Battle History



                                                                                          

                                       WILDERNESS, VA
                                      MAY 5TH - 7TH, 1864

                    Wilderness, Va., May 5-7, 1864.  Army of the Potomac.  On
                March 9, 1864, Maj.-Gen. U. S. Grant was raised to the rank of
                lieutenant-general and placed in command of all the United
                States armies in the field.  The interval from that time until
                the 1st of May was spent in planning campaigns, and in
                strengthening, organizing and equipping the several armies in
                the different military districts.  Grant remained with the
                Army of the Potomac, which was under the immediate command of
                Maj.-Gen. George G. Meade, and which had for its objective the
                destruction of the Confederate army under command of Gen.
                Robert E. Lee.  On May 1, the Army of the Potomac lay along
                the north side of the Rapidan river and was organized as
                follows: The 2nd corps Maj.Gen. W. S. Hancock commanding, was
                composed of four divisions; the 1st commanded by Brig.-Gen. F.
                C. Barlow, the 2nd by Brig.-Gen. John Gibbon, the 3rd by Maj.-
                Gen. D. B. Birney, and the 4th by Brig-Gen. Gershom Mott.  The
                5th corps, commanded by Maj.-Gen. G. K Warren, consisted of
                four divisions, respectively commanded by Brig Gens. Charles
                Griffin, J. C. Robinson, S. W.  Crawford and J. S. Wadsworth.
                The 6th corps under command of Maj.-Gen. John Sedgwick
                included the three divisions commanded by Brig.-Gens. H. G.
                Wright, G. W. Getty and James B. Ricketts.  The 9th corps,
                Maj.-Gen. A. E. Burnside commanding, was composed of four
                divisions, each of which was commanded by a brigadier-
                general-the 1st by T. G. Stevenson, the 2nd by R B. Potter,
                the 3rd by O. B. Willcox and the 4th by Edward Ferrero.  The
                cavalry corps, under command of Maj.-Gen. P. H. Sheridan,
                consisted of three divisions, the 1st commanded by Brig.-Gen.
                T. A. Torbert, the 2nd by Brig.-Gen. G. A. Custer and the
                3rd by Brig-Gen. J. H. Wilson.  With the 2nd corps was the
                artillery brigade under Col John C. Tidball; the artillery of
                the 5th corps was in charge of Col. C. S. Wainwright; that of
                the 6th corps under Col. C. H. Tompkins, and the artillery
                reserve, composed of Kitching's, J. A. Tompkins' and Burton's
                brigades, was commanded by Brig.-Gen. Henry J. Hunt. Burnside
                had 14 light and 2 heavy batteries.  During the campaign the
                18th corps, commanded by Maj.-Gen. W. F. Smith, was
                transferred from the Army of the James to the Army of the
                Potomac.  This corps was composed of three divisions,
                commanded by Brig.-Gens. W. T. H. Brooks, Godfrey Weitzel and
                E. W. Hinks, and the cavalry division under Brig-Gen. August
                V. Kautz.

Lee's army-the Army of Northern Virginia-consisted of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd corps, respectively commanded by Lieut.-Gens. James Longstreet, R. S. Ewell and A. P. Hill, and the cavalry corps of Maj.-Gen. J. E. B. Stuart. Longstreet's corps included the divisions of Kershaw and Field, and the artillery brigade under Brig.-Gen. E. P. Alexander. Ewell's corps was made up of the divisions of Early, Edward Johnson and Rodes, and the artillery brigade of Brig.-Gen. A. L. Long Hill's corps was composed of the divisions of R. H. Anderson, Heth and Wilcox, and his artillery was commanded by Col. R. L. Walker. Stuart's cavalry embraced three divisions, commanded by Wade Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee and W. H. F. Lee, and the horse artillery under Maj. R. P. Chew. The Union army numbered about 120,000 men of all arms, exclusive of Smith's corps. Lee's army numbered about 61,000 not including the forces under Beauregard on the Petersburg lines and the troops left in the defenses of Richmond, about 30,000 in all. Ewell's corps was intrenched along the south side of the Rapidan, his right resting near Morton's ford a short distance above the mouth of Mine run. The upper half of the intrenched line was held by Hill's corps, the left extending to Barnett's ford, about 5 miles west of the Orange & Alexandria railroad. Longstreet's command was at Gordonsville, the junction of the Orange & Alexandria and the Virginia Central railroads. Lee's headquarters were at Orange Court House, about half way between Longstreet and the line along the Rapidan, from which point he could easily communicate with his corps commanders, and detachments of cavalry watched the various fords and bridges along the river.

Grant's plan was to cross the Rapidan at the fords below the Confederate line of intrenchments move rapidly around Lee's right flank and force him either to give battle or retire to Richmond. As soon as this movement was well under way, Gen. Butler, with the Army of the James, was to advance up the James river from Fortress Monroe and attack Richmond from the south. The region known as the Wilderness, through which the Army of the Potomac was to move, lies between the Rapidan the north and the Mattapony on the south. It is about 12 miles wide from north to south and some 16 miles in extent from east to west. Near the center stood the Wilderness tavern, 8 miles west of Chancellorsville and 6 miles south of Culpeper Mine ford on the Rapidan. A short distance west of the tavern the plank road from ermanna ford crossed the Orange & Fredericksburg turnpike, and then running southeast for about 2 miles intersected the Orange plank road near the Hickman farmhouse. The Brock road left the Orange & Fredericksburg pike about a mile east of the tavern and ran southward to Spottsylvania Court House, via Todd's tavern. The first iron furnaces in the United States were established in the Wilderness, the original growth of timber had been cut off to furnish fuel for the furnaces, and the surface, much broken by ravines, ridges and old ore beds, was covered by a second growth of pines, scrub-oaks, etc., so dense in places that it was impossible to see a man at a distance of 50 yards. Between the Orange plank road and the Fredericksburg pike ran a little stream called Wilderness run, and north of the latter road was Flat run the general direction of both streams being northeast toward the Rapidan into which they emptied. On the Orange plank road, about 4 miles southwest from the Wilderness tavern, was Parker's store.

From the Confederate signal station on Clark's mountain, near the right of Ewell's position, the Federal camps could be plainly seen. On May 2nd Lee, accompanied by several of his generals, made a personal observation, saw the commotion in the Union lines, and rightly conjectured that an early movement of some kind was in contemplation. He accordingly directed his officers to hold their commands in readiness to move against the flank of the Federal army whenever the orders were given from the signal station. It was on this same day that Meade, by Grant's instructions, issued his orders for the advance. Knowing that his every movement was observed by the enemy, he determined to cross the Rapidan during the night. At midnight on the 3rd the 5th and 6th corps, preceded by Wilson cavalry division, began crossing at Germanna ford. The 2nd corps, preceded by Gregg's cavalry, crossed at Ely's ford farther down the river. On the evening of the 4th Warren's corps went into bivouac near the Wilderness tavern, Sedgwick was between Warren and the Rapidan; Hancock was near the cross-roads at Chancellorsville and Burnside, with the 9th corps, was moving by a forced march from the Rappahannock river toward Germanna ford in response to a telegram from Grant. Wilson's cavalry covered both the plank road and the turnpike west of Warren's camp, the main body of the division being at Parker's store and a small force at Robertson's tavern on the pike. The orders issued that evening for the movements of the army on the 5th would indicate that both Grant and Meade believed that Lee would fall back toward Richmond upon finding his flank turned by a superior force. In this they were mistaken. Lee had outgeneraled Hooker on the same ground a year before, and he now decided to make an effort at least to drive the Federals back across the Rapidan. Therefore, as soon as he learned on the morning of the 4th that Meade's advance had crossed the river, Ewell was directed to move by the Orange turnpike, Hill by the plank road, and Longstreet was ordered to bring up his corps with all possible despatch. That night Ewell was bivouacked about 5 miles from Warren's camp, Hill was at Verdiersville, about 3 miles in the rear of Ewell, and Longstreet was at Brock's bridge, 10 miles east of Gordonsville.

During the night Lee sent word to Ewell to "bring on the battle now as soon as possible," and ordered Hill to move forward at the same time as Ewell. Warren's orders were to move at 5 a.m on the 5th to Parker's store and extend his right toward the Wilderness tavern to connect with the 6th corps. He moved on time, Crawford's division in advance, Wadsworth's in the center and Griffin's in the rear. About 7 o'clock Meade received a despatch from Warren, announcing that the Confederates were in some force on the pike about 2 miles west of the tavern. Meade hurried to the front and directed Warren to attack with his entire corps to develop what part of Lee's army was there. Hancock, who was moving to take a position on Warren's left, was ordered to halt at Todd's tavern and await further orders. Sedgwick was ordered to move by a cross-road that left the Germanna road at Spottswood, attack any Confederate force he might find in his way, and connect with Warren's right on the pike. Grant joined Meade soon after these orders were issued and the two generals established their headquarters on the knoll around the Lacy house, a little west of the Wilderness tavern.

At 8 o'clock Crawford was in a strong position on the Chewning farm, where he was directed to halt until Griffin and Wadsworth were ready to move against the enemy on the turnpike, when he was to send one of his brigades to join in the attack. About noon Griffin attacked vigorously striking Jones brigade of Johnson's division and driving it back in some confusion through the supporting line, after which he advanced against Battle's and Doles' brigades of Rodes' division. Wright of the 6th corps, was to have moved forward on Warren's right, but owing to the dense thickets and the uneven surface of the ground, he was unable to connect with Griffin's line in time to carry out the original plan of attack. As Griffin advanced, his right therefore became exposed and Ewell hurled the brigades of Gordon and Daniel against his flank forcing Ayres' brigade back across the pike. Seeing that his line was in danger of being broken, Griffin then gave the order to fall back. In executing this order his line was so closely pressed by the Confederates that he was compelled to abandon 2 pieces of artillery. Wadsworth, in moving forward through the thickets, lost his direction and exposed his left flank to Gordon and Daniel, just after they had forced Griffin to retire. These two brigades now attacked Wadsworth and drove back his left in disorder. The Confederates then poured through the gap thus formed and struck Dennison's brigade of Robinson's division in the flank as it was moving to Wadsworth's support. Pursuant to orders Crawford had sent McCandless' brigade to join Wadsworth's left, but the latter had begun his advance before McCandless could reach the position assigned him. The brigade was moved forward, however, in the direction that McCandless supposed would bring him into the desired place, and came up just in time to be engaged by Gordon's victorious forces after Dennison's defeat. A sharp fight ensued, but McCandless was greatly outnumbered and was finally forced to withdraw with a severe loss in killed and wounded and the capture of several hundred of his men. Ewell then reformed his line on the ground where he was first attacked and intrenched his position. Warren fell back about 300 yards and formed a new line with his right resting on the pike.

Early in the morning Wilson left Col. Hammond, with the 5th N. Y. at Parker's store and pushed on with the rest of his command toward the Craig meeting-house. Soon after Wilson's departure Hammond became engaged with Hill's advance and Crawford threw forward a skirmish line of his infantry to support the cavalry. This line soon encountered Kirkland's brigade of Heth's division and with Hammond's regiment was slowly forced back along the plank road toward the Wilderness tavern. Getty's division was hurried forward to the intersection of the Brock and Orange plank roads, and a despatch was sent to Hancock directing him to move up on the Brock road to Getty's support. Getty reached the cross-roads just in time to secure that important position, and formed his division in two lines of battle at right angles to the plank road, Wheaton's brigade in the center, Grant's on the left and Eustis' on the right. Hill advanced against this line, but received such a galling fire that he speedily retired and for the next two hours everything was quiet, except for the almost constant firing of the skirmishers. When Hancock received the order at 9 a.m. to halt at Todd's tavern his advance was already some 2 miles beyond that point, and this caused some delay when, two hours later, he was ordered to move to the support of Getty. At 2 p.m. Birney's division came up on the Brock road and formed on Getty's left in two lines of battle along that road. The divisions of Mott and Gibbon followed in order, as fast as the narrow road and dense undergrowth would permit, and also formed in two lines on the left of Birney. Barlow's division, on the extreme left, was thrown forward to some high, clear ground, which was the only place along the line where artillery could be used to advantage. Here Hancock massed all his batteries except Dow's and one section of Ricketts', the former of which was placed near Mott's left and the latter on the plank road. As fast as the different commands fell into position breastworks of logs and earth were thrown up. The second line also threw up works in the rear of the first, and later a third line was constructed behind the divisions of Mott and Birney. Before his troops were in position Hancock received orders to attack, and a little after 3 p.m. Getty was directed to attack at once, without waiting for Hancock. During the lull of two hours Hill had been industriously pushing his men into position and forming a junction with Ewell's right. He was anxiously awaiting and expecting the arrival of Longstreet, but that officer had delayed his advance, because he was unwilling to take the road assigned him by Lee, and waited for permission to select his own route. The result was that when darkness fell on the 5th he was still miles away from Hill's right.

Although Getty received orders about 3 o'clock to attack at once, his advance was delayed an hour, as he was engaged in shifting Wheaton's brigade to the right of the plank road to make more room for the 2nd corps. At 4:15 he moved forward down the plank roads, but had not proceeded more than 300 yards when he encountered Heth's division. Ricketts' guns had advanced with the line of infantry and did good service in forcing back the enemy's center, but Hill's line overlapped Getty's flanks and the slight advantage gained in the center was more than offset by the severe losses on both the right and left, where the Federal attacks were repulsed, Grant losing nearly 1,000 men, about one-half of his brigade. Seeing that Getty had met the enemy in force, Hancock ordered Birney's and Mott's divisions to his support, and a little later sent Carroll's brigade of Gibbon's division to the right of the plank road to support Eustis. About 5:30 the enemy charged and forced back the Union line for 50 yards. One of Ricketts' guns had to be abandoned on account of the horses being killed. Some of the Confederates reached this gun and planted their colors on it, but they were driven away before they could withdraw it. About the time that this charge was made Hancock had completed the formation of his line and attacked Hill's right with great vigor, Smyth's "Irish" brigade driving back the enemy's line for some distance. In his report Hancock says: "The battle raged with great severity and obstinacy until 8 p.m. without decided advantage to either party." While this was apparently true at the time an hour more of daylight would have witnessed Hill's defeat. He had extended his lines to the southward to cover the ground that had been assigned to Longstreet. This thin line was now shattered and disjointed, and had it been severely pressed for an hour longer it must inevitably have been broken at some point and the whole corps driven from the field. During the action Gen. Hays' commanding one of Hancock's brigades, was killed; Col. Carroll and Gen. Getty were both severely wounded, but neither left the field until the fighting was over for the day.

In the afternoon some heavy skirmishing took place on the Federal right. About 5 p.m. Ricketts' 2nd brigade, under the command of Brig.-Gen. Truman Seymour, who had relieved Col. B. F. Smith that morning, Neill's brigade of Getty's division, and part of Wrights's 1st brigade, under Col. W. H. Penrose, attacked the Confederate brigades of Hays and Pegram in a strongly intrenched position on the ridge south of net run. Pegram placed some artillery on his left, the fire from which enfiladed Neill's line, forcing him and Penrose to retire from the field with considerable loss. Seymour continued the contest until dark, but was unable to dislodge the enemy from his position. The Federal loss in killed and wounded was heavy on this part of the field, Col. Keifer, commanding Seymour's first line, being severely wounded. On the other side Gen. Pegram was wounded and compelled to leave the field.

While these different infantry engagements were going on the cavalry was not idle. At the Craig meeting-house Chapman's brigade of Wilson's division encountered Rosser's brigade of Hampton's cavalry and drove it back about 2 miles. Rosser was then strongly reinforced and Chapman fell back on the 1st brigade at the junction of the Parker's store and Catharpin roads. Soon after this Wilson ordered his whole command to Todd's tavern, where he had been directed by Sheridan to meet Gregg's division. On the way to Todd's he was closely pressed by the Confederate cavalry. Gregg arrived at the tavern about the same time as Wilson, when the two divisions immediately assumed the offensive and drove the enemy beyond Corbin's bridge across the Po river.

Immediately after the fighting ceased on the 5th, Hancock, Warren and Sedgwick received orders to attack at 5 o'clock the next morning. Burnside, then in the vicinity of Germanna ford, was instructed to march at 2 a.m., with Stevenson's, Potter's and Willcox's divisions, and be in position to join in the general advance at the hour designated. From prisoners captured during the day it was learned that Longstreet was hourly expected and Hancock was notified to keep a close watch on his left. Barlow's division, with all the artillery of the 2nd corps, was therefore placed in position to protect the left flank and a strong skirmish line was thrown out on the Brock road. The Federal attack was anticipated by the enemy, who began firing on both the left and right a few minutes before 5 o'clock. Soon after the firing commenced, Hancock attacked in two lines, extending across the plank road, Getty's division, with Eustis on the right, Wheaton in the center and Grant on the left, supporting the divisions of Mott and Birney, the latter being in command of Hancock's right wing. The Confederates were pushed back about a mile and a half from the cross-roads when Wadsworth's division came sweeping in from the right, which threw the enemy into confusion and resulted in the capture of several hundred prisoners. The whole line then pressed on after the almost routed enemy for nearly a mile farther; Lee's trains and headquarters were in full view and the battle was nearly won, when a heavy artillery fire was opened on the Union lines from Poague's batteries masked in the shrubbery on the south side of the road, and it was learned that one of Longstreet's divisions had finally connected with Hill's right. In the impetuous advance Hancock's line had become somewhat disordered and he ordered a halt to readjust his lines before engaging the fresh troops. Getty had been wounded during the action and turned over the command of the division to Wheaton. He was now relieved by Webb's brigade of Gibbon's division and formed his command along the original line of battle on the Brock road. At 7 a.m. Gibbon, commanding the left wing, was directed to attack the Confederate right with Barlow's division, but owing to the expected attack by Longstreet the order was but partially carried out. Frank's brigade only was thrown forward to feel the enemy's position and after some sharp fighting it connected with Mott's left. About 8 o'clock Stevenson's division of Burnside's corps reported to Hancock. Burnside, with his 2nd and 3rd divisions, had been expected to move by a cross-toad toward Parker's store, on Birney's right, and attack simultaneously with the rest of the line. About the time of Stevenson's arrival at the Brock road, Hancock received word from Meade that Burnside had then pushed forward nearly to the store and was ready to attack. This information proved to be erroneous and was in a measure contributory to the disaster that overtook Hancock later in the day. Burnside was delayed by a lack of definite information regarding the ground over which he was to move and the dense thickets he encountered, so that it was 2 p.m. before his attack was commenced. A few minutes before 9 o'clock Birney, Mott and Wadsworth, with part of Stevenson's division and three brigades of Gibbon's, resumed the attack along the plank road and were soon furiously engaged with the enemy. Just previous to this, rapid firing was heard in the direction of Todd's tavern, which Hancock supposed to be the threatened flank attack by Longstreet, and this caused him to send Brooke's brigade of Barlow's division out on the Brock road to occupy a line of breastworks there to hold Longstreet in check. Leasure's brigade of the 9th corps and Eustis' of the 6th were held in readiness to support Barlow. As a matter of fact Longstreet was at that moment in Hancock's front, the firing at Todd's being an engagement between Sheridan and the Confederate cavalry. In his report Hancock says: "The arrangements made on my extreme left to receive Longstreet prevented me from pushing my success at the time when Gen. Birney was driving Hill on the plank road."

End of Report

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