Battle of the Wilderness

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Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, Civil War

Battle of the Wilderness

Other Names: Wilderness Battlefield, Wilderness Campaign, Combats at Parker’s Store, Craig’s Meeting House, Todd's Tavern, Brock Road, the Furnaces

Location: Spotsylvania County, Virginia

Campaign: Grant's Overland Campaign, aka Wilderness Campaign (May-June 1864)

Date(s): May 5-7, 1864

Principal Commanders: Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Meade [US]; Gen. Robert E. Lee [CS]

Forces Engaged: 162,920 total (US 101,895; CS 61,025)

Estimated Casualties: 29,800 total (US 18,400; CS 11,400)

Result(s): Inconclusive (Grant continued his offensive.)

Battle of the Wilderness to Petersburg Siege Map
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(Click to Enlarge)

Description: The opening battle of Grant’s sustained offensive against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, known as the Overland Campaign or Wilderness Campaign, was fought at the Wilderness (Virginia), May 5-7. On the morning of May 5, 1864, the Union V Corps attacked Ewell’s Corps on the Orange Turnpike, while A.P. Hill’s corps during the afternoon encountered Getty’s Division (VI Corps) and Hancock’s II Corps on the Plank Road. Fighting was fierce but inconclusive as both sides attempted to maneuver in the dense woods. Darkness halted the fighting, and both sides rushed forward reinforcements. At dawn on May 6, Hancock attacked along the Plank Road, driving Hill’s Corps back in confusion. Longstreet’s Corps arrived in time to prevent the collapse of the Confederate right flank. At noon, a devastating Confederate flank attack in Hamilton’s Thicket sputtered out when Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was wounded by his own men. The IX Corps (Burnside) moved against the Confederate center, but was repulsed. Union generals James S. Wadsworth and Alexander Hays were killed. Confederate generals John M. Jones, Micah Jenkins, and Leroy A. Stafford were killed. The battle was a tactical draw. Grant, however, did not retreat as had the other Union generals before him. On May 7, the Federals advanced by the left flank toward the crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House. The Campaign continued and even witnessed fierce hand-to-hand combat at Spotsylvania Court House.

Although the battle is usually described as inconclusive – or a draw – it could be declared a tactical Confederate victory, and also a strategic Union victory.

Battle History
 

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5–7, 1864, was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Both armies suffered heavy casualties, a harbinger of a bloody war of attrition by Grant against Lee's army. The battle was tactically inconclusive, as Grant disengaged and continued his offensive.

 

On May 2, 1864, the Army of the Potomac, nominally under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, but taking orders from Grant, crossed the Rapidan River at three separate points and converged on the Wilderness Tavern, which had been the concentration point for the Confederates one year to the day earlier when they launched their devastating attack on the Union right flank at Chancellorsville. But Grant chose to set up his camps to the west of the old battle site before moving southward. Unlike the Union army of a year before, Grant had no desire to fight in the Wilderness. For Lee it was imperative to fight in the Wilderness for the same reason as the year before: his army was massively outnumbered, with ~61,000 men to Grant's ~101,000, and his artillery had fewer and worse guns than those of Grant's. Fighting in the tangled woods would eliminate Grant's advantage in artillery, and also the close quarters and ensuing confusion there could give Lee's outnumbered force better odds.

Civil War Battle of the Wilderness
Battle of the Wilderness.jpg
(Historical Marker)

While waiting for the arrival of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and his two divisions of the First Corps*, which had been posted 25 miles (40 km) to the west to guard the crucial railroad junction of Gordonsville, Lee pushed forward his Second Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and the 22,000 man Third Corps under the command of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, in a successful attempt to engage Grant before he moved south.

*Pickett's division was absent, still recovering from its losses at the Battle of Gettysburg, manning the defenses of Richmond.

Battle of the Wilderness Map
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On May 5, Ewell, on Lee's left flank, and Hill on the right, engaged Union soldiers. On the left, Ewell engaged the V Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, and fought it to a standoff. For much of the day, Ewell's 18,500-man corps actually held a slight numerical advantage on this part of the field. But on the right, Hill was hit hard and driven back by the Union II Corps under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and a division from the VI Corps. He held his ground, however.

Battle of the Wilderness Map
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(Click to Enlarge)

On May 6, Hancock, now commanding nearly 40,000 men, resumed the attack on Hill's corps, while heavy Union reinforcements on Ewell's front prevented Lee from sending Second Corps men to aid Hill. By late morning, Hancock had driven Hill's corps back more than 2 miles (3.2 km) and inflicted heavy casualties. With the Third Corps in dire straits, Lee began to look desperately for Longstreet, who had been expected hours before. Longstreet and the 12,000-man First Corps finally arrived at around noon, with perfect timing: Hancock's men were tired and disorganized from six hours of fighting. Lee was exuberant that the reinforcements had arrived and attempted to lead the 800-man Texas Brigade in a charge against the Union line. The brigade refused to advance as their line was not yet formed and they knew the South could not afford Lee being killed or wounded. Longstreet and the Texas Brigade launched their attack once Lee agreed to withdraw to a safer distance.

Wilderness Civil War Battlefield Map
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When Longstreet attacked the Union forces they withdrew, and within two hours the situation was totally reversed: Longstreet had regained all the ground lost and advanced 1 mile (1,600 m) further, forcing Hancock to regroup along the Brock Road. At a crucial moment in the fighting, Longstreet attacked through a cutting of an unfinished railroad that had split the Union forces, increasing the confusion. Longstreet, however, did not have enough men to complete his victory, and the fighting soon “evaporated near the Brock Road.” As the fighting concluded on this part of the battlefield, Longstreet was badly wounded by friendly fire and did not return to the Army of Northern Virginia for several months. (By coincidence, Longstreet was accidentally shot by his own men only about 4 miles (6.4 km) away from the place where Stonewall Jackson suffered the same fate a year earlier.)

Battle of the Wilderness Virginia Map
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Just as this phase of the battle was ending, a division of the Second Corps under Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon launched a final assault on the Union right, partially turning the Army of the Potomac's flank and taking close to 1,000 prisoners. But darkness fell and ended the battle, before the Confederates had a chance to press their advantage. In one of the more horrifying incidents of the war, a brushfire broke out between the two armies' lines during the night. Hundreds of wounded soldiers left on the field died screaming as they were burned alive in front of their comrades.

Battle of the Wilderness
Battle of the Wilderness.jpg
Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania

(Satellite photograph of the "Bloodiest Landscape in North America." Unprecedented loss of life was witnessed at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania - more than 85,000 men wounded; 15,000 killed. No place in the United States more vividly reflects the Civil War’s tragic cost. See also Virginia Civil War History. Satellite photograph is courtesy Microsoft Virtual Earth.)

Aftermath

Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, Map
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Grant withdrew at the end of the battle, usually the action of the defeated; but, unlike his predecessors since 1861, Grant continued his campaign instead of retreating to the safety of Washington City (as Washington D.C. was referred to at the time). Lee, however, inflicted heavy numerical casualties (see estimates below) on Grant, but they were a smaller percentage of Grant's forces than the casualties that Lee’s army suffered. And, unlike Grant, Lee had very little opportunity to replenish his losses. Understanding this disparity, part of Grant's strategy was to grind down the Confederate army by waging 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, but Grant was too skilled to allow that to happen. Thus, the Overland Campaign, initiated by the crossing of the Rappahannock, and opening with this battle, set in motion the eventual destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia.

 

On May 8, Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to resume its advance, skirmishing with Lee's Army at the Battle of Todd's Tavern and, a few days later, fighting another major, inconclusive battle at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House just10 miles (16 km) to the southeast.

Historical Significance

In this video, Chief Park Historian John Hennessy describes the Battle of the Wilderness and its great historical importance to the outcome of the Civil War.

Casualties

Estimates for the casualties in the Wilderness vary. The following table summarizes estimates from a number of sources:

Casualty Estimates for the Battle of the Wilderness

Source

Union

Confederate

 

Killed

Wounded

Captured/
Missing

Total

Killed

Wounded

Captured/
Missing

Total

 

National Park Service

 

 

 

18,400

 

 

 

11,400

 

Bonekemper, Victor, Not a Butcher

2,246

12,037

3,383

17,666

1,495

7,928

1,702

11,125

 

Catton, Grant Takes Command

2,265

10,220

2,902

15,387

 

 

 

 

 

Eicher, Longest Night

2,246

12,037

3,383

17,666

 

 

 

7,750 –
11,400

 

Esposito, West Point Atlas

 

 

 

15,000 –
18,000

 

 

 

c. 7,500

 

Foote, Civil War

 

 

 

17,666

 

 

 

7,800

 

Fox, Regimental Losses

2,246

12,037

3,383

17,666

 

 

 

 

 

McPherson, Battle Cry

 

 

 

17,500

 

 

 

under
10,500

 

Smith, Grant

2,261

8,785

2,902

13,948

 

 

 

 

 

(Sources and related reading below.)

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.

 

Recommended Reading: Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (Civil War America) (Hardcover). Description: In the study of field fortifications in the Civil War that began with Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War, Hess turns to the 1864 Overland campaign to cover battles from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor. Drawing on meticulous research in primary sources and careful examination of trench remnants at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Bermuda Hundred, Hess describes Union and Confederate earthworks and how Grant and Lee used them in this new era of field entrenchments.

Sources: Bonekemper, Edward H., III, A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant's Overlooked Military Genius, Regnery, 2004; Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001; Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox, Random House, 1974; Fox, William F., Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, Albany Publishing, 1889; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States), Oxford University Press, 1988; Rhea, Gordon C., The Battle of the Wilderness May 5–6, 1864, Louisiana State University Press, 1994; Smith, Jean Edward, Grant, Simon and Shuster, 2001; Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT); National Park Service; Official Record of the Union and Confederate Armies; Microsoft Virtual Earth.

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