May 2, 1864 (Monday)
From atop Clark’s Mountain, General Robert E. Lee could see the theater displayed before him. To his front flowed the waters of the Rapidan River, disappearing in the distance on his left and right. On the banks opposite his own, Federal pickets could be seen at their posts. The towns of Culpeper and Brandy Station could be plainly seen, as could the impromptu metropolis – the sprawling and twisting encampment of the Army of the Potomac.
Lee had grown surprised of late, and was in wonder as to why the enemy host was yet unmoving. So great was this wonder that it nearly rivaled his quandary of where along his own lines the Federals might attack.
Accompanying Lee to the summit were his corps commanders, Generals James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and Richard Ewell. They were each accompanied in turn by their division commanders, eight in all. Each officer, including Lee, had, no doubt peered from this signal station before, surveying the enemy, watching trains chuffing along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, bringing reinforcements and more supplies than their own army could begin to afford. And though with but half the force and far less of stores and provisions, they had spirit, they had Virginia, and they had Lee.
And it to Lee they turned as he peered through his field glasses, seeing the camp come to life in ways it had not since before the snows fell. It must have been a terrifying sight: the Army of the Potomac stirring, shaking dust, and stretching, and soon to be slashing, killing and engulfing.
No man atop Clark’s Mountain was naive enough to consider that the Federal horde would once more throw themselves against the Confederate defenses along the Rapidan. Turning to his officers, Lee pointed toward Chancellorsville. His mind was made up.
Lee was now convinced that the enemy would cross at Germanna or perhaps Ely’s Ford. The Federals would try, he believed, to get around his right flank. And little time would pass before it was so. It was to here, the summit of Clark’s Mountain, they would look for orders. The signal men would wag the direction of the Union advance, and he cautioned them to be prepared to take up their own line of march to meet them.
Before Chancellorsville lay the Wilderness, a tangled mass of impenetrable jungle. The Federal artillery and cavalry would both be neutered, and some advantage tipped in the Southern direction. But there were numbers, and not in his favor. Lee was nearly certain that his enemy would fall upon his right, but nothing was truly certain. A link between his army and Richmond had to be preserved. To this end, there was Longstreet’s Corps; its two divisions would hold the line both above and below Gordonsville.
Lee had not the infantry to defend every river crossing, and so spread thin Jeb Stuart’s cavalry on his right. They would, he prayed, ensnare the Northern troops in the tangles where his infantry could concentrate and maul them before they could do the same. But should the enemy slip through, should he impose his columns between Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia, it could very well mean the destruction of both.
With so much teetering on the knife’s edge, Lee made no movement, and did nothing to prepare. He could have started to shift troops towards the Wilderness, but did not. He might have fortified the defenses at Germanna and Ely’s Fords, but never mentioned it. To his cavalry, he might have instructed that they hold their ground until the infantry could arrive, but instead they were to alert headquarters and fall back. He would, as he often said, trust to Providence for victory.
General Lee was, as he before long would discover, correct. It was on this date, as Lee and his lieutenants espied the Federal camps, that General Ulysses S. Grant delivered his orders.
“The movement of this Army will commence at 12 o’clock tomorrow night. The attempt will be made to turn the right flank of the enemy – that is, to cross the Rapidan east of or below the railroad. Ely’s Ford, Germanna Ford, and Culpeper Mine Ford will be the crossing places.”
The Union Army of the Potomac was to move in two columns. The right, fronted by cavalry, would be comprised of Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps, and John Sedgwick’s Sixth. They would cross at Germanna Ford, advancing straight to Wilderness Tavern, west of Chancellorsville. The left column, led also by cavalry, would consist of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps as well as the artillery reserve. Crossing the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford, they would move upon Chancellorsville. Culpeper Mine Ford, situated between the two crossings, would carry the supply and ordnance wagons. Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps was the reserve. By Grant’s order, he was to take charge and occupy the crossings on the 5th, after the last of the Army of the Potomac had crossed.
Grant’s army was not, at least officially, Grant’s own. It was still directly commanded by George Meade. Grant’s headquarters, however, would be very near to Meade, and orders given within earshot. As he curved around Lee’s right flank, as he arrayed his corps and called the attack, Meade would be shadowed.
General Lee’s army, now pensive and with an ear turned northward, was populated by nearly 72,000 men. But numbers were deceiving. His cavalry held 10,000, while the artillery, perhaps, 5,500. The corps of A.P. Hill and Ewell could together field 25,000 and 20,000 respectively. And while Longstreet’s two divisions added another 10,000, they were reserves and far away. To meet the Federals, they would have Stuart’s Cavalry, and little more than 45,000 in the ranks.
What they were meeting was a comparative Goliath, numbering 120,000. Led by 12,000 cavaliers, Meade’s 99,500 troops were backed by the guns of 10,000 artillerymen. And if more were needed, Burnside’s Ninth Corps could provide nearly 20,000. Like Lee’s, Grant’s numbers did not tell the entire story. Veterans, while the majority, hardly constituted the entire array. Many troops were conscripts, and many more were green. The long winter lull between campaigns had seen officers promoted and others vacated. This was indeed a force with which to reckon, but it was not a tidal wave. A Union victory was far from inevitable. This contest was not yet decided.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 2, p331-334, 337; Personal Reminiscences by John William Jones; The Virginia campaign of ’64 and ’65 by Andrew Atkinson Humphreys; “Virginia” by Jedediah Hotchkiss, as appearing in Confederate Military History, Vol. III edited by Clement Evans; The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere; The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea; The Man Who Saved the Union by H.W. Brands. [↩]