Battle of Wilderness: Details

Details

Grant and President Abraham Lincoln devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions.

Grant's campaign objective was not the Confederate capital of Richmond, but the destruction of Lee's army. Lincoln had long advocated this strategy for his generals, recognizing that the city would certainly fall after the loss of its principal defensive army. Grant ordered, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also."

Setup

On May 4, 1864, the Union army crossed the Rapidan River at three separate points and converged on the Wilderness Tavern, near edge of the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, an area of more than 70 sq. mi les.

Unlike the Union army of a year before (Battle of Chancellorsville), Grant had no desire to fight in the Wilderness, desiring to move to the open ground to the south and east of the Wilderness before fighting Lee, taking advantage of his superior numbers and artillery.

Although Grant insisted that the army travel light with minimal artillery and supplies, its logistical "tail" was almost 70 miles. Union supply trains alone included 4,300 wagons, 835 ambulances, and a herd of cattle for slaughter.

Battle May 5, 1864: Orange Turnpike

Grant was notified of the encounter and instructed "If any opportunity presents itself of pitching into a part of Lee's army, do so without giving time for disposition."

An artillery section into Saunders Field to support his attack, but it was captured by Confederate soldiers, who were pinned down and prevented by rifle fire from moving the guns until darkness. In the midst of hand-to-hand combat at the guns, the field caught fire and men from both sides were shocked as their comrades burned to death.

Battle May 5, 1864: Plank Road

Lee established his headquarters at the Widow Tapp's farm. Lee and two other commanders were surprised by a party of Union soldiers entering the clearing. The three generals ran for safety and the Union men, who were equally surprised by the encounter, returned to the woods, unaware of how close they had come to changing the course of history.

Fierce fighting continued until nightfall with neither side gaining an advantage.

May 6, 1864: Longstreet’s attack

Union attack at 5 am. Confederate reinforcements arrive at 6 am.

The Union troops, somewhat disorganized from their assault earlier that morning, could not resist and fell back a few hundred yards from the Widow Tapp farm.

May 6, 1864: Gordon’s attacks

At the Turnpike, inconclusive fighting proceeded for most of the day. Early in the morning, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon (Confederate) scouted the Union line and recommended to his division commander that he conduct a flanking attack but the idea was dismissed.

For years after the war, Gordon complained about the delay in approving his attack, claiming "the greatest opportunity ever presented to Lee's army was permitted to pass."

May 7, 1864

On the morning of May 7, Grant was faced with the prospect of attacking strong Confederate earthworks. Instead, he chose maneuver. Grant ordered preparations for a night march on May 7 that would reach Spotsylvania, 10 mi (16 km) to the southeast, by the morning of May 8.

This battle ended by transitioning into a new one.

Grant fought the bloody Battle of Spotsylvania Court House(May 8–21) before maneuvering yet again as the campaign continued toward Richmond.

Aftermath

Although the Wilderness is usually described as a draw, it could be called a tactical Confederate victory, but a strategic victory for the Union army.

Even though Grant withdrew at the end of the battle (which is usually the action of the defeated side), unlike his predecessors since 1861 Grant continued his campaign instead of retreating to the safety of Washington, D.C.

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Battle of the Wilderness sections: