May 5, 1864 (Thursday)
It was a predawn breakfast for both armies, seemingly hesitant to pitch into the other. The day previous, General Meade’s Army of the Potomac, under the direct guidance of General Grant, had crossed the Rapidan, attempting to bring itself upon the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia. But General Lee was swift to counter and with the Federals none the wiser, he was advancing all three of his corps.
Richard Ewell’s Corps marched east along the Orange Turnpike, while A.P. Hill’s advanced along the parallel Orange Plank Road. As they plunged themselves into the Wilderness west of Chancellorsville, Longstreet’s Corps was hurrying north from Gordonsville in the hope that the Federal host would turn to face Lee’s advance, so his own might fall upon the Union left. By noon, he was to arrive.
The armies had established their encampments, in places, but two miles apart. The nearest Northern corps, the Fifth, was helmed by Gouverneur Warren. He, like the other corps commanders, had been instructed to direct his supply wagons upon a different road than the one used by his infantry. Warren, however, decided against such a strategy. He left upon the Orange Turnpike a single division, while preceding south with the remainder of his column, following General Meade’s orders.
The Federal pickets at once noticed the cloud of dust marking well the enemy’s advance. Below the cloud could plainly be seen Ewell’s Corps falling into line of battle. After they reported, and before 8am, General Warren ordered the division to prepare its advance. They did, and the fierce opening threw back Ewell’s only just deployed. Warren’s overall march south was suspended, as he ordered his three other divisions to fall in on the left, all to the south of the turnpike.
But the land was not easy to maneuver. There was no line of sight, no way to signal. They were in the Wilderness, a parcel traversed with few paths and wagon roads, but thickly populated by impenetrable trees and underbrush. Hours escaped with little firing, save for that cropping up between Rebel pickets and Union cavalry upon the Orange Plank Road.
By 9am, Ewell’s entire corps was deployed, three divisions holding both north and south of the Turnpike, and Warren’s Fifth Corps was soon to be joined with Meade’s remaining two corps – the Sixth, under John Sedgwick, which would fall in on Warren’s right, as well as Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second, soon to be on his left. To Ewell’s side marched A.P. Hill.
Upon Warren’s left lay an open field – a rarity to be sure, but if the Rebels were to seize it, “our whole line of battle is turned,” Warren was cautioned. There was by this time a half mile gap between two of his divisions, and A.P. Hill was nearing. By noon the enemy had arrived, but the dangling division was falling back, protecting Warren’s left flank as they went.
Meade then prepared not only to meet Lee’s attack, but to strike first, telling Grant that “Warren is making his dispositions to attack, and Sedgwick to support him.” Grant agreed fully, even ordering Ambrose Burnsides’ Ninth Corps, which had been slated for reserves to cross the Rapidan. But hours slipped by and Meade did little as his army tried its best to concentrate.
This sat ill with General Grant. The Army of the Potomac was, of course, Meade’s. If Grant had some instructions, they were to go through Meade, who would then forward them through the proper chain of command. Grant, who was never very suited to such ideas, decided to combine his and Meade’s headquarters upon a nearby knoll overlooking as much of the field of battle as the Wilderness would allow.
Grant was uneasy. As Meade described his plans, they sounded more and more like a defensive strategy than an attack. While it was true that all had assumed General Lee would hunker down behind Mine Run and await Meade’s attack, the fact that the enemy was not doing this didn’t mean that Meade had to now play General Lee’s suspected role. For Grant, now with Meade, this was changing.
Ewell’s Rebel Corps was held in place by Warren’s on Orange Turnpike, and so now A.P. Hill’s Corps needed to be blocked. For this, General Hancock’s Second Corps was needed, but not yet in position. And so it fell upon Sedgwick to throw his forward-most division upon the Orange Plank Road. Meanwhile, the rest of Sedgwick’s Corps was filing in upon Warren’s right with the potential to outflank the Rebels.
Ewell was checked and now too was A.P. Hill. But the whole line was rickety, and all questioned if it might hold until Hancock arrived. But Hill had been ordered to await Longstreet’s arrival, and he halted, drawing up upon Ewell’s right. This allowed Hancock to arrive fashionably late, but endangering nothing at all.
Between Hill’s and Hancock’s lines was Brock Road – Longstreet’s line of travel, and around 1pm, Lee thought it prudent to seize it, especially if Hill could do it without bringing on a pitched battle. Lee tarried too long. The Federals had been engaged long enough to know that Longstreet’s men were not yet on the scene. To wrest the advantage from the outnumbered Lee, Meade ordered Hancock to attack along the Orange Plank Road. Hancock, trying to deduce Meade’s issuance of several contradictory orders, made no move until the late afternoon.
But when he finally attacked, Hancock threw everything he could at A.P. Hill. He had to. The terrain was as much the enemy as the Rebels. “Report to General Meade,” yelled Hancock over the cacophony, “that it is very hard to bring up troops in this wood, and that only part of my Corps is up, but I will do as well as I can.” Before 5pm, the bulk of Hancock’s Corps was ushered into the woods, killing and bleeding and dying. Brock Road was firmly in Federal hands, and Hill was outflanked.
But Longstreet was coming, and though late, he would soon arrive. Lee, however, was rethinking the plan to hit the Federals on their left flank (Hancock’s Corps). Longstreet’s approach would bring him up Brock Road, and at this point behind Hancock’s lines. Now he was being ordered to file onto Orange Plank Road behind Hill’s Corps. “The change of direction of our march,” noted Longstreet, “was not reassuring.”
It was the fall of night that finally ended the battle, the lines hardly changed from meridian. There had been shifting, and Warren’s Fifth Corps drifted south so that Sedgwick’s Sixth held the Turnpike in Ewell’s front, and Hancock held the Plank Road in Hill’s.
Then came the silence, heavy and foreboding. No lines were stirring, no troops were marching. Even Longstreet’s men had quieted for the night, despite orders to continue, he would let them rest until 1am.
At 11pm, General Lee wrote Richmond, telling boiling down the day’s conflagration:
The enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday at Ely’s and Germanna Fords. Two Corps of this army moved to oppose him – Ewell’s, by the old turnpike, and Hill’s by the plank road. They arrived this morning in close proximity to the enemy’s line of march. A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it, capturing many prisoners and four pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon General Hill, who, with Heth’s and Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated and desperate assaults. […] By the blessing of God we maintained our position against every effort until night, when the contest closed. We have to mourn the loss of many brave officers and men.
As Lee ordered his army to attack at dawn the following morning, so too did General Grant call for a resumption.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 2, p418, 420, 951; The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere. [↩]