Saving the Wounded from Fire at Wilderness, Sketch by Alfred R. Waugh
Saving the Wounded from Fire at Wilderness, Sketch by Alfred R. Waugh

People argue over the turning point of the Civil War, somewhat arbitrarily defined as that point where it was clear the North would win.  Some will say it is a trick question – the South never had a chance to begin with.  Others would point to July 1863, when Lee was turned back at Gettysburg and Vicksburg fell, all in the same week.  But if you asked the soldiers themselves, probably a lot would say it was May of 1864, after which the Army of the Potomac never let up, no matter how badly Lee bled it.

In May of 1864, the Army of the Potomac is under new management – Sam Grant has come east and Lincoln has given him full command, eclipsing Meade.  Grant’s strategy is simple – end the war by destroying Lee’s army.  He tells Meade: “Lee’s army will be your objective point.  Wherever Lee goes there you will go also.”  Thus Grant crosses the Rapidan on May 4th with the intent of placing his 118,000 men between Lee’s 64,000 and Richmond, thereby forcing a fight at close to two-to-one odds.

Lee characteristically brings the fight to Grant first, once again using the back roads and thickets of the Wilderness to surprise him near the old Chancellorsville battlefield at the Wilderness Tavern.  Indeed, Longstreet reprises Jackson’s famous flank attack (and Jackson’s bad luck, being wounded in the neck by “friendly fire” while reconnoitering at night).  Drawing Grant into the Wilderness, Lee substantially negates Grant’s advantage in manpower and artillery – it is Uncle Remus’ Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch. Grant’s troops are spooked by the bleached bones of Hooker’s men, still lying where they had fallen the previous May.

Fighting begins at six in the morning on May 5th, when Warren’s brigade moves east out of the Wilderness to discover Ewell’s Confederates on the Orange Pike, entrenched and waiting where they should not be.  Assuming this to be a small delaying force which will avoid battle, Meade orders Warren to hit Ewell immediately.  By 10:00, it is apparent that there are lots of Confederates and they mean to fight.  While Grant would have liked to avoid slugging it out in the woods, he does not shrink from ordering an assault.  However, his troops and commanders know what will happen if they charge entrenched Confederates and are in no hurry to throw their lives away.   It is six hours before the assault is made and Ewell has used this time to strengthen his earthworks.  Had Warren made the assault immediately, he would have found a gap in Lee’s line.  A full day of savage fighting ends with no clear winner.

Sparks from cannon, muskets and shells have set fires.  That night a breeze fans these fires into the fields and undergrowth.  Although soldiers and local farmers do what they can to rescue the wounded, men burn to death in the no-man’s land between picket lines.  Some soldiers who cannot move shoot themselves to escape the flames.  The smoke adds further horror and confusion to the hellish landscape.

Both commanders plan to open May 6th with a dawn assault.  For each, the key is Longstreet’s corps, coming fast from Gordonsville.  Grant needs to smash Lee before Longstreet can reinforce; Lee needs to hold until he gets help.  Longstreet is still five miles off when the Union assault rolls forward at 5:00 a.m.  Hancock’s has thrown everyone into line – artillerymen, engineers, wagon drivers- such that the force is overwhelming.  Hill’s men fall back slowly and deliberately, no panic, using the woods to bushwhack the oncoming Federals.  But the pressure mounts and Hill’s men begin to break – a first.  Lee personally tries to stem the tide and orders his supply train to safety, just in case.  Unsupported Confederate artillery slows the Federals; Lee remains among the guns to steady the men and Hill himself mans a cannon.

Almost at the last moment, Longstreet’s men come up and sweep past the guns.  Lee is exhilarated.  Overcome by the moment, he attempts to lead the counterattack himself; his men stop him.  Longstreet punches a hole in the oncoming line and by 9:00 the Confederates are back on their original line.  Grant fills the hole.  Then at around 4:00 Lee moves straight up the Orange Turnpike for a frontal assault.   As at Gettysburg, priceless veterans are torn to ribbons by the artillery and musketry of entrenched Federals.  Lee looks to attack elsewhere, but Hill and Early urge him not to waste additional lives assaulting trenches.  Then Lee finds General Gordon, who is anxious to attack Sedgwick’s unsupported and lightly held flank.  Lee readily consents and at 6:00 Gordon smashes Sedgwick’s command, taking over 600 prisoners and routing the rest.  A calm Grant notes that darkness will prevent the Confederates doing more harm that night.

The Battle of the Wilderness is a Yankee loss and costs Grant almost 18,000 casualties, Lee about 11,000.  This has been some of the most intense fighting of the war.  The Army of the Potomac knows the drill from six prior commanders – fight hard, take crippling casualties, retreat into the forts around Washington to regroup, get a new commander, go try again…

But then something amazing happens.  In the dark of night on May 7th, as the Army of the Potomac marches east towards Fredericksburg, Grant directs the head of the column right – south, towards Richmond.  As the Yankees realize that they are not pulling back, they begin cheering and sing the hymn “Ain’t I Glad to get out of the Wilderness.” Grant is mortified – the noise will give his night march away – but morale soars as the army realizes Grant intends to end this war by winning it.

An ever-practical Grant knows he needs to get out of the Wilderness as soon as possible. Once out of the woods, Grant can bring his superior numbers and artillery to bear.  Grant slides southwest towards the open country around Spotsylvania Courthouse.  Lee gets there first on May 8th, dislodging Yankee cavalry and throwing up entrenchments along a ridge backed by woods.  The Yankee night march has been delayed by downed trees, cavalry and ambushes.  Halfway across the plain, they are surprised and halted by entrenched Confederates in the tree-line.  Lee’s whole force continues to dig in as the rest of Grant’s army comes up.

On the 9th, the two lines snipe and batter each other with artillery.  Yankee commander Sedgwick is shot in the face by a Confederate sniper, his last words being: “Pooh!  They can’t hit an elephant at this distance.”  On the 10th, Grant probes Lee’s left, but gains nothing. He has lost 10,000 in three days, Lee considerably less, but sends a dispatch to Lincoln insinuating success and announcing his intent to “fight it out on that line, if it took all summer.”

On May 11th, Grant shifts his attention to an entrenched salient jutting out on a hill in Lee’s center, “the Mule Shoe.”  Hancock’s corps comes up in the rainy darkness within 1,200 yards of the objective and in the grey dawn advances soundlessly through heavy fog to sweep away the Confederate pickets.  Then, with a hurrah, they rush forward over abattis and breastworks, capturing nearly all of Johnson’s division of 4,000 men; Johnson himself swats at his captors with his walking stick.  But this is just an advance work and the Confederates hold steady on the main line a half mile behind. Nearby at the “Bloody Angle” the combatants are separated only by a log breastwork, fighting is hand-to-hand at first, then firing blindly over the top and stabbing and shooting between logs as the bodies pile up in layers in the mud.  Trees are chewed in two by the intensity of the fire.  Five Confederate counterattacks are thrown back and fighting continues on for 23 hours through the rain and night, until Lee pulls back to his interior line at midnight on May 12th.  Neither side prevails; each loses approximately 10,000 on this day alone.

Meanwhile,  a raiding force of 12,000 Yankee cavalry commanded by Philip Sheridan encounter 4,500 commanded by Jeb Stuart at Yellow Tavern, just six miles outside Richmond.  Although Stuart’s cavalry entrench and rout their opponents, the irreplaceable Stuart is killed in the pursuit on May 11th.   Though 625 Yankees are lost, they liberate 400 Union prisoners and capture 300 Confederates, all the while disrupting Lee’s supply line.

For six more days Grant probes Lee’s line, but finds forbidding trenches everywhere. Meanwhile, Grant receives reinforcements equaling his loss.  On May 18th, Grant moves out toward the North Anna, where there is more fighting on the 23rd.  In fact, the fighting is almost continuous throughout the rest of the month, resulting in a number of relatively small engagements.  United States Colored Infantry prevails over Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry at Wilson’s Wharf on May 24th.  The second largest cavalry fight of the war is at Haw’s Shop on May 28th.  The battle of Totopotomy Creek is on May 28th, with additional fighting at Old Church on the 30th.  Additionally, there is fighting at Bermuda Hundred as Butler moves troops up the York to establish a beachhead at City Point, fighting in central Virginia as the Yankees move on Lynchburg, Sigel is raiding the Shenandoah Valley, and the Yankees are moving on the Weldon railroad in North Carolina north toward Petersburg and Richmond.  In the West, Sherman is moving on Atlanta, while Banks is closing in on the port of Mobile.

After a month of almost continuous fighting, June 1st finds both armies facing off a second time near Cold Harbor and the old battlefield of Gaines Mills, famous from Lee’s debut in the Seven Days battles in 1862.  In less than a month, Grant has brought the army out of winter camp to the suburbs of Richmond.  Casualties have been horrendous, but Grant’s strategy of forcing Lee to fight without rest is working: Grant can replace his men, Lee cannot.  But, as Lee improves his trenches on the Cold Harbor line, Grant is about to discover how really costly this strategy can be.


Written by: Doug Coleman


REFERENCES:  Grant, Jean Edward Smith; Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion; John Hennessy, Capturing the Wilderness’s Signature Horror: Fire, http://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/capturing-the-wildernesss-signature-horror-fire/

Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@cartercoleman.com.

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