Civil War: The Battle of the Wilderness

Ever since I was a kid sitting in the backseat on trips to my grandparents’ house outside of Fredericksburg, I’ve had a fascination with the Battle of the Wilderness.

Ever since I was a kid sitting in the backseat on trips to my grandparents’ house outside of Fredericksburg, I’ve had a fascination with the Battle of the Wilderness. I remember seeing signs for the “Battle of the Wilderness” and thinking that, unlike most Civil War battlefields named after towns or nearby landmarks, this battle sounded epic and menacing. As I got older and learned more about what actually happened there, I can safely report that it wasn’t just childhood imagination. The Battle of the Wilderness, while largely a stalemate between the Union and Confederate armies, was a brutal, intense fight that served as the opening salvo in the campaign that ultimately ended the war.

The battle took place the first week of May, 1864. It was the first engagement of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s “Overland Campaign”–his attempt to eradicate Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army once and for all. Rather than focus on seizing Richmond like so many of his predecessors, Grant put his attention solely on Lee’s forces. The only way to beat the Confederacy, he surmised, was to crush its armies. The Battle of the Wilderness marked the first time that Grant and Lee met on the battlefield–a face-off that would continue until the war ended in 1865.

So why was it called the Battle of the Wilderness? Large portions of the fighting occurred in a dense forested area near Spotsylvania, resulting in poor visibility and confusion throughout the battle on both sides. Add the thick smoke of artillery and musket fire into the mix and it’s amazing a battle took place there at all. One soldier described it as a “weird, uncanny contest–a battle of invisibles with invisibles.”

The battle wasn’t entirely fought in the woods. One place where the fighting was most heated on the first day was Saunder’s Field. As Federals and Confederates engaged in combat, both forces made use of a small gully that ran through the field as a place to take cover from the musket fire. At one point in the fighting, a Union and Confederate soldier both found themselves taking cover in the same section of the gully. Once they noticed each other, they exchanged some not-so-friendly words, and what followed was one of the most interesting stories I’ve heard while studying the Civil War. John Worsham, author of One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry, described the scene as both men climbed out of the gully:

“…They decided that they would go into the road and have a regular fist and skull fight, the best man to have the other as his prisoner. While both sides were firing, the two men came into the road about midway between the lines of battle, and in full view of both sides around the field. They surely created a commotion, because both sides ceased firing! When the two men took off their coats and commenced to fight with their fists, a yell went up along each line, and men rushed to the edge of the opening for a better view! The ‘Johnny’ soon had the ‘Yank’ down; the Yank surrendered, and both quietly rolled into the gully. Here they remained until nightfall, when the ‘Johnny’ brought the Yankee into our line. In the meantime, the disappearance of the two men into the gully was the signal for the resumption of firing. Such is war!”

Fighting quickly resumed and continued until nightfall. Shortly before dusk, a brush fire started amidst the gunfire and the hand-to-hand combat. Many who were wounded on Saunder’s Field were unable to escape the flames and the haunting sound of wounded soldiers screaming in agony filled the air as night fell. Pinned down by rifle fire, their fellow soldiers couldn’t rescue them from the flames and were forced to listen to them die. There were a handful of other fires throughout the battle that imperiled hundreds of wounded soldiers who fell during the fighting–both Confederate and Union alike. One soldier recalled, “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 is surely as though I could read his thoughts.”

The next day of the battle began early with a pre-dawn Union assault. Lee had hoped General James Longstreet would arrive in the night to reinforce his battle-weary troops. When the assaults began that morning, it was only a matter of time before the Confederate line would crumble. They were nearly in full retreat when around 7:00 AM, Longstreet’s troops could be seen over the horizon from the rear. The vanguard of Longstreet’s troops was led by a brigade of Texans. Lee, in his excitement at their arrival, galloped up to the Texas brigade and urged them onward, with every intention of leading their charge on the Union troops. The Texans quickly grew concerned over their commander’s exposure to enemy fire and urged him to go back shouting, “Lee to the rear!” and “Go back, General, go back!” Lee quickly came to his senses and headed out of harm’s way. The Texans fought valiantly and restabilized the crumbled Confederate line but at the cost of nearly two-thirds of their men. They were right to have discouraged Lee from joining them on the charge.

The battle raged on for the rest of May 6th and 7th and ended in a stalemate. Grant, frustrated by the lack of progress in the battle, felt that it had revealed some significant flaws within his command, and he longed to fight on more open ground without the logistical challenges brought on by the dense woodland. When discussing their next move, one of Grant’s generals speculated on what Lee might do. Grant harshly replied, “I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land on our rear and on both our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” For years, Lee had sparred with various Union generals–all of whom shared the common trait of over-analyzing the enemy’s intentions, waiting to attack, and retreating to a defensive position after large battles. For the first time, Lee was facing an opponent who would part ways from his predecessors.

Rather than retreating, Grant simply started to march his Army of the Potomac south toward Richmond. If Lee wanted to get back to Richmond, he’d have to fight Grant to get there.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry.

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