- Historic Sites
In The Wilderness
A campfire meeting restores Cadwallader’s wavering faith in Grant’s military genius
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
[Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863. Later, Grant was given control over all western operations, won the great Battle of Chattanooga in the fall of the year, and in the spring of 1864 was made lieutenant-general in command of all the Union armies. Cadwallader, having given up his Chicago connection, in that spring was retained by James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, and at the beginning of May, 1864, went down to the Rapidan to cover the advance of the Army of the Potomac, with which Grant was making his headquarters.]
I took with me from Washington City, a good army saddle, pouches, and horse equipments, in addition to my blankets. It was the evening of May 2d, and the whole army was astir with preparations for the movement ordered for May 4th. The next day I bought a fine sorrel horse of Col. Wm. L. Duff, Chief of Artillery, which he was afraid to ride, for two hundred and fifty dollars in gold; visited the cavalry outposts; learned all I could about the proposed line of march; the topography of the country; and felt myself in readiness for hard field work.
The day and night of May 3d was probably the busiest period I witnessed during the war. Officers and clerks at all general headquarters worked without intermission. Quartermaster and Commissary departments were taxed to the utmost. Ordnance and ammunition supplies had to be provided for every exigency. Cartridge boxes, haversacks and caissons were all filled, fires were burning day and night for many miles in all directions, troops and trains were taking their assigned positions, staff officers and orderlies were galloping in hot haste carrying orders, whilst the rumble of artillery wheels, the rattling and clanking of mule teams and the shouting, song, and laughter of thousands of men, were “faint from farther distance borne.”
All things being in readiness, on the morning of May 4th, the tents were struck at daylight, and the whole army was in motion soon after sunrise, by the various routes assigned them, leading to Germanna and Ely’s fords across the Rapidan. [Col. J. H.] Wilson’s division of Cavalry had kept the country well patrolled from our front to the north bank of the latter stream, for several days. It now took the advance prepared to force a passage of the river, and had with it all necessary appliances for laying ponton bridges at each crossing by the time the infantry and artillery should arrive.
Grant’s headquarters the night of Wednesday, May 4th, was on a knoll on the south bank of the Rapidan, only a few hundred yards from Germanna ford. Troops and trains were hurrying past us all night, and by sunrise next morning the federal army was fairly in position for the great drama which commenced before noon.
It is well to understand that in this campaign Grant decided to operate without any well defined base, as he did in that of Vicksburg. On leaving Culpeper he abandoned his railroad connection with Washington City. He kept in position to make a new base at Fredericksburg if it became necessary or convenient; and transports were loaded with needful supplies at the capital and ordered down the Potomac, in readiness to move up the Rappahannock, or any other navigable stream, as future exigencies might demand. Rations and ammunition were taken with the army, to last till one battle at least had been fought, and the strength of the enemy ascertained. . . .
On taking the positions assigned them, each corps began the hasty construction of field breastworks in front of its first line of battle, and soon had them capable of offering formidable resistance. The face of the country, and character of the growing timber, was found to be the most unfavorable imaginable for offensive operations. The roads were very narrow and tortuous; bounded on both sides with a dense growth of young pine, chinkapin and scrubby oak that rendered the forests in many places almost impenetrable. The pines were low-limbed and scraggy, and the chinkapins the stiffest and bristliest of their species. An advance in line of battle was nearly impossible. Artillery could not be brought into action at all. A few places on the road where there was a small break in the timber were the only places possible for planting batteries. Over three hundred of our cannon lay idle during the whole of this day’s fighting.
The position was admirable for defense, and was selected by Lee instantly on learning that Grant had outmaneuvered him, and gained a crossing of the river without a battle. Many of the ravines were deep and impassable, but a majority of them were not so precipitous but what infantry could cross. The main obstacles the Union troops had to contend against were the thick growth of scrubby timber and the undergrowth of hazelbrush. These prevented the proper handling and alignment of our men, and concealed the enemy’s presence, and the disposition of his forces.
[Cadwallader’s account of the bloody but indecisive Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864, adds nothing to what is known about it, except that he questions Grant’s statement that by the 7th Lee had withdrawn within his entrenchments and that nothing but skirmishing took place on that date.]