Turning Right

It was the night of May 7, 1864. For many soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, it had been a relatively quiet day, a welcome change from the two days of bloody combat in the Wilderness, a battlefield that had been transformed from thickets and undergrowth into a blazing inferno that brought hell to earth, consuming the wounded as they screamed in agony, with the pop-pop-pop of ammunition exploding as the fires advanced across the forest floor.

It had been one year and a day since this army had withdrawn after battling just miles to the east. There was no reason to believe that this time would be different. Oh, sure, the Army of the Potomac could hold their own against Bobby Lee’s boys north of their namesake river, but in Virginia it seemed that the story was always the same: march forth with confidence, then retreat in sadness in the aftermath of battle. If the past several days had not quite been Fredericksburg with its futile assaults or Chancellorsville with its dazzling blows, still, the seesaw in the Wilderness had had its moments of near-disaster as well as near-success. It seemed as if nothing had changed. The new man in charge might not be Burnside (who was still here) or Hooker (who had taken his boastfulness to Georgia), but it was hard to figure who he might be, or whether his record in the West meant anything now that he was facing none other than the great Bobby Lee. It had been a game of wait and see, and as the orders came to form column and prepare to march once more, it looked as if everyone would see soon enough.

And so as the dark came the men set forth once more.  Sure enough, it seemed all too familiar.  Nothing had changed.  They would pull out, march away, and withing a few hours be back on the north side of the Rapidan and Rappahannock.  Such was what they expected as they made their way to the rear, headed for those junctions where they would turn left and go back whence they came.

Then, as they approached the crossroads, the word came back, excitedly passed through the ranks from man to man. They weren’t turning left. They were turning right. They were moving south. They were headed toward Richmond.

In the days, weeks, and months to come there would be much more fighting, much more death and horror, much more frustration. But it would never be the same again. And, eleven months and two days later, the men would find that the road upon which they now marched eventually led to a place far, far away, a place called Appomattox Court House.

And they knew it was all because of the man with the cigar, the man who told his boss there would be no turning back, the man who was determined to keep moving on.

8 thoughts on “Turning Right

  1. Ray O'Hara May 7, 2011 / 8:44 pm

    The first time I visited the area the intersection was the meeting of 619 and 621, but someone smarter than the average bear realized that giving it back its correct name might be a smart move and next time I went the signs said Orange Plank and Brock Road. I always felt there should be some sort of monument there, something that states “on this spot the United States was saved”

    It is the most misunderstood battle of the war, there is the Shelby Foote version of the AoP having “both flanks turned” ignoring that if the AoP had its left turned how was it able to move to its left when heading to Spotsylvania. I recently saw a youtube video that gave Union losses as 24,000, every year more Yankees die it seems.

  2. MarkD May 8, 2011 / 1:19 am

    I have that Forbes’ sketch of Grant and the troops hanging on my wall. I agree with Ray that this was the day and place the country was saved.

    Given that this almost certainly had to be the final campaign, that the South only had to hang on and not lose, that by this time everyone knew the North had to follow it to the bitter end to win it on their terms, May 7th was it. This was the day the questions surrounding the new commander and Northern resolve were answered.

  3. MarkD May 8, 2011 / 1:22 am

    By the way, was there a name for that crossroads at the time? How far is it from Chancellorsville?

    • Ray O'Hara May 8, 2011 / 8:24 am

      I’ve never heard any name other than the names of the roads. and it is the focal point of both battles.

  4. John Foskett May 8, 2011 / 9:28 am

    Those who criticize Grant’s conduct of the Overland Campaign always seem to miss the indisputable fact that after the Wilderness, after Spotsylvania, after North Anna, and after Cold Harbor Grant doggedly turned south and the ANV, while retaining its interior lines, had to keep pace. As messy and bloody as the process was, a weakened ANV ended up in trenches around Petersburg. The war in Virginia was over in a military sense and at that point the northern populous need only keep its will. May 7 should have been seen as the definitive signal that this would be the eventual result.

  5. TF Smith May 8, 2011 / 10:51 am

    I’m trying to think of a similar “end of the beginning/beginning of the end” point in WW II land warfare, and El Alamein for the British and Stalingrad for the Soviets come to mind.

    Interesting that the US didn’t really have such an event in the ETO; after TORCH, the AUS just kept moving on; legacy of the civil war?

    Buna-Gona comes as close as possible in the Pacific, I suppose.

  6. Ray O'Hara May 8, 2011 / 11:48 am

    Well we did avoid being in the war during the years the Axis was winning so that would eliminate any major turning point like the type you suggested. in Europe there were two turning points, Stalingrad, after which the Germans were no longer winning and Kursk after which the Germans were losing.

    It’s the same for the PAC, after Midway Japan was no longer winning and after Gudalcanal they were clearly losing.

  7. TF Smith May 8, 2011 / 6:24 pm

    Roy – That’s a fair point, but it also grants something of a pass to the Western Allies in 1942 and afterward; certianly there was a chance the Axis could have forced a stalemate, at least in the Med, absent some solid decision-making by the CCS…as it was, SHINGLE came close.

    I agree with you re Midway and Guadalcanal, but the differences inherent in a naval campaign make it a little different, hence my thought re Buna-Gona.


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