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Few places in the Civil War were less pleasant than the Wilderness battlefield on May 7, 1864. Two days of brutal and bitter battle with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had marked Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s initiation as a battle commander in Virginia, and had produced a butcher’s bill that, if not the worst the war had seen, was nonetheless startling to contemplate.

Grant had lost more than 17,000 men killed, wounded and missing, while losses in Lee’s army came to more than 11,000. Many spent their last moments on Earth consumed in flames they were too injured to escape. But for all that, the fighting produced no clear advantage for either side. Both made attacks, both repulsed attacks; neither achieved what could be considered a decisive advantage over the other. When the fighting came to an end the evening of May 6, the Federals held a line facing west that ran perpendicular to the Orange Plank Road and Orange Turnpike, while the Confederates held a similarly oriented line facing east.

At that point, many, if not most, no doubt anticipated the two armies would do what they had always done before after a major engagement: separate, lick their wounds for a while and then, after a few weeks, resume active campaigning.

But the war in the East would take a monumental turn  May 7. “Make all preparations for a night march, to take position at Spotsylvania Court House,” Grant ordered. That evening Grant and his entourage approached a road juncture  in the Wilderness, the men tense with anticipation. “If the  commander in chief proceeded east the army was likely in retreat,” wrote historian Gordon Rhea. “If he turned south… the army would continue toward Richmond.”  

When he reached the intersection, Grant turned south onto  the Brock Road.

Grant’s move south after the Wilderness was indeed  one of the critical events in the Civil War in the East. It  marked the end of positional stalemate along the Rapidan-Rappahannock line and ushered in a campaign of sustained  combat in which the two armies remained in almost constant  contact and endured levels of physical and mental strain  unprecedented in the American military experience.

Ironically, while Grant’s decision  was a watershed in the war, it was  more in line with an operational  vision of the much-maligned commander of the Army of the Potomac  than with President Lincoln, who  once declared, “Grant is my man,  and I am his the rest of the war.”

More than simply an operational  decision made in response to specific circumstances on the ground,  Grant’s decision has been seen as  a mark of character and a critical  turning point in the great drama  of the Civil War. For three years,  history tells us, Abraham Lincoln  had been searching for a general who had the moral character  to make such decisions, who would not take counsel of his  fears when confronted by Robert E. Lee and the miserable  but unavoidable carnage of mid-19th century battle. Grant’s  orders showed Lincoln had truly found his man, a general  whose determination to make hard war on the Confederates  matched his own—a determination sadly lacking in the men  who had matched wits with Lee on almost the exact ground  before—Joseph Hooker and George Meade, men who had  a decidedly problematic relationship with each other, but  shared a lack of ability to act when they had led their armies  south of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers.

Indeed, Hooker had been brought to grief and retreated  from the Wilderness at the head of what he had boastfully proclaimed to be the “finest army on the planet” one year  before. Though he enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in  numbers and had crafted an impressive operational plan,  after reaching Chancellorsville in spring 1863, Hooker proved  unequal to the task. He first made the critical mistake of surrendering the initiative to Lee. Then, after bitter fighting  left the Confederate army badly bloodied—and against the  entreaties of many of his principle subordinates—Hooker ordered his command to retreat across the Rappahannock. “For once I lost confidence in Hooker, and that is all there is  to it,” he reportedly explained to Abner Doubleday.

A few months later the Army of the Potomac, now led by  Meade, once again crossed the Rapidan as the first step in  what it hoped would be a successful campaign against Lee.  But finding the Confederates in a strong position at Mine  Run, Meade abandoned his offensive and ordered the army  to recross the Rapidan and return to its camps. To be sure, it was the rare man who saw the Confederate defenses at Mine  Run and disapproved of Meade’s decision not to attack them.  Yet in light of Meade’s performance  in 1863—when he lost the confidence of the Lincoln administration  in the aftermath of Gettysburg and  never got it back—Mine Run would  confirm in many minds that a lack  of steel in Meade’s character fatally  compromised his ability for success.

“I doubt him,” Lincoln’s secretary revealingly declared during  a tense moment in the president’s  dealings with Meade. “He is an  engineer.” A perception persisted in  the north that former commander  George B. McClellan had instilled  in the Army of the Potomac’s officer  corps a mindset too oriented around  engineering and technical aspects of  warfare—rendering Meade and others incapable of understanding that war was also a test of character and grit passed  only by those who accepted the need for relentless fighting.

Grant, of course, was no engineer. And when he  turned south after the Wilderness, he won the hearts of the  men in the ranks. In the words of Bruce Catton, “the soldiers  realized that meant . . . no retreat, no defeat, maybe the battle  had been a victory after all…and the war was going as it had  not gone before.”

“The night ride of the general-in-chief told plainly the story  of success, and gave each man to understand that the cry  was to be ‘On to Richmond!’” one witness declared. “…Wild  cheers echoed through the forest, and glad shouts of triumph  rent the air. Men swung their hats, tossed up their arms, and pressed forward…. The night march had become a triumphal  procession for the new commander. The demonstration was  the emphatic verdict pronounced by the troops upon his first  battle in the East.” Historian Jeffry Wert concluded the men  “had been waiting too long for a general who would not turn  back. George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and, arguably, George Meade would not have led the army down to road to another battlefield.”  

To be sure, the cheers were fully merited as this was indeed a watershed moment in the war—though Grant endeavored to mute them out of fear that they would give away what was going on to the enemy. By ordering his army to move to Spotsylvania, Grant demonstrated that when he sent a messenger to Lincoln advising there would be “no turning back,” he  meant it. More important, he effectively broke the stalemate  along the Rappahannock and the Rapidan that had dominated the war in the East since November 1862—interrupted  only by the Gettysburg and Bristoe Station campaigns, both  of which were initiated by the Confederates and ended with both armies back along “the Dare Mark.”

It must be said, however, that aspersions cast on the character of the men who came before him implicit (and sometimes  explicit) in much of the praise of Grant are not completely  fair. To be sure, “Fighting Joe” Hooker was a man of many  faults who committed his fair share of mistakes in the Chancellorsville Campaign. The most important might well have  been to ignore his subordinates’ protests and retreat on the  night of May 5-6, 1863, giving up a strong position just north  of Chancellorsville. Lee, after all, planned to launch an assault  on Hooker’s position on May 6. And though nothing is certain  in war, given the terrain, the large number of men Hooker had  on hand (many of whom had been only lightly engaged so far  in the campaign), and the strong fortifications the Federals had constructed, it is difficult to see how a Confederate assault  could have succeeded. Moreover, the heavy casualties suffered  in the attempt would have almost certainly compelled Lee to  abandon the field. Making the Federal retreat all the more  galling is the fact that had the Army of the Potomac stayed  on the field, it would have faced the very scenario Hooker  hoped for in planning the campaign: The Confederate army  was in a position where it “must either ingloriously fy, or come  out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.”  

Yet in Hooker’s defense it must be noted that his army had  been pushed to a position where the river was at its back and  on both of flanks—precisely the reason Lee would have been  compelled to make a frontal assault. But it also meant that,  unlike Grant the following year, when the time came to decide whether to stay, retreat or advance, Hooker did not have an  open road south from Chancellorsville his army could use.

More important, any fair assessment of the degree to which  Hooker’s performance at Chancellorsville truly reflected his  generalship must give considerable weight to the fact that the  combativeness and sound military judgment he demonstrated  on other fields were diminished by a serious injury to the head  he suffered during this battle.

Meade’s case, if anything, is even more interesting.  Unlike Hooker, Meade did have an alternative to retreating  across the Rapidan after (wisely) deciding not to assault Lee’s  strong entrenchments behind Mine Run. And the evidence is strong that, given a free hand, he would have taken it.  

“But for your disapproval of a change of base, I should,  instead of recrossing the Rapidan, have taken up a position in front of Fredericksburg,” Meade advised his superiors in  Washington on December 2, 1863, as the Mine Run Campaign came to a close. One month earlier, he had petitioned Washington for permission to shift his army east and cross the  Rappahannock at Banks’ Ford with the objective of seizing the heights of Fredericksburg. This would entail changing his  line of supply from the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to  the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, which  was what Grant did after the Wilderness. (Given the lateness  of the season, pushing to Spotsylvania instead of Fredericksburg was probably not feasible for Meade the way it would be  for Grant the following May.) But to his dismay, Meade’s proposal had been vetoed by the Lincoln administration—leaving him little alternative but to fall back across the Rapidan  when it became evident he could not reap much benefit from a  costly battle along Mine Run.

Indeed, the episode underlined the fact that responsibility for operations in Virginia between November 1862 and  March 1864 rested as much with Lincoln and his chief military adviser, Henry W. Halleck, as it did with the commanders of  the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln was convinced the failure  of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 had vindicated his belief  that McClellan and other like-minded officers were wrong in  their preference for operations against Richmond using the  Peninsula and James River. He made clear that he wanted  commanders of the Army of the Potomac in northern Virginia, ensuring Washington’s security and using the Orange and  Alexandria Railroad as their line of supply. (Lincoln and Halleck had only reluctantly approved the move from the Orange  and Alexandria line to Falmouth in November 1862, which put  the supply line on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad until the two armies moved north at the start of  the Gettysburg Campaign.)

Lincoln recognized that using the Orange and Alexandria  made it difficult for the army to catch Lee at a disadvantage  and win a truly decisive battlefield victory. Protecting the  railroad required diverting considerable manpower, limited the army’s range and ultimately led the army away from  Richmond. Still, during Ambrose Burnside’s and Hooker’s  commands, Lincoln and Halleck were willing to accept operational stalemate in Virginia while placing greater emphasis  on securing territorial objectives in the western theater. To be  sure, they hoped for “the defeat or scattering of Lee’s army,”  but would be satisfied if Burnside and Hooker could “keep  the enemy at bay, and out of other mischief, by menaces” and  “continually harass and menace” Lee’s army.

Moreover, the situation in the East between November  1862 and May 1864 was a stalemate only in terms of ground  taken and occupied. In terms of attrition, results of operations  during that time were in fact quite favorable to the Federals.  Lincoln sagely recognized that. So did Robert E. Lee.

Still, the fact that the two armies were, in Grant’s words,  “in substantially the same relations towards each other as… before” was a problem. It profoundly affected perceptions (both then and since) about the Federals’ performance. After  all, the occupation of ground is a much simpler and more satisfying measurement of what Lincoln described as “the progress of our arms” than the grim arithmetic of attrition.

Though Meade was prevented from breaking this stalemate by moving his army to Fredericksburg in the fall of 1863,  Grant did break it by moving to Spotsylvania and shifting  his line of supply in May 1864. Grant notably did this in line  with an operational vision that he laid out during a meeting  with his staff before the campaign began. “[H]e rose from his  seat,” one of his staff officers later recalled, “stepped up to a  map hanging upon the a wall, and with a sweep of his forefinger indicated a line around Richmond and Petersburg, and  remarked: ‘When my troops are there, Richmond is mine.”’

By moving south and east after the Wilderness, Grant took the second in a series of steps (the first being to cross the Rapidan and enter the Wilderness) that would carry the Federal  army to the position on the James River where it rendered  the defeat of Lee’s army and fall of Richmond, as Lee himself  put it, “a mere question of time.”

It was, notably, an operational vision complementary to the  thinking of Meade, who believed that to achieve victory the  Army of the Potomac must reach the James River, which he  declared at one point “the true and only practicable approach  to Richmond.”

Ethan S. Rafuse is a professor at the U.S. Army Command General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and author of Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1863-1865.

Originally published in the May 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.