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1864 May 14: Battle of the Wilderness

May 15, 2014

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought from Thursday May 5 to Saturday May 7, 1864, was the first battle of Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign against Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.  The Wilderness was a tangle of scrub brush and undergrowth in which part of the Battle of Chancellorsville had been fought in 1863.  By forcing a fight here, Lee effectively neutralized the Union’s artillery advantage.  Both armies suffered heavy casualties, but the battle was tactically inconclusive.  The Iron Brigade—which included the 2nd, 6th (Prescott Guards were Company B), and 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiments—participated in this battle.  The Battle of the Wilderness was immediately followed by the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

The following initial accounts and reports from the battlefield were published in the May 14, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal, in an article called “The Great Struggle successfully begun.”

Note:  The 19th century spelling of Spotsylvania had two t’s, so we will not use “[sic]” after Spottsylvania.

VICTORY ! !   VICTORY ! !

The Great Struggle successfully begun.

The Campaign has opened auspiciously to our arms.  After a series of severe battles, GRANT has driven LEE from his chosen position, and forced him to rapid flight.  BUTLER [Benjamin F. Butler] has gained signal advantages, and is effectively co-operating with GRANT.  It seems inevitable that the Rebel Capitol will soon be taken, or closely inv[__]ted.  We give the most important dispatches below.

WASHINGTON, May 9 [Monday].—Communications have been opened with Gens. Smith [William F. “Baldy” Smith] and Gilmore [sic: Quincy A. Gillmore] who are near Richmond.  There was no fighting yesterday [Sunday the 8th].  Our army is believed to be advancing successfully, and Fredericksburg has been occupied, and the rail road is being repaired.  The Star extra, says Grant has a field full of prisoners, and had advanced to Spottsylvania Court House.  A verbal message received at Halleck’s Headquarters [Henry W. Halleck] by a messenger from the army, states that both armies closed in Friday, the enemy having falling back about one and a half miles,¹ leaving their dead and wounded on the field.—On Saturday [7th] at 4 o’clock¹ Lee was in full retreat thraugh [sic] Spottsylvania, and when the messenger [left] Hancock [Winfield S. Hancock] was entering the place in pursuit.  Butler is reported within ten miles of Richmond.

Gen. Wadsworth of New York was killed; also, the the rebel Generals Jones and Jenkins, and Gens. Pickett and Hunter are wounded.²

Butler has whipped Beauregard [P.G.T. Beauregard] and cut the Petersburg and Richmond Railroad.

A dispatch dated Washington, 9th, 10 A. M. to Gen. Dix [John A. Dix] says, we have intelligence this morning by scouts direct from the army up to Saturday evening, but no official reports.  The general  result may be stated as a success to our armies.

The fighting Friday [6th] was the most desperate known in modern times.  Gen. Wadsworth was killed by a ball in the forehead while leading his troops against the enemy’s strongest positions.  Gen. Webb was wounded.³

The condition of our army is said to be admirable.

At the latest accounts Hancock was pushing forward rapidly by left of Spottsylvania Court House, and yesterday heavy cannonading was heard at Aquia Creek, and from that direction.  We lost some prisoners.  One regiment of Pennsylvania Reserves charged through [a battery] of the enemy, but were unable to get back, most of them were captured.

We have taken a large number of prisoners.  It is supposed that we lost some artillery, but artllery [sic] was not used on either side in the first two days fighting.

Gen. Sherman [William T. Sherman] was heard from last night.  He would attack the rebels to-day.

Battle of the Wilderness, from the Library of Congress

Battle of the Wilderness, from the Library of Congress (see footnote 4)

FRIDAY AND SATURDAY’S BATTLES.

The New York Herald has the following relative to the battles on Friday and Saturday :

A[t] 5 o’clock in the morning the contest was renewed against our line and rear, and the hum of battle came from every quarter.—From certain indications it was concluded that Lee was reinforcing Longstreet [James Longstreet] on Hancock’s front and part of Burnside’s corps [Ambrose E. Burnside] accordingly moved to his support, taking position to the left of General Warren [Gouverneur K. Warren] and completely filling up the gap into which the two brigades had been thrown the preceeding [sic] evening.

On moving at daylight towards their assigned position, through close forest, they found it occupied by rebels prepared to dispute its progression.  Fighting at this point was over by 9 o’clock, finding it impossible to dislodge the rebels from their position.

Early in the morning Hancock was driven back close to his breastworks, by superior force, but subsequently rallied his men and succeeded in regaining most of his ground.  Between 10 and 11 o’clock, however, Longstreet succeeded in [turning] the left of his advance throwing it into some confusion.  This extended along the entire line, and came near involving the whole corps in inextricable confusion.  He was once more forced back to his breastworks and the enemy actually planted his colors inside these, but could not sustain themselves and were ejected.  At this time heavy reinforcements were thrown to his support from Burnside’s corps, and his men were rallied and taken well in hand and all danger of further disaster was removed.

The charge of Longstreet was completely overwhelming.  Solid masses of infantry were hurled upon Hancock time after time with an impetuosity nothing could withstand.  It was exceedingly fortunate for the 6th corps and the whole army, that he was checked at the critical period and driven back with as much precipitation as he came.

The ground in front of Hancock had been fought over a number of times, and the numbers of wounded and dying on the field was vast.

At night Hancock occupied his breastwork and had nothing but prisoners and the rebel dead to show for the slaughter of two days fighting.

He behaved with conspicuous gallantry throughout, and was on the field in person where dangers were thickest.

Gen. Warren also rode along the line.  The utmost surprise was manifested at the number of troops Lee was able to bring into action.

This corps remained its first position however till darkness.  About midnight a charge was made, when it gave way and was unable to regain the ground thus lost.

This of course compelled the abandonment of the great position line and breastworks in front of this corps, and brought the skirmish line within half a mile of Grant’s and Meade’s headquarters.

Sedwick’s corps [sic: John Sedgwick] maintained itself against a vigorous assault superior in numbers, at different times during the day, and had no serious reverse until late in the evening, when a desperate charge was made on its extreme right for the purpose of turning it, as was done to Hancock’s in the morning.

Milroy’s old division [Robert H. Milroy] was driven back with great confusion at length, and the enemy succeeded in effectually turning our right flank.

This necessitated the transfer of our wounded and all supply trains from the Germania Ford road to our landing at Chancellorville.

The latter were [in] motion all night, and at daylight had Lee occupied Germania and cut off the retreat of the army by that route, which would have given him the advantage but night worked him  incalculable mischief, causing an undue extension of his line, and corresponding weakening of the line.

The contest of Friday was unsatisfactory.

Many officers were desponding and feared that Lee would in some manner defeat Grant, and a superficial observer might construe the repulses that day into a defeat, but no such forebodings found a resting place in the minds of those who know the tenacity of purpose and fertility of resource characteristic of Grant.

The advantages of the next day verified their hopes.  The battle recommenced at daylight on Saturday, but the firing was desultory and scattering.  No fierce attacks were made on either side both generals being intent on strategy, and neither anxious to bring on a general engagement.

Burnside was well under way to Spottsylvania.  Lee had thrown infantry on to our right, and drove in our cavalry pickets on the Germania road.

The result could only be a precipitate the retreat on the part of Lee to prevent our army from being thrown between himself and Richmond, or force him into an open field, which would result in his extermination.

Lee seemed intent on cutting our communication via Germania Ford.  Grant appeared utterly indifferent to this and seemed rather to court it by withdrawing Sedgwick from his position and throwing it back by Germania Ford, near his own headquarters, and pushing Burnside out of Spottslyvania Court House, tapping Lee’s line of communication.  The new line was formed by placing in position corps extending nearly north and south, and gave Lee a choice of being cut off from his capital or risking everything on the verge of battle.

He soon discovered the error, and to all appearance had started in hot haste for another line of defence.  Some think Lee found North Anna river, while others are fully certain there was no tenable position for him to fall back to between this and Richmond.

WASHINGTON, May 7.

The Washington Republican has an extra that official dispatches announce our complete victory over Lee, and that the rebel army is retreating in the direction of Spottsylvania, Grant pursuing.

 

Secretary of War.

1.  This article also appeared in the Illinois State Register (Springfield) on May 10, 1864. In that newspaper this sentence reads “the enemy having fallen back about 12 miles.”  The next sentence says “On Saturday at 3 o’clock.”
2.  Brief information on the generals listed:

  • James S. Wadsworth was mortally wounded on May 6 when he was shot in the back of the head. He fell from his horse and was captured, dying two days later in a Confederate field hospital.
  • John Marshall Jones was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864.
  • Micah Jenkins was mortally wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864, and died a few hours later. He and General Longstreet were riding together when both were struck by friendly fire; Longstreet survived.
  • George Edward Pickett, of Pickett’s Charge fame, was a division commander in the Defenses of Richmond, and supported Lee’s operations in the Overland Campaign.
  • Not sure who Hunter was.

3.  Alexander Stewart Webb will be wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
4.  “Battle of the Wilderness: Desperate fight on the Orange C.H. Plank Road, near Todd’s Tavern, May 6th, 1864.” This digital image is from an original 1887 Kurz & Allison print, available at the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. The UWRF University Archives & Area Research Center has in its Special Collections a copy of Battles of the Civil War: The Complete Kurz & Allison Prints, 1861-1865, Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, 1976 (Oversized E 468.7 .B3 1976), which includes a copy of this print.

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