May 7

This Day in History

Civil War

May 7, 1864:

Grant leaves the Wilderness for Spotsylvania

Following two days of intense fighting in Virginia’s Wilderness forest, the Army of the Potomac, under the command of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, moves south. Grant's forces had clashed with Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in a pitched and confused two-day battle in which neither side gained a clear victory. Nonetheless, Lee could claim an advantage, since he inflicted more casualties and held off the Yankees, despite the fact that he was outnumbered.

When Lee halted Grant's advance, Grant proved that he was different than previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac by refusing to fall back. Many of his veteran soldiers expected to retreat back across the Rapidan River, but the order came down through the ranks to move the army south. The blue troops had just suffered terrible losses, and the move south lifted their spirits. "We marched free. The men began to sing," recalled one Yankee.

In some ways, warfare would never be the same. Grant had promised President Abraham Lincoln that there would be no turning back on this campaign. He would aggressively pursue Lee without allowing the Confederates time to retool. But the cost was high: Weeks of fighting resulted in staggering casualties before the two armies dug in around Petersburg, Virginia, by the middle of June.

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