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In The Wilderness

June 2018

A campfire meeting restores Cadwallader’s wavering faith in Grant’s military genius

[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.]

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.

So much has been said and written of the widespread desolation the war caused in Virginia, that it may not be out of place to state some facts which came under my observation. From Spotsylvania to North Anna we marched through a section of country abounding in large farms, with elegant residences and commodious outbuildings. Many of these plantations were under a high state of cultivation. The soil was rather light and sandy in the lowlands along the watercourses, and seemed nearly worthless on the ridges and highlands that intervened. Yet even the latter were sown and planted, and promised to yield a handsome reward for the labor. Fields of waving grain, stretched away from the roads for miles. Wheat stood thin on the ground, but was well advanced for the season. But little rye, oats or clover was seen, but a large acreage of corn was planted. The fencing was better than expected. Every farmhouse had an extensive kitchen garden well filled with growing esculents, and the people in general did not have the starved and destitute appearance of those in parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia where I had previously campaigned. Ice houses and ice plentiful. Old corn fodder at every house not on some main road. Livestock and poultry were abundant, the scarcity of mules and horses only being apparent. The finest natural leaf Virginia tobacco abounded, and our soldiers no longer had to pay two dollars a plug for it. Each had his pockets and pouches crammed with it, and hundreds had bundles of it dangling to their muskets as they trudged along.

[Swinging southward across the Pamunkey River, Grant found Lee strongly posted at Cold Harbor. On June 3, he hurled his army forward in one of the most desperate assaults of the war, and within a few hours had lost 10,000 men. A lull in the fighting followed.]

Taking advantage of a few days of foreseen inaction after our last assault on Cold Harbor I made a hurried trip to Washington and back by steamer. During my absence a circumstance transpired that caused considerable comment. It seems that Mr. Edward Crapsey, correspondent of the Philadelphia Inquirer , made some remarks about Gen. Meade in his published accounts about the battle of the wilderness, to which Meade, and staff, took great exceptions. I cannot give the exact language, but its substance was, that at the end of the second day’s fighting there, Gen. Meade was in favor of withdrawing the Union army back to the north bank of the Rapidan; and that this would have been done, had Meade been in supreme control, instead of Grant.

[On June 7, when Meade learned that Crapsey had rejoined the army after an absence in the North, he ordered that the correspondent be arrested, marched through the camp wearing a placard marked “Libeller of the Press,” and then put outside the army lines and forbidden to return.]

Perhaps nothing in this campaign was so pleasing and so gratifying to the whole nature of the man, as the execution of this order was to the brutal, tyrannical nature of Marsena R. Patrick, Provost Marshal-General. That the order was executed far beyond its letter need not be said to those who knew this “Squeers” of the military profession. To its letter was added every indignity and insult, which Patrick could devise. Crapsey was mounted and tied on the sorriest looking mule to be found, with his face to the mule’s tail; when preceded by a drum corps beating the “Rogues March,” he was literally paraded for hours through the ranks of the army. . . . Previous to this Patrick caused Gen. Meade’s order to be read to every regiment he could reach, and the affair was treated with as much importance as if it had been the announcement of the collapse of the rebellion.

The consequences of Meade’s act extended farther than he expected. Every newspaper correspondent in the Army of the Potomac, and in Washington City, had first an implied, and afterward an expressed understanding, to ignore Gen. Meade in every possible way and manner. The publishers shared their feelings to a considerable extent, and it was soon noticed that Gen. Meade’s name never appeared in any army correspondence if it could be omitted. If he issued an official or general order of such importance as to require publication, it would be printed without signature, prefaced with the remark: “The following order has just been issued,” &c. From that time till the next spring, Gen. Meade was quite as much unknown, by any correspondence from the army, as any dead hero of antiquity.

He was not slow to observe this, and first treated the neglect contemptuously. But at length it became irritating—then serious, but irremediable. The dignity of a major-general forbade complaints, and his individual pride prevented any acknowledgements. But some of his staff, who must rise or fall with their chief in public estimation, made some overtures towards a reconciliation. But nothing was accomplished. I had protested—mildly—against this conspiracy, for it was a conspiracy, on the ground that the position was entitled to more respect, if the man was not. I finally wrote privately to the Herald , recalling and recounting all the facts, and stating that I thought it had been carried far enough. Mr. Hudson replied, saying that he felt as I did, and hoped I would treat Gen. Meade with the consideration his military services and present position deserved. This was during the winter of 1864-5, and circumstances soon enabled me to “abandon the blockade” against him, without solicitation from myself, or any friend of his.