Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Wilderness, VA

Dates: 5-7 May, 1864


Union: Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Commander-in-Chief of all Federal Armies and Major General George Meade commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Confederate: General Robert E. Lee commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.

Prelude: Grant, recently promoted as the first Lieutenant General since George Washington, had decided not to run operations from a desk in Washington, but instead chose to attach his headquarters to Meade’s. Grant felt that he could better command in the field. He was running two massive operations; that of Major General William Sherman in the West, poised to strike into Georgia, as well as that of Meade. Grant reassures Meade that he will retain command of the Army of the Potomac. Despite calls from northern newspapers to advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond, VA, Grant decides that his sights will set squarely on Lee. If the Army of Northern Virginia can be rendered inactive, Richmond will fall and the rebellion will come to a halt. Lee’s army is the only Confederate force capable of sustained operations, and even that was dicey. All the hopes of a Confederate victory in the war were pinned in Lee, and Grant was about to dash those hopes.

To put his plan into place, Grant amasses 120,000 men into the Army of the Potomac. Included in this number are regiments of heavy artillery taken from the forts surrounding Washington and reorganizing them as infantry. Their years of spit-and-polish had come to an end as units such as the 1st New York Heavy Artillery, with crossed cannon badges on their kepis, arrived to the shouts of derision coming from the grizzled veterans.

One thing for sure, Grant was no George McClellan (who was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for President at the time), as soon as all was ready, he set out orders to begin moving across the Rapidan River.

May 4, 1864: The Army of the Potomac crosses the Rapidan and head into a region known simply as The Wilderness, an area thick with trees and undergrowth that grant hoped would screen the army’s movements. The area that the Union troops were marching through was where the May, 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville was fought. Along the roads heading into the Wilderness were the wreckage of equipment and the bones of dead soldiers that were never buried.

Lee was anticipating a Union advance to come at him, but it was not until Grant made his move that he made his decision on where to counter the Federals. He orders his army to move forward, using the Orange and Fredericksburg Pike and the Orange Plank Road. Lee decided to place the corps of Lieutenant General Richard Ewell on the left flank, the corps of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill in the center, and the corps of Lieutenant General James Longstreet on the right. Longstreet had the farthest to go so Lee ordered no engagement until all of the army was in position.

May 5, 1864: As the Union army continues through The Wilderness, forward skirmishers spot the Confederates deploying into battle formation. Word got back to Grant and Meade, who order the Federal forces to deploy. On the left was II Corps under Major General Winfield Hancock, the center by IX Corps under Major General Ambrose Burnside (a former Army of the Potomac commander), and the right by V Corps under Major General Gouverneur Warren and VI Corps under Major General John Sedgwick.

The Federals struck first, sending V Corps to hit Ewell’s corps along the Orange and Fredericksburg Pike. Ewell manages to stop the Union attack at Saunder’s Hill. At the same time, A.P. Hill launched an attack towards an intersection on the Orange plank Road, its capture would allow the Confederates to get into the Union rear. Grant orders Sedgwick to send a division to assist Hancock. Hill’s attack is repulsed. Nightfall puts an end to the fighting.

May 6, 1864: dawn: Hancock’s II Corps opens the day with a massive assault on Hill’s line, driving the Confederates back. The entire right line was collapsing when Longstreet’s corps arrived and went straight into the attack. Hancock’s troops were pushed back to their original lines. Longstreet was about to launch a flanking assault when a musket ball slammed into his throat. With the loss of the veteran commander, the attack faltered.

On the Confederate left, another attack was launched by troops under Brigadier General John Gordon, using an unfinished railroad cut. After gaining some of the line, darkness was falling and that prevented the breach in the Union lines from being exploited. Grant and Meade were able to reform their lines.

Throughout the battle, the heat of the musket flashes ignited the dry underbrush and a massive forest fire. At times both sides stopped fighting and tried to help each other’s wounded to that they would not burn. Sadly that was not the case with all the wounded. more than one wounded soldier chose to shoot themselves with their musket or pistol, preferring a quick death by a bullet to a slow death by burning.

May 7, 1864: Grant decides nothing more could be accomplished here. But instead of pulling back across the Rapidan to regroup, he orders the army to pull out of their lines and head south. Unlike past commanders, Grant will keep attacking the Confederates. He knows that he has the manpower to accomplish this task and get more from the North. The South no longer has any manpower reserves. They must win or lose with what they have.


Union: 18,000 Confederate: 12,000

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