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1864: The Rifles face a new adversary

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

When the Mississippi College Rifles returned to Virginia in the spring of 1864 after spending the winter in Georgia, they numbered forty-nine. The Rifles started with 110 men at Manassas in 1861, but deaths and other casualties on the battlefield depleted their numbers. There were no replacements to fill the vacant slots.
The Rifles were again a part of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Robert E. Lee. They faced a new adversary, a Union general they had read about in letters from their families in Clinton – General Ulysses Grant.
In 1864, President Abraham Lin-coln appointed Grant the general-in-chief of all Union armies, with the rank of lieutenant general. Grant brought a type of leader-ship the Union armies had never had. His strategy was simple: he would press the Confederacy at ev-ery point, making the Confederate armies themselves his objective. There would be no fighting, then resting, as in the past.
Grant planned campaigns in the Red River of Louisiana area, in Georgia, and in the Shenandoah. He and General Meade would move against General Robert E. Lee in northern Virginia. Previously, Lee had always had the upper hand with Union generals, who avoided con-frontation or delayed follow-up at-tacks after a battle. Now, Lee faced a tenacious opponent who never let casualties or defeats inhibit his de-termination to destroy his enemy.
Lee’s army was encamped west of Charlottesville and south of the Rapidan River in the spring of 1864. Between Lee and the river was a tangled growth of woodland and brush known as “the Wilder-ness,” an almost impenetrable wall of vegetation. Lee had 63,000 men under his command, compared to more than 120,000 under Grant. Grant knew time was on his side; and, with his superior numbers, knew Lee could not win on the bat-tlefield. Lee knew it would take a miracle to defeat his foe.
Grant’s army advanced against Lee’s forces on May 5, 1864, start-ing the Battle of the Wilderness. The Rifles were part of General Longstreet’s I Corps on Lee’s right flank. The battle lasted two days and became stalemated. Grant knew he could not win a decisive victory and believed the battle had run its course. He pulled back, af-ter suffering 17,000 casualties. Lee had stopped an army nearly double the size of the Army of Northern Virginia, but had 8,700 casualties.
The Rifles lost John Baskin, who was killed in action, and Thomas Kennedy, who later died of his wounds. Noel McKey and Pat Sib-ley were wounded, and John Lane was captured a second time. Grant had stopped the practice of ex-changing prisoners, so Lane spent the remainder of the war in a Union prison camp.
Grant and Lee both experienced fourteen percent casualties in the Wilderness. Grant’s army of 120,000 was reduced to 103,000 effectives, while Lee’s army now stood at 54,300. Lee knew he could not stop Grant, and Grant knew it would take more time to destroy Lee.


Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the twenty-first in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell, the City Historian, that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.

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