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A new Epoch of the War.—Lientenant-Genoral Grant in the East.— Campaign of the Army of the Potomao from the Kapidan to Petersburg.—The Wilderness.—Bpottsylvania Court House.—The North Anna.—Cold Harbor.—Across the James—Sheridan's Grand Raid.— Sigel and Hunter in the Shenandoah Valley.—The Army of the James.—A-rerill and Crook in South-western Virginia.—Combined Armies before Petersburg.
The epoch with which the third and last period of the life of Abraham Lincoln opens, in these pages, was one of grave interest to the nation. To the leaders of the rebellion, and to its friends at home and abroad, it was a time of hope. To the true men of the nation, the trust in an ultimate and signal triumph was shadowed by the dread of a more wearisome protraction of the sanguinary strife than was earlier looked for. The President, firm as ever in faith, earnest as ever in effort, anxiously watched the reorganization and remarshaling of the hundreds of thousands of brave men now placed under the control of the new general-in-chief. Not presuming to hope for an easy triumph in the coming renewal of battle, he took care that Grant should lack nothing he required, whether men or materials of war, in order that, without hindrance of any sort, he might be able to inflict mortal blows upon armed treason. A new call for two hundred thousand men had been made on the 15th of March, and the hearty response of the several States was already furnishing constant accessions to swell the Union armies.
The main campaigns of the year 1864 were to be made by the two grand armies in the East and the West, under the respective commands of Maj.-Gens. Meade and Sherman. It was with the latter of these armies that the Licutenant-General, prior to his last promotion, had exclusively served. He now joined the Army of the Potomae, giving special direction to its movements, while controlling the entire combinations of the various national forces. Widely separated as was the one main Army from the other, their advance was to be nearly simultaneous, and their movements were to be co-operative and convergent.
The chief work to be accomplished, manifestly, was the destruction of the veteran insurgent army under Lee. This army, sometimes successful, sometimes beaten, constantly renewed and skillfully commanded, had with its friends a brilliant prestige. It was the main stay of the rebellion, the chief hope of the Richmond conspirators. Twico it had driven in the Union forces of the East upon the national capital. Twice it had invaded the States of Maryland and Pennsylvania, plundering and destroying; retiring with only such losses as were readily repaired. And after three years of severe conflict, it still held, in perhaps more formidable power than ever, the south bank of the Rapidan and the lower Rappahannock. With his headquarters at Orange Court House, and his army behind the defenses of Mine Run, Lee tenaciously held, on the 1st of May, the position from which Gen. Meade had vainly advanced to dislodge him on the 1st of December previous, prior to going into winter quarters at Stevensburg.
During the month of April, Gen. Grant was occupied with the work of augmenting and reorganizing the Army of the Potomae, and of making the necessary preparations for an active campaign. If Lee had contemplated an aggressive movement northward, his purpose was anticipated by the prompt action of the new commander confronting him. The Ninth Army Corps, under Gen. Burnside, including several colored regiments, had rendezvoused at Annapolis, as if intended for some separate movement southward. During the last week of April, this force was expeditiously marched through Washington—where it was reviewed by the President as it passed—to swell the main body now lying between the upper Rappahannock and the Rapidan. This large corps had as yet hardly reached the front, when the general advance commenced in earnest. In a stirring order of the 4th of May, as the movement began, Gen. Meade said to the army:
You have been reorganized, strengthened and fully equipped in every respect. You form a part of the several armies of your country, the whole under the direction of an able and distinguished general who enjoys the confidence of the Government, the people and the army.
Your movement being in co-operation with others, it is of the utmost importance that no effort should be left unspared to make it successful.
Soldiers, the eyes of the whole country are looking with anxious hope to the blow you are about to strike in the most sacred cause that ever called men to arms! Remember your homes, your wives and children, and bear in mind that the sooner your enemies arc conquered, the sooner you will be returned to enjoy the benefits and blessings of peace!
Bear with patience the hardships and sacrifices you will be called upon to endure. Have confidence in your officers and in each other. Keep your ranks on the march and on the battle-field, and let each man earnestly implore God's blessing, and endeavor by his thoughts and actions to render himself worthy the favor he seeks.
The main army, as reorganized after the appointment of Lieut.-Gen. Grant, consisted of the Second, Fifth and Sixth Army Corps, respectively commanded by Maj.-Gens. Hancock, Warren and Sedgwick. Among the division commanders were, in the Second Corps, Gens. Barlow, Gibbons, Birney, and (at a later date) R. 0. Tyler. The four divisions of the Fifth Corps were respectively commanded by Gens. Griffin, Ayres, Wadsworth (who was succeeded by Gen. Crawford), and Cutler. In the Sixth Corps, Gens. Wright (subsequently corps commander), Getty and lticketts commanded divisions. The Ninth Corps was afterward formally attached to the Army of the Potomac. There was also a large cavalry force, in excellent condition, under the command of Maj.-Gen. Sheridan, which was to prove a most valuable arm of the service in the coming campaign. The total was not less than 25,000 men.
The three corps first named were encamped within the triangular area lying between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, on two sides, and the Orange and Alexandria railroad on the third, which crosses these rivers about twenty-five miles west and north-west from the point of their confluence. Tho north bank of the Rapidan was held by Union pickets. There was likewise a small army at Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley, under command of Maj.-Gen. Sigel—which might be called an outpost of the same army, though nominally belonging to another military department—and a cavalry force under Maj.Gen. Averill, which was to operate beyond Lynchburg, and to support Sigel, as occasion required.
The Rebel army of Lee, occupying the position already indicated, south of the Rapidan, had been strengthened during the winter, probably, in part, at the expense of the army under Johnston, in Georgia, as well as from other sources, but was still somewhat inferior in numbers, it is believed, to that which had now passed under the immediate supervision of Gen. Grant.
Gen. Hancock's command, the Second Corps, crossed the Rapidan on the 4th of May, at Ely's Ford, not far above the point of junction between that river and the Rappahannock, and advanced on the direct road toward Chancellorsville. The Fifth Corps crossed on the same day, at Germanna Ford, a few miles further up the stream, proceeding out the road toward Todd's tavern, crossing that from Fredericksburg to Orange Court House, some distance west of Chancellorsville. The Sixth Corps, occupying the right, was the last to cross. The cavalry division, under Gen. Wilson, advanced on the right of Warren's corps, pushing on toward the enemy's works on Mine Run. No serious opposition was made to the crossing of any portion of these forces. On the following day, May 5th, tho march was continued, the course of the army lying through the wide extent of forest known as the Wilderness. Wilson's cavalry, having gone out by the plank road, had encamped near Mine Run on the night of the 4th. Resuming their march on the next morning, they arrived, during the forenoon, in the vioinity of Shady Grove Church, some miles to the south-west of Todd's Tavern, to which the Fifth Corps was now approaching. The Second Corps was moving up as rapidly as possible, extending its right to form a junction with the Fifth. This connection, but for a prompt movement of the enemy, would have been effected at Shady Grove Church, giving possession of an important pike before nightfall.
Toward noon, a lively cannonading announced that the cavalry advance had encountered an opposing force. An attack of Rebel cavalry, of Wade Hampton's division, compelled Wilson to fall back gradually, after a sharp engagement, toward Warren's column, which advanced in support. The principal fighting occurred near Parker's Store, Ewell's corps having come up to oppose Warren. The purpose of Lee to crush the central column, and to interpose a heavy force between our right and left, was now clearly disclosed. The attack was made by Ewell with great impetuosity and persistence. He was supported by the corps of A. P. Hill, which afterward came up by the plank road. The plan was well conceived by the Rebel commander, and the danger of its success was imminent. Griffin's division first encountered the Rebel force, fighting with great bravery (the nature of the country permitting only the use of musketry), and at length, sustained by the other divisions of the same corps, forcing back the enemy, though with severe losses.
The next effort of the Rebel general was to prevent the execution of the movement which Hancock was making, as already described. From half-past two o'clock until after dark, a furious attack was kept up on the divisions of Birncy and Gibbons, the entire Second Corps being more or less engaged. The assailants were finally repulsed, but no decisive advantage was gained, beyond the maintenance of the positions already occupied.
Thus closed Thursday, the 5th of May, after well-planned, persistent, and concentrated attacks on the moving and separated columns of our army, which was fortunately so well directed, as not to be altogether out of mutually supporting distance. Both sides seriously suffered. The opening was by no means disastrous, nor yet was it auspicious. The coming day could not. but be looked forward to with anxiety, the enemy having manifestly the advantage in position and in knowledge of the country, which was to be the battle-field.