History of the Battle of the Wilderness

Near dawn on May 4,1864, the leading division of the Army of the Potomac reached Germanna Ford, 18 miles west of Fredericksburg. The spring campaign was under way and it superficially mirrored the strategic situation prior to the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. A numerically superior Union force, well-supplied, in good spirits, and led by a new commander, moved south toward the Confederate capital. There, however, the similarities ended.

Ulysses S. Grant now directed the Army of the Potomac, although George Meade technically retained the authority he had inherited from Hooker just before the Battle of Gettysburg. In fact, Grant carried the new rank of lieutenant-general and bore responsibility for all Federal armies. The General-in-chief told Meade, "Lee's army will be your objective. Where he goes, there you will go also."

The Confederates also entered the 1864 campaign brimming with optimism and anxious to avenge their defeat at Gettysburg. As usual, the 62,000-man Army of Northern Virginia found itself vastly outgunned and scrambling for supplies, but based on past experience, these handicaps posed little concern. Confederate generalship in the post-Jackson era created more serious problems. Lee elevated both A. P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell to corps command following "Stonewall's" death, but neither officer performed particularly well. Only Longstreet provided Lee with experienced leadership at the highest army level.

Grant also reorganized his forces, consolidating the army into three corps led by Maj. Generals. Gouverneur K. Warren, John Sedgwick, and Winfield S. Hancock. Ambrose Burnside's independent Ninth Corps raised the total Union compliment to 120,000 men.

Union forces negotiated the Rapidan River on May 4. Lee easily spotted the Federal advance from his signal stations. He immediately ordered his forces to march east and strike their opponents in the familiar and foreboding Wilderness, where Grant's legions would be neutralized by the inhospitable terrain. Ewell moved via the Orange Turnpike and Hill utilized the parallel Orange Plank Road to the south. Longstreet's corps faced a longer trek than did its comrades, so Lee advised Ewell and Hill to avoid a general engagement until "Old Pete" could join them.

Although Grant was anxious to confront Lee at the earliest good opportunity, he preferred not to fight in the tangled forests of the Wilderness. On the morning of May 5, he directed his columns to push southeast through the impenetrable woods and into open ground. Word arrived, however, that an unidentified body of Confederates approaching from the west on the Turnpike threatened the security of his advance. Warren dispatched a division to investigate the report.

The Confederates, of course, proved to be Ewell's entire corps. About noon, Warren's lead regiments discovered Ewell's position on the west edge of a clearing called Saunders Field and received an ungracious greeting. "The very moment we appeared," testified an officer in the 140th New York, "[they] gave us a volley at long range, but evidently with very deliberate aim, and with serious effect." The Battle of the Wilderness was on.

Warren hustled additional troops toward Saunders Field from his headquarters at the Lacy House. The Unionists attacked on a front more than a mile wide, overlapping both ends of the clearing. The fighting ebbed and flowed often dissolving into isolated combat between small units confused by the bewildering forest, "bushwhacking on a grand scale," one participant called it. By nightfall a deadly stalemate settled over the Turnpike.

Three miles south along the Plank Road, another battle raged unrelated to the action on Ewell's front. Two of A.P. Hill's divisions pressed east toward the primary north-south avenue through the Wilderness: the Brock Road. If they could seize this intersection quickly, they would isolate Hancock's corps, south of the Plank Road, from the rest of the Union army. Grant recognized the peril and hurried one of Sedgwick's divisions to the vital crossroads.

These Northerners arrived in the nick of time and later, in cooperation with Hancock began to drive Hill's overmatched brigades west through the forest. Fortunately for the Confederates, darkness closed the fighting for the day.

Lee expected Longstreet's corps to relieve Hill on the Plank Road that night. Hill, anticipating Longstreet's arrival, refused to redeploy his exhausted troops to meet renewed attacks in the morning. This miscalculation proved nearly disastrous to the Army of Northern Virginia.

For a variety of reasons, Longstreet had fallen hours behind schedule. Hancock's 5:00 a.m. offensive on May 6 therefore pitted 23,000 Unionists against only Hill's unprepared divisions, and overwhelmed them. A single line of Southern artillery, posted on the western edge of the Widow Tapp's Farm, now provided the sole opposition to Hancock's surging masses. The guns could not survive long unsupported by infantry. Lee faced a crisis.

Just then a ragged line of soldiers emerged from the forest to the west. "What brigade is this?" inquired Lee. "The Texas brigade!" came the response. Lee knew the only Texans in his army belonged to the First Corps. Longstreet was up! These troops along with others from Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama charged the blue ranks before them and halted Hancock's advance at the price of 50 percent casualties in several regiments.

Longstreet took this chance to snatch the initiative. Utilizing the unfinished railroad cut (the same corridor on which Sickles had captured Georgians at Chancellorsville), four Confederate brigades crept astride the Union left flank. The Southerners poured through the woods, rolling up Hancock's unwary troops "like a wet blanket." Union General James Wadsworth fell mortally wounded and the Federals streamed back toward the Brock Road.

Longstreet trotted eastward on the Plank Road in the wake of this splendid achievement, intent upon pursuing the shaken Federals and throwing a knockout punch at his staggered opponents. Then shots rang out from south of the road. Longstreet reeled in his saddle, the victim of a volley fired by Confederate troops about five miles from where Jackson had met the same improbable fate the year before.

Unlike "Stonewall," Longstreet would survive his wound, but the tragedy arrested the Rebels' impetus. Lee personally directed a resumption of the offensive a few hours later and briefly managed to puncture the Federal lines along the Brock Road. Hancock, however, expelled the intruders from his midst and maintained his position by the narrowest of margins.

Fighting along the Turnpike on May 6 had also been vicious if indecisive. Late in the day, Georgia brigadier John B. Gordon received permission to assault Grant's unprotected right flank. Gordon struck near sunset, capturing two Union generals and routing the Federals. The effort began too late to exploit Gordon's success, however, and Grant reformed his battered brigades in the darkness. For a walking tour of this area see the folder for the Gordon Flank Attack Trail.

Both armies expected more combat on May 7, but neither side initiated hostilities. Fires blazed through the forest, sending hot, acrid smoke rolling into the air and searing the wounded trapped between the lines - a fitting conclusion to a grisly engagement.

The Battle of the Wilderness marked another tactical Confederate victory. Grant watched both of his flanks crumble on May 6 and lost more than twice as many soldiers (about 18,000 to 8,000) as did Lee. Veterans of the Army of the Potomac had seen this before: cross the river, get whipped, retreat -- the story of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville reprised. But Grant, not Burnside or Hooker, now called the shots.

Late on May 7, the general-in-chief rode at the head of his army and approached a lonely junction in the Wilderness. A left turn would signal withdrawal toward the fords of the Rapidan and Rappahannock. To the right lay the highway to Richmond via Spotsylvania Court House. Grant pointed right. The soldiers cheered. There would be no turning back.

The text for this section was written by A. Wilson Green, former staff historian for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. It is derived from a National Park Service training booklet.

Last updated: October 5, 2021

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