- Historic Sites
In The Wilderness
A campfire meeting restores Cadwallader’s wavering faith in Grant’s military genius
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
The Union losses at the Wilderness could not have been less than fifteen thousand, and probably readied twenty thousand. I have no official records at hand and base this estimate on recollection, and on the fact that at noon of Saturday, May 7th, I had transcripts from the books of all field hospitals to that date, giving the name, state, regiment and rank of every wounded man received. The number of these was between eight and nine thousand. The killed, the slightly wounded, the dead and the prisoners, would almost certainly be that many more. The Confederate loss probably did not exceed one-half of ours. We often fought, knowing our losses were two or three to one; but had to wage the battle on Lee’s terms, or leave the field.
After everyone at headquarters had retired for the second time, to get some rest and sleep if possible before daylight, I sat down by a smouldering fire in front of Grant’s tent, and found myself distressingly wideawake. Unpleasant thoughts ran riot through my mind. We had waged two days of murderous battle, and had but little to show for it. Judged by comparative losses, it had been disastrous to the Union cause. We had been compelled by Gen. Lee to fight him on a field of his own choosing, with the certainty of losing at least two men to his one, until he could be dislodged and driven from his vantage ground. We had scarcely gained a rod of the battlefield at the close of a two days’ contest. And now had come the crowning stroke of rebel audacity in furiously storming the center of our line, and achieving temporary success.
For minutes that seemed hours, for the first and only time, during my intimate and confidential relations with Gen. Grant, I began to question the grounds of my faith in him, so long entertained, and so unqualifiedly expressed. Could it be possible that that I had followed Gen. Grant through the Tallahatchie Expedition; the operations against Vicksburg; the campaign at Chattanooga; and finally to the dark and tangled thickets of the Wilderness; to record his defeat and overthrow, as had been recorded of every commander of the Army of the Potomac? But my faith in the man rose superior to all these calamitous surroundings, and I still believed in his transcendent military genius, despite this momentary weakness of fear and unbelief.
About the time I had arrived at this comforting conclusion, I happened to look obliquely to the right, and there sat Gen. Grant in an army chair on the other side of the slowly dying embers. His hat was drawn down over his face, the high collar of an old blue army overcoat turned up above his ears, one leg crossed over the other knee, eyes on the ashes in front, causing me to think him half asleep. My gloomy thoughts of but a few minutes were instantly chased away by my study of the figure before me. His nervous changing of one leg over the other showed he was not asleep. His whole attitude showed him to be in a brown study.
In a short time, however, he straightened up in the chair and finding that I was not asleep, commenced a pleasant chatty conversation upon indifferent subjects. Neither of us alluded to what was uppermost in our mind for more than a half hour. I then remarked that if we were to get any sleep that night, it was time we were in our tents; and that it was a duty in his case to get all the rest he could. He smilingly assented, spoke of the sharp work Gen. Lee had been giving us for a couple of days, and entered his tent. It was the grandest mental sunburst of my life. I had suddenly emerged from the slough of despond, to the solid bed-rock of unwavering faith.
Of the marching and fighting from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania I shall attempt no detailed information, as I was not present. It is well known, however, that Grant’s order to Meade on the morning of May 6th, was carried out to the letter. The different corps moved by the routes specifically named in the order, and met no serious impediment till they had passed the line of Todd’s Tavern, where they emerged from the Wilderness and entered the open country between there and Spotsylvania. Gen. Lee had fallen back precipitately to the cover of the strong earthworks and abatis previously constructed, only leaving sufficient cavalry and infantry outside to harass and obstruct our advance.
By the morning of the 9th, the place was invested on the north and west, and a deadly struggle commenced.
I was not on the ground till Friday, May 13, too late to witness the operations of that day. But I soon learned at headquarters that the glorious news of Union successes on the 12th was not overestimated.
Grant decided at the end of the second day of battle at Spotsylvania that it could not be taken by assault, or regular approaches, without a loss of life far beyond its value. Lee’s army was his objective point, and he knew that this wary general would withdraw in time to save the bulk of his forces. He decided to flank him out of his defenses, instead of fighting against such odds, by moving on Richmond. But the lack of supplies, and the terrible condition of roads, delayed this, for several days. The rain finally ceased, the sun shone out, the mud began to dry, and orders were given for another start.