The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 14/Number 81/The May Campaign in Virginia


There are few months in the calendar of centuries that will have a more conspicuous place in history than the month of May, 1864. It will be remembered on account of the momentous events which have taken place during the present military operations. It inaugurates one of the greatest campaigns of history. We who are in it are amazed, not by its magnitude merely, for there have been larger armies, heavier trains of artillery, greater preparations, in European warfare,—but we are overwhelmed by a succession of events unparalleled for rapidity. We cannot fully comprehend the amount of endurance, the persistency, the hard marching, the harder fighting, the unwearied, cheerful energy and effort which have carried the Army of the Potomac from the Rappahannock to the Chickahominy in thirty days, against the stubborn opposition of an army of almost equal numbers. There has not been a day of rest, scarcely an hour of quiet. Morning, noon, and midnight, the booming of cannon and the rattling of musketry have echoed unceasingly through the Wilderness, around the hillocks of Spottsylvania, along the banks of the North Anna, and among the groves of Bethesda Church and Coal Harbor.

A brief résumé of the campaign, thus far developed, is all that can be attempted in the space assigned me. I must pass by the efforts of individuals, as heroic and soul-stirring as those of the old Cavaliers renowned in story and song, where all the energies of life are centred in one moment,—the spirited advance of regiments, the onset of brigades; and the resistless charges of divisions. I can speak only of the movements of corps, without dwelling upon those scenes which stir the blood and fire the soul,—the hardihood, the endurance, the cool, collected, reserved force, abiding the time, the calm facing of death, the swift advance, the rush, the plunge into the thickest of the fight, where hundreds of cannon, where fifty thousand muskets, fill the air with iron hail and leaden rain!


The army wintered between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan. There had been a reduction and reconstruction of its corps,—an incorporation of the First and Third with the Fifth and Sixth, with reinforcements added to the Second. The Second was commanded by Major-General Hancock, the Fifth by Major-General Warren, the Sixth by Major-General Sedgwick. No definite statement of the number of men composing the army can be given, for the campaign is not yet ended; and no aid or comfort, no information of value to the enemy, can be tendered through the columns of the loyal "Atlantic."

These three corps, with three divisions of cavalry commanded by General Sheridan, composed the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major-General Meade. The Ninth Corps, commanded by Major-General Burnside, was added when the army took up its line of march.

There was concentration everywhere. General Gillmore, with what troops could be spared from the department of the South, joined his forces to those already on the Peninsula and at Suffolk; Sigel had several thousand in the Shenandoah; Crook and Averell had a small army in Western Virginia; while at Chattanooga, under Sherman and Thomas, was gathered a large army of Western troops.

The dramatis personæ were known to the public, but the part assigned to each was kept profoundly secret. There was discussion and speculation whether Burnside, from his encampment at Annapolis, would suddenly take transports and go to Wilmington, or up the Rappahannock, or the James, or the York, uniting his forces with Butler's. Would Meade move directly across the Rapidan and attack Lee in front, with every passage, every hill and ravine enfiladed by Rebel cannon? Or would he move his right flank along the Blue Ridge, crowding Lee to the seaboard? Would he not make, rather, a sudden change of base to Fredericksburg? None of the wise men, military or civil, in their speculations, indicated the line which General Grant adopted. The public accepted the disaster at Chancellorsville and the failure at Mine Run as conclusive evidence that a successful advance across the Rapidan by the middle fords was impossible, or at least improbable. So well was the secret kept, that, aside from the corps commanders, none in or out of the army, except the President and Secretary of War, had information of the line of march intended.

We know now how General Burnside marched to Washington, contrary to the expectations of the public; how his troops passed in review before the President,—a few veterans, with Roanoke, Newbern, all the seven days before Richmond, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Knoxville on their tattered ensigns; how they were cheered by the crowd; how, following them, came a division for the first time shouldering a musket for their country,—who till a year ago never had a country,—who even now, although Americans, are not citizens,—disfranchised, yet fighting for the flag,—beholding now for the first time the careworn, yet benevolent face of their benefactor, and rending the air with their hurrahs. There was swinging of hats, waving of handkerchiefs and banners. They marched to victory or certain death. For them there was no surrender, after the massacres of Milliken's Bend, Plymouth, and Fort Pillow.

We know how Butler went up to White House, and then suddenly down the York and up the James to Bermuda Hundred. We know of the movements of Sigel and Crook and Averell,—minor, yet important in the general plan. We have had the victorious march of Sherman, flanking and defeating Johnston. All these movements were parts of the well-considered plan of operations.

The expedition of General Banks up the Red River was in process of execution when General Grant was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all the forces in the field. He sent a messenger recalling it; but, through some miscarriage or misconception of orders, or from some cause yet unexplained, the expedition kept on its way, resulting in disaster. The withdrawal of the gunboats which had been demonstrating off Mobile, and the departure of troops from the Mississippi, enabled General Johnston to gather all the forces of the Southwest in front of Sherman. General Grant designed that General Banks, with troops and flotilla, should suddenly fall upon Mobile, front and rear. If the works were carried by assault, then gunboats and transports could appear at Montgomery, flanking Johnston. It would be the thrusting of a probe deep into the tenderest and sorest parts of the Confederate body-politic. It would sever Alabama and Mississippi from the other Rebel States. Or, if failing in the assault, it would at least compel Johnston to send back the troops withdrawn, thus making it easy work for Sherman.

The failure of any part in a concerted movement affects all other parts. General Banks not appearing at Mobile has retarded Sherman. The failure of Butler to close the Southern portal, and the defeat of Sigel, who, instead of knocking loudly at the back-door of the Rebel capital, was himself knocked back, have enabled Lee to concentrate all his troops against the Army of the Potomac. Finnegan's troops from Florida, Beauregard's from Charleston, Pickett's from North Carolina, Buckner's from Western Virginia, and Breckenridge's from the Shenandoah, at the close of the month, are fighting against General Grant at Coal Harbor.

These are the general features of the campaign as a whole; but, separate and distinct from the movements of all other armies and bodies of men, are the operations of the Army of the Potomac, which has a campaign of its own,—forever memorable!


There have been four movements by the left flank:—

From Culpepper to Wilderness.

From Wilderness to Spottsylvania.

From Spottsylvania to the North Anna.

From the North Anna to the Chickahominy.

It has been a month of marching and fighting,—fighting and marching,—day and night,—night and day,—winning no great, decisive victory, nor suffering defeat, yet getting nearer the while to Richmond, and compelling the enemy to choose new positions or be cut off from his capital.

The accompanying diagram will convey to the eye the relative movements of the two armies,—General Grant moving on the arcs of the circles, as represented by the dotted lines, and Lee upon the chords of the arcs, as indicated by the continuous lines.


On Tuesday afternoon, May 3d, the cavalry broke camp on the Orange and Alexandria railroad, and moved eastward,—General Gregg's division toward Ely's Ford, and General Wilson's division towards Germanna Ford, each having pontoons. At midnight the Second Corps, which had been encamped east of Culpepper, followed General Gregg. At daylight on the morning of the 4th of May, the Fifth and Sixth Corps and the reserve artillery were moving towards Germanna Ford. The supply-train—sixty miles in length, eight thousand wagons—followed the Second Corps. There were but these two available roads.

The enemy was at Orange Court-House, watching, from his elevated lookout on Clark's Mountain, for the first sign of change. In the light of the early dawn he saw that the encampments at Culpepper were broken up, while the dust-cloud hanging over the forest toward the east was the sure indication of the movement.

General Lee put his army in instant motion to strike the advancing columns as they crossed the Rapidan. The movement of Grant was southeast, that of Lee northeast,—lines of advance which must produce collision, unless Grant was far enough forward to slip by the angle. There is reason to believe that General Grant did not intend to fight Lee at Wilderness, but that it was his design to slip past that point and swing round by Spottsylvania, and, if possible, get between Lee and Richmond. He boldly cut loose his connection with Washington, and sailed out into the unknown and untried, relying upon the ability of his soldiers to open a new base for supplies whenever needed.

In this first day's movement he did not uncover Washington. Burnside was still lying on the north bank of the Rappahannock. It was understood in the army that the Ninth Corps was to be a reserve to protect the capital. So, perhaps, Lee understood it. But at nightfall, on the 4th, the shelter-tents are folded, and the men of the Ninth, with six days' rations in their haversacks, are on the march along the forest-road, lighted only by the stars, joining the main army at Germanna Ford on the morning of the 5th.

Although the movement of the troops was well timed, and the march made with great rapidity, the trains were delayed, and it was not possible for General Grant to swing past the enemy advancing upon his flank.

Early in the morning of the 5th, Generals Meade and Grant, with their staffs, after riding five miles from Germanna Ford, halted near the old mill in the Wilderness. General Sheridan's cavalry had been pushing out south and west. Aids came back with despatches.

"They say that Lee intends to fight us here," said General Meade, as he read them.

"Very well," was the quiet reply of General Grant.

The two commanders retire a little from the crowd, and stand by the road-side in earnest conversation. Grant is of medium stature, yet has a well-developed physique, sandy whiskers and moustache, blue eyes, earnest, thoughtful, and far-seeing, a cigar in his mouth, a knife in one hand, and a stick in the other, which he is whittling to a point. He whittles slowly towards him. His thoughts are not yet crystallized. His words are few. Suddenly he commences upon the other end of the stick, and whittles energetically from him. His mind is made up,—his plan matured. He is less reticent,—talks freely. He is dressed in plain blue; and were it not for the three stars upon his shoulder, few would select him as the Lieutenant-General commanding all the armies of the Union in the field.

Meade is tall, thin, a little stooping in the shoulders, quick, comprehending the situation of affairs in an instant, energetic,—an officer of excellent executive ability.


At the old Wilderness tavern the Stevensburg plank-road leading southeast from Germanna Ford crosses the Orange and Fredericksburg turnpike. Five miles beyond the tavern is Wilderness Church, at the junction of the Stevensburg with the Orange and Fredericksburg plank-road. Near by is the Brock road, which leads south to Spottsylvania Court-House. West of the old tavern, four miles on the turnpike, is Parker's store. In the early morning, General Ewell's brigades appeared in line of battle at the store, on both sides of the turnpike, while General A. P. Hill's corps was found to be pushing rapidly eastward along the Orange plank-road, to gain the junction of the roads at Old Church. Longstreet was following Hill.

The Second Corps, which had crossed at Ely's Ford, was already on the move towards Spottsylvania. A recall was sent, also orders directing Hancock to hold the junction of the roads. The Fifth Corps was thrown out upon the turnpike towards Parker's store. The Sixth was moved up from the Germanna road, west, into the woods, and placed in position to cover all approaches to the ford. The Ninth arrived during the day, and moved into the gap between the Fifth and Second. Divisions were moved to the right, to the left, and to the centre, during the two days' fight, but the positions of the corps remained unchanged. Standing by the old tavern and looking west, you see the line of battle. At your feet is a brook flowing from the southwest to the northeast, and there is another smaller stream joining its waters at the crossing of the roads. Beyond the bridge the turnpike crosses a ridge of land. On the southern slope is the house of Major Lucy, with a smooth lawn, and meadows green with the verdure of spring. Beyond the meadows are hills wooded with oaks, pines, and cedar-thickets. At the right hand of the turnpike the ridge is closely set with pines and cedars. Farther out it breaks down into a ravine. Ewell has the western slope, and Warren with the Fifth Corps the eastern, with the Sixth on his right.

It is a mixture of tall trees and small underbrush,—dense, almost impenetrable. There are hills, knolls, dells, dark ravines. It is a battle-ground for Indians, but one not admitting of the military movements,—of advance by columns, or lines, as laid down in the books.

The battle commenced on Thursday afternoon and closed Saturday morning. It was fierce, terrible, bloody, and yet indecisive. It was one unbroken roll of musketry. There was a hostile meeting of two hundred thousand men. There were bayonet-charges, surgings to and fro of the opposing lines, a meeting and commingling, like waves of the ocean, sudden upspringings from the underbrush of divisions stealthily advanced. There was the continuous rattle, the roll deepening into long heavy swells, the crescendo and the diminuendo of a terrible symphony, rising to thunder-tones, to crash and uproar indescribable, then dying away to a ripple, to silence at last!

Lee hastened from his intrenchments beyond Mine Run to strike Grant a damaging blow,—to fall upon him while his line was thin and attenuated. Grant was in column, moving southeast,—Lee in two columns, moving northeast. These lines show it to the eye:—

The advance of Lee has its parallel in naval warfare,—in Nelson's lines of battle at Trafalgar. But there the comparison fails. The advance is the same,—the result, instead of a victory, a defeat. He fell upon the Fifth Corps, first at Parker's store, then on the right centre, then on the left, then upon the Sixth, then upon the Second,—then upon the whole line, renewing and repeating the assaults. Grant stood throughout upon the line selected at the beginning of the battle. Lee began the attack on the 5th, and renewed it at daybreak on the 6th.

Through all those long hours of conflict, there was patient endurance in front of the enemy. There were temporary successes and reverses on both sides. In only a single instance was there permanent advantage to the enemy, and that he had not the power to improve. It was at the close of the contest on the 6th. The sun had gone down, and twilight was deepening into night. The wearied men of Rickett's division of the Sixth Corps, in the front line of battle on the right, had thrown themselves upon the ground. Suddenly there was a rush upon their flank. There was musketry, blinding flashes from cannon, and explosions of shells. The line which had stood firmly through the day gave way, not because it was overpowered, but because it was surprised. General Seymour and a portion of his brigade were taken prisoners. There was a partial panic, which soon subsided. The second line remained firm, the enemy was driven back, and the disaster repaired by swinging the Sixth Corps round to a new position, covered by the reserve artillery. It was the only substantial advantage gained by Lee during the battle.

There were indications in the forenoon of Saturday, the 7th, that Lee was withdrawing his army. A reconnoissance in force made it more apparent. Orders were issued for the removal of the wounded to Fredericksburg. At two o'clock in the afternoon the Ninth Corps was on the march to Spottsylvania. The first step towards Richmond had been successfully taken. If Grant had not gained what he desired, a position between Lee and Richmond, Lee on the other hand had utterly failed in his attempt to crush Grant by a sudden blow upon his flank. He had not been able, in the language of the President, even to "jostle him from his chosen line of march."


At sunrise on the 8th, the Fifth Corps was at Todd's Tavern, four miles from Spottsylvania, where Gregg had just defeated Fitz Hugh Lee, in a hard-fought contest on Saturday. The Sixth and Second Corps arrived during the day. The Ninth moved with the teams through Chancellorsville farther to the east.

The natural defences of Spottsylvania are two small streams,—the Po and the Ny, affluents of the Mattapony. The advance of the Fifth Corps was checked, three miles west of the Court-House, by Longstreet's and Ewell's corps, which had left Wilderness on the night of the 6th. The Sixth came up at five o'clock and joined in the conflict, driving the enemy from the position he had taken on the north bank of the Ny.

On Monday morning, the 9th, it was apparent that Lee, having failed on Grant's flank, had now placed himself squarely in front, with his entire army.

One of the great battles of the campaign was fought on Tuesday, the corps occupying positions as in the diagram:— The line of battle was formed with the Second Corps on the right, the Fifth on the right-centre, the Sixth on the left-centre, with the Ninth nine miles distant, approaching by the Fredericksburg road. There was a severe engagement in the afternoon, brought on by the advance of the Second Corps, which pushed across an affluent of the Po, west of the Court-House. On the left, the Rebels made an attack upon Wilcox's division of the Ninth, but were repulsed.

The battle was fought in the forest,—in the marshes along the Ny,—in ravines,—in pine-thickets, densely shaded with the dark evergreens that shut out the rays of the noonday sun,—in open fields, where Rebel batteries had full sweep and play with shell and grape and canister from intrenched positions on the hills.

It began in the morning. There was an hour of calm at noon, but at one o'clock artillery and infantry became engaged all along the line. Grant was the attacking party. There was no cessation or diminution of effort during the afternoon. The Rebel outer line of works in the centre was carried by Upton's brigade of the first division, and Russell's brigade of the third division of the Sixth Corps. The men of these brigades, (and among them were the stalwart sons of Vermont,) without firing a shot, moved steadily to the charge with fixed bayonets; they were cut through by solid shot, their ranks torn by shells, thinned by constant volleys of musketry, but, with matchless ardor and unconquerable will, they went up to the line of earthworks, leaped over them, and gathered a thousand prisoners; they held the ground, but their valor had carried them so far beyond their supports that it was deemed prudent to withdraw them.

There was some fighting on the 11th. General Lee sent in a flag of truce for a cessation of hostilities to bury the dead; but the request was not acceded to by General Grant.

The early dawn of Thursday, the 12th, beholds the Second Corps in motion,—not to flank the enemy, but moving, with fixed bayonets, straight on towards his intrenchments. Barlow's and Birney's divisions in columns of battalions, doubled on the centre, to give strength and firmness, lead in the assault. They move silently through the forest,—through the ravine in front of them,—up to their own skirmish-line,—past it,—no longer marching, but running now, dashing on with life and energy and enthusiasm thrilling every nerve. They sweep away the Rebel picket-line as if it were a cobweb. On,—into the intrenchments with a hurrah which startles the soldiers of both armies from their morning slumbers. Major-General Johnson and Brigadier-General Stewart and three thousand men of Ewell's division are taken prisoners, eighteen cannon and twenty-two standards captured.

It is the work of five minutes,—as sudden as the swoop of an eagle. The uproar of the day began. The second line of the enemy's works was assaulted; but, exasperated by their losses, the Rebels fought with great stubbornness. The Ninth Corps was moved up from the left to support the Second. Longstreet, on the other hand, was brought over to help Ewell. The Fifth and Sixth became partially engaged. There were charges and counter-charges. Positions were gained and lost. From morning till night the contest raged on the right, in the centre, and on the left, swaying to and fro over the undulations and through the ravines. It was a battle of fourteen hours' duration,—in severity, in unflinching determination, in obstinacy and persistency, not exceeded by any during the war. Between forty and fifty pieces of artillery were at one time in the hands of General Hancock; but, owing to the difficulties of removal, and the efforts of the enemy, he could secure only eighteen. During the day, Grant advanced his lines a mile towards the Court-House, and repulsed Lee in all his counter-attacks.

By this success Lee was compelled on Thursday night to withdraw his troops from the line he had held so tenaciously, and concentrate them in a smaller semi-circle. Lee had the advantage of Johnston. It was Gettysburg reversed.

There was constant skirmishing and continuous artillery-firing through the 13th, and a moving of the army from the north to the east of the Court-House. A rain-storm set in. The roads became heavy, and a contemplated movement—a sudden flank-attack—was necessarily abandoned.

There was a severe skirmish on the 14th, constant picket-firing on the 15th, and on the 16th another engagement all along the line,—not fought with the fierceness of that of the 12th, but lasting through the forenoon, and resulting in the taking of a line of rifle-pits from the enemy.

On Wednesday, the 18th, there was an assault upon Lee's outer line of works. Two lines of rifle-pits were carried; but an impassable abatis prevented farther advance, and after a six hours' struggle the troops were withdrawn.

On the afternoon of the 19th Ewell gained the rear of Grant's right flank, came suddenly upon Tyler's division of heavy artillery, armed as infantry, just arrived upon the field. Though surprised, they held the enemy in check, forced him back, and with aid from the Second Corps compelled him to retreat with great loss. This attack was made to cover Lee's withdrawal to the North Anna. His troops were already on the march.

Grant was swift to follow.


It is a two days' march from Spottsylvania to the North Anna. The crossings of the Mattapony were held by Rebel cavalry, which were quickly driven. For want of space I am forced to pass over the operations on that natural line of defence,—the gallant crossing of the Fifth Corps at Jericho Ford, the irresistible charge of Birney and Barlow at Taylor's Bridge, the sweeping-in of five hundred prisoners, the severe engagements lasting three days,—all memorable events, worthy of prominence in the full history of the campaign.

Instead of walking over the obstacle, Grant decided to go round it. Stealing a march upon Lee, he moved suddenly southeast, and crossed the Pamunky at Hanover Town, opened a new base of supplies at White House, forcing Lee to fall back on the Chickahominy.


On Sunday, the 29th, there was one of the severest cavalry-engagements of the war, at Hawes's shop, west of Hanover Town, where Sheridan drove the Rebels back upon Bethesda Church. The array came into position on the 30th, its right towards Hanover Court-House. Lee was already in position, and during the day there was firing all along the line. Each corps was engaged. The Second Corps by the Shelton House with a bayonet-charge pushed the enemy from the outer line of works which he had thrown up, while the Fifth Corps rolled back, with terrible slaughter, the mass of men which came upon its flank and front at Bethesda Church. At Coal Harbor, the Sixth, joined by the Eighteenth Army Corps, under Major-General W. F. Smith, from Bermuda Hundred, met Longstreet and Breckenridge and troops from Beauregard. Sheridan had seized this important point,—important because of the junction of roads,—and held it against cavalry and infantry till the arrival of the Fifth and Eighteenth. The point secured, a new line of battle was formed on the 1st of June. The Ninth held the right at Bethesda Church; the Fifth was south of the church, joining the Eighteenth; the Sixth held the road from Coal Harbor to Gaines's Mill; while the Second was thrown out on the left, on the road leading to Despatch Station and the Chickahominy, as indicated by the diagram (p. 131).

Such was the position of the army within ten miles of Richmond,—the line of battle crossing the ground occupied by Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Gaines's Mill.

Sanguinary conflicts have since taken place,—bayonet-charges, desperate encounters with varying success and reverse,—but the record of the month has closed. There, face to face, cannon fronting cannon, with less than two hundred feet between, are the two armies on the 31st of May, at midnight. Without losing a train of supplies, cutting loose from one base after another,—from Washington, Belle Plain, and Port Royal successively,—establishing new depots at pleasure, General Grant has moved from the Rappahannock to the Chickahominy, against the utmost efforts of General Lee to turn him back. General Grant believes that the military power of the Rebels must be broken before the Rebellion can be crushed. Continued hammering produces abrasion at last, in the toughest iron. Break the iron pillars, and the edifice tumbles. There is a manifest weakening of the Rebel army. Longstreet's veterans have lost their fire; and since the Battles of the Wilderness, the Rebel troops have had no heart for a bayonet-charge.

The line of advance taken by General Grant turned the Rebels from Washington. The country over which the two armies marched is a desolation. There is no subsistence remaining. The railroads are destroyed. Lee has no longer the power to invade the North. On the other hand, General Grant can swing upon the James and isolate the Rebel army from direct connection with the South. That accomplished, and, sooner or later,—with Hunter in the Shenandoah, with Union cavalry sweeping down to Wilmington, Weldon, and Danville, and up to the Blue Ridge, cutting railroads, burning bridges, destroying supplies of ammunition and provisions,—the question with Lee must be, not one of earthworks and cannon and powder and ball, but of subsistence. Plainly, the day is approaching when the Army of the Potomac, unfortunate at times in the past, derided, ridiculed, but now triumphant through unparalleled hardship, endurance, courage, persistency, will plant its banners on the defences of Richmond, crumble the Rebel army beyond the possibility of future cohesion, and, in conjunction with the forces in other departments, crush out the last vestige of the Rebellion.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.