Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia

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Battle of the Wilderness
Grant's Overland Campaign

Wilderness and the Civil War

Battle of the Wilderness Map
Battle of the Wilderness Map.gif
Battle of the Wilderness

The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock on 4 May but was forced to stop in the Wilderness to wait for the supply train to catch up. That afternoon Hancock's II Corps bivouacked at Chancellorsville, Warren's V Corps was at Old Wilderness Tavern, and the cavalry divisions of Gregg and J. H. Wilson were forward at Piney Branch Church and Parker's Store, respectively. The Federals had detected some enemy activity along the road from Orange C. H., Lee, who had anticipated Grant's movement and had resolved to hit the Federals while they were in the difficult Wilderness terrain, had Ewell's corps on the Orange Turnpike, and A. P. Hill (minus R. H. Anderson's division) on the Plank Road. The head of Ewell's column was at Locust Grove, little more than three miles from Warren, while A. P. Hill was but slightly more distant from J. H. Wilson. Yet neither army seemed aware of the other's proximity. Longstreet's corps had been at Mechanicsville, and Stuart's cavalry at Fredericksburg; both were moving in to join the rest of the Army of Northern Va. R. H. Anderson's division (A. P. Hill) was near Orange C.H.
       At 6 P.M. 4 May, Grant issued orders to continue the march at 5 o'clock the next morning through the Wilderness to the southeast. Burnside's IX Corps had also been ordered up from its previous mission of guarding the Orange and Alexandria R. R. Sedgwick's VI Corps was just across the Rappahannock. The stage was set.
       At 7:15 A.M. 5 May, Warren reported a considerable enemy force on the turnpike about two miles from Wilderness Tavern. He was ordered to attack what Grant and Meade believed to be no more than a division.
      Crawford, whose division (3, V) had advanced to the Chewning farm, was ordered to hold his position, but to be prepared to send one brigade to support Warren. About noon Griffin (I, V) attacked, routed John M. Jones's brigade of Johnson's division, and then advanced against Battle's and Doles's brigades of Rodes's division (south of the turnpike). Jones was killed. In this advance, however, his right flank became exposed and was attacked by Gordon and Daniel. The Federal brigade of Ayres (I, I, V) was driven back and Griffin had to pull back his entire line. Stafford was mortally wounded and Pegram wounded. Wright's division (I, VI) had been ordered to move from Spotswood to fall in on Griffin's right for this attack and protect his flank, but had not been able to get up in time. He arrived about 3 P.M. and then repulsed an attack by two brigades of Edward Johnson's division. On the other flank Wadsworth's division (4, V) had been ordered to reinforce Griffin's south flank, but it got lost and was driven back in disorder when its right flank was hit by the advancing brigades of Gordon and Daniel. This created a gap through which the Confederates advanced and overpowered Denison's brigade of Robinson's division (3, 2, V). McCandless' brigade (I, 3, V) had also been ordered to form on Wadsworth's left, but Wadsworth had moved out before McCandless could make contact with him. McCandless collided with the forces of Gordon that had just defeated Denison and was also defeated with considerable loss after a heavy engagement. Ewell then dug in along the line where contact had first been made. Opposite him Warren formed (south of the pike) and Sedgwick (minus Getty) extended the line north of the pike.
       To the south, along the Plank Road, the 5th N.Y. and 3d Pa. Cav. were left to outpost Parker's Store while Wilson moved with the rest of his division southwest toward Craig's Meeting House. Kirkland's brigade of Heth's division led A. P. Hill's advance along the Plank Road and drove the Federals toward Wilderness Tavern. Getty's division (2, VI), which had been marching southeast through the latter crossroads at 9 A.M., was sent to stop this enemy advance. At the same time Hancock's corps was ordered to halt in the vicinity of Todd's Tavern. However, in accordance with his earlier orders, Hancock was already two miles beyond the tavern toward Shady Grove Church, and had to countermarch. Getty reached the intersection of the Brock and Plank roads just in time to stop Heth's advance. Both sides then dug in. D. D. Birney's division (3, II) arrived at 2 P.M. and formed to Getty's south; Mott, Gibbon, and Barlow followed and extended the line to the south. Baxter's brigade (2, 2, V) arrived late in the afternoon. A. P. Hill, meanwhile, had been building up his own line and extending north to link up with Ewell; at the same time he was anxiously awaiting the expected arrival of Longstreet behind him. Longstreet, however, had delayed his advance while getting permission to move via the Catharpin Road instead of the Plank Road as Lee had ordered; the result was that he did not arrive in time for the first day's fighting.
       Hancock had also wasted time digging a defensive position before attacking A. P. Hill. Getty attacked at 4:15, after delaying an hour to shift position to make room for Hancock. Although he gained ground with the assistance of Ricketts' battery against the center of Heth's position, he was repulsed on both flanks. The brigade of Col. Lewis A. Grant (2, 2, VI) lost almost 50 per cent. Hancock reinforced with the divisions of D. B. Birney (along the road) and Mott (against the enemy's right); later he committed Carroll's brigade of Gibbon's division (3, 2, II) to the right of the Plank Road in support of Eustis' brigade of Getty's division (4, 2, VI). "There was never more desperate fighting than now ensued," wrote E. P. Alexander. During the action Wilcox' division reinforced Heth. About 5:30 P.M. the Confederates attacked and gained about 50 yards. Two of Barlow's brigades then charged and drove back Hill's right. At 8 P.M., after dark, the fighting stopped. Five Federal divisions (38.000 men) had failed to dislodge A.P. Hill's two divisions (14,000).

Wadsworth's division (4, V) had been ordered from the north to reinforce Hancock by attacking Hill's exposed left. It was unable to find its way through the difficult underbrush in time to be effective.
       Along the turnpike there had been heavy skirmishing. About 5 P.M., the brigades of Seymour (2, 3, VI), Neill (3, 2, VI), and part of Wright's 1st brig. (under W. H. Penrose) attacked the strongly-entrenched brigades of Hays and Pegram south of Flat Run. Neill and Penrose were repulsed with heavy loss by guns Pegram had located so as to enfilade their lines. Seymour attacked until darkness without being able to break through.
       Since he expected Longstreet to arrive soon to relieve his tired troops on the Orange Plank Road, A. P. Hill made the mistake of disapproving the urgent recommendation of Heth that earthworks be constructed in this sector in preparation for the anticipated continuation of Federal attacks.
       Not having identified either Longstreet's corps or R. H. Anderson's division during the day's fighting, Grant ordered a general attack to start at dawn of 6 May. During the night Burnside's IX corps hurried up to reinforce Hancock, while Longstreet and Anderson moved to reinforce A.P. Hill.
       At 5 A.M. Birney attacked with the support of Getty and two of Gibbon's brigades. Mott advanced toward Hill's right. Wadsworth, who had made contact with Hill's left about dark of the preceding day, was to attack in that area. Birney was stopped when he came up against Hill's line, but then succeeded in enveloping it from the south while Wadsworth made progress against the other flank, The Confederates were about to be routed when Field's and Kershaw's divisions of Longstreet's corps arrived and formed a new defensive line.
       Gibbon was in command of a force on the Federal south flank along the Brock Road to guard against an expected advance by Longstreet from this direction. In compliance with an order to attack the Confederate south flank with Barlow's division, Gibbon had sent forward only Frank's brigade (3, I, II). After hard fighting this unit made contact with Mott's left. Due to the difficult terrain Burnside's two divisions were late. At about 8 o'clock Stevenson's division of this corps reported to Hancock and Hancock was informed at about the same time that Burnside with the two other divisions was in position to attack on his right. Actually, Burnside did not get into position until 2 P.M.
       Shortly before 9 A.M., Hancock resumed his attack along the Plank Road with Birney, Mott, Wadsworth, part of Stevenson's division, and three brigades of Gibbon's division. Having heard firing to his south, Hancock sent Brooke's brigade (4, I, II) to guard the Brock Road against a possible approach of Longstreet. Actually, the latter was at this moment on Hancock's front; the firing to the south was a skirmish between Sheridan's and Stuart's cavalry at
TODD'S TAVERN. The concern over an attack from this area was further heightened when a column was reported advancing on the Brock Road. This turned out to be a group of Federal convalescents who were trying to rejoin their units. While Hancock diverted strength to guard his left, Burnside's attack failed to materialize on his right. By about 9:45 A.M., Longstreet had pushed Hancock back to his line of departure.
       Looking for a way to take the offensive, Longstreet learned of an unfinished railroad cut that would provide a covered approach for attacking the Federal south flank. He put his adjutant, Lt. Col. G. Moxley Sorrel, in command of four brigades to make this attempt. The brigades were those of Wofford, G. T. Anderson, Davis, and Mahone. (Many accounts, e. g., Steele, state that Mahone was in command.) Sorrel attacked at 11 A.M., and overwhelmed the Federal flank. Frank's brigade, almost out of ammunition when the attack started, withdrew under heavy pressure; the left of Mott's division then was forced back. Wadsworth was killed while trying to rally his troops. On Birney's suggestion the line was withdrawn to the Brock Road. When Longstreet learned of Sorrel's success, he ordered forward the brigades of Benning, Law, and Gregg. Mahone's men fired by mistake on their own troops, killing Micah Jenkins and seriously wounding Longstreet (this occurred within five miles of where Stonewall Jackson had been mortally wounded under similar circumstances almost exactly a year before.) Longstreet ordered Field to assume command and press the attack. Lee, however, arrived and ordered this advance delayed until the lines could be straightened out.
       There was little fighting in this area between 11 o'clock and 4 P.M. Burnside finally arrived, attacked near the Tapp House, took some ground, but was driven back by reinforcements from Heth's division and Wofford's brigade of Kershaw's division. Before Burnside and Hancock could comply with their orders to attack at 6 P.M., Lee took the initiative. At 4:15 the Confederates advanced to the abatis 100 yards from the Federals' first line of defense and brought it under heavy musket fire. The Federal line held for half an hour; then Ward's brigade (I, 3, II) and part of Mott's division broke. Brush fires had started and Hancock reported that portions of the breastworks were burning so that they could not be defended. Although the Confederates planted their flags over the captured works they were then driven back by Carroll's brigade, supported by Dow's battery. Burnside attacked again but accomplished no more than keeping Heth and Wilcox from moving to Lee's support.
      To the north Sedgwick and Warren had attacked repeatedly and failed to penetrate Ewell's lines. Gordon had found the exposed Federal right flank, but Ewell had refused him permission to attack it. When Lee visited this portion of the front at 5:30 P.M., he ordered the attack made. Gordon's brigade, supported by part of Robert Johnston's, attacked Sedgwick's exposed right flank just before dark, while Pegram's brigade attacked frontally. Shaler's brigade (4, I, VI) was driven back on Seymour's (2, 3, VI) and both of these Federal generals were captured with several hundred men. Johnston reached Wright's rear and captured some prisoners before being ejected from the Federal position. Both sides then entrenched. Brush fires had become such a problem that the fighting stopped at several points throughout the day by mutual consent while soldiers of both sides cooperated in trying to save the wounded. During the night of 7-8 May about 200 men were suffocated or burned to death.
       After dark Grant's forces withdrew and both armies maneuvered toward their next encounter at Spotsylvania, 7-20 May '64.
       The Federals lost an estimated 17,666 out of 101,895 (exclusive of cavalry) engaged; of these, 2,246 were killed and 12,073 wounded. Generals Wadsworth and Alexander Hays were killed, Getty and Carroll wounded, and Shaler and Seymour captured. Confederate effective strength is estimated at 61,025. Although there are no complete casualty reports, Livermore estimates that the Confederates lost a total of 7,750. Gens. Jenkins and J. M. Jones were killed, Stafford mortally wounded, Longstreet, Pegram, Hunter, and Benning were wounded.

(Related reading below.)
 
Source: The Civil War Dictionary, by Mark M. Boatner III

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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