Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge of Federal Armies
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the western theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s offensive focused on defeating Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Union forces persistently engaged the Rebel army.
Into the Wilderness
On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. The Wilderness was a tangled area of dense forest and undergrowth that had hampered the maneuverability of federal forces during a previous Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863). Grant planned to use the Wilderness to screen his operations, but he also planned to pass through it before it impeded the Union army as it had done before.
Because Meade’s forces greatly outnumbered Lee’s army (101,000 to 61,000 men), Lee took up a defensive position in the Wilderness where he could negate Grant’s numerical superiority. Lee ordered two corps, under the command of Lieutenant Generals Richard Ewell and A. P. Hill, into the Wilderness to engage the Federals. Lee also ordered Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps to move to the Wilderness as quickly as possible.
Clash in the Wilderness
May 5, 1864 — Fierce Fighting
On May 5, Ewell’s men advanced into the Wilderness along the Orange Turnpike and dug in upon reaching a clearing known as Saunders Field. Federal troops, commanded by Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, attacked Ewell’s line with little success. To the south, Union forces, commanded by Brigadier General George Getty, blocked A. P. Hill’s progress up the Plank Road. Fierce fighting raged throughout the day, and by nightfall, Hill’s corps was on the point of collapse.
May 6, 1864 — Give and Take
At 5:00 a.m. on May 6, the Federals renewed their assault on Hill’s corps, pushing the Rebels back. However, Longstreet’s corps arrived at about 7:00 a.m. and prevented a Rebel collapse. Meanwhile, the Confederates discovered an unfinished railroad bed that offered them an opportunity to surprise the Union line. Longstreet launched a successful flanking attack from the rail line, but during the confusion of battle, his own troops severely wounded him just a few miles of where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s men mortally wounded their leader at the Battle of Chancellorsville a year earlier. On May 6, the fighting concluded when the Rebels launched two more afternoon assaults with limited success.
May 7, 1864 — Stand0ff
By May 7, the two armies had fought to a standoff.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of the Wilderness was one of the more gruesome of the war, as raging fires in the thick undergrowth burned many of the wounded soldiers to death. When the battle ended, the Federals had suffered the same fate as previous Union forces that had fought in the vicinity. Lee had inflicted about 18,000 casualties on Meade’s army while suffering approximately 11,000 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Grant, however, unlike his predecessors, did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to disengage, march his army around Lee’s forces, and move deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House.