The 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.
These 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.
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.