In spring 1864, Ulysses Grant assumed command of all the armies of the United States and implemented a grand strategy designed to attack the Confederacy on all fronts. A key role in that strategy fell to the Army of the Potomac, whose mission, in the words of Grant himself, was simply this: “Lee's Army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes there you will go also.” The first engagement of this campaign would take place in a dark, forbidding forest known as “the Wilderness,” and, while the battle itself might be characterized as essentially a draw, the two days of fighting there would paint an indelible and horrific portrait in the minds of many Union soldiers. When reading their letters, diaries, and memoirs, one gains a distinct impression that this battle, out the many they may have fought, left deeper and darker impressions. The descriptions are more vivid, more emotional, and more terrifying than those of any other battle of the Army of the Potomac. So, I am going to sample some of the stories I have encountered in my research and share a few Union soldiers’ memories of the Wilderness with you.
As late April and early May 1864 arrived, the Army of the Potomac was at last stirred from its long winter rest. The logistics trains were made ready and the preparations to break winter quarters began. Grant had asked that the wagons which would make up the army’s supply train be made as small as possible, as speed was critical in his mind. “What I would direct then,” he told Meade in an April 9 letter, “is that you commence at once reducing baggage to the very lowest possible standard. Two wagons to a regiment of five hundred men is the greatest number that should be allowed for all baggage exclusive of subsistence stores and Ordnance stores.”
Grant’s thinking was probably that he would drive this army as he had his forces in the West. During the Vicksburg campaign, when he boldly ran the guns guarding the city on the Mississippi to land his troops south of the city, he abandoned the constraints posed by lines of supply and had his army live off the land. Moving swiftly, they crisscrossed the state of Mississippi in only 12 days. However, Grant would soon discover that, as far as moving rapidly on the march, the Army of the Potomac was, perhaps, not made of as stern a stuff as the lean, hard men he had commanded in the West. Plus, the army’s thinning ranks were now being supplemented by conscripts and new recruits, none of whom were experienced campaigners. They were almost certain to be slower on the march than hardened veterans.
Grant had decided that he would move by Lee’s right flank, which would allow the army to be resupplied via the York and Pamunkey Rivers. His plan was to swiftly move past Lee’s army, entrenched along the Rapidan, and get between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond, forcing Lee to come out and fight in the open, or fall back into the fortifications around the Confederate capital.
The route selected by Grant required that Meade’s army cross an area of dense forest and tangled undergrowth known appropriately as the Wilderness. The army had been in this unforgiving region before, having fought Lee unsuccessfully a year earlier at Chancellorsville, which lay on the northern boundary of the forest. The biggest challenge to any army transiting the Wilderness was the absence of good roads. The impenetrable forest was crossed from a generally north to south direction by the Germanna Plank Road, which intersected first the east to west route of the Orange-Fredericksburg Turnpike at the Wilderness Tavern before coming to a stop at its juncture with the perpendicular course of the Orange Plank Road. The other north to south thoroughfare was the Brock Road, which began just east of the Wilderness Tavern, crossing the Germanna Plank Road just north of its intersection with the Orange Plank Road, then continued south, towards Spotsylvania.
On May 2, 1864, Meade’s staff issued detailed marching orders for the Army of the Potomac, informing the corps commanders that the movement against Lee would begin at 2 a.m. on the morning of May 4. Led by Sheridan’s cavalry, who would begin moving towards the Rapidan on May 3, the infantry would cross the Rapidan at Germanna Ford beginning with two divisions of Warren’s V Corps. They were to move by the Germanna Plank Road and Orange-Fredericksburg Turnpike to the vicinity of Parker’s Store, with the VI Corps following close behind. Hancock’s II Corps, meanwhile, would cross the river at Ely’s Ford, move quickly east towards Chancellorsville, then turn south to link up with the remainder of the army. Finally, Burnside’s IX Corps, would move to Germanna Ford and follow the main force into the Wilderness. Grant was planning for both surprise and speed, However, as events would prove, he would get neither.
As these orders came down to begin the great movement south, the Army of the Potomac’s camps became beehives of activity. Captain Lemuel Abbot, a 22-year old officer serving with the 10th Vermont Infantry regiment, recalled, “A part of the army moved to-day, and no doubt we shall go tomorrow; received orders at 6 o'clock p.m. to march at 4 o'clock a.m. tomorrow. All is confusion in camp.” Meanwhile, Captain Augustus Brown of Company H, 4th New York Heavy Artillery, noted the events in his diary:
Received orders after ‘’taps,” about 10 o’clock, to-night to be ready to move in two- hours. Rumors of all kinds are flying about, and the general impression seems to be that the whole army is in motion. I directed Sergeant Theben to turn out the company, strike tents and pack up, which was accomplished in less than the time allotted. But one wagon is detailed to furnish transportation for the effects of the whole battalion, so baggage is reduced to the minimum, and large quantities of ordnance stores and camp and garrison equipage, as well as private property of officers and men, are left behind strewn over the camping ground, a striking illustration of the waste of war.
The recollections of some of the soldiers indicates excitement and even hope. Daniel Crotty, Color Sergeant of the 3rd Michigan Infantry, wrote he hoped that, as they left their camps, the army had “beat our last retreat” and that, “We file out of our late camps, all hoping never to return to them again.”
At 1:50 p.m., Grant telegraphed General Halleck to tell him that the army was across the Rapidan. He added that “Forty-eight hours now will demonstrate whether the enemy intends giving battle this side of Richmond.” A few minutes later, Grant received word from Meade that Union signal officers had intercepted a message sent to General Ewell that clearly indicated that the Confederates were moving out of their entrenchments. Porter recalled that Grant “manifested considerable satisfaction at receiving this news.” He then immediately sent a dispatch to Burnside, telling him to make forced marches to get to the crossing as soon as possible.
As the army marched towards the Rapidan, the weather was increasingly warmer and decidedly spring-like, which seemed to buoy many soldiers’ sprits. George T. Stevens, the Commanding Surgeon of the77th New York Infantry, wrote that, “It was a lovely day, and all nature seemed rejoicing at the advent of spring. Flowers strewed the wayside, and the warble of the blue bird, and the lively song of the sparrow, were heard in the groves and hedges.” Reading that, one would not have thought that Stevens and his comrades were marching into hell itself.
One thing that several soldiers noted was the roadside to and beyond the Rapidan being strewn with clothes, boots, and other supplies. In all likelihood, the many new, young recruits were learning that one simply could not carry all the Army issued you into battle. So, as the day grew warmer and the loads began to feel even heavier, soldiers simply cast off the excess. Seventeen-year old Private Frank Wilkerson, who was himself a new recruit to the 11th New York Light Artillery, remembered following a German immigrant regiment as it unloaded its extra equipment to his unit’s advantage:
We crossed the Rapidan on a pontoon bridge, and filled our canteens and drank deeply as we crossed. Then we marched over a narrow strip of valley land; then came a long, steep hill that led up to the comparatively level tableland of the Wilderness. This was the hill that caused the Germans to part with their personal property. Spare knapsacks, bursting with richness, were cast aside near its base. Blankets, musical instruments, spare boots, and innumerable articles of doubtful utility outcropped about half way up the hill. This float sharply indicated that the lead, when we discovered it, would be a rich one. Near the top of the hill we found many well-filled haversacks, and we picked up every one of them and hung them on the limbers and caissons and guns. The mine was rich, and we worked it thoroughly.
John Billings, a veteran soldier in the 10th Massachusetts Artillery, remembered encountering a massive amount of discarded supplies while enroute to the Wilderness:
It is growing warmer. The column has now got straightened out, and for the last hour has moved forward quite rapidly. The road is evidently clear of all obstructions, but the heat and speed begin to tell on the men. Look at the ground which that brigade has just vacated after its brief halt for rest. It is strewn with blankets, overcoats, dress-coats, pantaloons, shirts -- in fact, a little of everything from the outfit of the common soldier. As the Second Corps advanced into the Wilderness on the morning of May 4, 1864, I saw an area of an acre or more almost literally covered with the articles above named, many of them probably extras, but some of them the sole garment of their kind, left by the owners, who felt compelled, from the increasing weight of their load, to lighten it to the extent of parting with the blankets which they would need that very night for shelter. This lightening of the load began before the columns had been on the road an hour. A soldier who had been through the mill would not wait for a general halt to occur before parting with a portion of his load, if it oppressed him; but a recruit would hang to his until he bent over at an angle of 45° from a vertical, with his eyes staring, his lower jaw hanging, and his face dripping with moisture. If you were to follow the column after, say, the first two miles, you would find various articles scattered along at intervals by the roadside, where a soldier quietly stepped out of the ranks, sat down, unslung his knapsack or his blanket-roll, took out what he had decided to throw away, again equipped himself, and, thus relieved, hastened on to overtake the regiment. It did not take an army long to get into light marching order after it was once fairly on the road.
Unbeknownst to Grant, Lee had been anticipating a spring offensive by the Army of the Potomac, and Confederate scouts on Clyde’s Mountain observed movement in the Union army camps on the night of May 3-4, and then could clearly see the Federals moving across the river the next morning. As soon as Lee heard the news, he issued orders to General Ewell to move his corps rapidly east down the Orange-Fredericksburg Turnpike while Hill and Longstreet’s Corps would follow, moving via the Orange Plank Road. Lee planned to blunt this offensive as quickly as he could and he knew that the Union advantage in manpower would be mitigated by the terrain in the Wilderness and that the prowess of the Federal artillery could not be brought to bear effectively in the dense forest—the odds would be evened.
Had the Army of the Potomac moved as Grant had hoped, they would be out of the Wilderness before Lee could make contact. However, by nightfall on May 4, Warren’s corps had barely made it to Wilderness Tavern, Sedgwick’s VI Corps was strung out on the road behind him all the way back to Germanna Ford, Hancock’s men were still at Chancellorsville, and Burnside was not yet across the Rapidan. As darkness fell, the Union army made camp, and Lee quickly closed the distance from the west, making a collision inevitable.
During the night, young Private Wilkerson’s battery, which was part of Hancock’s II Corps, was camped on the old battlefield at Chancellorsville. Wandering about, they soon discovered shallow graves everywhere, containing the pathetic remains of men who would have been their comrades. The experience and the conversations around the campfire with veterans were unnerving for the young soldier:
It grew dark, and we built a fire at which to light our pipes close to where we thought Jackson's men had formed for the charge, as the graves were thickest there, and then we talked of the battle of the preceding year. We sat on long, low mounds. The dead were all around us. Their eyeless skulls seemed to stare steadily at us. The smoke drifted to and fro among us. The trees swayed and sighed gently in the soft wind. One veteran told the story of the burning of some of the Union soldiers who were wounded during Hooker's fight around the Wilderness, as they lay helpless in the woods. It was a ghastly and awe-inspiring tale as he vividly told it to us as we sat among the dead. This man finished his story by saying shudderingly: "This region," indicating the woods beyond us with a wave of his arm, "is an awful place to fight in. The utmost extent of vision is about one hundred yards. Artillery cannot be used effectively. The wounded are liable to be burned to death. I am willing to take my chances of getting killed, but I dread to have a leg broken and then to be burned slowly; and these woods will surely be burned if we fight here. I hope we will get through this chapparal without fighting," and he took off his cap and meditatively rubbed the dust off of the red clover leaf which indicated the division and corps he belonged to. As we sat silently smoking and listening to the story, an infantry soldier who had, unobserved by us, been prying into the shallow grave he sat on with his bayonet, suddenly rolled a skull on the ground before us, and said in a deep, low voice: "That is what you are all coming to, and some of you will start toward it to-morrow."
As the Army of the Potomac camped that night, some men got their first look at the Wilderness. Captain Henry Cribben of the 140th New York Infantry was encamped near Wilderness Tavern and described it as follows:
The ground was covered with a thick mass of trees and underbrush in the vicinity of our position, which became denser to the north and west until it formed one compact mass of trees, underbrush and intertwining wild grapevines, stretching from tree to tree like large ropes, making it almost impossible for men or animals to pass, and very difficult to communicate from one part of the battlefield to another. The ground was rough, uneven and swampy to our right, with many small ravines or water courses, many of which were dry at the time…
The morning of May 5 began with Meade’s issuing orders to resume the march south. Sheridan’s cavalry was to keep moving out ahead the army, while Warren’s V Corps continued towards Parker’s Store and Hancock’s II Corps moved down the Cartahpin Road to Shady Grove Church, which would put them the furthest south. Sedgwick, meanwhile, was ordered to bring the VI Corps to the Old Wilderness Tavern, leaving a guard at Germanna Ford until Burnside’s corps arrived. Once everyone had reached their assigned destination, the entire army would continue moving south.
Map image used with permission by the Civil War Preservation Trust
May 5 dawned hot with an oppressive humidity. As the army began to move again, Captain Josiah Favill, 57th New York Infantry wrote that it was, “Very hot, and both men and animals suffered much.” The march began quietly, but that did not last long. At 7:30 a.m., Confederate forces appeared in front of Warren along the Orange-Fredericksburg Turnpike. Meade ordered Warren to attack them and then told Hancock to not proceed past Todd’s Tavern in case his men were needed. At first, Meade believed that this was nothing more than a delaying action by a small force and not a major force intent on giving battle. Grant told Meade, “If any opportunity presents itself for pitching into a part of Lee's army, do so without giving time for disposition.” Within hours, the battle would begin in earnest along the turnpike between Warren and Ewell’s corps. Lee had hoped to avoid a general engagement until Hill and Longstreet could come up, but the collision between the two opposing armies had made that impossible. As they moved forward, Henry Cribben’s regiment could see that something was happening:
…at daylight rumors were afloat that the enemy had been found in force in our immediate front, and the activity of mounted staff-officers and orderlies, riding up and down the road, showed signs of the coming conflict; and looking westward on the turnpike we could see men passing from one side of the road to the other less than a mile from our position.
The initial fighting took place in a blind, groping manner, with soldiers crashing into the dense forest undergrowth, firing wildly, losing contact with the units to either side. Officers could not effectively maintain any control and the battle quickly turned into a series of disorganized brawls. Cribben’s regiment was almost immediately put into the line of battle and he remembered the fighting as being confused and disorienting:
…sometimes we found the woods so thick in out front that we could not see the enemy, although many of them were not more than fifteen or twenty feet distant. Often the burning powder from the discharged rifles in the hands of the enemy would drop at the feet of our men, who would instantly thrust their rifle bayonets through the brush and vines and kill or wound those in their front. The men could not see the effect of the thrust, but could hear the enemy yell with pain when they received the bayonet wound.
Warren was able to turn Ewell back, but then Ewell countered against Warren’s left flank, forcing him back. Both sides finally pulled back, entrenched, and waited for someone to make the next move. As the afternoon began, both sides eyed each other warily along the turnpike. But, further south, Hancock had moved his corps to the intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank Road, lining up on General Getty’s left. At 4 p.m., Getty and Hancock attacked the lead elements of Hill’s corps, at first driving them back in confusion. However, they too soon found their attacks blunted by both the confusion of tangled, dense thickets and a Confederate counterattack. The soldiers on this portion of the Union front found themselves in similar circumstances as those of Henry Cribben and V Corps. Favill’s regiment was sent in to attack Hill’s corps and he remembered:
Presently we were ordered to move forward and attack through the woods, with two of our brigades, Brooke and Smith. They were soon across the breastworks, struggling with the interminable undergrowth, where it seemed impossible to keep any kind of alignment, yet we did, especially Brooke, who advanced nearly six hundred yards and immediately became engaged with the rebels who lay hid from view in front. The fighting on the right was severe, and several times reinforcements were sent from our part of the line to assist. Whilst the fighting in the woods in front was in progress, the staff were kept riding between them and the main road, a most difficult, dangerous, and disagreeable duty; not only was it almost impossible to ride a horse through the labyrinth of undergrowth, but one could only keep his direction by the sound of the firing. The woods were full of smoke, in many places on fire, and nothing could be seen twenty yards ahead. On one occasion I should have ridden directly into the enemy's lines but for Colonel Striker, of the Second Delaware, who saw me in front of his line just in time to call me back. I supposed I was riding in exactly the opposite direction to what I really was. Boots and clothes were torn to pieces and the horses became frantic.
For his part, young Captain Abbot had an even more unsettling experience:
Soon, however, we turned to the left or southerly into the woods and formed line of battle almost as soon as there was room after leaving the road with the enemy close in our front with a field piece of artillery hardly a hundred yards away through the brush which kept each from seeing the other. Before Captain H. R. Steele had hardly finished dressing his company after forming line a shell from this gun exploded in the ranks of Company K, killing a private and wounding others. The shell had burst actually inside the man completely disemboweling and throwing him high in the air in a rapidly whirling motion above our heads with arms and legs extended until his body fell heavily to the ground with a sickening thud. I was in the line of file closers hardly two paces away and just behind the man killed. We were covered with blood, fine pieces of flesh, entrails, etc., which makes me cringe and shudder whenever I think of it.
As darkness came, the fighting began to die down and both sides encamped for the night. With sunset, however, the fear of fire became foremost in many men’s minds, especially the wounded. Frank Wilkerson would write that:
The wounded soldiers lay scattered among the trees. They moaned piteously. The unwounded troops, exhausted with battle, helped their stricken comrades to the rear. The wounded were haunted with the dread of fire. They conjured the scenes of the previous year, when some wounded men were burned to death, and their hearts well-nigh ceased to beat when they thought they detected the smell of burning wood in the air. The bare prospect of fire running through the woods where they lay helpless, unnerved the most courageous of men, and made them call aloud for help. I saw many wounded soldiers in the Wilderness who hung on to their rifles, and whose intention was clearly stamped on their pallid faces. I saw one man, both of whose legs were broken, lying on the ground with his cocked rifle by his side and his ramrod in his hand, and his eyes set on the front. I knew he meant to kill himself in case of fire--knew it as surely as though I could read his thoughts.
Map image used with permission by the Civil War Preservation Trust
The morning of May 6 began even hotter than the day before, and Grant ordered an assault by all three Federal corps. Warren and Sedgwick attacked from the right down the Turnpike, while Hancock assaulted Hill’s corps on the Orange Plank Road. During the night, at around 2:00 a.m., Grant had also ordered Burnside to move to the Federal center and fill the gap between Warren and Hancock. However, when the attacks began at 5:00 a.m., Burnside’s men were still trying to make their way through the tangled underbrush and forest between the two Union corps, where there were no roads to assist them.
As for the fighting itself, the day became one of a combination of bloody stalemate, resounding success, and near disaster for Federal forces. First the attacks by Warren and Sedgwick on the Union right against Ewell failed to make any gains and their casualties were heavy. Within a few hours both corps had returned to their original positions and entrenched. Meanwhile on the Union left, Hancock’s II Corps drove A.P. Hill’s corps from the field and was on the verge of overrunning Lee’s headquarters near the Tapp Farm. Lee’s army was facing its greatest crisis since the late afternoon at Antietam in 1862, when Longstreet’s corps suddenly appeared. Hood’s old brigade from Texas counterattacked Hancock and drove the Union forces back. The two sides then continued to brawl in a series of bloody attacks that left a high casualty count on both sides. Daniel Crotty recalled his regiment’s attack on May 6 as follows.
The order comes to forward, and we go in, thinking, to surprise the Johnnies, but they are up and waiting for us in the thick chaparral. They pour a volley into our ranks, and the ball has commenced once more. Both sides stand and take the fearful fire, and the whole line seems to be one vast sheet of flame in the early morn. The number that fall on both sides is fearful, for we are fighting at very close range. We charge on their lines with great odds, but they stand their ground like a solid wall of masonry. The roar of musketry, the dying groans of the wounded, the hellish yells of the rebels, and the shouts and cheers of the Union men, mingle together, all making a noise and confusion that is hard to describe. Nothing is thought of but load and fire. The wounded must take care of themselves, and every man must stand and fight till either killed or wounded. The rebels fall in their line but those who fall have their places filled with a man in the rear. So they fall, one on another. Pretty soon those in the rear make breastworks of their dead comrades. We don't like this kind of fighting much, and forward on the charge in four or five lines deep. The rebels now give way and we chase them through the dense forest. We have to be very careful or we step on their dead and wounded, which lay around in thousands… My beautiful flag that looked as bright as a dollar we started, is fit now, after nearly two days' fighting, to send home, for it is completely riddled with bullets and torn by the brush. Nothing is done on this day but perfect slaughter on both sides, and at last night puts an end to sickening carnage.
Hancock’s losses were so severe that Grant cancelled a planned 6:00 p.m. attack by Hancock and Burnside, and ordered Hancock back to his breastworks along the Brock Road. While the fighting for the day had subsided, the night did not bring any relief. Crotty recalled, “The stench on this night is fearful, for the weather is very hot and the dead bodies, which lay around in thousands commence to mortify. We suffer fearfully, too, on account of the scarcity of water, and the sight of a mud-puddle pleasant indeed-we go for it like a drowning man catching at straws.” Further, the high temperatures and increased fighting resulted in everyone’s worst fear: fire. Brushfires began to break out all along the lines and the night of May 6 became one that would haunt many soldiers the rest of their lives. Horace Porter, a member of Grant’s staff, remembered the night as though it were a scene from Danté.
All circumstances seemed to combine to make the scene one of unutterable horror. At times the wind howled through the tree-tops, mingling its moans with the groans of the dying, and heavy branches were cut off by the fire of the artillery, and fell crashing upon the heads of the men, adding a new terror to battle. Forest fires raged; ammunition-trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing. It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.
The next morning, Grant issued orders for the movement south, telling Meade, “Make all preparations during the day for a night march, to take position at Spotsylvania Court-House.” Under Grant’s order, Warren would move first, passing both Burnside and Hancock, and march south to Spotsylvania Court House. The march was to begin after dark, around 9:00 p.m., and the goal was to disengage quietly, move quickly, and surprise Lee.
With these orders, the Army of the Potomac was seeing something new. For the first time, they would not disengage from an offensive and withdraw after having given battle to Lee’s army. Grant was telling them that there would be no retreat, that this was going to be a campaign in the truest sense. As for the reaction of the average soldier, that was something most amazing. Despite what they had just been through, upon seeing Grant on horseback heading south, the men began to cheer, throwing their hats in the air, shouting in unison, “On to Richmond!” Porter remembered that, “Men swung their hats, tossed up their arms, and pressed forward to within touch of their chief, clapping their hands, and speaking to him with the familiarity of comrades.” Frank Wilkerson, was even more resolute in describing his and other soldiers’ opinion of Grant that night:
Grant's military standing with the enlisted men this day hung on the direction we turned at the Chancellorsville House. If to the left, he was to be rated with Meade and Hooker and Burnside and Pope -- the generals who preceded him. At the Chancellorsville House we turned to the right. Instantly all of us heard a sigh of relief. Our spirits rose. We marched free. The men began to sing. The enlisted men understood the flanking movement. That night we were happy.
However, while Daniel Crotty would commend Grant for his pluck, he still saw little had been gained in the Wilderness, saying, “We do not see that there has been anything accomplished by the last three days' fighting, except a fearful slaughter of men.” Had he known what was coming at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, he might have been even more circumspect. Grant, meanwhile would see things differently, cabling General Halleck, “The results of the three days fight at Old Wilderness was decidedly in our favor. The enemy having a strong intrenched position to fall back on when hard pressed, and the extensive train we had to cover, rendered it impossible to inflict the heavy blow on Lee's army I had hoped.” Then, he concluded prophetically, “My exact route to the James River I have not yet definitely marked out.” And, as events would prove, neither had he marked out the cost.