The Battle of the
(Days One and Two)
The Crossing: May 4th
The Battle of the Wilderness began with the crossing of the Rapidan River. In the early hours of May 4th the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan River according to Andrew Humphreys’ plan. Lee’s foresight in alerting the observers on Clark’s Mountain gave the Confederates advance warning of the crossings.
By mid-morning Hancock’s Corps had reached the old Chancellorsville battlefield and settled into their camps. According to one officer the area was strewn with the bones of both men and horses that had been hastily buried after that battle a year before.
By noon Warren’s V Corps began to arrive around the Wilderness Tavern and encamp. The units were exhausted. Some of them had been on the move for 12 hours.
By late morning elements of Richard Ewell’s Second Corp and A.P. Hill’s Corps had started to react to the Federal incursion. Down in Gordonsville about 40 miles to the south, James Longstreet had received orders from Lee to march his First Corps north. Longstreet made one suggested change from Lee’s orders. He proposed to take roads that would bring him along side of Hill’s Corps rather than behind him. Lee approved of this change. His soldiers began to march at 4:00 PM.
Meanwhile Ewell and Hill’s soldiers advanced on parallel roads. Hill’s Corps marched on the Orange Plank Road while Ewell’s were on the Orange Turnpike to their north. Robert E. Lee rode along with Hill’s Corps.
At Locust Grove in the late afternoon Federal cavalry scouting for James Wilson’s 3rd Cavalry Division narrowly missed spotting Ewell’s force and continued further south. Ewell’s men would camp this night at Locust Grove. They were miles closer to the Federal forces than anyone in the Federal command realized.
By 6:00 PM orders for the next day’s movement went out to the various commands. Hancock was to march southwest to Shady Grove Church. Warren was ordered to move from the Wilderness Tavern southwest to Parker’s Store. Sedgwick was to march from Germanna Ford to Wilderness Tavern. Finally, Burnside would take over the defense of the ford.
The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5th
In the early morning of May 5th it became apparent to Lee that Grant was neither moving east toward Fredericksburg nor west toward Min Run. Lee realized that he was heading south through the Wilderness. Lee felt that this would negate the advantage of his superiority in numbers. It was at this point that the Battle of the Wilderness began.
Hancock’s II Corps began their advance to Shady Grove Church at around 5:00 AM. He would not get there on this day.
Shortly after dawn the first firing began along the Orange Plank Road, the axis of advance for Warren. The 5th New York Cavalry was leading the advance and ran into skirmishers from the 47th North Carolina at the head of Hill’s column. The 500-men of the Federal cavalry unit were picked men armed with Spencer repeaters and pushed the Confederates back.
As in most engagements of this type reinforcements were brought forward as the engagement grew. The Confederate force began to overlap the Federal flanks. The New Yorkers made a fighting retreat as they waited for infantry support. By 8:00 AM elements of Warren’s V Corps had moved forward to reinforce the hard-pressed cavalry.
At this point the Confederate forces were separated by some 2 ¾ miles. Lee was anxious that the advance of Ewell and Hill be as synchronized as possible.
Hancock’s column was past Todd’s Tavern and well on its way to Shady Grove Church when a courier from Meade’s headquarters delivered a message to halt at Todd’s Tavern.
Meanwhile, over on the Orange Turnpike Warren continued to feed troops into the fight. The terrain on either side of the road was thick with undergrowth which made for hard going.
At about 10:00 AM Grant appeared at the front on the Orange Turnpike. Earlier Grant had ordered an attack against the Confederate forces but two hours later it had not been done. This confirmed his worst fears about the Army of the Potomac. He immediately ordered an attack by Charles Griffin’s Division. Sedgewick was to move his lead brigades into position on Griffin’s right. Grant realized that if his forces did not hold the vital intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank roads his army would be cut in two. The possibility of a defeat-in -detail would arise. Grant made a number of moves that essentially tried to tie his two wings together. Horace Porter, a member of Grant’s staff, observed that he then lit a cigar, sat down on a tree stump, took out his penknife and began to whittle.
Federal infantry from George Getty’s Division arrived at the intersection minutes before the Confederates and set up a line to protect the vital crossroads.
The Federal attack against Ewell’s forces along the Orange Turnpike was a bloody affair with horrendous casualties on both sides. Because of the thick undergrowth units could not maneuver properly. Many of the line officers were killed or severely wounded leaving the troops leaderless. Two New York regiments ceased to exist with their men killed, wounded or captured.
The woods in some areas became ignited by powder sparks and caught fire. Many of the cartridge boxes on dead and wounded troopers exploded adding to the horror.
By 2 PM Federal units at the Brock and Orange Plank roads intersection were being reinforced and had extended their defensive line on either side of the Orange Plank Road. The Federal soldiers erected light breastwork on the Brock Road. Meade ordered Hancock to attack down the Orange Plank Road. It seemed as if Meade thought that the II Corps was present in greater strength than it actually was.
All during the afternoon the Federal VI Corps reinforced Warren’s troops on the Orange Turnpike. Charles Griffin gradually pulled his men out of the line and reorganized them behind it. As soon as Sedgewick felt that his troops were positioned properly they attacked the Confederates north of the Orange Turnpike. Soldiers remarked later that they did not see the enemy but fired by ear. The attempt was to no avail and was pushed back by sustained Confederate counterattacks.
Meade ordered George Getty’s Division to attack down the Orange Plank Road at about 3:25 PM. Despite misgivings Getty ordered the attack. Hancock had been ordered to position a division on each side of Getty’s force with two more divisions in reserve. Headquarters then began to micromanage the dispositions of Hancock’s Corps, ordering David Birney’s division to move from the left and reposition on the right while Gershon Mott’s division would move up and take its place in the front line. On good open ground this would have been challenging. In the dense undergrowth of the Wilderness it was courting disaster.
By this time Lee’s two wings had linked up. The two corps were now in the field were able to support each other.
Hancock’s worst fears came to pass. As Getty’s men moved forward in the dense undergrowth they were hit with relentless infantry fire. One North Carolinian called it “pure butchery”. The chaplain of 102nd Pennsylvania said the “thousands and thousands of Minnie balls” were fired at them. Due to the movement of the division on the left Getty’s flank unraveled. The regiments in the line were flanked one after the other. Some units were isolated and surrounded. Birney sent a brigade to attack the Confederate line, extricating a Vermont regiment. All of this fighting was taking place in the dense woods where men could only about 20 yards. The battle raged back and forth with fearful casualties on both sides. Streams of wounded men moved to the Federal rear while reinforcements and ammunition moved to the front line. Mott’s men moved to the attack but by then confusion reigned supreme. This was compounded by the incessant gunfire of the Confederates and the density of the woods.
As Mott’s units began to break, Hancock sent Gibbon’s unit to bolster his line. As the disorganized Federal soldiers fled from the woods onto the Brock Road, Hancock rallied them into an organized line. It was at this point in the battle that the body of Brigadier General Alexander Hays was carried from the woods by his men. He had been shot in the head while leading his troops on horseback. Hays and Grant had been at West Point together. It was now 5:00 PM.
Grant was not yet prepared to call it a day. Grant had sent Wadsworth’s division and a brigade from Robinson’s division to reinforce Hancock.
Meanwhile, James Longstreet’s Corps was approaching the battle. By 5:00 PM they had marched 28 miles and were about 10 miles from the Orange Plank Road. At this point Longstreet had received orders to change the direction of his advance and “unite with the troops of the Third Corps on the Plank Road”. He was not reassured by this change.
As more troops on either side were fed into the battle the fighting intensified. Neither side was able to gain an advantage as attack after attack failed to break the opposing forces. Each side had brought up several artillery pieces and used them to fire down the narrow Plank Road. The exposed gunners on each side took fearful casualties and possession of the guns changed hands. However, by the fall of darkness all of the cannon were in the possession of their original owners.
Darkness brought a merciful end to the hellish combat and the troops on each side began to rest from the all-day combat. False alarms of night attacks continually roused the exhausted soldiers on each side.
The headquarters of both armies used the night to plan their tactics for the following day. At about 2:00 AM Longstreet’s Corps resumed their long march to the battle area. John Gordon’s Georgians were moved from the extreme right to the extreme left, where they rejoined their division. This move was to have a tremendous impact later. Meanwhile, the troops ate, rested and reorganized. In some place breastworks were reinforced. Ammunition was resupplied. Meade asked Grant for a delay in the morning attack from 4:30 AM until 6:00 AM due to the difficulty of the terrain and the exhaustion of the men. Grant modified his orders but only until 5:00 AM.