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
(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.
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
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
(Click to Enlarge)
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
(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
(Click to Enlarge)
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
(Click to Enlarge)
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
Battle of the Wilderness
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.)
Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, Map
(Click to Enlarge)
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 WashingtonCity (as WashingtonD.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.
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.
Estimates for the casualties
in the Wilderness vary. The following table summarizes estimates from a number of sources:
Estimates for the Battle of the Wilderness
National Park Service
Bonekemper, Victor, Not
Catton, Grant Takes Command
Eicher, Longest Night
7,750 – 11,400
15,000 – 18,000
Foote, Civil War
Fox, Regimental Losses
McPherson, Battle Cry
(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.
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
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.
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.
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 RapidanRiver 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 NorthAnnaRiver, Totopotomoy Creek, BethesdaChurch, 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
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.
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.
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