The Union campaign of 1864 in the east began in early May. The army was still under the command of George Meade, but U. S. Grant, commander of all the United State's armies, was on hand to directly supervise him. The Federals crossed at several points on the Rapidan River on May 4, and began heading for Wilderness Tavern. They were marching into an area called the Wilderness. It was characterized by a thick forest that made movements difficult. Hooker had been defeated there in the Battle of Chancellorsville the previous year, and the terrain made it difficult for the Federals to use their greater numbers effectively. Grant and Meade hoped to bypass this dangerous piece of ground before the Confederates could engage them in battle.
Robert E. Lee's Confederate army was spread out to the west of where the Federals crossed. He guessed the Federals plan before they even crossed the river, and determined to try to catch Grant in the Wilderness, where his army would be most vulnerable. On the first day's march the Union troops were unable to make it out of the difficult terrain before nightfall. The Confederates were able to get within striking distance, and the two armies camped only a few miles from each other, destined to meet the next day.