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Ulysses S. Grant was the ultimate hero of the Civil War in nearly every way. While Lincoln’s generals in the east were stalling, complaining and embracing defeat, Grant was chalking up victories (or at least avoiding ignominious losses) at Paducah, Belmont, Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg.

Over a three year span Lincoln burned through a series of failed eastern commanders including McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade. Finally, he pressed Grant to take command in the east as the nation’s first Lieutenant General since George Washington. The objective was simple: rout Lee’s Confederate army and end the terrible sectional conflict.

One of Lt. General Grant’s first moves was to advance the Union army across Virginia’s Rapidan River and meet Robert E. Lee’s forces north of the Confederate capital of Richmond. This began The Overland Campaign which eventually led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Ely's Ford crossingEly’s Ford Road at the Rapidan River

Grant had 115,000+ men under his command and crossed the Rapidan River at three locations.  One of those crossings was made at Ely’s Ford, six miles from my house as the crow flies.  I’ve never been there on foot or by car but last week I decided to see it from the above (everything seems to look nicer from the air anyway…)

After crossing the Rapidan, Grant’s army met Lee’s forces in a dense thicket of forest ominously known as The Wilderness. This was considered a “Death Zone” for Union forces – nearly 20,000 Union soldiers had already fallen in these woods during previous efforts to push south. Many assumed Grant would meet the same fate.

WildernessSaunders Field (Battle of the Wilderness)
Visitor Center visible left-center along the highway

The Battle of the Wilderness lasted three days and took place less than two miles from my house. I see these battlefields every day – I can’t even get to a gas station without passing through them. This is also where Wal-Mart recently planned to build a “supercenter” until patriotic zeal pushed them a few miles northwest.

Although 50% more Union soldiers than Confederates were lost in the Wilderness and the battle is often considered a tactical victory by the South, it is considered a strategic victory for Grant and his army. From here, both armies hustled southeast along Brock Road, past the modern day site of my kids’ elementary school.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the second major battle of Grant’s Overland Campaign, was a bloody, two-week affair resulting in the loss of over 30,000 soldiers. Over half of the casualties occurred on May 12, 1864 when much of the fighting took place at a site known as “The Bloody Angle.”  I lived in the area six years (and saw it featured on “The House of Cards”) before realizing the significance of this site. And as usual, the view from the ground suffers relative to the scene from the air.

Bloody Angle Spotsy“The Bloody Angle” – Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Numerous historical markers located throughout

After the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Grant’s and Lee’s forces moved south and east.  Cold Harbor was the next major battle; it was as memorable (and costly) as any that took place near my house. From there, the action moved to Petersburg and then toward Appomattox.

The 150th anniversary of the battles in my backyard took place earlier this year – and they were spectacular. The sesquicentennial anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox promises to be huge.  I’m already planning to be there, whether by foot, by car or by plane!

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