The first clash between the war's two most famous leaders, Robert E. Lee and U. S. Grant, unfolded in the dense thickets of 'the Wilderness' on 5-6 May 1864. Grant's plan to slip across Lee's front and get between him and the Confederate capital at Richmond crumbled when the Confederates came in from the west and struck him a violent blow. For two days the fighting raged in woods and the few clearings, notably Saunders Field and the Widow Tapp Farm, and along the corridors of the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road. The Federals came close to success in each of the sectors, which were fought in virtual isolation from each other because of the underbrush; but on 6 May Confederate attacks turned and shattered both Federal flanks. On 7 May, Grant moved southeast away from the Wilderness, toward Spotsylvania Court House.
thunderbolt. The Brock Road offered Grant and Meade the only practicable route southward through the Wilderness. Two east-west roads served Lee as corridors of advance and attack. The old Orange Turnpike ran 2.5 miles (4km) north of the parallel Orange Plank Road. Densely scrubby country separated them. The intersections of the two Orange roads with the Brock Road network became the focus of the strivings of both armies for two days, 5-6 May 1864.
The Battle of the Wilderness erupted on the Orange Turnpike on the morning of the 5th when Federal detachments in that quarter saw Confederates of General Richard S. Ewell's corps threatening from the west. Grant directed Meade to attack. Meade sent General Gouverneur K. Warren's V Corps. The Confederates had begun to build earthworks along the crest of a ridge at the western edge of a 40-acre (16-ha) open space known locally as Saunders Field. When Warren's men marched in determined ranks into the field and started up the other side, they were inaugurating a pattern that defined much of the subsequent two days of fighting on the Turnpike. Confederate firepower pouring down the slope into Saunders Field, from behind defensive works, proved more than flesh and blood could stand - both at the first attack and through many others that followed. An early Unionist surge did attain the western crest, killing Southern General John M. Jones and breaking the line. However, Confederates pounding rapidly eastward on the Turnpike soon ejected the interlopers and restored the position.
Much of General John Sedgwick's Federal V Corps went to Warren's aid. Throughout 5 May men on both sides, particularly the blue-clad attackers, died in the struggle for Saunders Field. A section of guns stranded between the lines served as a magnet for repeated hand-to-hand strife. At day's end, the initial situation around the field remained unchanged despite a daunting expenditure of blood: Federals held the eastern edge, Confederates the western.
The thickets of the Wilderness, broken by only a few rude paths and desolate farmsteads, made maneuvering and fighting on a large scale impracticable between the Turnpike and the Plank Road. Both armies recognized the potential advantage of using the unoccupied middle ground as a means of threatening an exposed enemy rear; both made gestures toward exploiting the opportunity; neither ever managed to effect a serious lodgment.
Meanwhile, a separate battle raged on the Orange Plank Road, nearly in isolation from
The Texans turn Lee back on the Widow Tapp Farm, Wilderness Battlefield. (Painting by Don Troiani, www.historicalartprints.com)
events a few miles to the north. General A. P. Hill's Confederate Third Corps moved eastward on the Plank Road. The sturdy Federal II Corps, commanded by the indomitable General Winfield Scott Hancock, interposed an obstacle between Hill and the crucial intersection. General George W. Getty's division, extracted from VI Corps up on the Turnpike, hurried south to help Hancock hold the Brock-Plank crossroads. Bitter fighting seethed through the confusing thickets. Men died by the hundreds and fell maimed by the thousands.
Federal strength threatened to overwhelm Hill, but at the end of 5 May he had held. One-third of Lee's infantry, the First Corps under General James Longstreet, did not reach the battlefield at all on 5 May. Hill's troops, weary and decimated and ill-organized, lay in the brush of the Wilderness that night with the desolate awareness that they could not withstand a serious attack in the morning.
The arrival of Longstreet's first troops early on 6 May salvaged a desperate situation for Lee and resulted in a moment of high personal drama for the Southern leader. Hancock had carefully arranged for a broad attack on both sides of the Plank Road. Soon after dawn, he launched his assault with characteristic vigor. It rolled steadily forward, scattering Hill's regiments and threatening to rupture Lee's entire front. Artillery had been of little use in the thickets, but a battalion of a dozen Confederate guns lined the woods at the western edge of the Tapp field, a 30-acre clearing around the rude cabin and modest farm of a widow named Tapp - the only sizable open space anywhere in the battle zone along the Plank Road. The cannon flung canister across the Tapp Farm space in double-shotted doses, making the ground untenable for Union infantry. Northern troops filtered around the edge of the clearing to get in behind the guns and complete the victory. Then, without any time
The final Confederate attack on 6 May swept all the way to the Brock Road, but could not hold the position. (Public domain)
whatsoever to spare, the van of Longstreet's column reached the point of crisis.
Among the first units up was the famed Texas Brigade, perhaps Lee's best shock troops. The battles that had won the Texans their well-deserved renown had cost them enormous casualties: fewer than 800 of them remained to carry muskets into the Wilderness that morning. As the brigade moved resolutely through the hard-pressed artillery, Lee rode quietly beside them. The General recognized his army's peril, and had determined to take a personal role in repairing the rupture. When the Texans noticed him, and recognized his intention,
'a yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around.' The Texans urged Lee to go back, shouting that they would not go forward until he did so. A soldier (there would later be dozens of claimants for the honor) grasped Lee's bridle and turned him back.
A participant in the event, writing soon thereafter, noted that Lee had not said much, but it was 'his tone and look, which each one of us knew were born of the dangers of the hour' that 'so infused and excited the men.' A Texan next to the observer, 'with tears coursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, "1 would charge hell itself for that old man."'
Lee went back. The Texans went forward and redeemed their pledge. Federal bullets hit nearly three-fourths of them within a few minutes, but they stabilized the situation and saved the day. The 'Lee-to-the-Rear' episode immediately became an integral part of army lore. A monument at the spot today says simply, 'Lee to the rear, cried the Texans, May 6, 1864.'
Once Longstreet's reinforcements had stabilized the situation, the Confederate commanders looked for a means to regain the initiative. They found it in an unfinished
railroad - graded and filled, but not yet tracked - that ran south of and parallel to the Plank Road. A mixed force of four brigades pulled from various divisions got astride the rail corridor, moved east until opposite the dangling Federal left flank, then turned north and completely routed Hancock's troops. In Hancock's words, the Confederates rolled up his line 'like a wet blanket.' Most of the attackers pushed as far north as the Plank Road. Some of them actually went into the woods north of the road.
In the ensuing chaos, a mistaken 'friendly' volley tore into a cavalcade of Confederate officers reconnoitering on the road. It killed General Micah Jenkins and inflicted a dreadful wound on Longstreet. Lee's most capable surviving subordinate eventually recovered, but he would be out of service until long after the war had settled into a siege at Petersburg. The fatal volley, reminiscent of the mistaken fire that had mortally wounded Stonewall Jackson nearby exactly one year earlier, extracted all the energy from the Confederate success. An attack later in the day pressed all the way to the heart of the enemy line on the Brock Road, but in the end it produced nothing but more losses.
While Lee inspired the Texans and then regained the initiative on the Plank Road, General Ewell's Confederates continued to hold firm control of their crucial wood line up on the Turnpike. General John B. Gordon - a non-professional soldier who would bloom late in the conflict into a remarkable warrior - spent much of 6 May attempting to secure permission for an attack in the woods on the far left, where Grant had failed to protect his right flank. Timidity ruled Ewell's behavior by this time in the war (he had lost a leg and gained an extremely strong-willed wife, with deleterious impact upon his elan and amour-propre). By the time Gordon extracted authority to attack, daylight was dwindling. Even so, the surprise assault captured two Yankee generals and hundreds of men, and thoroughly shattered Grant's flank. In a ghastly aftermath to the Wilderness fighting, leaves and brush caught fire from muzzle flashes and hundreds of helpless wounded men of both sides burned to death.
For two weeks, Lee's Confederates stubbornly resisted the Federal army under Grant and Meade in the woods and fields around Spotsylvania Court House. After Confederates won the race for the key intersection on 8 May, both armies entrenched on a steadily widening front. On 10 May, a Federal assault broke into the Doles' salient and two days later about 25,000 Northern troops crushed the nose of the Mule Shoe. Lee hurriedly constructed a new final line across the base of the Mule Shoe, and easily repulsed an attack against the position on 18 May. The next day, a brisk fight at the Harris Farm, northeast of the main battlefield, ended major action at Spotsylvania. On the 21 st, Grant moved southeast in a new attempt to interpose between Lee and Richmond.
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