Wilderness, battles of the

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WILDERNESS, BATTLES OF THE. On 4 May 1864 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army prepared to cross the Rapidan River in Virginia to attack General Robert E. Lee's forces. But the move had been anticipated. Instead of attacking the Union troops in the act of crossing, as might have been expected, Lee withdrew to the Wilderness, a heavily wooded and tangled region, where the Union's two-to-one superiority in numbers and artillery would be somewhat neutralized. Grant directed his main movement at Lee's right, hoping to move clear of the Wilderness before effective resistance could be offered. Lee, however, countered rapidly. Road divergence separated his two wings; Confederate General James Longstreet, expected to support either wing, was late in arriving. On 5 May Grant attacked. Confederate generals Richard S. Ewell on the left and Ambrose P. Hill both held firm until night ended the fighting.

The next day Grant resumed his attack, and Hill's troops were driven in confusion. Lee personally rode among the fleeing men to rally and lead them back into battle. As the cry "Lee to the rear" rose on every side, Longstreet's tardy command arrived and struck with suddenness and fury, driving Grant's men back. Ewell, on Lee's left, repulsed all attacks. In the midst of success, Longstreet was wounded by his own men, just as General Thomas J. ("Stonewall") Jackson had been at Chancellorsville a year earlier (2 May 1863). Soon afterward fighting ceased for the day.

It is doubtful whether Longstreet's wounding had any important effect on the outcome of the day's fighting. The troops on both sides were very disorganized, the hour was late, and little more could have been accomplished. On 7 May the two armies faced each other from behind their hasty breastworks. The two days had seen bitter fighting in difficult terrain for battle. Thousands of acres of tangled forest, interlaced undergrowth, and scrub trees impeded movement, and the narrow roads were little more than paths. Cavalry and artillery were useless. Vision was limited to short distances, and, once the fighting began, control passed to local commanders. The brush caught fire and many wounded were burned to death.

Perceiving the uselessness of again assaulting Lee's lines, Grant decided to move by the flank toward Richmond, thus forcing Lee to come and meet him. As Grant's advance troops reached their objective of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Lee's men were in position to meet the threat. The first act was completed of a bitterly fought campaign replete with brilliant strategical and tactical movements.


Gallagher, Gary W., ed. The Wilderness Campaign. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Priest, John M. Victory Without Triumph: The Wilderness, May 6th and 7th, 1864. Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane, 1996.

Rhea, Gordon C. The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Scott, Robert G. Into the Wilderness with the Army of the Potomac. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Steere, Edward. The Wilderness Campaign: The Meeting of Grant and Lee. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1960.

Thomas RobsonHay/a. r.

See alsoCivil War ; Cold Harbor, Battle of ; Richmond Campaigns ; Spotsylvania Courthouse, Battle of ; Virginia .