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

Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

MAY 5: EWELL SURPRISES WARREN ON ORANGE TURNPIKE

Early on the morning of May 5, the Union Fifth Corps started out a farm path toward Orange Plank Road, leaving pickets a short way out Orange Turnpike to sound the alarm if Confederates came from that direction. As the pickets prepared to move on, they saw a wisp of dust on the horizon. Soon Ewell's corps appeared, marching straight toward the enemy.

Warren sent word to Meade that Confederates were approaching. The army commander in turn notified Grant, who directed that "if any opportunity presents itself of pitching into a part of Lee's army, do so without giving time for disposition." Assuming that the unexpected gray-clad visitors constituted only a small body, Meade halted his army and directed Warren to attack.

GRANT WATCHED THE FIFTH AND SIXTH CORPS ACROSS GERMANNA FORD FROM A BLUFF OVERLOOKING THE RIVER. WHEN ASKED BY A REPORTER HOW LONG IT WOULD TAKE HIM TO GET TO RICHMOND, GRANT REPLIED FOUR DAYS. "THAT IS, IF GENERAL LEE BECOMES A PARTY TO THE AGREEMENT," HE ADDED, "BUT IF HE OBJECTS THE TRIP WILL UNDOUBTEDLY BE PROLONGED." (LC)

The Confederates began erecting earthworks along the western edge of a clearing known as Saunders Field. Warren advanced Brigadier General Charles Griffin's division to the east edge of the clearing. Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth's division formed in dense woods on Griffin's left, and Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford's Pennsylvania Reserves occupied the Chewning farm knoll farther south. Warren hesitated to attack, however, because the Confederate formation overlapped Griffin's flank and would enfilade him if he advanced. Warren beseeched Meade to postpone the assault until Sedgwick arrived and formed on his right. By 1:00 P.M., however, Meade had become so exasperated with Warren's delay that he ordered him to proceed without Sedgwick. "It was afterwards a common report in the army," an aide recounted, "that Warren had just had unpleasant things said to him by General Meade, and that General Meade had just heard the bravery of his army questioned."

THE BATTLE OPENED AT SAUNDERS FIELD, A CLEARING THAT EXTENDED ON EITHER SIDE OF ORANGE TURNPIKE. "THE LAST CROP OF THE OLD FIELD HAD SEEN CORN," WROTE A MEMBER OF WARREN'S STAFF, "AND AMONG ITS STUBBLE THAT DAY WERE SOWN THE SEEDS OF GLORY." (LC)

Griffin's men strode across Saunders Field into intense Confederate firepower. Brigadier General Romeyn B. Ayres's brigade, on Griffin's right, was blistered by Southerners shooting from behind earthworks to the front and right. Blue-clad survivors broke across the field, many seeking refuge in a gully. Brigadier General Joseph J. Bartlett, advancing up the turnpike's left side, had slightly better success. His lead units overran the Confederate line—commanded by Brigadier General John M. Jones, who was killed—and punched forward about a quarter of a mile. Ayres's inability to keep pace, however, left Bartlett's rightmost flank exposed, and rebels quickly exploited the weak point. Bartlett fled with his men and barely escaped capture when his horse was shot from under him.


(click on image for a PDF version)
WARREN OPENS THE FIGHTING MAY 5, 1:00 P.M.
Griffin attacks Ewell across Saunders Field, supported by Wadsworth's division south of the turnpike. The Federals succeed in rupturing the center of Ewell's line below the road, but vigorous counterattacks by John Gordon, Junius Daniel and others quickly restore the line. To the south, Crawford's division maintains its hold on the Chewning firm, while two brigades of Robinson's division remain in reserve near the Lacy House.

Brigadier General Lysander Cutler's famed Iron Brigade advanced in tandem with Bartlett through woods immediately south of Saunders Field. Although Cutler initially made headway against Brigadier General Cullen A. Battle's Alabamians, he was brought up short by a counterattack launched by Brigadier General John B. Gordon. Positioned near the turnpike, the charismatic Gordon thrust his brigade into the head of Cutler's advance, then spread units right and left to chew their way through the Federal formation. For the first time in its history, the Iron Brigade broke and streamed rearward. On Cutler's left, Colonel Roy Stone's Pennsylvanians entered dense woods bordering the Higgerson place. They mired in a swamp—the "champion mud hole of mud holes," a survivor described it—while Brigadier General George Doles's Georgians fired into them from a nearby ridge. To the left of Stone, Brigadier General James C. Rice's brigade crossed a clearing, became disoriented in a stand of woods, and fled as Brigadier General Junius Daniel's North Carolinians emerged from the thickets onto its flanks.


"SURRENDER OR DIE!"

The dense woods of the Wilderness made possible surprises and in many instances fostered panic among the troops who fought there. A case in point is the experience of Lieutenant Holman Melcher of the Twentieth Maine Volunteers. On May 5, Warren's Fifth Corps broke Ewell's line south of the Orange Turnpike, driving the Confederates back half a mile. Melcher and a small body of men plunged through the break and when Ewell successfully counterattacked, they found themselves trapped behind enemy lines. Faced with the alternative of being sent to a Confederate prison camp, they boldly determined to cut their way out. Melcher described the episode in a speech delivered to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion a quarter-century after the battle.

LT. HOLMAN MELCHER (COURTESY WILLIAM STYPLE)

"As we emerged from the woods into this field, General Bartlett, our brigade commander, came galloping down the line from the right, waving his sword and shouting, 'Come on, boys, let us go in and help them!' And go we did. Pulling our hats low down over our eyes, we rushed across the field, and overtaking those of our comrades who had survived the fearful crossing of the front line, just as they were breaking over the enemy's lines, we joined with them in this deadly encounter, and there in that thicket of bushes and briers, with the groans of the dying, the shrieks of the wounded, the terrible roar of musketry and the shouts of command and cheers of encouragement, we swept them away before us like a whirlwind....

The pursuit of my company and those immediately about me continued for about half a mile, until there were no rebels in our front to be seen or heard; and coming out into a little clearing, I thought it well to reform my line, but found there was no line to form, or to connect it with. I could not find my regimental colors or the regiment. There were with me fifteen men of my company with two others of the regiment. I was the only commissioned officer there, but my own brave and trusted first sergeant, Ammi Smith, was at my side as always in time of danger or battle, and with him I conferred as to what it was best to do under the circumstances.


"There was nothing in front to fight that we could see or hear, but to go back seemed the way for cowards to move, as we did not know whether our colors were at the rear or farther to the front."

There was nothing in front to fight that we could see or hear, but to go back seemed the way for cowards to move as we did not know whether our colors were at the rear or farther to the front. I was twenty-two years old at this time, and Sergeant Smith twenty-three, so that our united ages hardly gave years enough to decide a question that seemed so important to us at that moment . . . .

Forming our 'line of battle' (seventeen men beside myself) in single rank, of course . . . we approached quietly and unobserved, as the 'Johnnies' were all intent on watching for the 'Yanks' in front, not for a moment having a suspicion that they were to be attacked from the rear, until we were within ten or fifteen paces, when on the first intimation that we were discovered, every one of our little band picked his man and fired, and with a great shout as much as if we were a thousand, we rushed at them and on to them, sword and bayonets being our weapons. 'Surrender or die!' was our battle-cry.

They were so astonished and terrified by this sudden and entirely unexpected attack and from this direction, that some of them promptly obeyed, threw down their arms and surrendered. The desperately brave fought us, hand to hand; the larger part broke and fled in every direction through the woods, and could not be followed by us or our fire, as our rifles were empty and there was no time to reload.

This was the first, and I am glad to say, the last time that I saw the bayonet used in its most terrible and effective manner. One of my men, only a boy, just at my side, called out to a rebel to throw down his gun, but instead of obeying he quickly brought it to his shoulder and snapped it in the face of this man, but fortunately it did not explode, for some reason.

Quick as a flash, he sprang forward and plunged his bayonet into his breast, and throwing him backward pinned him to the ground, with the very positive remark, 'I'll teach you, old Reb, how to snap your gun in my face!' And this was only one scene of many such I saw enacted around me, in that terrible struggle. How I wished my sword had been ground to the sharpness of a razor, but the point was keen and I used [it] to the full strength of my arm.

I saw a tall, lank rebel, only a few paces from me, about to fire at one of my men and I the only one that could help him. I sprang forward and struck him with all my strength, intending to split his head open, but so anxious was I that my blow should fall on him before he could fire that I struck before I got near enough for the sword to fall upon his head, but the point cut the scalp on the back of his head and split his coat all the way down his back. The blow hurt and startled him so much that he dropped his musket without firing and surrendered, and we marched him out with the other prisoners.

In less time than it has taken me to tell this we had scattered the line of battle and the way was open for us to escape. Two of our little band lay dead on the ground where we had fought, and several more or less severely wounded, but these latter we kept with us and saved them from capture. By spreading our little company out rather thin we were able to surround the thirty-two prisoners we had captured in the melee and started them along on the double quick, or as near to it as we could and keep the wounded along with us.

The Confederate line soon began to rally and fired after us; but as there were many more of the Gray than the Blue in our ranks, they hesitated to do much firing, as they saw they would be more likely to kill friends than foes."

As the Union formation dissolved, Crawford began hurrying his division back. One regiment—the Seventh Pennsylvania—became separated and was captured by a handful of Gordon's Georgians under Major Frank Van Valkenberg. Under cover of the dense woods, the Georgia major was able to make his squad appear as though it were a regiment. "I never saw a group of more mortified men," a Southerner remarked of the Pennsylvanians' reaction on discovering they had been tricked into surrendering to a vastly inferior force.

AT 1:00 P.M., THE FEDERALS ATTACKED. THE 140TH NEW YORK VOLUNTEERS, A ZOUAVE REGIMENT, LED THE ASSAULT NORTH OF THE TURNPIKE. (COURTESY KEITH ROCCO)

THE HIGGERSON FARM STOOD DIRECTLY IN THE PATH OF COL. ROY STONE'S MAY 5 ADVANCE. MRS. HIGGERSON SCOLDED STONE'S MEN FOR TRAMPLING HER GARDEN AND PREDICTED THEIR SPEEDY REPULSE. "WE DIDN'T PAY MUCH ATTENTION TO WHAT SHE SAID," ADMITTED ONE SOLDIER, "BUT THE RESULT PROVED THAT SHE WAS RIGHT." (NPS)

A participant described the battle in the deep woods as a "weird, uncanny contest—a battle of invisibles with invisibles." Another recounted that "men's faces were sweaty black from biting cartridges, and a sort of grim ferocity seemed to be creeping into the actions and appearance of everyone within the limited range of vision."

BRUSH FIRES SWEPT ACROSS SAUNDERS FIELD, DEVOURING ALL WHO STOOD IN THEIR PATH. SOME WOUNDED SOLDIERS WERE CARRIED TO SAFETY; OTHERS WERE BURNED ALIVE. (BL)

Warren thrust an artillery section into Saunders Field, which began lobbing shells into friend and foe. When the Federals came tumbling back, Rebels swarmed into the field and captured the guns. Warren's riflemen, however, prevented them from hauling off the pieces. "'Twas claw for claw, and the devil take us all" a Southerner recounted of the vicious hand-to-hand combat. Then the field caught fire. Wounded men tried to crawl to safety, and soldiers from both armies watched in horror as their compatriots were consumed in flames. Finally, under cover of darkness, Rebels dragged the artillery pieces into their lines.


FISTFIGHT IN SAUNDERS FIELD

In the confused swirl of combat at Saunders Field, the fighting sometimes took on a peculiarly personal tone. John Worsham of the Twenty-first Virginia Infantry described one such encounter in his book, One of Jackson's Foot Cavalry.

"Running midway across the little field was a gully that had been washed by the rains. In their retreat many of the enemy went into this gully for protection from our fire. When we advanced to it, we ordered them out and to the rear. All came out except one, who had hidden under an overhanging bank and was overlooked. When we fell back across the field, the Yankees who followed us to the edge of the woods shot at us as we crossed. One of our men, thinking the fire too warm, dropped into the gully for protection. Now there was a Yankee and a Confederate in the gully—and each was ignorant of the presence of the other!

After awhile they commenced to move about in the gully, there being no danger so long as they did not show themselves. Soon they came in view of each other, and they commenced to banter. Then they decided that they would go into the road and have a regular fist and skull fight, the best man to have the other as his prisoner. While both sides were firing, the two men came into the road about midway between the lines of battle, and in full view of both sides around the field. They surely created a commotion, because both sides ceased firing! When the two men took off their coats and commenced to fight with their fists, a yell went up along each line, and men rushed to the edge of the opening for a better view! The 'Johnny' soon had the 'Yank' down; the Yank surrendered, and both quietly rolled into the gully. Here they remained until nightfall, when the 'Johnny' brought the Yankee into our line. In the meantime, the disappearance of the two men into the gully was the signal for the resumption of firing. Such is war!"

A MODERN VIEW OF SAUNDERS FIELD LOOKING EAST FROM EWELL'S LINE. (NPS)

At 2:45, Griffin strode up to Meade and Grant. He loudly announced that he had driven Ewell back three-quarters of a mile but that Sedgwick had failed to arrive and Wadsworth had been repulsed, leaving both his flanks exposed. "Who is this General Gregg? You ought to arrest him," Grant told Meade after the angry subordinate had stomped out. Meade reached over and began buttoning Grant's jacket, as though Grant were a little boy. "It's Griffin, not Gregg," Meade answered, "and it's only his way of talking."

Around 3:00 P.M., Sedgwick's lead elements reached Saunders Field. By then, fighting had sputtered to a close. A new battle erupted, however, as Sedgwick tried to overrun Ewell's line in the woods above the turnpike. Fighting seesawed as each side made fierce but inconclusive charges. Brigadier General Leroy A. Stafford, heading a Louisiana brigade, fell when a bullet severed his spine. His brigade was repulsed, as was the famed Stonewall Brigade, but the determined Louisianian waved reinforcements into battle as he lay writhing in agony. After an hour of confused and bloody combat, Sedgwick's and Ewell's warriors disengaged and began erecting earthworks. Fighting continued throughout the evening—Brigadier General John Pegram was severely wounded during an attack against his Virginia brigade—but neither side could claim advantage. Ewell had executed his assignment to perfection and stymied two Union corps.

JOHN SEDGWICK COMMANDED THE SIXTH CORPS IN THE WILDERNESS. "HIS WHOLE MANNER BREATHED OF GENTLENESS AND SWEETNESS," WROTE ONE SOLDIER. "HIS SOLDIERS CALLED HIM UNCLE JOHN, AND IN HIS BROAD BREAST WAS A BOY'S HEART." (NA)
Previous Top Next


 

History and Culture