Gordon's Flank Attack Trail
The first head-to-head confrontation between Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant occurred in the dense, second-growth forest known as the Wilderness. On May 4, 1864, Grant's Union army crossed the Rapidan River and headed south where it encountered Lee's Confederates moving east along two major thorough-fares, the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road. When Grant discovered the Confederate army's presence, he halted his southward movement and ordered his troops to attack.
The ensuing Battle of the Wilderness was fought on May 5 and 6, 1864, along the two road corridors. The roads were less than three miles apart, but they were separated by the thickets and tangled undergrowth characteristic of the Wilderness. The resulting battle, therefore, developed into two distinct engagements, fought through the woods and a few small fields bordering each road.
Fighting began along the Orange Turnpike at about mid-day of May 5. The Confederates selected a position bordering on the western edge of Saunders Field, the clearing around the Wilderness Exhibit Shelter. Union forces attacked across Saunders Field and the fighting spread into the neighboring woods. During one phase of the fight the Confederate line broke, but a determined counterattack enabled the Southerners to re-establish their position.
After some sharp fighting north of the Orange Turnpike early on May 6, the area remained relatively quiet until late in the afternoon, when Brigadier General John B. Gordon led an attack against the Union right flank. The assault drove two Union brigades from their positions before darkness caused confusion among the Confederates, bringing the battle to a close.
The bitter fighting resulted in more than 17,600 Federal casualties and at least 8,000 Confederate losses. During the evening of May 7, Grant again pushed his men southward. The next struggle began on May 8 near Spotsylvania Court House.
Hiking The Trail
This loop trail covers about two miles. It crosses ground that was heavily contested on May 5 and 6, 1864. The trail begins and ends at the Wilderness Exhibit Shelter, Stop 2 on the Wilderness Battlefield driving tour. The exhibits and large battle painting offer an overview of the Battle of the Wilderness. Interpretive signs, maps, photographs, and monuments along the trail supplement the information provided at the exhibit shelter.
The trail passes through a maze of earthworks built at various stages of the battle. In several places, earthworks originally constructed by Union soldiers then captured by Confederates were re-faced and incorporated into the Southern defensive line. The trail route follows a rubberized path out of the parking lot area and through the field, blue blazes in the woods, and the gravel road back to the exhibit shelter.
A copy of the brochure can be obtained at the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville Visitor Centers at no charge. It contains a map of the trail as well as this narrative.
For Your Information and Safety
* Federal law prohibits the possession of a metal detector and the collection of relics within the park.
Go to Battle of Wilderness webpage to learn more about the Wilderness/Spotsylvania Campaign.
Go to Wilderness Battlefield webpage to learn more about visiting the Wilderness Battlefield.
Did You Know?
Both Ellwood and Chatham were owned by the Lacy family during the Civil War. Both houses are part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.