The Wilderness Campaign: Summary & Significance

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  • 0:07 A New General, a New Plan
  • 0:57 Into the Wilderness
  • 1:56 The Battle
  • 4:11 The Results
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study General Ulysses S. Grant's Wilderness Campaign in Northern Virginia. We will focus especially on the Battle of the Wilderness, which pitted Grant's forces against General Robert E. Lee's Confederate army.

A New General, a New Plan

In the spring of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was appointed Lieutenant General of the United States army and took command of all ground troops. Grant, who had been a commander in the West, decided to travel with the army in the east. With General George Meade as his chief of staff, Grant planned to lead his men overland through Northern Virginia and capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond. He would also vigorously attack any Confederate armies he ran into along the way.

On May 4, 1864, Grant began moving his 122,000 soldiers south towards Richmond. Soon he encountered an army of 61,000 Confederates led by General Robert E. Lee. The stage was set for a major battle.

Into the Wilderness

Grant's troops quickly crossed Virginia's Rapidan River and entered a stretch of land appropriately called the Wilderness. At 12 miles wide and six miles deep, the Wilderness was a tangle of briers, scrubby pine trees and dense undergrowth. It was a creepy sort of place, silent and difficult to navigate.

Lee's Confederates were also in the Wilderness, not far away, just to the west of Grant's army. Lee was hoping to engage Grant, but he also wanted to wait just a little while longer until reinforcements under General James Longstreet could arrive.

As both armies set up camp in the Wilderness, the gloom of evening set in. The mood was somber, for the soldiers were sleeping among the remains of the dead who had been killed in a nearby battle the previous year. They knew that another clash was imminent and that many of them would end up in the same state as their departed comrades.

The Battle

Early in the morning on May 5, Lee told generals Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill to form battle lines and slowly advance toward the Union troops. Longstreet had not arrived yet, and Lee wanted to postpone a direct engagement until his reinforcements were closer at hand. His plan was foiled when a group of Union soldiers charged through the Wilderness directly at Ewell. The fighting was heavy and intense, and casualties began piling up quickly on both sides.

Soon clashes broke out up and down the battle lines as the Union attacked repeatedly. Both armies were finding it difficult to maneuver and fight through the brush and the brambles of the Wilderness. They kept getting tangled up and held back.

Eventually, the Union attack stalled out just as a gap formed in the Confederate battle line. Before the Northerners could rush the gap, a group of 125 Alabama Confederates ran up, screaming out the rebel yell. They blocked the hole and stopped the new Union attack. Darkness ended the day's fight, but neither army rested much that night, for the screams of the wounded filled the air. Parts of the Wilderness had caught fire during the battle, and many of the wounded were burned to death where they lay.

The second day of battle, May 6, opened with another Union charge that drove the Confederates back. General Longstreet's reinforcements finally arrived on the battlefield and counter-attacked the Union army, forcing it back to its starting position. A second Confederate thrust pushed the Union line back a bit further.

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