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1864 May 14: The Battle of the Wilderness from the Polk County Press

May 16, 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 the previous year.  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 are initial accounts and reports were published in the May 14, 1864, issue of The Polk County Press, in a lengthy article called “The Great Battles.”  The Prescott Journal‘s article, called “The Great Struggle successfully begun,” was published yesterday.

The Great Battles.

At last the great struggle for the Nation’s life has commenced.  Our army under Gen. GRANT, commenced its forward movement on Tuesday, May 3d, and crossed the Rapidan at Jacob’s, Culpepper [sic], Germania, and United State’s Fords without serious opposition.

Before the march was commenced Gen. MEADE [George G. Meade] issued the following patriotic and confident General order to the army of the Potomac :

Wednesday, May 4, 1864, }

SOLDIERS :  Again you are called upon to advance on the enemies of your country.  The time and the occasion are deemed opportune by your Commanding General to address you a few words of confidence and caution.  You have been reorganized, strengthened and fully equipped in every respect.  You form a part of the several armies of your country—the whole under the direction of an able and distinguished General, who enjoys the confidence of the Government, the people and the army.—Your movement being in cooperation with others, it is of the utmost importance that no effort should be left unspared to make it successful.

Soldiers, the eyes of the whole country are looking with anxious hope to the blow you are about to strike in the most sacred cause that ever called men to arms.  Remember your homes, your wives and children, and bear in mind that the sooner your enemies are overcome the sooner you will be returned to enjoy the benefits and blessings of peace.  Bear with patience the hardships and sacrifices you will be called upon to endure.—Have confidence in your officers and in each other.  Keep your ranks on the march and on the battle-field, and let each man earnestly implore god’s blessing, and endeavor by his thoughts and actions to render himself worthy of the favor he seeks.

With clear consciences and strong arms, actuated by a high sense of duty, fighting to preserve the Government and the institutions handed down to us by our forefathers, if true to ourselves, victory, under God’s blessing, must and will attend our efforts.

Major-Gen. Comdg.

Official :  —-, Asst. Adj. Gen.

Gen. GRANT has issued an order prohibiting Quartermasters to issue to troops any hut shelter tents.  Those who refuse these must go without.—Troops in garrison stations, or in detachments, can construct huts if they prefer them.  The order ends thus:

“Any one who shall issue or direct the issue of tents other than prescribed will be tried by court-martial or reported for summary dismissal.”

Gen. MEADE has ordered that any soldier refusing to do duty at this crisis, on plea of expired service, be instantly shot without trial.


The fighting commenced on Tuesday night [May 3] and heavy skirmishing was kept up all day Wednesday, with occasionally heavy fighting.  On Thursday a heavy engagement took place in which our troops were victorious.  Our losses up to Thursday night the 5th were put down at 5,000 men and 2 guns.  GRANT held the battle field of the 5th—took many prisoners and some artillery.  Under date of the 8th inst., we have the following official dispatches from the Secretary of War to Gen. DIX [John A. Dix], New York.  They were the first official despatches received :

(By telegraph from Washington to General John A. Dix, New York.)

WASHINGTON, May 8, 9 A. M.—We have no official dispatches from the front, but the Medical Director has notified the Surgeon General that our wounded are being sent to Washington and will number from 6,000 to 8,000.

The Chief Quartermaster of the Army  of the Potomac has made a requisition for seven days for railroad construction trains and stock.

The enemy is reported to be retiring.  This indicates General Grant’s advance, and affords an inference of material success on our part.

The enemy’s strength has always been most felt in his first blows, and these having failed, and our forces not only having maintained their ground, but preparing to advance, lead to the hope of their fall and our complete success; for, when either party falls of success by strategy, desertion commences.  The enemy’s loss in killed and wounded must weaken him more than we are weakened.

Nothing later than my last dispatch has been received from Gen. Butler [Benjamin F. Butler].

A dispatch from Gen. Sherman [William T. Sherman], dated five o’clock P. M. yesterday, states that General Thomas [George H. Thomas] had occupied Tunnel Hill, where he expected a battle, and that the enemy had taken a position at Buzzard’s Roost Pass, north of Bealton.  Skirmishing had taken place, but no real fighting yet.  There is nothing later from Gen. Banks [Nathaniel P. Banks].

You may give publicity to this information.  It is desirable to give official reports as soon as possible, and to withhold nothing from the public.

(Signed)      E. M. STANTON [Edwin M. Stanton],
Secretary of War.


To Gen. John A. Dix :

WASHINGTON, May 8—9 A. M.—We are yet without any official dispatches from the Army of the Potomac except those referred to this morning, and nothing additional has been received from any other source.

It is believed that no engagement took place yesterday.

A dispatch from Gen. Butler, just received, and which left him yesterday, states that a demonstration had been made by his forces on the railroad between Petersburg and Richmond, and had succeeded in destroying a portion of it so as to break the connection, and that there had been some severe fighting, but he had succeeded.

He heard from a rebel deserter that Hunter [David Hunter] was dangerously wounded, Pickett also [George E. Pickett], and Jones¹ and Jenkins² were killed.  Nothing has been heard from Gen. Sherman.

(Signed)      E. M. STANTON,
.   .   .   .   .   .Secretary of War.


Gen. Hayes [sic]³ was killed in the fight on Thursday, and several other Generals were wounded.

A “Herald” dispatch of the 8th says reports have been received from the front up to 11 o’clock on Saturday morning.  There had been two days of severe fighting (on Thursday and Friday,) and it was believed that the enemy were retreating.  Our wounded were being sent to the rear, showing that we had lost no ground in the fighting.

Gen. Webb4 was killed in the battle of Friday.

“Tribune” extra of the 8th says the Washington “Republican” extra says Grant hurled his entire force against the rebel army on Friday.  Lee was driven three miles, leaving 3,000 killed and 10,000 wounded in our hands.  Grant is master of the field.  Lee is in full retreat ;  Grant is in hot pursuit.

Griffin[‘]s division of the 5th corps led the attack and suffered severely, nearly 1,000 being killed, wounded and missing.  [Charles Griffin]

To Gen. Dix :—


Dispatches have been received this P.M. from Gen. Grant, dated one o’clock yesterday.  The enemy have made a stand at Spottsylvannia C. H. [Court House].  There had been some hard fighting, but no general battle had taken place there.  The army is represented to be in excellent condition and with ample supply.

Gens. Robinson5 and Morris6 are wounded.  No other causalities to general officers are reported.

Gen. Wright7 has been placed in command of Sedgwick’s corps.  [John Sedgwick]

Gen. Grant did not design to renew the attack to-day, being engaged in replenishing from the supply train so as to advance without it.

(Signed)      E. M. STANTON,
.   .   .   .   .   .Secretary of War.

The following official dispatch announces that the Army of the Cumberland is also in motion :


To Gen. Dix, N. Y.

A dispatch from Gen. Sherman received at midnight states that we are fighting for Rocky Face Ridge, and that McPherson [James B. McPherson] took Snake Creek Gap, and was seven miles from Reseca this morning.

On Saturday the rebels were forced from Tunnel Hill by Thomas, and took position at Buzzard’s Roost just north of Dalton.  This is represented as a very strong position, from which Thomas was unable to drive the enemy on former occasions.

Reseca is on the rail road about 15 miles south of Dalton.  This will place McPherson with a strong corps in the enemy’s rear while Thomas advances upon the front and Schofield [John M. Schofield] closes on his flank from Cleveland.

Probably a great battle was fought on that line yesterday, and may be now in progress.

Nothing since my last has been received from Grant or Butler.

(Signed)      E. M. STANTON,
.   .   .   .   .   .Secretary of War.

The following Associated Press dispatches relate to opperations [sic] on the Peninsula :


A special dispatch to the “Enquirer’ dated Washington last night, says Gen. Meade moved again on the enemy, and had a brisk tight at Todd’s Tavern, just north of Po river.  By night the rebels were retreating on three roads south toward Richmond.  On Sunday the rebels attempted to make another stand, but Meade attacked them and drove them back!

A dispatch to-night confirms their retreat to North Anna river.  The rebels succeeded in getting off most of their wounded.  Up to Saturday night colored troops were not put into the fight, but held as a reserve with Burnside [Ambrose E. Burnside].  We lost but two pieces of artillery altogether.

The Baltimore “American” has received the following from Washington :  Gens. Warren [Gouverneur K. Warren] and Hancock [Winfield S. Hancock] are in close pursuit of the enemy.  The rebels have been driven from Spottsylvania C. H. towards Cane River.  Advices from Richmond represent great distress and the wildest, disorder prevails there.


Only about 90 men and officers are left of the 4th Virginia regiment.

Gen. Seymour just from Florida is a prisoner. His brigade was outflanked and broke.  No man fought more gallantly or bravely but it seemed that he was unfortunate with his troops.  [Truman Seymour]

The “Star” extra says Grant has a field full of prisoners and had advanced to Spottyslvania C. H.  A verbal message received at Halleck’s headquarters [Henry W. Halleck], by a messenger from the army states that the battle closed on Friday.  The enemy had fallen back about 13 miles, leaving their wounded on the field.  Saturday at 3 o’clock Lee was in fall retreat thro’ Spottsylvania, and when the messengers left, Hancock was entering the place in pursuit.  Butler is reported within ten miles of Richmond.

The fighting on Friday was the most desperate known in modern times.

Gen. Wadsworth [James S. Wadsworth] was killed by a ball in the forehead while sending his troops against the enemy’s strongest positions.  Gen. Webb was wounded.

The condition of our army is said to be admirable.

Our wounded are reported to be 15,00, most of whom are at Fredericksburg ;  and so thick that they lay on pavements.

A cavalry patrol was ordered out but could do no duty as it is difficult to pass between rows of wounded, without trampling on them.  It is said there are between 2,000 and 3,000 rebels wounded there also, who were left upon the field.

Of the great battles of Friday and Saturday the New York “Herald” contains a full account, which we are unable to put in type.  The engagement of Friday resulted in a drawn battle.  That of Saturday in a victory to our arms. The “Herald” says of


The battle recommenced at day light on Saturday, but firing was desultory and scattering, no fierce attacks were made on either side.

Both Generals were intent on strategy, neither being anxious to bring on a general engagement.  Lee seemed intent on cutting our communications via Germania ford.  Grant appeared utterly indifferent to this and seemed rather to court it by withdrawing Sedgwick from position and throwing him back by Germania ford, near his own headquarters, and pushing Burnside out of Spottsylvania Court House, tapping Lee’s line of communication.

The new line formed by placing in position, this corps extended nearly north and south, and gave Lee choice of being cut off from his capital and risking everything upon the issue of a battle.  At 2 P. M., Burnside was well under way towards Spottsylvania.  Lee had thrown infantry on our right, and drove in our cavalry picket on the Germania road.  The result could only be precipitate retreat on the part of Lee to prevent our army being thrown between himself and Richmond, or force him to an open battle that could only end in his extermination.  He soon discovered his error, and to all appearance had started in hot haste for another line found on North Anna river, while others are fully certain that there is no tenable position for him to fall back to between this and Richmond.

1.  John Marshall Jones was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864.
2.  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.
3.  Alexander Hays (no “e”) was killed on May 5, 1864, at the Battle of the Wilderness. Confederate General Harry T. Hays was also at the Battle of the Wilderness, losing a third of his men in the fighting, and was wounded a few days later at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
4.  Alexander Stewart Webb (1835-1911). Webb’s brigade was in the center of the Union line that defended against Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. He was a brigade commander for the Overland Campaign. At the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, he was hit by a bullet that passed through the corner of his right eye and came out his ear. The wound resulted in a false report that he had been killed.
5.  James Sidney Robinson (1827-1892) was severely wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg and after a lengthy recuperation, he participated in the Atlanta Campaign in 1864.
6.  William Hopkins Morris (1827-1900) was selected colonel of the 135th New York Infantry Volunteers, which later became the elite 6th New York Heavy Artillery. He was promoted to brigadier general of Volunteers. Morris was severely wounded in the Battle of Spotsylvania and because of his wounds was discharged from the army. He was brevetted major general of Volunteers for “gallant and meritorious service in the battle of the Wilderness.”
7.  Horatio Gouverneur Wright (1820-1899) commanded the 1st Division of the VI Corps at the Battle of the Wilderness and after General Sedwick’s death at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, Wright assumed command of the VI Corps.

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