Battle of the Wilderness

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This article is about the Battle of the Wilderness in the American Civil War. For the French and Indian War battle, see Battle of the Wilderness 1755.

Template:Battlebox The Battle of the Wilderness was the first battle of Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The battle was fought May 57, 1864.

The battlefield was the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, an expanse of impenetrable scrub growth and rough terrain that encompassed more than 70 square miles (181 km²) of Spotsylvania County in central Virginia. A number of battles were fought in the vicinity between 1862 and 1864, including the bloody Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. It is often said that the Wilderness and Chancellorsville were fought in the same spot, but the 1864 battle was actually fought a few miles to the west, and only overlapped the old battlefield along the Brock Road on the Union army's left flank.

On May 2, 1864, the Army of the Potomac, nominally under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, but taking orders from Grant, crossed the Rapidan River at three separate points and converged on the Wilderness Tavern, which ironically was the concentration point for the Confederates one year to the day earlier when they launched their devastating attack on the Union right flank at Chancellorsville. But Grant chose to set up his camps to the west of the old battle site before moving southward. Unlike the Union army of a year before, Grant had no desire to fight in the Wilderness.

On the other hand, for Lee, who was massively outnumbered as usual (65,000 men to Grant's 123,000), accosting Grant in the Wilderness was imperative for the same reason as a year ago—in a battle contested in the tangled woods, the value of artillery was limited, and Lee's artillery possessed fewer guns of lower quality than Grant's.

While waiting for the arrival of Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps, which had been posted 25 miles (40 km) to the west to guard the crucial railroad junction of Gordonsville, Lee pushed forward his Second Corps, commanded by Lieut. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and the Third Corps under the command of Lieut. Gen. A.P. Hill, in an effort to engage Grant before he moved south. The Confederates were able to do this, and on May 5, both Ewell, on Lee's left flank, and Hill on the right, clashed with Union soldiers.

Missing image
Battle_of_the_Wilderness_1864_map.png
Sketch of the battle of the Wilderness. Position of 2d Corps. A.N. Va., Thursday May 5th 1864.

On the left, Ewell met up with the V Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, and fought it to a standoff. For much of the day, Ewell's 20,000-man corps actually held a slight numerical advantage on this part of the field. But on the right, Hill was hit hard and driven back by the Union II Corps under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and a division from the VI Corps. He held his ground, however.

On May 6, Hancock, now commanding close to 40,000 men, resumed the attack on Hill's corps, while heavy Union reinforcements on Ewell's front prevented Lee from sending Second Corps men to aid Hill. By late morning, Hancock had driven Hill's corps back more than two miles and inflicted heavy casualties. With the Third Corps in dire straits, Lee began to look desperately for Longstreet, whose arrival had been expected hours before.

At around noon, Longstreet and the 20,000-man First Corps arrived at last, and its timing was perfect. Hancock's men were tired and disorganized from six hours of fighting. When Longstreet hurled his forces at the Union attackers, they recoiled and within two hours, the situation was totally reversed. Not only had Longstreet regained all the ground lost, he had advanced one mile beyond that, forcing Hancock to regroup along the Brock Road. At a crucial moment in the fighting, Longstreet attacked through the cut of an unfinished railroad that had divided the Union forces in two, increasing the confusion. However, Longstreet did not have enough men to complete his victory, and the fighting soon petered out near the Brock Road. As the fighting wound down on this part of the battlefield, Longstreet was badly wounded and did not return to the Army of Northern Virginia for several months. (Ironically, Longstreet was the victim of friendly fire, just as fellow general Stonewall Jackson had been nearby a year previously.)

Just as this phase of the battle was ending, a division of the Second Corps under Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon launched one final assault on the Union right, partially turning the Army of the Potomac's flank and taking close to 1,000 prisoners. But darkness fell before the Confederates had a chance to press their advantage, and with that, the battle came to a close.

On May 8, Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to resume its advance, and a few days later, the two armies clashed again 10 miles to the southeast, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Aftermath

The battle is usually described as a draw; a better way of describing it would be as a tactical Confederate victory, but a strategic victory for the Union army. At the end of the battle, Grant withdrew his force, which is normally how the loser in a Civil War battle is determined. However, unlike his predecessors since 1861, Grant did not retreat back to the safety of Washington, D.C., but continued in his campaign. Lee inflicted heavy casualties (see estimates below) on Grant, but they were a smaller percentage than the casualties his army suffered. And unlike Grant, Lee had very little opportunity to replenish his losses. Understanding this disparity, part of Grant's strategy was to wage a war of attrition. The only way that Lee could escape from the trap that Grant had set was to destroy the Army of the Potomac while he still had sufficient force to do so, and Grant was too skilled to allow that to happen.

Estimates vary as to the casualties in the Wilderness. The following table summarizes estimates from a variety of popular sources:

Casualty Estimates for the Battle of the Wilderness
Source Union Confederate
Killed Wounded Captured/
Missing
Total Killed Wounded Captured/
Missing
Total
National Park Service       18,400       11,400
Bonekemper, Victor, Not a Butcher 2,246 12,037 3,383 17,666 1,495 7,928 1,702 11,125
Catton, Grant Takes Command 2,265 10,220 2,902 15,387        
Eicher, Longest Night 2,246 12,037 3,383 17,666       7,750 –
11,400
Esposito, West Point Atlas       15,000 –
18,000
      c. 7,500
Foote, Civil War       17,666       7,800
Fox, Regimental Losses 2,246 12,037 3,383 17,666        
McPherson, Battle Cry       17,500       under
10,500
Smith, Grant 2,261 8,785 2,902 13,948        

Portions of the Wilderness battlefield are now preserved as part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, administered by the National Park Service.

References

  • National Park Service battle description (http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/va046.htm)
  • Bonekemper, Edward H., III, A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant's Overlooked Military Genius, Regnery, 2004, ISBN 0-89526-062-X.
  • Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
  • Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox, Random House, 1974, ISBN 0-394-74913-8.
  • Fox, William F.: Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, Albany Publishing, 1889 (online text (http://www.civilwarhome.com/foxspref.htm))
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States), Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-195-03863-0.
  • Smith, Jean Edward, Grant, Simon and Shuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84927-5.
  • U.S. War Dept., The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901.

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