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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

MAY 12: WARREN AND BURNSIDE FALTER

While brutal combat raged at the Bloody Angle, Grant tried to step up pressure against the Rebel flanks. Unfortunately for the Union cause, the commanders on the Federal wings proved unable or unwilling to undertake meaningful action.

The Laurel Hill sector was still in Gouverneur Warren's hesitant hands. Toward six in the morning, as Hancock's attack began to falter, Meade advised the Fifth Corps commander to prepare to attack and "do the best you can." At 7:30, Meade informed Warren that Wright needed support and half an hour later issued peremptory orders to "attack immediately with all the force you can." At 8:15, some of Warren's elements began feeling gingerly ahead. "It was the fourth or fifth assault made by our men," Warren's aide Washington A. Roebling explained, "and it is not a matter of surprise that they had lost all spirit for that kind of work; many of them positively refused to go forward as their previous experience had taught them that to do so was certain death on that front."

After half an hour of unproductive sparring, Warren concluded that he could not advance "at present." Meade was in no mood to quibble and directed Warren to attack "at once at all hazards with your whole force, if necessary." Seeing no alternative, Warren directed his division commanders, "Do it," and added: "Don't mind the consequences." At ten o'clock, the Fifth Corps stepped off once again toward Laurel Hill.

AT THIRTY-FOUR, GOUVERNEUR K. WARREN WAS THE YOUNGEST CORPS COMMANDER IN THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC. HIS CORPS TOOK HEAVY CASUALTIES AT WILDERNESS AND SPOTSYLVANIA BUT WON NO GLORY. (NA)

IRASCIBLE GEORGE G. MEADE COMMANDED THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC FROM GETTYSBURG THROUGH APPOMATTOX. HE WON THE RESPECT, IF NOT THE LOVE, OF HIS TROOPS, WHO REFERRED TO HIM AS A GOGGLE-EYED SNAPPING TURTLE. (NA)

The charge was a disaster. Advancing near Brock Road, Griffin's division was caught in a "slaughter pen," as one of its members called the Spindle clearing. "Foolishness," complained another. Cutler's division descended into a ravine and came under blistering fire at the Rebel abatis. "In less than fifteen minutes after we became engaged the ravine lay full of dead men," a survivor recalled. Another declared the movement "almost a farce for we scarcely got but a few paces beyond our lines." A soldier from the famed Iron Brigade wrote home that "Gettysburg is a skirmish compared to this fight."

Headquarters looked poorly on Warren's inaction. "Warren seems reluctant to assault," Meade wrote Grant, who responded, "If Warren fails to attack promptly, send Humphreys to command his corps, and relieve him." Apparently Humphreys handled the matter with tact and assumed responsibility for the Fifth Corps' withdrawal. Warren's standing with his superiors, however, was severely compromised. Shortly before noon, Meade began ordering Warren's subordinates to other parts of the field. Consideration of an offensive against Laturel Hill was abandoned.

Burnside began the day on the other Union flank with a flurry of activity. Before daylight, Brigadier General Robert B. Potter's division stepped into foggy darkness toward the Confederate salient's eastern leg. Potter struck immediately below Steuart's brigade and materially assisted Hancock's breakthrough. However, Brigadier General James H. Lane's North Carolina brigade had formed below Steuart and resisted Potter's advance. Then more Rebels came to Lane's assistance. "It seemed to us that the dire experience of the Wilderness was about to be repeated," a Northerner explained. "The lurid flash of musketry lighted up the dim woods, and the din of battle resounded on every side."

BRIGADIER GENERAL ROBERT POTTER COMMANDED A DIVISION IN BURNSIDE'S NINTH CORPS. HIS ATTACK AGAINST THE EAST FACE OF THE MULESHOE FAILED TO CRACK THE CONFEDERATE LINE. (BL)

Lane petitioned his superior—Cadmus Wilcox—for reinforcements, and soon Brigadier Generals Edward L. Thomas's Georgians and Alfred M. Scales's North Carolinians huffed into view. "We crossed our breastworks and advanced several hundred yards under a terrible fire of grape, canister shells and minnie balls" a Confederate recounted. Federals rolled corpses into piles for protection. But neither side could make headway, and for several hours the Ninth Corps remained stymied.

Toward two o'clock in the afternoon, Lee and Grant each looked to Burnside's sector to renew the offensive. Grant sensed opportunity to strike a thinly protected portion of the Confederate line, while Lee correspondingly saw an opening to capture a stand of Ninth Corps cannon that were enfilading Lane. Apparently Orlando Willcox's Federals and Lane's Confederates started at about the same time, Lane's troops, supported by Weisiger's Virginians, sliced into the advancing Federal column's flank. Neither side was able to make headway in the confused bout of fighting that sputtered through the deep woods.

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