In May 1864, the Federal army advanced across the Rapidan river and ended a period of six months during which that stream had, almost without interruption, constituted the military frontier between the United States and the Confederate States. General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had spent the winter spread across the rolling fields beyond the right bank of the river in Orange County, around Orange Court House and Gordonsville and Verdiersville. General George G. Meade's Federal Army of the Potomac wintered in the piedmont countryside north of the Rapidan, centered on Culpeper Court House.
Southern troops by this time had begun to suffer markedly for want of rations, both in volume and in quality, at least in part because the president of the key rail line in central Virginia was an ante bellum immigrant from the North who secretly accepted pay from the Federal Secretary of War. Northern troops enjoyed infinitely better supplies. Their army also underwent a profound change during this winter. Meade remained its nominal commander, and would occupy that role to the war's end. The newly minted Commander-in-Chief of all Federal armies, however, established his headquarters next to Meade, leaving the army commander consigned to a secondary profile. Ulysses S. Grant had come east as the hero of benchmark Federal triumphs at Vicksburg and Chattanooga to be commissioned into the newly created rank of lieutenant-general. For the rest of the war, Meade's army commonly appeared in the press as 'Grant's army' because the Commander-in-Chief was with it. Writing on the war still uses that locution, and in fact it will appear this way in most instances through the rest of this book.
As spring hardened the roads in 1864, 'Grant's army' prepared to take the offensive with a new-found determination imparted by Grant himself. A reorganization consolidated some of the familiar old corps out of existence, leaving only the II, V, and
VI Corps. General Ambrose E. Burnside's IX Corps also marched with the army. The once-disgraced Burnside had enough political currency to have landed back in corps command, and to be immune to Meade's orders. He would report directly to Grant, in awkward contravention of the most basic principles of unity of command.
The combined Federal force that crossed the Rapidan at the beginning of May numbered about 120,000 men. Lee could counter with only a few more than half as many troops, including Longstreet's infantry, newly returned from their adventures (and mis-adventures) in Tennessee and Georgia. Grant could - and did - draw on innumerable reinforcements through the coming campaign; the Confederate manpower cupboard by this time had become close to bare.
Grant intended to move south across the Rapidan east of Lee's army and slice straight through 'the Wilderness' to get between his enemy and Richmond. That would force Lee to react rapidly under circumstances in which his enemy could choose the terms of engagement. Much late-twentieth-century writing has professed to recognize the striking wisdom that places did not matter, only the enemy's army. Lee and his government knew better. Richmond must be held for an array of fundamental reasons, industrial, logistical, military, political, and spiritual. When it in fact fell in April 1865, the war in Virginia ended almost concurrently. Grant's attempt to force Lee's small army to defend the approaches to Richmond in the spring of 1864 was precisely the right formula.
Getting through the Wilderness proved to be far more difficult than Grant had hoped. The dense second-growth thickets that gave the region its name covered about 70 square miles (180km2) on the south bank of the Rapidan-Rappahannock line, about 12 miles (19km) wide and six miles (9.5km) deep. When Lee received word that his adversary had crossed the Rapidan into the Wilderness, he hurled his troops eastward and they struck the Federal right flank like a
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