GRANT, Ulysses S. (1822-1885), President. Autograph letter signed ("U.S. Grant Lt. Gen.") as General-in-Chief, to Major General Ambrose Burnside, "Wilderness Tavern," [Virginia], 6 May 1864. 1 2/3 pages, 8vo (8 x 5 1/16 in.), "Head Quarters Armies of the United States" stationery, in pencil, very minor evidence of attachment in margins of page 2, otherwise in fine condition.
FROM THE BLOODSOAKED BATTLEFIELD AT THE WILDERNESS, GRANT ORDERS BURNSIDE TO SUPPORT "GENERAL HANCOCK [WHO] HAS BEEN SEVERELY ENGAGED FOR SOME TIME"
A telling letter written in the midst of the first battle of Grant's campaign in Virginia, revealing the tactical uncertainty created by the tangled terrain of the battlefield. Grant launched operations against Lee's Army on May 4. The Army of the Potomac was to traverse a densely wooded area known to locals as the Wilderness, to open ground where Lee's smaller army could be attacked with advantage. Lee immediately moved to confront his opponent and on the morning of May 5th, the two great armies collided in the heart of the Wilderness.
The battles of the 5th proved a muddled but deadly affair of charges and countercharges, and neither Lee or Grant gained a decided advantage, as command of large forces in the thick forest proved difficult. War correspondant Charles Page wrote of the confused combat: "The work was at close range...No room in that jungle for maneuvering; no possibility of a bayonet charge; no help from artillery; no help from cavalry; nothing but close, square, severe, face-to-face volleys of fatal musketry" (Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, p. 240). Grant decided to launch an assault from his right on the morning of the 6th with Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps, but the advance was halted by the arrival of James Longstreet's Confederate Corps which pushed the Union lines back to their entrenchments. Confederate assaults continued to strike at Hancock's line, and, late in the day, the woods were ignited by bursting shells and the approaching flames forced the Union soldiers to retreat, allowing the Confederates to temporarily breech the line. One Union soldier wrote that the advancing Confederates looked like "so many devils through the flames, charging over the burning works upon our retreating lines" (Rhea, p. 394).
Here, Grant reacts to news of the fighting by modifying his aggressive plans: "General Hancock has been severely engaged for some time the enemy having forced his line in one place, but being immediately repulsed. In consequence of this, orders have been sent [to] Hancock suspending the order to attack at 6 P.M." Burnside's IX Corps had managed to advance in front of Hancock's right, but Grant advises caution: "In your movements for the balance of the day, or until you receive further orders, hold your own and be governed entirely by circumstances. Should the enemy attack Hancock give such aid as you can. After dark and all is quiet, put your men in a good position for defence and for holding our line and give your men all the rest they can get."
The Battle of the Wilderness ended at nightfall. The cost was sobering: 17,666 Union and 11,000 Confederate casulaties. Grant's recommendation that Burnside's men rest proved sensible advice. Rather than retreat towards Washington, Grant pushed his army on to the south where another great battle would be fought at Spotsylvania Court House (see lot 117).
Provenance: Calvin Bullock (sale, Christie's, 14 May 1985, lot 28).