On this day in 1864, Ulysses S. Grant marched his army south. He had just fought Robert E. Lee to a standstill in the tangled underbrush of the Wilderness, almost a year to the day after Joseph Hooker had done the same thing. But unlike Hooker, Grant refused to retreat.
In A Stillness at Appomattox (1953), the historian Bruce Catton created a legendary bit of drama out of this moment. He wrote that after the horrible Battle of the Wilderness, Grant’s men were cynical. “They agreed that by all precedents the army would retreat, would grant furloughs lavishly to restore morale, would spend weeks reorganizing and ordering new equipment, and—after getting reinforcements—would probably think about making some new move.” One soldier admitted that “most of us thought it was another Chancellorsville, and that the next day we should cross the river.” Another said he and his buddies “supposed they were on another skedaddle.”
But then they turned right, or south, instead of left, and everything changed.
This army had known dramatic moments of inspiration in the past—massed flags and many bugles and broad blue ranks spread out in the sunlight, with leadership bearing a drawn sword and riding a prancing horse, and it had been grand and stirring. Now there was nothing more than a bent shadow in the night, a stoop-shouldered man who was saying nothing to anyone, methodically making his way to the head of the column—and all of a moment the tired column came alive, and a wild cheer broke the night and men tossed their caps in the darkness.
For better or worse, this passage epitomizes the historian-as-novelist (a phenomenon Stephen Cushman writes insightfully about here). Bruce Catton didn’t invent this, of course, but with the bent shadow in the night and the caps tossed in the darkness, he certainly perfected it.
IMAGE: Wagon ruts line the way to Todd’s Tavern, located at the junction of Brock and Catharpin roads, near the hamlet of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. The strategic crossroads was at the center of a skirmish that began on May 7, 1864, between cavalry forces under Union general Philip H. Sheridan and Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart. By the following day, Sheridan’s men controlled the crossroads, but the Confederate cavalrymen had managed to slow the Union advance so that additional Confederate troops could make their way to Spotsylvania Court House, where the battle continued for nearly two weeks.