May 6, 1864: Lee to the Rear

On the morning of May 6, 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps launched a massive assault against A. P. Hill’s Third Corps along the Orange Plank Road. Ulysses S. Grant hoped the assault would damage the Confederates so severely that the arrival of James Longstreet’s First Corps would make no difference.

It didn’t quite work. One of the reasons was the appearance of Robert E. Lee at the Widow Tapp farm, seeking to rally his men before directing the Texas Brigade into action.

This simple rendering stands in contrast to this recent portrayal by Don Trojani:

That Lee felt compelled to risk his own life (and to use his example to rally his men) suggests what a near-run thing it was after all. Then again, so was Longstreet’s counterattack, which, as Hancock later admitted, rolled up his corps like a wet blanket and drove it all the way back to the Brock Road … in part, as it turned out, due to Hancock’s own mistaken orders as well as to the slow arrival of Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps.

Again, however, fate stepped in in the form of friendly fire in the Wilderness–this time badly wounding Longstreet.

I believe that the swing of fortune here … from the Confederates teetering on the brink of defeat to having their best chance at victory snatched away by misfortune … offers a somewhat different view of the Wilderness as a simple slugfest in the undergrowth. Yes, it was a battle between two heavyweights, but each side had its moments, only none of them were enough.

Longstreet downMoreover, these events remind us of the importance of one man, one leader, at the most critical moment. Lee placed everything on the line at the Tapp House, and in risking all, nearly lost everything. Longstreet’s brilliant counterattack, utilizing the roadbed of an unfinished rail road to outflank the Yankees, proved almost as impressive as did his assaults at Second Manassas, July 2 at Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. In the end, however, he came up just short, due in some part to the volley that felled him … a volley, I would argue, that proved more disastrous for the Confederacy at the Wilderness than did the one that hit Stonewall Jackson the year before (in terms of the outcome at Chancellorsville).

UPDATE: Someone agrees with me.


7 thoughts on “May 6, 1864: Lee to the Rear

  1. jfepperson May 6, 2014 / 4:36 am

    Burnside’s arrival wasn’t “slow,” it was virtually non-existant 😦

  2. John Foskett May 6, 2014 / 7:10 am

    Good analysis. The comparison of Longstreet’s counterattack with what he did at Chinn Ridge is one I had not thought much about. It may indeed be the more impressive (despite falling short in the end). Chinn Ridge was a bit of a “gimme”, thanks to Pope and McDowell denuding the Union left. The terrain was much more favorable to a sweeping assault. And, despite those advantages, the attack at 2BR was beset by command shortcomings at the division level. I’d add that for similar reasons the counter attack in the Wilderness may be more impressive than what Old Pete achieved in northern Georgia on a day in September, 1863, where again the Yankees did their best to gift wrap things. Of course, having to perform these little tricks in the Wilderness added to the difficulty. In both instances (May 2, 1863 and May 6, 1864) the terrain undoubtedly contributed to “friendly fire” incidents which had greater long-term impacts than the temporary success which was achieved.

    Otherwise, and at the risk of anticipating an upcoming post, I find that following might also apply to a man who had a decision to make after the sun finally set on a near thing on May 6, 1864:

    “Moreover, these events remind us of the importance of one man, one leader, at the most critical moment.”.

  3. Christopher Shelley May 6, 2014 / 8:35 am

    It also makes me realize that the comparisons between Lee and Grant rarely take into account the fact that Lee was commanding a military machine that he had honed over time, while Grant took overall command of a vast-but-unwieldy clumsy collection of corps. Perhaps that’s just the way it is when you try and coordinate the movement 120,000 men thru a tangled web of second-growth woods with bad roads and worse maps. But I come away more convinced than ever that if Grant had had his western armies, with his western generals, this campaign turns out much differently.

    • jfepperson May 6, 2014 / 10:44 am

      I think a lot can be blamed on the consolidation from five corps to three huge corps, which made the command structure very unwieldy. Also, the AotP had more confidence in Lee than their own leadership—that didn’t help matters.

  4. jfepperson May 6, 2014 / 8:53 am

    IIRC, the attack was originally supposed to step off at 4:30, but Meade talked Grant into a delay that might well have been important in saving Lee from a disaster

    • Stephen Terry May 6, 2014 / 2:00 pm

      That’s true. Meade felt that Burnside would not be in position by 4:30 so he asked for a delay to increase the chance Burnside would make it. It turned out no delay was going to be enough for Burnside.

  5. Nancy Winkler May 6, 2014 / 10:47 am

    Meade did not have the instincts that Grant had. He’s also to blame for Cold Harbor, IMO. It was Grant who called off the assault there.

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