Battle of the Wilderness
Virginia Civil War History
May 4, 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant led Major General George G. Meade's Union Army of the Potomac southward across the Rapidan River and into the tangles of the dense forest known as the Wilderness. Consequently,
Robert E. Lee attacked Grant in the Wilderness, turned Grant's left and right flanks, and inflicted 18,000 casualties on
the Army of the Potomac. Rather than retreat, Grant issued orders on May 7 for a night march to Spotsylvania Court House, the next stop on the road to Richmond.
|Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, Map
|Battle of the Wilderness, Civil War Map
The ensuing Battle of the Wilderness was fought along two major
thorough-fares, the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road. The roads were less than three miles apart, but they were separated
by the thickets and tangled undergrowth characteristic of the Wilderness. The resulting battle, therefore, developed into
two distinct engagements, fought through the woods and in a few small fields bordering each road.
Fighting began along
the Orange Turnpike at about mid-day of May 5. The Confederates selected a position bordering on the western edge of Saunders
Field, the clearing around the Wilderness Exhibit Shelter. Union forces attacked across Saunders Field and the fighting spread
into the neighboring woods. During one phase of the fight, the Confederate line broke, but a determined counterattack enabled
the Southerners to re-establish their position.
After fierce fighting
north of the Orange Turnpike early on May 6, the area remained relatively quiet until late in the afternoon, when Brigadier
General John B. Gordon led an attack against the Union right flank. The assault repelled two Union brigades, but darkness
caused confusion among the Confederates and brought the battle to a close.
The bitter fighting
resulted in more than 18,000 Federal casualties and approximately 11,000 Confederate losses. During the evening of May 7,
Grant again pushed his men southward. The next struggle began on May 8 near Spotsylvania Court House.
Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
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…
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
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.