The Wilderness Campaign – How Near Did Grant Come to Ending the War? What Happened to Foil the Plan?

A Bold Move

Sharp looked nervously at Meade. He looked at Grant who nodded his head. Sharp took a deep breath and looked back to Meade.

“I missed the instructions to all departments on preparation for the Wilderness battle plan. Could you read it for me, General?”

Meade spun in his chair and stared angrily at Sharp. Then he turned to Grant. “General Grant,” he said belligerently, “If this…”

Grant cut him off quickly. “Oh, come now, General Meade. It will not hurt you. I would kind of like to hear it myself.”

Meade thought briefly about defiance and then decided against it. It wasn’t that he despised Sharp so much; it was this intrusion into his territory and this constantly being pushed around by someone outside his command and far lower in rank. “Very well, General Grant, for you I will…” Meade let his voice trial off purposefully and assembled his papers. “Instructions to all departments of preparation for a battle near the South bank of the Rapidan. You are to issue 16 day’s marching rations, (4 of salt meat and 12 of beef on the hoof), 14,000,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, 10 days’ allowance of grain for 56,000 animals (34,071 horses and 22,528 mules)…

When Meade finished Sharp was flabbergasted. “That’s a wagon train, General Meade.”

Meade nodded unenthusiastically. “In all, the train leaving Culpepper will have 4,300 lumbering wagons. It will make a line 60 miles long. The 86,500 marching men, along with officers, cavalry and medical personnel will be another 30 miles long. All told the column stretched for 90 miles.”

Sharp turned and looked searchingly at Grant. “As chief of security am I entitled to ask you, Sir, how in the world you expect to surprise Lee with a slow moving, ninety mile long train?”

Grant was unruffled. “You see, Sharp, I figure Lee will see the train the moment we cross the river. But if all goes according to plan, we still have a day on him and can get clear of the Wilderness and into the open for the battle-if all goes according to plan.”

Sharp was shocked. “How so, Sir? Lee will start immediately for Chancellorsville. Surely he can get there by the time you get to the wilderness.”

“I think your estimate of his getting to Chancellorsville is about right, Sharp,” Grant replied. “But getting to Chancellorsville is not going to hurt me. He needs to get into position generally in the vicinity of the Orange Courthouse before we clear the Wilderness to foil my plans; and that he will not have time to do if we have figured it right.”

Trouble in the Air

Sharp was still wearing a worried look. “Another thing bothers me, Sir. Burnside will not be in column with the force that leaves Culpepper. He is to be in place in the middle by the night before the first engagement. I am very concerned that he will not make it in time.”

Grant did not stop his work at the desk but threw his comment over his shoulder. “He has ample time, Sharp.”

Sharp was dogged. “I know he has time, Sir.”

This time Grant did stop and turn to face Sharp. “If there is something on your mind, Captain Sharp, come out with it,” he said bluntly. Meade, who had started to leave, went back and sat down, very interested in this turn in the discussion.

“All right, Sir. Intelligence turns up some very crude, un-officer-like, and worrisome comments that Burnside has made about you.”

“Like what, for example?” Grant demanded.

Sharp shrugged and began first person quotes from his note book:

“Grant has only been in small battles and is not big enough for this command.”

“Grant is Lincoln’s pet.”

“Grant will not succeed. Lee will catch him in the Wilderness and destroy him.”

Grant looked at Meade. Meade took it as a question, which it was.

“Yes, General Grant, I am afraid my men have brought these things to me also.”

“Does it worry you as much as it does Captain Sharp?

“Perhaps not as much Sir, but it worries me.”

Grant was thoughtful for a moment. Then he answered with a tone of finality. “Well, it doesn’t worry me, gentleman. Burnside is a fine solder and a loyal union defender. He may not like me; that is not required. But he will not let that stand in the way of his carrying out of orders and performance of his duty.”

Meade rose to leave again. “I hope you are right, Sir-about Burnside, I mean. He is very bitter about the way it happened to him and there are some very good men who do not agree with you.”

“I am going to break a rule of mine and put you on the spot, Meade. Who in particular?”

Meade answered tiredly, as if he knew this was the beginning of some very hard feelings. “General Hancock for one, Sir. When he heard that Burnside was to fill the middle during the night he nearly threw a fit. ‘That son…that son…that son-of-bitch will screw everything up; you wait and see.’ Those were his exact words to me, Sir.”

Grant rested his chin in his hands with his elbows on his knees and thought for a while. Finally, he said with a hint of worry,

“Well, that obviously concerns me, General Meade, but not enough to call off this campaign and make a change. I cannot do something that convulsive, that major, and that disappointing to the president on nothing more than the supposition that Burnside will fail to do his duty.”

Meade nodded gravely. When he was gone, Grant turned to Sharp.

“How reliable are these reports, Sharp?”

“Very reliable, Sir.”

Grant shook his head in disgust. “Contrary to what I said to Meade, I would call off the campaign if I thought that could happen. But I just simply cannot see a general letting down his men and his country just to prove a point.”

Sharp turned his face toward his lap and rolled his eyes upward to look at Grant. “There are those who knew him and served with him, who believe that he not only can but will.”

They sat in silence for about five minuets. Twice, Grant started to write something and then stopped. Finally he spoke. “No, Sharp. No; Burnside is a loyal Unionist and a soldier. He will do his duty.”

Sharp rose to leave. Slowly he made his way to the door, hesitating several times. He reached the door and opened it. Before going through he turned to Grant. “That is good, charitable, honorable thinking, General Grant, but with Burnside you may be making a mistake.” Then he went out and closed the door behind him. Grant sat motionless for a good while, staring at nothing in particular. The he returned to what he was doing before Sharp came in.

A Disasterous Decision

After making the wheel turn to the right and starting into the Wilderness, Lee’s cavalry saw the Grant column and began hitting the supply train in various places, shooting horses and putting wagons out of commission. A mounted cavalry man came scurrying up to Meade.

“Lee’s cavalry are hitting our tail and doing big damage, Sir.”

Meade rode out on a point where he could look. He turned to the rider. “Go at once and tell General Sheridan to bring his cavalry back for protection.” The man rode off in the direction of the front. Meade went back to see what he could do about arranging some kind of protection without stopping the train, which was Lee’s obvious design. In about two hours, the rider was back. He rode up and saluted Meade. Meade was angry in anticipation since the man was alone. “Well, soldier?”

The man looked positively ill. “Sheridan will not come, sir”

Meade, who was known for his temper, turned nearly purple. “What? What did he say?”

“He said…he said to tell you he had orders to protect the right flank and he could not leave.”

“But what exactly did he say?”

“He said…he said to tell you to go to hell, Sir.”

Without further address to the rider Meade spun his horse and began a race to look for Sheridan. He eventually found him sitting under and oak, eating some dried beef. Meade nearly ran over him with his horse.

“General Sheridan,” he shouted, “Did you send that man back to tell me…”

Sheridan sprang to his feet and grabbed Meade’s horse by the reins. He was the toughest, meanest general in the Union army. He usually took orders but he never took guff. Sheridan considered himself directly connected to General Grant and he resented the imposition of Meade between himself and Grant. “Now just hold your horses, Meade!”

Meade was not as tough as Sheridan, but his temper was worse and he was equally stubborn. He brushed aside Sheridan’s words. “I asked you a question, General, and I want an answer. Now! Did you send that cavalryman to tell me to go to hell?”

Sheridan had not expected Meade to be this angry and this persistent and it took him back a little. “I didn’t say exactly that, Meade.”

“The title is General Meade, Commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac, General Sheridan. Then what exactly did you say? If that man lied to me, I’ll…”

“He didn’t lie to you, General Meade.”

“Then what the hell…”

“I said, ‘if Meade gave you an order like that to give to me then you can tell him to go to hell. I could not believe the order came from you, Meade; I thought the man was mistaken.”

“Well, it did come from me, and…”

“General Meade, I have been personally commissioned by General Grant to protect the right flank. If I go away and leave it unprotected it is the first place Lee will hit and this whole campaign will be in a wreck.”

Meade was not the least bit mollified. “I don’t give a damn what Grant told you, I am the commander and I am giving you a direct order. Our supply train is being destroyed by Lee’s cavalry. You are to go back at once and protect them.”

Sheridan’s face began to turn Crimson. “Then I guess, General Meade, I am going to have to tell you in person to go to hell. I am needed here and I am not going to leave this fighting front unprotected. Don’t you remember what happened to Hooker when Custer went off and left his right unprotected?”

Meade began to calm down a bit and tried valiantly to get his temper under control. “General Sheridan, we have an emergency on our hands and only cavalry can handle it. If our supply train is destroyed, there will be no point in the fighting at the front succeeding. In a matter of one day they will be out of ammunition and food.”

Sheridan mistook Meade’s change in manner for weakness. He began shouting. “Grant was sent to replace you because you didn’t know what the hell you were doing. This proves it. You want my cavalry to leave the fight and become a police force? I will not leave this post unless Grant himself comes and tells me to and that is final.”

Meade had his temper under control now and had a bit of time to think while Sheridan was talking. “General Sheridan. If you do not do as I say I will have you put in field arrest and sent back to Culpepper. If our supply train is wrecked and we lose this fight I will have you shot for insubordination under fire on the battlefield. You are to take your whole troop and go back to the supply train. You are not to leave that train unprotected until it is in the wilderness and the Confederate attacks have stopped. You will do as I say and you will do it now!”

Sheridan was not too angry to think. He had said unacceptable things to Meade, thinking that he could bluff him off. He now saw that Meade could not be bluffed. He had one of two options. Shoot Meade, or do as he was told. He might consider shooting him but here were too many men watching the confrontation. “Very well, General,” he shouted “but if the right is lost and Grant…”

Meade stopped him. “I will tell General Grant the whole story, Sheridan. If there is any consequence over the right being left unprotected, it will be on me. Now go, at once, or it will be too late.” Meade turned and rode off leaving Sheridan standing there cursing.

One of his Brigadiers rode up. “If we’re not gunna’ go, General, then I need to know it. If we are, then we had best get underway. I hear there is real trouble back there.”

Sheridan spun around and yelled at his lieutenant. “If you are so anxious to go, then go, damn you!” The Brigadier gave the signal and the cavalry rode back toward the supply trouble spot. After a while, Sheridan followed.

A Mental Lapse that Cost a Battle and Almost Lost a War

Meade arrived at Grant’s command tent some hours later. It was on his mind to tell Grant the whole story. But when he entered, Grant addressed him. “Meade, I’m getting really worried about Burnside. Scouts report that they have been fifteen miles back the road and have seen no sign of him. If he is much further back, he will not make it.

“Well General, I don’t know what we can do about it, unless we hold the progression.”

Grant shook his head with finality. “That is out, George; we will not do that.”

At that moment, a scout came in. “We have contacted Burnside, sir. He is on another road he is not supposed to be on, Sir, and he is only about eight miles away.”

Grant breathed a visible sigh of relief. He turned to Meade. “Well, that’s good news. George, why don’t you get in position to watch the other side, and I will keep an eye on things over here. We have this thing within our grasp if we are in good order by five in the morning.”

Meade left without telling Grant about Sheridan and about the right being up in the air. He was miles away and it was nearly dark before he remembered. Should he go back? What could Grant do, any how? They had no more cavalry to send to the right and the supply train had to be protected. If there was no fighting, he would ride back tomorrow afternoon and tell him personally.

An Unforgivable Error in Judgment

Meade had made a serious error in judgment. In order for Grant’s plan to work Sheridan had to be up front on the right to protect the right flank. Meade’s concern that the supply train would be destroyed was justified but his actions were not. Some of the cavalry could have protected the train but some should have been left to protect the right. The order should have been that as soon as possible men should leave the vigil at the train and return to the front. This was not Meade’s order and the tension was so great that Sheridan would not take it upon himself to change it even though, as the Union’s best cavalry general, he knew what this meant for Grant. It was a major change in the battle plan and it was done without Grant’s knowledge or consent. And Meade’s decision not to go back immediately and tell Grant was also a bad one.

Jeb Stewat Saves the Confederacy

Two nights before Grant’s movement from Culpepper, Stuart had straggled into camp with information about Grant’s plan. Lee sent Stuart off to find Longstreet and immediately called in the Hills, Gordon, and Picket.

“Gentlemen, we have information of the most serious, vital and fortunate nature. Grant is leaving Culpepper in two days with a force of 120,000 men and a huge wagon train. He is headed for the Wilderness.”

Ambrose Hill spoke up. “A hundred and twenty thousand! My goodness. Can we hold them off if they attack us at Chancellorsville, prepared to stay with the fight for an extended period of time?”

Lee wagged his head negatively. “I don’t think we can, General Hill and that is why I have decided to camp at the Orange Courthouse and attack them in the Wilderness.”

General Gordon nearly fell out of his chair. “But Sir, attack a force that size, and in the Wilderness where we cannot see what is going on? Is this wise?”

Lee paced the floor before answering. Finally he turned to Gordon. “General, this war has changed. The man out there we are going to be fighting is not like the others. This is not Joe Hooker. If he ever gets that advantage of us he will crush us without hesitation. And there is another thing which is significant here, which I have been thinking about. Our men fight much better in the woods where formations mean little and individual instinct and cunning mean much. I believe that catching Grant in the Wilderness, with an attack he will certainly not be expecting, may be our only chance. It he gets through to Chancellorsville we may be through.”

General Pickett broke in. “But Lee, we do not have Ewell or Longstreet. We are less than half their size.”

Lee nodded knowingly. “Exactly, General Pickett, and that is another reason for confronting them in the wilderness. They do not know how many men we have to face them. Grant is smart. It will come to him at once that we have been tipped off. He will then have to wonder how long we have known. He will know that we have been moving to this spot longer than he has.”

Pickett pressed his concerns. “Longstreet is in the Shenandoah. Can he get here in time to be any help in this battle?”

“We must determine to hold them off until he does, General Pickett. We can only hope to be able to do it.”

Pickett seemed satisfied, but A, P. Hill did not. “I don’t like it, General Lee. I don’t like it a bit.”

Lee was understanding but firm. “I don’t either, General Hill; so if you have a better idea, let us have it now.” Hill was silent. So were the rest.

General Lee’s Finest Hour

When the wild animals began to pour out of the Wilderness, Lee knew that Grant was near. He deployed his men and sent them forward. For a good while the battle stood ground. Then it began to seesaw. Finally, the Union began to drive the South. Lee’s men threw down their weapons and began to run. Lee could see the whole war flashing before him. He dashed out into the fleeing stream, drew his sword and began to whip the fleeing men with the broad of it.

“Stop! Stop! For God’s sake, you are Southerners! If you do not stop, your cause and your homes are lost! Go back and fight! Go back and fight! Please go back, men and fight!” The inspirational presence of Lee succeeded in stopping the rout and his lines were restored. Lee was charging into the Yankee assault. “Come on, men, come on. Follow me. The blue coats will run if we put the pressure on them!”

As the men rallied, a shout was heard all over the field.

“Get Lee off! Get General Lee off the field! Get General Lee out of the line of fire!” Finally a brigadier took the reins of Lee’s horse and led him out of harm’s way. But the brave, desperate, fanatical display by the great General had served its goal. The Rebels stayed and fought at tremendous loss and the fight went on until night-fall.

A Traitor in the Ranks

In the morning, a courier came up to Meade. “Something happened to Burnside, Sir. He did not come up. The middle is still open.”

Meade swore under his breath. “How far off is he?’ The Courier shook his head.

“I don’t know, Sir. I only know that he is not up.” Meade thanked the courier and started for Grant’s headquarters tent. Then he stopped. He could not leave the field now. He had to stretch his troops to try to at least thinly cover the middle.

Hancock’s Premonition Comes True

Hancock was driving A. P. Hill. About 11:00 A.M., General Lyman rode up to Hancock who was all smiles. “We are driving them beautifully,” Hancock said.

Lyman then brought the bad news. “Burnside is not up.”

Hancock was furious. “I knew it,” he shouted angrily, “Just what I expected. If he could attack now, we could smash A. P. Hill to pieces.”

Longstreet Saves the Day

Shortly thereafter, a southern courier ran into Lee’s headquarters tent. “Longstreet has arrived, Sir.”

Lee ran outside and kept Longstreet and his men moving. It was no time for conferences. The battle was in the balance. “Into the middle, Jim,” he yelled, “Into the middle!” Longstreet put his hand to his ear, then nodded and motioned his men forward at double-time. It is doubtful if Lee knew the middle was open but Longstreet pushed on ahead with no opposition until he was far behind Grant’s lines. Panic set in the Union lines and men began to run to the rear.

Meade’s Confession

A courier rushed into Grant’s tent. “The men are routed, Sir,” he cried. Grant ran out and leapt on his horse. By dark Grant had taken personal charge of the field and order had been restored. Longstreet had been shot down and was seriously wounded.

That evening, about 6:00 P. M. Gordon attacked Meade’s right flank opposite Shaler and Seymore. It was up in the air. Gordon met with little resistance. Only darkness stopped a major route.

“What the hell happened, George?” Grant demanded of General Meade. “Where was Sheridan? I told him to protect the right.”

Meade stood before Grant red-faced.

“I sent him back to protect the supply train, Sir. It was being destroyed.”

Grant was incredulous. “This was an integral part of the battle plan. It could not work without Sheridan in place.”

“But the supply train, Sir,” Meade replied in somewhat pathetic defense, “Stuart was having his way with it. Horses and wagons were falling like flies.”

“Why wasn’t I consulted?” Grant demanded angrily.

“I didn’t think there was time, General Grant. It would have taken another two hours for me to come here.”

Grant was not satisfied. “But you were here that evening, George. Why did you not tell me then?”

Meade hung his head. “I…I forgot, General.”

Grant was struggling to control himself. “You forgot-something as important as that?”

“Yes, well, Sir, when I came in, you began to discuss Burnside with me and it slipped my mind. Lots of things were happening fast.”

Grant was weary with frustration and changed the subject. “I guess you heard that Burnside did not get up in time.”

“Yes, sir, what happened there,” Meade ask?

“He says he took the wrong road once he got into the Wilderness,” Grant replied.

“But how could he, Grant? They were clearly marked.”

Grant nodded tiredly. “I know; I know.”

“Do you think….”

Grant cut him off. “I think…I think there will be a charge and a court martial. This cannot be let go. I trusted that man and…but George, on this other matter; If you had only told me.”

“What could you have done differently, Sir,” Meade asked. “We had to protect the supply train.”

Grant stared at Meade for a long moment, and then looked off. “Well, General Meade, what I would have done was send to half the men back and keep the other half up.” Meade started to answer and then stopped. The right decision was so clear it was silly. How could a general, who had once commanded the entire army, not have made it? He dropped his head and waked away.

Grant’s Major Decision

When Meade was gone, Grant went into his tent and flung himself across the cot. The men said they heard him sobbing. In the discussion with Meade he was so emotional he looked as if he would break down. Rawlins, who had been with Grant from the start, had never before seen him so angry and frustrated that he was about to choke one of his own generals. His perfect plan would have worked if either Burnside had come up or Meade had not bungled the thing with Sheridan. How did one protect against disloyalty and stubborn tempers that clouded judgments? The enemy had fought valiantly and brilliantly and staved off certain destruction while his men had stumbled, fumbled, and bumbled away another great opportunity. He had come within a hair’s breadth of destroying Lee right there and then. But then, it had been the same in the first Wilderness campaign and Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg. The Union fighting men had done their job and had matched the Rebels tit for tat. The breakdown was with command-again-as always. Lee had risked his life out on the battlefield, the bullets whizzing around his head, in a personal display of bravery unexcelled by any general at any time while Meade and Sheridan were cursing each other under an oak and Burnside had been seeking his petty and bitter-sweet revenge. It was no wonder the Union had not crushed this rebellion long ago. How could they, with this kind of incompetence of leadership?

Through the night he thought. A worried Rawlins brought him in some coffee and a snack. Grant sat up and sipped a little coffee.

“Rawlins, I have made my decision.”

Rawlins was not sure what Grant was talking about. “Are we going back then?”

Grant stood up and patted the dejected Rawlins on his shoulder. “No, my friend, we are not going back. We are just going elsewhere.”

“But where, General Grant?”

Grant sat back down and kicked off his slippers. “I am tired, Rawlins, and I don not want to go over this twice. I need a bit of rest if I can get it. Be here in the morning when Meade comes in and you will be among the first to know. Oh, and be sure to wake me at 6:00 if I happen to be sleeping.

At 6:30 the following morning Meade came in for the meeting that Grant had called with him.

“General, about Sheridan and…”

Grant stopped him. “General Meade, make all preparations today for a night march. Tonight we are getting out of here.” Meade looked down and did not say anything. “Cheer up, George, we are not going back; we are going to move south and find a better place to fight. I hope we can steal a march on Lee and get ahead of him so we can choose our spot. I don’t like this place.”

Meade looked up with a big smile cracking his grim face. “All right, U.S. Grant,” he said enthusiastically.

From Gloom to Glory

About an hour after dark, the Army of the Potomac turned about and moved West through the Wilderness. There was anger and frustration in the hearts and voices of the men: “What the hell are we leavin’ now for? Lee hasn’t licked us. At best, it’s a push. Why don’t we stay and fight tomorrow. So what if Longstreet’s troops are up? We still have three men to their two!” At the West edge of the Wilderness, and the Orange Plank Road, the men expected to wheel left toward Germanna’s Ford. Instead they turned right. Then the whole mood changed as the design began to become clear to them. A cheer when up, the likes of which Grant had never heard. He rode through the ranks. “General Grant, General Grant, US Grant, Unconditional Surrender Grant” they shouted, as they threw their hats in the air.

Horace Porter was riding along side Rawlins. “This started out to be a funeral march and it has suddenly become a triumphal procession.”

Rawlins nodded and did not say anything. This was strange for Rawlins. Porter looked at him closely as saw that his eyes were filled with tears.

The men were singing lustily: “John Brown’s body is a-moldering in his grave.” “We will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree.”

Porter continued his commentary. “It’s for Grant those men are singing, Rawlins.” Rawlins was finally able to reply.

“And for themselves, Porter.”

Porter nodded his agreement. “And for themselves General Rawlins. But it is the supreme moment in the life of Ulysses S. Grant. Had he turned the other way like McClellan, Pope, Burnside, McDowell, Hooker and Meade, it would have meant the death of a nation.

Lincoln has His Man at Last

Back in Washington, Henry Wing, the New York Tribune reporter, asked for an audience with the president. He found Lincoln with several members of his cabinet. As all reporters, Wing was not bashful. “Mr. President,” he said boldly, “I have a personal word for you.”

The cabinet members withdrew and Lincoln was alone with Wing. “You wanted to speak to me?” Lincoln asked.

“Yes, Mr. President, I have a message for you-a message from General Grant. He told me I was to give it to you when you were alone.”

“Something from Grant to me?’ The President hovered over Wing. He had never realized the President was so tall. Lincoln stooped down and looked Wing in the eye with an almost fierce gaze.

“What is it?” He asked hoarsely.

Wing became unnerved and emotional. His voice began to waver. “General Grant told me to tell you from him that, whatever happens, there is to be no turning back.” What happened next provided Wing the title for a future book: When Lincoln Kissed Me.

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