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."
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.
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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 steelthey 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 undergrowtha distance in
all not exceeding 200 yards. After moving over half the ground we all
saw that Gen. Lee was following us into battlecare and anxiety
upon his countenancerefusing 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)|