American Civil War: The Battle of the Wilderness

Fighting in the Wilderness

Library of Congress

The Battle of the Wilderness was fought May 5-7, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to lieutenant general and gave him command of all Union armies. Grant elected to turn over operational control of the western armies to Major General William T. Sherman and shifted his headquarters east to travel with Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac. For the coming campaign, Grant planned to attack General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia from three directions. First, Meade was to cross the Rapidan River east of the Confederate position at Orange Court House, before swinging west to engage the enemy.

To the south, Major General Benjamin Butler was to advance up the Peninsula from Fort Monroe and threaten Richmond, while to the west Major General Franz Sigel laid waste to the resources of the Shenandoah Valley. Badly outnumbered, Lee was forced to assume a defensive position. Unsure of Grant's intentions, he had placed Lieutenant General Richard Ewell's Second Corps and Lieutenant General A.P. Hill's Third Corps in earthworks along the Rapidan. Lieutenant General James Longstreet's First Corps was positioned to the rear at Gordonsville from which it could reinforce the Rapidan line or shift south to cover Richmond.

Union Commanders

Confederate Commanders

Grant and Meade Move Out

In the pre-dawn hours of May 4, Union forces began departing their camps near Culpeper Court House and marching south. Divided into two wings, the Federal advance saw Major General Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps cross the Rapidan at Ely's Ford before reaching camps near Chancellorsville around noon. To the west, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's V Corps crossed over pontoon bridges at Germanna Ford, followed by Major General John Sedgwick's VI Corps. Marching five miles south, Warren's men reached Wilderness Tavern at the intersection of the Orange Turnpike and Germanna Plank Road before halting (Map).

While Sedgwick's men occupied the road back to the ford, Grant and Meade established their headquarters near the tavern. Not believing that Lee could reach the area until late on May 5, Grant intended to use the next day to advance west, consolidate his forces, and bring up Major General Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps. As Union troops rested, they were forced to spend the night in the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, a vast area of thick, second-growth forest that negated the Union advantage in manpower and artillery. Their situation was further imperiled by a lack of cavalry patrols on the roads leading towards Lee.

Lee Reacts

Alerted to the Union movements, Lee quickly ordered Ewell and Hill to begin moving east to meet the threat. Orders were also issued for Longstreet to rejoin the army. As a result, Ewell's men camped that night at Robertson's Tavern on the Orange Turnpike, only three miles from Warren's unsuspecting corps. Moving along the Orange plank road, Hill's men made similar progress. It was Lee's hope that he could pin Grant in place with Ewell and Hill to allow Longstreet to strike at the Union left flank. A daring scheme, it required him to hold Grant's army with fewer than 40,000 men to buy time for Longstreet to arrive.

The Fighting Begins

Early on May 5, Warren spotted Ewell's approach up the Orange Turnpike. Instructed to engage by Grant, Warren began moving west. Reaching the edge of a clearing known as Saunders Field, Ewell's men began digging in as Warren deployed the divisions of Brigadier Generals Charles Griffin and James Wadsworth on the far side. Studying the field, Warren found that Ewell's line extended beyond his own and that any attack would see his men enfiladed. As a result, Warren asked Meade to postpone any attack until Sedgwick came up on his flank. This was refused and the assault moved forward.

Surging across Saunders Field, Union troops quickly saw their right shattered by Confederate flanking fire. While Union forces had some success south of the turnpike, it could not be exploited and the assault was thrown back. Bitter fighting continued to rage in Saunders Field as Wadsworth's men attacked through the thick forest south of the field. In confused fighting, they fared little better. By 3:00 PM, when Sedgwick's men arrived at the north, the fighting had quieted. The arrival of VI Corps renewed the battle as Sedgwick's men unsuccessfully attempted to overrun Ewell's lines in the woods above the field (Map).

Hill Holds

To the south, Meade had been alerted to Hill's approach and directed three brigades under Brigadier General George Getty to cover the intersection of the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road. Reaching the crossroads, Getty was able to fend off Hill. As Hill prepared to assault Getty in earnest, Lee established his headquarters a mile to the rear at the Widow Tapp Farm. Around 4:00 PM, Getty was ordered to attack Hill. Aided by Hancock, whose men were just arriving, Union forces increased pressure on Hill forcing Lee to commit his reserves to the fight. Brutal fighting raged in the thickets until nightfall.

Longstreet to the Rescue

With Hill's corps on the point of collapse, Grant sought to focus Union efforts for the next day on the Orange Plank Road. To do so, Hancock and Getty would renew their attack while Wadsworth shifted south to strike Hill's left. Burnside's corps was ordered to enter the gap between the turnpike and plank road to threaten the enemy rear. Lacking additional reserves, Lee hoped to have Longstreet in place to support Hill by dawn. As the sun began to rise, the First Corps was not in sight.

Around 5:00 AM, the massive Union assault began. Punching up the Orange Plank Road, Union forces overwhelmed Hill's men driving them back to the Widow Tapp Farm. As the Confederate resistance was about to break, the lead elements of Longstreet's corps arrived on the scene. Quickly counterattacking, they struck Union forces with immediate results.

Having become disorganized during their advance, the Union troops were forced back. As the day progressed series of Confederate counterattacks, including a flanking attack utilizing an unfinished railroad grade, forced Hancock back to the Brock Road where his men entrenched. In the course of the fighting, Longstreet was severely wounded by friendly fire and taken from the field. Late in the day, Lee conducted an assault on Hancock's Brock Road line but was unable to break through.

On Ewell's front, Brigadier General John B. Gordon found that Sedgwick's right flank was unprotected. Through the day he advocated for a flank attack but was rebuffed. Towards nightfall, Ewell relented and the attack moved forward. Pushing through the thick brush, it shattered Sedgwick's right forcing it back the Germanna Plank Road. Darkness prevented the attack from being exploited further (Map).

Aftermath of the Battle

During the night a brush fire broke out between the two armies, burning many of the wounded and creating a surreal landscape of death and destruction. Feeling that no additional advantage could be had by continuing the battle, Grant elected to move around Lee's right flank towards Spotsylvania Court House where the fighting would continue on May 8. Union losses in the battle totaled around 17,666, while Lee's were approximately 11,000. Accustomed to retreating after bloody battles, the Union soldiers cheered and sang when they turned south upon leaving the battlefield.

Selected Sources

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: The Battle of the Wilderness." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: The Battle of the Wilderness. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: The Battle of the Wilderness." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).