First battle between Grant & Lee and start of the long bloody path to Union victory.
|The Battle of the Wilderness was unlike any other battle fought in the Civil War. Its uniqueness comes from the very place where the armies fought. In no other Civil War battle, not even Chancellorsville, did the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia have to operate in such dense thickets and undergrowth. Problems of maneuvering plagued both armies and the fighting grew out of control and ferocious as officers lost more and more control over their men. The terrain proved the salvation of the Army of Northern Virginia by negating the heavy advantage the Army of the Potomac had in numbers. It allowed Lee to pull one of his last magic tricks of the war and almost rout Grant and Meade immense army, nearly throwing it back across the Rapidan River. The battle also lacked flair and decorum of any kind. Defending troops could barely see their opponents until they came right up to their entrenchments, and with little control by the officers, the fighting soon became reduced to deadly brawls of fists and steel. The Confederate army employed a strategy that it used until the war’s end and that is most obviously seen in World War I, namely trench warfare. Grant’s grand offensive called for dislodging Lee’s soldiers from their earthworks, but as seen it the Great War, it was easier said than done. Lee was able to stop most of the Union Army’s attacks from behind his trenches. The story of the Wilderness is a story of attack after attack against heavily fortified earthworks and trenches that only succeeded after the defenders had been completely worn down and exhausted. This, more than the terrain, was the crux to Lee’s success and Grant’s failure. This paper attempts to provide a brief survey of the events that transpired in the Wilderness on May 5-6, 1864 and there implications. 1
Eighteen sixty-four marked a time of hope and renewal for the Union and a time of desperation for the Confederacy. In 1863 Federal forces had taken control of the Mississippi River and solidified their control over Tennessee, thus cutting the South in half and conquering a large part of their heartland. Only two Confederate armies were left. In Georgia, General Joe Johnston’s army faced General William T. Sherman’s army bent on reaching Savannah, and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia stood against the largest U.S. military force ever yet assembled at the time, General Meade’s Army of the Potomac. 2
Over the winter, Lee and Meade stood facing each other with only the Rapidan River separating them. Meade wanted Richmond, the Confederate capital; Lee had built an impregnable earthen fortress on the Rapidan’s south bank on high hills making any attempt of crossing by Union troops suicidal. Lee seemed to have the advantage, but the
strength of his bastion was only a façade, behind it laid a crippled Confederacy. Lee severely lacked food, fodder, and manpower to keep his army viable. Northern Virginia and Tennessee laid in Union control and central Virginia had been stripped barren to the bone. Lee had to rely on the Carolinas and Georgia for his food with the one track and slow Orange and Alexandria Railroad, his last remaining lifeline, bringing it to him. Apart from food, the South had no more sons to send him. Lee would have to do his best with the troops he had. The reality was that Lee was in fact trapped in his own fortress with no other option but to remain on the defensive, a notion that ran contrary to every part of Lee’s character. 3
In mid-March 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant took control of all Union armies. He made his headquarters with Meade to which Lee then expected a concentration of Union troops in his vicinity. He was right. Fresh blue troops arrived every day, and by mid-April Lee had a general idea of what he expected Grant to do. Grant, according to Lee, had devised a scheme that threw Meade’s Army of the Potomac directly towards Richmond with another army under General Ambrose B. Burnside moving up from the James River or farther south to attack Richmond from behind squeezing the Confederate capital between them. He proposed moving Confederate forces around to meet advancing Union troops, and as for his part he wanted Longstreet and his 1st Corp recalled back from the west to rejoin him and “move right against the enemy.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis agreed. Longstreet reunited with Lee, but as May approached Meade still had not moved. Truth in point, Burnside was not destined to lead an army onto Richmond; he rejoined the Army of the Potomac on April 29 with 23,000 men bringing the army’s grand total to over 120,000 troops. Lee was now convinced that he would bear
the full brunt of the Union’s onslaught. 4
On the opposite side of the Rapidan Generals Grant and Meade drew up their own set of plans. Grant decided to move downriver crossing during the night of May3/4 at Germanna and Ely’s Ford and moving through the Wilderness to attack Lee’s right flank. General Hancock’s 2nd Corps would cross at Ely’s Ford forming the left wing while General Warren’s 5th Corps and General Sedgwick’s 6th Corps would cross at Germanna Ford forming the right wing and being closer to Lee. Although moving through the Wilderness negated the number advantage of the Union army, Grant chose this plan because it would be easier to supply Meade. He would have close to 100,000 effective troops against Lee’s 65,000 men, but in this case the numbers lie. The North had the advantage of infinite replacements, but its volunteer veterans formed the core of the army’s strength. In contrast to the South, the North’s soldiers were not fighting for the
war’s duration but rather for three year terms, and many of them had signed up in 1861. Meade’s army was in danger of disintegrating from under him with the new recruits coming in proving to be less than dependable as compared to the veterans. One estimate puts the number of “good soldiers” Grant had to fight Lee at 70,000 men. As far as Grant’s strategy to defeat the South goes, it is actually very simple. Put bluntly, Grant’s overall plan was to attack on all fronts using all armies and manpower in a concerted joint effort to grind down the Confederate armies to the point where they would have to surrender. He would not let up until the job was done. In contrast to his predecessors, he was going to fight every day until Lee had nothing left to stop him. 5
The crossing of the Ely’s and Germanna Fords couldn’t have gone any smoother for the Army of the Potomac. The night had kept its movements hidden from Confederate lookouts and the only resistance came from minor Confederate pickets. Grant and Meade could not keep there movements secret for long, as daylight on May 4 revealed to Lee that the largest army ever assembled in the American hemisphere had crossed onto his side of the river. At 11 A.M. Ewell’s 2nd Corps began to move east on the Orange Turnpike towards New Verdiersville west of Mine Run to meet the approaching Federals. Lee decided to meet Grant because it would allow him to exploit any action the Union army did. His options were: If Grant kept going towards him, Lee would dig in at or near his old Mine Run positions from a year before. If Grant moved south through Spotsylvania Court House, Lee could attack his exposed flank and make a new stand on the North Anna River if needed. On the flip side, if Lee just sat there the only certainty would be more desperate fights in the future. 6
Meade and Grant met in the evening of May 4 to discuss the army’s movements. They decided to make a line within the Wilderness where the army was to wait for Burnside to arrive. The decision proved to be critical. By deciding to stay in the Wilderness, Grant and Meade had effectively negated any disadvantage to the Confederates by there failure to slow the Union advance. Also, the two generals were completely unaware of the fact that on the Orange Turnpike only two miles separated Meade’s lead column from Ewell’s 2nd Corp poised and ready to smash into them. 7
Meade and Grant’s decision was based on one key point, namely that Lee would not engage them in the Wilderness but rather wait for the Federals to come to him at Mine Run. Lee had other ideas. The Wilderness had been the area where the Battle of Chancellorsville was fought exactly a year before. Lee’s plan was very similar to his plan then. Lee decided to attack the Union in the Wilderness first thing in the morning with Ewell and Hill’s Corps thus pinning him giving Longstreet enough time to bring up his forces and roll up the Union flank. The idea was very dangerous. Five slim divisions would have to occupy the entire Army of the Potomac with its ten divisions until Longstreet came up, and Longstreet did not plan to arrive at Mine Run until noon on May 5, which meant he would not be in place to attack for at least the next couple hours. Ewell and Hill would likely have to fend off the Army of the Potomac’s fury for an entire day. However, the possibilities were, if it actually worked, too good to pass up. If it all went well, Longstreet on May 6 would be astride the Union flank ready to deliver a death blow sending the Union army back across the river and saving Richmond for at least a little while. 8
At first light on May 5, the Army of the Potomac began marching once again. Hancock left Chancellorsville via Carpathin Road towards Todd’s Tavern, Warren left the Wilderness Tavern and started on the Orange Turnpike towards Parker’s Store with Sedgwick following behind him. 9
Grant became seriously annoyed upon hearing from Meade that Lee was massing his army and that Meade had not attacked him yet. Upon establishing a joint headquarters with Meade, couriers began riding in all directions encouraging a more offensive posture by the Army of the Potomac. At 10:30, Warren was ordered to push forward and attack while Sedgwick, who was already supposed to be supporting Warren’s flank, was finally prodded forward and on his way towards Warren’s right flank. Warren passed his orders down to his division commanders, but they stoutly refused to attack without Sedgwick protecting there flank. At 1 P.M. Warren’s divisions of Griffin and Wadsworth finally abandoned there secure earthworks. With Warren leading, they advanced towards Saunder’s Field and the corn field where Ewell’s riflemen awaited them with loaded muskets as there welcoming gift. 10
Ayres’ Brigade of Griffin’s division swept onto the plain of Saunder’s Field and immediate came under intense fire from Steuart’s Brigade of Ewell’s Corps. Reaching the gully separating the field in two, Ayres’ first line of the 140th New York and several U.S. Army regular battalions separated from each other in an attempt to ease the pressure from the withering Confederate rifle fire. The 140th went left whereas the regulars went right, seemingly oblivious as to each other’s actions. As a result, the 140th headed straight for Ewell’s earthworks while the regulars, with both flanks exposed, veered towards the Confederates at a dangerous angle. Griffin then ordered the 1st New York Light Artillery into the fray. The regiment galloped across Saunder’s Field, its artillery in tow, and set up in an exposed position over the little bridge taking fire from Rebel snipers in the trees. They began pouring grapeshot into the Confederates and Federals equally. 11
Griffin ordered his second line of the 146th New York, the 155th Pennsylvania and the 91st Pennsylvania across the field in support of his first line. The pattern of decimation continued. The remnants of the 146th managed to plug the hole between the U.S. regulars and the 140th which was taking heavy casualties on its exposed flank. The combat broke down into brawls between small groups of troops as the combination of the wilderness and gunpowder smoke made seeing the enemy nearly impossible. 12
The U.S. regulars weren’t having an easy time either. Organization in the thickets had broken down and Confederates and Yankees alike fired blindly into white smoke. The two Pennsylvania regiments rushed to aid them, but they were overrun by Confederates in front of them and wrapping around their flank. They had two choices: run or be taken prisoner, most ran. But not all the Union troops decided to run the gauntlet across the field back to their lines, what was left of the 140th and 146th New York, unaware of their comrades’ retreat, were ensued in a bloody fight for their survival and had established a foothold in the rebel line. 13
General Barlett’s brigade had begun their advance across the field at the same time as Ayres. They faced John Jones’s Virginia brigade manning the southern half of Saunder’s Field. Barlett hit Jones hard. He pushed back his weak right flank of dismounted cavalry and unleashed his troops against it. Jones was shot dead off his horse. His brigade had no choice but to begin retreating slowly firing as they went. Barlett saw an opportunity and forged ahead. He plunged into Cullen Battle’s Confederate brigade which began to fall back slowly per Lee’s earlier orders. Jones’s and Battle’s brigades mixed together in the confusion and a panicked officer shouted to fall back to Mine Run. Barlett kept going, pushing until his brigade had become so disorganized he was forced to stop and regroup. 14
As Barlett was reforming his lines, Rebels attacked from his right and his rear. Barlett did not know that Ayres had been stymied in Saunder’s Field, nearly three-quarters of a mile back! With his flank exposed, Barlett was forced to fall back. However, the retreat soon turned into a full scale rout when it became apparent that the brigade was being surrounded. The brigade was reduced to little groups of men desperately trying to find holes to slip past the Confederates. 15
Wadsworth’s division’s three brigades: Cutler’s, Stone’s, and Rice’s had been on Barlett’s left and extended south from Saunder’s Field. Wadsworth’s famed Iron Brigade, under Cutler, had fought next to Barlett’s flank and was instrumental to the collapse of Jones’s line, but once they got into the thickets, they became separated from Barlett and there northern flank was in the air. Georgians in General George Dole’s brigade unleashed a disastrous volley right into the Iron Brigade’s exposed flank. 16
By this time Ewell was unsure whether Doles and Battle could hold much longer without support. He had seen what happened to Jones, and did not want it happening again. Early, who was with Ewell, sent an aide to order General Gordon’s brigade up from the turnpike to reinforce him. He arrived on the double-quick and filed into line on Early’s right. Wadsworth’s men were no more than 200 yards away; with great zeal, Gordon ordered his brigade forward in a counterattack. Wadsworth’s line was a mess. Cutler’s brigade was still in front of Doles’ brigade with its flank still wide open, Barlett was in flight, Stone’s brigade got bogged down in marshy ground, and Denison Maryland’s brigade had not moved from the very beginning and lay one mile back. Cuter was on his own against Battle’s, Doles’, and Gordon’s brigade. 17
Gordon hit the Iron Brigade with such ferocity that Cutler’s men began moving back slowly. The counterattack was so successful that a hole had been poked in the Union line; however, the Yankees had not been routed, and there was no telling whether that hole might close up around the Rebels. In response, Gordon dangerously broke his force in two, concentrating his soldiers on both Union flanks while connecting his troops with a thin line. It worked. For the first time in its history, the Iron Brigade was completely routed. The offensive finished at 2:30, only an hour and a half after it started. 18
For Grant the day was not over yet. He considered the bloodbath that was Warren’s failed offensive the beginning rather than the end of the fighting. At three o’clock, elements of Sedgwick’s 6th Corps finally arrived on Warren’s right. Wright’s division had finally arrived, after bogging down in the Wilderness, to support Warren’s offensive a half hour too late, but the fighting was not over yet. 19
Fighting spontaneously broke out again. Each side groped blindly through the dense forest searching for the other’s flank, but did not succeed. The fighting was intense. Confederate General Stafford led his brigade out of their earthworks and charged a line of Federals holding a ridge. To their horror they were met from behind from Colonel Brown’s New Jersey brigade. Stafford and his Louisianans had assumed that General Walker and his famed Stonewall Brigade had kept pace with them, but it was now clear that they had not. Stafford’s and Walker’s brigades were routed. Wright had beaten two Confederate brigades, but he was not making much progress. The woods were impossibly dense. They were so dense, that the Confederates managed to fall trees and build earthworks from the far distance of 100 yards away from the Union line completely unseen, but not unheard. 20
The Union’s second offensive ended in failure just like the first. Ewell, on the other hand, was having immense success. He had stopped two vicious Federal offenses, and the more time he kept the Union in the Wilderness was more time for Longstreet to show up and deliver the knockout punch. Meade’s failure can be attributed to his inability to have coordinated the offensive properly. Warren attacked without support on his flank from Wright and failed. Likewise, Wright attacked without support from Warren and also failed. The lack of coordination added with the difficult terrain gave all the advantages of the day to be had to Ewell and his Confederates, leaving next to none for the Union troops. The Union lost on this front, but there was still another front on the Orange Plank Road yet to be decided. 21
Earlier at 10:30, Union headquarters decided to do something about Hill’s advance on the Orange Plank Road. General Getty’s division was already at the intersection at Brock Road and was told to stay but until Hancock arrived. Hancock, strung out along the Cartharpin Road, was ordered to reverse direction, march to Orange Plank Road, and be ready to keep going to Parker’s Store. Speed was key, but as seen earlier speed did not seem to like being incorporated into Union plans. Hancock was stretched back almost to Chancellorsville. It would take time to orient his corps from west to north on Brock Road. 22
At noon, the sound of gunfire south alerted Meade that Getty’s and Hill’s forward elements had met each other and were fighting for control of the intersection at Brock and Orange Plank Road. Meade ordered Getty to extend his line north to connect with Warren to form a united front; he also dispatched a letter to Hancock telling him to “move out the plank road toward Parker’s Store, and, supporting Getty, drive the enemy beyond Parker’s Store, and occupy that place and unite with Warren on the right of it.” The only problem was Hancock was nowhere near Orange Plank Road, and it would take him hours to redirect his corps toward Parker’s Store. 23
By 3 o’clock, an attack on the Orange Plank Road had still not materialized. Meade grew impatient. Unaware of Hancock’s delay, at 3:45 he ordered Getty to attack right away with two of Hancock’s divisions, one on his right and one on the left, with the rest in reserve. Hancock only had about half his corps ready though, and Getty was not crazy about attacking without the whole 2nd Corps in support, but he would not wait anymore. An order was an order. At 4:15 he threw his three brigades toward Hill on both sides of the Orange Plank Road with Hancock furiously trying to create the formation suggested by Meade. 24
Henry Heth’s division lay in wait for the advancing blue troops. Getty’s troops had advanced not more than 300 yards before the Confederates unleashed a thunderous surprise volley from almost point-blank range. Cooke’s and Walker’s brigades kept up a blanketing fire from their expertly placed earthworks on a low ridge. They paralyzed the Yankees who had no choice but to throw themselves on the ground and hope for reinforcements. Elements of Birney’s division came to their aid but could do nothing to relieve the pressure; they too hit the ground paralyzed. Mott’s division of Hancock’s 2nd Corps came to the rescue and was promptly thrown back in a rout. Getty’s position was now in serious jeopardy. Ward’s brigade of Birney’s division ran past the Mott’s fleeing men and stopped the rebel advance, slowly pushing them back. 25
The situation was turning desperate. The level of fire raining down on Getty and Birney’s divisions was becoming unbearable. Hancock dispatched an order to Gibbon, the leader of his lead division, to march double-quick to make it in time to hold the Union line. As soon as Hancock sent the order, he saw Gibbon’s men appear in a cloud of dust. Two of his brigades were immediately placed under Birney and rushed to the line. The Confederates had almost reached Brock Road. Gibbon’s brigades plunged into the fray and pushed the Confederate onslaught back, thus averting the potential collapse of the Union line. The Army of the Potomac’s offensive on the Orange Plank Road ended in failure and enormous casualties. Heth’s lean lone division had tangled with four fat Union divisions and won. 26
Hill and Ewell had performed their orders magnificently. The two corps commanders managed to hold back the fury of the Union Army, but the scattered offensives of the Federals by sheer weight of numbers made a breakthrough highly probable. Longstreet had fallen behind schedule. Confederate success depended on Hill and Ewell holding the Army of the Potomac back at least until the morning. Desperation pervaded the Rebel soldiers. One wrote, “ The officers and men of the regiment realized the that the safety of the army depended upon our holding the enemy in check until the forces left behind could come up, and there was a fixed determination to do it, or to die.” But it was only 5 o’clock. Hancock’s full corps, twenty-seven thousand strong, would be up soon. His corps supplemented by Getty’s six thousand men gave the Union a five to one advantage over Hill’s lonely division already at its limit. Without reinforcements, it could not hold. Earlier Lee had dispatched Wilcox’s division to shore up the gap between Hill’s and Ewell’s corps. He reluctantly decided to redirect them toward Hill to strengthen his wavering position. 27
Upon arrival, Wilcox met with Hill to discuss there options. They decided to attack the Federals. At 5:30 P.M., two of Wilcox’s fresh brigades, McGowan’s and Scales’ left the shelter of the earthworks and headed straight toward the Yankees and into a meat grinder. The defending Union troops now had the wooded terrain work to their advantage. They poured lead and artillery fire into the Confederate brigades, which soon became separated and couldn’t mass their firepower. McGowan and Scales’ pulled back taking incredible casualties. 28
During the course of the afternoon, Grant came up with a plan that, if done right, would finally concentrate enough Union force to break Lee’s line. Grant formulated his plan based on the movement of Wilcox’s division to aid Hill. Warren’s signal officers had caught the move, and Grant assumed that Lee had weakened Ewell’s position to help
Hill. Grant ordered Warren and Sedgwick to attack Ewell again and ordered reserve units to attack Hill’s dangling left flank. Warren got the job of assembling the force to attack Hill. Wadsworth immediately volunteered because he felt deeply humiliated over his division’s less than stellar performance earlier. General John C. Robinson, another of Warren’s division commanders, also pleaded with Warren to go and Warren assented. 29
Lee was also making his own plans. Wilcox had reported that he had seen Union forces around the Lacy House preparing to move toward Hill. These forces were in fact Wadsworth’s and Robinson’s divisions. In light of this new intelligence two thoughts came to Lee’s mind. One, that Hill would have to keep a close eye on his left flank; two, that Grant, in order to squeeze Hill, had weakened his force on the Orange Turnpike. Lee let Ewell know to be ready to act in the morning. 30
Fighting along the Orange Plank Road had not stopped. After Hancock’s lead elements stabilized the Union line, he ordered them into the woods to attack. As each of his divisions arrived, Hancock ordered them to attack. Daylight was running out. Darkness was Hill’s only hope of salvation. His exhausted troops were near the breaking point, but the twilight brought with it a new headache. Wadsworth’s detachment had
arrived on Hill’s left flank. Hill’s troops had all been committed. The only force he had was the ragtag 5th Alabama numbering 150 men. They had been assigned to guard the growing Union prisoners, but Hill had no choice but to send them in. And in they went, screaming like banshees. The demonic shrills of the 5th Alabama proved too much for Wadsworth’s exhausted troops. They lost their nerve and grounded to a halt about a quarter of a mile away from the Orange Plank Road. Darkness came. Troops on both sides collapsed into their defensive earthworks in complete exhaustion. The fighting that hadn’t stopped since Getty’s charging attack at 4:15 P.M. was finally over in a
Grant was well aware that a reason for his army’s poor performance was the piecemeal, uncoordinated attacks of his brigades, divisions, and corps. Grant’s plan for the next day dictated that all four corps of the Army of the Potomac moved in unison and steamroll over the Army of Northern Virginia. Sedgwick and Warren were to attack Ewell again, but this was to be a diversion to keep Ewell pinned down. Hancock would have the real action on the Orange Plank Road. Grant ordered him to attack at 4:30 A.M. with his entire corps plus Getty’s troops while ordering Wadsworth to continue his pincer movement against Hill’s northern flank. General Burnside with his two strongest divisions of his 9th Corps was to put himself in the middle of the Confederate wings, take the Chewning farm, and then drive into Hills rear and destroy him. Burnside’s role was critical. If he succeeded, Hill’s entire corps faced annihilation, but Grant took a risk in not using him to bolster Wadsworth’s attack on Hill’s flank assuming that Wadsworth could take care of it on his own. 32
Lee understood that Hill needed support or else his entire 3rd Corps risked being swallowed up by the blue abyss. Knowing that Grant intended to attack Hill’s exposed left flank, he decided to change Longstreet’s role. Instead of using him in a flanking maneuver along Catharpin Road reminiscent of Chancellorsville, Lee decided to put Longstreet on the Orange Plank Road in order to directly support Hill. Longstreet was presumed to arrive before dawn, giving him enough time to form in support of Hill. Lee ordered Ewell to attack Sedgwick and Warren on Meade’s northern flank. Ideally, Lee hoped to rout Sedgwick and threaten Grant’s supply lines, but the importance of Ewell’s attack was to keep Sedgwick and Warren occupied to make Longstreet’s and Hill’s job easier. Hill for his part, after being relieved by Longstreet was to plug the gap between the two Confederate wings. Lee’s plan hinged on Longstreet coming up in time to support Hill and the inevitable Union onslaught, but as sunlight penetrated the thick forest Orange Plank Road lay empty behind Hill. Longstreet had not arrived. Hill’s troops could hear the blue ocean of men heading right for them. 33
Just before 5 A.M. Hancock and Wadsworth began their attacks. Hill was hit first on his right, then his center, and finally his on his fragile left. The blue ocean wave smashed against the Confederate line. Hill’s corps eroded in front of him. The Confederates south of Orange Plank Road of Scales’ and Lane’s brigades were the first to retreat in disorder. There retreat caused McGowan’s brigade’s southern flank north of the road to become exposed. Union troops filled the gap and hit McGowan from the south and east forcing him to retreat. 34
Grant’s plan was working. The Union concentration so desired on May 5 had finally been achieved. Hancock was pressing toward Widow Tapp’s field while Wadsworth cut through Hill’s line and broke out on Orange Plank Road. Hill would be finished with one more push. 35
Hancock could not contain his excitement. He dispatched a note to Meade detailing the success of the offensive. His mood sullied after receiving Meade’s response, “I am ordered to tell, sir, that only one division of General Burnside is up, but that he will go in as soon as he can be put into position.” Burnside’s fresh divisions would have no doubt provided the push necessary to crush Hill, had they been up in ready, but they were not, and after an hour of savage fighting, Hancock was losing his momentum. Despite this, the Federal offensive proceeded handsomely. Lead units reached Widow Tapp’s field, the last line of Confederate resistance. In the hope of buying time for the tardy Longstreet, Hill ordered his artillerist Lieutenant Colonel Poague to fire obliquely across the field. Poague put up perhaps one of the bravest stands of the war. Firing like madmen, his gunners managed to slow the Union advance. Hill actually got off his horse and helped man a gun himself. Twelve guns could not hold back an army though, and Poague’s situation was becoming quite hairy as the Union infantry crept closer and closer. At this moment of chaos, Lee caught sight of tightly massed troops coming up Orange Plank Road. Longstreet had finally arrived, leading his 1st Corps in dramatic fashion. 36
Treading through a sea of stricken Confederate soldiers, Longstreet’s soldiers did not slow down. Longstreet was in a decisive frame of mind; a counterattack had to be made right away. He massed his corps in column along each side of the Orange Plank Road along a narrow front. He planned to send his men in almost simultaneously to pound the Union line and smash their formation in half. General Gregg’s brigade took the lead in the counter charge. His troops steamrolled right through the first line of Union troops. Completely alone, they pushed forward taking savage fire from all sides. The second Union line faltered but did not break. For the next half hour, Gregg’s men were locked in hand-to-hand combat until they were finally forced to give ground. Out of 800 men, fewer than 250 came back unscathed, but Gregg accomplished the goal of rocking the Union assault column on its heels. 37
Right behind Gregg came Rock Benning’s brigade with William Perry, commanding Law’s brigade, taking third place. Perry divided his brigade in two and attacked Wadsworth. After brutal fighting in the thickets, Perry managed to regain control of the high ground east of Widow Tapp’s field for the Confederates. On Perry’s right, Field’s division and elements of Hill’s corps were fighting a protracted battle along Orange Plank Road. At first they pushed back the Federal troops of Baxter’s brigade. Wadsworth’s collapsing line needed reinforcements. Eustis’ and Wheaton’s brigades were rushed up from south of the road. Perry’s right wing was now badly outnumbered and far ahead of their compatriots below Orange Plank Road. He was forced
to retreat slightly, but Wadsworth’s division had completely lost all order. The one two three punch from Gregg’s, Benning’s, and Law’s brigades had destroyed Wadsworth’s division and the northern half of the Union assault column. 38
Simultaneous with Field’s men pounding the Union troops to the north, to the south of the Orange Plank Road, Kershaw’s division was unleashing its own form of destruction on the Federal soldiers. Two of his brigades assaulted Hancock’s entire corps plus Getty’s division and caught them completely by surprise. They cut right through Birney’s and Mott’s divisions and shattered their lines almost instantaneously. Hancock’s second line, Getty’s division, now had the job of stopping Kershaw, but two of his three brigades (Eustis’ and Wheaton’s) had been moved north in support of Wadsworth. Getty only had Lewis Grant’s brigade to hold the entire southern portion of the Federal formation. 39
Luckily for Grant, he had positioned his men on a low rise with earthworks previously constructed by Hill’s troops. Behind these fortifications, they stopped wave after wave of Confederate attacks, but began to falter when Wadsworth’s line receded and left Grant’s men open to flanking fire. Reinforcements arrived, but the Union troops were too disorganized to push forward. At this point, Kershaw’s three brigades were tackling what seemed to them to be the entire Army of the Potomac, and the weight of the Federal numbers began to overwhelm the Confederate division commander’s men. Kershaw responded to the situation the only way he knew how. He ordered a charge. His gray troops swarmed up the low rise and knocked the blue soldiers loose from their earthworks. Kershaw succeeded in capturing enough ground to make a defensive position, but more importantly, his new position connected him with Field’s right. Longstreet’s corps was now an unbroken line running perpendicular to Orange Plank Road. Watches read 8 A.M. Both sides had spent their momentum. Their lines were only feet away from one another, but the thickly wooded terrain made them almost invisible. With neither side able to make headway, the opposing forces settled for slaughtering each other with unabashed violence. 40
The Union soldiers of Sedgwick’s corps on the Orange Turnpike front were met at daybreak on May 6 with the incoming barrage of Ewell’s artillery. Sedgwick at Ewell had both been ordered to attack each other, but Ewell beat “Uncle John” to the punch. At 4:45 A.M. Ewell’s gray troops poured over their earthworks heading straight for the 6th Corps. The battle seesawed back and forth. Each side charged the other, leaving masses of dead contorted corpses with every retreat. 41
Warren, for his part, was in no hurry to throw his 5th Corps into the mix. At 6 A.M., Meade tried to console Warren out and attack, but he used the preliminary maneuvers he was conducting as excuse for delay. At 7:15, Warren was informed that Longstreet had arrived. This time Meade did not hold back. He clearly ordered Warren to attack, but Warren did not budge. He knew the Confederates had strengthened their earthworks to the point of impregnability during the night, and he would not give up his men to the meat grinder, as he had done the day before. Sedgwick, on the other hand, did not seem to mind. He attacked again and again, and wave after wave of blue soldiers were bloodily repulsed by Rebels behind their cozy earthworks. Eventually Meade gave up on the turnpike front. Ewell was too well dug in to keep sacrificing men in the hopes of dislodging them. 42
Grant’s grand offensive was unraveling. Warren and Sedgwick had not been able to accomplish anything, and Hancock’s offensive to the south was stopped dead by Longstreet’s counterattack. The question on the general-in-chief’s mind no doubt was along the lines of, “Where is Burnside?” Burnside, who was supposed to function as an independent maneuvering entity, had run severely behind schedule. His route via Germanna Plank Road was heavily congested with wagons, guns, and things of that nature. He was supposed to be in place at 4 A.M., but it was not until 6:30 A.M. that he started down the cow path toward Parker’s Store with two out of three divisions (Grant ordered Stevenson’s division to stay behind acting in reserve). 43
As Burnside’s lead elements of Potter’s division entered between the Confederate wings, they ran into trouble. The trouble took the form of Ramseur’s brigade which Ewell had wisely held in reserve, and his stout resistance threw Burnside’s advance into confusion. Moreover, Hill’s soldiers, after being relieved by Longstreet, were moving into place as ordered between the Confederate wings, making Burnside’s passing all the more difficult as time dragged on. By nine Hill’s position had become too strong and Grant cancelled Burnside’s original maneuver, opting to send him directly south until he reached Hancock’s northern flank. Easier said than done considering the terrain, it would be hours before Burnside would reach Hancock. Around 10 A.M., the Orange Plank Road front settled into tentative silence, Hancock and Longstreet had fought each other to the point of exhaustion. 44
Before the war, a railroad was being constructed through the Wilderness from Fredericksburg to Orange Courthouse. It ran just south of the Orange Plank Road and offered an excellent way of cutting through the thick underbrush. It also offered an excellent flanking opportunity for either of the armies, both of which were aware of its existence. 45
By 8 A.M., Longstreet had stabilized the Orange Plank Road front. Lee could now afford to entertain his more aggressive nature. Information of the railway got back to Lee from skirmishers of Wofford’s brigade of the 1st Corps. Lee quickly ordered Longstreet to organize a flanking attack on Hancock’s left; he picked three fresh brigades: Tige Anderson’s, Wofford’s, and Mahone’s to participate. He also gave the responsibility of leading the maneuver to his staffer, Colonel Sorrel, who had no experience leading troops. 46
McAllister’s brigade, of Mott’s division, was the unit unfortunate enough to be positioned on the extreme left end of Hancock’s line. He did spot the massing Confederates on the unfinished railway, but it was too late. Sorrel’s attack caught him almost by surprise. As soon as Sorrel attacked from the south, Kershaw attacked from the west, and McAllister’s troops broke in a rout. More Union brigades fell like dominoes as Sorrel pressed north. In less than an hour the Confederates reached Orange Plank Road. 47
Union soldiers on Hancock’s right witnessed their fleeing comrades but did not have the slightest idea why. The answer soon manifested itself. Sorrel’s attacking Confederates appeared like ghosts out of the woods and broke out onto Orange Plank Road. Wadsworth turned his men to meet the gray avalanche, but at that moment Longstreet ordered Field’s division to attack from the west. The scenario on the Union left repeated itself on the Union right. Sorrel’s vicious flanking attack combined with attacks from Longstreet’s units to the west succeeded in dissolving Hancock’s entire formation. 48
Longstreet decided to perform another flanking maneuver. He ordered Wofford’s brigade to follow the unfinished railway further west and attack Hancock’s defenses at Brock Road. The taking of Brock Road was all that was left to ensure a complete Confederate victory. General Jenkin’s brigade of Field’s division was ordered to attack straight up Orange Plank Road with Kershaw in support and ready to attack the Federal position at Brock Road. With the preparations complete, Longstreet, Jenkins, and Kershaw started out at the head of the main Confederate troop column. Just ahead, Mahone’s troops were arriving on the Orange Plank Road. Through the dense undergrowth, they confused their fellow comrades for Union troops and fired. Longstreet was wounded, shot through the neck with the exit hole through the shoulder. The 1st Corps came under the command of General Richard Anderson, a 3rd Corps division commander. John Bratton of the 6th South Carolina replaced Jenkins who was also wounded. 49
The success of Longstreet’s next attacking phase depended on speed. Every minute that passed was another minute that Hancock’s force had to regroup itself and gain reinforcements. Longstreet had been the only general intimately familiar of the preparations, and his aggressiveness had played such a crucial part in the 1st Corps success earlier that day, but the 1st Corps was hopelessly tangled and units were facing all different directions. The need for speed took a back seat to the need for time for the Confederates needed to regroup. 50
As 2 P.M. approached, final preparation for the Confederate attack were being made, Hancock’s men hunkered down behind their earthworks on Brock Road waiting for Lee’s coming offensive, and Burnside finally arrived. The 9th Corps commander was eight hours late, but his men were perfectly positioned to attack the Confederate left flank under William Perry. Perry, wary of invisible Federals, discovered Burnside’s troops massing for a probable attack. Lee had just ordered him to begin his advance on Brock Road, but Perry ignored the order in favor of securing his flank. He sent Edward Perry’s brigade and two of Oates’ regiments to probe for the enemy. At that moment, Burnside
Potter’s division spilled over into the ravine separating the blue and gray lines. Success went first to the blue troops, then the gray, and then blue again until the lines reached an uneasy equilibrium. At 3 P.M., Meade and Grant decided that another offensive was needed. They ordered Hancock to rest until six and then attack in concert with Burnside. Hancock reluctantly agreed. By four o’clock, Lee finally succeeded in organizing his troops for the offensive on Brock Road. There would be no flanking maneuver. Lee hoped to take the initiative once more with a brutal frontal assault, like he had tried, and failed, to do at Gettysburg. Hancock’s men were tired and demoralized, but the general had created a quasi impenetrable fortress at Brock Road. A Confederate breakthrough would be no easy feat. 52
Lee’s attack began at 4:15 P.M. Like men possessed, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia charged the Union bastion with unparalleled ferocity, but Hancock’s position was too strong. Eager for revenge, his men took extra pleasure in the reversal of roles; they mowed down the gray soldiers in droves. Any ground along the Union line gained by the Confederates was quickly relinquished. The Union position was too strong, it artillery perfectly placed to deliver grapeshot and double-shotted canister. By 5:30 P.M. the Rebel offensive petered out. Hancock’s men’s ammunition was all but depleted. He requested that the scheduled Union offensive for six o’clock be cancelled to which Meade acquiesced. Darkness came and the fighting stopped. 53
Grant’s incessant attacks had taken a bloody toll on the Army of the Potomac. Federal returns put the casualty number at 17,666: 2,246 killed, 12,037 wounded, and 3,383 captured, in all about 17 percent of the army. Understandably, Grant did not want to remain in the Wilderness. He decided to move south about ten miles to Spotsylvania
Court House where the ground was more open. The move would no doubt draw Lee out of his stronghold, but more importantly, it would break the existing stalemate without conceding any ideas of retreat. For Grant the campaign was not over. Lee had checked the general-in-chief, but Grant was far from beaten. Before the battle, he was a guest in
Virginia, but now finally introduced to Lee, Grant decided to overstay his welcome. He resolved to grind Lee’s army into nothing. The Wilderness was only the first battle in Grant’s bloody one-way march toward Richmond. 54
Lee’s casualties were fewer than Grant’s, yet harder felt. The South had no more sons to send him. The army could not afford any casualties. Confederate estimates on losses in the battle range around 7,750. Union sources put the number closer to 11,000. The Union figure seems to be more accurate when one considers that Hill’s 3rd Corp alone lost 7,000 men, not including Ewell’s 2nd Corps or Longstreet’s 1st Corp in the tally. Lee decided to stay where he was and wait for Grant to make the next move; he did not feel confident enough anymore to try and read the Union general’s mind. At face value, Lee won the Battle of the Wilderness. He had stopped yet another Union drive
toward Richmond, fighting Grant to a standstill, but in the long term, the battle was a failure. Lee failed in throwing the Army of the Potomac back across the Rapidan. His ferocious attacks on the Orange Plank Road would be his last major offensives; his army simply did not have the strength for it anymore. There would be no more grand flanking maneuvers. Lee consented to remaining on the defensive and waiting for Grant to make a mistake, but Grant’s new weapon, attrition, was working. Mathematics dictated Union success. The inevitability that Lee’s army would slowly wither and die was only a
matter of time. 55
1. Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 145, 147, 149, 180-183, 392-398 ; Robert Garth Scott, Into the Wilderness with the Army of the Potomac (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), xiii-xiv.
2. Rhea, Battle, 8.
3. Rhea, Battle, 8-10.
4. Rhea, Battle, 18-21.
5. Rhea, Battle, 29, 34, 46, 51-52, 61, 63-64.
6. Rhea, Battle, 64, 70-71, 82.
7. Rhea, Battle, 92-93.
8. Rhea, Battle, 90, 93.
9. Rhea, Battle, 94.
10. Rhea, Battle, 132, 141-144.
11. Rhea, Battle, 145, 147, 149.
12. Rhea, Battle, 149-151.
13. Rhea, Battle, 150-152.
14. Rhea, Battle, 152-154.
15. Rhea, Battle, 154-155.
16. Rhea, Battle, 158.
17. Rhea, Battle, 159-160.
18. Rhea, Battle, 160-161, 174.
19. Rhea, Battle, 176, 178.
20. Rhea, Battle, 180-183.
21. Rhea, Battle, 184, 187.
22. Rhea, Battle, 188.
23. Rhea, Battle, 188-189.
24. Rhea, Battle, 190-191, 193.
25. Rhea, Battle, 195-200.
26. Rhea, Battle, 204-206
27. Rhea, Battle, 207-208, 223.
28. Rhea, Battle, 225-227.
29. Rhea, Battle, 230-231.
30. Rhea, Battle, 231-232.
31. Rhea, Battle, 233-240.
32. Rhea, Battle, 263-264, 266-268.
33. Rhea, Battle, 272-276, 282.
34. Rhea, Battle, 283-288.
35. Rhea, Battle, 290.
36. Rhea, Battle, 290-291, 294-295.
37. Rhea, Battle, 298, 302-303.
38. Rhea, Battle, 303-308.
39. Rhea, Battle, 308-310.
40. Rhea, Battle, 310-313, 315.
41. Rhea, Battle, 318-320.
42. Rhea, Battle, 322-324.
43. Rhea, Battle, 324-326.
44. Rhea, Battle, 326, 328-332, 342.
45. Rhea, Battle, 351.
46. Rhea, Battle, 353-356.
47. Rhea, Battle, 358-362.
48. Rhea, Battle, 362-366.
49. Rhea, Battle, 367-371, 374.
50. Rhea, Battle, 373.
51. Rhea, Battle, 380, 383-385.
52. Rhea, Battle, 385-390.
53. Rhea, Battle, 392-398.
54. Rhea, Battle, 435-439.
55. Rhea, Battle, 440-441.
Rhea, Gordon C. The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Scott, Robert Garth. Into the Wilderness with the Army of the Potomac. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992.