Battle Of The Wilderness
Information about The Battle Of The Wilderness, an 1864 Civil War Battle of the American Civil War
Battle Of The Wilderness Facts
Location: Spotsylvania and Orange Counties, Virginia
Dates: May 5-7, 1864
Generals: Union: Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant | Confederate: General Robert E. Lee
Soldiers Engaged: Union: 102,000 | Confederate: 61,000
Casualties: Union: 18,400 | Confederate: 11,400
Battle Of The Wilderness Summary: The Battle of the Wilderness began Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign against the Confederate army of Northern Virginia that ultimately, after many weeks and horrendous casualties, forced Gen. Robert E. Lee’s men back to the defenses at Richmond. The fighting took place in an area of Virginia where tangled underbrush and trees had grown up in long-abandoned farmland, near the old Chancellorsville battlefield. Close-quarters fighting among the dense woods created high casualties, but the battle proved inconclusive for both sides. It produced an important strategic event, however; whereas before Union commanders had withdrawn their armies after failing to achieve victory south of the Rappahannock River, Grant did not retreat. Instead, he attempted to outflank Lee by moving to the left, setting the stage for the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.
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Account Of The Battle Of The Wilderness
March 8, 1864, was a wet, blustery Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Despite the bad weather, an unusually large crowd had gathered at the White House that evening for one of President and Mrs. Lincoln’s regular receptions. The reason for the increased turnout was not hard to guess: Major General Ulysses S. Grant was rumored to be in town for a high-level meeting with the president. At that meeting, Grant, the increasingly idolized victor of Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, was expected to receive his much-anticipated promotion to lieutenant general–the first man to hold such an exalted rank in the United States Army since George Washington, nine decades earlier.
No one was more eager to meet the Illinois general than Abraham Lincoln. In the face of near-constant defeats on the eastern front of the war, Grant had been a consistent beacon of good news–and good generalship–in the West. While other, more dashing generals–George McClellan, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside and ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker–had been tried and found wanting on the Virginia battlefields, the initially unknown Grant had quietly gone about the task of carving up large sections of the western Confederacy. Rumors of occasional binge drinking by Grant had floated back to Lincoln, but the hard-pressed chief executive had shown a patience for his fellow Illinoisan that he had not always demonstrated with the closer-at-hand eastern generals. ‘I can’t spare this man; he fights,’ was how Lincoln put it, joking that perhaps he should find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank and send a case to the rest of his generals to stiffen their resolve.
But Lincoln had not summoned Grant to discuss his alcoholic preferences. Nor was the general in Washington simply to receive his well-deserved raise in rank. What Lincoln wanted to hear from Grant was how, exactly, he intended to win the war, and, more to the point, how he intended to go through Robert E. Lee to do it. For, despite the dramatic Union victory at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 3, 1863, there was still the disheartening knowledge that the wily Confederate general had escaped to fight another day. And, given his past record, he could be expected to fight hard, to fight well, and to fight soon. In the eight months since Gettysburg, Lee and the tough veteran officers and men of his Army of Northern Virginia had frustrated one attempt after another by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac to finish them off. With the unusually wet winter coming to a close, Lee’s rested and reconstituted army no doubt would be back grabbing at the Union’s throat as soon as weather permitted.
As the crowd swirled and eddied around the president and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, in the East Room of the White House, there was a sudden stir and buzz at the far end of the room, near the doorway. The president, who, at 6 feet 4 inches, was a good head taller than anyone else in the room, looked up from the receiving line and spied the unprepossessing form of the new arrival–a man whose face he had only seen in photographs. ‘Why, here is General Grant!’ Lincoln exclaimed. With a master politician’s quick grace, the president hurried across the room, right hand outstretched. Grant, 8 inches shorter than the president, walked slowly toward him (presidential secretary John Hay remembered later that it was ‘a long walk for a bashful man’), and the two men shook hands for the first time. ‘Well, this is a great pleasure, I assure you,’ said Lincoln with a smile. Grant, who a fellow Union officer once said ‘habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it,’ relaxed enough to permit himself a slight smile. After a lengthy wade through well-wishers–Lincoln withdrew to permit the general his moment in the sun–the two men finally sat down together in private to discuss the upcoming campaign.
Lincoln did not want to know Grant’s plan of attack in great detail; he had gotten into trouble in the past by accidently leaking details of campaigns. It was enough to know that Grant intended to make his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac, and, more important, that he intended to make Robert E. Lee his primary target. Grant later recalled: ‘My general plan…was to concentrate all the force possible against the Confederate armies in the field. To get possession of Lee’s army was the first great object. With the capture of his army Richmond would necessarily follow.’ He intended to attach himself directly to the Army of the Potomac, still commanded on paper by Meade, the victor at Gettysburg. Together, they would attempt to bring Lee to battle as soon as possible. The only question was where.
Lee and his 65,000-man army were presently camped on the south side of the Rapidan River, directly across from Meade’s forces at Culpeper. The two sides had spent a comparatively comfortable winter–particularly from the perspective of the Union troops, who passed the winter huddling in their snug tents and cabins, writing letters home, engaging in mock-heroic snowball fights, going to armywide revival meetings and enlarging upon that endlessly fascinating topic: What are our generals going to do next? George T. Stevens, a surgeon with the 77th New York Regiment, remembered: ‘This was the most cheerful winter we had passed in camp. One agreeable feature was the great number of ladies, wives of officers, who spent the winter with their husbands. On every fine day, great numbers of ladies might be seen riding about the camps and over the desolate fields, and their presence added greatly to the brilliancy of the frequent reviews.’ The humble enlisted men, not having the pleasure of female company, manufactured their own companions. According to Captain Henry Blake of the 11th Massachusetts, the men hosted their own homespun dances, with ‘one half of the soldiers arrayed as women. The resemblance in the features of some of these persons was so perfect that a stranger would be unable to distinguish between the assumed and the genuine characters.’
The Confederates, who were not so well fed or sheltered as the Federals, occupied themselves mainly with trying to keep warm and finding enough to eat. Rations were mainly cornmeal and mush, leading one wag to nickname the two armies ‘the Fed and the Cornfed.’ Still, despite the inferior level of comfort, the Southerners maintained a surprisingly high morale, due in large part to the reverence bordering on religious zeal that the men held for their commanding general. ‘No army ever had such a leader as General Lee,’ gushed Private William Wilson of Virginia. ‘No general ever had such an army.’ When Lee went to Gordonsville in late April to personally welcome back into the army Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and his I Corps, which had been on detached service in Tennessee (and had spearheaded the great albeit Pyrrhic Confederate victory at Chickamauga), he was mobbed by the soldiers who greeted him. ‘The men hung around him and seemed satisfied to lay their hands on his gray horse or to touch the bridle, or the stirrup, or the general’s leg,’ recalled Private Frank Mixson of South Carolina. ‘Anything that Lee had was sacred to us fellows who had just come back.’ An officer observed, ‘We looked forward to victory under him as confidently as to successive sunrises.’
Although the Confederates had overwhelming faith in Lee, their Federal counterparts were less sure of Grant, at least at first. The new commanding general of the Union Army arrived at Meade’s headquarters at Brandy Station two days after his meeting with Lincoln, and immediately set out to make order of the chaotic scene. One unidentified private took note of his new commander’s less than impressive physical appearance. ‘Of all the officers in the group,’ he said, ‘I should have selected almost anyone but him as the general who won Vicksburg. He was small and slim, even to undersize; very quiet, and with a slight stoop. But for his straps, which came down too far in front of his shoulders on his rusty uniform, I should have taken him for a clerk at headquarters rather than a general.’ Nor were the men much impressed by the bold talk coming from the general’s entourage. They had heard such talk before, usually before a devastating defeat. Said Private Frank Wilkeson: ‘Old soldiers who had seen many military reputations melt before the battle fire of the Army of Northern Virginia shrugged their shoulders carelessly, and said indifferently, ‘Well, let Grant try what he can accomplish with the Army of the Potomac. He cannot be worse than his predecessors; and, if he is a fighter, he can find all the fighting he wants. We have never complained that Lee’s men would not fight.” Other soldiers joked, without much humor, that the Union Army was about to embark on its ‘annual Bull Run flogging.’
Grant’s first order of business was to decide what to do with the often vinegary Meade. Initially, he had intended to replace the patrician Pennsylvanian with one of his own trusted subordinates from the west, a move that Lincoln would have endorsed wholeheartedly, having lost whatever fleeting confidence he had in Meade following the general’s dilatory pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg. But Grant’s first meeting with Meade changed his mind. Meade humbly offered to step aside in favor of one of Grant’s western warriors, adding that ‘the work before us [is] of such vast importance to the whole nation that the feelings or wishes of no person should stand in the way of selecting the right men for all positions.’ Perhaps Grant was disarmed by Meade’s open display of patriotism. Or perhaps, having been in the same position himself following the Battle of Shiloh, he simply realized that by retaining Meade he would ensure his unquestioning loyalty and obedience. Whatever the reason, Grant elected to keep Meade in titular command of the Army of the Potomac, but he pitched his own headquarters tent nearby, and all messages, inquiries and orders went through him first, not the army’s bootless commander.
With Meade firmly in hand, Grant set out to plan the upcoming offensive. Lee’s army had spent the fall and winter months fortifying their lines south of the Rapidan; they were now virtually impregnable, as Meade had discovered for himself during the abortive Mine Run campaign the previous autumn, when a well-planned attempt to surprise Lee had had to be called off when the soldiers got a firsthand look at the bristling Rebel breastworks. Grant, for his part, had no intention of attacking Lee behind his defenses. Instead, he intended to outflank him by marching rapidly southward through the forbidding landscape known as the Wilderness, a 70-mile-wide, 30-mile-long stretch of second-growth timber, wiry underbrush, brackish water and barren soil that was all too familiar to the Union soldiers from their disastrous defeat at Chancellorsville exactly one year earlier. Indian legend said the shadowy woods of the Wilderness were haunted, and no one who had survived the previous spring’s debacle doubted the legends. Grant, the least superstitious of men, had no time for old wives’ tales, but he did understand that unless he moved quickly through the Wilderness, he and his army were dangerously vulnerable to enemy attack. Should Lee strike while the army was stretched out along the twisting trails and marshy gullies, the results could prove as fatal to Grant’s career as Chancellorsville had been to Hooker’s. Speed was of the essence, and the Army of the Potomac was not particularly noted for its quickness.
The task of arranging the army’s movements was left to Meade’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys, a prewar engineer and topographer who was as well-suited for the thankless role as anyone could be. The Pennsylvania-born Humphreys was a profane, irascible soldier whose ‘blue-gray dauntless eyes threw into his stern face the coldness of hammered steel.’ He was seldom seen to smile, and the complexities of his new assignment left him little time for amusement. He was charged with organizing a 120,000-man army into a manageable and maneuverable body, with 4,300 supply wagons and 850 field ambulances tagging along behind it like the tail of a kite. All were expected to march undisturbed through some of the roughest countryside in Virginia, beneath the very noses of their ever-vigilant opponents, and to do so in less than 30 hours, which was the amount of time it had taken Lee to move his army into position to counterattack during the Mine Run campaign the previous November. Anything less would leave the Federals dangerously exposed in the midst of the Wilderness, facing a predictably unpredictable enemy, with little room for the army’s cavalry and artillery to operate. ‘Viewed as a battleground,’ said Lt. Col. Francis Walker, the Wilderness ‘was simply infernal.’
Despite the difficulties, Humphreys quickly devised a workable plan. The army would be divided into two wings, which would cross the Rapidan at the Germanna and Ely fords and march quickly down the Germanna Plank Road to reunite at the intersection with the region’s one really good road, the Orange Turnpike. Once there, the army would have the choice of several routes leading west. With room to maneuver, the army could force the Rebels to come out of their breastworks in order to block any Union thrust toward Richmond. On an open field, the weight of Northern numbers and the deadly efficiency of the Union gunners would inevitably swing the tide of battle toward the North. Confederate artillery officer Robert Stiles, anticipating the upcoming campaign, was not alone in feeling ‘a sort of premonition of the definite mathematical calculation, in whose hard, unyielding grip our future should be held and crushed.’
It was a good plan, worthy of an experienced engineer’s logical mind. The only problem was that the best engineer in the prewar army was now wearing gray–and he was wearing three stars wreathed in gold on his collar. Already, Robert E. Lee had summoned his ranking commanders to the top of Clark’s Mountain, overlooking the suddenly busy Union camp, and unerringly predicted the path the enemy would take, down to the very fords they would use when moving against him. Surprisingly, Lee did not intend to contest the river crossings. He hoped instead to lure Grant into overconfidence (something experienced eastern officers had already seen on the part of Grant’s staff, if not the commanding general himself), and then strike him at an as-yet-undetermined place along the way.
Inexplicably, Lee made no preliminary moves to get his own somewhat scattered forces underway, preferring to leave the respective corps of Lt. Gens. Richard Ewell and Ambrose Powell Hill in their winter camps at Clark’s Mountain and Orange Court House, while Longstreet’s newly returned I Corps remained in the rear around Gordonsville, ready to fall back quickly to defend Richmond should the need arise. Perhaps, like Grant, Lee was guilty of underestimating his new opponent. Both generals had always had the advantage of fighting against opponents inferior to the ones they were now facing in each other. But if Lee was guilty of underestimating Grant, his I Corps commander was not. Longstreet had been Grant’s closest friend in the prewar army, even serving as best man at Grant’s wedding to a Longstreet cousin, and he understood the new Union leader in a way that Lee did not. ‘That man,’ Longstreet warned, ‘will fight us every day and every hour till the end of this war.’ Lee ignored the warning at his own considerable peril.
Meanwhile, preparations continued apace in the Union camp. At Brandy Station, Meade’s jumping-off point, a 3-story-high mountain of supplies grew steadily higher every day, a veritable cornucopia of soldiers’ needs–bread, beans, beef, pork, dried apples, coffee, sugar, tea, vinegar, molasses and potatoes. Finally, on May 3, the men were told to cook three days’ full rations and pack an extra three days’ partial rations, along with 50 rounds of ammunition. Experienced veterans knew what was coming, and they sought to advise the thousands of new recruits–all green as grass–on how to prepare for the upcoming campaign. Frank Wilkeson, a new artilleryman, was taken in hand by a grizzled veteran named Jellet, who ‘came to me that evening and kindly looked into my knapsack, and advised me as to what to keep and what to throw away. He cut my kit down to a change of underclothing, three pairs of socks, a pair of spare shoes, three plugs of navy tobacco, a rubber blanket, and a pair of woolen blankets.
”Now, my lad,’ Jellet said, ‘do not pick up anything excepting food and tobacco, while you are on the march. Get hold of all the food you can. Cut haversacks from dead men. Steal from the infantry if you can. Let your aim be to secure food and food and still more food, and keep your eyes open for tobacco. Do not look at clothing or shoes or blankets. You can always draw those articles from the quartermaster. Stick to your gun through thick and thin. Do not straggle. Fill your canteen at every stream we cross and wherever you get the chance elsewhere. Never wash your feet until the day’s march is over. If you do, you will surely blister.” Finally, Jellet advised Wilkeson not to burn his permanent camp. ‘Leave things as they are,’ he said. ‘We may want them before snow flies.’
At Union Army headquarters, no such qualified sense of optimism obtained. Among his other eccentricities, Grant refused to turn back after he started for a location. Indeed, if he passed a street he was looking for, he would circle the block rather than retrace his steps. Nor did he intend to do so now. After issuing his last order on the night of May 3, Grant casually crossed his legs, lit another cigar and began chatting with his staff. He explained his general reasons for choosing the eastern route through the Wilderness, instead of attempting to move around Lee’s left flank to the north. It would simplify resupply problems, he said, while also screening Washington from possible attack. Then the normally undemonstrative Grant surprised his aides by leaping to his feet, going over to a map on the wall and circling the towns of Richmond and Petersburg with his hands. ‘When my troops are there,’ Grant said, ‘Richmond is mine. Lee must retreat or surrender.’ It was becoming convincingly clear to everyone present that Grant did not envision a retreat of his own.
At 3 a.m. on May 4, the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan at Germanna Ford. Horsemen of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry splashed into the waist-deep stream, expecting a fusillade of bullets from the Confederate pickets on the other side. It never came. Obeying Lee’s orders not to contest the crossing, the pickets of the 1st North Carolina Cavalry fell back from the river and scattered into the pre-dawn darkness, leaving behind their half-cooked breakfast. The Rebels, said one Union trooper, ‘gave evidence of great fright.’ This was probably mere playacting, since Southern scouts had followed the enemy’s movements from the moment they had broken camp at midnight and begun heading toward the ford. Whatever the case, Federal engineers led by Captain William Folwell quickly followed the horsemen across the stream and began erecting two parallel bridges, 40 or 50 feet apart and 220 feet across. By dawn, when the carefully timed march of the infantry brought them to the ford, three temporary roads had already been chopped into the steep banks leading up from the river, and the foot soldiers in Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps marched smartly over the river and into the tangled gloom of the Wilderness.
Six miles downriver, at Ely’s Ford, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps made a similar uncontested crossing. A canvas pontoon bridge had been thrown across the ford, but many of the infantrymen eschewed the bridge and simply waded across in water up to their hips, holding their cartridge boxes and rifles above their heads to keep them dry. Behind them they left a trail of discarded blankets and overcoats, so many that Wilkeson believed ‘it would be no exaggeration to say that one could have marched to the Rapidan on overcoats and blankets that were thrown away by tired soldiers.’ An irate Connecticut chaplain estimated the wastage at between 20 and 30 thousand dollars. Wilkeson, who marched with his fellow gunners behind a regiment of heavily sweating German immigrants, watched as the Germans struggled painfully up the steep riverbank, discarding their bulging knapsacks as they made their way. ‘Near the top of the hill we found many well-filled haversacks,’ he recalled, ‘and we picked up every one of them and hung them on the limbers and caissons and guns. The mine was rich, and we worked it thoroughly.’
Grant and his personal entourage followed the line of march to Germanna Ford. Loud cheers greeted them along the way. Usually a plain dresser, Grant had donned a smart pair of yellowish-brown gloves and a black slouch hat with a gold cord to mark the occasion. Accompanying him on the ride south was his political mentor, Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, who had been instrumental in Grant’s phenomenal rise to the top. Washburne was dressed entirely in black, and puzzled soldiers wondered aloud whether the somber figure was Grant’s ‘personal undertaker.’ Shortly before noon, Grant crossed the ford and set up temporary headquarters in an old farmhouse on a bluff overlooking the river. Nearby, Meade had established his own headquarters, and his personal flag–a golden eagle wreathed in silver on a lavender backdrop–flourished in the breeze. Grant, sitting on the porch of the ramshackle farmhouse smoking an ever-present cigar, asked jokingly: ‘What’s this? Is Imperial Caesar anywhere about here?’ When a Northern newspaperman, taking advantage of the general’s good mood, asked him how long it would take to reach Richmond, Grant responded airily, ‘About four days–that is, if General Lee becomes a party to the agreement; but if he objects, the trip will undoubtedly be prolonged.’
Grant’s untypically jovial mood was cut short a few minutes later when he was handed an intercepted message from the Confederates showing that Ewell’s corps was moving forward swiftly, destination as yet unknown. Immediately, Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to prepare to cross the Rapidan with his IX Corps, which Grant had hoped to leave on the other side of the river to safeguard the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Now, with evidence that Lee was moving with more dispatch than he had anticipated (veteran campaigners could have told him that would be the case), Grant ordered Burnside to ‘make forced marches until you reach this place. Start your troops now in the rear the moment they can be got off, and require them to make a night march.’ In the meantime, the II Corps had moved into position on the old killing ground at Chancellorsville, while the V and VI corps (the latter under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick) were moving down the Germanna Plank Road to the point where it intersected the Orange Turnpike. There, they were to halt for the night while the lengthy and ponderous wagon train caught up with them.
The army had made good progress, but it had not passed completely through the Wilderness, and many of the soldiers, particularly those camping among the disinterred remains of the hastily buried Union dead at Chancellorsville, were increasingly uneasy. ‘A sense of ominous dread which many of us found impossible to shake off’ seized the men, one soldier recalled. ‘It was a very easy matter to discover just where pools of blood had been,’ another noted, ‘for those particular spots were marked by the greenest tufts of grass and brightest flowers to be found upon the field.’ Brigadier General Robert McAllister sent his wife a somewhat ghoulish present of ‘two or three pretty violets that I picked upon the very ground where my regiment stood and fought so splendidly [the year before]. The ground was made rich by the blood of our brave soldiers. I thought the flowers would be a relic prized by you.’ An even more grisly relic was unearthed by a less romantic infantryman, who pried up a bullet-shattered skull from a shallow grave and rolled it across the ground. ‘That is what you are all coming to, and some of you will start toward it tomorrow,’ he warned. Another Chancellorsville veteran spooked his campmates by noting that ‘the wounded are liable to be burned to death. I am willing to take my chances of getting killed, but I dread to have a leg broken and then be burned slowly; and these woods will surely be burned if we fight here.’ Few of his listeners slept well that night.
The Union soldiers, veterans and newcomers alike, were right to entertain ominous forebodings. While they made camp, the battle-hardened Confederates were moving toward them through the woods, getting in position for a daylight attack that few of the Southerners doubted would be successful. Lee was still unsure of Grant’s ultimate intentions, whether his new adversary was heading for Fredericksburg, to the south, or was swinging around for a thrust westward toward Richmond. Lee wanted to be prepared for either contingency. He ordered Ewell and his II Corps to march due east along the Orange Turnpike until they passed the old fortifications at Mine Run, while A.P. Hill’s III Corps was to move along the Orange Plank Road to New Verdiersville. Once in place, the two corps would be within easy supporting distance of one another. Meanwhile, Longstreet’s I Corps, farther west at Gordonsville, was directed to move across country toward Todd’s Tavern, at the southern tip of the Wilderness. There it would be in place, said Lee, to ‘intercept the enemy’s march, and cause him to develop plans before he could get out of the Wilderness.’
Lee, traveling with Hill’s corps, camped for the night at New Verdiersville, where he directed Ewell to ‘bring [the enemy] to battle as soon now as possible.’ With Longstreet still a day’s march behind, it was a risky tactic, but Lee seldom shied away from taking risks. With less than a third of Grant’s manpower, he intended to jab hard into the Union flank and instigate a battle with the full knowledge that his own most dependable corps would not be available to fight for another full day. To Lee’s mind, this was the only thing he could do. If Grant got through the Wilderness unscathed, the full brunt of the Union Army would have a clear path around Lee’s southern flank to Richmond, and the war would be lost anyway. As Lee had already made clear in a letter to one of his sons, he did not intend to lose without a fight. Perhaps he would die, but ‘if victorious, we have everything to live for. If defeated, there will be nothing left for us to live for.’ By attacking at once, even with only two-thirds of his available force, he would at least give himself and his army a fighting chance. At that stage of the war, it was the best they could hope for. Grant’s incautious delay in traversing the Wilderness would give them that chance.
The morning of May 5 dawned clear and warm. By 8 a.m., it had already grown so hot that some out-of-shape Union soldiers, having spent the long winter months eating and lounging about camp, were reeling from heat prostration. Not that they were being hurried along–the pace of the morning’s march was ‘a moderate gait,’ Wilkeson recalled, ‘with occasional short halts.’ Both Grant and Meade believed that Lee had moved his men back inside the fortifications along Mine Run, 10 miles away, where presumably they would wait politely to be attacked at Grant’s leisure. In the meantime, Grant would be able to reunite the disparate wings of his army. Accordingly, Hancock was directed to swing his II Corps southwest from Chancellorsville to Parker’s Store, an abandoned country market, where he would link up with Warren’s V Corps from the north. Behind Warren, Sedgwick’s VI Corps would swing into place and wait for Burnside’s IX Corps, which was crossing Germanna Ford after an all-night march. When the entire Federal line had been reunited, Grant intended to move west and make contact with Lee’s army in the clear ground beyond the Wilderness.
As usual, however, Lee moved first. Having received word the night before from Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, his cavalry chief, that Union horsemen were screening the approach to Parker’s Store, Lee correctly divined that Grant was indeed intending to move west from the Wilderness. He no longer had to worry about the Federals passing around his right flank. Instead, they were conveniently standing still on unfavorable ground where their vast numerical superiority, their generally more modern small arms and their deadly artillery would be negated to a great extent by the narrow roads, thick undergrowth, limited visibility and lack of maneuvering room. If Ewell and Hill could hold them in place a little longer, Longstreet’s corps, swinging up from the south, would be ideally situated to strike them in the flank and roll them up as swiftly and easily as Lt. Gen. T.J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson had done on almost the same ground, exactly one year earlier. To his aide, Colonel Charles Venable, Lee ‘expressed his pleasure that the Federal general had not profited by General Hooker’s Wilderness experience, and that he seemed inclined to throw away to some extent the immense advantage which his great superiority in numbers gave him.’ Perhaps, his shining reputation notwithstanding, Grant would prove to be no worthier an opponent than Hooker.
Events quickly outraced either general’s ability to control them. On the morning of May 5, skirmishing for control of the Orange Plank Road opened at Parker’s Store between the 5th New York Cavalry and the 47th North Carolina Infantry. At the same time, Union scouts reported the approach of a sizable enemy contingent on the Orange Turnpike, 23Ž4 miles north. Brigadier General Charles Griffin, commanding the Union rear guard division on the turnpike, reported to Warren that the Rebels were fast approaching. ‘I do not believe that Warren ever had a greater surprise in his life,’ ordnance officer Morris Schaff reported. Warren hastily ordered Griffin to ‘push a force out at once against the enemy, and see what force he has.’ Meanwhile, Warren located Meade and told him of the developments. ‘If there is to be any fighting this side of Mine Run,’ said Meade, ‘let us do it right off.’ Meade ordered Hancock to halt II Corps at Todd’s Tavern until they could determine what the Rebels were intending. Grant, back at his Germanna Ford headquarters, approved Meade’s arrangements, but added a characteristic addendum: ‘If any opportunity presents itself for pitching into a part of Lee’s army, do so.’
Lee, who was still traveling with Hill’s corps along the Orange Plank Road, had given Ewell much the same order the night before. Now, however, hearing the scattered firing at the front, he apparently thought better of his earlier order. He told Major Campbell Brown, Ewell’s son-in-law, to tell his kinsman that ‘above all General Ewell was not to get his troops entangled so as to be unable to disengage them, in case the enemy was in force.’ Lee had become concerned that Ewell and Hill, who were still separated by three miles of impenetrable woods, would not be able to resist a concentrated Union assault. Moreover, there was a dangerous gap in the center between them. If Grant attacked with sufficient force, the two Confederate corps would be unable to support one another and would be easy pickings for the overwhelming numbers of bluecoats that Lee was suddenly aware they were facing. And Longstreet’s corps was still a day away.
On both sides of the battlefield, an uneasy quiet hung in the air. No one quite knew what lay in front of them, and the jungle-thick countryside made any accurate accounting impossible. Grant, a man of action who did not like suspense–beneath his bland facade was a surprisingly nervous and sensitive individual–waited impatiently for Griffin to ‘pitch into’ the Confederates along the Orange Turnpike. But Griffin, like Grant a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, waited in turn for other Union divisions to move into place along his flanks. He was convinced, as Grant was not, that a significant Rebel force was concealed on the other side of the treeline. For three long hours the impasse continued, while Grant chewed out Meade, Meade chewed out Warren, and Warren chewed out Griffin. Finally, at 1 p.m., Griffin reluctantly gave the order to move out.
The Union line of advance straddled the Orange Turnpike across a 2-mile front. A bramble-choked cornfield, Saunders’ Field, lay immediately in front of them. Ewell’s Confederates, concealed in the trees on the western edge of the field, had already sighted-in their deadly muskets, and their first well-aimed bullets kicked up dirt like the big drops of a coming shower along a dusty road. The Northern soldiers waiting to attack experienced suspense and dread that cannot be adequately told in words. At the sound of a bugle, they rose to their feet and moved forward, leaning slightly as if into a stiff breeze.
On the Union right, north of the turnpike, the gaily colored uniforms of Colonel George Ryan’s 140th New York Zouaves made easy targets for the Rebel marksmen. Regimental Captain Porter Farley, in the front line, saw his men ‘melt away like snow. Men disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them. It seemed as if the regiment had been annihilated.’ Making matters worse, the regiment was also taking fire from the right rear, where a curve in the woods concealed more Confederate riflemen. The 140th fell back, joined by a second Zouave regiment, the 146th New York, which had been treated just as roughly. Back inside their own lines, an anguished Ryan peered through the dense smoke for some sign of his men. ‘My God,’ he cried, ‘I’m the first colonel I ever knew who couldn’t tell where his regiment was!’ Much of it was lying dead or wounded in the ragged cornfield. Ryan, weeping, clutched the neck of an aide. Of the 529 men who had charged across the field moments earlier, 268 were now casualties, including almost all of the regiment’s officers.
On the southern side of the turnpike, Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett’s 3rd Brigade made a better showing, sending Brig. Gen. John M. Jones’ Virginia brigade reeling backward in confusion. ‘A red volcano yawned before us,’ one Maine soldier remembered, ‘and vomited forth fire, and lead, and death.’ The woods were a veritable bedlam of noise, so loud that the soldiers could not even hear their own rifles fire, but merely felt the recoil against their shoulders. ‘What a medley of sounds,’ Union Private Theodore Gerrish recalled. ‘The incessant roar of the rifles; the screaming of bullets; the forest on fire; men cheering, groaning, yelling, swearing and praying!’ General Jones, seeing his line waver as the enemy struck hard at his exposed right flank, rode to the front to encourage his troops. Suddenly, he was cornered by two Pennsylvania privates and ordered to surrender. When he refused to hand over his sword to men of inferior rank, the unimpressed duo simply shot him off his horse and stole his sword. He died immediately.
Bartlett’s attackers soon outran their support. Hopelessly entangled in the vine-choked woods beyond Saunders’ Field, they were struck in turn by flanking fire on two sides. The order came to fall back and regroup. Bartlett himself rode back into the open field, blood trickling from his scratched face. Ordered by the Rebels to surrender, Bartlett shook his fist in defiance and spurred his horse across the field. A welter of bullets crashed into the animal and sent it somersaulting to the ground. The Southerners cheered lustily, but a moment later the shaken and disheveled Bartlett somehow crawled from beneath the dead horse and hobbled to safety. (He would live to receive the formal surrender of arms from the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox 11 months hence.)
On Bartlett’s left, south of Saunders’ Field, the three brigades of Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth’s 4th Division moved forward in tandem with Griffin’s attack. Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s famed Iron Brigade held the right flank. Confederates in the woods beyond could clearly hear Union voices shout, ‘Here’s our western men!’ as the Iron Brigade made its way into battle. No sooner had the Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin regiments advanced than they were met with a withering fire on their exposed flank. Stymied in front by Brig. Gen. George Doles’ Georgia brigade, the Federals were sitting ducks for a crushing counterattack led by Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s veteran brigade. Spearheading Gordon’s attack was a leather-lunged private named James E. Spivey of the 26th Georgia, who was famous in both armies for his awe-inspiring battle cry, ‘a kind of scream or low, like a terrible bull, with a kind of neigh mixed along with it, and nearly as loud as a steam whistle.’ Known as ‘Gordon’s Bull,’ Spivey gave his accustomed roar and Gordon’s men crashed into the Iron Brigade from the north. For the first time in its proud history, the Iron Brigade broke and ran, leaving behind a pair of silver bugles that the Georgians happily scooped up and used until the end of the war.
Wadsworth’s other brigades fared little better. In short order, Brig. Gen. James Rice and Colonel Roy Stone brought their shattered troops back to the rear as well, and Wadsworth desperately attempted to stabilize his line and hold off repeated Confederate counterattacks across the body-strewn fields to the west. ‘As a grand, inspiring spectacle it was highly unsatisfactory, owing to the powder smoke obscuring the vision,’ wrote one private. ‘At times we could not see the Confederate line, but that made no difference; we kept on firing just as though they were in full view. We gained ground at times, and then dead Confederates lay on the ground as thickly as dead Union soldiers did behind us. Then we would fall back, fighting stubbornly, but steadily giving ground, until the dead were all clad in blue.’
For over an hour, a blistering cross-fire swept Saunders’ Field and the woods below it, while wounded Union and Confederate soldiers squirmed facedown in the dust, unable to move forward or backward. Then the veteran troops’ worst predictions came true. Brushfires kindled by bullets striking breastworks erupted on all sides, filling the air with the unmistakable, sickening stench of burning flesh. Ominous, muffled popping sounds marked the explosion of dozens of cartridge belts tied around wounded soldiers’ waists, sending deadly shards of tin slicing through their bowels. Many of the wounded committed suicide to avoid the evil tongues of flame snaking toward them on all sides.
As the bloodletting continued around Saunders’ Field, Sedgwick’s VI Corps moved into line north of Warren’s Corps and joined the fray. The heavy gun smoke and tangled underbrush so limited the soldiers’ line of sight that one newly arrived Wisconsin soldier recalled that the men’soon began firing by earsight.‘ Sedgwick himself barely escaped death when a Rebel cannonball struck within a yard of him, decapitating a private and sending the unfortunate man’s head crashing full into the face of Captain Thomas Hyde, knocking him to the ground and covering him with blood and brains. ‘I was not much use as a staff officer for full fifteen minutes,’ Hyde admitted.
At the south end of the battle, Brig. Gen. George Getty’s lone Union division was holding onto the key intersection of the Orange Plank Road and the Brock Road linking the Wilderness thoroughfare to Todd’s Tavern, where Hancock’s II Corps was still posted. Now, directed by Meade to attack down the road, Getty’s troops crept forward, scarcely able to see 10 yards ahead of them. They had not gone far along the road before they were met by a terrible blast from Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s Confederate brigade. One North Carolinian in the brigade remembered: ‘A butchery pure and simple it was, unrelieved by any of the arts of war in which the exercise of military skill and tact robs the hour of some of its horrors.’ To another Confederate, it was not even a battle, but simply ‘bushwhacking on a grand scale.’
Hancock’s corps, arriving on the scene, rushed forward to support Getty’s chewed-up division, but met the same brutal reception. Hancock himself managed to rally the men behind an opportune line of rifle pits, while Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s division hurried up from Todd’s Tavern to lend strength to the assault. Behind the line, at Grant’s headquarters, the sounds of Hancock’s attack could clearly be heard, but no one could follow what was happening. It sounded, said Grant’s aide Adam Badeau, ‘like an incessant peal of thunder.’ As for Grant, he continued nervously whittling pieces of wood into formless shavings. Otherwise, he betrayed no emotion. But one order he had already given revealed as clearly as a dozen grand speeches what his mindset was that day: all but one bridge across the Rapidan had been torn down. There would be no turning back.
For three more hours, until well after dark, the fighting continued in the flame-torn woods, as first Union, then Confederate forces crashed blindly into one another, only to be sent stumbling backward in the smoke and fire. ‘It was like fighting a forest fire,’ North Carolina Captain R.S. William remembered. Another Southerner, standing in the middle of the roadway with blood dripping from his shattered arm, amazedly told new troops rushing toward the front that ‘dead Yankees were knee deep all over about four acres of ground.’
Near sunset, the head of Longstreet’s relief column finally reached the outskirts of the battlefield, having marched 28 lung-bursting miles in one day. The men, exhausted, flopped down on the side of the road, too tired to pitch their tents. Longstreet allowed them to rest for several hours, then started them eastward at about 1 a.m. He had received a puzzling order from Lee–instead of continuing toward Todd’s Tavern to attack the Union left, he was directed to veer northward and unite with the troops of the III Corps on the Plank Road. First reports from the battlefield were all favorable, but Longstreet was not reassured by the sudden change of direction. Literally in the dark about Lee’s intentions, Longstreet got his men underway, but the road was overgrown with bushes and difficult to follow. Progress was excruciatingly slow. Meanwhile, Lee sent a telegram to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, reporting that ‘the enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday….A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it….The enemy subsequently concentrated upon General Hill, who resisted repeated and desperate assaults….By the blessing of God we maintained our position.’
At Union headquarters, Grant had a different view of the first day’s fighting. ‘I feel pretty well satisfied with the results of the engagement,’ he told Meade, ‘for it is evident that Lee attempted by a bold movement to strike this enemy in flank…but in this he failed.’ That was not quite true; Lee, in fact, had held back from any all-out flank attack. Still, Grant did not want Lee to take the initiative the next morning. He directed Meade to have Hancock and Wadsworth attack Hill’s corps at 4:30 a.m. Burnside, for his part, was to send one division to support Hancock while his other two divisions attacked Hill in flank, and Warren and Sedgwick simultaneously attacked along their respective fronts. ‘We shall have a busy day tomorrow,’ Grant advised his staff, ‘and I think we had better get all the sleep we can tonight. I am a confirmed believer in the restorative qualities of sleep, and always like to get at least seven hours of it.’ In the pitch-black fields to the west, where occasional brushfires still flared in the dark, thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers were lost in a sleep from which they would never awaken.
At the south end of the battlefield, few of the ranking Confederate officers were able to sleep. Again and again, couriers went west along the Orange Plank Road, searching in vain for Longstreet’s corps. Meanwhile, at Hill’s headquarters, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth argued unsuccessfully with Hill to rearrange Heth’s and Cadmus Wilcox’s divisions on either side of the roadway. As it now stood, Heth warned, the two divisions were so mixed up that ‘a skirmish line could drive both my division and Wilcox’s, situated as we are now.’ Hill refused, saying that Longstreet would arrive soon and take over the next day’s defense. Heth was unpersuaded, knowing Longstreet’s reputation for moving slow and arriving late. ‘I walked the road all night,’ Heth remembered. ‘Twelve, two, three o’clock came, and half-past three, and no reinforcements.’ Lieutenant Colonel William C. Poague, whose artillery battalion was posted nearby, was alarmed to find many of Hill’s III Corps sleeping unconcernedly along the road, their arms casually stacked in rows beside them. ‘I asked an officer the meaning of the apparent confusion and unreadiness of our lines,’ said Poague, ‘and was told that Hill’s men had been informed that they were to be relieved by fresh troops before daylight, and were expecting the relieving forces any minute. I asked where the Yankees were. He didn’t know certainly, but supposed they were in the woods in front. He struck me as being very indifferent and not at all concerned about the situation.’
The next morning, at first light, Hancock’s corps, augmented by divisions from the V and VI Corps, fell on the unready Confederates from the east and north. As Heth had warned, Hill’s troops were unable to resist the massive onslaught. Some fought stubbornly before falling back; others simply turned tail and ran, convinced that it was impossible to hold the ground and foolish to attempt it. One unit of sharpshooters, ordered to the front, took the ungentlemanly precaution of propping wounded Yankees against the trees in front of them to stop the Union firing. The Federals understandably argued against the ‘inhuman experiment,’ but the Confederates were unmoved. ‘We replied that their own men would certainly not fire on them,’ one sharpshooter recalled. ‘The object in view was to stop the firing.’ It worked for a while, but the onrushing Northerners simply ran around the advanced Rebel position and continued their attack unchecked.
By 5:30 a.m., Hill’s corps was shattered, and Hancock was beaming in jubilation. ‘We are driving them beautifully,’ he cried, drawing out the last word for emphasis. ‘Tell Meade we are driving them most beautifully.’ In a short time, Meade responded, and his return message quickly turned Hancock’s smile into a scowl. ‘I am ordered to tell you, sir,’ said a messenger, ‘that only one division of General Burnside is up, but that he will go in as soon as he can be put in position.’
‘I knew it,’ Hancock spat. ‘Just what I expected. If he could attack now, we would smash A.P. Hill all to pieces!’ As it was, Hancock’s own men had outrun their supports and lost momentum. Ammunition was running low, and the soldiers were once again becoming hopelessly enmeshed in the tangled briars and underbrush. The Union battle line stretched for over a mile across the Orange Plank Road, disappearing on either side into the junglelike forest.
A soldier came up to Hancock with a captured Rebel in tow. ‘I was ordered to report that this prisoner here belongs to Longstreet’s corps,’ he told the general. The prisoner confirmed the news. ‘It was too true,’ remembered Hancock aide Theodore Lyman. ‘Longstreet, coming in all haste from Orange Court House, had fallen desperately on our advance.’
Many on the Confederate side of the field might have disputed just how hastily Longstreet had come up, but he had finally arrived. Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw’s division, in the lead, swerved to the south of the Orange Plank Road, while Maj. Gen. Charles Field’s division headed north. In the vanguard of Field’s division was Brig. Gen. John Gregg’s tough veteran brigade of Texans and Arkansans. When Gregg’s troops swept into battle, past a hard-firing artillery battery, Robert E. Lee himself rode out to greet them. ‘Who are you, my boys?’ Lee cried. ‘Texas boys,’ they yelled back. ‘Texans always move them!’ Lee cried, as near to losing his famous composure as he ever came.
Gregg’s voice boomed out. ‘Attention Texas Brigade,’ he called. ‘The eyes of General Lee are upon you. Forward, march!’ With a loud cheer, the Texans broke for the front. ‘I would charge hell itself for that old man,’ one officer cried. Suddenly, the men realized that Lee himself was riding forward with them, his eyes shining brightly. ‘Go back, General Lee, go back,’ cried the men. ‘Lee to the rear!’ With some difficulty, Lee’s aides managed to get the general to turn his horse around and let the infantrymen handle the charge. Longstreet, who came upon the scene at that moment, said later that Lee was ‘off his balance.’ If so, it was due mainly to Longstreet’s delay in getting to the front. Gregg’s men succeeded in blunting the Union attack, but at a terrible cost. Of the 800 men in the brigade, less than 250 escaped unharmed. Nevertheless, the Union offensive had been halted in its tracks, and the Confederate battle line now stretched unbroken from the Orange Plank Road north to the Orange Turnpike.
At 10 a.m., Longstreet received word from his chief engineer that an unfinished railroad bed, not shown on any maps, lay open and unguarded on the Union left flank. Longstreet hastily assembled an attack force, three brigades strong and personally directed by his trusted aide, Lt. Col. G. Moxley Sorrel. The Confederates tore through the Union flank unchecked, sending it careening back in despair. ‘The terrible tempest of disaster swept on down the Union line,’ one New Yorker recalled years later, ‘beating back brigade and brigade until upwards of twenty thousand veterans were fleeing, every man for himself.’
Sorrel hurried back to tell Longstreet the good news. Along the Plank Road, the 26-year-old officer–who had never before commanded troops in battle–encountered ‘quite a party of mounted officers and men riding with [Longstreet].’ Brigadier General Micah Jenkins of South Carolina, who was scarcely older than Sorrel, threw his arm around the colonel and cried, ‘Sorrel, it was splendid; we shall smash them now.’ But the happy scene did not last long. As Longstreet’s party proceeded up the road they were suddenly struck by a volley of gunfire from the thickly tangled woods alongside. Understandably jittery Confederates in the underbrush, mistaking the dark-clad horsemen for Union cavalry, had opened fire, blasting Jenkins from his saddle and sending Longstreet reeling in his seat. Jenkins, struck in the head, was mortally wounded. Longstreet, with wounds to the shoulder and throat, was wheezing bloody foam from his mouth. ‘Tell General Field to take command and move forward with the whole force and gain the Brock Road,’ he gasped.
Longstreet’s wounding fatally stalled the Confederate advance. The Kentucky-born Field, who was still suffering from the aftereffects of a crippling wound at Second Manassas, took several hours to rearrange his lines. The delay allowed Hancock’s men to construct a row of formidable chest-high breastworks of logs and dirt, and to clear an unobstructed line of fire in front of them. When the Southern forces finally went forward again at 4:15 p.m., they ran head-on into a well-rested enemy supported by 12 judiciously placed artillery pieces. What followed was ‘the most desperate assault of the day,’ one Massachusetts defender recalled. Northern war correspondent Charles Page, an eyewitness to the attack, called it the ‘most wicked assault thus far encountered–brief in duration, but terrific in power and superhuman momentum.’
Screaming the Rebel yell at the top of their lungs, the Confederates plunged through the forest toward Hancock’s line. The ‘unquenchable fellows,’ as an admiring Union officer termed them, knelt in the dust 30 yards from the Federal breastworks, desperately firing their muskets at the few heads bobbing above the works. Most of their bullets flew high, while the blueclad defenders blasted away at point-blank range in comparative safety. Aided by a quick-spreading brushfire, some of Field’s men actually managed to breach the Union line, but a swift counterattack drove them back. New York infantryman Charles Weygant described the ensuing rout: ‘Over the works rushed the Union line with clubbed muskets, swords, and bayonets, right at the now totally demoralized Confederates, who broke for the rear, and fled in the wildest disorder across the slashing and down through the woods again.’
At least one high-ranking Confederate officer, artillery Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, believed the afternoon attack should never have happened. ‘The attack ought never, never to have been made,’ he wrote after the war. ‘It was sending a boy on a man’s errand. It was wasting good soldiers whom we could not spare. It was discouraging pluck and spirit by setting it an impossible task.’ Given Lee’s erratic behavior that afternoon, it was indeed a questionable decision, comparable in scope and result to the forlorn assault at Gettysburg by Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s doomed division. Something deep in Lee’s psyche could not accept frustration–much less defeat. Having already told his son that he could see ‘nothing to live for’ if he lost the war, Lee’s ill-considered decision to attack entrenched Union fortifications that afternoon guaranteed that hundreds of his men would not have the same freedom of choice in the future.
As for Grant, he was perfectly willing to accept a tactical draw on the battlefield. Following a sunset repulse of Gordon’s division at the north end of the Union line along the Orange Turnpike, the general called off any more Federal attacks. He had spent the afternoon nervously whittling–he wore out his new yellow gloves in the process–and smoking some 20 cigars. Studying a map with his aide, Horace Porter, Grant figuratively pulled in his horns. ‘I do not hope to gain any decided advantage from the fighting in this forest,’ the general declared. ‘I did expect excellent results from Hancock’s movement early this morning, when he started the enemy on the run; but it was impossible for him to see his own troops, or the true position of the enemy, and the success gained could not be followed through in such country. I can certainly drive Lee back into his works, but I shall not assault him there; he would have all the advantages in such a fight. If he falls back and entrenches, my notion is to move promptly toward the left. This will, in all probability, compel him to try and throw himself between us and Richmond, and in such a movement I hope to be able to attack him in a more open country, and outside of his breastworks.’
Subsequent events proved Grant correct. The next day, while Lee’s exhausted soldiers clung to their own breastworks and nursed their battle wounds, the Union army began moving southeast around the Confederate flank, heading for Spotsylvania Court House, 10 miles away. Lee quickly moved to intercept Grant, realizing as he did that he now faced an opponent who would not retreat after he had been sorely tested. Nearly 30,000 men, Union and Confederate, had fallen in the Wilderness without noticeably altering the deadly logic of Grant’s mathematics: the more men he lost, the more men Lee would lose, and Grant had all the numbers on his side.
The two armies would meet again at Spotsylvania, and many other places, before the war was over, but no one–general or private–would ever again suffer the unique horrors of the Wilderness. Grant, who was not given to overstatement, said later that ‘more desperate fighting has not been witnessed on this continent than that of the 5th and 6th of May.’ His aide Porter was virtually biblical in his judgment. ‘It seemed as though Christian men had turned to fiends,’ he wrote, ‘and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.’ For all concerned, the Battle of the Wilderness had indeed been a hell on earth, one that survivors would never forget.
This article was written by Roy Morris, Jr. and originally published in the April 1997 issue of Military History magazine.
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Battle of the Wilderness With General Robert E. Lee
The great spring campaign of 1864 was about to get underway. For weeks Confederate General Robert E. Lee had watched the Union forces camped to the north of the Rapidan River grow in size and confidence. On May 2, 1864, he met with his senior officers atop Clark’s Mountain, a high point just south of the Rapidan River and the location of one of his best observation posts and signal stations. A staff officer, Major Jedediah Hotchkiss, later wrote that Lee had ‘concluded from the bustle in the Federal camps that an early movement was in contemplation.’ Hotchkiss also credited Lee with accurately predicting the exact points where Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac would cross the river. While Lee may have pinpointed the Federal crossings, little he did during the ensuing Battle of the Wilderness indicated he fully understood his enemy’s intentions.
The next day, May 3, Lee telegraphed his assessment of the situation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond. After ticking off the reported movements of Union forces as close as Virginia and as far away as Florida, Lee cautioned Davis to ‘look to see them operating against Richmond, and make…preparations accordingly.’ During the night of May 3 Lee was disturbed by reports from Clark’s Mountain that the Union army had begun to move. A query to the signal station brought back word that it was too dark to determine the precise direction of the Yankee movement. The officer in charge was told to report the enemy’s direction as soon as it was light. Lee ordered Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s II Corps to be ready to march at dawn.
More information continued to arrive during the pre-dawn hours of May 4 as Lee pondered a critical question–which way was the Union army coming at him? Would the Federals feint to the east and then bring the weight of their strength against Lee’s western flank? Was it more probable that the Union host would shift to the east and either cross the Rapidan River near Chancellorsville or the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg? Detachments of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry were spread along the Rapidan at every major ford to spot any crossings and gather intelligence about the composition of the forces involved. Reports began trickling in throughout the early morning hours.
The weather was clear on May 4, and Lee’s spotting stations had no trouble gauging the direction of the enemy’s march. At 9:30 a.m. came word that the Federals seemed to be moving to the right and heading for Germanna Ford and Ely’s Ford. Although Lee had correctly guessed the locations of the crossings and had been positively informed of the Northern march routes, it was not until midday that he became convinced the Union columns were definitely moving to his right. Only after making that determination did he allow his own various army corps to begin their marches. Orders went out to Ewell (whose men had been standing ready since dawn) to move his 17,000 men east along the Orange Turnpike. At the same time, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill was told to march his III Corps, some 22,000 strong, east from the Orange Court House area. Deciding to play it safe, Lee ordered Hill to leave one of his divisions, under Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson, to watch the river–just in case the enemy tried to slip behind him.
Lee’s remaining infantry corps, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s I Corps, had been serving in the Western theater and had only returned in late April. Minus a division on detached duty, the I Corps numbered 10,000 men. It was camped around Gordonsville, 10 miles southwest of Orange Court House. Lee’s operative plan anticipated the three corps forming a continuous north-south line, and Longstreet’s route was designed to bring his men up on Hill’s right flank, even as Hill himself took station off Ewell’s right.
Not long after midday, Lee broke camp and rode eastward with his staff, finally stopping at New Verdiersville about 6 p.m. Soon after setting up his headquarters in a small woods near the house of a family named Rhodes, Lee sent off another note to Davis suggesting that he still had not figured out the enemy’s intentions. ‘You will already have learned that the army of Genl Meade is in motion, and is crossing the Rapidan on our right,’ Lee wrote, ‘whether with the intention of [turning toward us and] attacking, or moving [away from us] toward Fredericksburg, I am not able to say.’ It was the disposition of his own forces that commanded Lee’s immediate attention.
Ewell’s corps, which had started the day’s march closest to where the enemy was crossing the Rapidan and had a less winding road to follow, would make first contact. Lee called upon his assistant adjutant general, Lt. Col. Walter Taylor, and briefed him about orders for Ewell. Taylor then set down Lee’s comments in a note he sent off to the II Corps commander at 8 p.m. ‘General Lee,’ Taylor told Ewell, ‘wishes you to be ready to move on early in the morning.’ If morning found the enemy moving toward Fredericksburg, Ewell was ‘to push on after him.’ If, on the other hand, the Yankees were there to fight and were moving toward Ewell’s men, Lee wanted Ewell to take up a defensive position along Mine Run–the same position they had successfully held against another Union movement the previous November.
Curiously, Lee omitted two obvious scenarios from his briefing, or perhaps Taylor simply neglected to include them. What if the Federals were taking up a defensive line of their own? What if they were moving south instead of east or west? By not mentioning what he wanted Ewell to do under those circumstances, Lee in effect limited Ewell to his general statement of purpose, which was ‘to bring [the enemy] to battle as soon now as possible.’ With this purposeful if vague phrasing, Lee opened the door to a series of events that would bring his forces to the brink of disaster the next day in the fast-developing Battle of the Wilderness.
Lee did not get much sleep that night. Each hour brought another courier with new bits of information that had to be weighed and evaluated. Lacking sufficient staff to handle the work, it fell to the army commander to process the confusing odds and ends. Around midnight a rider brought a message from Stuart stating the enemy’s main body lay near Wilderness Tavern. Lee realized by the early hours of May 5 that the Federals had marched into the Wilderness and suddenly stopped. He also knew that they were grouped into two large columns, one crossing by way of Germanna Ford, the other farther to the east via Ely’s Ford.
The numbers did not favor Lee. Counting the two divisions of Hill’s corps and the three in Ewell’s, there were five Confederate infantry divisions on hand to face perhaps four Federal corps. While Lee may have hoped to strike the enemy quickly, those aspirations were tempered by the knowledge that the earliest Longstreet’s corps could arrive on the scene would be late on May 5. Confrontation–not combat–became Lee’s watchword. A year earlier, at the Battle of Chancellorsville, he had fixed the enemy in place with two divisions and crushed their flank with three others. To enact a similar plan against Meade’s troops, he had five divisions to locate and hold the Federals in place while Longstreet’s divisions were being hustled up to deliver the flanking blow.
While Lee finished his pre-dawn breakfast, the Confederate columns resumed their march, Ewell’s men following the Orange Turnpike, Hill’s sidling off to the Orange Plank Road. Lee saddled up his horse Traveller, and decided to join Hill’s column.
Lee’s decision to ride with Hill instead of Ewell likely stemmed from several reasons. One was Hill’s unpredictability. The veteran officer suffered from various real and imaginary ailments and could not always be counted upon to exercise firm control of his troops. Then, too, Lee expected Hill to link up with Longstreet’s turning force. The junction of the two corps was critical, and the commanding general could keep a closer eye on this union by traveling with Hill’s veterans.
When Hill’s soldiers reached the weathered but still serviceable earthworks that stretched north to south along the course of Mine Run, the files likely slowed in anticipation of taking up the positions. But no order to halt was given. Instead, the columns continued to press toward the east. Realizing Lee’s intention to strike the enemy, the men sent up a rolling cheer. Some were heard to call out, ‘Marse Bob is going for them this time.’
No solid contact with the Federals had occurred when, around 6:30 a.m., Ewell’s aide, Major Campbell Brown, reported to Lee that Ewell had met token resistance and intended (per his understanding of Lee’s instructions) to ‘push on until he found them in force.’ Lee now changed his mind. Suddenly worried that his two increasingly divergent infantry corps could not support each other, he did not want Ewell barreling into a fight.
Lee gave Brown fresh instructions that significantly modified those of the previous evening. Lee was emphatic that he ‘did not want a general engagement brought on until Longstreet could come up, which would hardly be before night.’ Furthermore, Lee wanted to be certain that Ewell did not ‘get his troops entangled so as to be unable to disengage them.’ Behind this decision was the fact that Lee was still unclear as to the location and purpose of the enemy.
Lee continued on with Hill, the two generals riding near the head of the column. At least a full brigade of infantry, plus cavalry squads, screened the command party. Two miles west of Parker’s Store the advance elements ran into a Union cavalry force aggressively probing toward Mine Run.
The first encounters with the Union cavalry took place between 6:30 and 7 a.m. The horsemen, though outnumbered, succeeded in delaying the approaching Rebel columns. After a time-consuming deployment, one of Hill’s brigades finally shoved the stubborn troopers back two miles to Parker’s Store, where the open ground made it impossible for the cavalrymen to make a stand. Lee reached Parker’s Store sometime after 8 a.m. There, the officers could hear a deeper rumble of continuous firing farther south, where one of Stuart’s brigades was covering the Catharpin Road, which led east to Todd’s Tavern.
At Parker’s Store, Hill’s men entered the outer limits of the Wilderness, a densely forested region choked with underbrush and stunted trees that encroached on both sides of the narrow road, further slowing down the column, which could move only as fast as its flanking parties. Another three hours passed before Hill’s cautiously advancing columns, still pushing the Yankee cavalry, overran another open area around a farm known locally as the Widow Tapp’s. Here Lee pondered his situation. His biggest worry at the moment was establishing a firm connection between Hill and Ewell.
The message that Ewell’s chief of staff, Lt. Col. Alexander ‘Sandie’ Pendleton, brought to Lee shortly after noon could not have been comforting to the commander. The II Corps was taking up a line of battle along what Ewell termed ‘a commanding ridge’ on the western side of an open area called Saunders’ Field. Ewell also reported that the Federal force confronting him was growing in size. To make matters worse, at about 11 a.m. he observed a column of Union troops heading south across the Orange Turnpike. This would put them on course to enter the gap that yawned between Ewell and Hill. Lee told Pendleton that he preferred that Ewell not bring on a general engagement before Longstreet came up.
After making a sweep of the Tapp farm area, Hill’s advance elements disappeared into the gloom of the Wilderness as they continued to press the Union troopers. Lee dismounted and sat with Hill under a shade tree to discuss the developing situation. Not long after they began talking, Stuart checked in with news about the fighting along the Catharpin Road. The officers were deeply engrossed in their discussion when, without warning, a line of Union skirmishers eased out of the woods, stepping into the sunlit fields not 200 yards away.
Stuart stood up and stared at the Federals, but Hill did not move. Lee walked without panic toward the Orange Plank Road, calling for a staff officer, Walter Taylor. He reached his horse and mounted, which seemed to be the signal for everyone else to climb onto their horses, (save Hill, who wasted little time scooting for cover on foot). Startled by the flurry of activity, the Federals hurriedly withdrew back into the dense woods.
Closer at hand, Hill’s slow progress down the Orange Plank Road had stopped. The stubborn Union cavalrymen had been replaced by infantry of the Federal VI Corps. To underscore the increasingly tense situation, Hill’s artillerymen began to set up battery positions on a north-south line along a rise in Widow Tapp’s clearing.
Another emissary from Ewell arrived, bringing news indicating no change in the tactical situation at Saunders’ Field. The message from Ewell also confirmed his intention to pull back to the Mine Run entrenchments and dig in if he was attacked. Lee did not like the sound of Ewell’s plans and realized Pendleton had not properly explained the new orders to his commander. Lee explained that the corps was to fall back to Mine Run only in the event it could not hold its position–an important clarification. Not long after the messenger disappeared, heavy firing was heard from Ewell’s direction.
For the next hour and a half, there was little for Lee to do but listen to the sound of fighting on Ewell’s front and watch the slow deployment of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division of Hill’s corps in the woods along the eastern edge of Widow Tapp’s fields. Hasty, fragmentary reports from Ewell were difficult to piece into a coherent picture. Finally, with the firing showing no signs of letting up, Lee imposed himself on Hill to direct that his other available division, Maj. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s, be shifted north to connect with Ewell. This took place between 2:30 and 3 p.m.
According to Wilcox, the move through the dense woods was slow for the first half-mile. Then his leading regiment surprised and captured an enemy party, included several officers. At the same time Wilcox was wedging his way northward through the shadows of the Wilderness, Lee decided that it would be wise for Heth’s men to possess the Brock Road crossing, which lay about a mile east of the Tapp farm. He sent a staff officer to Heth with instructions to occupy the intersection if it could be done without bringing on a general engagement. Heth in turn sent back word that the enemy was posted in strong force and he did not know if he could take the position. The nervous officer asked Lee for a pre-emptive command to advance, which Lee declined to provide.
Not long after 3 p.m., the firing on Ewell’s front subsided into sporadic shooting, indicating that he was holding his own. Given Lee’s desire to probe the enemy but not bring on a general engagement, that was good news. Lee was content to let Heth’s men settle into their positions across the Orange Plank Road without further provoking a response, but he had not counted on the Federals’ changing the picture. At approximately 4:30 p.m., Union troops violently attacked Heth’s lines. Lee was not expecting the Northern surge, and he immediately issued orders recalling Wilcox’s division.
The Federal attacks roaring westward along the Orange Plank Road consisted of elements of the II and VI corps, joined at the end of the day by portions of the V Corps, under the overall coordination of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. Problems inherent in deploying so many men in the dense underbrush, along with the fierce defense mounted by Heth’s men, ended the Federal attack at dusk, just short of a decisive breakthrough. The fighting sputtered out around 9 p.m.
Meanwhile, Lee dictated two messages for Ewell. The first, at 6 p.m., noted that the ‘enemy have made no headway in their attack [against Hill].’ Lee had previously expected Longstreet’s arrival late on May 5, but now he told Ewell that he was hoping to have the I Corps on hand the following morning. Lee went on to sketch a plan that had echoes of the second day at Gettysburg. If Ewell believed there was no chance to operate against the enemy’s right flank, Lee proposed to crush their left, in which case the II Corps commander should be prepared to reinforce the Confederate right.
In a message following an hour later, Lee reiterated the previous note. ‘The enemy persist in their attack,’ said the dispatch, ‘and we hold our own as yet.’ The size of the enemy buildup against Hill gave Lee cause to hope that the Federals had weakened their right to reinforce their left. If such was the case, Ewell should advance and occupy the high ground near Wilderness Tavern in order to cut off the enemy from the river. If not, Lee repeated, ‘You [must] be ready to support our right.’
Ewell’s reply arrived about the time the firing ended. He had taken some hard knocks from two enemy corps, which, he was proud to proclaim, his men had bested. Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps ‘were very roughly handled’ and Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI ‘repulsed…handsomely.’ His own losses were not large, and his men had entrenched the whole line and could hold it. ‘If I attack at daylight (on which point I ask your views),’ Ewell continued, hedging his bets, ‘I will attack Sedgwick.’
At 11 p.m., the Army of Northern Virginia commander sent a message to Secretary of War James Seddon in Richmond summarizing the day’s bloody events. ‘The enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday at Ely’s and Germanna Fords,’ Lee wrote. ‘Two (2) corps of this army moved to oppose him. Ewell’s by the old turnpike, & Hill’s, by the plank road. They arrived this morning in close proximity to the enemy’s line of march. A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it, capturing many prisoners & four (4) pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon Genl Hill, who, with Heth’s & Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated & desperate assaults. A large force of cavalry & artillery on our right flank was driven back by [Brig. Gen. Thomas] Rosser’s Brigade. By the blessing of God we maintained our position against every effort until night, when the contest closed. We have to mourn the loss of many brave officers & men.’
The message suggested that Lee believed Grant was actually shifting troops from one flank to another. That movement was taking place to a small degree, but most of the Federals who had fought Ewell throughout the day were still in place as night fell, while the bulk of those who had attacked Hill had been positioned on that flank all the time. No hint was given regarding Lee’s plans for May 6, likely in case the message was captured or intercepted, nor was there any mention of Longstreet.
In fact, Lee had been thinking often of Longstreet. Shortly before he sent off his 6 p.m. dispatch to Ewell, Lee changed Longstreet’s orders. Instead of swinging into line alongside Hill, the I Corps was to march in support of Hill. Lee chose his aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Charles Venable, to deliver the important message, and the young officer dashed off to find Longstreet’s much-awaited soldiers. The fighting along the Brock Road was not entirely over when Venable returned. The aide reported that Longstreet had received the message and by way of reply had made it clear that his troops would be up in the morning when Lee needed them.
Lee apparently felt that Venable had failed to transmit a proper sense of urgency. He turned to Stuart, who promised that he would see to it that Longstreet was given a clear picture of the army’s perilous condition. Stuart delegated the task to his chief of staff, Major Henry B. McClellan, who set off at once.
When McClellan returned shortly after 10 p.m., it was not with the news that Lee wanted. McClellan had gone as far as Longstreet’s leading division and only spoken to its commander. The infantrymen were in bivouac, and the officer told McClellan that Longstreet’s orders (which he was not going to override on the unsupported word of a young cavalryman unknown to him) were to resume the march at 1 a.m.
Still not convinced that Longstreet fully appreciated how bad things were along the Orange Plank Road, Lee rustled up another courier, Catlett C. Taliaferro, and directed him to locate Longstreet ‘and urge him to use the utmost diligence in coming to his assistance.’ It was well past midnight before Taliaferro returned with a reply from Longstreet promising Lee that his men would ‘be with him at daylight and [ready to] do anything he wants done.’ Lee immediately sent the courier back to reiterate that Longstreet must’strain every nerve to reach our lines before day.’
The net result of all this was that Lee was only able to catnap sporadically throughout the night. He worked steadily past 11 p.m., assessing field returns and generating his report to Richmond. The next few hours witnessed constant interruptions as first McClellan and then Taliaferro shuttled messages to and from Longstreet. There was also a visit from Wilcox and sessions with Hill. All in all, it was a long, wearying night filled with work and tension. Lee had now gone several days without adequate rest. The general surely felt taxed and worn, and perhaps that helps explain Lee’s utter failure to ready and consolidate Hill’s spread-out divisions for what he must have suspected the morning would bring.
At 5 a.m., with pile-driver force, units from the Union II, V and VI corps smashed into Hill’s zigzag lines. Once again the weary, outnumbered Confederates were magnificent in defense, but it was a losing proposition. To their repeated calls for assistance, Lee sent back an urgent appeal that they hold on until Longstreet arrived.
Showing the strain of the situation and successive sleep-deprived nights, Lee untypically lost his composure. At one point he spotted Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan moving back with the sluggish ebb tide. He rode over and gave the brigadier what amounted to a tongue-lashing, comparing the condition of McGowan’s veteran regiments to ‘a flock of geese.’ Spurred by Lee’s anger, McGowan immediately began to reform his brigade. The batteries the Confederates had spread along the western edge of the Tapp fields as a last resort also began to open fire, belching canister rounds eastward.
When Wilcox showed up to report the sorry state of his command, Lee sent him off to find help. ‘Longstreet must be here,’ Lee exclaimed. ‘Go bring him up.’ Meanwhile, enemy bullets were beginning to spatter against the artillery pits where Lee was giving directions and assisting Hill in rallying and reforming his troops. Walter Taylor never forgot the sight of Lee ‘dashing among the fugitives, [and who] personally called upon the men to rally.’ A staff officer present heard Lee ask no one in particular, ‘Why does not Longstreet come?’ His question was answered as a tightly massed column of fresh troops appeared on the Orange Plank Road.
Although Longstreet had deployed most of his arriving brigades along the south side of the Orange Plank Road, it was the leading unit north of it that Lee initially spotted. Even though the troops of the Texas Brigade (which also included Arkansans) had fought with Lee in many previous battles, their commander, Brig. Gen. John Gregg, was unknown to him. ‘General,’ Lee called out to the unidentified officer, ‘what brigade is this?’ ‘The Texas brigade,’ came the reply.
Knowing that the men were heading into a maelstrom where only dash and courage would carry the day, Lee next provided a bit of theater and inspiration. ‘I am glad to see it,’ he called out loudly enough for everyone nearby to hear him. ‘When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel–they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.’ He continued: ‘The Texas brigade always has driven the enemy, and I want them to do it now. And tell them, General, that they will fight today under my eye–I will watch their conduct. I want every man of them to know I am here with them.’ As the battle lines surged around and past him, Lee, in the grip of great emotion, cried out, ‘Texans always move them!’ A courier in the Texas ranks turned to a comrade and with tears coursing down his cheeks, exclaimed, ‘I would charge hell itself for that old man!’
As the 800 members of the Texas Brigade moved across the Widow Tapp’s fields, Lee rode with them. By the time the leading ranks had reached the middle of the clearing it became apparent that he intended to remain with them. ‘Go back, General Lee. Go back!’ came the cry. In the recollection of one onlooker, ‘Five or six of his staff would gather around him, seize him, his arms, his horse’s reins, but he shook them off and moved forward.’ Venable, who was also present, recalled that the ‘gallant General Gregg… turning his horse toward General Lee remonstrated with him.’ Lee eventually took Gregg’s hint and began to fall back while, fired by Lee’s inspiration, Gregg’s 800 soldiers charged into a Union meat grinder that killed or wounded all but 250 of them. The Texans and Arkansans gave their bodies to slow the Northern onslaught. The Union troops broke their own momentum to stop and gun down Gregg’s men.
Coming up to support Gregg was Brig. Gen. Evander Law’s Alabama Brigade. One of Law’s men later recollected seeing Lee and thinking that he ‘appeared to be very much perturbed over his misfortune and [it was] the only time I ever saw him excited.’ Lee repeated the scene with the Texas Brigade when told who the new troops were, crying, ‘God bless the Alabamians. Alabama soldiers, all I ask of you is to keep up with the Texans.’ Once more Lee’s fabled charisma was working. ‘It was impossible not to feel that every man that passed him was, for the time being, a hero,’ wrote an officer on the scene. An unabashed Lee admirer in the Alabama ranks thought the general ‘looked as though he ought to have been and was the monarch of the world.’
Longstreet’s powerful counterattack began around 6 a.m. For the next two hours brutal fighting raged in the Wilderness, with neither side gaining an advantage, but the seemingly irresistible momentum of Hancock’s attack had been checked. There was more good news coming to Lee. Starting around 8 a.m., the first files of Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps began to arrive. Recognizing that the principal action was taking place along the Orange Plank Road–now covered by the I Corps–Lee instructed Anderson to report to Longstreet for orders.
Lee seemed content to let Longstreet run the show. When word came from Hill that he needed one of Anderson’s brigades to help him stop an enemy effort to thrust between him and Ewell, Lee told the messenger, ‘Well, let’s see General Longstreet about it.’ Between 8 and 10 a.m., as the last spasms of fighting flared along the Orange Plank Road, Longstreet learned of an opportunity to use an unfinished railroad cut as a concealed avenue of approach to flank the enemy in front. He moved at once to take advantage of the opportunity.
By this time, Lee had recovered his customary composure and displayed none of the excitement he had exhibited when the enemy had broken through Hill’s lines. When a courier galloped up atop a hard-ridden, foam-flaked animal, Lee chastised the soldier, ‘Young man, you should have some feeling for your horse.’ When another of Hill’s officers appeared with a situation report, Lee quizzed him closely.
At least one bit of information seemed to bring Lee a certain peace of mind. Contact had been made by Hill’s men with Ewell’s, so for the first time in the engagement Lee had a continuous battleline running from the Orange Turnpike to the Orange Plank Road.
Lee’s decision to move Hill north of the Orange Plank Road kept him one step ahead of the Federals, who had tried and failed to exploit the gap with a portion of the IX Corps. With that hole plugged, the way was now clear for Longstreet to carry out his flank attack. That action, involving four brigades led by Longstreet’s assistant adjutant general, Lt. Col. G. Moxley Sorrel, got rolling about 11 a.m. It achieved the tactical surprise its organizers had hoped for and, in Hancock’s own words, began to roll up the Union battle lines like a wet blanket.
Once he was confident that the flank attack was well under way, Sorrel rode back along the Orange Plank Road to find Longstreet. Lee was with Longstreet as he passed around congratulations and, accompanied by staff and other officers, began riding toward the fighting. Lee intended to accompany the party but lingered behind to direct the clearing of the road to allow artillery to come forward. That delay was providential. In the swirling confusion of the battle, Longstreet’s group was mistaken for Federal cavalry and swiftly fired upon. Longstreet was felled by a serious wound in the neck.
Lee remained in place once the firing erupted. After a few minutes an ambulance rattled past and then returned bearing the stricken I Corps commander. An English observer, Francis Dawson, never forgot ‘the sadness in [Lee's] face, and the almost despairing movement of his hands, when he was told that Longstreet had fallen.’
Sorrel came up next with his report for Lee. Before he had been put into the ambulance, Longstreet had instructed the staff officer to tell Maj. Gen. Charles Field, next in command, to resume the drive to the Brock Road as quickly as possible. Sorrel found Lee ‘greatly concerned by the wounding of Longstreet and his loss to the army. He was most minute in his inquiries and was pleased to praise the handling of the flank attack. Longstreet’s message was given, but the General was not in sufficient touch with the actual positions of the troops to proceed with it as our fallen chief would have been able to do; at least, I received that impression, because activity came to a stop for the moment.’
Field, who now labored to bring some order to the various brigades scrambled together along the Orange Plank Road, got help from Lee, who remained near him, giving verbal directions. There was no thought of assuming any defensive position. Lee remained fixed on his intention, stated earlier to Ewell, to crush the enemy’s left.
The regrouping of Longstreet’s tangled striking force took several hours. Fortunately for Lee, the Federals seemed in no condition to spoil things by counterattacking. In fact, all their energies were directed at improving a crude defensive line that had been scratched out along the Brock Road. During the lull, sometime between 2 and 3 p.m., Lee rode north to meet with Ewell.
The meeting sparked controversy after the war, stemming from the writings of one of Ewell’s subordinate officers, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon. Early in the day, the capable and aggressive Gordon had spotted a glaring weakness in the Federal position north of the Orange Turnpike–the right flank of the Union line was in the air and vulnerable to a turning movement. Throughout the late morning and early afternoon Gordon had tried without success to convince Ewell that great opportunity beckoned to hammer the Union right.
The II Corps commander, worried about other threats to his troops, was unreceptive to Gordon’s entreaties. According to Gordon, it wasn’t until Lee showed up and overrode Ewell by approving Gordon’s bold flanking plan that the enterprise was allowed to proceed.
It is not known exactly what Lee said to Ewell, but not long after the meeting the II Corps commander gave Gordon the approval to begin the attack he had been seeking. It took until nearly dusk, however, for the flank attack to begin. While initially successful, it inflicted no serious damage on the Union army. (After the war in a conversation with William Preston Johnston, Lee was quoted as saying that ‘Ewell showed vacillation [at the Wilderness] that prevented him from getting all out of his troops he might.’)
Well before 4 p.m., Lee was back near the Orange Plank Road, where the follow-up attack was at last ready. Nearly four hours had passed since Longstreet’s wounding, and in that time the enemy had been left relatively unchallenged. Nothing Lee had seen in the performance of the Federal troops in two days of fighting suggested that the soldiers were of poor caliber or that their leadership was inept. Yet for reasons never explained, Lee had no second thoughts about ordering the troops massed on either side of the Orange Plank Road to assault Hancock’s firmly entrenched line.
The Southern push along the Orange Plank Road began shortly before 5 p.m. and matched valiant offense against determined defense. The Federals, behind earthworks and backed by cannons, had the odds in their favor, and despite a few scary moments they held on. After the attack failed, Lee rode glumly back to his headquarters at the Tapp house.
Upon reaching his tent, Lee immediately wrote a report of the day’s action. The message sent to Richmond was another masterful Lee exercise in terseness and positive spin: ‘Early this morning as the divisions of General Hill, engaged yesterday, were being relieved, the enemy advanced and created some confusion. The ground lost was recovered as soon as the fresh troops got into position and the enemy driven back to his original line. Afterward we turned the left of his front line and drove it from the field, leaving a large number of dead and wounded in our hands….A subsequent attack forced the enemy into his entrenched lines on the Brock road….Every advance on his part, thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed. Our loss in killed is not large, but we have many wounded; most of them slightly, artillery being little used on either side. I grieve to announce that Lieutenant-General Longstreet was severely wounded.’
More by instinct than actual order, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia strengthened its lines during the night. The next time the enemy came at them, the Southern soldiers would be ready–those who were left standing, that is. As many as one out of six soldiers who marched into the Wilderness wearing gray was either wounded, killed or missing by nightfall on May 6–a staggering 8,000 men in all.
In the cold equations of warfare, the Battle of the Wilderness bore mixed results for the Confederacy. An enemy army, superior in numbers of men and artillery, had tried and failed to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to bay. Yet, while more than holding his own, Lee had not been able to turn Meade’s force from its course. The leadership exercised by Lee was also mixed. Other than giving direction to the full and partial corps that were struck by the enemy on May 5, Lee had little tactical control over the combat. Thanks to Ewell’s adroit shifting of resources and the nullifying effects of the Wilderness on Hancock’s late-afternoon attack against Hill, the Confederate army barely managed to survive a bad day.
The record for May 6 was not much better. Lee’s failure to better prepare Hill’s men for Hancock’s dawn attack nearly began the day with a disastrous rout. After Longstreet’s wounding, Lee’s insistence on a late-afternoon assault along the Orange Plank Road resulted in the loss of thousands of valuable men. The Wilderness had triumphed over Lee on those two days. In the gloomy, smoke-filled forests, not even Robert E. Lee had been able to pierce the fog of war.
For further reading, see Trudeau’s Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864; or The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, by Gordon C. Rhea.
This article was written by Noah Andre Trudeau and originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of America’s Civil War.
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