The Army of the Potomac had entered this jungle, moving into the tangled morass of trees with the inevitable friction that gripped armies. It was not the infantry whose marches slowed down the whole, rather it was that most basic necessity, the supply wagon. Grant, annoyed that his army had not managed to get out of the Wilderness as yet, was to discover to an unpleasant surprise Lee's army was already there waiting for him, though evidently not fully formed yet. Grant, facing the curious view of Lee that treated him as much a god of war as a man, found himself ordering with some irritation that the Army of the Potomac strike the Confederacy now, not letting the Confederacy gain time to deploy its whole force. He had made the order to attack without regard for the enemy's disposition, and was finding himself already irritated at the inability of the Army of the Potomac's leaders to do that thing required for any army to hold the initiative: attack the enemy.
As Grant sat, he began to whittle, doing this to give at least the appearance of calm in the midst of the ever-present anxiety of warfare. He had to make sure not only to ensure the President knew that regardless of the outcome, there would be no going back, but to direct the largest military operation in American history. And he, unable to stand the sight of blood in meat, had responsibility for a tremendous number of lives. Yes, there were times when sitting and whittling made perfect sense of such times.
For Private Wilson, this order meant he, a soldier in Warren's Corps, was now required to be on the business end of the fighting. In the midst of the Wilderness, he knew only to follow the arduous procedure of loading his Springfield, firing by earshot, at least as the veterans described it. Wilson was fortunate, this was the first combat he'd seen. What he did not understand immediately but soon did was that a battle was a very noisy and stressful thing. The fog of rifle shots was to add to their flash and the smell to create a perfect smokescreen hiding the Johnnies from his men, adding further to the dense underbrush. All he knew was to point and fire, while seeking to keep himself alive. It was amazing, he'd reflect in the dim twilight of the evening, how mechanical a man could get in this business of slaughter. Shoot at someone else, intend to kill them, but it becomes like any other machine.
Private Jameson, however, had found the onslaught of the Union forces to be a disorienting and confusing mess. He had been assigned to a regiment and a company, but in the terrain he'd found himself isolated and alone as cohesion had broken down on both sides. He'd seen his sergeant shot in the face, falling with a boneless sprawl, had tripped in the process of losing cohesion and wound up facing a skeleton in blue, the grinning skull gazing into him and jerked with an existential horror, only to find himself colliding into a Yank who'd been knocked over like he was. A brutal melee of fists had followed ended with the Yank shanked with his bayonet. Jameson still shook. He'd killed a man. He'd really gone and done it. It was not like those glorious vistas his father had described from Mexico, from Buena Vista. No, it was horrid. The worst bit was the man was actually trying to kill him and would have had done it had he not acted.
Now it was this routine, this hellish instance of firepower and shooting blindly, hoping to shoot enemies, desperately hoping he did not shoot friends. An orgy of slaughter, if he'd had the vision to see it, of two armies colliding on the Orange Turnpike, of a massed Confederate charge driving the Iron Brigade into fleeing for the first time in the history of the war. Two bristling animals of gunpowder and bayonet colliding and grappling with all the force either could muster.
If he could have seen it, he would have been both confident and anxious about the fate of his friends and Ewell's Corps on the Orange Turnpike on this first day of the fateful battle. But such was the vision of the general and the historian, for Privates Jameson and WIlson it was a confused mess of men firing blindly and frantically. The hours slipped away. Charges came and went, were foiled on both sides. The very palpable evil of these woods called to men on both sides, further amplified by the beginning of a fire, ignited by the exchange of cartridges in the underbrush, amplifying the ill effects of the dense fog of war, and the eerie crackling of musketry.
As day became twilight, and twilight became night, Private Jameson found that in the course of the fighting he'd managed to stay relatively close to his men after all, and sat in a bivouac for the evening very uncomfortable. Men wondered when Longstreet would get here, and the rumor grew that the Yankees had nearly divided the army. General Stafford was wounded, and men on both sides had been burned in an attempt to capture artillery. It was difficult to sleep with the smell of burning men in one's nostrils and the piteous wails of the wounded beseeching help in one's ears. Yet only 24 hours had begun to harden both privates to a point where this they managed to do.
5-6 May, Swift Creek:
The victory over the Rebels had been followed by hard marching, and then by General Hunter ordering his men to dig, lightly, and to erect a line of breastworks on the afternoon and evening of the fifth. The men were exhausted from the march, but Hunter suspected that Beauregard, stung by his defeat, would have no choice but to strike at his men. Indeed, if Private Miller and General Hunter had been gifted with far-sight, they might well have been unsurprised that the news that a force of negroes had struck a Confederate force and smashed it had sent Petersburg into a mixture of panic and outrage. Panic that the Confederate army had been shattered. Outrage that the force that accomplished this had brown skin. Dark statements were muttered that these men would encounter a fate akin to that of the Pillow Garrison, but this Beauregard feared, and rightfully so, made his task but the more dangerous.
The attack was one that saw an overnight march, which Beauregard had advised against on grounds of it exhausting the men, but was dismissed in terms of reflecting the traits of a garrison general in Charleston. But Beauregard was right, and on the morning of the sixth, General Hunter, surveying the approaching lines of men in Grey was excited. Turning to his aide, he said: "They offer us their flank. And a flank defended by young boys, at that."
He then issued orders again to the XVIII Corps to sidle out of its lines and to let the X Corps replace it, and as this was done, the approaching line of grey seemed confused, and then exultant. Only then the XVIII Corps, its spearhead the 41st USCT, struck in a single piledriver massed attack, an attack that with its onrushing power showed no great discipline on the part of the inexperienced soldiers, but to the young men of the Confederate force defending Petersburg, a huge mass of armed black men charging them shouting "Hurrah!" was the most terrifying sight many of them had ever imagined, the literal force of nightmares fostered since the days of Nat Turner in Southhampton County. The Confederate line shattered and to the shouts of Confederate officers saying "Damn you boys, hold, don't you love your country?" one corporal responded "Yes and I want to get back to it as soon as I can."
For Beauregard, the task of restoring order to this rabble of frightened old men and young boys proved impossible until he was north of Petersburg proper, though by the afternoon men were starting to filter back into the breastworks around the city. But news followed them that the Union Army, in the form of the two corps of Hunter's force, the black and the white Corps, were now investing Petersburg. The sight of that large army in blue was terrifying, and Beauregard soon found himself a general without an army as the men in it decided that the defeat at Swift Creek was enough.
Though Beauregard had no way to know, the hard march had exhausted and disorganized the Union line, so no battle was going to happen at least for that day. Instead General Hunter set his men about a different task, the one assigned to his army by Grant. Methodically his men began to burn the railroad, seeking to twist the bars holding it together into a spiral pattern, one that for want of rolling pins the Confederacy could not repair. This would deprive the Confederacy of a major railroad and industrial center, and in Lincoln's words ensure that those not able to skin the mule would at least grab a leg.
Equally Hunter had no means to know that on the evening of the sixth, Lee had received Beauregard's telegram and was to make one of the most fateful and dangerous decisions of the Confederate war effort, though at the time it seemed perfectly rational based on the situation........