150 Years Ago in the Civil War
With all planning and preparations complete, the much anticipated spring campaigns under the overall command of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant began in early May. Grant’s plan called for simultaneous advances along multiple fronts. On April 30th, an army under Major General Franz Sigel marched south out of Martinsburg, West Virginia and occupied Winchester, Virginia the next day before continuing south down the Shenandoah Valley. On May 4th, Major General Benjamin Butlers’ Army of the James boarded naval transports at Hampton Roads, Virginia, and steamed up the James River, disembarking at City Point (now Hopewell, VA) and Bermuda Hundred on May 5th. In northern Virginia, the Army of the Potomac under Major General George Meade (with Grant alongside) marched south, crossing the Rapidan River on May 4th, and in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area, Major General William T. Sherman began a southward movement toward Atlanta, Georgia with the Army of the Cumberland and Army of the Tennessee.
This was the first time in the war that Grant faced General Robert E. Lee, and it didn’t take long before the fighting started. On May 5th, the two sides clashed in the first day of the two day Battle of the Wilderness. Fighting was intense and difficult in the forest and brush covered Wilderness. Dry leaves and brush caught fire, and many wounded men who could not move were burned to death. Union forces suffered over 18,000 total casualties, and the Confederates over 11,000. The dead included two Union and three Confederate generals. Despite this, neither side had destroyed the other or picked up much ground. In the past, the normal procedure in these circumstances was for the Union forces to retreat, but Grant pressed on, disengaging Lee and marching south towards Spotsylvania Courthouse. With Grant in charge, there would be no turning back.
Lee was able to beat Grant to Spotsylvania Courthouse, and there was nearly continuous fighting at Spotsylvania from May 8th though the 21st, when Grant again moved south. The campaign continued to be fatal to generals; Union general John Sedgwick, commander of the 6th Corps, was killed by a sharpshooter May 9th, while Confederate general and cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11th. The heaviest fighting at Spotsylvania occurred May 12th, when Union forces attacked an area of the Confederate works called the Mule Shoe salient. Fighting here and especially at a portion of the salient that came to be called the Bloody Angle was intense, brutal, and often hand to hand for about 20 hours, with the dead literally piling up.
Grant again headed south, fighting at the Battle of the North Anna River May 23rd-25th. The fighting again was inconclusive, and again Grant moved south on Lee’s right flank. At the end of the month, the armies faced each other at Cold Harbor, a few miles northeast of Richmond. Although the Federals had moved deep into Virginia and were closing in on Richmond, the Overland Campaign had cost the Union around 40,000 total casualties in the month, out of an army of about 102,000 men. The public and government officials were shocked at the numbers coming out of Virginia. Lee’s army had about 30,000 casualties out of about 67,000 engaged. But Grant had the resources to fight a war of attrition, and during the month he ordered many of the heavy artillery units manning the defenses of Washington to march to the front as replacements.
Things were not going according to plan for the other Union armies in Virginia. General Benjamin Butlers’ army moved slowly towards Richmond, where it was attacked on May 16th near Drewry’s Bluff about eight miles east of Richmond on the James River. Although Butler had superior numbers, his force was defeated and moved back to the Union entrenchments on a piece of land between the James and Appomattox Rivers. The Confederates fortified the area opposite the Union works, and Butler was now stuck and unable to advance again, with Rebels in front of him and rivers on either side.
In the Shenandoah Valley, Franz Sigel’s army was defeated at the Battle of New Market, a battle that included 247 members of Corps of Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute fighting on the Confederate side. Ten cadets were killed and 47 others wounded in this action, which forced Sigel back to the far northern end of the Shenandoah. The defeat cost Sigel his job. Grant reassigned Sigel and replaced him with Major General David Hunter.
Sherman Begins Atlanta Campaign
On May 1st, Major General William T. Sherman began the first movements of the Atlanta Campaign. Sherman had three armies under his command–the Army of the Cumberland, Army of the Tennessee, and Army of the Ohio–for a total of about 98,000 men. Opposing Sherman was the 50,000 man Army of Tennessee under General Joseph E. Johnston, which early on received 15,000 reinforcements from Alabama for a total of 65,000.
Sherman began a campaign of fighting and flanking movements against Johnston. Some of the more significant fighting occurred at Resaca on May 14th-15th, and New Hope Church, Dallas, and Pickett’s Mill in the final week of the month. Sherman had advanced most of the way to Atlanta, but the offensive began to shift from maneuvering to entrenching and skirmishing as the Federals looked for a way around or through the Confederate defenses. Heavy rains also turned the roads into mud, slowing things down even more.
Red River Campaign Concludes
In Louisiana, Major General Nathaniel Banks continued his slow withdrawal down the Red River following his army’s defeat at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads in April. Confederate General Richard Taylor had defeated Banks at Sabine Crossroads, but now commanded a much smaller force after three of his divisions were redirected to the successful repulse of Major General Frederick Steel’s Camden Expedition in Arkansas. Taylor could harass but not launch a full scale attack on the Federal army, but an opportunity to destroy the river gunboat fleet of Admiral David Porter was beginning to form.
The water level in the Red River was dropping at the end of April, and when the main body of the fleet arrived at the falls at Alexandria, the river depth was too shallow for the gunboats and transports to go over the falls. Over 30 vessels were trapped, and faced destruction or capture by Rebel forces.
Banks’ chief engineer was Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey. Bailey had constructed dams back home in Wisconsin, and proposed to Porter that a series of wing dams be built to create a channel of sufficient depth for the fleet to pass over the falls. Porter was skeptical at first, but with essentially no other options, the project moved forward. The first shallower draft vessels made it through on May 8th, and by the 13th, the channel was deep enough for the last of the ships to make it through. By May 20th, both the army and navy had reached safety, ending the failed Red River Campaign.
Like Sigel, Banks’ failure cost him his command. Grant replaced Banks with Major General Edward Canby.
Away from the fighting, actor John Wilkes Booth took a break from the stage at the end of the month to work on a Pennsylvania oil well he and some others had invested in. The well produced some oil, but not enough to make it worthwhile, so Booth sold his stake in the project in October.
Some of the more costly battles of the war were fought in this month, and the high casualties would continue as the calendar turned to June.