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The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

MAY 5: HILL STOPS HANCOCK ON ORANGE PLANK ROAD

Lee's other wing under Hill started east along Orange Plank Road at sunrise, opposed by a single Federal cavalry regiment. Near noon, Hill's lead elements reached Brock Road. Meade had been alerted to Hill's approach, however, and dispatched three brigades under Brigadier General George W. Getty to defend the intersection. Getty arrived in the nick of time and, after a heated skirmish, forced Hill to retire a few hundred yards west of Brock Road. Meade was concerned that Gerry could not hold for long and sent messages urging Hancock, who was waiting several miles south, to hurry to Getty's assistance with his Second Corps.

While Hill formed across Orange Plank Road in front of Getty, Lee established his headquarters a mile back at Widow Tapp's farm. He, Stuart, and Hill were conferring when Federal infantrymen entered the clearing. The Rebel generals scrambled for safety, and the Northerners, who were equally surprised, faded into the woods, unaware that they had missed a prime opportunity to capture three top Confederate leaders. The incident dramatized the magnitude of Lee's risk. His two corps, one on the turnpike and the other on the Orange Plank Road, were dangerously divided, and the gap between them remained undefended.

FIERY A. P. HILL FOUGHT WELL ON MAY 5, BUT HIS FAILURE TO PROPERLY PREPARE HIS TROOPS FOR BATTLE THE NEXT MORNING NEARLY LED TO DISASTER. (NA)

Around 4:00 P.M., Meade ordered Getty to assault Hill. Hancock, whose corps was just arriving, was to pitch in as soon as possible. Getty punched through the thickets and hit Major General Henry Heth's Confederate division, which held a shallow ridge a few hundred yards west of Brock Road. Fighting tenaciously, the Rebels pinned Getty in front of their works. Hancock fed his divisions into battle as quickly as they arrived, leaving Lee no alternative but to commit his reserve division under Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox. Some of the war's most vicious fighting shook the thickets around Orange Plank Road. "A butchery pure and simple it was," a Confederate recounted, "unrelieved by any of the arts of war in which the exercise of military skill and tact robs the hour of some of its horrors. It was a mere slugging match in a dense thicket of small growth, where men but a few yards apart fired through the brushwood for hours, ceasing only when exhaustion and night commanded a rest."


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GRANT STEPS UP THE PRESSURE: MAY 5, 3:00-5:00 P.M.
After repulsing Warren's initial assault, Ewell digs in at Saunders Field, while A. P. Hill, advancing up the Orange Plank Road, takes up a position just west of the Brock Road intersection, two miles to Ewell's right. At 3 P.M., Sedgwick's Sixth Corps reaches the front and engages Ewell in an indecisive action in the woods north of the turnpike. Hancock meanwhile reinforces Getty at the Brock Road intersection, and at 4:30 P.M. they attack Hill's corps on the Orange Plank Road.

Nightfall ended the combat. Hill's formation lay in shambles, and the blue and gray dug earthworks that in places stood only yards apart. A Confederate officer likened the rebel line to a rail fence that zigzagged "at every angle."

That evening, Grant planned his next move. Since Hill's corps seemed on the verge of collapsing, the Federal commander decided to concentrate his forces on Orange Plank Road. In the morning, Hancock's four divisions and Getty's three brigades were to push directly against Hill's two divisions on the roadway, while Wadsworth attacked Hill's northern flank with a force consisting of four Fifth Corps brigades. At the same time, Burnside's Ninth Corps was to advance through the interval between the turnpike and plank road, then slice south into Hill's rear. Warren and Sedgwick were to occupy Ewell on the turnpike to prevent him from reinforcing Hill. If the plan worked, Hill would be crushed and the Federals could destroy Ewell at their leisure.

Lee realized Hill's perilous situation. But rather than directing Hill to rectify his formation, he decided to let the soldiers rest. Longstreet's First Corps had reached Richard's Shop, about ten miles from the battlefield, and Lee sent couriers directing Longstreet to alter his route and join Hill on the plank road. Lee expected Longstreet's fresh troops to be in place by daylight to receive Hancock's attack. The urgency for haste, however, was not adequately conveyed to Longstreet, who rested his men at Richard's Shop and did not start toward the Wilderness until after midnight. Then they lost their way cutting across fields and farm roads. As the sun rose over the Wilderness on the morning of May 6, Longstreet was nowhere to be seen.


"BUSHWHACKING IS THE GAME!"

While Ewell battled Warren and Sedgwick astride the Orange Turnpike, Hancock smashed into Hill's corps on the Orange Plank Road. The combat in the dark woods increased to a roar, as both sides fed additional troops into the fight. Warren L. Goss, a soldier in Hancock's Second Corps, describes the first day's fight in the Wilderness.

"The scene of savage fighting with the ambushed enemy, which followed, defies description. No one could see the fight fifty feet from him. The roll and crackle of the musketry was something terrible, even to the veterans of many battles. The lines were very near each other, and from the dense underbrush and the tops of the trees came puffs of smoke, the 'ping!' of the bullets, and the yell of the enemy. It was a blind and bloody hunt to the death, in bewildering thickets, rather than a battle.

Amid the tangled, darkened woods, the 'ping! ping! ping!' the 'pop! pop! pop!' of rifles, and the long roll and roar of musketry, blending on our right and left, were terrible. In advancing it was next to impossible to preserve a distinct line, and we were constantly broken into small groups. The underbrush and briars scratched our faces, tore our clothing, and tripped our feet from under us, constantly.

On our left, a few pieces of artillery, stationed on cleared high ground, beat time to the steady roar of musketry. On the Orange Plank Road, Rickett's battery, or Kirby's, familiar to us in so many battles, was at work with its usual vigor, adding to the uproar.

'We are playing right into these devils' hands! Bushwhacking is the game! There ain't a tree in our front twenty feet high, but there is a reb up that tree!' said Wad Rider. Two, three, and four times we rushed upon the enemy, but were met by a murderous fire and with heavy loss from concealed enemies. As often as we rushed forward we were compelled to get back. It was in the midst of this uproar that Mott's division gave way, and here the brave General Hayes, in endeavoring to close the break thus caused in the line, fell pierced by an enemy's bullet.

FOR TWO DAYS WINFIELD HANCOCK'S TROOPS GRAPPLED WITH THE CONFEDERATES ALONG THE ORANGE PLANK ROAD. IN THE END, NETHER SIDE WAS ABLE TO GAIN AN ADVANTAGE. (LC)

With the intention of relieving this pressure on our front, Wadsworth's division was sent from Warren's Corps southward through the woods, to fall upon Hill's rear and flank. It did not arrive in time to be of use, owing to the difficulty of making its way through the underbrush.

That night the men of this division lay on their arms, so near the enemy that during the night several parties of the rebels, while looking for water, wandered into the embraces of the enemy on the same errand.

The uproar of battle continued through the twilight hours. It was eight o'clock before the deadly crackle of musketry died gradually away, and the sad shadows of night, like a pall, fell over the dead in these ensanguined thickets. The groans and cries for water or for help from the wounded gave place to the sounds of the conflict.

With the green leaves and the darkness for their winding sheet, and the mournful whisper of the tree-tops, stirred by the breeze, for their requiem, the dead lay thick in this wild and tangled wood. This singular battle was a disconnected series of bushwhacking encounters, illustrating the tactics of savages rather than science of modern war. Thus ended the first day's fighting of the Army of the Potomac under Grant."

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