May 7, 1864: And Keep Moving On

grant may 7 contemporaryThe battle of the Wilderness did not renew in earnest on May 7. Neither Grant nor Lee chose to attack: each waited to see what the other one would do next. However, Grant had already hinted at what he would do next on May 6 when he ordered all but one of the pontoon bridges spanning the Rapidan to be taken up. Nothing that happened the rest of the day changed his mind.

What Grant intended to do was something of a mystery to his soldiers. As dusk came, orders started going out detailing the next move. Four infantry corps would pull back in sequence from their positions during the evening and march along the network of turnpikes leading away from the battlefield.

Given what had happened on May 5 and 6, few if any soldiers wanted to continue fighting in the Wilderness. However, the order to commence marching led to curiosity, confusion, and some depression. Where, exactly, would they go next? Was this another retreat? Had Lee won yet another battle along the river? Was the advent of a new commander simply the same song, different verse?

Account after account recalls that most of the men thought they had been bested again. They anticipated being told that at the road junctions, they would turn to the left and march northward, back across the Rapidan. But when they came to those junctions, they turned right. They were going south. They were advancing.

And then the men saw Grant riding southward with Meade and their staffs.

Grant May 7 modernThese men had not cheered Grant when they passed in review before him in April. Rather, they had taken their measure of him. They knew what people had said about him, but they had been down that road before. Now they were going down a new road, and they could now measure Grant not by what people said, but by what he did.

They cheered.

As the story goes, Grant told the men to stop cheering, lest they reveal the movement going on. However, one suspects that deep inside, he appreciated what had happened.

Things would never be the same again in Virginia … and all roads led to Appomattox now.

3 thoughts on “May 7, 1864: And Keep Moving On

  1. John Foskett May 10, 2014 / 8:30 am

    It’s easy in hindsight to see “turning points”. I’ve always thought this was one occasion when the participants saw it as it took place. There would be hard, bloody times ahead and times of doubt but this decision by Grant calls to mind Churchill’s (?) description of Midway. From this point forward the vise was on Lee and would never be released. The Grant-like aspect of this is that the decision seems to have simply been assumed by him to be the only course. Similar to the expression of his attitude during the Vicksburg campaign about at last being across the river and on the same side as the enemy. I’m no fan of Shelby Foote and I found his cameos in Burns’s series to be a bit of a parody but I did like the description of Grant – “he was something”.

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