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1864 May 21: Fourteen Hours of Fighting in the Wilderness; Deaths of Wadsworth and Sedgwick

May 23, 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 and 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.
.May 1864 calendar


C o n t e s t   of   F r i d a y.


The Rebels Finally Repulsed.

Correspondence of the New York Tribune.

Friday, May 6—11 p.m. }

Fourteen hours of severe fighting to-day, and still nothing decisive.  The position this morning was that of last night, substantially.  Gen. Sedgwick [John Sedgwick], with two of his divisions, Ricket’s and Wright’s [Horatio G. Wright], has fought upon the right; Gen. Hancock [Winfield S. Hancock], with the four divisions of his corps, viz :  Birney’s [David B. Birney], Carr’s, Barlow’s [Francis C. Barlow] and Gibbon’s [John Gibbon], with Getty’s Division [George W. Getty] of the 9th Corps (Burnside’s [Ambrose E. Burnside],) has fought in the center.  Burnside’s corps has constituted the reserve, and has marched and counter-marched incessantly, and gone in by brigades at the center and on the left.

Sedgewick was to advance at 5 a. m., but Ewell [Richard S. Ewell], who commands opposite him, attacked at 4:45.  Sedgwick says Ewell’s watch must be 15 minutes ahead of his.  This action on our right was spirited and well fought.  At the expiration of an hour the rebels were handsomely borne back, the firing ceased, and each side held the ground they had bivouacked upon.  Our loss was severe, and the enemy’s could not have been less.

General Sedgwick’s staff were brilliant and ubiquitous throughout, while the old general was the man of Antietam and Fredericksburg repeating himself.  This action barely over, and suddenly we heard from the extreme left that peculiar monotonous swell and volume of sound which tells of large numbers engaged—so many that single shots and even volleys of long lines are not distinct, but are merged in the mighty noise of a great battle.  Hancock was engaged.

The details of this two hours steady struggle I do not know, but I know that he did his work clearly and completely.  Longstreet [James Longstreet] had joined the rebel right, and this was a second determined attempt to turn our left, and a second utter discomfiture.

Only 10 o’clock and Lee had tried each wing and had met in each case more than he could overcome, and we asked ourselves what next.  All his movements were silent and invisible, and unknown until he developed them in the event.  We can deliver blows over in the direction whence blows are dealt us—not against an enemy advancing in bold sight, but against one who has mysteriously gathered and poised himself for a deadly spring.

But the suspense is not long.  Both combatants are too eager to compel the issue for either to delay another and still another encounter.  Shots begin to ring all along the six miles of front.

At 11 o’clock the enemy press close upon Warren [Gouverneur K. Warren] and Sedgwick, and train a number of guns exactly upon the latter’s headquarters.  A man and three horses are killed within twenty feet of the General and in the very center of his grouped staff.  Finding the enemy disposed to renew the engagement of the early morning, Sedgwick accepts the challenge, and advances his whole line.  The men go in with more dash and hold on more sturdily than in the morning.  Ewell is driven back to his second line where his guns are in position, and there makes a stand.

At this juncture, Warren, who connects with Sedgwick’s left, is extremely anxious to go in with all his might, but the enemy’s position in his front seems too formidable.

I see a troop of horsemen riding rapidly up to the perilous edge of battle, and recognize Warren and his white horse, as Jehu was recognized by the Prophet of old, for they came furiously.  With him are Gens. Griffin [Charles Griffin] and Hunt [Henry J. Hunt], and officers of Gens. Grant and Meade’s staff [George G. Meade].

Halting at the first line they dismount and walk more than half a mile in front of the men, who are flat upon their breasts, and firing rapidly.  We hold the woods on one side of an open space, perhaps one-fourth of a mile across, and the rebels lie along the trend of the woods upon the other side.  Their intrenchments are plainly visible, and the open mouths of their artillery peer over.

No ;  it will not do to charge across.  It were [sic] stark madness.  The sharpshooters may continue to reply to this, but no man shall start across the plain and live.  Warren had perhaps hoped that his own judgment would be overruled by the officers with him, but all declare that no advance can be made here.  But more to the left, where Wadsworth’s [James S. Wadsworth] and Robinson’s [James S. Robinson] Divisions of Warren’s Corps lap up to Hancock, the prospect is better, and there an assault is ordered.

It is noon, and Sedgwick’s second fight is over, and he again rests on the line of his last night’s bivouac.  Wadsworth advances and finds the enemy—A. P. Hill’s Corps—strong and prepared.  The divisions on his right and left become engaged with him, and the work is warm.  Here, as elsewhere, the contest is in a tangled jungle, and the soldiers push aside the bushes and find mortal enemies bursting through the adjoining growth of bushes, and face to face with them.

Half or three-fourths of an hour of alternating success and repulse, and Gen. Wadsworth orders a charge to recover his command from a slight wavering.  He is cheered loudly by his men, who loved the gray haired chieftain.  One horse is shot under him.  He mounts a second and spurs to the front, hat in hand, and we should have won then, but his men saw him fall.  He was shot through the head, killed instantly, and his body fell into the hands of the enemy.

The Wilderness--Scene of Wadsworth's Death, from "Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War

The Wilderness—Scene of Wadsworth’s Death, from “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War”¹

His command fell back to their original position with comparative order.  Wadsworth’s death is a heavy loss; scarcely an officer in the army but could have been better spared, and none would have been more deeply regretted.  Yesterday and to-day he had displayed such marked ability and gallantry as to compel his recognition on all hands as an able soldier, who, now that he is gone, can hardly be replaced. He was a true man, a beloved, a high-toned gentleman, to be respected, an unshrinking patriot to be emulated, an accomplished soldier, dead on the field of honor, to be mourned.

But this battle does not pause for a hero slain.  From noon until five o’clock, a number of sharp assaults at various points were made and invariably repulsed, whether made by us or by the enemy.  Each one of these affairs were material for a long letter, but I find it simply impossible at this time to ascertain and write out correctly the facts in detail.

Prisoners came in at the rate of 100 an hour.  The day was excessively hot, and the men were much exhausted.  We had neither gained nor lost ground, but continued this thing long enough, and we hoped to finally wear them out.  At half-past five o’clock Hancock was preparing for a grand movement of our entire left.  He did not make it, for the enemy anticipated him, and he had to repel perhaps the most wicked assault thus far encountered—brief in duration, but terrific in power and superhuman momentum.

The first few minutes we were staggered.  Stragglers for the first time in all this fighting streamed to the rear in large numbers, choking the roads and causing a panic by their stampede and incoherent tales of frightful disaster.  It was even reported at general headquarters that the enemy had burst entirely through, and supports were hurried up.  Grant and Meade seated their backs against the same tree, quietly listened to the officer who brought the report, and consulted a moment in low tones.  The orders for sending reinforcements were given, and for a little time not a word was spoken in the group of more than twenty officers.  They but looked into each others’ faces.

At length Grant says, with laconic emphasis, “I don’t believe it.” He was right.—Long before that Hancock had recovered from the first shock, held his own awhile, and now was gaining ground.  In forty minutes from this attack the enemy was completely beaten back with tremendous slaughter, and the loss of some hundreds of prisoners.

It was now nearly sunset.  From one end of the line to the other not a shot could be heard.  The day’s work seemed over.  Our line of to-night would be that of last night.  The auguries were good.  In two days’ fighting we had lost heavily, but not more than the enemy.  Our assaults had been futile, but the enemy’s had been equally so ;  and it is by these massed assaults that he has ever achieved his victories.  The inference was clear that we had overmatched him fighting at his best and strongest.  Men separated in the heat of the day, now chancing to meet, congratulated each other.  The rebels can’t endure another such day, and we can, was the expressed conviction on all hands, and this statement epitomizes the situation at sunset.

The sun went down red.  The smoke of the battle of more than two hundred thousand men destroying each other with villainous saltpeter through all the long hours of a long day, filled the vallies [sic: valleys], and rested upon the hills of all this Wilderness, hung in lurid haze all around the horizon, and built a dense canopy overhead, beneath which this grand army of Freedom was preparing to rest against the morrow.  Gens. Grant and Meade had retired to their tents.  Quiet reigned, but during the reign of quiet the enemy was forging a thunderbolt.

Darkness and smoke were mingling in grim twilight and fast deepening into thick gloom, when we were startled out of repose back into fierce excitement.  The forged thunderbolt was sped, and by a master.  A wild rebel yell away to the right.  We knew they had massed and were charging.  We waited for the volley with which we knew Sedgwick would meet the onset.  We thought it but a night attack to ascertain if we had changed our position.  We were mistaken—it was more.  They meant to break through, and they did.

On Sedgwick’s extreme right lay the 2d Brigade, 3d Division of his corps, under Gen. Seymour [Truman Seymour], who had been assigned to it but two days before.  The brigade is new to the 6th corps, and is known as the Milroy Brigade ;  connecting on the left of Seymour by Shaler’s [Alexander Shaler] and then Neill’s [Thomas H. Neill] brigades, the latter being a brigade of Getty’s Division that had not been sent to Hancock.  These troops were at work intrenching when fallen upon.

The enemy came down like a torrent rolling and dashing in living waves, and flooding up against the whole 6th corps.  The main line stood like a rock, but not so the extreme right.  That flank was instantly and utterly turned.  The rebel line was the longer, and surged around Seymour’s Brigade, tided over it and through it, beat against Shaler, and bore away his right regiments.  All this done in less than ten minutes, perhaps not five.—Seymour’s men, seeing their pickets running back, and hearing the shouts of the rebels, who charged with all their chivalry, were smitten with panic, and, standing on no order of going, went at once, and in an incredibly short time made their way through a mile and a half of woods to the plank-road in the rear.  They reported, in the frantic manner usual with stampeded men, the entire corps broken.  Grant, as in Hancock’s case, didn’t believe it. But when three of Sedgwick’s staff rode in to army headquarters separately and stated how they had ridden from Sedgwick’s to keep Seymour’s men to their work, had been borne back by the panic, and had last seen Sedgwick and Wright hard to the front working like Trojans to hold the wavering line, the situation appeared more critical.—No word came in from Sedgwick.  It began to be feared that he and Wright, disdaining to fly, were prisoners.

Artillery moved quietly to commanding positions, to be prepared for the worst, and cool heads felt that were the whole 6th corps broken, the army, as an army, would still be invincible.  Warren’s Corps is instantly, but in perfect composure, disposed to meet the situation.  Grant and Meade and Warren are in Grant’s tent, to and from which officers come and go with a certain earnest air that bespeaks urgent and important cares.  So during an hour.  No firing has been heard the last three quarters of an hour.  The rebels must have ceased to advance ;  but how far have they penetrated, and what is the present situation?

The 6th Corps’ flag comes in.  Where is the 6th Corps’ chieftain?  My watch says ten o’clock at night.  A dispatch received.  John Sedgwick safe.  Wright safe.  The 6th corps holds a strong line ;  only Seymour’s and a part of Shaler’s brigade have been broken. The enemy can do nothing more. The 6th corps proper has not lost its pristine glory. Compelled to withdraw, under orders, after the defection of its right, it is still invincible—is now, and ever shall be. I may not refrain from mentioning for gallantry, Sedgwick’s staff and Wright’s.

Riding in the thickest, with rare presence of mind and rare judgment, they won and deserved John Sedgwick’s emphatic commendation.  Gens. Seymour and Shaler were captured.  It should be stated that both are awarded by their division and corps commanders every credit for doing all men could to recover their troops from panic, communicated to the latter’s brigade, not beginning there.

C. A. P.²

[Another Account]

in “The Wilderness,” Saturday Morning, May 7}

With the exception of the line occupied by the 6th corps yesterday, oar original positions are held this morning at 8 o’clock.  At 7 o’clock last night, a furious attack was made on Sedgwick’s line— the main assault occurring on the right, which was finally turned by the enemy, and the corps forced to retire some distance to the rear.  A gallant resistance was made by Sedgwiek, and at 9 p. m. his line was re-established in the position it now occupies.  Considerable confusion occurred in several regiments on the right, but momentarily, however, as through the personal efforts of Gen. Sedgwick and other officers the stragglers were soon rallied and replaced in line of battle.

All is quiet this morning, with the exception of picket firing opposite our center.  A thick volume of smoke and fog envelops the battle-field and prevents the continuance of yesterday’s conflict.  The fight at intervals all day yesterday on our left was of the fiercest description.  But very little artillery was brought into requisition, owing to the nature of the battle-field, which is covered with an almost impenetrable growth of scrub-oaks and underbrush.  The fight was altogether one of musketry, and although not continuous, was one of the most determined and desperate battles of the war.

Our loss in the 2d Corps alone cannot fall short of three thousand in killed, wounded and missing.  Charges and counter charges were made at short intervals during the day, and the ghastly forms of hundreds of the combatants lying this morning side by side in the vast chaparral which formed the battle-ground attest the severity of the conflict.

Brig. Gen. Barlow, commanding the 1st Division, occupied the extreme left of the 2d Corps ;  Mott’s [Gershom Mott] Division and a portion of Gen. Gibbon’s Division held the center, while Birney with his own division, Robinson’s of the 5th, Stevenson’s [Thomas G. Stevenson] brigade of the 9th, and Carroll’s [Samuel S. Carroll] and Owens’ [sic: Joshua T. Owen] brigades of the 2d Corps, were stationed on the right, his line facing westward, and extending across the plank-road running from Chancellorsville to Orange Court House.

At precisely five A. M., an advance of the 2d Corps was ordered, and with cheers our men charged through a dense thicket, surprising the enemy while at breakfast, and driving them in confusion from their temporary works, literally strewing the ground with the bodies of their killed and wounded, and capturing a large number of prisoners.

The rebels, astonished at the celerity of Hancock’s movements, were unable to rally until we had pursued them two and a half miles from the Brock road, running in a northwesterly direction to Parker’s store, when, re-enforced by Longstreet, who the night previous had come up to within six miles of the battle-field, a stand was made, and a terrific musketry fight ensued, lasting until noon.  Charge after charge was made by both sides, and as often repulsed up to that time, when, owing to an accidental circumstance, our lines were forced to fall back to the Brock road.

At about 12 m., a flanking column of the enemy charged on the double-quick through the interval between Gens. Mott’s and Ward’s [J. H. Hobart Ward] commands, forcing back in some confusion several regiments of the right of Mott’s division.  Simultaneously, a desperate charge was made in front, and our line, yielding at last to the terrific onslaught, fell back, contesting the ground to the Brock road, where the troops were placed under the shelter of temporary works constructed of logs and abatis on the day previous.  As the position on the right of the 2d corps was evidently the point which the enemy specially converted [coveted?], Major-Gen. Birney’s command was made to consist of nearly a whole corps.  Against his command has been hurled all the morning the combined forces of Longstreet and Hill in their persistent attempts to pierce our line.

Pen cannot convey an idea of the gallantry which our troops exhibited in yesterday’s engagement.  Officers and men concur in the opinion that the musketry fire was even heavier, except occasional intervals of 15 or 20 minutes, than at the battle of Antietam.

The rebels in their characteristic manner, charging with demoniac yells, were each time gallantly met, and in every assault but one hurled back beyond their original lines.

At 4½ p. m., the enemy, massing once more charged upon the position along the Brock road, to which we had been forced to retire at noon, and with such overwhelming violence that they penetrated our lines at the intersection of the road mentioned and the pike leading to Orange Court House, and planted a color on the work.  For a moment the safety of the corps was in imminent danger ;  many of our men, demoralized, were hurrying down the pike towards the rear, and the Rebels, yelling like so many demons, seemed confident of success.

At this critical juncture. Col. Carroll, whose brigade had been sent for, came up on the pike from its position on the right of the pike, and facing his command into line charged the enemy, driving him back in a rout to the woods beyond the road.  In his dispatches to Gen. Meade, Gen. Hancock accredited Col. Carroll with saving his own corps, and perhaps the whole army from disaster.

T. C. G.

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick.

The severest loss to our Potomac Army since the movement commenced on Tuesday of last week, is the death of Major Gen. John Sedwick, commander of the 6th Army Corps.  He fell on Monday, while gloriously fighting at the head of his command.  Gen. Sedgwick was born in Connecticut, we think in 1815.  He graduated at West Point in 1887, and was appointed 2d Lieutenant of the 2d artillery.  In 1839 he was promoted to a 1st Lieutenancy, brevetted Captain for gallantry at Contreras and Cherubusco [sic], where he had command of a company.  He was highly distinguished for his conduct in the battles of Molino del Rey and Chapultepec, and attack on the San Cosme gate, where he was again in command of his company, and for his gallantry in these engagements was brevetted Major.  He was commissioned Captain in 1849, and in March 1855, promoted to be Major in the 1st cavalry.  On the 25th of April, 1861, he was appointed Colonel of the 4th cavalry, and in August 31st, Brigadier General of volunteers.  He was assigned to Gen. Stone’s command [Charles P. Stone] on the upper Potomac, when that officer was arrested in February 1862, and during the Chickahominy campaign he had a division in Gen. Sumner’s [Edwin V. Sumner] (2d) army corps.  He was commissioned a Major General of volunteers July 4, 1862.

At the battle of Antietam Gen. Sedgwick was seriously wounded and carried off the field.  On his recovery in Dec., 1862, he was assigned to the command of the 9th army corps (Burnside’s.)  At the first battle of Fredericksburg, under Burnside, he commanded the 9th and bore a most conspicuous and gallant part in that unfortunate contest ;  and at the battle at Chancellorsville, under Hooker, his gallantry and daring were even more conspicuous than at Fredericksburg.  When Gen. Grant took command of the Potomac army, and changes were made in the various corps, Gen. Sedgwick was assigned to the 6th, and was in command of it when he fell.

Gen. Sedgwick never married.  A plain, unassuming gentleman, a little above the ordinary height, there was something about the man that inspired confidence and respect.  A thorough soldier, proved in a hundred battles, he was beloved as every true soldier is sure to be, by his men who have seen his courage, and felt the impulse of his calm and clear orders in dire emergencies.  In his habits in camp he was as simple and unostentatious as Gen. Grant.  He never claimed or received privileges there above those of a common soldier.  His tent was always on the extreme point, and in the crisis of an engagement, always in the hottest of the fight.  Gen. Sedgwick was a brave soldier, a noble gentleman, a true-hearted patriot, an honest man.

1.  “The Wilderness—Scene of Wadsworth’s Death,” from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, by Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden (Chicago: McDonnell, 1866-68):629; available in the UWRF Archives (E 468.7 .G87 1866).
2.  Published after the War in  Letters of a War Correspondent, by Charles A. Page, Special Correspondent of the New York “Tribune” During the Civil War (Boston: L.C. Page and Co., 1899).


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