150 Years Ago This Week: The world is on fire

May 1864

As of the middle of May 1864, there was fighting on all fronts of the Confederacy. In Virginia, the armies of Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant were engaged in some of the most savage fighting of the war in and around Spotsylvania Courthouse.

On the peninsula southeast of Richmond, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James was moving toward the Confederate capital, fighting all the way. In southwest Virginia, around Blacksburg, Federal cavalry threatened the important railroads in the region, and the important salt industry.

In Georgia, Maj. Gen. William Sherman marched his armies toward the important railroad center at Atlanta. Heading to Georgia and fighting along the way from Mississippi was Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s corps of Confederate infantry and artillery.

The week saw the savage day-long battles of the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania, where the fighting was so intense that Confederate troops could not stand up to reload and fire at their foe. Instead, they had to lay down and have reloaded rifles passed up from the rear while the discharged weapons were passed to the rear for reloading.

The battles at Spotsylvania lasted from May 8-21. Casualties on both sides were enormous. In the Shenandoah Valley, a Federal initiative to control the entire area came to a halt at New Market on May 15, when Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s troops encountered Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge’s Confederates determined to clear the Valley of the Union presence.

Augmented by 247 cadets from Virginia Military Institute in Lexington — who marched the 80 miles to the battleground — the Confederates soundly defeated the Union troops after a blinding thunderstorm broke in the afternoon, turning part of the battleground into a muddy quagmire. Of the roughly 5,500 Union troops, Gen. Sigel sustained more than 800 casualties. Gen. Breckinridge’s 5,000 troops had casualties numbering almost 600, including 10 VMI cadets killed and 47 wounded. The heroism of the VMI cadets has made the battle at New Market a legend.

In Georgia, Gen. Sherman’s men and Gen. Johnston’s troops, now reinforced by Gen. Polk’s corps, fought a savage two-day battle at Resaca. Though the Federals could not dislodge the Confederates, Gen. Johnston was concerned about having his position, with its back against the Oostenaula River, flanked by Union troops. His men burned the river bridge and headed to better defensive positions at Calhoun and Adairsville.

Below Richmond on the peninsula, Gen. Butler’s army attacked Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff on May 16 in an attempt to dislodge the Confederates commanded by Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who had been brought north from Charleston, S.C. In a heavy rainstorm, the Confederates proved to be too much and Gen. Butler withdrew his Union troops back to Bermuda Hundred.

Had he pressed his advantage only a little more, the ineffective Gen. Butler could have taken Fort Darling, which might have spelled the end for both Richmond and Petersburg, and also of Gen. Lee’s entire army, had the Army of the James linked with the Army of the Potomac at Spotsylvania.

Gen. Beauregard moved his troops into position to keep Gen. Butler from advancing again on the Confederate capital, and the Union commander found himself pinned between the James River on the north and the Appomattox River on the south. The Richmond newspapers, believing Gen. Butler’s position to “being corked in a bottle” at Bermuda Hundred, rejoiced in the news that a serious threat to the capital had been stopped.

On May 19, newspapers reported that 60-year-old Nathaniel Hawthorne had died in his sleep at his home in Plymouth, N.H. One of the great New England school of writers, Hawthorne was recognized as a classic American author. At the same time, the U.S. Congress passed measures setting up what became the system of postal money orders.

By May 21, the bloody fighting at Spotsylvania Courthouse was over, and the casualties were staggering. The Northern press was calling Gen. Grant a butcher. At this point, seriously concerned about the safety of the Confederate capital, President Jefferson Davis warned Gen. Lee not to expose himself to enemy fire: “The country could not bear of the loss of you.”

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.