Battle Of The Wilderness Facts
Location: Spotsylvania and Orange Counties, Virginia
Dates: May 5-7, 1864
Generals: Union: Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant | Confederate: General Robert E. Lee
Soldiers Engaged: Union: 102,000 | Confederate: 61,000
Outcome: Inconclusive
Casualties: Union: 18,400 | Confederate: 11,400

Battle Of The Wilderness Summary: The Battle of the Wilderness began Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign against the Confederate army of Northern Virginia that ultimately, after many weeks and horrendous casualties, forced Gen. Robert E. Lee’s men back to the defenses at Richmond. The fighting took place in an area of Virginia where tangled underbrush and trees had grown up in long-abandoned farmland, near the old Chancellorsville battlefield. Close-quarters fighting among the dense woods created high casualties, but the battle proved inconclusive for both sides. It produced an important strategic event, however; whereas before Union commanders had withdrawn their armies after failing to achieve victory south of the Rappahannock River, Grant did not retreat. Instead, he attempted to outflank Lee by moving to the left, setting the stage for the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.


March 8, 1864, was a wet, blustery Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Despite the bad weather, an unusually large crowd had gathered at the White House that evening for one of President and Mrs. Lincoln’s regular receptions. The reason for the increased turnout was not hard to guess: Major General Ulysses S. Grant was rumored to be in town for a high-level meeting with the president. At that meeting, Grant, the increasingly idolized victor of Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, was expected to receive his much-anticipated promotion to lieutenant general–the first man to hold such an exalted rank in the United States Army since George Washington, nine decades earlier.

No one was more eager to meet the Illinois general than Abraham Lincoln. In the face of near-constant defeats on the eastern front of the war, Grant had been a consistent beacon of good news–and good generalship–in the West. While other, more dashing generals–George McClellan, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside and ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker–had been tried and found wanting on the Virginia battlefields, the initially unknown Grant had quietly gone about the task of carving up large sections of the western Confederacy. Rumors of occasional binge drinking by Grant had floated back to Lincoln, but the hard-pressed chief executive had shown a patience for his fellow Illinoisan that he had not always demonstrated with the closer-at-hand eastern generals. ‘I can’t spare this man; he fights,’ was how Lincoln put it, joking that perhaps he should find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank and send a case to the rest of his generals to stiffen their resolve.

But Lincoln had not summoned Grant to discuss his alcoholic preferences. Nor was the general in Washington simply to receive his well-deserved raise in rank. What Lincoln wanted to hear from Grant was how, exactly, he intended to win the war, and, more to the point, how he intended to go through Robert E. Lee to do it. For, despite the dramatic Union victory at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 3, 1863, there was still the disheartening knowledge that the wily Confederate general had escaped to fight another day. And, given his past record, he could be expected to fight hard, to fight well, and to fight soon. In the eight months since Gettysburg, Lee and the tough veteran officers and men of his Army of Northern Virginia had frustrated one attempt after another by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac to finish them off. With the unusually wet winter coming to a close, Lee’s rested and reconstituted army no doubt would be back grabbing at the Union’s throat as soon as weather permitted.

As the crowd swirled and eddied around the president and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, in the East Room of the White House, there was a sudden stir and buzz at the far end of the room, near the doorway. The president, who, at 6 feet 4 inches, was a good head taller than anyone else in the room, looked up from the receiving line and spied the unprepossessing form of the new arrival–a man whose face he had only seen in photographs. ‘Why, here is General Grant!’ Lincoln exclaimed. With a master politician’s quick grace, the president hurried across the room, right hand outstretched. Grant, 8 inches shorter than the president, walked slowly toward him (presidential secretary John Hay remembered later that it was ‘a long walk for a bashful man’), and the two men shook hands for the first time. ‘Well, this is a great pleasure, I assure you,’ said Lincoln with a smile. Grant, who a fellow Union officer once said ‘habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it,’ relaxed enough to permit himself a slight smile. After a lengthy wade through well-wishers–Lincoln withdrew to permit the general his moment in the sun–the two men finally sat down together in private to discuss the upcoming campaign.

Lincoln did not want to know Grant’s plan of attack in great detail; he had gotten into trouble in the past by accidently leaking details of campaigns. It was enough to know that Grant intended to make his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac, and, more important, that he intended to make Robert E. Lee his primary target. Grant later recalled: ‘My general plan…was to concentrate all the force possible against the Confederate armies in the field. To get possession of Lee’s army was the first great object. With the capture of his army Richmond would necessarily follow.’ He intended to attach himself directly to the Army of the Potomac, still commanded on paper by Meade, the victor at Gettysburg. Together, they would attempt to bring Lee to battle as soon as possible. The only question was where.

Lee and his 65,000-man army were presently camped on the south side of the Rapidan River, directly across from Meade’s forces at Culpeper. The two sides had spent a comparatively comfortable winter–particularly from the perspective of the Union troops, who passed the winter huddling in their snug tents and cabins, writing letters home, engaging in mock-heroic snowball fights, going to armywide revival meetings and enlarging upon that endlessly fascinating topic: What are our generals going to do next? George T. Stevens, a surgeon with the 77th New York Regiment, remembered: ‘This was the most cheerful winter we had passed in camp. One agreeable feature was the great number of ladies, wives of officers, who spent the winter with their husbands. On every fine day, great numbers of ladies might be seen riding about the camps and over the desolate fields, and their presence added greatly to the brilliancy of the frequent reviews.’ The humble enlisted men, not having the pleasure of female company, manufactured their own companions. According to Captain Henry Blake of the 11th Massachusetts, the men hosted their own homespun dances, with ‘one half of the soldiers arrayed as women. The resemblance in the features of some of these persons was so perfect that a stranger would be unable to distinguish between the assumed and the genuine characters.’

The Confederates, who were not so well fed or sheltered as the Federals, occupied themselves mainly with trying to keep warm and finding enough to eat. Rations were mainly cornmeal and mush, leading one wag to nickname the two armies ‘the Fed and the Cornfed.’ Still, despite the inferior level of comfort, the Southerners maintained a surprisingly high morale, due in large part to the reverence bordering on religious zeal that the men held for their commanding general. ‘No army ever had such a leader as General Lee,’ gushed Private William Wilson of Virginia. ‘No general ever had such an army.’ When Lee went to Gordonsville in late April to personally welcome back into the army Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and his I Corps, which had been on detached service in Tennessee (and had spearheaded the great albeit Pyrrhic Confederate victory at Chickamauga), he was mobbed by the soldiers who greeted him. ‘The men hung around him and seemed satisfied to lay their hands on his gray horse or to touch the bridle, or the stirrup, or the general’s leg,’ recalled Private Frank Mixson of South Carolina. ‘Anything that Lee had was sacred to us fellows who had just come back.’ An officer observed, ‘We looked forward to victory under him as confidently as to successive sunrises.’

Although the Confederates had overwhelming faith in Lee, their Federal counterparts were less sure of Grant, at least at first. The new commanding general of the Union Army arrived at Meade’s headquarters at Brandy Station two days after his meeting with Lincoln, and immediately set out to make order of the chaotic scene. One unidentified private took note of his new commander’s less than impressive physical appearance. ‘Of all the officers in the group,’ he said, ‘I should have selected almost anyone but him as the general who won Vicksburg. He was small and slim, even to undersize; very quiet, and with a slight stoop. But for his straps, which came down too far in front of his shoulders on his rusty uniform, I should have taken him for a clerk at headquarters rather than a general.’ Nor were the men much impressed by the bold talk coming from the general’s entourage. They had heard such talk before, usually before a devastating defeat. Said Private Frank Wilkeson: ‘Old soldiers who had seen many military reputations melt before the battle fire of the Army of Northern Virginia shrugged their shoulders carelessly, and said indifferently, ‘Well, let Grant try what he can accomplish with the Army of the Potomac. He cannot be worse than his predecessors; and, if he is a fighter, he can find all the fighting he wants. We have never complained that Lee’s men would not fight.” Other soldiers joked, without much humor, that the Union Army was about to embark on its ‘annual Bull Run flogging.’

Grant’s first order of business was to decide what to do with the often vinegary Meade. Initially, he had intended to replace the patrician Pennsylvanian with one of his own trusted subordinates from the west, a move that Lincoln would have endorsed wholeheartedly, having lost whatever fleeting confidence he had in Meade following the general’s dilatory pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg. But Grant’s first meeting with Meade changed his mind. Meade humbly offered to step aside in favor of one of Grant’s western warriors, adding that ‘the work before us [is] of such vast importance to the whole nation that the feelings or wishes of no person should stand in the way of selecting the right men for all positions.’ Perhaps Grant was disarmed by Meade’s open display of patriotism. Or perhaps, having been in the same position himself following the Battle of Shiloh, he simply realized that by retaining Meade he would ensure his unquestioning loyalty and obedience. Whatever the reason, Grant elected to keep Meade in titular command of the Army of the Potomac, but he pitched his own headquarters tent nearby, and all messages, inquiries and orders went through him first, not the army’s bootless commander.

With Meade firmly in hand, Grant set out to plan the upcoming offensive. Lee’s army had spent the fall and winter months fortifying their lines south of the Rapidan; they were now virtually impregnable, as Meade had discovered for himself during the abortive Mine Run campaign the previous autumn, when a well-planned attempt to surprise Lee had had to be called off when the soldiers got a firsthand look at the bristling Rebel breastworks. Grant, for his part, had no intention of attacking Lee behind his defenses. Instead, he intended to outflank him by marching rapidly southward through the forbidding landscape known as the Wilderness, a 70-mile-wide, 30-mile-long stretch of second-growth timber, wiry underbrush, brackish water and barren soil that was all too familiar to the Union soldiers from their disastrous defeat at Chancellorsville exactly one year earlier. Indian legend said the shadowy woods of the Wilderness were haunted, and no one who had survived the previous spring’s debacle doubted the legends. Grant, the least superstitious of men, had no time for old wives’ tales, but he did understand that unless he moved quickly through the Wilderness, he and his army were dangerously vulnerable to enemy attack. Should Lee strike while the army was stretched out along the twisting trails and marshy gullies, the results could prove as fatal to Grant’s career as Chancellorsville had been to Hooker’s. Speed was of the essence, and the Army of the Potomac was not particularly noted for its quickness.

The task of arranging the army’s movements was left to Meade’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys, a prewar engineer and topographer who was as well-suited for the thankless role as anyone could be. The Pennsylvania-born Humphreys was a profane, irascible soldier whose ‘blue-gray dauntless eyes threw into his stern face the coldness of hammered steel.’ He was seldom seen to smile, and the complexities of his new assignment left him little time for amusement. He was charged with organizing a 120,000-man army into a manageable and maneuverable body, with 4,300 supply wagons and 850 field ambulances tagging along behind it like the tail of a kite. All were expected to march undisturbed through some of the roughest countryside in Virginia, beneath the very noses of their ever-vigilant opponents, and to do so in less than 30 hours, which was the amount of time it had taken Lee to move his army into position to counterattack during the Mine Run campaign the previous November. Anything less would leave the Federals dangerously exposed in the midst of the Wilderness, facing a predictably unpredictable enemy, with little room for the army’s cavalry and artillery to operate. ‘Viewed as a battleground,’ said Lt. Col. Francis Walker, the Wilderness ‘was simply infernal.’

Despite the difficulties, Humphreys quickly devised a workable plan. The army would be divided into two wings, which would cross the Rapidan at the Germanna and Ely fords and march quickly down the Germanna Plank Road to reunite at the intersection with the region’s one really good road, the Orange Turnpike. Once there, the army would have the choice of several routes leading west. With room to maneuver, the army could force the Rebels to come out of their breastworks in order to block any Union thrust toward Richmond. On an open field, the weight of Northern numbers and the deadly efficiency of the Union gunners would inevitably swing the tide of battle toward the North. Confederate artillery officer Robert Stiles, anticipating the upcoming campaign, was not alone in feeling ‘a sort of premonition of the definite mathematical calculation, in whose hard, unyielding grip our future should be held and crushed.’

It was a good plan, worthy of an experienced engineer’s logical mind. The only problem was that the best engineer in the prewar army was now wearing gray–and he was wearing three stars wreathed in gold on his collar. Already, Robert E. Lee had summoned his ranking commanders to the top of Clark’s Mountain, overlooking the suddenly busy Union camp, and unerringly predicted the path the enemy would take, down to the very fords they would use when moving against him. Surprisingly, Lee did not intend to contest the river crossings. He hoped instead to lure Grant into overconfidence (something experienced eastern officers had already seen on the part of Grant’s staff, if not the commanding general himself), and then strike him at an as-yet-undetermined place along the way.

Inexplicably, Lee made no preliminary moves to get his own somewhat scattered forces underway, preferring to leave the respective corps of Lt. Gens. Richard Ewell and Ambrose Powell Hill in their winter camps at Clark’s Mountain and Orange Court House, while Longstreet’s newly returned I Corps remained in the rear around Gordonsville, ready to fall back quickly to defend Richmond should the need arise. Perhaps, like Grant, Lee was guilty of underestimating his new opponent. Both generals had always had the advantage of fighting against opponents inferior to the ones they were now facing in each other. But if Lee was guilty of underestimating Grant, his I Corps commander was not. Longstreet had been Grant’s closest friend in the prewar army, even serving as best man at Grant’s wedding to a Longstreet cousin, and he understood the new Union leader in a way that Lee did not. ‘That man,’ Longstreet warned, ‘will fight us every day and every hour till the end of this war.’ Lee ignored the warning at his own considerable peril.

Meanwhile, preparations continued apace in the Union camp. At Brandy Station, Meade’s jumping-off point, a 3-story-high mountain of supplies grew steadily higher every day, a veritable cornucopia of soldiers’ needs–bread, beans, beef, pork, dried apples, coffee, sugar, tea, vinegar, molasses and potatoes. Finally, on May 3, the men were told to cook three days’ full rations and pack an extra three days’ partial rations, along with 50 rounds of ammunition. Experienced veterans knew what was coming, and they sought to advise the thousands of new recruits–all green as grass–on how to prepare for the upcoming campaign. Frank Wilkeson, a new artilleryman, was taken in hand by a grizzled veteran named Jellet, who ‘came to me that evening and kindly looked into my knapsack, and advised me as to what to keep and what to throw away. He cut my kit down to a change of underclothing, three pairs of socks, a pair of spare shoes, three plugs of navy tobacco, a rubber blanket, and a pair of woolen blankets.

”Now, my lad,’ Jellet said, ‘do not pick up anything excepting food and tobacco, while you are on the march. Get hold of all the food you can. Cut haversacks from dead men. Steal from the infantry if you can. Let your aim be to secure food and food and still more food, and keep your eyes open for tobacco. Do not look at clothing or shoes or blankets. You can always draw those articles from the quartermaster. Stick to your gun through thick and thin. Do not straggle. Fill your canteen at every stream we cross and wherever you get the chance elsewhere. Never wash your feet until the day’s march is over. If you do, you will surely blister.” Finally, Jellet advised Wilkeson not to burn his permanent camp. ‘Leave things as they are,’ he said. ‘We may want them before snow flies.’

At Union Army headquarters, no such qualified sense of optimism obtained. Among his other eccentricities, Grant refused to turn back after he started for a location. Indeed, if he passed a street he was looking for, he would circle the block rather than retrace his steps. Nor did he intend to do so now. After issuing his last order on the night of May 3, Grant casually crossed his legs, lit another cigar and began chatting with his staff. He explained his general reasons for choosing the eastern route through the Wilderness, instead of attempting to move around Lee’s left flank to the north. It would simplify resupply problems, he said, while also screening Washington from possible attack. Then the normally undemonstrative Grant surprised his aides by leaping to his feet, going over to a map on the wall and circling the towns of Richmond and Petersburg with his hands. ‘When my troops are there,’ Grant said, ‘Richmond is mine. Lee must retreat or surrender.’ It was becoming convincingly clear to everyone present that Grant did not envision a retreat of his own.

At 3 a.m. on May 4, the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan at Germanna Ford. Horsemen of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry splashed into the waist-deep stream, expecting a fusillade of bullets from the Confederate pickets on the other side. It never came. Obeying Lee’s orders not to contest the crossing, the pickets of the 1st North Carolina Cavalry fell back from the river and scattered into the pre-dawn darkness, leaving behind their half-cooked breakfast. The Rebels, said one Union trooper, ‘gave evidence of great fright.’ This was probably mere playacting, since Southern scouts had followed the enemy’s movements from the moment they had broken camp at midnight and begun heading toward the ford. Whatever the case, Federal engineers led by Captain William Folwell quickly followed the horsemen across the stream and began erecting two parallel bridges, 40 or 50 feet apart and 220 feet across. By dawn, when the carefully timed march of the infantry brought them to the ford, three temporary roads had already been chopped into the steep banks leading up from the river, and the foot soldiers in Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps marched smartly over the river and into the tangled gloom of the Wilderness.

Six miles downriver, at Ely’s Ford, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps made a similar uncontested crossing. A canvas pontoon bridge had been thrown across the ford, but many of the infantrymen eschewed the bridge and simply waded across in water up to their hips, holding their cartridge boxes and rifles above their heads to keep them dry. Behind them they left a trail of discarded blankets and overcoats, so many that Wilkeson believed ‘it would be no exaggeration to say that one could have marched to the Rapidan on overcoats and blankets that were thrown away by tired soldiers.’ An irate Connecticut chaplain estimated the wastage at between 20 and 30 thousand dollars. Wilkeson, who marched with his fellow gunners behind a regiment of heavily sweating German immigrants, watched as the Germans struggled painfully up the steep riverbank, discarding their bulging knapsacks as they made their way. ‘Near the top of the hill we found many well-filled haversacks,’ he recalled, ‘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.’

Grant and his personal entourage followed the line of march to Germanna Ford. Loud cheers greeted them along the way. Usually a plain dresser, Grant had donned a smart pair of yellowish-brown gloves and a black slouch hat with a gold cord to mark the occasion. Accompanying him on the ride south was his political mentor, Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, who had been instrumental in Grant’s phenomenal rise to the top. Washburne was dressed entirely in black, and puzzled soldiers wondered aloud whether the somber figure was Grant’s ‘personal undertaker.’ Shortly before noon, Grant crossed the ford and set up temporary headquarters in an old farmhouse on a bluff overlooking the river. Nearby, Meade had established his own headquarters, and his personal flag–a golden eagle wreathed in silver on a lavender backdrop–flourished in the breeze. Grant, sitting on the porch of the ramshackle farmhouse smoking an ever-present cigar, asked jokingly: ‘What’s this? Is Imperial Caesar anywhere about here?’ When a Northern newspaperman, taking advantage of the general’s good mood, asked him how long it would take to reach Richmond, Grant responded airily, ‘About four days–that is, if General Lee becomes a party to the agreement; but if he objects, the trip will undoubtedly be prolonged.’

Grant’s untypically jovial mood was cut short a few minutes later when he was handed an intercepted message from the Confederates showing that Ewell’s corps was moving forward swiftly, destination as yet unknown. Immediately, Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to prepare to cross the Rapidan with his IX Corps, which Grant had hoped to leave on the other side of the river to safeguard the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Now, with evidence that Lee was moving with more dispatch than he had anticipated (veteran campaigners could have told him that would be the case), Grant ordered Burnside to ‘make forced marches until you reach this place. Start your troops now in the rear the moment they can be got off, and require them to make a night march.’ In the meantime, the II Corps had moved into position on the old killing ground at Chancellorsville, while the V and VI corps (the latter under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick) were moving down the Germanna Plank Road to the point where it intersected the Orange Turnpike. There, they were to halt for the night while the lengthy and ponderous wagon train caught up with them.

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.’ Brigadier General Robert McAllister sent his wife a somewhat ghoulish present of ‘two or three pretty violets that I picked upon the very ground where my regiment stood and fought so splendidly [the year before]. The ground was made rich by the blood of our brave soldiers. I thought the flowers would be a relic prized by you.’ An even more grisly relic was unearthed by a less romantic infantryman, who pried up a bullet-shattered skull from a shallow grave and rolled it across the ground. ‘That is what you are all coming to, and some of you will start toward it tomorrow,’ he warned. 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.

The Union soldiers, veterans and newcomers alike, were right to entertain ominous forebodings. While they made camp, the battle-hardened Confederates were moving toward them through the woods, getting in position for a daylight attack that few of the Southerners doubted would be successful. Lee was still unsure of Grant’s ultimate intentions, whether his new adversary was heading for Fredericksburg, to the south, or was swinging around for a thrust westward toward Richmond. Lee wanted to be prepared for either contingency. He ordered Ewell and his II Corps to march due east along the Orange Turnpike until they passed the old fortifications at Mine Run, while A.P. Hill’s III Corps was to move along the Orange Plank Road to New Verdiersville. Once in place, the two corps would be within easy supporting distance of one another. Meanwhile, Longstreet’s I Corps, farther west at Gordonsville, was directed to move across country toward Todd’s Tavern, at the southern tip of the Wilderness. There it would be in place, said Lee, to ‘intercept the enemy’s march, and cause him to develop plans before he could get out of the Wilderness.’

Lee, traveling with Hill’s corps, camped for the night at New Verdiersville, where he directed Ewell to ‘bring [the enemy] to battle as soon now as possible.’ With Longstreet still a day’s march behind, it was a risky tactic, but Lee seldom shied away from taking risks. With less than a third of Grant’s manpower, he intended to jab hard into the Union flank and instigate a battle with the full knowledge that his own most dependable corps would not be available to fight for another full day. To Lee’s mind, this was the only thing he could do. If Grant got through the Wilderness unscathed, the full brunt of the Union Army would have a clear path around Lee’s southern flank to Richmond, and the war would be lost anyway. As Lee had already made clear in a letter to one of his sons, he did not intend to lose without a fight. Perhaps he would die, but ‘if victorious, we have everything to live for. If defeated, there will be nothing left for us to live for.’ By attacking at once, even with only two-thirds of his available force, he would at least give himself and his army a fighting chance. At that stage of the war, it was the best they could hope for. Grant’s incautious delay in traversing the Wilderness would give them that chance.

The morning of May 5 dawned clear and warm. By 8 a.m., it had already grown so hot that some out-of-shape Union soldiers, having spent the long winter months eating and lounging about camp, were reeling from heat prostration. Not that they were being hurried along–the pace of the morning’s march was ‘a moderate gait,’ Wilkeson recalled, ‘with occasional short halts.’ Both Grant and Meade believed that Lee had moved his men back inside the fortifications along Mine Run, 10 miles away, where presumably they would wait politely to be attacked at Grant’s leisure. In the meantime, Grant would be able to reunite the disparate wings of his army. Accordingly, Hancock was directed to swing his II Corps southwest from Chancellorsville to Parker’s Store, an abandoned country market, where he would link up with Warren’s V Corps from the north. Behind Warren, Sedgwick’s VI Corps would swing into place and wait for Burnside’s IX Corps, which was crossing Germanna Ford after an all-night march. When the entire Federal line had been reunited, Grant intended to move west and make contact with Lee’s army in the clear ground beyond the Wilderness.

As usual, however, Lee moved first. Having received word the night before from Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, his cavalry chief, that Union horsemen were screening the approach to Parker’s Store, Lee correctly divined that Grant was indeed intending to move west from the Wilderness. He no longer had to worry about the Federals passing around his right flank. Instead, they were conveniently standing still on unfavorable ground where their vast numerical superiority, their generally more modern small arms and their deadly artillery would be negated to a great extent by the narrow roads, thick undergrowth, limited visibility and lack of maneuvering room. If Ewell and Hill could hold them in place a little longer, Longstreet’s corps, swinging up from the south, would be ideally situated to strike them in the flank and roll them up as swiftly and easily as Lt. Gen. T.J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson had done on almost the same ground, exactly one year earlier. To his aide, Colonel Charles Venable, Lee ‘expressed his pleasure that the Federal general had not profited by General Hooker’s Wilderness experience, and that he seemed inclined to throw away to some extent the immense advantage which his great superiority in numbers gave him.’ Perhaps, his shining reputation notwithstanding, Grant would prove to be no worthier an opponent than Hooker.

Events quickly outraced either general’s ability to control them. On the morning of May 5, skirmishing for control of the Orange Plank Road opened at Parker’s Store between the 5th New York Cavalry and the 47th North Carolina Infantry. At the same time, Union scouts reported the approach of a sizable enemy contingent on the Orange Turnpike, 23Ž4 miles north. Brigadier General Charles Griffin, commanding the Union rear guard division on the turnpike, reported to Warren that the Rebels were fast approaching. ‘I do not believe that Warren ever had a greater surprise in his life,’ ordnance officer Morris Schaff reported. Warren hastily ordered Griffin to ‘push a force out at once against the enemy, and see what force he has.’ Meanwhile, Warren located Meade and told him of the developments. ‘If there is to be any fighting this side of Mine Run,’ said Meade, ‘let us do it right off.’ Meade ordered Hancock to halt II Corps at Todd’s Tavern until they could determine what the Rebels were intending. Grant, back at his Germanna Ford headquarters, approved Meade’s arrangements, but added a characteristic addendum: ‘If any opportunity presents itself for pitching into a part of Lee’s army, do so.’

Lee, who was still traveling with Hill’s corps along the Orange Plank Road, had given Ewell much the same order the night before. Now, however, hearing the scattered firing at the front, he apparently thought better of his earlier order. He told Major Campbell Brown, Ewell’s son-in-law, to tell his kinsman that ‘above all General Ewell was not to get his troops entangled so as to be unable to disengage them, in case the enemy was in force.’ Lee had become concerned that Ewell and Hill, who were still separated by three miles of impenetrable woods, would not be able to resist a concentrated Union assault. Moreover, there was a dangerous gap in the center between them. If Grant attacked with sufficient force, the two Confederate corps would be unable to support one another and would be easy pickings for the overwhelming numbers of bluecoats that Lee was suddenly aware they were facing. And Longstreet’s corps was still a day away.

On both sides of the battlefield, an uneasy quiet hung in the air. No one quite knew what lay in front of them, and the jungle-thick countryside made any accurate accounting impossible. Grant, a man of action who did not like suspense–beneath his bland facade was a surprisingly nervous and sensitive individual–waited impatiently for Griffin to ‘pitch into’ the Confederates along the Orange Turnpike. But Griffin, like Grant a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, waited in turn for other Union divisions to move into place along his flanks. He was convinced, as Grant was not, that a significant Rebel force was concealed on the other side of the treeline. For three long hours the impasse continued, while Grant chewed out Meade, Meade chewed out Warren, and Warren chewed out Griffin. Finally, at 1 p.m., Griffin reluctantly gave the order to move out.

The Union line of advance straddled the Orange Turnpike across a 2-mile front. A bramble-choked cornfield, Saunders’ Field, lay immediately in front of them. Ewell’s Confederates, concealed in the trees on the western edge of the field, had already sighted-in their deadly muskets, and their first well-aimed bullets kicked up dirt like the big drops of a coming shower along a dusty road. The Northern soldiers waiting to attack experienced suspense and dread that cannot be adequately told in words. At the sound of a bugle, they rose to their feet and moved forward, leaning slightly as if into a stiff breeze.

On the Union right, north of the turnpike, the gaily colored uniforms of Colonel George Ryan’s 140th New York Zouaves made easy targets for the Rebel marksmen. Regimental Captain Porter Farley, in the front line, saw his men ‘melt away like snow. Men disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them. It seemed as if the regiment had been annihilated.’ Making matters worse, the regiment was also taking fire from the right rear, where a curve in the woods concealed more Confederate riflemen. The 140th fell back, joined by a second Zouave regiment, the 146th New York, which had been treated just as roughly. Back inside their own lines, an anguished Ryan peered through the dense smoke for some sign of his men. ‘My God,’ he cried, ‘I’m the first colonel I ever knew who couldn’t tell where his regiment was!’ Much of it was lying dead or wounded in the ragged cornfield. Ryan, weeping, clutched the neck of an aide. Of the 529 men who had charged across the field moments earlier, 268 were now casualties, including almost all of the regiment’s officers.

On the southern side of the turnpike, Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett’s 3rd Brigade made a better showing, sending Brig. Gen. John M. Jones’ Virginia brigade reeling backward in confusion. ‘A red volcano yawned before us,’ one Maine soldier remembered, ‘and vomited forth fire, and lead, and death.’ The woods were a veritable bedlam of noise, so loud that the soldiers could not even hear their own rifles fire, but merely felt the recoil against their shoulders. ‘What a medley of sounds,’ Union Private Theodore Gerrish recalled. ‘The incessant roar of the rifles; the screaming of bullets; the forest on fire; men cheering, groaning, yelling, swearing and praying!’ General Jones, seeing his line waver as the enemy struck hard at his exposed right flank, rode to the front to encourage his troops. Suddenly, he was cornered by two Pennsylvania privates and ordered to surrender. When he refused to hand over his sword to men of inferior rank, the unimpressed duo simply shot him off his horse and stole his sword. He died immediately.

Bartlett’s attackers soon outran their support. Hopelessly entangled in the vine-choked woods beyond Saunders’ Field, they were struck in turn by flanking fire on two sides. The order came to fall back and regroup. Bartlett himself rode back into the open field, blood trickling from his scratched face. Ordered by the Rebels to surrender, Bartlett shook his fist in defiance and spurred his horse across the field. A welter of bullets crashed into the animal and sent it somersaulting to the ground. The Southerners cheered lustily, but a moment later the shaken and disheveled Bartlett somehow crawled from beneath the dead horse and hobbled to safety. (He would live to receive the formal surrender of arms from the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox 11 months hence.)

On Bartlett’s left, south of Saunders’ Field, the three brigades of Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth’s 4th Division moved forward in tandem with Griffin’s attack. Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s famed Iron Brigade held the right flank. Confederates in the woods beyond could clearly hear Union voices shout, ‘Here’s our western men!’ as the Iron Brigade made its way into battle. No sooner had the Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin regiments advanced than they were met with a withering fire on their exposed flank. Stymied in front by Brig. Gen. George Doles’ Georgia brigade, the Federals were sitting ducks for a crushing counterattack led by Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s veteran brigade. Spearheading Gordon’s attack was a leather-lunged private named James E. Spivey of the 26th Georgia, who was famous in both armies for his awe-inspiring battle cry, ‘a kind of scream or low, like a terrible bull, with a kind of neigh mixed along with it, and nearly as loud as a steam whistle.’ Known as ‘Gordon’s Bull,’ Spivey gave his accustomed roar and Gordon’s men crashed into the Iron Brigade from the north. For the first time in its proud history, the Iron Brigade broke and ran, leaving behind a pair of silver bugles that the Georgians happily scooped up and used until the end of the war.

Wadsworth’s other brigades fared little better. In short order, Brig. Gen. James Rice and Colonel Roy Stone brought their shattered troops back to the rear as well, and Wadsworth desperately attempted to stabilize his line and hold off repeated Confederate counterattacks across the body-strewn fields to the west. ‘As a grand, inspiring spectacle it was highly unsatisfactory, owing to the powder smoke obscuring the vision,’ wrote one private. ‘At times we could not see the Confederate line, but that made no difference; we kept on firing just as though they were in full view. We gained ground at times, and then dead Confederates lay on the ground as thickly as dead Union soldiers did behind us. Then we would fall back, fighting stubbornly, but steadily giving ground, until the dead were all clad in blue.’

For over an hour, a blistering cross-fire swept Saunders’ Field and the woods below it, while wounded Union and Confederate soldiers squirmed facedown in the dust, unable to move forward or backward. Then the veteran troops’ worst predictions came true. Brushfires kindled by bullets striking breastworks erupted on all sides, filling the air with the unmistakable, sickening stench of burning flesh. Ominous, muffled popping sounds marked the explosion of dozens of cartridge belts tied around wounded soldiers’ waists, sending deadly shards of tin slicing through their bowels. Many of the wounded committed suicide to avoid the evil tongues of flame snaking toward them on all sides.

As the bloodletting continued around Saunders’ Field, Sedgwick’s VI Corps moved into line north of Warren’s Corps and joined the fray. The heavy gun smoke and tangled underbrush so limited the soldiers’ line of sight that one newly arrived Wisconsin soldier recalled that the men’soon began firing by earsight.‘ Sedgwick himself barely escaped death when a Rebel cannonball struck within a yard of him, decapitating a private and sending the unfortunate man’s head crashing full into the face of Captain Thomas Hyde, knocking him to the ground and covering him with blood and brains. ‘I was not much use as a staff officer for full fifteen minutes,’ Hyde admitted.

At the south end of the battle, Brig. Gen. George Getty’s lone Union division was holding onto the key intersection of the Orange Plank Road and the Brock Road linking the Wilderness thoroughfare to Todd’s Tavern, where Hancock’s II Corps was still posted. Now, directed by Meade to attack down the road, Getty’s troops crept forward, scarcely able to see 10 yards ahead of them. They had not gone far along the road before they were met by a terrible blast from Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s Confederate brigade. One North Carolinian in the brigade remembered: ‘A butchery pure and simple it was, unrelieved by any of the arts of war in which the exercise of military skill and tact robs the hour of some of its horrors.’ To another Confederate, it was not even a battle, but simply ‘bushwhacking on a grand scale.’

Hancock’s corps, arriving on the scene, rushed forward to support Getty’s chewed-up division, but met the same brutal reception. Hancock himself managed to rally the men behind an opportune line of rifle pits, while Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s division hurried up from Todd’s Tavern to lend strength to the assault. Behind the line, at Grant’s headquarters, the sounds of Hancock’s attack could clearly be heard, but no one could follow what was happening. It sounded, said Grant’s aide Adam Badeau, ‘like an incessant peal of thunder.’ As for Grant, he continued nervously whittling pieces of wood into formless shavings. Otherwise, he betrayed no emotion. But one order he had already given revealed as clearly as a dozen grand speeches what his mindset was that day: all but one bridge across the Rapidan had been torn down. There would be no turning back.

For three more hours, until well after dark, the fighting continued in the flame-torn woods, as first Union, then Confederate forces crashed blindly into one another, only to be sent stumbling backward in the smoke and fire. ‘It was like fighting a forest fire,’ North Carolina Captain R.S. William remembered. Another Southerner, standing in the middle of the roadway with blood dripping from his shattered arm, amazedly told new troops rushing toward the front that ‘dead Yankees were knee deep all over about four acres of ground.’

Near sunset, the head of Longstreet’s relief column finally reached the outskirts of the battlefield, having marched 28 lung-bursting miles in one day. The men, exhausted, flopped down on the side of the road, too tired to pitch their tents. Longstreet allowed them to rest for several hours, then started them eastward at about 1 a.m. He had received a puzzling order from Lee–instead of continuing toward Todd’s Tavern to attack the Union left, he was directed to veer northward and unite with the troops of the III Corps on the Plank Road. First reports from the battlefield were all favorable, but Longstreet was not reassured by the sudden change of direction. Literally in the dark about Lee’s intentions, Longstreet got his men underway, but the road was overgrown with bushes and difficult to follow. Progress was excruciatingly slow. Meanwhile, Lee sent a telegram to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, reporting that ‘the enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday….A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it….The enemy subsequently concentrated upon General Hill, who resisted repeated and desperate assaults….By the blessing of God we maintained our position.’

At Union headquarters, Grant had a different view of the first day’s fighting. ‘I feel pretty well satisfied with the results of the engagement,’ he told Meade, ‘for it is evident that Lee attempted by a bold movement to strike this enemy in flank…but in this he failed.’ That was not quite true; Lee, in fact, had held back from any all-out flank attack. Still, Grant did not want Lee to take the initiative the next morning. He directed Meade to have Hancock and Wadsworth attack Hill’s corps at 4:30 a.m. Burnside, for his part, was to send one division to support Hancock while his other two divisions attacked Hill in flank, and Warren and Sedgwick simultaneously attacked along their respective fronts. ‘We shall have a busy day tomorrow,’ Grant advised his staff, ‘and I think we had better get all the sleep we can tonight. I am a confirmed believer in the restorative qualities of sleep, and always like to get at least seven hours of it.’ In the pitch-black fields to the west, where occasional brushfires still flared in the dark, thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers were lost in a sleep from which they would never awaken.

At the south end of the battlefield, few of the ranking Confederate officers were able to sleep. Again and again, couriers went west along the Orange Plank Road, searching in vain for Longstreet’s corps. Meanwhile, at Hill’s headquarters, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth argued unsuccessfully with Hill to rearrange Heth’s and Cadmus Wilcox’s divisions on either side of the roadway. As it now stood, Heth warned, the two divisions were so mixed up that ‘a skirmish line could drive both my division and Wilcox’s, situated as we are now.’ Hill refused, saying that Longstreet would arrive soon and take over the next day’s defense. Heth was unpersuaded, knowing Longstreet’s reputation for moving slow and arriving late. ‘I walked the road all night,’ Heth remembered. ‘Twelve, two, three o’clock came, and half-past three, and no reinforcements.’ Lieutenant Colonel William C. Poague, whose artillery battalion was posted nearby, was alarmed to find many of Hill’s III Corps sleeping unconcernedly along the road, their arms casually stacked in rows beside them. ‘I asked an officer the meaning of the apparent confusion and unreadiness of our lines,’ said Poague, ‘and was told that Hill’s men had been informed that they were to be relieved by fresh troops before daylight, and were expecting the relieving forces any minute. I asked where the Yankees were. He didn’t know certainly, but supposed they were in the woods in front. He struck me as being very indifferent and not at all concerned about the situation.’

The next morning, at first light, Hancock’s corps, augmented by divisions from the V and VI Corps, fell on the unready Confederates from the east and north. As Heth had warned, Hill’s troops were unable to resist the massive onslaught. Some fought stubbornly before falling back; others simply turned tail and ran, convinced that it was impossible to hold the ground and foolish to attempt it. One unit of sharpshooters, ordered to the front, took the ungentlemanly precaution of propping wounded Yankees against the trees in front of them to stop the Union firing. The Federals understandably argued against the ‘inhuman experiment,’ but the Confederates were unmoved. ‘We replied that their own men would certainly not fire on them,’ one sharpshooter recalled. ‘The object in view was to stop the firing.’ It worked for a while, but the onrushing Northerners simply ran around the advanced Rebel position and continued their attack unchecked.

By 5:30 a.m., Hill’s corps was shattered, and Hancock was beaming in jubilation. ‘We are driving them beautifully,’ he cried, drawing out the last word for emphasis. ‘Tell Meade we are driving them most beautifully.’ In a short time, Meade responded, and his return message quickly turned Hancock’s smile into a scowl. ‘I am ordered to tell you, sir,’ said a messenger, ‘that only one division of General Burnside is up, but that he will go in as soon as he can be put in position.’

‘I knew it,’ Hancock spat. ‘Just what I expected. If he could attack now, we would smash A.P. Hill all to pieces!’ As it was, Hancock’s own men had outrun their supports and lost momentum. Ammunition was running low, and the soldiers were once again becoming hopelessly enmeshed in the tangled briars and underbrush. The Union battle line stretched for over a mile across the Orange Plank Road, disappearing on either side into the junglelike forest.

A soldier came up to Hancock with a captured Rebel in tow. ‘I was ordered to report that this prisoner here belongs to Longstreet’s corps,’ he told the general. The prisoner confirmed the news. ‘It was too true,’ remembered Hancock aide Theodore Lyman. ‘Longstreet, coming in all haste from Orange Court House, had fallen desperately on our advance.’

Many on the Confederate side of the field might have disputed just how hastily Longstreet had come up, but he had finally arrived. Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw’s division, in the lead, swerved to the south of the Orange Plank Road, while Maj. Gen. Charles Field’s division headed north. In the vanguard of Field’s division was Brig. Gen. John Gregg’s tough veteran brigade of Texans and Arkansans. When Gregg’s troops swept into battle, past a hard-firing artillery battery, Robert E. Lee himself rode out to greet them. ‘Who are you, my boys?’ Lee cried. ‘Texas boys,’ they yelled back. ‘Texans always move them!’ Lee cried, as near to losing his famous composure as he ever came.

Gregg’s voice boomed out. ‘Attention Texas Brigade,’ he called. ‘The eyes of General Lee are upon you. Forward, march!’ With a loud cheer, the Texans broke for the front. ‘I would charge hell itself for that old man,’ one officer cried. Suddenly, the men realized that Lee himself was riding forward with them, his eyes shining brightly. ‘Go back, General Lee, go back,’ cried the men. ‘Lee to the rear!’ With some difficulty, Lee’s aides managed to get the general to turn his horse around and let the infantrymen handle the charge. Longstreet, who came upon the scene at that moment, said later that Lee was ‘off his balance.’ If so, it was due mainly to Longstreet’s delay in getting to the front. Gregg’s men succeeded in blunting the Union attack, but at a terrible cost. Of the 800 men in the brigade, less than 250 escaped unharmed. Nevertheless, the Union offensive had been halted in its tracks, and the Confederate battle line now stretched unbroken from the Orange Plank Road north to the Orange Turnpike.

At 10 a.m., Longstreet received word from his chief engineer that an unfinished railroad bed, not shown on any maps, lay open and unguarded on the Union left flank. Longstreet hastily assembled an attack force, three brigades strong and personally directed by his trusted aide, Lt. Col. G. Moxley Sorrel. The Confederates tore through the Union flank unchecked, sending it careening back in despair. ‘The terrible tempest of disaster swept on down the Union line,’ one New Yorker recalled years later, ‘beating back brigade and brigade until upwards of twenty thousand veterans were fleeing, every man for himself.’

Sorrel hurried back to tell Longstreet the good news. Along the Plank Road, the 26-year-old officer–who had never before commanded troops in battle–encountered ‘quite a party of mounted officers and men riding with [Longstreet].’ Brigadier General Micah Jenkins of South Carolina, who was scarcely older than Sorrel, threw his arm around the colonel and cried, ‘Sorrel, it was splendid; we shall smash them now.’ But the happy scene did not last long. As Longstreet’s party proceeded up the road they were suddenly struck by a volley of gunfire from the thickly tangled woods alongside. Understandably jittery Confederates in the underbrush, mistaking the dark-clad horsemen for Union cavalry, had opened fire, blasting Jenkins from his saddle and sending Longstreet reeling in his seat. Jenkins, struck in the head, was mortally wounded. Longstreet, with wounds to the shoulder and throat, was wheezing bloody foam from his mouth. ‘Tell General Field to take command and move forward with the whole force and gain the Brock Road,’ he gasped.

Longstreet’s wounding fatally stalled the Confederate advance. The Kentucky-born Field, who was still suffering from the aftereffects of a crippling wound at Second Manassas, took several hours to rearrange his lines. The delay allowed Hancock’s men to construct a row of formidable chest-high breastworks of logs and dirt, and to clear an unobstructed line of fire in front of them. When the Southern forces finally went forward again at 4:15 p.m., they ran head-on into a well-rested enemy supported by 12 judiciously placed artillery pieces. What followed was ‘the most desperate assault of the day,’ one Massachusetts defender recalled. Northern war correspondent Charles Page, an eyewitness to the attack, called it the ‘most wicked assault thus far encountered–brief in duration, but terrific in power and superhuman momentum.’

Screaming the Rebel yell at the top of their lungs, the Confederates plunged through the forest toward Hancock’s line. The ‘unquenchable fellows,’ as an admiring Union officer termed them, knelt in the dust 30 yards from the Federal breastworks, desperately firing their muskets at the few heads bobbing above the works. Most of their bullets flew high, while the blueclad defenders blasted away at point-blank range in comparative safety. Aided by a quick-spreading brushfire, some of Field’s men actually managed to breach the Union line, but a swift counterattack drove them back. New York infantryman Charles Weygant described the ensuing rout: ‘Over the works rushed the Union line with clubbed muskets, swords, and bayonets, right at the now totally demoralized Confederates, who broke for the rear, and fled in the wildest disorder across the slashing and down through the woods again.’

At least one high-ranking Confederate officer, artillery Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, believed the afternoon attack should never have happened. ‘The attack ought never, never to have been made,’ he wrote after the war. ‘It was sending a boy on a man’s errand. It was wasting good soldiers whom we could not spare. It was discouraging pluck and spirit by setting it an impossible task.’ Given Lee’s erratic behavior that afternoon, it was indeed a questionable decision, comparable in scope and result to the forlorn assault at Gettysburg by Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s doomed division. Something deep in Lee’s psyche could not accept frustration–much less defeat. Having already told his son that he could see ‘nothing to live for’ if he lost the war, Lee’s ill-considered decision to attack entrenched Union fortifications that afternoon guaranteed that hundreds of his men would not have the same freedom of choice in the future.

As for Grant, he was perfectly willing to accept a tactical draw on the battlefield. Following a sunset repulse of Gordon’s division at the north end of the Union line along the Orange Turnpike, the general called off any more Federal attacks. He had spent the afternoon nervously whittling–he wore out his new yellow gloves in the process–and smoking some 20 cigars. Studying a map with his aide, Horace Porter, Grant figuratively pulled in his horns. ‘I do not hope to gain any decided advantage from the fighting in this forest,’ the general declared. ‘I did expect excellent results from Hancock’s movement early this morning, when he started the enemy on the run; but it was impossible for him to see his own troops, or the true position of the enemy, and the success gained could not be followed through in such country. I can certainly drive Lee back into his works, but I shall not assault him there; he would have all the advantages in such a fight. If he falls back and entrenches, my notion is to move promptly toward the left. This will, in all probability, compel him to try and throw himself between us and Richmond, and in such a movement I hope to be able to attack him in a more open country, and outside of his breastworks.’

Subsequent events proved Grant correct. The next day, while Lee’s exhausted soldiers clung to their own breastworks and nursed their battle wounds, the Union army began moving southeast around the Confederate flank, heading for Spotsylvania Court House, 10 miles away. Lee quickly moved to intercept Grant, realizing as he did that he now faced an opponent who would not retreat after he had been sorely tested. Nearly 30,000 men, Union and Confederate, had fallen in the Wilderness without noticeably altering the deadly logic of Grant’s mathematics: the more men he lost, the more men Lee would lose, and Grant had all the numbers on his side.

The two armies would meet again at Spotsylvania, and many other places, before the war was over, but no one–general or private–would ever again suffer the unique horrors of the Wilderness. Grant, who was not given to overstatement, said later that ‘more desperate fighting has not been witnessed on this continent than that of the 5th and 6th of May.’ His aide Porter was virtually biblical in his judgment. ‘It seemed as though Christian men had turned to fiends,’ he wrote, ‘and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.’ For all concerned, the Battle of the Wilderness had indeed been a hell on earth, one that survivors would never forget.