Battle Of The Wilderness Essay, Research Paper
The Battle of the Wilderness
Imagine, wrote a North Carolina officer named W.A. Smith, a
great, dismal forest containing . . . the worst kind of thicket of second-growth
trees . . . so thick with small pines and scrub oak, cedar, dogwood and other
growth common to the country . . . [that] one could see barely ten paces
(qtd. in Kennedy 203). This description is of the area known as the
Wilderness, where over 135 years ago, one of the greatest Civil War battles
occurred. The Battle of the Wilderness was the beginning of the end for the
Confederate States of America.
The region called the Wilderness is in Spotsylvania County, Virginia,
just ten miles west of Fredericksburg. It is a natural wooded area that is
twelve miles wide and six miles deep along the southern bank of the Rapidan
River. The Wilderness was described by Lieutenant Thomas F. Galwey of
the 8th Ohio as a wild and formidable thicket, so dense that even at noon
day the sun s light scarcely penetrated it (qtd. in Trudeau 44).
In the early 1700 s, Alexander Spotswood, Virginia s governor during
the time, tried to inhabit the Wilderness. He brought over German colonists
to do so. They cut large amounts of timber from the forest to secure the mine
tunnels, plank the roads, and fuel the iron-smelting operations. But when the
plan failed and the area was abandoned, the forest grew back very quickly,
creating a second-growth woodland (Kennedy 203).
On May 5 and 6, 1864, two armies, the Army of the Potomac of the
Union and the Army of Northern Virginia from the Confederate States of
America, engaged in a brutal battle known as the Battle of the Wilderness.
The battle included over 160,000 men, with around 100,000 coming from the
Union and close to 62,000 from the Confederacy ( Wilderness ). Lieutenant
General Ulysses S. Grant and Major General George G. Meade led the
Union s Army of the Potomac, and General Robert E. Lee commanded the
Confederacy s Army of Northern Virginia.
The Army of the Potomac was commanded by Major General George
G. Meade, who received his orders from Lieutenant General Grant. Grant
made his headquarters in the field with the army to ensure his orders were
followed correctly. The Union army consisted of three corps and an
independent corps commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside, who
outranked Meade and reported directly to Grant (Graham and Skoch 68).
The II Corps was led by Major General Winfield S. Hancock, the V Corps by
Major General Gouverneur Warren, and the VI Corps by Major General John
The Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E.
Lee, consisted of three corps. The First Corps was commanded by
Lieutenant General James Longstreet. The Second Corps was commanded
by Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell. The Third Corps was commanded
by Lieutenant General A. P. Hill.
Part of Grant s grand plan was to move quickly to the south through
the Wilderness before the Confederates reacted. The Wilderness posed a
serious threat of an ambush that could cause a severe setback to the Union s
campaign. Grant knew that a battle in an open field would be a sure victory
for his army over Lee s out-numbered Army of Northern Virginia (Trudeau
44). All Grant s army needed was a half-day head start on Lee s army to
cross the Rapidan River and gain the advantage (Davis 197).
Even though he was outnumbered almost two to one, Lee possessed a
few advantages, mainly his position south of the Rapidan River. The Army of
the Potomac had to cross this river to get to him. Also, General Lee knew the
land better than his opponents, Grant and Meade. However, his greatest
advantage was the impenetrable vegetation of the Wilderness. Lee believed
he could use the forest to hold off twice the number of his men (Davis 197).
The Union began its movement into the Wilderness early on May 4,
1864, when it separated into two columns and headed to fords a few miles
apart, at which they crossed the Rapidan River and entered the Wilderness.
The V and VI Corps crossed the river at Germanna Ford Road. Hancock s II
Corps and the Union army supply train crossed the river at Ely s Ford to
camp at near-by Chancellorsville. Grant ordered Burnside to stop behind and
guard the railroad north of Rappahannock Station from Confederate raiders.
After he was across, Grant sent a message to the War Department in
Washington. The crossing of the Rapidan effected, he wrote. Forty-eight
hours now will demonstrate whether the enemy intends giving battle this side
of Richmond (qtd in Graham and Skoch 68). Also, after his crossing, Grant
learned of Lee s intentions. A Confederate message for Lieutenant General
Ewell had been intercepted and translated to We are moving (Graham and
Around mid-morning on May 4, Lee learned of the Union movement
and without knowing of Grant s plans, he moved his three corps toward the
Wilderness on different routes. Ewell s Second Corps was directed to march
on the Orange Turnpike and A. P. Hill s Third Corps to march on the Orange
Plank Road, parallel and south of Ewell. Longstreet s First Corps, who was a
day behind the other two, was directed to take the Catharpin Road to Todd s
During the night, Hancock was ordered to move his II Corps south to
form the left flank of the Union line. When everyone was in line, the army
moved at first light on May 5. To protect the right flank, Warren sent a
division west on the Orange Turnpike. The Union plans to clear the
Wilderness were then disrupted when Warren s V Corps spotted Ewell s men
coming toward them. After learning of the Confederate troops on the Orange
Turnpike, Meade ordered Warren to concentrate his men on the turnpike and
attack as soon as possible. Also, Meade ordered Sedgwick s VI Corps to the
turnpike to guard the right flank. Grant sent orders to concentrate his three
corps along a line between the turnpike and Orange Plank Road with great
importance put on the Brock Rd.-Orange Plank Rd. intersection. If the
Confederates gained this intersection, the II Corps would be cut off from the
rest of the army.
The first fighting began early in the afternoon on May 5 between
Warren s V Corps and Ewell s Second Corps on the Orange Turnpike and in
a small clearing known as Saunders Field. The fighting moved slowly south
as more units came to the line. The Union Corps had the beginning gains, but
they were pushed back by the counterattacks of the Confederates. Even after
Sedgwicks VI Corps joined Warren s men in the late afternoon, no
advantages were gained by either side.
To the south, A.P. Hill was less successful. A small number of Union
cavalry delayed Hill s movement east long enough for a Union division to
take over the important intersection of Orange Plank and Brock roads. Later
in the afternoon, Hancock s II Corps arrived and launched an uncoordinated
but powerful attack that was finally stopped by the use of every reserve
available to the Confederates.
By nightfall, the northern half of the Confederate line was injured but
solid, and the southern half was scattered, tired, and ill-prepared for what
would come. General Lee did not want to fight a large battle with only
two-thirds of his army, so he downplayed the problem (Kennedy 205).
Around midnight, he refused A.P. Hill s request to regroup by giving him the
excuse that Longstreet s First Corps would arrive in time to take the pressure
off of his men.
The morning of May 6 came, but Longstreet did not. Grant ordered his
army to attack at first light. The Union attacks of the Orange Turnpike were
ineffective because of strong Confederate defenses. To the south, Union
forces saw some success, but it did not last long. Just when the Confederate
right flank appeared defeated, Longstreet s First Corps arrived. Their brutal
counterattack surprised the Union attackers and sent them into a standstill.
The intensity of Longstreet s arrival was strengthened when Lee, himself,
lead the counterattacking units across the open fields of the Tapp Farm. The
cries of Lee to the rear made this one of the most memorable episodes of
battle (Kennedy 205).
Early in the evening, an all-out Confederate offensive raged over both
flanks of the Union line. The attack in the fields along the Orange Plank
Road was stopped at the Brock Road line. To the north, Confederate
Brigadier General John B. Gordon led his men to an assault on the Union
right flank. He was successful, but his gains were overseen by nightfall and
the unwillingness of the field commander, Major General Jubal Early, to
Late in the afternoon, Major General Longstreet was hit. He and his
men were moving around the Union left flank when shots came from the
woods. The shot hit Longstreet in his throat and went into his shoulder,
causing severe bleeding. This injury took Longstreet off of his command and
into bed for several weeks.
The heavy fighting in the Wilderness costed both armies close to
30,000 casualties. The Army of the Potomac had close to 18,000 casualties,
where as the Army of Northern Virginia s casualties were estimated around
11,000. Many wounded soldiers were burned to death after the dry
underbrush caught on fire and spreaded very quickly. A northern private
wrote that it was a blind and bloody hunt to the death, in bewildering
thickets, rather than a battle (qtd in Kennedy 206). It is estimated that 200
Union men died in the fire (Hansen 511).
The Wilderness Battlefield is now part of the Fredericksburg and
Spotsylvania National Military Park. The area is on State Route 3, west of
Fredericksburg, Virginia. There are 1,981 acres of this historic battlefield
within the boundaries of the park, 212 of these are privately owned (Kennedy
During the May 5 and 6 battle in the Wilderness, nearly full force of
both armies were engaged. With both sides having heavy losses, neither
could call this a victory, even though the Battle of the Wilderness marked the
beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia and for the
Davis, William C. The Battlefields of the Civil War. New York: Smithmark
Publishers, 1991: 195-211.
Graham, Martin and George Skoch. Great Battles of the Civil War. New
York: Beekman House, n.d.: 66-70.
Hansen, Harry. The Civil War A History. New York: Penguin Books,
Kennedy, Frances H., ed. The Civil War Battlefield Guide. New York:
Houghton Mifflin, 1990: 203-206.
Trudeau, Noah Andre. A Frightful and Frightening Place. Civil War Times
May 1999: 43-55.
Wilderness. Online. Internet. 5-6-99. Available