On the evening of May 6, 1864, a Confederate attack on the Union right flank achieved early success … enough to revive memories of Chancellorsville in the minds of some Union officers. Horace Porter described what happened next at Grant’s headquarters:
Just then the stillness was broken by heavy volleys of musketry on our extreme right, which told that Sedgwick had been assaulted, and was actually engaged with the enemy. The attack against which the general-in-chief during the day had ordered every precaution to be taken had now been made. Meade was at Grant’s headquarters at the time. They had just left the top of the knoll, and were standing in front of General Grant’s tent talking to Mr. Washburne. Staff-officers and couriers were soon seen galloping up to Meade’s headquarters, and his chief of staff. General Humphreys, sent word that the attack was directed against our extreme right, and that a part of Sedgwick’s line had been driven back in some confusion. Generals Grant and Meade, accompanied by me and one or two other staff-officers, walked rapidly over to Meade’s tent, and found that the reports still coming in were bringing news of increasing disaster. It was soon reported that General Shaler and part of his brigade had been captured; then that General Seymour and several hundred of his men had fallen into the hands of the enemy; afterward that our right had been turned, and Ferrero’s division cut off and forced back upon the Rapidan. General Humphreys, on receiving the first reports, had given prompt instructions with a view to strengthening the point of the line attacked. General Grant now took the matter in hand with his accustomed vigor. Darkness had set in, but the firing still continued. Aides came galloping in from the right, laboring under intense excitement, talking wildly, and giving the most exaggerated reports of the engagement. Some declared that a large force had broken and scattered Sedgwick’s entire corps. Others insisted that the enemy had turned our right completely, and captured the wagon-train. It was asserted at one time that both Sedgwick and Wright had been captured. Such tales of disaster would have been enough to inspire serious apprehension in daylight and under ordinary circumstances. In the darkness of the night, in the gloom of a tangled forest, and after men’s nerves had been racked by the strain of a two days’ desperate battle, the most immovable commander might have been shaken. But it was in just such sudden emergencies that General Grant was always at his best. Without the change of a muscle of his face, or the slightest alteration in the tones of his voice, he quietly interrogated the officers who brought the reports; then, sifting out the truth from the mass of exaggerations, he gave directions for relieving the situation with the marvelous rapidity which was always characteristic of him when directing movements in the face of an enemy. Reinforcements were hurried to the point attacked, and preparations made for Sedgwick’s corps to take up a new line, with the front and right thrown back. General Grant soon walked over to his own camp, seated himself on a stool in front of his tent, lighted a fresh cigar, and there continued to receive further advices from the right.
A general officer came in from his command at this juncture, and said to the general-in-chief, speaking rapidly and laboring under considerable excitement: “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” The general rose to his feet, took his cigar out of his mouth, turned to the officer, and replied, with a degree of animation which he seldom manifested: “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” The officer retired rather crestfallen, and without saying a word in reply. This recalls a very pertinent criticism regarding his chief once made in my presence by General Sherman. He said: “Grant always seemed pretty certain to win when he went into a fight with anything like equal numbers. I believe the chief reason why he was more successful than others was that while they were thinking so much about what the enemy was going to do, Grant was thinking all the time about what he was going to do himself.”
Hancock came to headquarters about 8 p. m., and had a conference with the general-in-chief and General Meade. He had had a very busy day on his front, and while he was cheery, and showed that there was still plenty of fight left in him, he manifested signs of fatigue after his exhausting labors. General Grant, in offering him a cigar, found that only one was left in his pocket. Deducting the number he had given away from the supply he had started out with in the morning showed that he had smoked that day about twenty, all very strong and of formidable size. But it must be remembered that it was a particularly long day. He never afterward equaled that record in the use of tobacco.
The general, after having given his final orders providing for any emergency which might arise, entered his tent, and threw himself down upon his camp-bed. Ten minutes thereafter an alarming report was received from the right. I looked in his tent, and found him sleeping as soundly and as peacefully as an infant. I waked him, and communicated the report. His military instincts convinced him that it was a gross exaggeration, and as he had already made every provision for meeting any renewed attempts against the right, he turned over in his bed, and immediately went to sleep again.
Much has been made of this passage, including accounts that later claimed that Grant broke down and wept in his tent. Each account was framed in such a way as to tell the reader something about how the author wanted us to view Grant (complete with various interpretations of what, if anything, happened in the tent).
I don’t happen to believe that Grant was in any way intimidated by Robert E. Lee, although he gained a new respect for his foe’s generalship in May 1864. However, I do believe that he found the Army of the Potomac (as well as Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps) a difficult army to command, let alone master. This was most clearly manifested in the exchange with the staff officer: Grant wanted to remind him that Lee no longer commanded both armies, as indeed he did in the minds of some people. Indeed, Lee had never commanded both armies, but at times it seemed that he did so when he seized the initiative, especially when it came to launching counterattacks. Gettysburg had marked a transition in this regard: Meade had proven a superior field commander to his predecessors when it came to reacting in a moment of crisis. The Wilderness would also mark a transition to a new way of war, although that would not be evident until the evening of May 7.