Battles Of The Wilderness, a series of engagements in the American civil war, May 526, 1864, between the federal army of the Potomac under Gen. Grant and the confederate army of northern Virginia under Gen. R. E. Lee. The Wilderness is a wild tract along the S. bank of the Rapidan, in Orange and Spottsylvania counties, Va.; its length from E. to W. is about 15 m., and its breadth about 10 m. It is a plateau sloping to cultivated lowlands on every side. Its forests were long since cut away, to furnish fuel for the iron furnaces in the neighborhood; and a dense growth of scrub oak, dwarf pines, and brambles now covers nearly the whole area, with here and there a patch of woods or a small clearing. It is crossed from E. to W. by two good roads, about 2 m. apart, the Orange turnpike to the north and the Orange plank road to the south. Two or three tolerable roads cross it from N. to S. On the E. border of this tract was fought the battle-of Chancellorsville, May 2-4, 1863, and on its W. border that of Mine Run, at the end of November, 1863. During the winter of 1863-'4 the confederate army had occupied a strong position on the S. side of the Rapidan, its left (Longstreet) at Gordonsville, its centre (A. P. Hill) at Orange Court House, and its right (Ewell) on the river.
Its effective strength at the opening of the campaign was about 60,000. The army of the Potomac, under the immediate command of Gen. Meade, consisted of three infantry corps (the 2d under Hancock, the 5th under Warren, and the 6th under Sedgwick) and Sheridan's cavalry. The 9th corps, under Burnside, joined it for this campaign, making Grant's total force about 130,000 men of all arms, of whom somewhat more than 100,000 were available for battle. It was Grant's plan to cross the river by the lower fords, pass through the Wilderness, turning Lee's right, and push S. W. toward Gordonsville, thus placing his whole army between Lee and Richmond. The army of the Potomac started at midnight of May 3, in two columns. Warren's and Sedgwick's corps, covered by Wilson's division of Sheridan's cavalry, forming the right column, crossed at Germanna ford, and Hancock's, the left, at Ely's ford, 6 m. below, covered by the rest of the cavalry corps under Sheridan in person. Burnside was left in position along the Orange and Alexandria railroad, one day's march in the rear, in anticipation of a possible movement by Lee toward Washington. Lee had caused a careful survey of the Wilderness to be made just after the battle of Chancellorsville, and was furnished with minute and accurate maps, while the federal commanders had none but old and imperfect ones.
As soon as Lee discovered Grant's movement, he launched forward his whole army, by the turnpike and plank roads, to strike the Union column in the flank while on the march. This brilliant movement failed for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of the superior numbers of the Union forces, and the fact that the character of the battle field, an almost impenetrable wilderness, rendered manoeuvring impossible. Warren, on the 5th, marching by a wood road and followed by Sedgwick, took the precaution of sending Griffin's division a short distance up the turnpike (W.), and Crawford's division up the plank road in the direction of Parker's store, then held by a detachment of Wilson's cavalry. Griffin was struck by Ewell in the morning, and Crawford by Hill a little later. The march was suspended, Crawford was withdrawn, and Griffin was reŽnforced by Wadsworth's division, with Robinson's in support. These forces quickly defeated Ewell's van, but the latter was continually reŽnforced, and the federals were in turn defeated.
By 11 o'clock Grant became convinced that the enemy was present in force, and ordered Sedgwick to hurry up to the support of Warren, while Hancock, who had passed Tod's tavern and was then nearly 10 m. away, on the road to the left, marched back by the Brock road, to join Warren at its junction with the plank road. Getty's division of Sedgwick's corps was posted at this junction, with orders to hold it at whatever cost until Hancock should arrive. Across the turnpike, where the action had begun in the morning, the fighting was continuous and bloody till 4 o'clock in the afternoon, with no decisive advantage on either side, when both fell back a little and threw up fortifications only about 200 yards apart. Getty was sorely pressed by Hill, but held his ground till 3 o'clock, when Hancock's advance reached him. He then took the offensive, and continuous fighting was kept up till dark, with no decisive result, but heavy losses on both sides. Meanwhile Wadsworth had pushed southward to strike Hill's left flank, but did not arrive till night. In the night Grant brought up Burnside's corps, and posted it between Hancock and Warren; Lee brought up Longstreet's corps to the support of Hill, and also one division of Hill which had been left in the rear.
Thus each side was strengthened by about 20,000 men. Both commanders resolved to attack on the morning of the 6th; Grant fixed upon 5 o'clock as the hour, but Lee anticipated him by a few minutes, throwing Ewell against the federal right. The assault was handsomely repulsed, and did not even delay the attack which Grant had ordered. Hancock promptly advanced against the front of the confederate right, while Wadsworth assailed its flank, and Hill was driven back a mile and a half, overrunning Lee's headquarters, and stopped only by Longstreet's advancing column. Hancock was expecting Longstreet to advance upon his left flank and rear from the Catharpen road, and up to 6 o'clock the latter was actually making such a movement; but at that hour Lee recalled him because of the heavy pressure in front. For this reason, Hancock had attacked with only half of his corps, holding the other half ready to repel any movement against it. Longstreet's advance having been checked, he resumed his flank movement, but at this moment he was seriously wounded and carried from the field, his command devolving upon R. H. Anderson. In the afternoon Lee threw the whole of Hill's and Longstreet's corps against Hancock, who had constructed breastworks and been reenforced; but no serious impression was made upon his line till 4 o'clock, when a fire that had sprung up in the woods was communicated to the brush and pine logs of the breastworks; the wind blowing in the faces of the federals, the heat and smoke quickly drove them out of their intrenchments.
The confederates dashed forward and penetrated the lines, but were almost immediately repulsed, and Lee was forced to abandon what he had intended for the decisive assault. This virtually closed the battle, though after dark Lee threw Ewell's corps forward against the 6th corps. After some sharp fighting and much confusion, Ewell captured the larger part of two brigades and then fell back. The fighting in the Wilderness was almost exclusively with musketry, as the nature of the ground rendered artillery useless. It was a drawn battle, but Grant had secured the roads by which he was to pass out of the Wilderness to the south, had repulsed all of Lee's attacks, and was enabled promptly to resume the march toward Richmond. - After dark on the 7th Grant put his army in motion toward Spottsylvania Court House, 15 m. S. E. Warren and Sedgwick took the direct route, by the Brock road; Hancock and Burnside, with the trains, a route which made a detour to the east; but the marching was slow and spiritless. Warren's advance was obstructed by felled trees and by cavalry engagements in front, and by some infantry fighting in the woods on his flanks. Lee had anticipated Grant's movement, and was pushing on, by a parallel road, toward the same point.
His advance, under Anderson, finding no good camping ground, continued the march all night, and thus reached Spottsylvania and had time to intrench before Warren came up. By the evening of the 8th Lee's whole force was in position, with improvised breastworks, on a ridge around Spottsylvania Court House, facing N. and E. The 9th was spent by Grant in making dispositions for attack, and by Lee in strengthening his position. In the afternoon Gen. Sedgwick was killed by a sharpshooter, and his command devolved upon Gen. Wright. On the 10th Hancock attacked the confederate left with considerable success, crossing to the S. side of the river Po; but Meade suddenly ordered him to recross and furnish troops for an intended assault on the centre. He was attacked in turn while withdrawing, and at the same time the woods between his force and the river took fire; he lost heavily, and many of his wounded perished in the flames, but the remarkable coolness and discipline of his men enabled him to inflict an almost equal loss upon the enemy. The main attack of the day was against Lee's left centre, in front of Warren, where a wooded hill, surrounded by a dense growth of low cedars and crowned with earthworks, formed perhaps the strongest point of the whole confederate line.
The 2d and 5th corps attempted it, and were repulsed; at 5 o'clock P. M., with two of Hancock's divisions, they renewed the assault, and failed again, though some of the men entered the enemy's breastworks; still another attack resulted in still another bloody repulse. These assaults cost the federals over 5,000 men, while they inflicted scarcely one tenth of that loss upon the enemy. Further to the left, however, a portion of the 6th corps carried the first line of the confederate intrenchments and captured 900 prisoners. Lee's right centre formed a sharp salient. In the night of the 11th Hancock moved to a position within 1,200 yards of this, and at half past 4 o'clock in the morning of the 12th he stormed it. His heavy column overran the confederate pickets without firing a shot, burst through the abatis, and after a short hand-to-hand confliot inside the intrenchments captured 4,000 prisoners and pursued the enemy through the woods toward Spottsylvania Court House. When they came upon a second line of works, Hancock's men, having lost their organization, were forced to retire to the first line, which by the aid of the 6th corps they were enabled to hold. In the course of the day Lee made five determined attempts to retake this line, but each time he was heavily repulsed.
The fighting at this point was as fierce as any during the war; frequently the rival colors were planted on opposite sides of the breastworks, the entire forest within musket range was killed, and in one case a tree 18 in. in diameter was cut clean in two by the bullets. While this was going on, Burnside on the left and Warren on the right made attacks, supposing that Lee must have weakened his wings, but were repulsed with considerable loss. At midnight Lee drew back to his interior line. For several days Grant continued to develop his left flank, but still found Lee's right unassailable. He then, in the night of the 20th, withdrew Hancock's corps from his right and sent it eastward, behind the cover of the remainder of the army, to Massaponax church, whence on the 21st it moved southward to Milford station on the Fredericksburg and Richmond railroad. This movement was repeated with the other corps, each in turn being taken from the right and passed to the left. At the same time Lee, by a precisely similar operation, moved in the same direction on a generally parallel route, but by a straighter road; and when on the 23d the national army arrived at the N. bank of the North Anna, its adversary was found posted on the S. bank.
Hancock on the left, after some fighting, forced the passage of the river. Warren on the right, 4 m. higher up, crossed without opposition, but had only begun to intrench when he was furiously assailed in front and flank. The assault was repulsed at all points, and Warren took nearly 1,000 prisoners, losing about 350 in killed and wounded. The 6th corps crossed, and took position on Warren's right. Burnside, holding the centre of the line, attempted to throw his troops also across the river, and establish connection between Hancock and Warren, but was driven back. Thus Lee's centre, bending to the north, clung to the river at a point where it bends to the south, and neither of Grant's wings could reŽnforce the other without a double passage of the stream. In the night of the 26th the federal army was silently retired to the N. side of the river, and then marched by a wide circuit E. and S. to the Pamunkey, which it crossed. Again Lee had made a similar movement by a shorter line, and the next serious conflict was at Cold Harbor. (See ChickanoMiNT, vol. iv., p. 416.) The losses of the army of the Potomac in these engagements were as follows:
This does not include the losses in Burnside's corps, which was not under Meade. No trustworthy statement of the confederate losses was made; they were probably about 20,000.