Tuesday, May 5, 2009

This Day in Civil War History (Grant, Lee Clash in Wilderness)

May 5, 1864—The Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac might have felt a sense of déjà vu during the two-day Battle of the Wilderness, which started on this date. At first glance, the resemblances between this bloody clash and the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought almost on the same day the year earlier, must have seemed overwhelming:

* A highly touted new Northern commander in chief--in this case, Ulysses S. Grant’s--tried to outsmart Robert E. Lee with a deft flanking maneuver;

* Lee’s most trusted corps was accidentally shot by his own troops, ending up grievously wounded; and

* The North still ended up losing the battle, as its troops became hopelessly confused on uncertain terrain in the tangled woods on the path to Richmond.

But there the similarities end. The Lee subordinate wounded at the Wilderness, James Longstreet, understood the chief difference between the two epic encounters when he predicted about General Grant (whom he knew well, as the husband of one of his cousins): “We must make up our minds to get into line of battle and to stay there; for that man will fight us every day and every hour till the end of this war.”

In May 1863, Joe Hooker—full of enough premature braggadocio to declare, “May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none”—had inexplicably lost his nerve only a few miles from where Grant found himself a year later. The cause of Hooker’s undoing was Stonewall Jackson’s assault on his flank.

Lee—and, of course, even more so, Jackson himself—had paid dearly for Stonewall’s aggressive when the latter ended up the victim of friendly fire at nightfall.

At the same time as Hooker's reputation was being wrecked, Grant’s reputation was being made with a brilliant campaign of maneuver and unconventional tactics at Vicksburg. For severing the Confederacy in two at the Mississippi, Grant had been named Lieutenant General, in command of all forces, by Abraham Lincoln.

For once, the President had a commander on the same wavelength as himself: someone who wanted simultaneous movement by multiple Union armies against the Confederacy, reducing the possibility that Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis could rush troops from one theater of operations to another.

Grant wanted to get between Lee and the Confederate capital, Richmond, on ground that, for once, would favor the Union instead of the Confederacy. But even as Grant’s forces of 120,000-plus men crossed the Rapidan, Lee had spied the movement from his headquarters on Clark’s Mountain, and had sent forces to attack him.

Superficially, at least, Grant must have seemed like Hooker at first. His troops floundered in the woods, partly because their general wasn’t familiar with it. It must have seemed that he’d been everywhere else on God’s green earth—West Point, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, the Far West, even Mexico—but he’d never been stationed on Northern Virginia. More shockingly, his cartographers didn’t know where they were.

The resulting battle was everything you’d expect in a Civil War engagement, and then some:

* Men firing at an unseen enemy through the thick trees;

* Bullets whizzing by, not just taking down branches but whole trees;

* Forest fires consuming the wounded; and

* Wounded soldiers lying for hours beneath corpses.

When the fighting was over, Grant’s casualties were more than double Lee’s –18,000 vs. 8,000—but manpower shortages meant that Lee’s would be far harder to replace.

More important was, literally, the road Grant took following the battle. One way—the one previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac had taken—was back toward Washington, where they would lick their wounds. The second way was toward Spotsylvania Court House, another route toward Richmond. It was the second choice that Grant took, and his soldiers cheered wildly when they realized it. For once, they would not retreat in the face of General Lee.
The Wilderness represented a reversal of Chancellorsville in another respect: the contingencies of history. For years after Chancellorsville, students of the Civil War have speculated on what would have happened if Stonewall Jackson had lived. The opposite is true of the question posed by the Wilderness: “What if Longstreet had died?”

The question about Longstreet is easier to answer than the one about Jackson: Lee’s “old war horse” would have joined Jackson among the sacred martyrs of the Confederate “Lost Cause”. Instead, throughout the rest of his life, Longstreet would see his own reputation decimated by the machinations of fellow Confederates. (Even the grandson would depict him in a 1,400-page novel as a loving family man but a boneheaded commander.)

In an attempt to evade historical responsibility and/or preserve their own political viability, generals such as Fitzhugh Lee, Jubal Early and John Gordon tried to make Longstreet the scapegoat for the failure of the Lost Cause. Even now, more than a century later, his reputation hasn’t fully recovered yet.

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