The Battle of the Wilderness: Lee Becomes the Objective

Soon after midnight, May 3d–4th, the Army of the Potomac moved out from its position north Rapidan, to start upon that memorable campaign, destined to result in the capture of the Confederate capital and the army defending it. This was not to be accomplished, however, without as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed; not to be consummated in a day, a week, a month, single season. The losses inflicted, and endured, were destined to be severe; but the armies now confronting each other had already been in deadly conflict for a period of three years, with immense losses in killed, by death from sickness, captured and wounded; and neither had made any real progress accomplishing the final end. – US Grant Personal Memoirs

And thus began an immortal dance that for ten months came to define the war. Two names intertwined in history. Two names forever linked. Yet, it was only for ten months they fought against each other. For Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, the beginning of the Overland Campaign on May 3, 1864, signaled the beginning of the end for the Confederacy in Virginia. By mid-summer, Grant would lay siege to Petersburg and have Lee somewhat trapped there. The auspicious start entailed above was anything but auspicious. It was cold and deadly. From May 3rd to May 7th, a battle that came to be known as The Wilderness was an introduction of Lee to Grant and Grant to Lee.

When Grant was placed in charge of Union forces in early 1864, he immediately changed the goals of the war, militarily speaking. Where previous commanders had failed, Grant’s change of emphasis in the war was aimed at bringing about the end of the South to make war. Goal number one in 1864 was simple. Destroy the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee. Twice Lee had escaped the jaws of defeat in the North at Antietam and Gettysburg and live to fight another day. Rather than go after specific targets like Richmond, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, or Chancellorsville, Grant was going after Lee. If Grant could get to Lee, the war could grind to a halt. If Grant could bring Union forces to bear, the war in the East would soon be over. That was the goal on May 3rd when he crossed the Rapidan.

Grant’s greatest strength was his adaptability. Some historians claim it was his tenacity, but that tenacity was not based on thundering away at the enemy but rather in continually adjusting to what his enemy did in order to out maneuver him. For Grant in the spring and summer of 1864, this adaptability to Robert E. Lee will result in many battles, the first of which was in the Wilderness in northern Virginia.

The ground in Virginia had three summers of blood when Grant took charge. 1864 would be the last. At Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania, the two sides had met and fought over the same rivers several times with the Confederacy winning most every time. Grant described the land as such:

The country was heavily wooded at all the points of crossing, particularly on the south side of the river. The battle-field from the crossing of the Rapidan until the final movement from the Wilderness toward Spottsylvania was of the same character. There were some clearings and small farms within what might be termed the battle-field; but generally the country was covered with a dense forest. The roads were narrow and bad. All the conditions were favorable for defensive operations.

But for Grant, the Battle of the Wilderness was not to be a defensive operation. He might have known he would not win, but by engaging the enemy (Lee) Grant knew the Union could provide him with more men and resources than the Confederacy could provide for Lee. Grant would use the rivers of northern Virginia to his advantage to resupply himself and his armies at will. For a man who hated the sight of blood, Grant knew what it shedding would bring.

On to the battle…

When Grant made his move across the Rapidan with 100,000 men, Lee was well aware of Grant’s position. Using the terrain to his advantage, Lee had to keep the mountains and woods to his rear as Grant easily outnumbered him. With only 62,000 men, Lee would decide the place of battle … this time.

The first day of the Battle of the Wilderness could best described as chaos. Because of the thickets, rain, and overall mesh of trees and men. Lee wrote of the first day of battle at 11 p.m.:

The enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday at Ely’s and Germanna Fords. Two corps of this,army moved to oppose him Ewell’s, by the old turnpike, and Hill’s, by the plank road. They arrived this morning in close proximity to the enemy’s line of march. A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it, capturing many prisoners and four pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon General Hill, who, with Heth’s and Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated and desperate assaults. A large force of cavalry and artillery on our right flank was driven back by Rosser’s brigade. By the blessing of God we maintained our position against every effort until night, when the contest closed. We have to mourn the loss of many brave officers and men. The gallant Brig. Gen. J. M. Jones was killed, and Brig. Gen. L. A. Stafford, I fear, mortally wounded while leading his command with conspicuous valor.

For the Union, they did not know what was happening. Friendly fire killed many amidst the chaos. Up on the down the Orange Turnpike, the Confederates knowing the land, held the distinct advantage. Wilderness Battlefield Park Historian Dan Pfanz explains what happened near the turnpike:

Saunders Field courtesy of the NPS

Saunders Field courtesy of the NPS

Saunders Field was a 50-acre field that straddled the Orange Turnpike (modern Route 20). It was one of very few clearings in the otherwise gloomy forest. When Richard Ewell approached the Army of the Potomac on May 5th, he had orders from Lee to engage the enemy and stop their progress through the Wilderness, but to avoid a general engagement until Longstreet’s corps arrived the following day.Ewell encountered the Army of the Potomac at Saunders Field and immediately began deploying his corps across the turnpike along the higher, western edge of the field, where his troops could enjoy a clear field of fire.Grant, eager to engage the Confederates on any terms, obligingly attacked Ewell at Saunders Field at 1 p.m. on May 5, initiating the battle, and continued to hammer away at Ewell’s line well into the night. Despite achieving a momentary breakthrough south of the turnpike, Grant’s forces were repulsed with heavy casualties.

On the morning of the May 6, Grant resumed the attack. Arriving in what appeared to be a huge lift for the Confederacy was James Longstreet – ironically, he was a longtime friend of Grant as well. Longstreet’s morning attack forced a short retreat by the Union behind some cover. As Longstreet was preparing the final attack which could have culminated in a rout, Longstreet was accidentally shot by his own men. The resulting delay in an attack allowed the Union forces under Hancock to prepare defensive positions.

Lee wrote of the events of the day:

Early this morning as the divisions of General Hill, engaged yesterday, were being relieved, the enemy advanced and created some confusion. The ground lost was recovered as soon as the fresh troops got into position and the enemy driven back to his original line. Afterward we turned the left of his front line and drove it from the field, leaving a large number of dead and wounded in our hands, among them General Wadsworth. A subsequent attack forced the enemy into his intrenched lines on the Brock road, extending from Wilderness Tavern, on the right, to Trigg’s Mill. Every advance on his part, thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed. Our loss in killed is not large, but we have many wounded; most of them slightly, artillery being little used on either side. I grieve to announce that Lieutenant-General Longstreet was severely wounded and General Jenkins killed. General Pegram was badly wounded yesterday. General Stafford, it is hoped, will recover.

Grant saw things in this manner:

I believed then, and see no reason to change that opinion now, that if the country had been such that Hancock and his command could have seen the confusion and panic in the lines of the enemy, it would have been taken advantage of so effectually that Lee would not have made another stand outside of his Richmond defences.

On May 6, Lee attacked Union positions. It did not go well. The terrain that had lead to victories in previous years for the Confederates was their undoing this day as the Union held the field. In a strange but an extremely important turn of events, Grant ordered Meade to withdraw after night fall on May 7. But this time, the Union was not retreating back from whence they came, but rather, they were going to Spotsylvania Court House and heading towards Richmond. The resulting orders to advance turned the morale of the Army of the Potomac into enthusiasm.

Grant’s Orders to Meade:

Commanding A. P.
Make all preparations during the day for a night march to take position at Spottsylvania C. H. with one army corps, at Todd’s Tavern with one, and another near the intersection of the Piney Branch and Spottsylvania road with the road from Alsop’s to Old Court House. If this move is made the trains should be thrown forward early in the morning to the Ny River.
I think it would be advisable in making the change to leave Hancock where he is until Warren passes him. He could then follow and become the right of the new line. Burnside will move to Piney Branch Church. Sedgwick can move along the pike to Chancellorsville and on to his destination. Burnside will move on the plank road to the intersection of it with the Orange and Fredericksburg plank road, then follow Sedgwick to his place of destination.
All vehicles should be got out of hearing of the enemy before the troops move, and then move off quietly.
It is more than probable that the enemy concentrate for a heavy attack on Hancock this afternoon. In case they do we must be prepared to resist them, and follow up any success we may gain, with our whole force. Such a result would necessarily modify these instructions.
All the hospitals should be moved to-day to Chancellorsville.

What militarily was a draw turned into a psychological victory for Grant and the Union. Where Meade, Hooker, McClellan, and Burnside had failed, Grant became the man in whom the Union army believed in. In was now up to Lee to chase him. With 80,000+ men in tow, Grant would resupply while Lee had to fight with what he had left, around 50,000. Those numbers would continue to shrink for Lee while Grant would just resupply himself much to the chagrin of some in the press in the coming months.

Diorama by Greg Aronowitz

Diorama by Greg Aronowitz

US Grant Personal Memoirs
Ordeal by Fire by James MacPherson

Robert E. Lee Reports:

The Civil War: Valley of the Shadow of Death