The 96th Pennsylvania in the Overland Campaign: May 4, 1864

Bugles cried out at three in the morning rousting Company G from their restless sleep. With marching orders for 4:30 a.m., the regiment had an hour to pack up camp and prepare to hit the roads. Sleepy men wandered to the smell of coffee boiling. The regiment and the brigade were a bit slow to march on this morning, not leaving camp until five o’ clock, about an hour late.

All across the region between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, the Army of the Potomac stirred. Two major fords on the Rapidan, Germanna and Ely’s, were being bridged with pontoons as 100,000 Union soldiers prepared to cross into enemy territory. Engineering units pieced together the temporary pontoon bridges which would carry men, artillery, and all the machinery of war onto the south back of the Rapidan.1

With camp packed and coffee prepared at five in the morning, Corporal Keiser, Company G, and the 96th marched out of camp near Hazel River, headed towards Germanna Ford and the start of the Overland Campaign. The roads were choked with men carrying shiny, new muskets and equipment; the VI Corps alone took up several miles as it wound its way towards the river crossing. A soldier in the 15th New Jersey regiment, also assigned to the VI Corps, remembered, “the weather was delightful, in the most beautiful month of the Virginia climate. . . I countless numbers to the eye, troops in blue uniforms were pressing in a single direction – toward the South.”2

Map of movements on May 4, 1864

All along the 18 mile journey toward the Rapidan, the VI Corps made a good showing. “A thousand battle-flags were fluttering in the air,” the New Jersey infantryman wrote years later.3 The corps pressed south passed Brandy Station and Stephensburg along the route to the ford. At three in the afternoon, they reached Germanna Ford.

As divisions of the VI Corps reached the pontoon bridge, a photographer set up his equipment on the banks of the river. Here is what he captured:

Photo taken from the south bank of the Rapidan as the VI Corps crosses the pontoon bridges on May 4, 1864. (LOC)

Close up showing infantry and baggage train waiting to cross the bridges. 

Colonel Emory Upton, charged with commanding the brigade in which the 96th Pennsylvania was posted, reported the crossing went off without a hitch. The regiments in his brigade marched about two miles from the ford and there camped along a plank road.4  Corp. Keiser wrote in his diary that the march ended at 4:30 in the afternoon, and the regiment set up for the night on the right side of the plank road.

From their position alongside the roadway, the men from Wiconisco Township in Company G rested and relaxed after a long day’s march. On the road ahead sat the tangled, brier-filled piece of real estate known to history as the Wilderness. In this dark, impassible wood a battle would be fought; one which would go down in history as among the most confusing, bloody, and terrible fights of the entire Civil War.

From Corporal Henry Keiser’s diary:

Wednesday, May 4, 1864.  Got up at 3 a.m.  Cooked coffee and at five started on out march Southward.  At 6:30 we passed Brandy Station and at ten a.m.  We passed a town called Stevensburg.  Up to this place we traveled the same road which we traveled last fall to Mine Run.  At three this p.m. we arrived at the Rapidan which we crossed on a pontoon bridge at Germania Ford, rested an hour and started off again.  At 4:30 p.m. we encamped for the night on the right of the road, having marched about 20 miles.  The day was hot.

1. Rhea, Gordon C. The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.) 65. 
2. Haines, Alanson A. The History of the Fifteenth Regiment New Jersey Volunteers. (New York: Jenkins & Thomas, Printers, 1883.) 140. 
3. Ibid., 141. 
4. Report of Brigadier General Emory Upton, U.S. Army, in command of the Second Brigade.” September 1, 1864, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 36, Part 1. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1891.) 665-666. 

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