May 5, 1864: First Contact

146 ny 050564On the morning of May 5, 1864, General Charles Griffin’s division made its way westward along the Orange Turnpike. Its mission was to feel out the location of Confederates who were reportedly advancing eastward to intercept the Union advance that only the previous day had commenced crossing the Rapidan River.Overland_Campaign_May4Hearing of the approach of the Confederates on May 5, Grant decided to pitch into them. Once more he started writing dispatches, an activity portrayed in an illustration that appeared in Horace Porter’s Campaigning With Grant (1897): Grant Wilderness Porter Grant would smoke many cigars during the next two days.

Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade received Grant’s directive to pitch into Lee’s army, and Meade proceeded to issue orders to do just that. Fifth Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren, the hero of Little Round Top (sorry, Joshua) was to  advance west along the turnpike, find the enemy, and attack him. He assigned that task to Griffin, who was none to happy about the assignment. Nevertheless, Griffin complied, and sent his men forward.

Romeyn Ayres’s brigade led the way. It included the four regiments that had been part of Stephen Weed’s brigade on July 2, 1863, when those men had assisted in the defense of Little Round Top, including James L. Denton’s 146th New York. Although Denton’s regiment had been the only one in that brigade to go into battle wearing Zouave uniforms, by the spring of 1864 the other three regiments had followed suit. Alongside this colorful group were portions of several regiments of United States Regulars who has also seen action at Gettysburg at Plum Run and the Wheatfield (their monuments today can be found at “the Loop” in the woods and clearing at the east end of the Wheatfield).

At that battle Ayres commanded a division: now he had to rest content with leading a brigade, although he had commanded these regiments at Gettysburg. It fell to him to make initial contact with the advancing Confederates belonging to Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps in a clearing known as Saunders Field. It would be left to the New Yorkers of the 140th to spearhead the first of what would prove to be many attacks over the next eleven months in the clash of titans, Grant and Lee; the 146th New York and two Pennsylvania regiments, the 91st and 155th, followed close behind. They did not fare well. Ayres’s men advanced across Saunders Field, hitting a Confederate position enhanced by hurriedly-dug field fortifications. They soon found themselves flanked by Confederate reinforcements. Lacking support, they retreated in some disorder, with many men falling prisoner. To the south, a second brigade, which included the four regiments that had defended Little Round Top under Strong Vincent, also retreated. Other Fifth Corps advances met with a similar fate.

As battle broke out at Saunders Field, Grant, Meade, and their staffs made their way over to Warren’s headquarters at Ellwood, a house just south of the turnpike. Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm had supposedly been buried on the house’s ground just a year before. One can see men from the 140th and 146th New York in this recent painting of this encounter between Grant and Warren, the first of many such encounters that ultimately would not end well for the Fifth Corps commander. Griffin hurried back to Ellwood, where he exploded at Warren about having to make such a flawed assault. Watching this, Grant, who thought Griffin’s name was Gregg, thought such an insubordinate general ought to be arrested: Meade reached over, buttoned Grant’s uniform coat, and replied: “It’s Griffin, not Gregg, and it’s only his way of talking.”

I made my first visit to Saunders Field some forty years ago when my father took me on a long trip that combined visits to colleges with visits to battlefields. As he waited by the park shelter, I walked westward across the fields where my ancestor’s regiment had marched and into the woods where the Confederates had waited. Before long I found myself in a dense thicket of trees and brush, in an area that was poorly marked, and I had little idea where I was … until I came across Confederate fortifications, which I followed south until I emerged from the woods north of Route 20 (the present-day Orange Turnpike). I was sure glad to be out of the wilderness.

I’ve returned to Saunders Field multiple times, most recently with my daughter Becca last month. Next to Little Round Top, it is my most favorite battlefield spot, for it was in this area, with my ancestor’s regiment in the thick of the fray, that the last year of the Civil War began.

2 thoughts on “May 5, 1864: First Contact

  1. John Foskett May 5, 2014 / 7:28 am

    Good stuff, as always. Saunders Field is interesting because its configuration is completely different from the image we have of the battle being fought in second-growth, formation-wrecking understory. Much of it was, of course, but the field is a different environment. And yet again Private Denton and Private Isaac Foskett of the U.S. Engineers cross paths (sort of). The next day the engineers were issued 20 rounds and shoved into the front line to meet Longstreet’s attack. Not sure I’d want them handling Springfields instead of shovels, but “any port in a storm”, I suppose.🙂

  2. Pat Young May 5, 2014 / 11:47 am

    This is a great series of posts.

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