The Battle of the Wilderness

By the spring of 1864, changes were abound on the Union side. Three generals—Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan—had become the preeminent leaders of the northern army. With Congress having revived the rank of lieutenant general, a rank last held by George Washington, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to that rank and bestowed on him the title of general in chief.[i] While the North was in the ascendancy, the Confederate army had suffered through the winter. The Confederate Congress had eliminated substitution, which had allowed wealthy southerners to avoid conscription, and “required soldiers whose three-year enlistments were about to expire to remain in the army.”[ii] Even with Congress taking the extraordinary step of adjusting the draft age range to seventeen years old through fifty years old, the rebels still numbered fewer than half their opponents.[iii] Nonetheless, hope was not lost: a camaraderie pervaded the Southern army—particularly amongst the many veteran soldiers—which was perhaps best encapsulated in General Robert E. Lee’s saying that if their campaign was successful, “we have everything to hope for in the future. If defeated, nothing will be left for us to live for.”[iv]

Success for the rebels in the near future hinged on the election of 1864. A Georgia newspaper summarized the Confederate government’s hopes: “If the tyrant at Washington be defeated, his infamous policy will be defeated with him.”[v] The possibility of a compromising Democrat inspired a new strategy that General James Longstreet articulated as breaking up “the enemy’s arrangements early, and throw him back” so that “he will not be able to recover his position or his morale until the Presidential election is over, and then we shall have a new President to treat with.”[vi]

Grant intended to end the war before autumn, and one observer, aware that every preceding Union general had failed to march on Richmond, believed that “Grant may possess the talisman.”[vii] Others were less sure of the odds: one man in Washington characterized Grant as being a “short, round-shouldered man” with “a slightly seedy look,” and another saw the general as having “a clear blue eye” but an expression “as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it.”[viii] Beneath the stone façade was a quick wit: when a newspaper reporter asked how long it would take for Grant to march on Richmond, he showed no resentment but instead answered, “I will agree to be there in about four days,” causing shock to the questioner and Grant’s staff.[ix] He added: “That is, if General Lee becomes a party to the agreement. But if he objects, the trip will undoubtedly be prolonged.”[x] Grant had drawn up a strategy that not only pleased Lincoln but also gave the Union the best chance of squeezing the rebel army as he called for each general to maneuver troops to surround Virginia, the heart of enemy territory.[xi] While General George Meade would join Grant in making Lee’s army their objective to defeat, Sherman would move against General Joe Johnston’s army, break it up, and “get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”[xii] Meanwhile, auxiliary generals would make their approaches on the Virginia Peninsula and in the Shenandoah Valley, West Virginia, and Louisiana, causing Lincoln to use an apt metaphor for the strategy: “Those not skinning can hold a leg.”[xiii]

With dogwoods in bloom, Grant’s Army of the Potomac, consisting of 115,000 men, was within miles of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which was down to 64,000 troops.[xiv] Grant planned to cross the Rapidan River, hit Lee’s right flank, and draw the rebels out of their trenches and out of the Wilderness, an “expanse of scrub oaks and pines” that had been the site of the devastating Union defeat under Joseph Hooker.[xv] Lee, determined to recreate his army’s success in the Battle of Chancellorsville, allowed Grant’s men to cross the river with the hope to then spring the trap on the federal troops once they entered the Wilderness.[xvi] Within the Union ranks, Grant’s optimism had not been contagious as there was “a sense of ominous dread which many of us found it almost impossible to shake off,” one soldier declared.[xvii] Many of the federal troops had been in this area during the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Fredericksburg, and with those memories still very much alive, there was “little or no singing round the campfires” and “even a tendency to avoid the accustomed small talk.”[xviii] Evidence of the previous year’s fighting remained in the form of “skeletons in rotted blue, washed partly out of their shallow graves by the rains of the past winter,” and soldiers began muttering that their deaths were imminent.[xix]

A Clearing Near the Wilderness.

On May 5, 1864, two rebel corps came upon three Union corps in the Wilderness, bringing 70,000 federals against Lee’s 40,000 Confederates which Longstreet’s reinforcements would later join.[xx] Being outmanned, the rebels had cause for concern, but their knowledge of the terrain and the Union immobility due to the “dense, smoke-filled woods” worked as a Confederate advantage.[xxi] With soldiers rarely seeing their enemies through the jungle, friendly fire became a significant risk, and “gaps in the opposing line went unexploited” and unseen.[xxii] Flashes from muzzles and “exploding shells set the underbrush on fire” and threatened the wounded with a fiery death like those suffered a year prior.[xxiii] One soldier called the fighting a “battle of invisibles with invisibles,” but the compact landscape and the sounds—ranging from a silence “so dense that a man was likely to jump six feet at the snap of a twig” to the “veritable cataract of noise” that one participant called “the most terrific musketry firing ever heard on the American continent”—characterized the contest in the Wilderness.[xxiv] With orders given to his troops, Grant and Meade made their way to headquarters, and Grant found himself a seat on a tree stump.[xxv] A calm, “imperturbable figure,” he lit one of the twenty cigars he kept on him, and as he surrounded himself with tobacco smoke, he picked up a stick and began whittling while he waited for news.[xxvi] As he whittled, he could hear the cacophony swelling and then rolling back, pausing, and then repeating, indicating that there would neither be a victory nor defeat from the day’s fighting.[xxvii] By dusk, the sides had surged forward and backward with no measurable progress.[xxviii] Many rebels remained in the thick brush and slept “in whatever random positions” they were in when the firing stopped, “too weary to eat” their rations.[xxix]

Minolta DSC
Confederate General James Longstreet.

The following morning began at 5:00 a.m. when an “intermittent racket merged and grew in abrupt intensity to a steady clatter,” which one observer compared to “the noise of a boy running with a stick pressed against a paling fence, faster and faster until it swelled into a continuous rattling roar.”[xxx] Grant’s men, at first light, attacked Lee’s right flank which nearly succeeded as they drove the rebels almost a mile through the forest and into a clearing containing Lee’s field headquarters.[xxxi] When Lee attempted to lead a counterattack, a group of Texans shouted, “Go back, General Lee, go back!”[xxxii] The Texans outnumbered the Union men, quickly reversed the federal gains for the morning, and presented an opportunity for the rebels to develop and execute their own plan of attack: one of Longstreet’s brigadiers knew of an unfinished railroad bed that would conceal a flanking attack on the Union line.[xxxiii] Before noon, four brigades made their way along the roadbed and then sprinted out of the thick brush with their rebel yells, forcing the northern men to flee.[xxxiv] As the charging rebels advanced, they joined at an angle with another one of Longstreet’s units.[xxxv] Then, just as the wave of assault was reaching its peak momentum, friendly fire left a bullet in Longstreet’s right shoulder which had the immediate effect of taking the steam out of the advance and the longer term consequence of removing one of Lee’s top generals from the war for the following five months.[xxxvi] Word spread of Old Pete being shot, and Confederate soldiers saw the parallel of this tragedy with that of losing Stonewall Jackson during the Battle of Chancellorsville, just four miles away, a year prior.[xxxvii] Many of the rebels supposed that Longstreet had already died, and the commanders were concealing the truth to preserve morale, but one artillerist who had no previously existing affection for the general later wrote of seeing the injured Longstreet:

I rode up to the ambulance and looked in. They had taken off Longstreet’s hat and coat and boots. The blood had paled out of his face and its somewhat gross aspect was gone. I noticed how white and dome-like his great forehead looked and, with scarcely less reverent admiration, how spotless white his socks and his fine gauze undervest, save where the black red gore from his breast and shoulder had stained it. While I gazed at his massive frame, lying so still except when it rocked inertly with the lurch of the vehicle, his eyelids frayed apart till I could see a delicate line of blue between them, and then he very quietly moved his unwounded arm and, with his thumb and two fingers, carefully lifted the saturated undershirt from his chest, holding it up a moment, and heaved a deep sigh. He is not dead, I said to myself, and he is calm and entirely master of the situation. He is both greater and more attractive than I have heretofore thought him.[xxxviii]

Fighting in the Wilderness. Courtesy: Charles P. Roland, An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 171-74.

By late afternoon, Lee had renewed the attack, but the Union troops continued to stand their ground even as a forest fire raged in the Wilderness.[xxxix] The fighting had been intense and as heavy as experienced veterans had seen, even bringing drummer boys “into unfamiliar service as stretcher bearers” bringing the injured to the rear then loading the stretchers with cartridges to take to the front to ensure the struggle did not cease on account of lacking “ball and powder.”[xl]

At sundown, after hours of seeking permission to mount an attack on the federal flank, General John Gordon obtained Lee’s authority and made his promising advance.[xli] He and his men pushed the Union line back, capturing two generals, and spreading panic to Grant’s headquarters in the form of a brigadier telling Grant that all had been lost just as had happened under Hooker.[xlii] Grant responded:

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.[xliii]

By the end of the second day of fighting, neither side had achieved victory nor suffered the sting of total defeat. As night came, the low clouds developed a yellow hue as dead pines and brush caught fire in the Wilderness and a brisk wind turned the jungle into a blaze.[xliv] Whereas blue and gray soldiers alike had been moaning from the forest floor and calling for help, the inferno brought out “screams of terror” and clatter that sounded like exchanges of gunfire but were in fact paper-wrapped charges in pockets or boxes catching fire and exploding.[xlv] In his tent, Lee conferred with officers and supposed Grant to continue the assault, given his reputation in the western theater of war.[xlvi] In a rare surrendering of the initiative, Lee prepared his men to withstand a federal attack in the morning.[xlvii]

Grant, in the Wilderness, had suffered his worst day of battle since Shiloh.[xlviii] After all matters had been handled, Grant “went into his tent, threw himself face downward on his cot, and gave way to the greatest emotion.”[xlix] His chief of staff had “never before seen him so deeply moved” but had given way to the strain “without uttering any word of doubt or discouragement.”[l] Then, within an hour, Grant was back in headquarters “surrounded by his staff in a state of perfect composure” and strategizing.[li] Where previous Union commanders had sought out reasons to retreat by taking account of their setbacks and tallying their casualties—which at this point exceeded 17,500 in the two days of fighting with no territorial gain achieved as opposed to around 10,000 enemy casualties—Grant told Lincoln that “whatever happens, there will be no turning back.”[lii] Throughout the night, Grant sat before the campfire with one leg crossed over the other, his hat “drawn down over his face, the high collar of an old blue army overcoat turned up above his ears,” and eyes on the dying embers of the fire.[liii]

The following morning came quietly: as the rebels remained in their breastworks “fidgety and quick to shoot,” the federal troops sat stationary and thankful for the inactivity.[liv] The federal troops, upon learning that they would be on the move, assumed that they were preparing for another retreat just as their previous commanders had ordered.[lv] The movement of supply wagons and artillery to the rear all but confirmed their fears until the divisions began to move, one by one, further south.[lvi] Grant had planned a move on Spotsylvania, a dozen miles to the south, as it would put the Union army closer to Richmond than Lee’s army and force the rebels to fight or retreat.[lvii] Later, a veteran saw the move as “a turning point in the war” given its effect of raising the spirits of the men and caused them to burst out in song.[lviii]

Despite having suffered significant casualties and having few breakthroughs in the fighting in the Wilderness, Grant, by not retreating and instead advancing, had turned a whipping into an opportunity for a strategic victory. Until Grant’s arrival in the eastern theater, every Union general had bestowed on Lee the power to surprise his opponent; a role which Lee gladly and capably filled. With Grant, the “vague, stoop-shouldered figure,” riding his largest mount, Cincinnati, at the front of the column heading toward Spotsylvania, and Cincinnati prancing and tossing his head, the Union soldiers felt a “buzz of excitement.”[lix] For the men, the days of “heavy-footed and heavy-hearted” retreats back to the north appeared to be over.[lx] As one soldier later recalled, “That night we were happy.”[lxi]

[i] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 718.

[ii] Id. at 718-19.

[iii] See id. at 719.

[iv] Id. (quoting Clifford Dowdey, Lee’s Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men against Grant—1864 [Boston, 1960], 60).

[v] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 721.

[vi] Id. (quoting War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 32, pt. 3, p. 588.

[vii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 721 (quoting The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Vol. III: The Civil War 1860-1865, ed. Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas [New York, 1952], 416).

[viii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 721 (quoting Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 4-5).

[ix] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 148.

[x] Id.

[xi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 722.

[xii] See id.

[xiii] See id. (quoting Tyler Dennett, ed., Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay [New York, 1939], 178-79).

[xiv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 724.

[xv] See id.

[xvi] See id.

[xvii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 149.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] See id. at 150.

[xx] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 725.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 156.

[xxv] See id. at 159.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] See id.

[xxviii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 725.

[xxix] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 167.

[xxx] Id.

[xxxi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 725.

[xxxii] Id.

[xxxiii] See id.

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] See id. at 725-26.

[xxxvi] Id. at 726.

[xxxvii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 179.

[xxxviii] Id. at 179-80.

[xxxix] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 726.

[xl] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 174.

[xli] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 726.

[xlii] See id.

[xliii] Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (New York, 1897), 69-70.

[xliv] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 183.

[xlv] See id.

[xlvi] See id. at 183-84.

[xlvii] Id. at 184.

[xlviii] Id.

[xlix] Id. at 185-86.

[l] Id. at 186.

[li] Id.

[lii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 726 (quoting Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 186).

[liii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 187.

[liv] See id.

[lv] See id.

[lvi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 726-28.

[lvii] See id. at 726.

[lviii] Id. at 728 (quoting Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox [Garden City, N.Y., 1957], 91-92).

[lix] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 190.

[lx] Id.

[lxi] Id. at 191.


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