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At Ease: Just Before the Overland Campaign

Before The Battles Began


We're just days away from the anniversaries of the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Overland Campaign. Today, you'll find extra details about the army commanders and common soldiers getting ready for the march and upcoming battles.


Ready for the March?

In this new video, you'll find an account of a Confederate soldier getting ready for campaigning in 1864:


Before The Overland Campaign Started

On May 2, 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee peered through his field glasses from the peak of Clark’s Mountain. The terrain of several counties stretched in front of him: Orange, Culpeper, and Spotsylvania. From the natural promontory, Lee and his officers spied on the Federal Army. For the winter of 1863-1864, the Union Army of the Potomac had camped around Brandy Station in Culpeper County while the Confederate Army of Northern had settled around the county and community of Orange. But with the coming of spring weather and the promotion of a new lieutenant general named Ulysses S. Grant, Lee surmised that a campaign was about to begin. The bustling movements in Union camps hinted that something was afoot. But where would the movement target, and where would the troops crossing the rivers to plunge deeper into Central Virginia? Just one year earlier, Lee had sent Jackson on the famed Flank March during the Battle of Chancellorsville. That fight had ultimately resulted in a daring victory, but dividing the army multiple times had been risky and the high casualties for that military success had reduced the fighting numbers of the Army of Northern Virginia and they couldn’t refill their ranks by volunteers or draft. Now, as the fighting season started in Virginia in 1864, Lee had to make another risky decision. Could he correctly guess where the Union army would cross the Rapidan? In later years, Lee recalled: “Notwithstanding the demonstrations made against our front and left at the opening of the camping of 1864, I believed that General Grant would cross the Rapidan on our right, and resolved to attack him whenever he presented himself.” If he guessed wrong, Lee would have massed his army in the wrong place or send them marching in the opposite direction of the threat. If he guessed correctly that the Federals would cross the Rapidan at Germanna and/or Ely’s Ford, his army could be hurried into position to try to seize the advance. In the Confederate army’s position, cavalry and pickets should alert him to the actual movement, but he worried that his winter fortifications were too strong and that Meade and Grant would bypass the Mine Run lines and head further east, swinging around the Confederate right flank toward Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital. Even with his guess about the movement toward his right flank, Lee did not order troops toward the fords or into The Wilderness. Instead, he waited in the current position, feeling that he didn’t need to move west but not shifting troops east or north either. He trusted that when the time came, his generals and Providence would provide another victory. In one of the camps that Lee probably saw from the top of Clark’s Mountain, a young Union colonel readied his regiment. Orders from the generals indicated a movement happening soon, and Colonel William F. Bartlett hoped his men in the 57th Massachusetts were ready. In a letter dated May 3, 1864, Bartlett wrote: “My regiment is in no condition to take into action , but I must do the best I can. It will be a long and hard fight. God, I hope, will give us the victory. The chances I think are even. Grant, I fear, does not appreciate Lee's ability, nor the qualities of his army. Let us hope for the best…. Good-bye.” Two days later Bartlett and the 57th Massachusetts crossed the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford, marching in the IX Corps. They camped around Wilderness Crossroads. The soldiers in the Union army speculated and worried about Grant’s coming campaign. While General George Meade was still the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Grant had come east and would be going with the army into the Overland Campaign. The soldiers who had been battling Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia for the previous years had their doubts about Grant’s leadership. The events in the following days resulted in the Battle of The Wilderness, proving Lee had guessed right about the direction of the campaign’s opening movement. But the battle would also reveal the determination of the new lieutenant general on the Union side.


Parting Shot

Artillery crossing on the pontoon bridges at Germanna Ford on the Rapidan River in May 1864. The Overland Campaign begins...


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.

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