Battles and campaigns

A Lost Opportunity? Grant in the Wilderness - May 1864

James Falkner

lecture

 

Report by Greg Bayne

 

As befitting any James Falkner lecture, we were unexpectedly hit right from the start with James's premise that Grant had a clear cut opportunity with his 1864 offensive to inflict a decisive victory against Lee and end the war.

 

 


The Wilderness is just that. A difficult copse covered country with creeks and ravines and marshes. Some farms had been carved out of the lands and the occasional dirt track. If either commander wanted to choose a place to fight, this was not it and Lee despite his smaller numbers did not want to defend here as counterattacking was difficult.

 

Grant was the new Union Commander in Chief and his orders were to attack everywhere with everything. If all the Confederate troops were engaged, something would break. Grant decided to place his Headquarters with Meade and met with some initial problems, as the army of the Potomac veterans were wary of this "Westerner". Grant was faced with some strategic problems - Go west but supply would be difficult, Go east up the Peninsula, but McClellan had tried and failed, or bludgeon his way south and draw Lee into the open where he could be dealt with.

 

Whilst Grant deliberated, Lee was not idle. His forces had been weakened with Beaureguard defending in Richmond and Hoke in North Carolina. He also had some options - Move north when Grant moved south, move down to the North Anna defences or sit tight and shift to his Mine Run defence line. Lee had 2nd and 3rd Corps ready to move within 24-36 hours but his forces only totalled around 27k effectives (Muskets not total men) against Grant's 60k.

 

Grant ordered Meade to advance south through the Wilderness. Humphries planned the march - Warren (15k) was to go to Parker Store and dig in, Sedgwick (15k) to Wilderness Tavern and Hancock (25k) was to advance down the Catharpin Road to turn Lee's left flank. Burnside (25k) was the reserve. If Lee attacked, it would be against two strong Corps in a defensive position with a smaller force. It was Grant's plan that he would pass through the Wilderness and meet Lee somewhere to the south of it. It should have gone to plan, but the Federal cavalry under Wilson and Torbett were not doing their job. On May 4th their movement was spotted by Lee. Longstreet was ordered up and Ewell and Hill (less Anderson) were on the roads into the Wilderness to find out what was going on. The Union army stopped according to their orders and encamped oblivious of the enemy movement. At first light on the 5th, Wilson found himself engaged by Rosser and effectively forced out of the picture. Meade and Grant

were blind.

 

By 7:00am, Warren had pushed forward to Parkers store. Con federates on the Orange turnpike met Bartlett and prepared to fight.

 

Cavalry on the Old Plank Road met the advancing rebels and fell back. Human nature takes many strange turns. Grant was worried about his army and ordered Meade to attack immediately without a full disposition - effectively a hurried assault with no reconnaissance. With orders being dispatched this meant that Warrens Corps had to effect a turnaround along a road that was only 20 feet wide. Grant leant on Meade throughout the morning as troops were redeployed. By 10:30 no attack had been undertaken. Crawford was on the Chewning farm plateau and watched A P Hill go by on the Orange Plank Road. He received orders to move but refused as he believed that by holding the high ground he had an advantage. But Warren persisted and Crawford reluctantly redeployed brigade by brigade. Meade had also ordered Hancock to concentrate and this he did but very slowly through the difficult terrain.

 

Lee clearly saw an opportunity and ordered Ewell to attack. At lunchtime his force clashed against Griffin who was himself trying to bring his troops into attack formation. Warren directly order Griffin to attack across Sanders Field and he duly obliged, breaking Jones Georgian Brigade and killing Jones. Further along the line, Wadsworth, Robinson and Crawford all attacked but their efforts were disjointed and Gordon held the line despite his lack of numbers. Griffin's division of Regulars had taken a fearful battering and feeling let down by his supporting officer galloped to headquarters and launched a tirade at Meade. Rawlins and Grant overheard the outburst and Grant asked Meade "Who is the General Gregg? You ought to arrest him". Meade reacted by going up to Grant, buttoning up his coat for him and said, "It's Griffin, not Gregg: and it's only his way of talking."

 

There was a flurry of activity along the line. Getty was sent down to the Brock Road interchange to see Hammond cavalry leaving the field to Hill. Heth sees Getty and redeploys to attack. The battle lines around Parkers Crossroads take shape and the forces attack and counter-attack.

 

By mid-afternoon the Union attack on the Orange Turnpike was blunted. Wilcox had reoccupied the Chewning Farm. By 4:30, Hancock was finally in position with Getty and started to move on Heth. Both Confederate corps were effectively fixed. The surrounding woods started to catch fire and the battle started to die down as both sides became exhausted.

 

Grant must shoulder the blame for the lack of results on this day. He had a sound plan in place, but this early intervention ordering all Corps to attack immediately meant the full Union strength could not be brought to bear.

 

On the morning of the 6th , Lee was cheered with news of Longstreet's imminent arrival. It was not a moment to soon as an early attack by Hancock smashed and broke Hill - "We are driving them" said Hancock, All that stood in their way was Pogue's guns but Longstreet and Andersons division arrived just in time. Lee was heard to say - "Thank God for the Texans". They counter-attacked along the railway cut and rolled up Hancock's left flank. Hancock retreated back to the Brock road. The initiative changed from blue to gray. Two days of fighting produced horrifying losses on both sides Grants losses were about 16,000 killed. Wounded and missing. Lee's suffered about 11,400 but nearly 7,000 from Hill's Corps. But more important was that the armies were in roughly the same position they had started two days earlier.

 

On May 7th both armies rested. On May 8th to the surprise of nearly everyone, Grant began his movement south to Spotsylvania.

 

James then outlined why May 5th could have been different. If the Union Corps had been allowed to get into position as they met the rebels, they would have formed a rough "L" shape. A concentrated attack along the Turnpike could have been undertaken and Hancock would have come up along the Orange Plank Road. He would have met Hill who would not have been able to withstand the pressure. James believed that the Union commanders could have pulled it off, but the new man at the helm pushed them too hard and mistakes were made.

 

As is customary our Q & A session probed and prodded our speaker's knowledge to its limit:

 

What was your view of Lee's corps commanders? Neither Hill nor Ewell was good enough. Lee expected more of them in their ability to exercise independent action and thought. And we have to say that Longstreet was tardy.

 

Wasn't there a culture of missed opportunities within the Army of the Potomac? Yes, but Lee was a handful ever since he took command. Most of the examples arise once the lines around Petersburg had formed, but the army had been fighting since May and were exhausted and therefore it was no surprise that the attacks were halfhearted and failed.

 

Was there a Gettysburg factor? Some reorganisation took place with the AoP after Gettysburg. There were some troop movements out and some reorganisation. Humphries ensured that staff procedures were tightened up. By May 1864 they were ready. If Grant had realised on May 5th that he could have dealt a crucial blow then he could have done so.

 

At what point did the North's numerical supremacy finally make a difference? Not sure that it ever did. 1864 was a year of attrition. Grant and Sherman knew it and waged war accordingly. The capture of the Mississippi was vital. But then success breeds success and Grant expected success.

 

How did Grant treat his Eastern officers? Six weeks wasn't long enough to learn the nuances of his AoP officers. He did bring some of his western staff with him and relied heavily on them. The Grant/Meade relationship worked (most of the time). Grant was not a strategic thinker like Lee and his big mistake was to be drawn into a siege at Petersburg.

 

Was the plan for 5th May workable? Yes - Humphries plan was sound. The main problem was the lack of cavalry support. Most of them were guarding the supply trains. Torbett and Wilson were the only effective troopers available.

 

Was Grant the first modern General? Yes and no. His counterpart Lee was courteous and gentlemanly but ruthless. War is not a static thing and each century throws up exceptional talent but comparisons are difficult and essentially not worth making.

 

Was Lee lucky at Spotsylvania? It was a complex and exciting battle. The skill is to use all arms in conjunction with each other and use their strengths to the full. Yes Sheridan did "go off" but there was enough support to do normal patrols and guard duties.

 

Could Lee be summed up as "Right men, right place, right time?" Yes, that was his job but he relied on his Corps commanders to work out the detail. This worked under the two corps structure but under three it was unwieldy. And the ghost of Jackson hung heavy over all the Corps commanders.

 

The North could replace failure and deal with injuries, the South couldn't. The Confederate officer corps had a mantra of success at the start. What happened? This may be overplayed by some commentators. The cavalry was superior. They were fighting for their homes and people. They knew the territory and were supported by the population. The invader is the interloper. But late in the war, the desertion level rose as soldiers left to protect their homes and families.

 

The problems with troop placements - was it lack of expertise? It was more the effect of the terrain and volume of troops. Junior officers got experienced quickly or died. War is a fast track learning school. Learn and improve or die or get fired. Grant failed to insist that his commanders do their jobs properly.