While the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry screen secured the Rapidan River fords near the old Chancellorsville battlefield, most of the infantry units stayed in their temporary camps and waited.
General Grant decided on the route through the tangled thickets of the “Wilderness” for his first move across the Rapidan, mostly because it allowed him greater ability to maintain the supply line necessary to keep his army on the move. This trek, however, would negate Grant’s advantages in men and artillery by forcing them into a little-developed region with poor roads and even worse visibility. The thickets and undergrowth of the Wilderness hid the Confederate position, while also allowing Lee time to concoct a scheme to throw Grant back across the Rapidan.1
For the average soldier, May 3 was spent in relative relaxation. Little drilling was done in the camps that day. Instead, men wrote letters home, went hunting or fishing, or prepared themselves for the tough campaigning that was sure to come over the next days. Spontaneous baseball games erupted in the camps, providing a few hours escape from the tension that pervaded in the camps.2
While the enlisted men relaxed, the officers of the Union army received their marching orders for the following days during the afternoon. The VI Corps, stationed several miles back from Germanna Ford near the Hazel River, would hit the roads towards the ford at 4 a.m. Ahead of the men of the 96th Pennsylvania was a sleepless night as a cold front passed through Culpepper County, accompanied by a howling wind and chilly temperatures.
From Corporal Henry Keiser:
Tuesday, May 3, 1864. At 12 last night, we had another heavy shower. Drawed (sic) a canteen. Wrote a letter to father and sent him ten dollars. Orders to march at four in the morning. Sky clear, but cold and windy.
1. Rhea, Gordon C. The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.) 52-54.
2. Captain Edward Hill, Diary of Edward Hill, St. Mary’s College of California.