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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

MAY 6: LONGSTREET SAVES THE DAY

At 5:00 A.M., the Union attack rumbled up the plank road just as Grant had planned. Hill's soldiers faced an overwhelming force in front with more Federals storming in from the north. The rebel Third Corps collapsed, and gray-clad troops streamed for the rear. "It looked as if things were past mending," a Confederate admitted.

Lee had ordered Lieutenant Colonel William T. Poague's artillery to form above the plank road at Widow Tapp's farm. Poague's gunners fought valiantly to stem the blue-clad tide erupting from the far woods. Hill, who had once served in the artillery, helped work the guns. But the last-ditch effort was doomed. A few cannon, no matter how gallantly manned, could not stave off an army. It appeared that within minutes, the Army of Northern Virginia would be in shambles.

THE ARRIVAL OF JAMES LONGSTREET'S CORPS CHECKED HANCOCK'S ADVANCE AND SAVED LEE'S SUPPLY TRAINS. "LIKE A FINE LADY AT A PARTY, LONGSTREET WAS OFTEN LATE IN HIS ARRIVAL AT THE BALL," WROTE A CONFEDERATE ARTILLERIST, "BUT HE ALWAYS MADE A SENSATION AND THAT OF DELIGHT, WHEN HE GOT IN." (LC)

Suddenly gray-clad troops pounded up the plank road from Lee's rear. "General, what brigade is this?" Lee inquired of an officer. "The Texan brigade," came the answer, which told Lee that Longstreet had arrived at last. He jerked his hat from his head and shouted, "Texans always move them!" Under the moment's excitement, Lee began advancing with the foremost troops. When the men realized that Lee was with them, they stopped and refused to budge until he went to the rear. At a staffer's urging, Lee finally consented to ride to the rear and speak with Longstreet, who by now had arrived on the field. Longstreet persuaded Lee that he had matters well in hand, and the Confederate army commander retired behind the battle front.

Longstreet's soldiers counterattacked, Major General Charles W. Field's division above the plank road and Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershaw's below. The Federals had become disordered during their advance and were in no shape to resist Longstreet's impetuous assault. Within an hour, Longstreet had driven Hancock back several hundred yards east of the Tapp clearing.


(click on image for a PDF version)
HANCOCK ROUTS HILL'S CORPS: MAY 6, 5 A.M.
At dawn, Hancock renews his attacks on Hill's corps, driving it in confusion toward the Tapp Field. Confederate artillery briefly checks Hancock's advance, and when Longstreet's corps arrives, Lee is able to push Hancock back toward the Brock Road (inset).

The rest of Grant's well-laid scheme quickly unraveled. Burnside, whose Ninth Corps was supposed to maneuver against Hill's flank, instead fell several hours behind schedule and was finally stymied by Brigadier General Stephen D. Ramseur's Confederate brigade. Realizing that Burnside had failed in his mission, Grant ordered him to cut south through the thickets and join Hancock. Burnside's advance was so delayed that he remained unavailable to the Union war effort until after most of the important fighting had finished.

Lee remained anxious to retain the initiative. Around 10:00 A.M., his chief engineer, Major General Martin L. Smith, explored an unfinished railroad grade and discovered that it afforded access to the lower Union flank. Longstreet's aide G. Moxley Sorrel and Brigadier General William Mahone led several brigades along the unfinished grade to a point opposite Hancock's left flank. At eleven o'clock, Sorrel's men struck. As Hancock later conceded, the Rebels rolled up his line "like a wet blanket." At the same time, more of Longstreet's troops attacked along the plank road and drove Hancock just as Hill had been driven a few hours before. Wadsworth was mortally wounded, and Hancock's wing retired to Brock Road.


"TEXANS ALWAYS MOVE THEM"

Among the most thrilling episodes of the Civil War occurred on May 6, 1864, in the Wilderness. At dawn, Union troops led by Major General Winfield S. Hancock attacked and routed A. P. Hill's corps on the Orange Plank Road. Lee and Hill tried desperately to rally the defeated Confederates as they came streaming back to the rear, but few men heeded their cries. Just as disaster seemed inevitable, Lieutenant General James Longstreet's First Corps arrived on the field. Longstreet's men opened ranks to let Hill's men through, then charged Hancock's men, slowly driving them back toward the Brock Road. Spearheading the attack north of the road was Brigadier General John Gregg's Texas Brigade. As the Texans moved forward, General Lee rode beside them, intent on leading the charge. His men would have none of it. In a scene that would be repeated no less than five times in the next week, the Confederates compelled Lee to go to the rear. A Texan, who identified himself only as "R. C." was witness to this dramatic event.

"The cannon thundered, musketry rolled, stragglers were fleeing, couriers riding here and there in post-haste, minnies began to sing, the dying and wounded were jolted by the flying ambulances, and filling the road-side, adding to the excitement the terror of death . . . . About this time, Gen. Lee, with his staff, rode up to Gen. Gregg—'General what brigade is this?' said Lee. 'The Texas brigade,' was General G's. reply. 'I am glad to see it,' said Lee. 'When you go in there, I wish you to give those men cold steel—they will stand and fire all day, and never move unless you charge them,' 'That is my experience,' replied the brave Gregg. By this time an aide from General Longstreet rode up and repeated the order, 'advance your command, Gen. Gregg.' And now comes the point upon which the interest of this 'o'er true tale' hangs. 'Attention Texas Brigade' was rung upon the morning air, by Gen. Gregg, 'the eyes of General Lee are upon you, forward, march.' Scarce had we moved a step, when Gen. Lee, in front of the whole command, raised himself in his stirrups, uncovered his grey hairs, and with an earnest, yet anxious voice, exclaimed above the din and confusion of the hour, 'Texans always move them.' . . . A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around . . . . Leonard Gee, a courier to Gen. Gregg, and riding by my side, with tears coursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, 'I would charge hell itself for that old man.' It was not what Gen. Lee said that so infused and excited the men, as his tone and look, which each one of us knew were born of the dangers of the hour.

With yell after yell we moved forward, passed the brow of the hill, and moved down the declivity towards the undergrowth—a distance in all not exceeding 200 yards. After moving over half the ground we all saw that Gen. Lee was following us into battle—care and anxiety upon his countenance—refusing to come back at the request and advice of his staff. If I recollect correctly, the brigade halted when they discovered Gen. Lee's intention, and all eyes were turned upon him. Five and six of his staff would gather around him, seize him, his arms, his horse's reins, but he shook them off and moved forward. Thus did he continue until just before we reached the undergrowth, not, however, until the balls began to fill and whistle through the air. Seeing that we would do all that men could do to retrieve the misfortunes of the hour, accepting the advice of his staff, and hearkening to the protest of his advancing soldiers, he at last turned round and rode back."

AT WILDERNESS AND AGAIN AT SPOTSYLVANIA LEE ATTEMPTED TO LEAD HIS TROOPS INTO BATTLE. EACH TIME, HIS SOLDIERS SHOUTED HIM BACK. (NPS)

As his Rebels began clearing the plank road of the enemy, a triumphant Longstreet rode forward with several officers. Some of Mahone's Virginians involved in the flank attack had meanwhile crossed the plank road and were returning. They spied the headquarters cavalcade, mistook it for Federals, and opened fire. Longstreet fell with a severe wound through his neck, and one of his most promising brigade commanders, Brigadier General Micah Jenkins, was killed. Commentators later reflected on parallels between Longstreet's wounding and the shooting of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. The two prominent Confederate generals had been shot by their own men while executing successful flanking maneuvers, and the incidents had occurred almost a year apart and in the Wilderness. As one of Lee's aides later remarked, "the old deacon would say that God willed it thus." Longstreet's wounding, along with disorienting wooded terrain, stalled the attack that Longstreet had so skillfully initiated. Lee labored to resume the offensive but was unable to position his troops until after four o'clock. By then, Hancock had ensconced his corps behind imposing earthworks lining Brock Road. Lee assaulted and gained an advantage when the works caught fire but lacked the manpower to exploit the breakthrough. His failed attack against Hancock's Brock Road line represented the last major offensive attempted by the Army of Northern Virginia.

AFTER USHERING GENERAL LEE TO SAFETY, THE TEXAS BRIGADE SWEPT ACROSS THE TARP FIELD TO ENGAGE THE ENEMY. OF THE 800 MEN WHO MADE THE CHARGE, MORE THAN 500 DID NOT RETURN. (NPS)

BRIGADIER GENERAL MICAH JENKINS WAS AMONG THE FIRST TO CONGRATULATE LONGSTREET ON THE SUCCESS OF HIS FLANK ATTACK. MINUTES LATER, BULLETS FROM A CONFEDERATE VOLLEY PIERCED JENKIN'S SKULL AND LEFT LONGSTREET SERIOUSLY WOUNDED. (BL)
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