National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

EPILOGUE

On May 21, Grant initiated his shift south that had been delayed by the Harris farm escapade. For the next few weeks, the armies maneuvered toward Richmond, Grant seeking an opening and Lee deftly blocking him at every turn. First Grant marched to the North Anna, only to discover that Lee had arrived first and was busy erecting more devilish earthworks. Then he sidestepped to the Totopotomy, where Lee again drew a firm line. After more deployments, the armies clashed at Cold Harbor. Temporarily stymied, Grant broke the deadlock by shifting across the James to Petersburg. And there the dance of maneuver that began in the Wilderness ended as the armies settled into siege.

Casualties in the opening battles of the spring campaign cannot be given with certainty. Grant's casualties in the Wilderness amounted to about 18,000, and another 18,400 at Spotsylvania, for a total in killed, wounded, and captured of roughly 36,400. Attrition also gutted Grant's top leadership. Of his four infantry corps heads, one lay dead and two others—Warren and Burnside—seemed incapable of performing acceptably. Even Hancock, generally touted as Grant's ablest subordinate, made amateurish mistakes. He permitted Sorrel to flank him in the Wilderness, nearly lost Barlow below the Po, and lost control of his troops during the attack on the salient. Three Union division heads were killed or disabled, and fifteen brigade commanders became casualties. According to the Army of the Potomac's medical director, 434 Union officers were wounded in the Wilderness alone.

Lee lost close to 11,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or captured in the Wilderness; his subtractions at Spotsylvania were approximately 10.200 soldiers, for a grand total of 21,200 troops lost from May 4 through 21. The battles also took a severe toll on Lee's command. Two of his three infantry corps heads were disabled, a division commander was captured, and fifteen brigade commanders were killed, captured, or severely wounded. Regiments and companies were decimated. And on May 11, Jeb Stuart received a mortal wound at Yellow Tavern. The Army of Northern Virginia's capacity to undertake offensive operations was quickly disappearing.


The Wilderness and Spotsylvania operations stand among the most fascinating episodes in American military history. In these initial encounters, Lee and Grant each exhibited strengths, and each fumbled.

The Wilderness and Spotsylvania operations stand among the most fascinating episodes in American military history. In these initial encounters, Lee and Grant each exhibited strengths, and each fumbled. Grant, unlike Lee, did not exercise direct control over his army, but rather had to go through Meade and Burnside. The awkward command hierarchy shackled Grant and thwarted his ability to execute tactical combinations. The popular perception of Grant is that of a general who eschewed maneuver and blindly hurled men against impregnable earthworks. His record in the Wilderness and Spotsylvania does not bear out that image. He began the campaign by maneuvering Lee from his Rapidan works, then concentrated against Lee's weakest link on May 6 and almost succeeded. On May 7, when it was apparent that Lee held a strong position, Grant again resorted to maneuver and tried to draw Lee south. His combinations on May 10, 12, and 18 represented different methods of trying to crack Lee's line. Grant failed, not because his ideas were faulty, but rather because his subordinates seemed incapable of executing coordinated movements in a timely fashion. Perhaps history will come to judge Grant's failure to take control of the Army of the Potomac and the Ninth Corps with a firm hand early in the campaign as his chief shortcoming.

A troubling aspect of Grant's generalship in the Wilderness, and more so at Spotsylvania, was his tendency to undertake offensive operations before he had fully thought through the next step. On the evening of May 9, he impetuously ordered Hancock over the Po; a more reasoned approach would have been to defer the move until the next morning, thereby preserving the element of surprise. The attack against the Bloody Angle serves as a case in point. It was undertaken on short notice with no clear idea about where to attack or what obstacles would be encountered. Most surprisingly, Grant never seems to have considered what had to be done after Hancock punched through Lee's line. The fact that Hancock's vaunted Second Corps, pride of the Union army, dissolved into a throng with no discernible chain of command speaks eloquently about the absence of forethought.

THE FIRST MAINE HEAVY ARTILLERY TOOK 481 CASUALTIES AT THE HARRIS FARM. BY FAR THE MOST SUSTAINED BY ANY REGIMENT IN THE CAMPAIGN. (NPS)

UNDAUNTED BY THE HEAVY LOSSES HE HAD INCURRED AT WILDERNESS AND SPOTSYLVANIA, GHANT CONTINUED TO PUSH SOUTH. HIS PERSISTENCE EVENTUALLY BROKE THE CONFEDERATE ARMY AND BROUGHT AN END TO THE WAR. (BL)

The problems of command that plagued Grant in the Wilderness and Spotsylvania continued throughout the campaign. The general's strong point remained his tenacity. He was undaunted by tactical reverses that would have sent his predecessors packing. Longstreet, who had been best man at Grant's wedding before the war, made an accurate prediction about his friend. "That man will fight us every day and every hour till the end of the war."

Lee, on the other hand, maneuvered his veterans with a practiced hand and engaged in gambles characteristic of his military style. His decision to attack in the Wilderness with two corps, each separated by several miles of thick woods, was risk-taking of the highest order. Superb fighting by Lee's subordinates, along with a large measure of good fortune, produced results that Southerners could proudly call victory. And Lee's masterful shift of Heth and Mahone to the Po on May 9-10 and his response to Hancock's breakthrough on May 12 stand as set pieces in the art of defensive warfare. But some of Lee's decisions, such as his failure to reposition Hill during the night of May 5-6 and his withdrawal of artillery from the salient on May 11, nearly destroyed his army. Despite occasional lapses, however, Lee achieved stunning results against a vastly superior force. His performance in the Wilderness and Spotsylvania places him in the foremost rank of American commanders.


(click on image for a PDF version)
Wilderness, Cancellorsville, and Spotsylvania Court House Battlefields

Back cover: Lee's Texans, by Don Troiani. Courtesy of Historical Art Prints, Ltd., Southbury, CT.
Previous Top


 

History and Culture