Battle of the Wilderness, Va.
5-7 May '64.
The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock on 4 May but was forced to stop in the Wilderness to wait for the supply train to catch up. That afternoon Hancock's 11 Corps bivouacked at Chancellorsville, Warren's V Corps was at Old Wilderness Tavern, and the cavalry divisions of Gregg and J. H. Wilson were forward at Piney Branch Church and Parker's Store, respectively. The Federals had detected some enemy activity along the road from Orange C.H. Lee, who had anticipated Grant's movement and had resolved to hit the Federals while they were in the difficult Wilderness terrain, had Ewell's corps on the Orange Turnpike, and A. P. Hill (minus R. H. Anderson's division) on the Plank Road. The head of Ewell's column was at Locust Grove, little more than three miles from Warren, while A. P. Hill was but slightly more distant from J. H. Wilson. Yet neither army seemed aware of the other's proximity. Longstreet's corps had been at Mechanicsville, and Stuart's cavalry at Fredericksburg; both were moving in to join the rest of the Army of Northern Va. R.H. Anderson's division (A. P. Hill) was near Orange C.H.
At 6 P.m. 4 May Grant issued orders to continue the march at 5 o'clock the next morning through the Wilderness to the southeast. Burnside's IX Corps had also been ordered up from its previous mission of guarding the Orange and Alexandria R. R. Sedgwick's VI Corps was just across the Rappahannock. The stage was set.
At 7:15 A.m. 5 May Warren reported a considerable enemy force on the turnpike about two miles from Wilderness Tavern. He was ordered to attack what Grant and Meade believed to be no more than a division.
Crawford, whose division (3, V) had advanced to the Chewning farm, was ordered to hold his position, but to be prepared to send one brigade to support Warren. About noon Griffin (1, V) attacked, routed John M. Jones's brigade of Johnson's division, and then advanced against Battle's and Doles's brigades of Rodes's division (south of the turnpike). Jones was killed. In this advance, however, his right flank became exposed and was attacked by Gordon and Daniel. The Federal brigade of Ayres (1, 1, V) was driven back and Griffin had to pull back his entire line. Stafford was mortally wounded and Pegram wounded. Wright's division (1, VI) had been ordered to move from Spotswood to fall in on Griffin's right for this attack and protect his flank, but had not been able to get up in time. He arrived about 3 P.m. and then repulsed an attack by two brigades of Edward Johnson's division. On the other flank Wadsworth's division (4, V) had been ordered to reinforce Griffin's south flank, but it got lost and was driven back in disorder when its right flank was hit by the advancing brigades of Gordon and Daniel. This created a gap through which the Confederates advanced and overpowered Denison's brigade of Robinson's division (3, 2, V). McCandless' brigade (1, 3, V) had also been ordered to form on Wadsworth's left, but Wadsworth had moved out before McCandless could make contact with him. McCandless collided with the forces of Gordon that had just defeated Denison and was also defeated with considerable loss after a heavy engagement. Ewell then dug in along the line where contact had first been made. Opposite him Warren formed (south of the pike) and Sedgwick (minus Getty) extended the line north of the pike.
To the south, along the Plank Road, the 5th N.Y. and 3d Pa. Cav. were left to outpost Parker's Store while Wilson moved with the rest of his division southwest toward Craig's Meeting House. Kirkland's brigade of Heth's division led A. P. Hill's advance along the Plank Road and drove the Federals toward Wilderness Tavern. Getty's division (2, VI), which had been marching southeast through the latter crossroads at 9 A.M.,was sent to stop this enemy advance. At the same time Hancock's corps was ordered to halt in the vicinity of Todd's Tavern. However, in accordance with his earlier orders, Hancock was already two miles beyond the tavern toward Shady Grove Church, and had to countermarch. Getty reached the intersection of the Brock and Plank roads just in time to stop Heth's advance. Both sides then dug in. D. D. Birney's division (3, 11) arrived at 2 P.m. and formed to Getty's south; Mott, Gibbon, and Barlow followed and extended the line to the south. Baxter's brigade (2, 2, V) arrived late in the afternoon. A. P. Hill, meanwhile, had been building up his own line and extending north to link up with Ewell; at the same time he was anxiously awaiting the expected arrival of Longstreet behind him. Longstreet, however, had delayed his advance while getting permission to move via the Catharpin Road instead of the Plank Road as Lee had ordered; the result was that he did not arrive in time for the first day's fighting.
Hancock had also wasted time digging a defensive position before attacking A. P. Hill. Getty attacked at 4:15, after delaying an hour to shift position to make room for Hancock. Although he gained ground with the assistance of Ricketts' battery against the center of Heth's position, he was repulsed on both flanks. The brigade of Col. Lewis A. Grant (2, 2, VI) lost almost 50 per cent. Hancock reinforced with the divisions of D. B. Birney (along the road) and Mott (against the enemy's right); later he committed Carroll's brigade of Gibbon's division (3, 2, II) to the right of the Plank Road in support of Eustis' brigade of Getty's division (4, 2, VI). "There was never more desperate fighting than now ensued," wrote E. P. Alexander. During the action Wilcox' division reinforced Heth. About 5:30 P.m. the Confederates attacked and gained about 50 yards. Two of Barlow's brigades then charged and drove back Hill's right. At 8 p.m., after dark, the fighting stopped. Five Federal divisions (38.000 men) had failed to dislodge A.P. Hill's two divisions (14,000).
Wadsworth's division (4, V) had been ordered from the north to reinforce Hancock by attacking Hill's exposed left. It was unable to find its way through the difficult underbrush in time to be effective.
Along the turnpike there had been heavy skirmishing. About 5 P.m. the brigades of Seymour (2, 3, VI), Neill (3, 2, VI), and part of Wright's 1st brig. (under W. H. Penrose) attacked the strongly-entrenched brigades of Hays and Pegram south of Flat Run. Neill and Penrose were repulsed with heavy loss by guns Pegram had located so as to enfilade their lines. Seymour attacked until darkness without being able to break through.
Since he expected Longstreet to arrive soon to relieve his tired troops on the Orange Plank Road, A. P. Hill made the mistake of disapproving the urgent recommendation of Heth that earthworks be constructed in this sector in preparation for the anticipated continuation of Federal attacks.
Not having identified either Longstreet's corps or R. H. Anderson's division during the day's fighting, Grant ordered a general attack to start at dawn of 6 May. During the night Burnside's IX corps hurried up to reinforce Hancock, while Longstreet and Anderson moved to reinforce A.P. Hill.
At 5 A.M. Birney attacked with the support of Getty and two of Gibbon's brigades. Mott advanced toward Hill's right. Wadsworth, who had made contact with Hill's left about dark of the preceding day, was to attack in that area. Birney was stopped when he came up against Hill's line, but then succeeded in enveloping it from the south while Wadsworth made progress against the other flank, The Confederates were about to be routed when Field's and Kershaw's divisions of Longstreet's corps arrived and formed a new defensive line.
Gibbon was in command of a force on the Federal south flank along the Brock Road to guard against an expected advance by Longstreet from this direction. In compliance with an order to attack the Confederate south flank with Barlow's division, Gibbon had sent forward only Frank's brigade (3, 1. II). After hard fighting this unit made contact with Mott's left. Due to the difficult terrain Burnside's two divisions were late. At about 8 o'clock Stevenson's division of this corps reported to Hancock and Hancock was informed at about the same time that Burnside with the two other divisions was in position to attack on his right. Actually Burnside did not get into position until 2 P.m.
Shortly before 9 A.m. Hancock resumed his attack along the Plank Road with Birney, Mott, Wadsworth, part of Stevenson's division, and three brigades of Gibbon's division. Having heard firing to his south, Hancock sent Brooke's brigade (4, 1, 11) to guard the Brock Road against a possible approach of Longstreet. Actually, the latter was at this moment on Hancock's front; the firing to the south was a skirmish between Sheridan's and Stuart's cavalry at TODD's TAVERN. The concern over an attack from this area was further heightened when a column was reported advancing on the Brock Road. This turned out to be a group of Federal convalescents who were trying to rejoin their units. While Hancock diverted strength to guard his left, Burnside's attack failed to materialize on his right. By about 9:45 A.M. Longstreet had pushed Hancock back to his line of departure.
Looking for a way to take the offensive, Longstreet learned of an unfinished railroad cut that would provide a covered approach for attacking the Federal south flank. He put his adjutant, Lt. Col. G. Moxley Sorrel, in command of four brigades to make this attempt. The brigades were those of Wofford, G. T. Anderson, Davis, and Mahone. (Many accounts, e. g., Steele, state that Mahone was in command.) Sorrel attacked at 11 A.M., and overwhelmed the Federal flank. Frank's brigade, almost out of ammunition when the attack started, withdrew under heavy pressure; the left of Mott's division then was forced back. Wadsworth was killed while trying to rally his troops. On Birney's suggestion the line was withdrawn to the Brock Road. When Longstreet learned of Sorrel's success, he ordered forward the brigades of Benning, Law, and Gregg. Mahone's men fired by mistake on their own troops, killing Micah Jenkins and seriously wounding Longstreet. (This occurred within five miles of where Stonewall Jackson had been mortally wounded under similar circumstances almost exactly a year before.) Longstreet ordered Field to assume command and press the attack. Lee, however, arrived and ordered this advance delayed until the lines could be straightened out.
There was little fighting in this area between 11 o'clock and 4 P.m. Burnside finally arrived, attacked near the Tapp House, took some ground, but was driven back by reinforcements from Heth's division and Wofford's brigade of Kershaw's division. Before Burnside and Hancock could comply with their orders to attack at 6 P.m.. Lee took the initiative. At 4:15 the Confederates advanced to the abatis 100 yards from the Federals' first line of defense and brought it under heavy musket fire. The Federal line held for half an hour; then Ward's brigade (1, 3, 11) and part of Mott's division broke. Brush fires had started and Hancock reported that portions of the breastworks were burning so that they could not be defended. Although the Confederates planted their flags over the captured works they were then driven back by Carroll's brigade, supported by Dow's battery. Burnside attacked again but accomplished no more than keeping Heth and Wilcox from moving to Lee's support.
To the north Sedgwick and Warren had attacked repeatedly and failed to penetrate Ewell's lines. Gordon had found the exposed Federal right flank, but Ewell had refused him permission to attack it. When Lee visited this portion of the front at 5:30 P.m. he ordered the attack made. Gordon's brigade, supported by part of Robert Johnston's, attacked Sedgwick's exposed right flank just before dark, while Pegram's brigade attacked frontally. Shaler's brigade (4, 1, VI) was driven back on Seymour's (2, 3, VI) and both of these Federal generals were captured with several hundred men. Johnston reached Wright's rear and captured some prisoners before being ejected from the Federal position. Both sides then entrenched. Brush fires had become such a problem that the fighting stopped at several points throughout the day by mutual consent while soldiers of both sides cooperated in trying to save the wounded. During the night of 7-8 May about 200 men were suffocated or burned to death.
After dark Grant's forces withdrew and both armies maneuvered toward their next encounter at Spotsylvania, 7-20 May '64.
The Federals lost an estimated 17,666 out of 101,895 (exclusive of cavalry) engaged; of these, 2,246 were killed and 12,073 wounded. Generals Wadsworth and Alexander Hays were killed, Getty and Carroll wounded, and Shaler and Seymour captured. Confederate effective strength is estimated at 61,025. Although there are no complete casualty reports, Livermore estimates that the Confederates lost a total of 7,750. Gens. Jenkins and J. M. Jones were killed, Stafford mortally wounded, Longstreet, Pegram, Hunter, and Benning were wounded.
Source: : "The Civil War Dictionary" by Mark M. Boatner III
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