May 6, 1864 (Friday)
An insurgency such a the Confederate Rebellion can claim victory from almost any battle in which they are not the outright vanquished. Should the fight dry out to a bloody stalemate, they could even then bugle triumphant as the dominant power was turned back. A more solid case might be made in this direction now that General Ulysses S. Grant had altered his army’s ultimate objective. No longer were they “on to Richmond,” but, as he told General Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever he goes, there you will go also.”
But General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was unaware of the shift. Grant was, he believed, determined to take Richmond. To Lee on this morning, he needed a victory. And for that, he needed to hang on.
The previous day’s fighting had ended in a draw, each side pulling back a ways as darkness fell. For General Grant, the problem was Ambrose Burnside. Not knowing the general well, he ordered Burnside to be on the field at dawn. Those on General Meade’s staff, of course, knew that Burnside would be late. And sure enough, when came the sun, there came no Burnside. But word came almost immediately that Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps was pushing the Confederates of A.P. Hill’s Corps back. If only they could attack now, they might route them.
Misfortune, it seemed, was spread wide on this morning. Hill had been told by General Lee to rest his men. By the dawn, Longstreet would be up, coming in behind him on the Plank Road. But as the skirmishing rose to more than clatter, there rose with it no Longstreet.
To the north, however, it was fortune whose smile was spread wide. General Richard Ewell’s Confederate Corps lay across the parallel-running Orange Turnpike. His lines, shifted some during the night, were found early to overlap the Union right flank by a considerable margin. With certain victory dancing wild before him, his scouts delivered the other boot – the Union right was open, but behind it marched yet another blue column, that of Burnside’s Ninth Corps. And now it was the Confederates who feared to be not only outflanked, but enveloped.
As news of this, and with the sight of Hill’s unprepared wounded and dead already tickling back, General Lee ordered his wagons and ambulances to prepare for a retreat. It was not certain, of course, not this early. They were merely to ready themselves for such an eventuality. But it was now more than a trickle. A stream turned to overflowing. It was a brigade in its entirety. Hancock had come.
Burnside was to attack along side the Second Corps, and even though he had not yet appeared, Hancock went ahead. To the north, and against Ewell, John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps, as well as portions of Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth, made more than a demonstration to keep the northerly Rebels from assisting the southerly Hill. Lee was in a rage. “Why does not Longstreet come?”
But they were marching, turning now after dawn upon the Plank Road, flowing east toward the light, toward the melting corps of A.P. Hill. All around them, as they came, swirled wounded and routed comrades. Emboldened and embittered, they pressed on, marching swiftly and ever closer.
As the first of Longstreet’s boys came into view, Lee called to them, “what brigade is this?” They replied heartily that it was the Texas Brigade.
“I am glad to see it,” breathed Lee. “When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel – they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.” And to ensure the attack, Lee moved to join them, spurring his horse to their side. They called for him to go back, but the old general refused until they refused to go in unless he turned back. Lee acquiesced, but it had worked. And the Texans fell upon Hancock’s men with the most vicious of strikes. Into the thick woods they screamed, driving the Federals back or into the tangled and bloody earth.
There was more to Longstreet’s Corps than 800 Texans. Soon two entire divisions were in line and stacked against Hancock. Slowly they rolled them back, but the Federals were steadfast, holding as they could until Burnside could finally come up. Grant’s plan was now meaningless. Burnside had been chosen to flank Ewell, but as the first troops of the Ninth Corps skirmished onto the field, elements of Hill’s Corps, still unbroken, were flushed in to block their way.
For hours, the smoke clinging thick to the wilderness gave neither side a clear view of their intended targets. Muzzle flashes, charges, counter-charges, the wounded and the dead were the only evidence of the enemy.
At 10am, while the fighting raged before him, Longstreet received word that Hancock’s left flank was open. Even better, a clear path was carved to it in the form of an unfinished railroad grade, not yet placed on any maps. From his position, through the thickening woods, he could not see it himself, but the idea sat well. Turning to his aide, Col. Moxley Sorrel, he gave him four more or less fresh brigades and the orders.
While Sorrel and his new division marched out, Longstreet steadied the rest of his command to assault Hancock as soon as the flank attack commenced.
When Sorrel hit, it seemed to them that the Federals had given up, were bivouacking for the night, yet it was not even noon. The Federals on Hancock’s flank ultimately gave back stiff resistance, but could not hold. The Rebel Yell screamed bloody and fierce, as the Southerners charged and the Northerners were scattered. And now Longstreet joined, and together drove Hancock back.
Ecstatic with success, Longstreet was about to call for another surge, to finally route the nearly broken Second Corps. But then he was struck by a bullet, lifted out of the saddle, and fell hard upon his horse. After being helped to the ground, it was found the ball had gone into his throat and lodged in his right shoulder. He was taken to the rear and the charge nearly ordered went with him. And the field fell to a lull for what seemed like hours.
That morning, on the Confederate left General John Gordon of Ewell’s Corps had discovered that his line overlapped the Union lines of John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps. He begged Jubal Early, his immediate commander, to allow him to attack, but Early thought it too risky. It took all day, but finally he had Ewell’s ear. No longer was Burnside’s column a concern, as it was just after dawn. Burnside’s Corps was busy doing little more than probing the Confederate right and center. But Ewell, too, had reservations, ordering Gordon to wait until the later afternoon. If it all went to hell, it could not, due to darkness, be in hell for very long.
In the meantime, General Grant was urging Meade to attack using Hancock and Burnside. Longstreet’s line wasn’t exactly resting, but there might be some opportunity for a counter-attack. Hancock, too, was not resting. Each side, in turn, was still firing and killing and dying. All order was gone, and small packs of men would appear and disappear, leaving carnage behind them. But somehow or another, around 4pm, its intensity grew, and there was fire.
The underbrush was enkindled by the normal conflagration of battle. But here the smoke hung, and the flames rushed, fueled by the wind. Hancock was handed orders to attack with Burnside at 6pm, but there was no possibility. The fire only added to his misgivings. His troops were dangerously low on ammunition. His trains had been sent too far back, and he was powerless.
It was then that General Gordon was allowed to launch his attack against the Union right flank. They came, like Sorrel’s attackers, screaming with blood in their throats, striking the Federal defenses square on the flank, and some in the rear. For too long, it seemed as if the Federal right would cave, that the men would be routed and the line rolled.
But Gordon’s attack stumbled into the confusion of dusk, and it could not hit with the force needed. The Federals rebounded, strengthened their lines, and in the deepening dark, held their ground. Gordon’s men fell back, leaving their wounded and dying in the desolation between the lines.
By night, General Grant had discovered what so many officers before him had known – General Lee fights. He also discovered what the Washington newspapers had reported all the last summer and fall – General Meade does not. Grant had given everything. Every man who could hold a musket was thrown upon the Army of Northern Virginia, which in the end, concluded the battle not by retreating, but attacking all across his lines. Simply by a disparity of numbers, Grant now realized he could not win. And into that want of victory fell General Lee, nearly by default.
The Federals suffered 2,250 killed, over 12,000 wounded, and nearly 3,400 captured or missing – though it may have been more. Lee lost around 1,500 killed, 8,000 wounded and 1,700 captured or missing.
Grant was pouring over maps. He knew his army could not stay in the Wilderness. Like General Meade the season before, he faced a Confederate army too well entrenched to be driven from the field. Grant had explained to Meade that it was Lee’s army that was the objective. But there was Lee’s army, and it could not be touched. Meade might have retreated. He had before. Grant, however, had more in mind. Richmond was not the ultimate goal – that was still Lee’s army. But a move south, toward the Rebel capital, would allow him to link up with Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James on the Virginia Peninsula.
And so he decided to march hard for Spotsylvania Court House, a small crossroads ten miles south. This, he hoped, would allow him to slide between Lee and Richmond, while drawing out the Rebel army.
General Lee had won a victory – his army at the end of the day held the field. And if Grant slunk north, back across the Rapidan, it would be complete. But the next day, and Grant’s southward stab, would sour this victory to be recorded as the last chance Lee had to drive back the Federal Army.1
- Sources: Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere; And Keep Moving On by Mark Grimsley. [↩]