Friday, May 09, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVII: The Scrum


"I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." -- LTG Ulysses S. Grant, May 1864

The first element of the Union's new "attack everywhere" plan began in May of 1864, when Grant, Meade, and the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan river into Virginia on the 4th of that month. Grant's hope was to force Lee into battle by threatening Richmond, and defeat his army in an open battle. What he didn't expect was that Lee would respond aggressively. And as I write that, I realize how little sense it makes -- anyone who knew anything about Lee ought to have known he'd respond to an invasion of Virginia aggressively.

Historians call this the Overland Campaign. I call it The Scrum, because while you can divide it into a number of set-piece battles, what it really entailed was a non-stop engagement that rolled southeast through Virginia across the Rapidan, across the Anna, down the Pamunkey and then across the James over a period of about six weeks.

The first direct clash between Grant and Lee began while Grant was trying a quick move through the underbrush of the Wilderness. Lee sent two of his Corps, under Ewell and A.P. Hill, on a parallel course to intercept.

This ... wasn't the ideal setting for Grant. The dense underbrush that hindered movement also rendered his numerical advantage mostly irrelevant. But the underbrush was an equal-opportunity hindrance. It made Confederate movement difficult, too.

The underbrush had another unexpected effect, and a horrifying one: it sometimes caught fire when a soldier fired his weapon from a kneeling position. An unwounded man could run free. A wounded man could not. Eyewitness reports note that, once this became known, many wounded men would keep their piece loaded. Not against the enemy, but because there's one way a man can be sure he wouldn't burn to death.

The fighting around Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road on May 5 was confused and confusing, lasting until nightfall, but Grant and Meade were able to keep their Corps under control and hold a steady line. They were planning a counterattack the next morning, when fresh troops would show up, but fresh Confederate troops showed up, too. So the fighting on May 6 wasn't much different. There wasn't a whole lot of movement going on, and the Confederates were beginning to throw up earthworks to defend themselves from Union fire.

Grant didn't like the looks of this. He had as much of direct assaults on prepared positions as he ever intended to at Vicksburg. So, he elected to disengage.

And so the story might have ended here, had any man but Grant been in charge. The previous two summers, a largely unharmed Union army had disengaged from Lee and gone home. But not Grant. He was going to disengage, try to move around Lee's right flank, and try again.

This was a novel experience for the Army of the Potomac. When the artillery withdrew to the rear, they expected to march back north. When they realized that the Sun was on their left and not their right, it hit them. They were still on the attack. They'd been fighting hard for three days, but that didn't matter. Their minds were reinvigorated. This is what they'd longed for. A commander who'd follow up a hard-fought battle with an advance. Surviving veterans would look back on this moment as a major turning point.

There would be more fighting. Lee was nobody's fool. He knew what Grant was doing. He disengaged as well, and marched to the southeast as fast as he could, to interpose. Fighting would resume at Spottsylvania Court House on the 8th, and would last through the 21st via a series of attempted flanking movements on Grant's part. The armies would fight more or less constantly, through several major battles, for the better part of both May and June. Yellow Tavern, where J.E.B. Stuart would fall. Wilson's Wharf. Haw's Shop. Cold Harbor. Trevilian Station, and Saint Mary's Church.

Strictly speaking, Lee didn't lose any of these battles. And Grant didn't win any of them. But even so, it had to give President Davis pause. Because while the Confederate papers trumpeted Lee's glorious victories ...

... those glorious victories were getting, day by day, closer to Richmond.