When Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine Infantry awoke to a perfect morning on Sunday, May 1, 1864, he never imagined that he and his friends would not see such a day again.
Ulysses Simpson Grant believed that shoving the Army of the Potomac through a godless central Virginia forest that spring would bring Robert Edward Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia out of its camps to fight on Federal terms.
Grant got it right about Lee coming out to fight, but on his terms, not Grant’s.
Like so other Union soldiers in their scattered Virginia camps, the 20th Maine boys spoiled for a fight. “Our men were anxious for the campaign to open, hoping it would be the last one of the war,” Gerrish explained the enthusiasm.
Earned at Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, Grant’s reputation as a winner preceded him; “we had great faith in his ability, and rejoiced to know that he was to lead us to battle,” Gerrish said.
Grant’s “presence gave the men such an inspiration that their enthusiasm was almost irresistible,” he recalled.
“Thoroughly reorganized and consolidated,” the army “was in good condition, healthy, well fed, and full of enthusiasm,” Gerrish described the Army of the Potomac’s fading golden age.
Never again would these soldiers enjoy decent health and full tummies as they did on Saturday, April 30, 1864.
And never again would the Army of the Potomac experience as fine a day as Sunday, May 1, 1864.
The 20th Maine broke camp at Rappahannock Station on that “beautiful morning; summer was blushing in its new-born beauty,” Gerrish recalled. “The sun shone warm and bright from the soft blue sky, the air was warm and balmy; the birds were singing their sweetest songs; and all nature smiled in peace and loveliness.”
Amidst “all that was peaceful and joyous,” Gerrish noticed the noisy martial preparations. The “bands were playing warlike music,” and “the shrill, keen notes of the bugles were ringing out over the hillsides and down through the meadows.”
Flags waving in the late spring breeze, regiments assembled in “the ranks of war.” Men cheered “as the general officers rode along the lines,” Gerrish remembered.
Assigned to the Fifth Corps commanded by Gen. Gouverneur Warren and the 1st Division led by Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin, the 20th Maine belonged to the 3rd Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Jackson Bartlett of New York. Historically obscure, he would ultimately take his brigade and the 1st Division to Appomattox Court House.
Bartlett’s brigade included the 20th Maine, the 1st Michigan Infantry, the 16th Michigan Infantry, the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, the 44th New York Infantry, the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, and the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry (dubbed the “Corn Exchange Regiment”). Ostensibly a colonel should command each regiment; majors Ellis Spear and Robert Elliott commanded the 20th Maine and 16th Michigan respectively as the 1st Division “crossed the [Rappahannock] river on pontoon bridges at Rappahannock station and marched to a camping ground east of Brandy station” that most excellent Sunday, Gerrish recalled.
Warren assembled his Fifth Corps and took it to war on Wednesday, May 4. Walking break step on pontoon bridges, the Union boys left the splendid spring behind them; “we crossed the Rapidan river, a dark, swift-rolling stream of water, and entered a huge, dense forest of pine trees,” Gerrish noticed.
The rested, well-fed, and confident Army of the Potomac had entered the Wilderness, so-called because secondary growth choked the woodlands logged over many years earlier. The thick growth — scrub trees, vines, just about every plant that grows wild in central Virginia — severely limited the line of sight for soldiers accustomed to fighting on open terrain.
Grant intended for his army to cross the Wilderness in one day and deploy onto the more favorable countryside to the south. The thrust would “turn” the Army of Northern Virginia’s right flank and force Robert E. Lee to fight where the Federals could hammer him.
Ordered to form Grant’s right flank, Warren directed the Fifth Corps west to camp “on the Orange and Fredericksburgh turnpike (Orange Turnpike), near the Old Wilderness Tavern,” Gerrish recalled.
The 20th Maine’s veterans “understood that we must be near the rebel army, but not an enemy had been seen, and not a gun had been fired,” he noticed. Union officers deployed pickets southwest along the Orange Turnpike, “the sun sank from view, and the weary soldiers lay down upon the ground to rest.
“The tall dark pines bowed and waved their heavy plumes in the evening breeze, and all was quiet,” Gerrish recalled.
But the veterans knew better on this last night of peace in spring 1864. “In nature we observe that a peaceful calm often precedes the most fearful storm,” Gerrish noted.
The storm was about to break on the Fifth Corps; in another 24 hours, the splendid Army of the Potomac that crossed the Rapidan River on May 4 and then bogged down in the sinister Wilderness would no longer exist.
Next week: The Wilderness, Part II — “The air was filled with lead”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.