Wilderness, Battle of the

views updated Jun 08 2018

Wilderness, Battle of the (1864).The Battle of the Wilderness, fought on 5 and 6 May 1864, was the first Civil War confrontation between Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee. Now heading the Union war effort, Grant sought to destroy Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which numbered about 65,000 soldiers and occupied strong earthworks below the Rapidan River. Grant planned to send Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade's Army of the Potomac, supplemented by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's 9th Corps, directly against Lee, while Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler's Army of the James advanced up the James River into Richmond, and another army under Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel threatened Lee's western flank. Hampered by shortages in food, horses, and supplies, Lee decided to bide his time and strike Grant when he crossed the Rapidan.

At midnight on 3–4 May, Grant's main force of 120,000 began moving around Lee's eastern flank, crossing the Rapidan at two fords and camping in the forested Wilderness of Spotsylvania. Lee reacted by dividing his army, already outnumbered two to one, and thrusting Lt. Gen. Richard Stoddert Ewell's 2nd Corps east toward Grant along Orange Turnpike and Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill's 3rd Corps east along Orange Plank Road. Lee's purpose was to pin Grant in place with Ewell and Hill, then swing his 1st Corps under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet into Grant's southern flank. The scheme entailed risk, but Lee counted on the Wilderness's dense underbrush to offset Grant's considerable advantage in troops and weaponry.

Early on 5 May, Ewell deployed along the western edge of a clearing named Saunders' field. Meade ordered Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren's 5th Corps to attack immediately, but the troops were unable to form in the woods until early afternoon. Well entrenched, Ewell repulsed first Warren's 5th Corps, then Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick's 6th Corps. Hill's Confederates meanwhile advanced along Orange Plank Road, but were stopped at the Brock Road intersection by a detachment under Brig. Gen. George W. Getty. Hill constructed a defensive line a few hundred yards west of Brock Road. Late in the afternoon, Getty and Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's 2nd Corps attacked. With only two divisions, Hill fought a stubborn defensive action against overwhelming odds and was saved by the arrival of night.

Grant now rearranged his army to concentrate overwhelming numbers against Hill. Hancock, augmented by Getty, was to attack Hill frontally, while four brigades under Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth slammed Hill's northern flank. Warren and Sedgwick meanwhile were to keep Ewell occupied, and Burnside was to march between Ewell and Hill and attack Hill's rear. Recognizing Hill's perilous situation, Lee ordered Longstreet to abandon his flanking movement and hurry to relieve Hill. Lee assumed that Longstreet would arrive before daylight and so permitted Hill's tired men to rest without repairing their lines.

Early on 6 May, however, before Longstreet's troops arrived, Hancock and Wadsworth overwhelmed Hill and poured into Widow Tapp's field, where Lee had his headquarters. At the last moment, Longstreet's Confederates reached the clearing. “Lee to the rear!” they shouted, refusing to advance until Lee retired to safety. Saving the day for the Confederates, Longstreet first repulsed Hancock, then launched a surprise attack against the southern Union flank from an unfinished railroad gradient. Longstreet was accidentally wounded by his soldiers, and the Confederate offensive ground to a halt.

Ever aggressive, Lee once again attacked Hancock, who had entrenched along Brock Road. A portion of Hancock's works ignited, and Southerners poured through the breach, only to be driven back by well‐placed Union artillery. Fighting sputtered to a close around 6:00 P.M. Shortly before dark, Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon assaulted the northern end of Grant's line and overran a portion of Sedgwick's corps. Darkness ended the attack.

Lee had fought Grant to impasse and occupied a strong position along high ground. Instead of renewing his attacks, Grant decided to try to maneuver Lee onto more favorable terrain. After dark, Grant started south toward the crossroads hamlet of Spotsylvania Courthouse, intending to interpose between Lee and Richmond.

During the two‐day battle, Grant took approximately 18,000 casualties, Lee 11,000. Neither could claim victory. Grant had suffered a tactical defeat, but he persisted in his strategic goal of attempting to destroy Lee's army, exhibiting a measure of tenacity previously unknown in the east. For his part, Lee had thwarted a well‐provisioned force twice as large as his own, but his grievous loss in men had gutted his offensive capacity. Henceforth, the Army of Northern Virginia would fight defensively. The Wilderness to Petersburg Campaign, which began with the Battle of the Wilderness, would last five weeks and include the bloody battles of Spotsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Confederate Army; Union Army.]


Andrew A. Humphreys , The Virginia Campaign of '64 and '65, 1883.
Morris Schaff , The Battle of the Wilderness, 1910.
Edward Steere , The Wilderness Campaign, 1960.
Gordon C. Rhea , The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5–6, 1864, 1994.

Gordon C. Rhea

Wilderness to Petersburg Campaign

views updated May 29 2018

Wilderness to Petersburg Campaign (1864).On 4 May 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant initiated a campaign with the Union's Army of the Potomac to defeat Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate's Army of Northern Virginia. For forty days, Grant hammered and maneuvered. Lee deftly fended off Grant's force, which was double his own. The series of battles, from the Battle of the Wilderness to the siege of Petersburg, was called the “Overland Campaign” to distinguish it from Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign (Seven Days' Battle), in 1862, which had involved an approach by water. The Overland Campaign cost 60,000 Union casualties and perhaps 35,000 Confederate losses. Strategically, it was a Union success, ending in June with Lee's army backed against Petersburg and Richmond, unable to maneuver.

Grant began by crossing the Rapidan River west of Lee and stopping for the night in the timbered Wilderness near Spotsylvania, Virginia. On 5 May, Lee surprised Grant in the Wilderness and fought him to impasse in a bloody two‐day battle costing 18,000 Federal and 11,000 Confederate casualties. Undeterred, Grant swung southeast, hoping to interpose between Lee and Richmond and draw the Confederates out of the Wilderness. While J. E. B. Stuart's cavalry delayed Grant's progress, a portion of the Confederate army beat Grant to Spotsylvania Court House.

The Confederates constructed a formidable line of earthworks above the hamlet. On 8 May, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House began when Grant battered Lee's left wing at Laurel Hill. On 10 May, he attacked Lee's flank on the Po River and orchestrated a massive assault against the entire entrenched Confederate line. None of these efforts succeeded. On 12 May, Grant assailed a bulge in Lee's formation known as “the Mule Shoe” and broke through, but the Confederates rallied and repulsed the attackers. For twenty‐two hours, fearsome combat raged unabated at a bend in the Confederate earthworks called the “Bloody Angle.”

Lee constructed a new line across the base of the Mule Shoe. For several days, the Union forces probed for weak points. Following a bloody repulse by Confederate artillery on 18 May, Grant gave up trying to overrun Lee's earthworks and once again swung east and south. Lee countered by deploying his army into an inverted “V” below the North Anna River, its tip resting on the river. Grant crossed the stream in pursuit, only to find that Lee's V had divided his army. Sickness left Lee too debilitated to exploit his ingenious trap.

On 26 May, Grant circled southeast across the Pamunkey River and advanced toward Richmond. Lee parried by drawing a strong line along Totopotomoy Creek. 30 May, Lee attacked part of Grant's army near Bethesda Church, and on 1 June, the armies clashed in the Battle of Cold Harbor. Both sides rushed in reinforcements, and on the morning of 3 June, Grant launched a concerted assault to break Lee's line. The frontal attack across open land against entrenched positions was repulsed with 12,000 Union soldiers killed or wounded. Thwarted in his frontal attacks, Grant again resorted to maneuver. On 12–14 June, he marched to the James River and crossed his army on ferries and a pontoon bridge, heading for Petersburg, the railroad center serving Richmond.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Edward Steeve , The Wilderness Campaign, 1960.
Gordon C. Rhea , The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5–6, 1864, 1994.
Gordon C. Rhea , The Battles for Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7–12, 1864, 1998.

Gordon C. Rhea

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Battle of the Wilderness 1864

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