Battle of the Wilderness: Summary & History

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Battle of the Wilderness was fought in central Virginia on May 5, 6, and 7, 1864. The battle was tactically inconclusive but led to over 26,000 combined casualties. It was the first of several bloody battles during the Overland Campaign of 1864.

The U.S. in 1864

March 1864 saw dramatic change for the Union's war effort. After several years of fighting, killing, and bloodshed, the war was dragging on and on. In February, the U.S. Congress passed a measure reviving the rank of lieutenant general, a position only held previously by George Washington. This was a rare honor, and it was intended for one man: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant journeyed to Washington and was awarded with his new rank in early March. Lincoln was giving Grant the power to oversee all Union armies for the campaigns in the upcoming year.

Prior to this, Grant's Civil War career had been based in the Western Theater. In early 1862, he had achieved remarkable success by forcing the surrender of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in Tennessee. Despite setbacks on the first day of fighting, Grant was able to pull out a victory on the second day of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. His next, and perhaps greatest, victory came at Vicksburg in mid-1863. Grant led a several month long campaign to capture this vital city on the Mississippi River, effectively cutting the Confederacy in half by taking complete control of the river. In late 1863, Grant turned around Federal fortunes at Chattanooga, driving away Confederate forces that November.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant pictured during the Overland Campaign

Despite this track record, when Grant took his new command, he decided to make his headquarters in the East. He did this for several reasons. The Eastern Theater of the war was the most prominent and had the most famous armies. All the battles were fought near the opposing capitals of Washington and Richmond, and General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were in many ways the most visible symbol of the Confederacy. Furthermore, Grant wanted to ensure that his plans for the East were implemented without interference from Washington; the only way to do that, he figured, was to go there himself to make sure of it.

In the East, Grant would be overseeing Major General George Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, and the Union Army of the Potomac. Meade took command of this army in late June 1863 and would remain in command of it until the end of the war. Grant was not replacing Meade, just traveling with him to oversee his operations.

The Campaign Begins

The spring campaign would be known as the Overland Campaign because, quite simply, Grant's plan was to push directly through the middle of Virginia, over land, to reach the Confederate capital of Richmond. In 1862, George McClellan floated his entire army down the Atlantic Coast to advance up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond. Grant's approach was much different, and it was sure to exact heavier losses. However, Grant knew this. He understood that his army was bigger than his opponents. He also understood that there were more reinforcements available for his Union army than were ready for the Confederate army. Thus, he was willing to suffer terrible losses if it meant Lee was suffering them as well. On May 4, Grant crossed the Rapidan River, beginning the Overland Campaign.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

Of course, Robert E. Lee would not be content to sit back and let Grant proceed through Virginia. While the Confederate army was smaller than Grant's, Lee decided that he would still be aggressive. Lee knew that Grant's advance would be taking the Union army through dense forests near the site of the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. Fighting in heavily wooded terrain would diminish the Federal advantage in numbers and artillery power, thus giving the Confederates a much more equal field on which to meet their opponents. Thus, while Grant was moving through an area known simply as the Wilderness, the Confederates struck.

Battle of the Wilderness

On May 5, the Confederate attack began, catching some Federal troops off guard. As Union troops were marching south, Lee attacked directly into the right side of the columns of soldiers. For this attack, the Confederates utilized the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road.

The initial confederate attack on the Orange Turnpike by Lt. General Richard Ewell's Corps was successful in catching some Union units off guard. As the fighting began, Union troops were spread out because they were marching in long lines on specific roads. It took a while for Federal troops to gather where the combat was the heaviest.

The fighting at the Wilderness is nearly impossible to describe on a blow by blow basis. The dense woods made combat confusing and frightening for the men on both sides. Frequently, the brush caught fire and burned wounded men alive. It was, simply put, a nightmare environment in which to fight. By the end of the day on the 5th, Confederate attacks on both the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road had battered Union troops, yet the two armies remained on the field as darkness set in.

Early on the 6th, Grant continued his counterattacks from the day before. His assault along the Orange Plank Road was initially very successful in driving back Confederate forces. In a moment of crisis, when Union troops were coming close to his headquarters, General Lee himself tried to lead a Confederate counterattack only to have his men lead him behind the lines to safety.

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