Chapter XXVI. A Duel to the Death

For nearly two months after Grant assumed command no important move was attempted by either the Union or the Confederate forces except in Mississippi. Both sides realized that a desperate struggle was impending and each needed all the time it could gain to prepare for the coming fray. Heavy reenforcements were hurried to Grant, until the Army of the Potomac under his immediate command included over 120,000 men; a hundred thousand more were assembled at Chattanooga in charge of Sherman; and two other forces of considerable size were formed to cooperate with Grant - one being entrusted to General Benjamin Butler and the other to General Franz Sigel.

To oppose this vast army Lee had less than 65,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia and the only other formidable Confederate force in the field was that commanded by General Joseph Johnston, who, with some 53,000 men, was stationed in Georgia guarding the cotton states and the far South. If these two armies could be captured or destroyed, all organized resistance to the Union would be at an end, and Grant, accordingly, determined to throw his entire weight upon them, sending Sherman against Johnston, Butler against the City of Richmond and Sigel against the rich Shenandoah Valley which supplied the Confederate armies with food, while he himself attacked Lee with an overwhelming force.

Never before had a Union general undertaken a campaign covering such a vast extent of country and never before had such a united effort been made to exhaust the armies and the resources of the South. With his own forces threatened by superior numbers Lee would not be able to reenforce Johnston with safety and, confronted by Sherman, Johnston would find it impossible to send assistance to Lee. This promised to bring the war to a speedy close, and the supporters of the Union redoubled their praises of the Lieutenant-General as they began to understand his plan. Indeed, the more he avoided publicity and applause and the more indifference he showed for popular opinion, the more the newspapers and the general public fawned upon him, and when, on May 3, 1864, he ordered his armies to advance, the whole North was fairly aflame with enthusiasm.

It was certainly a momentous occasion. Three years earlier Grant had been utterly unknown to the country at large and the small group who acknowledged his acquaintance had regarded him as a rather pitiful failure, while the Government to whom he had offered his services had ignored him altogether. Now, at his nod, hundreds of thousands of men instantly sprang to arms and the most powerful armies that America had ever seen moved forward in obedience to his will, Sherman marching southward, Butler creeping toward Richmond, Sigel advancing into the fertile Shenandoah Valley, and the Army of the Potomac crossing the Rapidan River to renew its struggle with Lee.

Lee had watched the elaborate preparations of his new antagonist with keen interest and no little apprehension, for Grant's record as a fighting man promised a duel to the death and the South had no more men.

The situation was certainly serious but, anxious as he was, the Confederate commander did not by any means despair. He was familiar with every inch of the country through which Grant would have to advance and the chances were that this would, sooner or later, give him not only the advantage of position, but possibly the choice of weapons. With this idea he allowed the Union forces to cross the Rapidan unopposed, hoping that he would soon be able to drive them back and that the river would then be as valuable as cavalry in hampering their retreat. Just beyond the Rapidan lay the dense thickets and waste lands of scrub oak and undergrowth known as the Wilderness, which had witnessed the Chancellorsville surprise and virtually sealed the fate of Hooker's army. If the Union forces advanced directly through this jungle, there was more than a possibility that they might outflank their opponents and gain the road to Richmond, but Lee scarcely dared hope that his adversary would attempt so dangerous a route. Nevertheless, he maneuvered to leave the trap undisturbed, and when he saw the Union columns entering the forests he felt that they were actually being delivered into his hands. Once in those tangled thickets he knew that Grant's artillery and cavalry would be practically useless and without them his superiority in numbers disappeared. Of course, it would be impossible to conduct a scientific battle in such a region, for it would virtually be fighting in the dark, but knowing that his men were thoroughly familiar with the ground, Lee determined to hurl them upon the advancing bluecoats, trusting to the gloom and the terrors of the unknown to create confusion and panic in their ranks.