‘If He Comes This Way’ – Lee’s Army Moves to Strike

May 4, 1864 (Wednesday)

Hancock's II Corps crossing at Ely's Ford
Hancock’s II Corps crossing at Ely’s Ford

For nearly six hours, the Confederates upon the heights of Clark’s Mountain knew the Union host was marching. They had done their duty, sending word to General Robert E. Lee, who in turn ordered Richard Ewell’s Corps to be ready to move at dawn. The sun had now appeared in the east, illuminating as red-orange against the barrels of the Northern enemy, winding from the Rapidan before them. The roads were blue with marching.

Below the signal station, the sounds of scattered fire drifted with the mild air, as Jeb Stuart’s cavalry backed away from the fords. They were ordered not to engage, but to scout their positions, the roads and the paths taken by the Federals now issuing from the river.

“From present indications everything seems to be moving to the right, on Germanna and Ely’s Fords roads, leaving cavalry in our front,” came the 9:30am signal to General Ewell. And once General Lee was made aware, he understood that his prediction had come true. General Grant’s Union army was trying to get around his right flank.

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was roughly half the size of the attacking Federal force. Nevertheless, Lee began to move his entire army to face it. Originally, he had intended for a large part of James Longstreet’s Corps to act as a sort of reserve and assurance in case the Federals divided their command and sent another column against his left. Since it was now clear to him that it wasn’t the case, Longstreet was ordered to bring up his men.

But Longstreet was wary. “I fear the enemy is trying to draw us down to Fredericksburg,” rose his caution. “Can’t we threaten his rear, so as to stop his move?” A slide to Fredericksburg, he feared, would expose their rear to attack. Lee may have considered Longstreet’s warning, but not long later, he finally ordered Richard Ewell to start his corps east on the Orange Turnpike.

This route led east to Wilderness Tavern, connecting with the parallel-running Orange Plank Road just before Chancellorsville. And it was upon the latter which A.P. Hill’s Corps was moving. But there were not plans for battle – not on this day.

Today's map - from the Civil War Atlas to accompany Steele's American campaigns
Today’s map – from the Civil War Atlas to accompany Steele’s American campaigns

General Lee held reserve in approaching the enemy, ordering Ewell to encamp his column near Locust Grove, just past Mine Run. Hill, too, was ordered to halt, but just short of Mine Run at New Verdiersville. From here, the two leading corps could lend the other support the following day.

As the Federals were marked advancing south from Germanna Ford toward the Wilderness Tavern, and from Ely’s Ford toward Chancellorsville, James Longstreet’s Corps stepped off. Against Longstreet’s better judgment (and probable prior-approval by Lee), he was ordered to first come north to Orange Court House before following Hill’s Corps along the Orange Plank Road. Longstreet balked, but it was understandable. There was another route he better preferred that would bring his troops to the front of the Federal advance. This would have placed an entire corps in Grant’s path should he wish to continue south, or, if he then turned west to face Lee’s Army, land Longstreet on the Union left flank. Either way, Longstreet was determined to trap the enemy in the Wilderness west of Chancellorsville.

By noon, Lee’s entire army was flowing from its camps and onto their prescribed and parallel paths. And all day they marched, some as many as twenty miles. Lee sent word to Richmond, beckoning for reinforcements, but had little information he could relay. There was some indication that Grant would turn west, but word from Jeb Stuart’s cavalry held that it might instead be east toward Fredericksburg. What Lee cared not to risk was an engagement before his entire army was up, and Longstreet’s Corps, moving north from Gordonsville, would take longer to arrive.

With the coming of dusk, Lee knew nothing more, and planned for either eventuality. “If the enemy moves down the river,” ordered Lee to Ewell, “push after him. If he comes this way, we will take our old line.”

The evening saw Ewell’s and Hill’s Corps encamp, while Longstreet’s carried on. Stuart’s Cavalry spread out and scouted, hoping for some clue as to Grant’s intentions. They held closer to Fredericksburg, in the event that the leads of the enemy turned east. But as the hours slipped by, it was finally revealed.

Federal troops crossing at Germanna Ford
Federal troops crossing at Germanna Ford

The heads of the enemy columns were indeed turning, as Stuart’s scouts reported, but it was to the west – toward Lee’s Army. They were, it was uncovered, concentrating between Wilderness Tavern and Chancellorsville. There could be but one reason for this, Lee deduced – Grant was planning to attack him directly the following morning.

But Lee was resolved to deliver the first stroke, even if it meant engaging the Federals before Longstreet was up, and that would be no earlier than noon. However, with Grant’s Army facing west and held in place by the corps of Ewell and Hill, Longstreet could deliver an attack upon the enemy’s left flank. If successful, and there was little reason to think that this couldn’t succeed, Grant’s Army of the Potomac would have no other choice but to slink once more back across the Rapidan.

Through the night, the armies were as close as two miles from each other, yet the Federals seemed to have little knowledge of this. The very possibility that Lee’s entire army had sniffed them out and was turned from hunted to hunter, escaped them.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 2, p372, 947; The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere. With the coming of battle upon battle, my use of primary sources will necessarily lessen. This is a bummer, but I haven’t the time or ability to dig deeply into things like the movement of regiments, etc. Unfortunately, I’ll have to rely upon well-researched and trusted secondary sources. I hope that’s okay. []
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2 thoughts on “‘If He Comes This Way’ – Lee’s Army Moves to Strike

    1. Your footnote mentions your lack of time to devote to movement of regiments. That’s understandable. Personally, I enjoy a broad, overall view of the battle. Sometimes, the feeling for how things are going gets muddled when diving down to the regiment level.

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