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  • James Houser

May 7, 1864 - The Battle of the Wilderness

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 7, 1864. After two days of fighting, the Virginia woods west of Fredericksburg are burning. The armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee have survived their first contest in the Battle of the Wilderness. It is only the first round; Lee has found an opponent that won’t quit, and Grant is fighting his deadliest opponent. Welcome to the bloodiest campaign of the Civil War.

In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed General Ulysses S. Grant as the commander-in-chief of the Union Army. Grant had an unbroken record of success in his campaigns along the Mississippi River and in Tennessee, while Lincoln had been forced to go through multiple mediocre generals in Virginia who had all failed to defeat the Confederate army of Robert E. Lee. Now, Lincoln had found his general, the man who saw the war the way he did: as a struggle requiring national motivation, grand strategy, and operational art. Grant was that man.

When Grant took command, he immediately began planning campaigns for 1864. The Civil War had been going on for three years now, and Grant wanted to end it. In the past, the Union forces throughout the frontlines had fought their own individual campaigns, disconnected and separate from each other. This had enabled the Confederacy to shift troops between fronts, reinforcing a threatened sector by pulling troops from a quiet one.

Not anymore. Grant’s strategy was to place continuous pressure on every front, knowing that the South had to crack somewhere. In central Virginia, the Union Army of the Potomac would march against its longtime foe, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. That much was routine. Grant added two additional armies, attacking from Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley and from Yorktown and Norfolk up the James River towards Richmond. These attacks would keep the Rebel forces there from reinforcing Lee, while also offering a chance to attack critical targets – the important railroads running through Lynchburg, and Richmond itself.

At the same time as these three armies in Virginia moved out, General Sherman’s enormous force would begin its march through Georgia, heading for Atlanta. The strategy was to squeeze the South on every front until something gave way. Grant himself, though, would not sit at Washington in a desk to coordinate all these attacks. He was never a man to sit in an office. Instead, Grant would travel with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia to confront Robert E. Lee.

In 1863, the Army of the Potomac had won a decisive victory over Robert E. Lee’s Confederates at Gettysburg, but this had not done much to restore its confidence. The troops suffered from low confidence due to their many defeats at Lee’s hands. Once every few months, their generals told them to march south; once every few months, they were forced to retreat again. The generals of the Army were a legendary den of vipers full of political ambitions and bitter rivalries. Even George G. Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, had trouble holding this chaotic force together.

When Grant decided to travel with the Army, he was tempted to take command himself, but after talking with Meade decided to keep him in place. Meade knew the army and was on good terms with most of its generals, and Grant also felt that Meade was a competent and loyal commander. Grant would provide political cover (protecting him from political interference from Washington) and general guidance to Meade, and in return Meade would have a free hand to control tactics and battle strategies. When the 120,000 men of the Army of the Potomac moved out, it would have two dads willing to work together.

Just south of Meade’s army sat Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Badly battered at Gettysburg, it had no more than about 65,000 men, but they were all highly motivated and had absolute trust in their commander. Lee’s reputation, despite Gettysburg, was as high as it had ever been in the Confederacy, but he was pessimistic about his chances in the coming campaign. He told one of his generals, “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before it gets to the James River” (which flows through Richmond) “because then it will become a siege, and then it is only a question of time.” Lee predicted exactly what would happen in the next eleven months. He had to destroy the Union Army, or there was no chance of victory.

On May 4, Grant and Meade’s army finally struck their tents and began moving south. Grant was trying to march around Lee by taking roads through the Virginia Wilderness, the site of the Battle of Chancellorsville only a year before. Grant wanted to get past the Wilderness as fast as he could and confront Lee on open ground, where the superior Union artillery and greater numbers could make a difference. In close quarters like the dense woodland of the Wilderness, Lee could strike isolated Union forces and have a great impact despite his smaller numbers.

Thus began the great struggle between Grant and Lee that would last until Appomattox. Both were outstanding generals, possibly the greatest America has ever produced, but completely different in personality and method. Lee was visually inspiring, a born leader, whose troops held a passionate love for him. He was aggressive, flexible, and dangerous, a gambler and risk-taker. Grant was short, stocky, and quiet, always with a cigar or whittling on a stick. He was determined and ruthless, but far smarter and more subtle than many historians have given him credit for. Grant’s best qualities were his utter calmness, even in moments of greatest stress, and a single-minded fixation on his objective.

Both men, though, understood the point of the campaign as the destruction of the other’s army, and they would do their damnedest to bring it about. This campaign would cause higher casualties, proportionate to the numbers engaged, than any other campaign in American history.

On May 5, the leading units of Grant’s army entered the Wilderness on the narrow wagon roads that led south to the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House. Grant was trying to steal a march on Lee, getting past him before Lee could move to block his path. Lee had no intention of letting this happen, and was already hurrying into the Wilderness with his army from the west. A third of his force – the elite troops of James Longstreet, including the legendary Texas Brigade – were far behind in the march and would not arrive on May 5, but Lee wanted to hit Grant in the dense undergrowth before he could react.

Lee came in on two roads. To the north, the troops of General Richard Ewell – mostly Virginians and North Carolinians – came in hard against the Union forces. A series of attacks and counterattacks surged across one of the few open fields in the forest, marking the beginning of the Battle of the Wilderness. New York and Virginia men struggled over the possession of one battery of cannon as chaos burst into the dense foliage. Men could barely see who was to their left or right, let alone the enemy, and units easily became lost or misdirected. One entire division went wildly off course only to end up on the other side of the battlefield.

Generals Meade and Grant had made their headquarters at the Wilderness Tavern, near where Stonewall Jackson had launched his legendary assault a year before. As Grant quietly smoked a cigar, reading reports from the front, Union General Charles Griffin rode up, cursing another general for failing to support him. As Meade gave him new orders and Griffin rode back off, Grant muttered, “Who is this General Gregg? You ought to have him relieved.” Meade chuckled, knowing the old Indian fighter’s harsh character, and said “Well that is just his way.”

In the south, Confederate General A.P. Hill’s troops were almost undetected until they tried to storm a critical crossroads in the center of the Wilderness and threatened to break the Union army in two along its single road of march. Union forces under Winfield Scott Hancock, including the famed Irish Brigade from New York, arrived to drive the Rebels back. Confused and unable to hold their formation in the dense undergrowth, the Confederates were forced to yield almost two miles of ground before darkness put an end to the first day’s fighting.

At daybreak on May 6, Hancock had assembled almost half the Union Army under his direct supervision, and Grant showed up on the scene to order a combined assault against the Confederate units on the southern front of the battlefield. Hancock piled forward, Union forces breaking the Confederate lines and threatening the supply wagons and General Lee’s headquarters. At some point, the dry underbrush in the woods caught fire, and the air grew thick with smoke, the howling of the wounded, harsh battle cries, the blaze of musketry and the thunder of cannon. The Union was on the verge of triumph.

Lee was trying to stitch together a defensive line, and preparing to retreat if it was necessary, when he finally spotted Longstreet’s elite Southern forces coming up the road just in time to save the day. Longstreet ordered an immediate counterattack, and the Union forces, disorganized in the impenetrable woods and careless in victory, were thrown back in disarray. The tide had turned once again. Longstreet drove them hard, pushing forward in a devastating assault.

General Lee was cheering his men on when he came across a body of troops marching to the front. When he asked who they were, they replied “Texas Brigade!” “Hurrah for Texas,” he replied, unsheathing his sword. As the Texans marched forward, they realized Lee intended to lead them into combat in person, and their stomachs curdled at the thought of their commander in such personal danger. First one, then another soldier cried, “Go back, General Lee!” before the whole unit was yelling “Lee to the rear!”

Lee was reluctant to yield his place up front – some have suspected that, believing the war was already lost, he might have a death wish – but he put his sword back in its scabbard and stood back as the Texans went forward, but only after they promised him they would drive back the Union. They did.

The danger to men on horseback in the Wilderness was very real. As Longstreet led his troops forward, in the confusion and smoke of the battlefield, he was accidentally shot by his own men. Eerily, this incident occurred almost exactly a year after Stonewall Jackson had been wounded in the same way. Jackson had died of his wounds, but Longstreet would live and take command later in the war. Now, however, Longstreet’s wounding threw the Confederate counterattack into disarray, and a critical opportunity to win a major victory was lost.

Grant and Meade, back at their headquarters, were rushing reinforcements to the front and preparing for the next day’s attacks when a panicked officer came riding up, wailing that Lee had gotten through the Union lines and all was lost. If there was one thing Grant could not stand it was defeatism. He bellowed, “I am sick and tired of hearing what General Lee is going to do! You men seem to think he will pull a double somersault on land in our rear and both our flanks at the same time! Let us think instead about what we are to do ourselves!”

This was Grant to a “T.” He never let his opponent get in his head, no matter what; the officers of the Army of the Potomac existed with Robert E. Lee living rent-free in their heads.

As the sun set on the Wilderness on May 6, the awful carnage was hidden from view, but the forest burned. The wounded, lost and abandoned, tried desperately to escape, but many were consumed by the flames. During the battle, soldiers had stumbled on the bodies of their comrades killed in the Battle of Chancellorsville the year before; now there would be more blackened corpses littering the Virginia forest. In all, the Union had lost almost 18,000 men in two days of fighting, and the Confederacy 11,000. It was one of the worst battles of the war, and a claustrophobic hell that most of its soldiers would never forget.

May 7, 1864, was a day of rest and recovery as both armies glared at each other from their dugouts and trenches. As the sun began to sink once again, the Union soldiers sighed. It was the same old story. They had fought Lee and his rebels, just like always; they had barely survived, just like always; and they would retreat back north, lick their wounds, and try again, just like always.

But the Union had someone different in command now. As the Union army gathered on the road, ready to march, General Grant passed by on horseback – heading south, not north. As the soldiers realized what this meant, a cheer erupted up and down the roads in the Wilderness. This would not be like the last time, or the time before that. The Union Army may have lost the Wilderness – jury’s still out on who exactly won – but it was not beaten. It would fight again, and soon. The Army of the Potomac would not retreat. They would march south.

Lee was fighting a new opponent – the one who would bring him to his knees. On May 7, the armies marched south to Spotsylvania. Catch you again on May 12, where Grant and Lee face off once again in the duel of the champions.

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