Grant at the Wilderness

Union and Confederate soldiers battle near Plank Road.
Battle of the Wilderness


by Frank Kohl

“That memorable campaign, destined to result in the capture of the Confederate capital . . . would not be accomplished, however, without as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed . .” -Ulysses S. Grant, “Memoirs”

Ulysses S. Grant, now head of the entire Union army, set out to destroy General Lee’s Confederate forces. Grant hoped to march through a thickly wooded area known as the Wilderness so he could effectively use his cannon to fight on open ground near Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. The outnumbered Confederates knew this and surprised Grant’s troops in the Wilderness thickets.

The battle raged in chaotic skirmishes over a 3-mile front. The woods made it impossible for Grant to follow the battle. Throughout the day, he relied on the sounds of battle and reports from his generals who grew increasingly worried that Lee would be victorious. Although they only met briefly, Grant knew Lee from the U.S.-Mexican War and thought him to be a formidable - but mortal- leader.

“Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. . . Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” – General Grant

Into the Flames

The next day, both Union flanks crumbled. Wildfires engulfed the Wilderness, leaving both sides shooting blindly into the smoky haze until driven back by the heat.

By the end of the day, flames consumed the dead and the dying soldiers on both sides. Grant was deeply disturbed by the profound losses. He chain-smoked throughout the battle, setting a personal record for cigars smoked in a single day. At one point, he broke down and uncharacteristically cried in his tent.

Grant was defeated and Union soldiers expected to turn back towards safety and end the campaign. Facing a literal and metaphorical crossroads, Grant refused to retreat. Despite their loss, morale soared as the Union marched towards Richmond.

The Wilderness Today

The Battle of the Wilderness is preserved as part of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. Visitors can walk or drive to explore the battle area and stop by an exhibit shelter to learn about key battle events. The park also preserves the location of Grant’s headquarters and Ellwood a plantation home, which was used as a field hospital.

The Odyssey of Ulysses explores the saga of U. S. Grant from his first battle to his final resting place. For information on this Article Series project, contact us.

Part of a series of articles titled The Odyssey of Ulysses.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Last updated: August 4, 2022