Toward a Nightmare

The following is a guest blog post by Jeffry D. Wert, author of The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers’ Struggle for Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, available now wherever books and ebooks are sold.

May 4, 1864, dawned across central Virginia with spring’s promise of life and war’s portent of death. A day in which “all nature seems smiling” had been anticipated for weeks, if not months. On this morning 119,000 officers and men of the Union Army of the Potomac, accompanied by miles of artillery batteries and wagons, marched toward a pair of fords on the Rapidan River. South of the stream, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia—nearly 60,000 strong—waited, old nemeses headed toward another reckoning.

The previous months had been marked by cold and inclement winter weather. The Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers divided the sprawling campsites of the opposing armies. Railroad trains of supplies filled the voracious needs of the Yankees while shortages of rations for the men and forage for animals plagued Confederate ranks. Their commander, General Robert E. Lee, admitted at one point, “The question of food for this army gives more trouble and uneasiness than everything else combined.” Disease stalked the camps on both sides of the rivers.

The foes grumbled often about the hardships in their respective armies, but those who remained in the ranks were determined to see the war through to the end. Although the odds against them had not lessened, many of the Southerners remained steadfast in ultimate victory. “With unbounded confidence in Gen Lee, and men enough,” declared a Rebel, “we fear not the issue.” They possessed a shared legacy of battlefield prowess and an “unconquerable spirit.”

For members of the Army of the Potomac, their legacy was more of defeat than of victory.  But they had endured through the bloodbath at Fredericksburg and the stunning defeat at Chancellorsville. Given a fair fight and inspired leadership on a fair field, they had prevailed at Gettysburg. Major General George G. Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, commanded army, but change arrived on a train from Washington, D.C., in March.

Appointed general-in-chief of all Union forces, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant decided to abandon the federal capital and accompany the army in the forthcoming campaign. Grant had proven himself in the West with victories at forts Henry and Donelson and Shiloh in Tennessee; Vicksburg, Mississippi; and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Grant kept Meade in command, but the latter understood that in time the army would follow his superior’s direction.

As the weather warmed, the army’s rank and file took the measure of the general-in-chief. Like their opponents, the Northerners believed in their final victory. In the estimation of a surgeon, the troops “had confidence that they have a general, though not superhuman, has a strong will, good sense, and power to do as he thinks best. I think he is more than satisfied with this army, and knows they will fight.”

Grant designated May 4 as the beginning of Union offensives across the Confederacy. In the West, the main thrust would be in Georgia toward Atlanta. In the East, a pair of secondary advances in Virginia would support the main movement across the Rapidan. Grant’s instructions to Meade were “wherever Lee went he would go also.” An officer predicted before they started that the army “has obtained a grip upon the throat of the Confederacy, a grip that will not be relaxed until treason gasps and dies.”

On May 1, Confederate Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. “Sandie” Pendleton offered a prediction in a letter to his wife, lamenting that “the green shores of the Rapidan River would be stained by the blood of thousands.” It would be more—far more—than Pendleton could have known. For both armies as they marched toward a confrontation, they entered a nightmare of nearly unrelenting carnage for six weeks. Nothing characterized the fearfulness and slaughter more than the struggle for the Confederate Mule Shoe outside of Spotsylvania Court House on May 12.

Jeffry D. Wert is author of many previous books, including most recently Civil War Barons: The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation