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1864 May 21: The Great Battles in Virginia—Wilderness, Todd’s Tavern, Spotsylvania

May 24, 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.

May 1864 calendarThe Battle of Todd’s Tavern—a small community in Spotsylvania County—was a Confederate delaying tactic meant to slow down the Union columns heading for the crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House following the Wilderness battle.  Whichever side reached and secured the crossroads first would have an advantage.  This was primarily a cavalry battle that took place on Saturday May 7, 1864, running from about 4:00 p.m. to nightfall, and resumed the next morning, Sunday May 8.  The battle took place between the battles of the Wilderness (May 5-7) and Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21).

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House—or Spottsylvania as it was usually spelled in the 19th century—was the second major battle in General Grant’s Overland Campaign.  Following the bloody but inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, Grant’s Army of the Potomac disengaged from General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and moved to the southeast, attempting to lure Lee into battle under more favorable conditions.  Parts of Lee’s army arrived at the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House before the Union army and began entrenching (or intrenching).  Fighting occurred on and off from May 8 through May 21, 1864, as Grant tried various schemes to break the Confederate line.  In the end, the battle was tactically inconclusive, but with almost 32,000 casualties on both sides, it was the costliest battle of the Overland Campaign.

From the May 21, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.

The Great Battles in Virginia.

Most Terrible Conflicts of the War.

R e b e l s   S t e a d i l y   F o r c e d   B a c k.

[Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-7]

From the mass of dispatches which have reach us, we select the following accounts of the battles in Virginia, beginning on Thursday, the fifth, and bringing it down to Wednesday the eleventh.

The Tribune has a letter from the Potomac army dated Thursday night [May 5], saying that early that morning the march was resumed in the direction of Tod’s [sic] Tavern, which point was reach before noon, and Gen. Wilson [James H. Wilson], commanding Kilpatrick’s former cavalry division [Judson Kilpatrick], made his whereabouts known by a brisk cannonading several miles southwest of the Tavern and in the vicinity of Shady Grove Church, where, for three-quarters of an hour he was sharply engaged, with a large body of rebel cavalry, and a considerable force of infantry, by who he was gradually forced back upon the second corps.

Had not the maneuvers of Lee prevented [Robert E. Lee], night would have found Gen. Hancock’s command [Winfield S. Hancock] at Shady Grove Church connecting with Gen. Warren on his right [Gouverneur K. Warren].  By this maneuver we would have occupied the pike running in a northwestern direction from Germania ford [sic] on the Rapidan.

The movements of Lee soon revealed his real design.  Gen. Warren was directed to attack him at once, which he did about 11 A. M.  A determined fight of about an hour and a half ensued, in which Warren drove him from his position with great loss.  Griffin’s division [Charles Griffin] of the 6th corps led the attack and suffered severely, nearly 1,000 being killed, wounded and missing.

Finding his effort to break our center futile, the enemy next attempted to interpose an overwhelming force between Warren and Hancock, the latter of whom, in accordance with orders, was marching his corps rapidly to form a junction with the former.  Fortunately his advance, consisting of Birney’s corps [David B. Birney], came up just in time to circumvent the rebel General who at 9 P. M. commenced an onslaught on the divisions of Birney, Gibbons [sic: John Gibbon] and Getty [George W. Getty].  The latter had been temporarily detached to form the extreme right of Hancock’s command.

The fight raged until some time after dark, and resulted in the complete repulse of the enemy at all points.  Our loss does not probably exceed 1,000 men.  Scarcely any artillery was brought into position, the character of the ground rendering it useless.  The battle field is covered with a thick growth of underbrush and medium sized oak trees, and it is owing to that fact that our losses are comparatively light.  Our captures in prisoners are about 500.

When Hancock’s corps retired toward Parker’s Store, 300 of the 18th Pa. cavalry, under Major Brunton, sent to relieve the pickets several miles below on the Spottsylvania road, were attacked by a large body of rebel troopers and driven back to Tod’s [sic] Tavern in confusion, and quite a large number taken prisoners by the rebels.

The special correspondent of the Times,writing from headquarters at the Wilderness Tavern, Friday [May 6] evening, gives the following intelligence :

“The great battle of Friday has closed upon a terribly hard fought field, and the Army of the Potomac has added another to its murderous conflicts.  Lee’s caotics [usually spelled “chaotic” but this way is also correct], so energetically employed at Chancellorville [sic] and Gettysburg, of throwing his whole army first upon one wing and then upon another, has again been brought to bear, but I rejoice that the Army of the Potomac has repulsed the onslaught of the enemy and stands solidly tonight in the position it assumed this morning.

“The first attempt was made upon Hancock, whose right was somewhat weakened in numbers by the battle yesterday, but the iron old second corps nobly stood its ground.  Then the enemy hurled his battallions [sic] upon Sedgwick and once or twice gained a temporary advantage, but the old veterans of this corps were nobly rallied and repulsed the rebels with fearful slaughter.

“About half past 4 P. M. Lee made a feint upon the whole line, then suddenly fell with whole force upon Sedgwick, driving him back temporarily, but the advantage was soon regained and the rebels hurried back with great loss.  Night now came on and it is believed at headquarters at this hour that Lee has withdrawn from our front.

“Although the nature of the ground has been of terrible character, most of it being so thickly wooded as to render movements all but impossible, and to conceal the operations of the enemy, yet he has been signally repulsed in all his attacks, and nothing but the nature of the battlefield prevented it from being a total defeat to him.[“]

Fighting in the Wilderness, from "Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War" ¹

Fighting in the Wilderness, from “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War”¹

The Herald has the following relative to the battles of Friday and Saturday [May 6 and 7] :

At 5 o’clock in the morning the contest was renewed against our line and the roar and 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 a part of Burnside’s corps [Ambrose E. Burnside] accordingly moved to his support, taking a position to the left of Gen. Warren and completed filling the gap into which the two brigades has been thrown the previous evening.

On moving at daylight toward the assigned position through a close forest, they found it occupied by the rebels, prepared to dispute its possession.  The 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 a superior force, but subsequently rallied his men and succeeded in regaining most of the ground.

Between 10 and 11 o’clock, however, Longstreet succeeded in turning the left of his advance and throwing it into great confusion.  This extended along the entire line and nearly involved the whole corps in inextricable confusion.  He was once more forced back to his breastworks and the rebels actually planted their colors inside them but could not sustain themselves and were ejected.  At this time heavy reinforcements were thrown into his support from Burnside’s corps and his men were rallied and taken well in hand and the danger of further disaster 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.  This was exceedingly fortunate for the 6th Corps and the whole army.  He was checked at the critical period and driven back with as much precipitancy as he came.

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

At night Hancock occupied his breastworks and had nothing but a few prisoners and 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 danger was thickest.

Gen. Warren also rode along the lines.

The utmost surprise was manifested at the number of troops that Lee was able to bring into action.

This corps retained their first position, however, till darkness.  About midnight a charge was made to which it gave way and was unable to regain the ground thus lost.—This of course compelled the abandonment of the great portion of the line of breastworks in front of this corps and brought the skirmish line within half a mile of Grant and Meade’s Headquarters [George G. Meade].

Sedgwick[‘]s corps maintained itself against the vigorous assaults of superior numbers at different times during the day, and had no serious reverse until late in the evening, a charge was made on its extreme right for the purpose of turning it, as was done with Hancock[‘]s.

In the morning, Milroy’s old division [Robert H. Milroy] was driven back in great confusion, and the enemy succeeded in effectually turning our right flank.  The behavior of this division was severely criticized by those supposed to know more concerning the affair.

This probably necessitated the transfer of our sick and wounded, and all the supply trains, from the Germania Ford road to the one leading to Chancellorville [sic].  The latter were in motion the whole night.

At daylight, Lee had occupied Germania Ford, and cut off the retreat of the army by that route. This would have given him an advantage, but for the mischief worked by an undue extension of his line and a corresponding weakening.

The contest of Friday [May 6] was unsatisfactory and many officers despondently feared that Lee would in some manner defeat Grant.  Superficial observers might construe our repulses that day into defeat, but no such foreboding found a resting place in the minds of those who knew the tenacity of purpose and fertility of resource which characterizes Grant.

The advantages of the next day verified their hopes.  The battle re-commenced at daylight on Saturday [May 7], but the firing was desultory and scattering.  No fierce attempts were made on either side, both Generals were intent on strategy, neither being anxious to being in a general engagement.

Lee seemed intent on cutting our communications via Germania ford [sic].

Grant appeared utterly indifferent to this and seemed rather to court it by withdrawing Sedgwick from his position and throwing him back by Germania ford [sic], near his own headquarters, and pushing Burnside out on the Spottsylvania C. H. [Court House] road, threatening Lee’s line of communication.

A new line of battle was formed by changes in the position of corps extending nearly north and south, and gave Lee the choice of being cut off from his capitol and risking everything upon the wager of battle.

At 2 P. M. Burnside was well under way to Spottsylvania Court House.  Lee had thrown some infantry on to our right and drove in our cavalry pickets on the Germania road.  The result could only be a precipitate retreat on the part of Lee, to prevent our army being thrown between himself and Richmond, or a deadly contest in 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 of defense.  Some think he will be found on the North Anna river, while others are fully certain that there is no tenable position for him to fall back to between this and Richmond.

[Battle of Todd’s Tavern, May 7-8]

The Tribune‘s special has the following sketch of the series of battles after that of Saturday :

Gen. Warren’s Corps passed on through Todd’s Tavern on Saturday [May 7] night towards the front, and at sunrise were within two and a half miles of Spotsylvania C. H., and immediately were put in position to relieve the cavalry.  The enemy were also just in time for a similar movement, and Stuart’s cavalry [J.E.B. Stuart] were simultaneously relieved by Longstreet’s Corps of infantry.  The 6th Corps, though tired with a long night’s march, rushed into action with a double quick, Gen. Robinson’s Division [James S. Robinson] leading the charge.  The rebels yielded before them and we pushed them on for three miles.

The last engagement of this morning’s fight was severe [May 8].  Our losses were great, and Gen. Robinson was severely wounded, but we charged them so far and so impetuously that our men were out flanked on the left and had to fall back a short distance to form their lines anew.  The enemy gained no advantage, for our artillery was brought into position and the rebels were unable to occupy the position which our men had abandoned.

The 5th corps had suffered in previous fights so severely that there was not a single division of it in fighting trim, but Gen. Augur [Christopher C. Augur] commanding the regulars, forced himself in from the right and the position was held.

About noon batteries were posted, ours on the edge of a piece of wood, theirs on an opposing hill.  The discharge of shell for some time was quite brisk and severe, and as evening approached Gen. Grant started to the front to take another glance at the position and inspect our troops for the grand onset which was soon to be.

Before he arrived at our left flank the rattle of musketry from advance skirmishers and the struggling back of our wounded men indicated that the moment had almost arrived.  Troops from the 5th and 6th corps, in several heavy lines, were concentrated in front of the position to which the rebels had fallen back after the engagement in the early part of the day.

At a quarter before seven o’clock a shout was raised and the attack commenced, as our troops moved out of the woods through the narrow road and up a tangled thicket which was held and fortified by the enemy.

At fifteen minutes past seven, as the light began to fade away, the heat of firing began to cease, and now the enemy commenced to give way to the shouts of our men, receding as the enemy were pushed along, showed that the issues of the attack were favorable and decided.  We had beaten the enemy, had driven them from the position which they had so strongly contested ;  but the darkness was now so great that we could not safely press them further, and Spottsylvania Court House still remained that night in the hands of the rebels.

Monday morning was spent quietly in camp, both for the much needed rest and for replenishing the army with rations.

[Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, starting May 8]

The following accounts are from the Herald‘s correspondent :

On Tuesday [May 10] General Gibbons’ [sic] and General Barlows’ [sic: Francis C. Barlow] divisions were withdrawn from the south bank of the Po.  The latter’s division was closely followed by the enemy, who were checked by our artillery posted along the ridge commanding the river.  Early in the day the whole army began to straighten out the line of battle for a renewal of the engagement.

Skirmishing was kept up during this time between the advanced lines of the two armies, the enemy bestirring himself as though he intended offensive operations.  Our line was formed with the 2d corps on the right, the 5th in the center, and the 6th on the left, with Burnside’s corps in rear of our left for the protection of our immense trains, and to act a reserve in any emergency.

The country here is quite rolling, and studded with groves of pine and hard wood, and affording much better facilities for handling troops and the use of artillery than about the Wilderness.

The enemy during the night strengthened his formidable position with rifle pits, breastworks, barricades, &c., rendering it stronger than any line of defense occupied since leaving the earthworks on the Rapidan.

Thus it stood tall far into the afternoon, when fighting became quite sharp, at intervals, at different points, but without anything definite.

Two o’clock was fixed for grand assault.  General orders were read announcing the brilliant success of Sherman [William T. Sherman] in the West and Butler [Benjamin F. Butler] on the James Rivers, producing the wildest excitement, and as the hour approached for the attack the enthusiasm of the troops became almost uncontrollable.

Gen. Grant, surrounded by his staff, Meade, Hancock, and Warren were all stationed on the the eminences within sight of each other, while the vast columns of our army steadily gathered themselves together for the grand struggle.  Just as the attack was about to be made the enemy advanced on our right, threatening to press back that portion of the line.  Discontinuing for the time the plan of assault, the troops were hurried to support the right, but Barlow succeeded in checking the rebels ;  sending back his reinforcements with the word that “he had men enough and to spare.”

Half past six o’clock was then fixed upon for the assault, watches were compared by the corps commanders, and finally all separated with orders to attack at the appointed time.

At the hour fixed, simultaneously with the roar of 12 signal guns, the whole front advanced with cheers from the whole line.  The movement was indescribably grand.  A portion of the forces moved in solid column, while the others advanced in the usual order of battle, the whole army moving together, and yet each command fighting its own battles.

The whole rebel line opened a most murderous fire, against which our lines irresistibly swept, driving the enemy slowly back from his position, capturing nearly 2,000 prisoners and three pieces of artillery.  The latter, however, were retaken by the rebels before the close of the engagement.  Night closed the battle with our forces occupying the field.

The loss was heavy but judging from the killed and wounded left in our hands, much less than that of the enemy, who fought to the last—our troops bayoneting their men in rifle pits and forcing them by hand to hand conflicts to yield.

Another dispatch dated headquarters, 6th Army Corps, in the field, May 11th [Wednesday], says :

My dispatch, yesterday afternoon, left the army in the midst of a terrible battle, as terrible, for the time it lasted, as any in the recent series of fights.  Heretofore the contests have been invariably musketry, but in this battle the roll of artillery fire was unpleasant and almost as deafening as at Gettysburg.

The battle continued till night and darkness closed the sanguinary struggling.  Our army added another to the list of battles and victories.

In the morning a change was made in the disposition of our lines.  Mean time our men had greatly strengthened their earth works, thrown up additional abattis and everything evinced a determination to make the day, merged at length into a general engagement, which as the hours wore on, waxed hotter and hotter, and fiercer and sharper were the rattle of musketry and louder the roar of artillery.

The most determined and persistent effort which has been made since the commencement of the war, was made at the fight in this locality, to turn our right.  Charge after charge was made by the enemy on our right.  Four columns of our men repulsed each charge.  At length the 5th corps drove the enemy, compelling him to fall back into his third line of defenses.  The effect of this repulse was apparent.  The rebel dead at points lay piled up in heaps.

In one of those gallant charges fell brave Gen. Rice² at the head of the column, as he has been in every fight.

Busy in the midst of terrible conflict was Gen. Warren.  He rode up and down his line, directing the movement, regardless of the storming of shells and bullets.  Another horse was shot under him, the third in four days.

We made a general onset at 7 o’clock.  It was the most magnificent and terrible one of the war.  Our batteries, through the cutting down of some trees, were placed in a very advantageous position, as likewise were the batteries of other corps.  Simultaneously these cannon hurled their murderous missiles into the ranks of the enemy, accompanied by a general volley of musketry, and from this hour till dark the combat deepened.  Night left us victorious on every side.

1.  “Fighting in the Wilderness,” from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, by Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden (Chicago: McDonnell, 1866-68):627; available in the UWRF Archives (E 468.7 .G87 1866).
2.  James Clay Rice (1828-1864) was a lawyer before the Civil War. When the War started, he joined a 3-month infantry regiment from New York and quickly became a captain. He fought at the First Battle of Bull Run. The day after his 3-month regiment was mustered out, he became lieutenant colonel of the 44th New York Infantry, and subsequently fought in the Peninsula Campaign and became colonel of the regiment. He fought at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. When his brigade commander was mortally wounded at Gettysburg, Rice assumed command of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps and led it for the remainder of the battle. For his service at Gettysburg, Rice was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in August, 1863. In March, 1864, Rice was in command of the 2nd Brigade, 4th Division, V Corps, which he led into action at the Battle of the Wilderness. Rice was mortally wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and died on the battlefield on May 10, 1864.

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