The Battle of the Wilderness – May 5-6th 1864
“…a battle of invisibles with invisibles….”
“On May 5th the rival armies marched into the heart of the Wilderness and began a fight that lasted until the end of the war.” *
This quote by Bruce Catton was running through my head as I drove through this area of Virginia in the spring, after the long winter of 2014. Flowering tress and dense greenery is everywhere as you travel the roads in the Wilderness the soldiers took to battle 150 years ago.
Traveling up the Orange Turnpike from the “Old Plank Road”, now Route 3, you quickly come upon Saunder’s Field the site of the first clash of the Overland Campaign on May 5th 1864. One of the few open spaces within the Wilderness region, Saunder’s Field spreads before you with its undulating landscape. Evidence of Confederate trenches still top the high ground here their line-of-sight broken only by a small depression at midfield.
This small ravine provided security to the attacking Union troops who soon became bogged down by the entrenched Confederates. The fighting raged here at Saunder’s field all day, off and on, through May 5th. without any decisive victory for either side.
Aside from the fighting at Saunder’s Field the battle in the Wilderness would become famous for the battlefield terrain. The Wilderness in 1864 was a dense second growth forest cut through by numerous streams and dotted with a few small farms. This dense woodland would come to define the fighting and what is remembered as one of the most horrendous battles in the American Civil War.
The Union soldiers entering the Wilderness in spring 1864 were rightly uneasy. Memories of the disaster that was the Battle of Chancellorsville were brought to the fore as the soldiers encountered the bones of their comrades unearthed in the forest from the year before. The Wilderness in 1864 was full of these skeletons.
“The army had made good progress, but it had not passed completely through the Wilderness, and many of the soldiers, particularly those camping among the disinterred remains of the hastily buried Union dead at Chancellorsville, were increasingly uneasy. ‘A sense of ominous dread which many of us found impossible to shake off’ seized the men, one soldier recalled. ‘It was a very easy matter to discover just where pools of blood had been,’ another noted, ‘for those particular spots were marked by the greenest tufts of grass and brightest flowers to be found upon the field.” **
“Another Chancellorsville veteran spooked his campmates by noting that ‘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 be burned slowly; and these woods will surely be burned if we fight here.’ Few of his listeners slept well that night.” **
In the Confederate camps the mood was altogether different. “Clustered about their skillet wagons for supper, the men of three divisions had no such reaction to their surroundings – outnumbered as usual on the eve on contact, and having fought here against odds as long and longer, the butternut veterans understood that the cramped, leaf-screen terrain would work to their advantage, now as before, and their bivouacs hummed with banter and small talk as they bedded down, after ravening their rations, to rest for the shock they knew was likely to come tomorrow.” **
The fighting exploded again at dawn on May 6th with Union General Hancock’s attack on the Confederate right flank near the Widow Tapp Farm.
The fighting in the Wilderness soon took on a nightmarish character. “It was, as one veteran said, a conflict “no man saw or could see”; a battle of invisibles with invisibles, another called it. “As for the fighting, a third declared, it was simply bushwhacking on a grand scale, in brush where all formation beyond that of regiments or companies was soon lost and where such a thing as a consistent line of battle on either side was impossible.”**
Because the terrain favored the infantry over artillery the intensity of the musketry delivered in the battle is recorded by many as the most heavy, incessant musketry of the entire war. So intense that the woods caught fire during the battle creating a nightmare situation for the wounded still stuck between the lines as the battle raged.
“I saw many wounded soldiers in the Wilderness who hung onto 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 hand, and his eyes set to front. I knew he meant to kill himself in case of fire – knew it surely as though I could read his thoughts.” Private Frank Wilkeson
The confused battle was summed up by a captured Confederate, “Battle be damned, he said hotly, It aint no battle, it’s a worse riot than Chickamauga! At Chickamauga there was at least a rear, but here there aint neither front nor rear. Its all a damned mess! And our two armies aint nothing but howling mobs” **
The fighting raged through the Wilderness for two days without any significant advance by either side in the battle. Both sides were finding that troops once entrenched were very difficult to dislodge. This trench warfare would come to define the Overland Campaign and the Civil War battlefield to the end of the war.
Grant remarks in his memoirs, “In every change of position or halt at night, whether confronting enemy or not, the moment arms were stacked the men entrenched themselves. For this purpose they would build up pile of logs or rails if they could be found in their front, and dig a ditch, throwing dirt forward on the timber. Thus the digging they did counted in making a depression to stand in, and increased the elevation in front of them.. It was wonderful how quickly they could in this way construct defenses of considerable strength.”
Evidence of these trenches are all over this part of Virginia. Within the Battlefield Park, at the intersection of the Brock and Plank Roads, the Union trench line still follows the Brock Road for miles. Driving along this bucolic country road if you didn’t know the history you’d think the thoroughfare was lined with drainage ditches – but no these are the remains of Civil War trenches….
On a hike along the Wilderness Run, a small creek that meanders through the battlefield, I came upon bones….These were the remains of an animal that died over the winter no doubt, its bones bleached by the weather. I couldn’t help but think of the soldiers and what they encountered when they entered this landscape 150 years ago to find bones of a different sort.
The woodland that is the Wilderness today is a more mature forest than the one encountered by the troops in 1864, but it’s still dense and easy to contemplate the difficulties of fighting in this terrain. Its easy to get turned around and mired in the dense foliage, the rolling hills in the area creating swampy bottoms within the forest.
Visited the site of an old unfinished railroad grade used by the Confederates in the surprise flank attack on May 6th 1864. The railroad grade now sits within the boundaries of Fawn Lake a upscale private community which abuts the Wilderness Battlefield. Walking the length of the grade, through the forest, one eventually comes upon the turn in the old railway bed where the Confederates formed up for the attack.
This dense woodland still surrounds Ellwood Manor the 17th century plantation that played a role in both the battles of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. Stonewall Jackson’s arm is buried here and in May of 1864 the plantation was a Federal HQ during the Wilderness battle. You can still look out over Ellwood’s cultivated fields and see the Wilderness spread out before you. It was from here that Grant and his staff watched gun smoke rise from the forest as the battle raged.
It was also here that an event occurred that came to define General Grant, his leadership style and coolness under fire. As the fighting raged from the late day Confederate attack on May 6th, messengers began to arrive at Ellwood in an excited state suggesting that General Lee was about to rout the Union Army. Frustrated by what he saw as exaggerations Grant’s speaks up,
“I’m deathly tired of hearing of what General Lee is going to do to us. Some of you believe he will do summersaults and land in our flank and rear at the same time. I’d like to hear what WE are going to do to him!” ***
“No movement of the enemy seemed to puzzle or disconcert him.” Wrote a correspondent. On the second day of battle, as confederate guns began to rain down at Grants HQ near Ellwood, a concerned officer asked Grant, “wouldn’t it be prudent to move headquarters…until the result of the present attack is known? ” Puffing his cigar Grant said, ” It strikes me that it would be better to order up some artillery and defend the present location” ***
“On May 7th, Grant disengaged his army from the battle. His objective had been frustrated by Lee’s skillful defense, the same position as Hooker at Chancellorsville, McClellen on the Virginia Peninsula and Burnside at Fredericksburg. His men got the familiar dreadful feeling that they would retreat back toward Washington, as they had too many times before. This time, however, Grant made the fateful decision to keep moving south, inspiring the men by telling them that “he was prepared to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer” The Battle of the Wilderness would only be the beginning of the Overland Campaign, not the end of it.” ****
Both armies now are in a race to the next strategic point on the map a few miles away at Spotsylvania Court House….what will come to be known as Bloody Spotsylvania…
(*) Never Call Retreat – Bruce Catton
(**) The Civil War: A Narrative Vol. 3 – Shelby Foote
(***) The Dark Close Wood – Chris Mackinowski
(****) The Overland Campaign – Charles River Editors