Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

May 7, 1864: Grant Turns South

150 years ago this evening, the American Civil War took yet another turn. After two days of bloody, chaotic, and brutal fighting in the Wilderness west of Fredericksburg, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant faced a key decision. In the past, generals with names such as McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker had turned back after difficulties and defeats. The Wilderness had not been a total defeat, simply an impediment to Grant's southward push. Lee's Confederates had proven themselves able to deliver vicious blows into the Federal lines, leaving thousands of men in Blue and Gray bleeding among the Virginia forest, some of them burning from the fires among the leaves set by the blaze of muskets and cannon.
On the evening of May 7th, with the fires of the Wilderness still smoldering, Grant began to move. Instead of turning back to Washington to recuperate, Grant and his army turned south. The sight of Grant continuing southward sent waves of admiration through the men of the Army of the Potomac. They knew that unforeseen and unknowable difficulties and trials lay ahead. They knew that turning south meant more fighting, killing, and dying. Yet, with Grant in command, these veteran soldiers were ready to make the final push into Virginia, hoping that with this campaign, the days of the war were numbered.

The situation has been best described by the words of Bruce Catton, whose work A Stillness at Appomattox still stands as a gold standard of writing on the Civil War, or on any history topic for that matter. For myself, and for many others who have written books about the Civil War, Catton is a standard to which we always aspire to reach but will always fall short. His work shows us that history can be well written and truthful.

This army had known dramatic moments of inspiration in the past—massed flags and many bugles and broad blue ranks spread out in the sunlight, with leadership bearing a drawn sword and riding a prancing horse, and it had been grand and stirring. Now there was nothing more than a bent shadow in the night, a stoop-shouldered man who was saying nothing to anyone, methodically making his way t of the head of the column—and all of a moment the tired column came alive, and a wild cheer broke the night and men tossed their caps in the darkness.

They had had their fill of desperate fighting, and this pitiless little man was leading them into nothing except more fighting, and probably there would be no end to it, but at least he was not leading them back in sullen acceptance of defeat, and somewhere, many miles ahead, there would be victory for those who lived to see it. So there was tremendous cheering, and Grant’s big horse Cincinnati caught the excitement and reared and pranced, and as he got him under control Grant told his staff to have the men stop cheering because the Rebels were not far away and they would hear and know that a movement was being made.

It was the same on other roads. Sedgwick’s men backtracked to Chancellorsville, and as the men reached that fatal crossroads the veterans knew how the land lay and knew that if they took the left-hand fork they would be retreating and if they turned to the right they would be going on for another fight. The column turned right, and men who made the march wrote that with that turn there was a quiet relaxing of the tension and a lifting of gloom, so that men who had been slogging along quietly began to chatter as they marched. Here and there a regiment sang a little.

Back by the wagon trains one of Sedgwick’s officers came upon Burnside’s division of colored soldiers, so dust-colored the men looked white. They were heading south like everyone else, and the officer saw a big colored sergeant prodding his men on with the butt of his rifle and ordering, “close up dere, lambs.”