On the morning of May 5th 1864, as the rear guard of Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps led by Charles Griffin’s division were ready to move further south to follow the rest of the army, Confederates were seen funneling down the Orange Turnpike and slipping to either side to form their battle lines. When word reached the corps commander, one of his staff officers later wrote, “I do not believe that Warren ever had a greater surprise in his life.” As discussed in the previous post, word went to Warren and then to the heads of the Army of the Potomac that the Confederates were developing a presence on their right. George Gordon Meade and newly appointed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant gave the word for Warren to put his all into the fight against whatever forces Lee had massed in the Wilderness. Warren was eager to oblige and got his men ready for the assault. In this assault, Griffin’s division would set up on the north side of the Turnpike and James Wadsworth’s division on the south side.
Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, Confederate division commander in Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, had known Robert E. Lee’s order to not bring on a general engagement. Instead, they built hasty, but strong earthworks to defend their line. The Rebs were solidly entrenched on the west side of an old corn field, one of the few patches of pure open land in the densely wooded terrain that the armies would soon clash in. Saunders Field stretched 400 yards by 800 yards, bisected by the Orange Turnpike that ran east and west through the Wilderness. The land, as the Union troops would soon find out, was not completely flat, but undulating and its dimensions could be deceptive coming from the eastern side as they were.
On the Federal side of the field, Griffin stalled. He needed more support. His men were also building earthworks as a fallback point, but pressure began to filter down through the high command to get moving. By noon, Griffin finally moved, but for the record, it was under protest. He had been the rear guard of the V Corps and as such, his right flank was dangling unprotected. He knew, as his subordinates knew, that the Confederate line ahead of them could have stretched well into the Wilderness to the north and if word got out about their flank, they were toast. Griffin had been waiting for “Uncle John” Sedgwick and the VI Corps to show up and support his assault. By 12:30 when the division headed for the field, the veteran commander was still nowhere to be seen.
Griffin sent in three brigades under Romeyn Ayres, Joseph Bartlett, and Jacob Sweitzer (north to south arrangement respectively), Andrew Denison’s brigade in reserve, then Wadsworth’s three brigades under Lysander Cutler, Roy Stone, and James Rice (again, north to south) to face off with six brigades. Before they even reached the eastern edge of the field, the regiments soon began to understand why this was a terrible place to fight – if they didn’t know it already. In the Wilderness, one soldier could only see about twenty or so yards ahead of him. The congestion of second growth foliage magnified the anxiety the soldiers felt as they probed ahead in the unseasonably warm weather. By the time they finally broke through, their formation was shot and they were taking on fire from the Confederates almost immediately.
On the north side of the Turnpike (Union’s right) with Ayres’ brigade, the formation roughly consisted of US Regulars on the right flank and Pennsylvania and New York troops on the left closest to the road. Before they ever came to the break in the trees, the Regulars veered off even further to the right, deeper into the woods and became thoroughly lost and detached from the rest of their line. The left half used the open field itself to correct their alignment. Because they had to cross over a relatively steep swale, the brigade couldn’t keep their line straight. The 140th Pennsylvania – a Zouave regiment – ploughed ahead away from the 155th PA, 91st PA, and 146th NY and found themselves isolated as they charged toward the part of the entrenchments manned by George “Maryland” Steuart. (Traveler’s Story: While I was visiting the Wilderness battlefield, a tour guide made the observation that the reason the Regulars and the PA troops didn’t stay in formation had to do with the speed at which they were marching. I don’t give this much credit, as the terrain and the Wilderness itself threw many regiments out of their alignment, regardless of their stride.)
The fighting on this side of the field became brutal. Confederate artillery posted on the southern side of the Turnpike enfiladed Ayres’ brigade, along with a pair of Union artillery guns that inadvertently pounded into their own men who came too close to the rebel lines. The US Regulars also took heavy fire as the Confederates in Leroy Stafford and James Walker’s brigades enveloped the right flank and caused them to fall back.
A second Zouave regiment, the 146th New York, rushed into help their fellow gaudy-clad Federals, but the results were the same. One attacking Federal later said of the assault, “Men disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them…. It seemed as if the regiment had been annihilated.” With Confederates ahead of them and on their exposed flank, the position was untenable. It was no longer worth holding. They fled to the rear, but not before paying a heavy price. From the 146th Pennsylvania, they suffered 254 casualties out of the 556 men who started the charge. And though their flag changed several hands from color bearers to soldiers to officers, it did stay in Federal hands. The 140th Pennsylvania would suffer similar casualties with 268 out of 529. Troops who were caught in the relatively safe gully in the middle of the field could neither charge forward alone or run back, as they would have been under concentrated fire from Steuart’s men. “The gloom that settled over us was unspeakable,” one survivor remembered.
The Confederates, heartened by their success, sallied forth and managed to capture the Union guns. There had been a squabble whether it were the Alabamians or the South Carolinians who deserved the honor, but it scarcely mattered as Robinson’s brigade fell in to support the beaten Ayres and forced the Rebs back to their earthworks.
On the southern side of the field, the situation couldn’t have been more different with Wadsworth’s division. Bartlett had charged the field, headed straight for John “Rum” Jones, and managed to completely push the Confederates into the Wilderness to the west. That’s where things got heated. “On we went, o’er briar, o’er brake, o’er logs, and o’er bogs through the underbrush and overhanding limbs, for about three quarters of a mile, yelling like so many demons.”
On the Rebel side, part of the withdraw was due to a misheard order to fall back to the Mine Run defenses that had been their salvation the previous winter. The one saving grace for the Confederates might have been that Steuart had been holding his line admirably on the left. In the tangled confusion of the Wilderness, Jones and Doles’ brigade on his right rallied around the isolated Federals and poured into them. Commanders left and right were taken out, dealing a devastating blow to the unit’s coordination – or what was left of it. Bartlett’s rear was also exposed as his neighbor, Sweitzer, hadn’t advanced quite so far as he did. The brigade had bitten off more than they could chew, but they accomplished far more than their northern counterparts. They were too deep in the Rebel lines and the order was given to turn back. It was orderly at first, but then turned into a rout as the Confederates racketed up the pressure.
Bartlett, who had been pushing his brigade forward, found himself surrounded by graybacks demanding his surrender. As a member of the 20th Maine remembers, “Shaking his fist at them in defiance, he put spurs to his horse and dashed away. He was a target for every rifle in the rebel line. Five hundred guns were pointed at him, and five hundred bullets whistled around him, the enemy pursuing as they fired. It was a brilliant ride for life…” However, coming up was a deep ditch just before the eastern tree line. “The horse and rider evidently saw the obstacle at the same moment and prepared to meet it… For a moment I thought they were safe, but rebel bullets pierced the horse, and turning a complete somersault he fell stone dead, burying the rider beneath him as he fell.” Bartlett managed to wriggle himself out from under his horse and ran, seemingly unhurt, to safety.
The same couldn’t be said for the rest of the wounded that were left in the field. In the midst of the melee, Ewell’s system of earthworks south of the Turnpike had caught fire – exactly what some soldiers had experienced at Chancellorsville and had feared would happen again in the Wilderness. Due to the hot, dry season, the fire caught onto the shorn stalks of corn very quickly and spread. In one of the many gruesome and horrific scenes of the war, injured soldiers who couldn’t limp or crawl to safety were caught in the fire. Stories exist of cartridge boxes exploding on the hips of the men, creating ghastly wounds. Still more men who took their own lives to avoid a painful, agonizing death by the flames. The smoke, screams, and stench of burning flesh left an indelible mark on the memories of all who witnessed it.
Further down the line with Wadsworth’s division, the Union effort was also struggling. Cutler had become disoriented in the Wilderness and drifted so much that a gap developed between his right and Bartlett’s left. Stone was intended to come up and support him, but became so bogged down in a waist-deep swamp that he couldn’t keep up. For a while, the Federals had the Confederates sweating enough to pull in John B. Gordon’s Georgians from the reserves to take advantage of the misstep. In drove the “Georgian Bulls” with their distinct battle cry and routed Cutler’s men from the field, only to find themselves on their own, just as the Yankees had been. Instead of falling back, as Cutler had done, Gordon reportedly thought more in one second than he had in an entire day. On the fly, he decided to split his command in two and swing them out, one part going north and one going south to completely flank either side of the gap. (Historian comment: Gordon’s been one of those interesting characters that promises something daring every time his name pops up in a narrative.)
To compound on Stone’s mired position, the brigade commander had been reportedly drinking by the time his troops had stumbled into an open field a quarter of a mile south of Saunders Field called Spring Hill. That is where they encountered the “champion mudhole of mudholes” according to a Pennsylvania soldier. Like those on their right, the bluecoats were completely scattered and retreated to the rear toward the Lacey field (Ellwood) where headquarters had been set up. Further south, Rice fared no better. Their formation had also been thrown off kilter and swung north, met by Confederates on their front and their left, falling under “a very destructive fire from an unseen enemy”. They, too, would fall back to Lacey’s.
From there, the Union brigades rallied against the flood of gray coming their way. They set up a stubborn defense line and held headquarters.
The initial assault had begun around 1pm on May the 5th and lasted until 2:30pm. Instead of making a unified assault on the Confederates, the brigades fell like dominoes from north to south, one failure echoing into the failure of another until everyone was back – more or less – at their starting positions, exhausted. Griffin, who had been told to throw his all into the fight before he was ready, was furious. While he became the blame of other officers that day, he pointed the finger to his high command for giving the order to advance when he had no support from Horatio Wright’s division of Sedgwick’s corps. No reinforcements were sent up to bolster the line as it began to fall back either.
In a slightly comical scene, Griffin storms into Union headquarters and gives Meade and Grant a piece of his mind. Incensed by his division commander’s behavior (borderline insubordination), Grant demands, “Who is this General Gregg? You ought to arrest him.” Uncharacteristic of Meade, he remained kept his chill. His feathers remained unruffled by Griffin’s outburst. He turned to Grant and seeing that his coat was unbuttoned, began to button it for him and said as good-natured as can be, “It’s Griffin, not Gregg, and it’s only his way of talking.”
One can hardly blame Griffin when such a disaster could have been avoided, or at least delayed a couple of hours to wait for Sedgwick. Since Lee had given the order to stay on the defensive and not bring on a general engagement, it wouldn’t have mattered if they deployed at 3pm instead when “Uncle John” finally showed up to Saunders Field. His excuse for the delay was a reasonable one, as his corps had to make heads or tails of the Wilderness and avoid Confederate pickets on their way.
A reshuffling of the troops on both sides ensued, as the Federals beefed up their right (northern) flank to encompass four new brigades (Emory Upton, Henry Brown, Thomas Neill – of Lewis Getty’s Division -, and David Russell – all under Wright’s division). On the Confederate line, Jones was relieved from the battle for a mortal wound and replaced by Robert Rodes and Gordon was moved to the extreme right, while Henry Hays and John Pegram were held in reserves – which would come in handy.
As soon as this maneuvering was locked in, the assault resumed again, taking place mostly in the woods north of Saunders Field. Stafford’s rough and tumble Louisianans charged through the thicket, but were unsupported by Walker – as was the plan – as he became pinned down by Brown’s Federals opposite him. With bluecoats ahead and on their right, Stafford fell back and was grievously wounded through the spine. Orders were given for Hays’ Louisiana Brigade to come up and take their place. Again, Walker did not do his part to support them (thinking that he was being relieved by Hays instead of assisted). Hays led the second Louisiana charge, but paid a heavy toll for the move. They would fall back too, and no ground was gained or lost.
After more back-and-forth, both armies eventually hunkered down and established – or improved – their earthworks, giving them some time to catch their breath. That didn’t keep them from shooting off some potshots at their “unseen foe” through the Wilderness.
Further south toward the Orange Plank Road, A.P. Hill’s Third corps would clash with Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and Getty’s disconnected division from the VI Corps. Much attention was drawn in that direction, but Meade and Grant hadn’t forgotten about Sedgwick and Warren. They wanted both divisions to rally and initiate one cohesive, unified charge against the Confederates. Even with the addition of James Rickett’s division, lending one brigade to Warren’s wing and one to Sedgwick’s, the generals were leery of the idea. The Wilderness was working against them and they had already lost so many men.
Sedgwick, at least, made an attempt to analyze the situation. Scouts informed him that the Confederate earthworks only stretched as far as the Federal line was established, meaning the line was well fortified, but thin. If he could get a decent attack force on Ewell’s far left (north) and push hard to the south, he believed that he could crumble the whole line. The force to do that came with that extra brigade that Ricketts had loaned to his own right flank.
This brigade was led by Truman Seymour. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the Union general who lost the battle of Olustee earlier that year in February. In hindsight, this might not have been the best commander to put in charge of an integral mission like this. Not only was he still smarting from the wounds he received, but he hadn’t helped his reputation after what happened in Florida.
Seymour takes two of his regiments, the 110th Ohio and 6th Maryland, under J. Warren Keifer to probe the Confederate line and confirm if Sedgwick’s plan could work. They quickly ran into a skirmishing party that retreated to their earthworks, but Keifer was not confident about attacking. He wrote a message and sent that back to his commander, saying as much. What he didn’t know was that Ewell had brought up Pegram and gave him the task of extending his line toward the Rapidan. The Confederates completely outflanked the Federals, but they couldn’t possibly see that through the Wilderness.
The second problem was that other plans were in the works. Grant has now seen Lee pulling troops from Ewell’s far right (Wilcox’s connecting division from Hill’s Third Corps) and sending them down to shore up the jangled line along the Orange Plank Road. The Federal commander erroneously believed that Lee has now depleted some of Ewell’s troops, weakening his position. That unified attack was officially planned and would start out at 6pm. Word was sent to both Sedgwick and Warren that they should throw their all into this new assault.
Sedgwick didn’t push his whole corps in. And just as anyone could have predicted, the attack was repelled by an intense unloading of Confederate artillery. Luckily, only a few brigades were engaged and there were comparatively few casualties with this late-evening assault as there had been earlier that day.
Warren, on the other hand, didn’t budge. The commander had made a similar performance when facing the crazy-strong defenses along Mine Run and perhaps he thought he could save lives this time too. The assault, however, was not called off as it had been the previous November, and though sources say that he did discuss the matter with Meade and convinced him that the charge was folly, it would prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Warren, who had enjoyed a level of notoriety for “saving” Little Round Top at Gettysburg would not hold the same respect with the Army of the Potomac’s high command after this battle.
To make up for their losses, the 90th Pennsylvania and 39th Massachusetts sought to try and recapture a piece of Federal artillery that was abandoned on the field around sunset. The Rebs didn’t like the idea and opened up their own artillery in contest. Union troops were again caught in the gully and took cover. Ironically, some pockets of Confederates were also stuck. In a humorous anecdote to a gruesome battle, it was said that some of the new Union prisoners had whiskey in their canteens. The Confederates who stumbled upon them decided to make good of this rare commodity and they had themselves a little fun before eventually dashing back to their earthworks – Federals in-tow, of course.
Not so funny was what became of Keifer and his two regiments left in the northern woods. His report back to Seymour went unheeded. Instead, he got the order to charge. Keifer tried to stress the fact that the enemy in front outnumbered him from fortified entrenchments. Again, Seymour ordered the charge. Obeying his high command, Keifer told his two regiments to charge the works.
Pegram, who had been moved to prevent a move such as Sedgwick had devised, opened into the attacking Federals when they were within pistol range, along with Hays’ 6th Louisiana regiment who fired obliquely into the line. The results were devastating, but the lines of blue kept coming. Accounts tell how they later discovered the ground practically covered in the bodies of the dead and dying. Keifer would be wounded in the fight. A minie ball tore through his arm and shattered both bones (radius and ulna). He would survive the battle, but forever be embittered toward his commanding officer for ordering a charge that slaughtered his men. They didn’t get the word to fall back until around 10pm. They had to grope their way back using the light from the muzzle flashes of their enemy.
The day had been long, terrifying, and costly. One soldier from Robinson’s division recorded the experience of all who waited in the dark. “There was no moon to light the clearing, only dim stars, and the air was hazy and pungent with the smoke and smell of fires yet smoldering. We couldn’t see the wounded and dying, whose cries we heard all too clearly; nor could our stretcher bearers go out to find them and bring them in; the opposing lines were near, and the rebels were fidgety, and quick to shoot.”
Still another wrote after the war, “Throughout the night, as the fires, which had blazed since the early afternoon, drew nearer and nearer to the poor unfortunates who lay between the lines, their shrieks, cries and groans, loud, piercing, penetrating, rent the air, until death relieved the sufferer, or the rattle of musketry, that followed the advent of the breaking morn, drowning all the other sounds in its dominating roar.”
For those who died on the field or were consumed by the fires at Saunders Field, that was their final day of the war. For the rest, morning would bring more fighting and more bloodshed.
(To Be Continued…)