With Ulysses S. Grant's successful rescue of the stranded Union army in Chattanooga, President Lincoln made one of the best decisions of his presidency. He placed the Illinois general over all Federal troops, then moved him to the eastern theater.
Once Grant gained command of all Federal forces in early 1864, he proposed a broad-based offensive. The plan was to use the North's superior numbers of men in uniform to attack the Confederacy along several key fronts, with the intention of bringing the South down and the war to an end. He would march with Meade's army in Virginia against Robert E. Lee, which would pit these two Civil War bulldogs against one another for the first time since the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter three years earlier. In the meantime, more Union forces would advance up the James River toward Richmond, much the same way McClellan had during his campaign up Virginia's peninsula two years earlier. A third army, led by General William Tecumseh Sherman, was to move out of
Chattanooga, where it had wintered following the great battle with Bragg's army, and move southeast toward Atlanta to destroy that strategic Southern rail and manufacturing city.
On May 5, Grant and Meade moved against Lee. The stakes were high. Grant knew he must not only defeat Lee—a feat others, including McClellan and Meade, had already accomplished— but the Southern army had to be completely destroyed. Grant's 120,000 men would soon engage Lee's 65,000 on the same ground outside Chancellorsville where many had fought a year earlier: the Wilderness.
The fight opened in the midst of the underbrush and hanging grapevines of the Chancellorsville woods. The fight was nightmarish, as mobility and military lines were nearly impossible to establish, much less maintain. Troops got lost amid the heavy wooded growth, smoke, and fires from exploding shells and muzzle flashes. Wounded soldiers, unable to move, were burned alive by the dozens. Troops fired on their own men. After a day of back-and-forth fighting, both armies broke from the fight, with no clear winner emerging from the vine-covered battlefield.
The next day, many veterans of the Army of the Potomac expected Grant to move away from Lee's forces to lick his wounds and wait to fight another day, weeks or months later. Instead, the Federal commander sent his troops forward against Lee by moving his left flank in a movement intended to keep Lee blocked in between the Union Army and Richmond. As the outcome of the battle tipped, Lee feared defeat. Bravely, the Confederate general came forward and tried to lead troops from the front, putting himself closer than usual to the heat of the battle. His men would not allow it. As told by historian Gene Smith, Confederates virtually surrounded their commander. "Go back, General Lee. Lee to the rear." A Rebel sergeant grabbed Lee's horse reins to stop his general's advance. "Go back, General Lee,
this is no place for you; we'll settle this." As Lee shouted, "Charge! Charge, boys!", his men continued their shouts: "Go back, General Lee! Go back! We won't go on unless you go back!" Lee finally withdrew from the heat of the battle.
Just as Union forces were on the brink of victory, Northern units lost their way in the thick woods. Then, Lee was reinforced by fresh troops when Longstreet's men reached the battlefield, having been absent the previous day. Throughout the rest of the day, the action seesawed back and forth with no clear winner again. After two days of fighting, Union forces had experienced 17,000 casualties. There were 11,000 casualties for the Confederates, which made for an equal percentage for both sides. But Grant was still not ready to break off the fight. His next maneuver was to move by his left flank and engage Lee at the only spot possible, given the lay of the land and the placement of roads—Spotsylvania Court House, located just a few miles from the Wilderness.
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