For Colonel Charles S. Wainwright and the rest of the Army of the Potomac 150 years ago, the waiting for the word was the preoccupation of the day:
Culpeper Court House, May 1, Monday. We are still here but expecting orders hourly almost …. Things here look so very near a move that the chances are decidedly against our being in our present quarters for a regular Thursday entry in here this week. Our sick were all sent off yesterday. Burnside’s division of negroes has relieved the half of this corps on the railroad so that it will be here tomorrow. The rest of Burnside’s command is near Rappahannock Station. One division they say has not joined him yet. So near as I can make out, Grant will start from here with about 125,000 men, including all Burnside’s corps and the cavalry. One-third of the number are green troops, but there are only a few new regiments, and the army was never in better condition, take it altogether. The number stated, I am confident, is not over 5,000 out either way, as I have excellent means of knowing. It is enough anyway; quite as many as Grant and Meade together can take care of, and properly used ought to be sure to use up Lee. The weather continues very fine. The roads and all the country are just in the very best condition. Everyone here is in good spirits and those at home full of expectation.
The roads were fine. The weather was fine. But there was little to do but wait.
Several movies have depicted, at least briefly, the anxieties felt by soldiers during the “wait” for major operations. For the World War II subjects, two such noteworthy films doing so, which I would guess most readers are familiar, are The Longest Day and A Bridge too Far. In the latter movie, there is a scene where Sean Connery, playing Major-General Roy Urquhart, plays a round of golf the morning before his division jumped into Arnhem. That behavior reminds me, in my personal experience, of a commander who would practice fly-casting during the “waits.” Anything to ease the anxiety and allow mental focus. Keep in mind, as you consider the “wait,” these men were not just waiting for a train to arrive. They were waiting for commencement of an activity in which many would perish or receive grievous wounds. Hard to sit still with such as that hanging on the next order.
But an important difference between Wainwright of 1864 and Urquhart of 1944 lay in how much they knew of the operation. Wainwright scarcely knew what road his batteries would march upon. While he could predict heavy fighting, he didn’t know where or when. As one frequent contributor to this blog has remarked, Grant knew how to keep a secret!
Another important part of Wainwright’s observation on this day 150 years ago is the reference to Brigadier-General Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, Ninth Corps. At the time Wainwright wrote the entry, Ferrero was quartered around Manassas, and relieving the Fifth Corps of responsibilities north of the Rappahannock along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Within days, those USCT regiments would move further south, then pick up the line of march to Germanna Ford.
I’ve written at length about the USCT (and 54th Massachusetts) present at Morris Island in the summer of 1863. And I have always felt the deployment of those troops at that time provided the first “shock” to the Confederate leadership in regards to the “sable arm.” But with the opening of the Overland Campaign, the presence of USCT on the line of march going south served a message to both Federal and Confederate. There on the roads leading through Culpeper, over the Rapidan, and into the Wilderness were the very physical representation of the main purpose of the Civil War. Emancipated men carrying arms into the fight.
(Citation from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, page 345.)