Wilderness Campaign Virginia

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Wilderness Campaign Virginia
Civil War Wilderness Campaign

Grant's Overland Campaign

Near dawn on May 4, 1864, the leading division of the Army of the Potomac reached Germanna Ford, 18 miles west of Fredericksburg. The spring campaign, Grant’s Overland Campaign (aka Wilderness Campaign), was under way and it superficially mirrored the strategic situation prior to the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. A numerically superior Union force, well-supplied, in good spirits, and led by a new commander, moved south toward the Confederate capital. There, however, the similarities ended.

Civil War Wilderness Campaign Map
Civil War Wilderness Campaign Map.gif
Battle of the Wilderness Campaign Battlefield Map

Ulysses S. Grant now directed the Army of the Potomac, although George Meade technically retained the authority he had inherited from Hooker just before the Battle of Gettysburg. In fact, Grant carried the new rank of lieutenant-general and bore responsibility for all Federal armies. The General-in-chief told Meade, "Lee's army will be your objective. Where he goes, there you will go also."

The Confederates also entered the 1864 campaign brimming with optimism and anxious to avenge their defeat at Gettysburg. As usual, the 62,000-man Army of Northern Virginia found itself vastly outgunned and scrambling for supplies, but based on past experience, these handicaps posed little concern. Confederate generalship in the post-Jackson era created more serious problems. Lee elevated both A. P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell to corps command following "Stonewall's" death, but neither officer performed particularly well. Only Longstreet provided Lee with experienced leadership at the highest army level. 

Grant also reorganized his forces, consolidating the army into three corps led by Maj. Gens. Gouverneur K. Warren, John Sedgwick, and Winfield S. Hancock. Ambrose Burnside's independent Ninth Corps raised the total Union compliment to 120,000 men.

The Bluecoats negotiated the Rapidan River on May 4. Lee easily spotted the Federal advance from his signal stations. He immediately ordered his forces to march east and strike their opponents in the familiar and foreboding Wilderness, where Grant's legions would be neutralized by the inhospitable terrain. Ewell moved via the Orange Turnpike, and Hill utilized the parallel Orange Plank Road to the south. Longstreet's corps faced a longer trek than did its comrades, so Lee advised Ewell and Hill to avoid a general engagement until "Old Pete" could join them.

Grant, although anxious to confront Lee at the earliest good opportunity, preferred not to fight in the green hell of the Wilderness. On the morning of May 5, he directed his columns to push southeast through the tangled jungle and into open ground. Word arrived, however, that an unidentified body of Confederates approaching from the west on the Turnpike threatened the security of his advance. Warren dispatched a division to investigate the report.

The Confederates, of course, proved to be Ewell's entire corps. About noon, Warren's lead regiments discovered Ewell's position on the west edge of a clearing called Saunders Field and received an ungracious greeting. "The very moment we appeared," testified an officer in the 140th New York, "[they] gave us a volley at long range, but evidently with very deliberate aim, and with serious effect." The Battle of the Wilderness was on.

Warren hustled additional troops toward Saunders Field from his headquarters at the Lacy House. The Unionists attacked on a front more than a mile wide, overlapping both ends of the clearing. The fighting ebbed and flowed often dissolving into isolated combat between small units confused by the bewildering forest, "bushwhacking on a grand scale," one participant called it. By nightfall a deadly stalemate settled over the Turnpike.

Three miles south along the Plank Road, another battle raged unrelated to the action on Ewell's front. Two of A.P. Hill's divisions pressed east toward the primary north-south avenue through the Wilderness: the Brock Road. If they could seize this intersection quickly, they would isolate Hancock's corps, south of the Plank Road, from the rest of the Union army. Grant recognized the peril and hurried one of Sedgwick's divisions to the vital crossroads.

These Northerners arrived in the nick of time and later, in cooperation with Hancock, began to drive Hill's overmatched brigades west through the forest. Fortunately for the Confederates, darkness closed the fighting for the day.

Lee expected Longstreet's corps to relieve Hill on the Plank Road that night. Hill, anticipating Longstreet's arrival, refused to redeploy his exhausted troops to meet renewed attacks in the morning. This miscalculation proved nearly disastrous to the Army of Northern Virginia.

For a variety of reasons, Longstreet had fallen hours behind schedule. Hancock's 5:00 a.m. offensive on May 6 therefore pitted 23,000 Unionists against only Hill's unprepared divisions, and overwhelmed them. A single line of Southern artillery, posted on the western edge of the Widow Tapp's Farm, now provided the sole opposition to Hancock's surging masses. The guns could not survive long unsupported by infantry. Lee faced a crisis.

Just then a ragged line of soldiers emerged from the forest to the west. "What brigade is this?" inquired Lee. "The Texas brigade!" came the response. Lee knew the only Texans in his army belonged to the First Corps. Longstreet was up! These troops along with others from Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama charged the blue ranks before them and halted Hancock's advance at the price of 50 percent casualties in several regiments.

Longstreet took this chance to snatch the initiative. Utilizing the unfinished railroad (the same corridor on which Sickles had captured the Georgians at Chancellorsville), four Confederate brigades crept astride the Union left flank. The Southerners poured through the woods, rolling up Hancock's unwary troops "like a wet blanket." Union General James Wadsworth fell mortally wounded and the Federals streamed back toward the Brock Road.

Longstreet trotted eastward on the Plank Road in the wake of this splendid achievement, intent upon pursuing the shaken Federals and throwing a knockout punch at his staggered opponents. Then shots rang out from south of the road. Longstreet reeled in his saddle, the victim of a volley fired by Confederate troops about five miles from where Jackson had met the same improbable fate the year before. Unlike "Stonewall," Longstreet would survive his wound, but the tragedy arrested the Rebels' impetus. Lee personally directed a resumption of the offensive a few hours later and briefly managed to puncture the Federal lines along the Brock Road. Hancock, however, expelled the intruders from his midst and maintained his position by the narrowest of margins.

Fighting along the Turnpike on May 6 had also been vicious if indecisive. Late in the day, Georgia Brigadier General John B. Gordon received permission to assault Grant's unprotected right flank. Gordon struck near sunset, capturing two Union generals and routing the Federals. The effort began too late to exploit Gordon's success, however, and Grant reformed his battered brigades in the darkness.

Both armies expected more combat on May 7, but neither side initiated hostilities. Fires blazed through the forest, sending hot, acrid smoke rolling into the air and searing the wounded trapped between the lines - a fitting conclusion to a grisly engagement.

The Battle of the Wilderness marked another tactical Confederate victory. Grant watched both of his flanks crumble on May 6 and lost more than twice as many soldiers (about 18,000 to 8,000) as did Lee. Veterans of the Army of the Potomac had seen this before: cross the river, get whipped, retreat -- the story of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville reprised. But Grant, not Burnside or Hooker, now called the shots.

Late on May 7, the general-chief rode at the head of his army and approached a lonely junction in the Wilderness. A left turn would signal withdrawal toward the fords of the Rapidan and Rappahannock. To the right lay the highway to Richmond via Spotsylvania Court House. Grant pointed right. The soldiers cheered. There would be no turning back.

(Related reading below.)

Sources: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Recommended Reading: The Battle Of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, by Gordon C. Rhea. From Publishers Weekly: Rhea, a Virginia attorney, offers what will likely become the definitive account of one of the Civil War's most confusing engagements: the Battle of the Wilderness, the first encounter between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, fought in Virginia. The author's reconstruction of the fighting highlights the difficulties of controlling troops once they had been committed to action. Grant's original plan was to maneuver Lee out of his defensive position along the Rapidan River, then crush his troops with superior numbers. Instead, Rhea notes, the Wilderness became a "soldiers' battle," with raw courage compensating for inadequate generalship on both sides. Continued below…

Grant relied too heavily on the Army of the Potomac's commander, George Gordon Meade, who failed to coordinate the movements of subordinates disoriented by the broken ground they fought over. Rhea also criticizes Lee for consistently taking the offensive with an army that could not afford the major losses it sustained in attacking. History Book Club main selection.

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Recommended Reading: Lee's Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox (Civil War America). Description: Never did so large a proportion of the American population leave home for an extended period and produce such a detailed record of its experiences in the form of correspondence, diaries, and other papers as during the Civil War. Based on research in more than 1,200 wartime letters and diaries by more than 400 Confederate officers and enlisted men, this book offers a compelling social history of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during its final year, from May 1864 to April 1865. Continued below…

Organized in a chronological framework, the book uses the words of the soldiers themselves to provide a view of the army's experiences in camp, on the march, in combat, and under siege--from the battles in the Wilderness to the final retreat to Appomattox. It sheds new light on such questions as the state of morale in the army, the causes of desertion, ties between the army and the home front, the debate over arming black men in the Confederacy, and the causes of Confederate defeat. Remarkably rich and detailed, Lee's Miserables offers a fresh look at one of the most-studied Civil War armies. "Indispensable volume for the student of Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia, and general Civil War history."

 

Recommended Reading: Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864, by Noah Andre Trudeau. From Publishers Weekly: Ulysses Grant's relentless hammering tactics prevented Robert E. Lee from regaining the strategic initiative in 1864, although the Southern general's defensive operations during May-June of that year are regarded by many as his greatest military accomplishment. It was during this campaign that Grant came to be called "The Butcher" because of the horrendous casualties he was willing to accept as he ordered assault after assault. Continued below…

He did not retreat after suffering tactical defeats in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor, but continued to push his troops ever closer to the rebel capital of Richmond. Not a formal campaign study, this is a dramatic account told through the eyes of soldiers, civilians and government leaders. One of the elements that historian Trudeau dramatizes is the shifting emotional reaction of President Lincoln as he worried whether Grant would prove as faint-hearted as other generals who had faced Lee in the field. When word was brought from Grant that "There is no turning back," the president literally kissed the messenger, for this was probably the most important of several historic turning-points in the four-year Civil War. Includes numerous illustrations.

 

Recommended Reading: The Wilderness Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War), Gary W. Gallagher (ed.). Description: In the spring of 1864, in the vast Virginia scrub forest known as the Wilderness, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee first met in battle. The Wilderness campaign of May 5-6 initiated an epic confrontation between these two Civil War commanders—one that would finally end, eleven months later, with Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Continued below…

The eight essays here assembled explore aspects of the background, conduct, and repercussions of the fighting in the Wilderness. Through an often-revisionist lens, contributors to this volume focus on topics such as civilian expectations for the campaign, morale in the two armies, and the generalship of Lee, Grant, Philip H. Sheridan, Richard S. Ewell, A. P. Hill, James Longstreet, and Lewis Armistead. Taken together, these essays revise and enhance existing work on the battle, highlighting ways in which the military and nonmilitary spheres of war intersected in the Wilderness.

 

Recommended Reading: In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee: The Wilderness Through Cold Harbor (Hardcover), by Gordon C. Rhea (Author), Chris E. Heisey (Photographer). Description: In early May 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant initiated a drive through central Virginia to crush Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. For forty days, the armies fought a grinding campaign from the Rapidan River to the James River that helped decide the course of the Civil War. Several of the war's bloodiest engagements occurred in this brief period: the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, Totopotomoy Creek, Bethesda Church, and Cold Harbor. Pitting Grant and Lee against one another for the first time in the war, the Overland Campaign, as this series of battles and maneuvers came to be called, represents military history at its most intense. In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee, a unique blend of narrative and photographic journalism from Gordon C. Rhea, the foremost authority on the Overland Campaign, and Chris E. Heisey, a leading photographer of Civil War battlefields, provides a stunning, stirring account of this deadly game of wits and will between the Civil War's foremost military commanders. Continued below…

Here, Grant fought and maneuvered to flank Lee out of his heavily fortified earthworks. And Lee demonstrated his genius as a defensive commander, countering Grant's every move. Adding to the melee were cavalry brawls among the likes of Philip H. Sheridan, George A. Custer, James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart, and Wade Hampton. Forty days of combat produced horrific casualties, some 55,000 on the Union side and 35,000 on the Confederate. By the time Grant crossed the James and began the Siege of Petersburg, marking an end to this maneuver, both armies had sustained significant losses that dramatically reduced their numbers. Rhea provides a rich, fast-paced narrative, movingly illustrated by more than sixty powerful color images from Heisey, who captures the many moods of these hallowed battlegrounds as they appear today. Heisey made scores of visits to the areas where Grant and Lee clashed, giving special attention to lesser-known sites on byways and private property. He captures some of central Virginia's most stunning landscapes, reminding us that though battlefields conjure visions of violence, death, and sorrow, they can also be places of beauty and contemplation. Accompanying the modern pictures are more than twenty contemporary photographs taken during the campaign or shortly afterwards, some of them never before published. At once an engaging military history and a vivid pictorial journey, In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee offers a fresh vision of some of the country's most significant historic sites. Includes 61 color illustrations and 15 maps (includes detailed battlefield maps).

 

Recommended Reading: Battle in the Wilderness: Grant Meets Lee (Civil War Campaigns and Commanders), by Grady McWhiney. Description: Designed for those beginning to cultivate an interest in the Civil War, enthusiasts and scholars alike will soon discover the treasure of information contained within the pages of these books. Photographs, biographical sketches and detailed maps are used to illustrate the events of the unfolding drama as each author remains sharply focused on the particular story at hand. Separate and complete, each book conveys the agony, glory, death and wreckage of America's greatest tragedy. "When one reads this invaluable edition, the blood, sweat, carnage and casualties become rather vivid...A coveted study which incorporates rare photos, detailed maps, and much appreciated biographical sketches."

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