On March 12, 1864 it was announced in Washington that Ulysses S. Grant was now general-in-chief of all the Union armies. At last, after three years of war, Mr. Lincoln had found a general fully capable of winning final victory. Grant might not look the part of a great captain, but he possessed the strategic vision to see precisely what had to be done. To defeat the Confederacy required heavy pressure, unrelenting and coordinated, against its two principal field armies. He himself would travel with General Meade’s Army of the Potomac to apply that pressure on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; Sherman would be in charge in the west, his target the Army of Tennessee under Joseph E. Johnston, who had replaced Bragg after the Chattanooga defeat. The twin offensives were timed to begin in May 1864.
On May 4, with some 120,000 men to Lee’s 60,000, Grant crossed the Rapidan River into that grim woodland called the Wilderness, attempting to turn his foe’s right flank and get out ahead on the roads leading to Richmond. But as he had done so effectively against Joe Hooker at nearby Chancellorsville a year earlier, Lee refused to let his opponent call the tune. He immediately hurled his army full tilt into the Federals, counting on the area’s dense thickets and limited visibility to neutralize the Federal edge in manpower and artillery. For two days the struggle raged. The troops and their commanders struck out blindly at one another, struggling through the briars and tangled scrub forest, firing at anything that moved.
Stretcher-bearers were overwhelmed with casualties. The intense musketry set the underbrush ablaze, condemning uncounted wounded men to fiery deaths.
When he began the fight, Lee had sent one of his three army corps, under James Longstreet, on a wide sweep to strike at the exposed Federal flank. On the afternoon of May 6 Longstreet hit that flank and drove it back, but he could not exploit the brief victory; like Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, he was severely wounded in an accidental fire-fight between two Confederate units. Longstreet would be out of action for five months. At last, with nightfall, the firing sputtered out. The Federals had lost more than 17,600 men in the Battle of the Wilderness, the Confederates some 7,500. The full truth of the struggle, wrote one of the participants, was “hid in the tangled woods and darkling forests, where its mysteries will never be disclosed.”
Before he led his army across the Rapidan, Grant had told a . Washington friend, “If you see the President, tell him, for me, that, whatever happens, there will be no turning back.” He confirmed that promise on May 7. The Army of the Potomac was on the move again, not in retreat to lick its wounds, but southward toward Richmond. Under Grant-there would indeed be no turning back; he would force the issue until one of the two armies could fight no more.