The Battle of the Wilderness marked the first battle in General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. It was designed to engage General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia whenever possible and wear them down in a war of attrition. The Union Army of the Potomac could afford losses and resupply itself with weapons and ammunition, Lee’s army could not. The battle was tactically inconclusive but Lee’s losses would only weaken Confederate resolve.
The Wilderness battle took place May 5-7, 1864 and is so named after the Wilderness Tavern located on the battlefield central Virginia. Grant’s force numbered 101, 895 to Lee’s 61,025. General Lee was no stranger to facing a larger fighting force as he had done so consistently throughout the war.
The Battlefield is Decided
On May 4 the Union army forded the Rapidan River and they converged on the Wilderness Tavern. The site which was overgrown with almost impenetrable undergrowth had been the very same site in which Thomas Stonewall Jackson had launched his attack against the Union left during the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Grant’s intention was to move his army to the south and east of the Wilderness where there was open ground and he could use his superior troop numbers and artillery to win a decisive battle. His troops traveled light for speed carrying only basic rations and weapons.
Both armies were spread thin over a great distance and the Union army was particularly vulnerable as their lines stretched over 70 miles, and their cavalry force was not adequate to protect its movements from enemy eyes. General Lee had a panoramic view of the area from the heights and knew that Grant would converge his army in the general area of the Wilderness, but didn’t know exactly where.
Knowing that he was greatly outnumbered and with inferior artillery, Lee decided to attack Grant’s troops in the Wilderness where the dense undergrowth would help restrict movement and even the odds. He ordered his army to march in the direction of the Wilderness where both armies settled down for the night with their camps just a few miles apart.
* All maps by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW
The Battle - May 5
On the morning of May 5, as Union General Gouvernour K. Warren advanced his army into sight of Confederate General Richard S. Ewell. General George Meade gave Warren the order to attack at the Battle of the Wilderness provided he could so so quickly enough to prevent the Confederates from forming battle lines. Delays prevented a swift attack as their was concern over enemy positions and at 1pm an angry Meade insisted upon an attack.
The Union army advanced and because of enfilading fire, they took costly casualties. They were forced back on the Wilderness battlefield due to the fact that their lines were overlapped and reformed for another potential assault. The Confederates were well entrenched on the western end of Saunders Field and would be tough to remove. Union reinforcements under Major General John Sedgwick arrived close to 3pm and they too were repulsed by the well-protected Confederates.
Union troops with the help of cavalry were successful in defending a critical crossroads at Orange Plank Road and Brock Road. Ewell’s men retreated back a few hundred yards and General Lee and some of his commanding generals found themselves dangerously close to the fighting and had to withdraw.
Union General Winfield Scott Hancock was ordered to help defend these crossroads at the Wilderness battle and around 4pm, he quickly moved his corps forward. Fierce fighting ensued with no advantage to either side. Nightfall quickly set in and both armies would rest for the night.
The Battle - May 6
At 5am, General Winfield Scott Hancock and II Corps attacked the Confederate Third Corps down Orange Plank Road and pushed them back to the point of breaking at the Battle of the Wilderness. The Confederates made a stand at Widow Tapp farm but couldn’t stop the aggressive Union attack. Around 6am as they were about to break, Brigadier General John Gregg’s 800-man Texas Brigade arrived on the scene to reinforce the Confederate lines.
The Texas Brigade lead the counterattack against the disorganized Union troops who hadn’t had the chance to reorganize following the earlier attack. They gave up the ground they gained at Widow Tapp farm and eventually, General James Longstreet was able to drive the Union forces all the way back to the Brock Road. In the confusion of the fight Longstreet was severely wounded in the neck by his own men. Coincidentally, Longstreet and his officers were mistaken for Federal cavalry just 4 miles from the spot where General Thomas Stonewall Jackson was killed just a year earlier.
On another section of the Wilderness battlefield Confederate Brigadier General John B. Gordon scouted the Union lines at the Orange Court House Turnpike. He communicated his idea for a plan of attack to his division commander General Ewell. It was deemed to risky and the idea was openly dismissed. When word of the plan got to Lee, he approved it and ordered Ewell to carry out the attack. The attack had initial success bu the thickness of the undergrowth and the onset of darkness stalled the attacks.
The Battle - May 7
The next morning Grant considered attacking the Confederate positions at the Battle of the Wilderness but decided against it considering the strength of their defenses. He instead moved his army east to Spotsylvania putting his army between Lee and Richmond. He was correct in surmising that Lee would have to pursue his army to protect the Confederate capital and he could choose the ground he wanted to fight on that would give him an advantage over Lee.
The Battle of the Wilderness was not tactically decisive for either side but Grant’s plan to weaken Lee’s army through attrition was off to a good start and within less than a year, this strategy would help win the war for the Union.