Civil War Battles
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The Battle of the Wilderness was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
The battlefield was the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, an expanse of impenetrable scrub growth and rough terrain that encompassed more than 70 square miles of Spotsylvania County in central Virginia. A number of battles were fought in the vicinity between 1862-64, including the bloody Battle of Chancellorsville. It is often said that the Wilderness and Chancellorsville were fought in the same spot, but the 1864 battle was actually fought a few miles to the west, and only overlapped the old battlefield along the Brock Road on the Union army's left flank.
Grant had become commander of all Union armies in February 1864, and designed a coordinated campaign for all of thems. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was to hammer Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army to Atlanta and beyond; Banks was to concentrate all available manpower first to raid up the Red River valley, then move on Mobile. The Atlantic seaboard was stripped for manpower to reinforce Ben Butler, who would move up the James and threaten Richmond from behind. Troops in West Virginia and the Shenandoah would be formed into 2 raiding columns and a third one to occupy the Shenandoah.
Grant himself would move with the Army of the Potomac and attack Lee. Grant was very specific: he was not aiming at Richmond necessarily–Richmond could fall and the war continue if Lee’s army was intact.
Lee was camped around Orange Court House, his 3 corps spread out and Gen. J.E.B Stuart’s cavalry detached to Fredericksburg, where there was more grass for the horses. Lee’s lines stretched about 15 to 18 miles, because he had to guard against a Union move either east or west. Grant’s plan was not simple, but it was straightforward. He would move east, around Lee’s right flank, cross the Rappahannock in the Wilderness and move through the Wilderness before Lee could react.
Grant specifically did not want to fight in the Wilderness, where the narrow roads would restrict the number of men that could fight and the dense woods would cancel the Union advantage in artillery. What Grant wanted was to break past Lee, get between Lee and Richmond and force a battle in the open where the larger Army of the Potomac could crush the Army of Northern Virginia. To do this he cracked down on baggage, purging as many of the infantry’s as he could. But at the same time his intention to get around Lee meant he had to carry extra rations and ammunition, because if Grant was behind Lee, then Lee was behind Grant. The net result was enough wagons to fill about 60 miles of road, and Grant had to be careful throughout the battle to protect them.
But Lee was no fool. He had an extraordinary sense what his opponents would try, truly extraordinary because it seemed to work even the first time against a new opponent. Grant issued his orders on May 2, but that same day Lee took a group of his subordinates and staff officers up Clark’s Mountain. From the low peak he surveyed the ground to his east and predicted that Grant would move through the Wilderness.
Lee’s plan was to move his army and catch Grant tangled in the scrubby forest. He knew there was no good way to defend the Rappahannock itself – he might not be able to move fast enough to get to the fords ahead of Grant. If he did get there first and dug in to cover the fords, then Grant would pummel the defenders with artillery. Plus Lee was aggressive, and while his strategy had to be defensive, he still looked for opportunities to attack tactically.
On May 3, the Army of the Potomac started moving around midnight. The Union cavalry led the way and pontoon bridges were quickly down at the main fords. The 3 main infantry corps (Hancock’s II Corps, Warren’s V Corps, and Sedgwick’s VI Corps) and the artillery were soon across – Hancock was not only across the river early but at Chancellorsville by 9:00 A.M. on May 4. But the wagon train slowed everything down. It took the whole of May 4 and until 5:00 P.M. on May 5 to get the thousands of wagons over the bridges, and Burnside’s IX Corps (intended to guard the wagons, or delay Lee if he headed north across Grant’s supply lines) still had to cross.
This cost Grant precious time – time that Lee was using to get his men into position. On May 2, he had predicted Grant’s moves, and issued warning orders. So on the 4th the leading elements of Brig. Gen. A.P. Hill’s and Maj. Gen. Richard “Baldy” Ewell’s corps were close to the Wilderness – camped about 5 miles of the Union troops. (Longstreet had been much further away, on Lee’s far west flank, and had the longest distance to march.) Scouting was poor on both sides (most of the Confederate cavalry was elsewhere, while it was Sheridan’s first time commanding more than a single regiment of cavalry) and nobody patrolled enough.
If the wagons were slow moving up, Grant wasn’t going to sit still. He ordered Burnside to bring IX Corps up to cover the trains, sent most of Sheridan’s cavalry headed towards Fredericksburg, and ordered the other 3 infantry corps into motion southwards, warning them to keep contact and watch their flanks. Everyone started on time, but the march was stretched out by the narrow roads. There was also a confidence that bordered on cockiness: when Warren reported Confederate infantry in strength, Meade assumed it was a diversionary force that Lee was using to distract the Union troops while the Confederate main body fell back.
It was nothing of the sort. Lee had been moving troops east all the previous day and had two corps, basically 1 on each of the 2 main roads, and Longstreet was still moving up from the west. (Lee had not given Old Pete enough warning, and he wouldn’t arrive until May 6.) Lee wanted to wait for a major battle until Longstreet arrived, but Meade had other plans.
Still thinking there was only a Confederate division, Meade ordered Warren to attack it and crumple it up. Hancock was to halt and await developments rather than march off with an unknown enemy force in his rear, and Sedgwick was ordered to move west and support Warren’s attack. Warren headed west along the Wilderness Turnpike and about noon on May 5 drove back the first Confederate line. But the terrain interfered with supporting troops, which had to bypass a thicket – and in moving around it opened their flank to a Confederate attack. An extra division was brought in from Sedgwick’s VI Corps and propped things up, but Warren lost 2 guns and several hundred prisoners in the melee. Ewell had been the victor of the opening engagement.
Meanwhile another division of V Corps was finding Confederates along the Plank Road. This convinced Meade that the Confederates were in strength, and he ordered up reinforcements from VI Corps. The original troops got themselves tangled in Ewell’s Corps, but the reinforcements dug in when they learned that Hill’s Corps was advancing and covered the Plank Road intersection. Lee was still hoping to put off the main battle until Longstreet arrived, but Grant’s intention all along was to fight. He preferred to do it in open country, but there were Confederates in the Wilderness, so he would fight there.
Hancock brought the II Corps back to the Plank Road and spent an hour –an hour that AP Hill used to begin entrenchments – organizing his attack. Fighting lasted from about 4:00 to 8:00 P.M., with both sides reinforcing because neither would yield. It was close range fighting, very bloody for both sides since the troops had to be at point-blank range to see each other. Finally, a small attack after dark drove the Confederates back a bit and gave the 2 sides a breathing space.There was also infantry skirmishing on the north end of the line, and cavalry skirmishing (Stuart had swung around to Lee’s right flank) on the southern end.
Grant had achieved little on May 5, except to find out that Lee was not falling back to the North Anna. Lee probably had more fresh troops than Grant: Longstreet’s men were still on the way, and some of Hill’s and Ewell’s men were fresh. Still, Grant sought a battle under almost any circumstances, and he wasn’t discouraged. He sent orders to resume the attack at 5:00 A.M. on the 6th.
The new plan was for Burnside to slot 2 divisions of his men between the 2 current battles and advance to smash AP Hill. Lee could make fewer plans, since Longstreet wouldn’t be in place until morning, but he did have his men dig in.
The Union attack began bright and early and strong. But it smacked straight into fortifications, and Hancock was brought to a complete halt. Burnside was late, not arriving until 2:00 P.M. instead of 5:00 A.M. Warren’s attack was then halted to send Hancock reinforcements, and Warren’s men then dug in deeper to economize manpower.
By late morning, Hancock finally had enough men to overlap the Confederate flanks, and broke through – momentarily. Longstreet was just arriving and they combined to drive the Union troops back. Casualties were terrible, with both sides alternating charges across the same small patch of ground, piling wounded and dead men higher and higher. Hancock would probably have broken thought sooner and done more damage if Gibbon had brought up 2 divisions from the left flank, as ordered, but he hesitated. The Union generals knew Longstreet was coming up, and thought he would take a route further to the south than he actually did, so Gibbon very cautiously waited for movement to his front.
Longstreet hadn’t fed in all his men, only enough to stabilize the situation. He still had a considerable reserve, and now news arrived about how to use it. There was an empty railway cutting that would cover deployment of men around Hancock’s left. Longstreet didn’t hesitate, and sent 4 brigades under Billy Mahone to curl around the flank. They hit just as the frontal attacks were drawing to a close; Hancock’s men were tired and looking for a breathing space. Not prepared for further fighting, they fell back in confusion, and in some places routed. Gen. Wadsworth was killed, which was the signal for his men to keep falling back.
This was the great opportunity for the Confederacy. Circumstances seemed to be repeating themselves from Chancellorsville: a flank attack was devastating the Union army. This time there was plenty of daylight, and plenty of reserves, and Longstreet was busy bringing 5 more brigades forward to keep the momentum going. Then another bit of history almost repeated itself: Longstreet was wounded by his own men, just as Jackson had been. It was a bad wound, but Longstreet left orders to continue the attack, even briefing Lee personally on how things were going. Lee however “did not care to handle broken lines, and ordered a formation for parallel battle.” This took too much time, and Hancock got his men back in line. Lee’s attack broke into the first line, but a Union counterattack pushed the Rebels back.
Warren was taking things easy for the rest of the day, and Burnside’s men made little difference. Instead of attacking at 5:00 A.M., they moved out at 2:00 P.M., by which time the Confederates had filled the gap in their center. The attack was repulsed, which was about all that happened in the middle. But there was another major opportunity for the Confederates on the Union right. John Gordon had scouted and found the Union right flank was open, almost entirely open, and he suggested swinging around the end of the line and smashing the flank from front and rear. But Gordon was only a brigade commander. Ewell, his superior, was convinced Burnside’s men were supporting the Union flank and denied permission. It was only at the end of the day that Lee, patrolling along the line after the attack in the south had ended, heard the news. He instantly authorized the attack, which began at nightfall and did break the end of the Union line. Two generals and several hundred prisoners were captured; had the attack been earlier and larger it too might have wrecked the Union line.
Grant had 2 lucky escapes in 1 day, but was not overly disheartened. He didn’t intend to make further head-on attacks on May 7, but instead to move south out of the Wilderness. Lee was licking his wounds too, and didn’t do anything except dig deeper.
Grant had not performed well at all. He had no tactical plans before the battle, and exercised little control in the battle. He reinforced Hancock when Hancock was stopped, rather than reinforcing Warren or attacking somewhere else. Lee too had bad moments. If he was so convinced on the top of Clark’s Mountain that Grant was moving into the Wilderness, he should have started Longstreet moving. He should also have brought Stuart up from Fredericksburg, which would have helped pin Grant into the Wilderness. Then Lee wasted the momentum of Longstreet’s flank attack by pausing and reorganizing it.
This handed Hancock the time he needed to reform his faltering men – who then fought doggedly from behind a breastwork. Ewell was responsible for not breaking the Union right, revealing the difference in leadership in the Army of Northern Virginia after Jackson’s death.
But despite tactical repulses and withdrawals, Grant kept his nerve. He knew his army was still stronger than Lee’s. He had many advantages, and until Grant admitted defeat the Army of the Potomac was going to keep fighting. And Grant was not a quitter. He didn’t pull back to the safe positions of northern Virginia, re-equip, fill his ranks as McClellan would have done. That would have given Lee equal time to regroup.
The battle is usually described as a draw; a better way of describing it would be as a tactical Confederate victory, but a strategic victory for the Union army.
At the end of the battle, Grant withdrew his force, which is normally how the loser in a Civil War battle is determined. However, unlike his predecessors since 1861, Grant did not retreat back to the safety of Washington, D.C., but continued in his campaign. Lee inflicted heavy casualties on Grant, but they were a smaller percentage than the casualties his army suffered. And unlike Grant, Lee had very little opportunity to replenish his losses. Understanding this disparity, part of Grant's strategy was to wage a war of attrition. The only way that Lee could escape from the trap that Grant had set was to destroy the Army of the Potomac while he still had sufficient force to do so, and Grant was too skilled to allow that to happen.