 900 men would be teased with, "What division is that?" As they have since the days of Alexander the Great, the old-timers shouted out, "You'll be sorry!" "Wait till you see what's waiting for you," and suchlike pleasantries. But they soon shook down, littering their line of march with discarded junk, and their bulk was sorely needed and welcome; in this campaign, any blood would do. They showed they could fight, vigorously if not too skillfully, when Lee sent Ewell out to try to flank the Federal army to its north on the 19th. Ewell's whole corps, a mere 6,000 men now, bumped into some new Federal units, and was lucky to get back safe into its own lines. Lee for his part got units from both the James River front and from the Shenandoah, altogether 8,000 or 9,000 men. A. P. Hill also soon rejoined him, though he was still not well, and took over his old corps from Jubal Early. What Grant really wanted to do was get Lee out in the open; if he could meet him clear of the Wilderness, or when the Confederates had not had a chance to dig in, he thought he could win a stand-up battle. Disappointed by the Army of the James and by the results in the Shenandoah, he had little choice but to keep going. Once again the Army of the Potomac moved south. Grant sent Hancock all the way to the North Anna River, about twenty miles south of Spotsylvania, and halfway to Richmond. His idea was that with Hancock in this threatening position, Lee would have to move against him, and then Grant could in turn follow with the rest of his army, and catch Lee between the two forces. As usual, the plan failed. Lee pulled out his corps, got them on the roads south, and ended up strongly dug in on the North Anna, his advance squabbling with Hancock's over the river crossings. Grant then hurried the rest of his army down to support Hancock, fearing the isolated II Corps might be overwhelmed. Lee had taken up an extremely strong position, similar to that at Spotsylvania Court House, but this time with the angle resting on the river so it could not be overwhelmed. It was a good thing the Confederates were so well disposed, for Lee went down with a bad attack of the runs, and for a week was in no condition to direct a battle. Grant spent several days trying to figure out how to force a favorable battle, and in the end decided to move yet again. He was also modifying his original plan with respect to General Butler and the Army of the James. As that force was now thoroughly boxed in, he ordered that a corps-strength detachment under W. F. Smith be sent up the Pamunkey River to White House, to link up with his own advance. This arrived on May 30. Meanwhile, he sideslipped the Army of the Potomac again, marching southeast from the North Anna confrontation down that stream and down the Pamunkey, of which it is the northern branch. Wright and Hancock led off, followed by Warren and Burnside. The move meant that once again they had halved the distance to Richmond. But once again, they had failed to bring Lee to battle on favorable terms. He quickly retreated, and got his men between the Federals and Richmond by a matter of a few hours. This led to some preliminary fighting around Mechanicsville—shades of the Seven Days—and an oddly named little crossroads in the middle of nowhere called Cold Harbor, oddly named as it was at least five miles from any water big enough to float a boat. Sheridan had actually reached this place first, with two divisions of cavalry, and he held it for some time, waiting for the infantry to arrive. On June 1 his troopers, armed with repeating carbines, held off a serious attack from the Confederates for the whole day. Then, when Wright's VI Corps and Smith's XVIII Corps arrived, they all went over to the offensive. By then the Confederates had dug in again, and all they got for their pains were 2,600 casualties. So here they were, back to the same old business, both sides consolidating, and both digging. Lee really wanted to catch the Union forces strung out and in the open, and at this first try he had almost, but not quite, succeeded. For two days both armies dug furiously, while the rearward corps closed up, and they extended their lines somewhat to the south from the original Cold Harbor position. Grant badly wanted an early assault, realizing that the sooner he did it the better, but Hancock's men came in completely exhausted after marching all night through scorching heat. An attack scheduled for dawn of the 2nd had to be postponed until evening, and then, after several days of killing sun, the skies opened and the rain poured down. Grant again postponed the assault, till the early morning of the 3rd. By then Lee had all of his army in hand, and they had dug effectively on a front of more than five miles. Their works were covered by some swamps and rough patches, and most important, each segment of the line supported its flanking portions, so that almost anywhere the Federals might attack, they would face frontal fire and angling, enfilading fire at the same time. By now both armies knew all there was to know about field fortifications and how to site artillery cover, and with the possible exception of the new Union garrison regiments, there was not a soldier in either army would keep his bayonet in preference to his shovel. By the morning of June 3, Lee had created as good a killing trap as it was possible to do. Nonetheless Grant determined to assault it, and did so early in the morning with Hancock, Wright, and Smith, while Warren and Burnside covered the northern flank. The orders were for a full-scale assault, and not much more. There had been little preliminary reconnaissance, and not much attention was paid to who would do what when; just form your troops and give the command, Forward, March! The troops themselves, far from stupid and with a well-developed eye for the strength of a position, knew what all that meant. In the leading assault columns the veterans, as has been mentioned earlier, pinned little slips of paper to their backs, with their names on them, so friends could identify their bodies after it was over. The real battle lasted little more than an hour. The Federals came on gallantly, driving in the Confederate pickets. Then as they neared the main line, thousands of Rebels jumped to their feet, and a sheet of flame burst in the faces of the Union infantry. Men went down in heaps; others stumbled blindly about until they were shot down in their turn. The leading Union regiments were simply blown away in sheer butchery. Here and there they managed to reach the breastworks. A couple of Hancock's regiments actually made it to the top of the parapet; Colonel MacMahon of the 164th New York died planting his regiment's color on the top of the breastwork, but the successes were tew and totally isolated. Wright's men made fourteen determined rushes, and could not reach Anderson's line. They could not carry it, and would not or could not go back. By mid-morning the remnants of his leading divisions were clinging grimly to scooped-out holes within yards of the Rebel line. Smith's corps included several of the big new heavyartillery regiments, and as they tried to advance, they were simply shot to pieces. They pressed on bravely, only to add more bodies to the wreckage. Cold Harbor was the worst battle of a campaign full of them. It was later charged that Grant the butcher had "thrown away twenty thousand men in ten minutes"; that was not quite the case. Union losses were about 7,000, and it took about thirty minutes. But the accusation was not totally unfounded. The attack had been casually prepared and poorly orchestrated, and neither Grant nor Meade nor their staffs had done their work properly; if they had, they would have easily seen the folly of the attack. Being tired, confused, and impatient is still a lot more bearable than being dead, and Grant later admitted that Cold Harbor was the one battle he really regretted in his campaign. It was also the last in what came to be called the Overland Campaign. In one month of fighting, the Army of the Potomac had advanced sixty miles, roughly two miles a day, at a cost of nearly 2,000 men a day. This was an expensive but by no means a small achievement. Northern newspapers might castigate Grant as a bull-headed butcher, but there was far more to it than that. A more discerning eye would have seen that Robert Lee, the consummate master of maneuver, had been repeatedly forced to respond to Grant's initiative. The Peace Democrats loudly pointed out that after all this squalor and waste, Grant was only where McClellan had been at the beginning of his 1862 Peninsula Campaign, and that was true too, but what they forgot was that McClellan, when he finally got around to fighting, could not do it. Federal losses had been substantially heavier than Confederate, the price of retaining the initiative and of repeated attacks, but however tragic they were, the Union could afford its losses better than the Confederacy could. It may occasionally, if the other side chooses, be possible to win a war without much fighting. The Confederacy was not that kind of opponent. Grant now moved again, a move he had been working out in his mind for several days. He very carefully and cleverly organized a shift south from the lines around Cold Harbor, all the way to the James. He decided to operate against Petersburg, the rail junction twenty miles south of Richmond. Almost all of the Confederate capital's supplies moved through that city, and if it could be taken, then Lee must fight in the open, or the capital must fall, or both. The preparation for the march, across country from the Chickahominy to the James, the sites of the Seven Days' Battles, was very precisely worked out. Lee let himself be lulled into thinking this was just another leapfrog to the immediate south, and on the 13th of June, the Confederates found the Union lines around Cold Harbor empty. As Lee's men marched to their right, they found swarms of Union cavalry covering the country, and by the time Lee realized what was happening, Federal units were crossing the James, and Beauregard was screaming for the return of his troops, because he was under increasing pressure around Petersburg. In the third week of June, the Army of the Potomac lost its best opportunity to win the war then and there. In four days of very confused fighting on the outskirts of Petersburg, Beauregard, that often maligned Confederate stormy petrel, fought a brilliant delaying action. He was immensely helped by poor staff work on the Union side, and a hard-learned reluctance to mount a determined assault against dugin Rebels. By a hair's breadth, the Federals failed to take the city before Lee got his troops down there. The truth was, the Army of the Potomac was virtually exhausted. On June 22, Hancock's famous II Corps was handily beaten up by a far inferior Confederate force, and after that, Grant decided on a siege. He would entrench around the city, and operate against its communications. It looked like the best he could do. He had immobilized Robert Lee and whittled away his army. Now he would hold him in a death grip while others elsewhere continued the war of movement. So ended the most bitter seven weeks of fighting ever seen on the North American continent.

 

 

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