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The Wilderness: Grant and Lee Meet at Last

By Jay Wertz
8/31/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

The spring of 1864 began full of hope in the North. Having received control of all Federal armies and a promotion to lieutenant general in March, Ulysses S. Grant was confident he could apply a strategy of attacking all Confederate armies simultaneously, denying the South the opportunity to shift its shrinking supplies of manpower and materiel to meet a particular threat. Accompanying the Army of the Potomac, Grant was poised to apply the same pugnacious methods against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia that he had successfully employed in the West—with the ultimate goal of pushing the largest Confederate army back on the capital at Richmond, forcing capitulation. By applying his skillful and battle-tested form of military management to the monolithic Army of the Potomac, he expected to succeed where other generals had failed before him.

Lee had benefited from having the better part of the winter to rest and refit his soldiers south of the Rapidan River after Federal advances in the fall of 1863 failed to threaten his army, and he was gearing up for yet another Federal venture into the Virginia Piedmont toward Richmond. The Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George Meade had repelled Lee’s offensive toward Washington at Bristoe Station in October and had threatened to turn Lee’s forces at Mine Run in late November, but that offensive had fizzled out when the Rebel fortifications behind the Rapidan and Mine Run were deemed too strong.

The Army of Northern Virginia set up winter camps from Orange Court House to the river while Lee appealed to Richmond for manpower and supplies. The two corps there, under Lt. Gens. A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell, suffered through the difficult winter and awaited the return of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s men from their camps in east Tennessee. The Army of the Potomac wintered in relative comfort around Brandy Station and Culpeper.

It is tempting to include many of the surrounding and overlapping Civil War sites of northern Virginia in this issue’s tour, but that would far exceed the scope of this article. Like the armies of blue and gray, however, the Civil War traveler of today is likely to pay multiple visits to this area so rich in history. Between visits to battlefields, museums and historic traces there are a number of other indoor and outdoor activities here. This area is renowned for antiques—shops and flea markets abound. Rivers and lakes provide opportunities for recreational activities. Cycling can be enjoyed on trails in the region’s parks, including park roads within Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. The traditional charm of the area extends to restaurants, taverns and bed and breakfast establishments, many in historic 18th- and 19th-century buildings.

Starting this tour from Orange Court House (now Orange) brings visitors to the Wilderness the same way that the Southern troops approached the area, via Va. 20 (formerly Orange Turnpike) or Va. 621 (formerly Orange Plank Road). Crossing the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford on Va. 3 or Ely’s Ford on Va. 610 allows modern travelers to see the two crossings used by Federal soldiers.

By April 1864, it had become apparent to all that a new Federal offensive in the East was imminent. By then Grant’s reputation as a fighter had reached not only the officers but also enlisted men on both sides. The Federals’ sense of urgency was exacerbated by the many three-year enlistments that were set to expire by midsummer. Union officers waged furious reenlistment campaigns within their ranks. Grant’s March consultation with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in Cincinnati outlined the coordinated Federal strategy. Though politics overrode Grant in the selection of commanders of three other Union offensives, two of which would also be in Virginia, the lieutenant general careful detailed their objectives.

On the other side, Lee planned his defensive strategy. Visiting the lookout post on Clark’s Mountain on May 2, he surveyed the terrain and reasoned correctly that Grant would approach the Wilderness and attempt to flank the strong Rebel fortifications extending to Mine Run, rather than flank Lee to the west along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and leave the approach to Washington unprotected.

On May 3, the Army of the Potomac, trimmed by Meade to three corps under Maj. Gens. Gouverneur K. Warren, John Sedgwick and Winfield Scott Hancock, broke camp and marched to the Rapidan. Cavalry units, now under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, whom Grant had brought from Tennessee, scattered pickets at Germanna and Ely’s fords, and shortly after midnight on May 4 pontoon bridges were laid. Warren’s V Corps and Sedgwick’s VI Corps proceeded south across Germanna Ford toward Wilderness Tavern. Most of the cavalry, supply trains and Hancock’s II Corps crossed at Ely’s Ford and camped on the old Chancellorsville battleground. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps, which reported directly to Grant, was initially held in reserve north of the river. The total Federal force numbered 118,769 effectives. At Chancellorsville on the night of May 4, amid war debris and shallow graves, veterans told new recruits terrifying stories of fighting in the tangled underbrush a year earlier.

Meanwhile Lee ordered an advance east on two parallel roads entering the Wilderness. Ewell’s Second Corps, situated closest to the river, marched along the Orange-Fredericksburg Turnpike. Hill’s Third Corps advanced along the Orange Plank Road. Longstreet’s First Corps, camped farther south at Gordonsville, was ordered to advance as well, but the distance would cause them to arrive later. Lee intended to give battle in the Wilderness to prevent the Federals from marching unimpeded to open land farther south. His two available corps would have to slow down Grant for a day until Longstreet arrived to bring Lee’s full complement of 65,000 into the battle. By this time both sides had become adept at erecting breastworks quickly, a circumstance that would greatly affect the Battle of the Wilderness and subsequent battles in the campaign.

The Federal leadership underestimated the Confederates’ ability to mobilize quickly, and no cavalry patrols were sent west of the Germanna Plank Road on the night of May 4. When the lead elements of Warren’s corps began to move south toward the Orange Plank Road on the morning of May 5, Federal pickets encountered Ewell’s men in fortified positions across the Orange Turnpike.

Initial thoughts that the Southern force was a reconnaissance only were dispelled by the ferocity of Confederate fire as Warren’s men advanced westward at 1 p.m. over the open ground of Saunders’ field. At the same time Hill’s lead division under Maj. Gen. Henry Heth advanced up the Orange Plank Road, but—as at Gettysburg—Heth was initially checked by Union cavalry, then by three VI Corps brigades under Brig. Gen. George Getty. As the troops of Heth and Getty fought, Hancock’s men secured the important Orange Plank Road intersection with Brock Road and erected log breastworks.

Lee’s holding tactic had worked; fighting died down on the evening of May 5. Though Hill’s corps was cut up and barely holding its position, Lee was confident Longstreet’s corps would be in place by the morning. Grant ordered a dawn attack, and though Ewell’s men continued to hold elements of the Federal V and VI corps at bay astride the turnpike, the combined elements of the II, V and VI corps assembled by Grant slammed into Hill’s scattered units on the Plank Road and Widow Tapp farm adjacent to it. It appeared Lee’s flank would be turned until Brig. Gen. John Gregg’s Texas Brigade arrived in the van of the First Corps. Seeing the trouble Hill was in, Lee had ridden to the front and placed himself in peril until the arriving Texans and Arkansans, as well as his own staff, finally convinced Lee to ride to the rear.

Longstreet’s timely advance steadied the Rebel front along the Orange Plank Road, driving the Federals back several hundred yards. Then Longstreet was informed of an unfinished railroad bed south of the road and ordered his aide, Lt. Col. G. Moxley Sorrel, to organize a flanking maneuver. While Sorrel took several brigades to attack Hancock’s left flank, Longstreet advanced with the main force along the Plank Road. Brigadier General James Wadsworth, among the best Northern political generals and one of the richest men in America, was mortally wounded leading a counterattack north of the Plank Road. In the confusion of repulsing this attack, Longstreet, like “Stonewall” Jackson a year earlier, became a victim of friendly fire. Though seriously wounded, Longstreet survived while several officers with him were killed. Confusion followed this disaster. Hancock’s men withdrew to their Brock Road breastworks and held off Confederate charges until the logs caught fire. The Confederates launched another attack through the burning timber, but Hancock’s artillery beat back the charge, and the fighting then died down in this sector.

Little progress was made by either side on the 6th along the Orange Turnpike. Earlier in the day, Grant had ordered Burnside to advance between the parallel roads and attack Hill’s rear, but the two IX Corps divisions were held in the tangled underbrush by a single Confederate brigade until it was reinforced. As the day wore on, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s Division found Sedgwick’s right flank unsupported and urged an attack. But Early believed Burnside was headed there and refused to authorize the advance until Ewell overruled him. Gordon had initial success in the maneuver, but darkness and Early’s unwillingness to commit more troops caused the attack to fizzle out.

The burning underbrush trapped many of the seriously wounded. Though other soldiers risked their lives trying to save comrades, many injured men perished in the flames. Confederate casualties amounted to just under 11,000. Federal casualties approached 18,000. Yet on the morning of May 7 Grant ordered an advance to the southeast, where cavalry had been skirmishing around Todd’s Tavern. Despite the destructive two-day battle in the Wilderness, Grant meant to flank Lee and force him to abandon his position or risk Richmond. Cheers went up in the Federal ranks as the Army of the Potomac’s soldiers realized they would not retreat this day. Northern correspondents, closely following the start of the campaign, wired the news to Washington confirming that President Lincoln had indeed found his man.

The Battle of the Wilderness was fought in essentially the same area on both May 5 and 6, so points of interest will often involve both days’ fighting. Proceed east on Va. 3 or Va. 20 to the Chancellorsville Visitor Center of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Located on Va. 3 just after crossing the Rapidan River is a roadside Virginia Civil War Trails (CWT) marker describing the importance of Germanna Ford in 1864 and other campaigns. The Chancellorsville Visitor Center is the manned facility for the Wilderness battlefield as well. The park use fee is collected here, and rangers are available to answer questions about the Wilderness.

From the visitor center, head west on Va. 3 toward its intersection with Va. 20. Just east of the intersection on the south side of Va. 3 was Wilderness Tavern, where Grant and Meade had their headquarters. The chimney of the structure is still visible. Proceed west on Va. 20 to the Wilderness Battlefield exhibit shelter, which describes the action. This is the area of Saunders’ field where much of the fighting occurred, and a hiking trail begins here. East of the exhibit shelter on park service land is Elwood (Lacy House), which served as Warren’s headquarters. Stonewall Jackson’s amputated left arm was buried in the garden of the house, and a marker stands there today. The property can only be accessed with Park Service permission. Inquire at the visitor center.

From the exhibit shelter take Hill-Ewell Drive, a park road, south. There is a picnic area on this road and a hiking trail on the Chewning farm, the left flank of Hill’s line. The dense underbrush extends eastward toward Brock Road. Take a moment to imagine the difficulty experienced by the soldiers of both sides as they attempted to hold lines together and take aim at an unseen enemy.

Continue south on the park road to the intersection of Va. 621. To the west is an NPS tour stop at the Widow Tapp farm, where Lee came to the front and rallied his soldiers on May 6. Drive east to the intersection of Brock Road. There is a tour stop here and remains of hastily dug Federal earth works. To the south of Va. 621 are remains of the unfinished railroad trace. Continue south on Brock Road to its intersection with Va. 612. This is the site of Todd’s Tavern. A Virginia CWT marker here describes nearby cavalry skirmishes that paved the way for the Federal march to Spotsylvania.

The other sites on this tour are to the west via Va. 20. Clark Mountain can be reached by taking U.S. 522 north, turning left on Va. 627 and then turning right and climbing the peak on Va. 697. A picnic area, nature trail and the Confederate look out point are here. At the intersection of Va. 20 and U.S. 15 is Orange, site of Con federate winter camps. There is a visitor center in this delightful county seat. The courthouse is an antebellum structure, and at 119 Caroline Street is St. Thomas’ Epis copal Church, where Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped. Nearby is the James Madison Museum, and his home, Montpe lier, is west on Va. 20. Eight miles south west on U.S. 15 is Gordonsville, home of the historic Exchange Hotel (on U.S. 33). The hotel, which became part of the major Confederate hospital network in Gordonsville, is now a Civil War museum. Many of the soldiers who died here are interred in Maplewood Cemetery, just west of the intersection of U.S. 15 and U.S. 33.

The Battle of the Wilderness foretold events to come. Grant resolved to “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer,” and the still proud and resourceful Army of Northern Virginia would contest them every step of the way. The frightening casualties of the Wilderness would also be indicative of the price that brave men and determined leaders paid to end the war.

 

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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