Just as Richard Ewell had thrown off Gouverneur Warren’s advance south to Todd’s Tavern on the morning of May 5th, so did A.P. Hill surprise Brigadier General Samuel Crawford down along the Orange Plank Road. The Confederate general met with some thin resistance of New York cavalry and effectively cut off the Federal cavalry unit (further south around Robertson’s Run) from the rest of the army to the north. But the entire Confederate Third Corps wasn’t stopping there. They pressed on, their objective being the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road intersection. If they could reach that, they could cut off the Union army even further and either swing north to pound into Warren’s struggling V Corps or at least block the avenue to Richmond.
When word came to headquarters, Federal generals George Meade and Ulysses Grant responded by sending the lead elements of John Sedgwick’s VI Corps toward the intersection. Brigadier General George Getty flew down and managed to capture the intersection before Winfield Scott Hancock and his II Corps. They arrived just in time to see the 5th New York Cavalry finally break and run for the rear. Down the Plank Road, Getty and his staff could see Hill’s Confederates advancing. As one of the staff remembers, “[A] bullet went whistling overhead and another and another, and then the leaden hail came faster and faster over and about the little group until its destruction seemed imminent and inevitable.”
Further west of the intersection lay a piece of open ground, not unlike Saunders Field to the north, but far flatter. Hill set up four guns of artillery along the 300 yard-wide expanse inhabited by Catherine Tapp. The 59 year-old widow was renting the land from the Lacey family, who owned a lot of property in and around the Wilderness. Today, the family would evacuate and make way for the Confederate army.
Despite the established position of the Confederates and his own scant assembly, Getty was determined to hold and began to make a show of having a greater force than he truly did, giving orders left and right. With the first volley of infantry firing, Getty succeeded in stemming the tide of gray washing toward him. This was in part due to the order that General Robert Lee had given his army before all of this began. They were not to bring on a general engagement. Henry Heth, who had led the corps down the Plank Road, heeded this warning just as Ewell did along the Orange Turnpike, and backed off. Getty had different orders to launch an attack, but he couldn’t do it alone against an entire corps of Rebs.
Earlier that morning, Hancock and his II Corps had made it five miles south of the Brock Road intersection when word came back from Meade for him to halt. Something was developing down the Turnpike and if it escalated, Warren would need assistance. Also, Hancock was too far disconnected from the rest of the army with a wide gulf of Wilderness between the two wings. There was also a delay in communications, which complicated the messages and belied the urgency of whatever orders came. At about 11:40, Hancock finally got the order to head toward the Brock Road intersection, support Getty, and make an attack. This was easier said than done, as Hancock’s line was stretched from Chancellorsville to Todd’s Tavern to the south. Moving his entire corps that far north would create a massive traffic jam, but Hancock did his best.
While the Federals were waiting for Hancock, Lee was getting his own troops ready. There were two divisions within A.P. Hill’s corps, one under Henry Heth and the other under Cadmus Wilcox. Earlier that morning, Lee, Hill, and cavalry officer J.E.B. Stuart were congregated around the Widow’s house, when a band of Federal skirmishers had broken through the trees and came face to face with the Confederate high command. This would have been a momentous chance for some Yankees to take out the general and alter the entire course of history. Instead, they were just as startled as their potential prisoners. Lee, cool as a cucumber, walked away and mounted his horse to leave while Hill made a mad dash for safety, leaving Stuart to give them the death-glare. The Federals ultimately rushed back into the woods and disappeared without ever firing a shot. It was a close call that prompted Lee to order Wilcox’s division to plug the gap between his two corps (Ewell and Hill). Wilcox did so, stretching his line through the Wilderness until it butted up to John B. Gordon’s right flank. Besides a slight void behind Heth’s division around the Tapp Field, Lee had a continuous line of soldiers – something that Meade was lacking.
Meanwhile, Meade was getting antsy. The delay in communication along with the brewing storm around Saunders Field that afternoon prompted him to order an attack whether Getty and Hancock were in full position or not. Crawford’s rout from around the Chewning Farm also gave him anxiety, knowing that his two wings were not connected. He needed Hancock and Warren to make an attack down Plank Road ASAP. Hancock received the order about 2:40 – two hours late – to attack, but not all of his corps had reached Getty. Only Lewis Grant and Gershom Mott’s divisions were on hand and currently establishing two lines of earthworks to the left of Getty’s position around the intersection.
Opposite the Federals, Heth had arranged his brigades of Cooke and Kirkland to stack along the Plank Road. John Stone’s brigade to flank the left (north) and Henry “Mud” Walker would take the right flank (south). The Confederates had the advantage of a ridge that cut across the road running north to south, providing some natural cover. From there, they could fire down into the advancing Federals.
Getty followed his orders and threw in three of his brigades at 4:15pm. Like the rest of the army, they soon realize what a chore this was because of the thick underbrush and denseness of the Wilderness that seemed to be working against them at every turn. The Confederates opened onto the approaching division. “The musketry silenced all other sounds and the air in the woods was hot and heavy with sulphurous vapor. The tops of the bushes were cut away by the leaden showers which swept through them; and when the smoke lifted occasional glimpses could be got of gray forms crouching under the battle-cloud which hung low upon the slope in front.”
Time and again, the brigades and regiments fell back under the heavy fire and were unable to gain any ground. As more of Hancock’s men came up – along with guns – more brigades and divisions were thrown in to reinforce and shore up their line. Alexander Hays, a friend of Grant and Meade, was shot while leading his troops into the battle. Rumor had it that the sometime heavy drinker had been trying to take a swig from a canteen, which put his head in the path of the bullet that had his name on it. “Brave men are falling like autumn leaves,” one of Hays’s soldiers said, “and death holds high carnival in our ranks.”
About 5pm, General John Gibbon, a favorite of Hancock’s, came in with his division to hold back a wave of gray that threatened to take the intersection. Heth’s division now faced four division totaling 33,000 men, outnumbering them five to one.
As the Confederates fell back to their earthworks after being pressed by the Federals that evening, one soldier summed up the fighting that afternoon, “A butchery pure and simple it was, unrelieved by any of the arts of war in which the exercise of military skill and tact robs the hour of some of its horrors. It was a mere slugging match in a dense thicket of small growth, where men but a few yards apart fired through the brushwood for hours, ceasing only when exhaustion and night commanded a rest.”
But the Confederate spirit of desperation remained intact. “The officers and men of the regiment realized that the safety of the army depended upon our holding the enemy in check until the forces left behind could come up and there was a fixed determination to do it, or to die.”
The extra forces were that of James Longstreet, who had been stationed at Gordonsville over 30 miles southwest of the Wilderness. Lee had ordered him to come up as soon as possible, but that order was given on May 4th and it was unlikely that Longstreet would make any appearance until the following day (May 6th), given the terrain fighting against him and the sheer mileage he had to cross. Word of his approach was given to Meade, who had another reason to worry. Now that Hancock was at the Brock Road intersection, there was nothing to stop Longstreet from coming down Catharpin Road to Todd’s Tavern and turning north along the Brock Road to slam into the Federal left flank.
Seeing that Heth was in hot water with more Federals on the way, Lee made a bold decision. He recalled Wilcox from his place in the middle of his line to come back and support his fellow division commander. Grant was not oblivious to the move. Taking a break from his whittling around headquarters, he came up with a way to exploit this gap. Not only did he urge an attack on Ewell’s front, he took Wadsworth’s division from Warren’s V Corps and sent it down to hit Hill’s exposed left flank.
As Wilcox’s division slowly trickled in, one brigade at a time to jump into the intense battle, Lee gained a bit of intelligence of Wadsworth’s movements to take advantage of that hole. Heth had no reserves and apart from one division under Ewell, his left wing was running low on fresh troops as well. The only detachment he could reasonably spare was the 5th Alabama Battalion, a group of 150 men who were assigned to look after prisoners that Hill had acquired. They were thrown, screaming like banshees, into the gap to stop Wadsworth. Apparently it wasn’t that hard because Wadsworth had already been harassed by Confederate pickets and the Wilderness – once again – came back to bite him in the ass and made the going difficult. His entire division was halted by 150 men just a quarter of a mile north of the Plank Road.
Realizing that Grant was pulling from his left (south) wing to pester Lee’s left (north) wing, the Confederate commander advised Ewell to look for some opportunity to cut off the Federal divisions from one another using the ridge around Wilderness Run. He said that if such a move could be made, Ewell should go for it. If not, stay back and wait for morning support from Longstreet.
Meanwhile, the brigades under Wilcox had been tossed in to help hold the line. Samuel McGowan and Alfred Scales were the first up from the nearby Chewning Farm. Scales fell in behind “Mud” Walker while McGowan came up with a nifty idea to draw enemy fire by zig-zagging acrost the Plank Road. Cannister fire was blasted through the trees, but Federals were amazed how the graycoats could avoid the artillery so easily. The one catch was that as the fresh Confederates charged on, those who had just fallen back were also shooting to “help” in their comrades’ efforts, probably resulting in some incidents of “friendly fire”. Edward Thomas and James Lane’s divisions were the last to fall in on either side of Hill’s line and help move the line forward, but they only succeeded in making failed, isolated charges by brigades and ended up falling back to their earthworks with hefty losses.
For much of the last couple of hours the gray and the blue battled with see-saw results. Confederates were being worn down, but the Federals had no idea that they were doing as well as they were. Unable to see their progress and only the wounded being carried back, they thought things weren’t looking too swell for them either.
By nightfall, all firing along the Plank Road ceased. Confederates ducked down into their jagged, winding earthworks while the Federals – sometimes not more than 100 feet away – licked their wounds and took assessment of their losses. No ground had been gained; no ground really lost. Like Warren around the Turnpike, Getty had been pressed to fight when he wasn’t prepared and didn’t have adequate reinforcements. Not only that, but they sent in their divisions piecemeal as they became available. Once again, like on the Turnpike, if time had been given for the divisions to amass together, a full, unified assault could have been made that could have effectively pushed the Confederates from their position.
Grant and Meade could steam all they want about these poor decisions in hindsight while Lee set his eyes to the rear, waiting for Longstreet and his First Corps to come up and give them the edge they needed. Dawn would begin a new day of battle and only one army could come out of the Wilderness victorious.
(To Be Continued…)