At The Wilderness (Part 1, May 5, 1864)
Reminiscences Of The Civil War
By Lt. Gen. John B. Gordon, CSA
Chapter XVII--The Wilderness--Battle Of May 5
Beginning of the long fight between Grant and Lee--Grant crosses the Rapidan--First contact of the two armies--Ewell's repulse--A rapid countercharge--A strange predicament--The Union centre broken--Unprecedented movement which saved the Confederate troops.
LEE and Grant, the foremost leaders of the opposing armies, were now to begin a campaign which was to be practically a continuous battle for eleven months. Grant had come from his campaigns in the Southwest with the laurels of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Missionary Ridge on his brow. Lee stood before him with a record as military executioner unrivalled by that of any warrior of modern times. He had, at astoundingly short intervals and with unvarying regularity, decapitated or caused the official "taking off" of the five previously selected commanders-in-chief of the great army which confronted him.
A more beautiful day never dawned on Clark's Mountain and the valley of the Rapidan than May 5, 1864. There was not a cloud in the sky, and the broad expanse of meadow-lands on the north side of the little river and the steep wooded hills on the other seemed "apparelled in celestial light" as the sun rose upon them. At an early hour, however, the enchantment of the scene was rudely broken by bugles and kettledrums calling Lee's veterans to strike tents and "fall into line." The advent of spring brought intense relief to the thinly clad and poorly fed Confederates. The Army of Northern Virginia had suffered so much during the preceding winter that there was general rejoicing at its close, although every man in that army knew that it meant the opening of another campaign and the coming of Grant's thoroughly equipped and stalwart corps. The reports of General Lee's scouts were scarcely necessary to our appreciation of the fact that the odds against us were constantly and rapidly increasing: for from the highland which bordered the southern banks of the Rapidan one could almost estimate the numbers that were being added to Grant's ranks by the growth of the city of tents spreading out in full view below. The Confederates were profoundly impressed by the situation, but they rejected as utterly unworthy of a Christian soldiery the doctrine that Providence was on the side of the heaviest guns and most numerous battalions. To an unshaken confidence in their great leader and in each other there had been added during the remarkable religious revivals to which I have referred a spiritual vitality which greatly increased among Lee's soldiers the spirit of self-sacrifice and of consecration. Committing themselves and their cause to God, with honest and fervent prayers for His protection and guidance, they hopefully and calmly awaited the results of the coming battle.
On the morning of May 4, 1864, shortly after midnight, General Grant began the movement which was soon to break the long silence of that vast and dense woodland by the roaring tumult of battle. This advance by General Grant inaugurated the seventh act in the "On to Richmond" drama played by the armies of the Union. The first advance, led by General McDowell, had been repelled by Beauregard and Johnston at Bull Run; the next five, under the leadership respectively of McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade, had been repelled by Lee. He had not only defeated these noted leaders, but caused their removal from command of the Union army.
Crossing the Rapidan with but little resistance, General Grant spent the 4th of May in placing his army in position. Pushing toward Richmond the head of his column, which was to form the left of his battle line, in order to throw himself, if possible, between Lee and the Confederate capital, General Grant promptly faced his army in the direction from which Lee must necessarily approach and moved to the front as rapidly as the tangled wilderness would permit. Lee, in the meantime, was hurrying his columns along the narrow roads and throwing out skirmish-lines, backed by such troops as he could bring forward quickly in order to check Grant's advance and to ascertain whether the heaviest assault was to be made upon the Confederate centre or upon the right or left flank. Field-glasses and scouts and cavalry were equally and almost wholly useless in that dense woodland. The tangle of underbrush and curtain of green leaves enabled General Grant to concentrate his forces at any point, while their movements were entirely concealed. Overlapping the Confederate lines on both flanks, he lost no time in pushing to the front with characteristic vigor.
My command brought up the rear of the extreme left of Lee's line, which was led by Ewell's corps. Long before I reached the point of collision, the steady roll of small arms left no doubt as to the character of the conflict in our front. Despatching staff officers to the rear to close up the ranks in compact column, so as to be ready for any emergency, we hurried with quickened step toward the point of heaviest fighting. Alternate confidence and apprehension were awakened as the shouts of one army or the other reached our ears. So distinct in character were these shouts that they were easily discernible. At one point the weird Confederate "yell" told us plainly that Ewell's men were advancing. At another the huzzas, in mighty concert, of the Union troops warned us that they had repelled the Confederate charge; and as these ominous huzzas grew in volume we knew that Grant's lines were moving forward. Just as the head of my column came within range of the whizzing Miniés, the Confederate yells grew fainter, and at last ceased; and the Union shout rose above the din of battle. I was already prepared by this infallible admonition for the sight of Ewell's shattered forces retreating in disorder. The oft-repeated but spasmodic efforts of first one army and then the other to break through the opposing ranks had at last been ended by the sudden rush of Grant's compact veterans from the dense covert in such numbers that Ewell's attenuated lines were driven in confusion to the rear. These retreating divisions, like broken and receding waves, rolled back against the head of my column while we were still rapidly advancing along the narrow road. The repulse had been so sudden and the confusion so great that practically no resistance was now being made to the Union advance; and the elated Federals were so near me that little time was left to bring my men from column into line in order to resist the movement or repel it by countercharge. At this moment of dire extremity I saw General Ewell, who was still a superb horseman, notwithstanding the loss of his leg, riding in furious gallop toward me, his thoroughbred charger bounding like a deer through the dense underbrush. With a quick jerk of his bridle-rein just as his wooden leg was about to come into unwelcome collision with my knee, he checked his horse and rapped out his few words with characteristic impetuosity. He did not stop to explain the situation; there was no need of explanation. The disalignment, the confusion, the rapid retreat of our troops, and the raining of Union bullets as they whizzed and rattled through the scrub-oaks and pines, rendered explanations superfluous, even had there been time to make them. The rapid words he did utter were electric and charged with tremendous significance. "General Gordon, the fate of the day depends on you, sir," he said. "These men will save it, sir," I replied, more with the purpose of arousing the enthusiasm of my men than with any well-defined idea as to how we were to save it. Quickly wheeling a single regiment into line, I ordered it forward in a countercharge, while I hurried the other troops into position. The sheer audacity and dash of that regimental charge checked, as I had hoped it would, the Union advance for a few moments, giving me the essential time to throw the other troops across the Union front. Swiftly riding to the centre of my line, I gave in person the order: "Forward !" With a deafening yell which must have been heard miles away, that glorious brigade rushed upon the hitherto advancing enemy, and by the shock of their furious onset shattered into fragments all that portion of the compact Union line which confronted my troops.
At that moment was presented one of the strangest conditions ever witnessed upon a battle-field. My command covered only a small portion of the long lines in blue, and not a single regiment of those stalwart Federals yielded except those which had been struck by the Southern advance. On both sides of the swath cut by this sweep of the Confederate scythe, the steady veterans of Grant were unshaken and still poured their incessant volleys into the retreating Confederate ranks. My command had cut its way through the Union centre, and at that moment it was in the remarkably strange position of being on identically the same general line with the enemy, the Confederates facing in one direction, the Federals in the other. Looking down that line from Grant's right toward his left, there would first have been seen a long stretch of blue uniforms, then a short stretch of gray, then another still longer of blue, in one continuous line. The situation was both unique and alarming. I know of no case like it in military history; nor has there come to my knowledge from military text-books or the accounts of the world's battles any precedent for the movement which extricated my command from its perilous environment and changed the threatened capture or annihilation of my troops into victory. The solid and dotted portions of the line, here given, correctly represent the position of my troops in relation to the Federals at this particular juncture: the Union forces are indicated by a solid line, the Confederates (my command) by a dotted line, and the arrows indicate the direction in which the forces were facing.
It will be seen that further movement to Grant's rear was not to be considered; for his unbroken lines on each side of me would promptly close up the gap which my men had cut through his centre, thus rendering the capture of my entire command inevitable. To attempt to retire by the route by which we had advanced was almost, if not equally, as hazardous; for those same unbroken and now unopposed ranks on each side of me, as soon as such retrograde movement began, would instantly rush from both directions upon my retreating command and quickly crush it. In such a crisis, when moments count for hours, when the fate of a command hangs upon instantaneous decision, the responsibility of the commander is almost overwhelming; but the very extremity of the danger electrifies his brain to abnormal activity. In such peril he does more thinking in one second than he would ordinarily do in a day. No man ever realized more fully than I did at that dreadful moment the truth of the adage: "Necessity is the mother of invention." As soon as my troops had broken through the Union ranks, I directed my staff to halt the command; and before the Union veterans could recover from the shock, my regiments were moving at double-quick from the centre into file right and left, thus placing them in two parallel lines, back to back, in a position at a right angle to the one held a moment before. This quickly executed manoeuvre placed one half of my command squarely upon the right flank of one portion of the enemy's unbroken line, and the other half facing in exactly the opposite direction, squarely upon the left flank of the enemy's line. This position is correctly represented by the solid (Federal)and dotted (Confederate) lines here shown.
This done, both these wings were ordered forward, and, with another piercing yell, they rushed in opposite directions upon the right and left flanks of the astounded Federals, shattering them as any troops that were ever marshalled would have been shattered, capturing large numbers, and checking any further effort by General Grant on that portion of the field.
Meantime, while this unprecedented movement was being executed, the Confederates who had been previously driven back, rallied and moved in spirited charge to the front and recovered the lost ground. Both armies rested for the night near the points where the first collisions of the day had occurred. It would be more accurate to say they remained for the night; for there was little rest to the weary men of either army. Both sides labored all night in the dark and dense woodland, throwing up such breastworks as were possible--a most timely preparation for the next day's conflicts. My own command was ordered during the night to the extreme left of Lee's lines, under the apprehension that Grant's right overlapped and endangered our left flank.
Thus ended the 5th of May, which had witnessed the first desperate encounter between Grant and Lee. The fighting had not involved the whole of either army, but it was fierce and bloody. It would be unjust to claim that either of the famous leaders had achieved a signal victory. Both sides had left their dead scattered through the bullet-riddled underbrush. The Confederates drew comfort from the fact that in the shifting fortunes of the day theirs was the last advance, that the battle had ended near where it had begun, and that the Union advance had been successfully repulsed.
It was impossible to know what changes in the disposition of his forces General Grant would make during the night. It was useless to speculate as to whether he would mass his troops for still heavier assault upon the positions we then held or would concentrate against Lee's right or left flank. All that could be done was to prepare as best we could for any contingency, and await the developments which the morrow would bring.
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