May 5th, 1864 had ended in a bloody and twisted mess in the area called The Wilderness in central Virginia. In the battle that initiated the Overland Campaign, we’ve got the two most famous generals of the Civil War going up against one another for the first time.
On the Federal side, we’ve got Ulysses “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, the man who won infamy in the western theater for his capture of Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Lincoln has brought him over and given him the new rank of Lieutenant General over all the Union armies. The goal is to finally end this war, obliterate the Confederacy and reunite the country.
On the Confederate side, we have Robert E. Lee, the man who has a wide gamut of nicknames including the “King of Spades” and “Audacity Itself”. He’s had command of the Army of Northern Virginia since the spring of 1862 and has led them through some of the war’s most iconic battles like Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and of course Gettysburg. Chased across the Rapidan River into central Virginia, Lee is guarding the way to Richmond as well as his supply line on the Central Virginia Railroad in his rear.
The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia clashed once more in a dense, second-growth forest dubbed The Wilderness. This ground is not unfamiliar to the troops in blue and gray, as they had engaged in some terrific fighting in the spring of 1863 (Chancellorsville). New memories had been made – none good – on May 5th. Three roads crossed the Wilderness from east to west. On the north you’ve got the Orange Turnpike, below it is the Orange Plank Road, and to the very south is the Catharpin Road. Our armies have found themselves fighting along these arteries.
On the Turnpike, sits Union Generals Gouverneur Warren with his V Corps and John Sedgwick with his VI Corps to the east of an open pocket of land called Saunders Field. On the west side of the field is Confederate general Richard Ewell and his Second Corps. For more about what occurred here, check out THIS blog post from a couple of weeks ago.
Along the Orange Plank Road, Winfield Scott Hancock with his II Corps and John Getty’s division from the VI Corps have stubbornly guarded the Plank Road-Brock Road intersection since the previous day against A.P. Hill’s Third Corps Confederates who have taken up a rather precarious position to the east of another field pocket owned by the widow, Catherine Tapp. For more on what happened here, check out THIS blog post from last week.
As the fighting eased late into the evening on May 5th, both armies decided to reconfigure their lines to beef up weak points and shuffle in fresh troops – if they had any. For the Army of the Potomac, this was their first experience fighting under Grant. Though the first day had shown little success, the general consensus was that they were willing to hang in there and see what Grant could do for them. The strategy wasn’t airtight at first. Regiments and brigades were being sent in piecemeal and there was little hope of a massive, unified assault for the first day of battle. Troops were tired, not only from fighting the enemy, but fighting their surroundings. The Wilderness became just as much of an antagonist as the Confederates, swallowing up divisions in their dark depths or threatening to burn them alive as dry foliage caught fire in the heat of battle. However, Grant had a new plan.
Still active in command of the army was George Gordon Meade, the feisty Pennsylvanian general to balance out Grant’s chill. Together, they concocted a new strategy that was airtight. In the morning, they would attack on all fronts. Sedgwick and Warren would charge Ewell’s entrenchments while Hancock would smash through Hill’s. Wadsworth’s division, which had aimed for the exposed left flank on Hill’s line, would also continue their efforts from the previous day after a band of Alabamians stopped them in their tracks. Ambrose Burnside in independent command of the IX Corps being held in reserve, would be called into wedge his corps in the gap that had developed between the two Confederate Corps. Essentially, he would support Wadsworth and further put the squeeze on Hill’s corps. To help bolster his numbers, Grant and Meade have called in all the infantry that’s guarding his supplies and relegating that detail (to Sheridan’s utter frustration) to the cavalry. He’s also taken the artillery men who won’t be needed and sent them to the infantry. Efforts are also being made to resupply the ammunition as conveyers grope through the near pitch-black of night, hoping not to run into any enemy pickets.
Meade gathered together his corps commanders and their staff to discuss the plan. The attack would begin at the bugle call at 4:30am and to ensure that the IX Corps was in place, Burnside should begin his march from his place in the rear at 2am. Burnside, glorious beard and all, stood proudly and declared that he would gather his troops at 2:30am, and then strode out of the tent. For a bit of context, this is the dude that was in charge of the army for the battle of Fredericksburg in the winter of 1862 and sent up brigade after brigade to the slaughter at Maryes Heights. (Why he’s still in command of anything is beyond me.) Major James Duane, who was present at this meeting, was reported to say, “He won’t be up – I know him.”
In response to this, Meade conferred with Grant by message and a new time was negotiated to 5am in hopes that would give the boldly-whiskered general the extra time he seemed to always need. It was also decided that Burnside might be better to go ahead and completely slip through the gap in the Wilderness between Ewell and Hill’s corps, and then swing around to attack from the rear.
On the western front, Lee is biding his time. His “Old War Horse”, James Longstreet, has been marching relentlessly from Gordonsville (southwest of the Wilderness), scheduled to make his way down the Catharpin road where Rosser’s cavalry have cleared the way for him. But he’s still not anywhere near the Confederate lines. His added troops could mean the difference between a victory and utter obliteration and Lee is betting his all on his friend.
To encourage the movement of the First Corps, Lee sends one of his aides, Charles Venable, to give a change of plans to Longstreet. Instead of coming down Catharpin Road, Longstreet is now ordered to cut through the Wilderness to come up and support Hill directly on the Plank Road. In doing so, he can completely push Hancock from the Brock Road intersection and dominate the nearest path to Richmond and fill the gap between the two dangling corps. When he gets the order, his troops are already bushed from the march and he assures that they’ll be moving out around 1am and will be there by daybreak. However, it’s not clear that Longstreet is catching onto the urgency of the order.
For Ewell, Lee wants him to push on Sedgwick first thing in the morning to rout him or distract the Federals from the bigger action to the south with Longstreet’s arrival. Ewell, up to this point, has nailed his objective of not bringing on a general engagement, as Lee wanted, and has even captured four Union cannons in the process. He’s secured his line with earthworks and making sure his flanks are fairly covered. One adjustment was made to move John Gordon to the left next to Pegram, but other than that, they’ve just been working on their entrenchments to ready for May 6th. The morning attack would commence at 4:30am.
Everyone along the Plank Road, especially Hill’s division commanders, is eager for Longstreet’s arrival. They know his presence on the field will tip the scale. They also know that Hill’s line is a big, nasty, tangled mess. The Wilderness and the actions on May 5th were not kind to them and by the time night fell on these disjointed regiments and brigades, the two divisions under Henry Heth and Wilcox were all meshed together.
Hope would come in the morning, though. Hill assured that his men would be relieved as soon as Longstreet’s corps came up. Efforts were made by Heth and Wilcox to convince Hill in the wisdom of trying to straighten out their lines. Some regiments were so stacked and twisted around one another that they were facing their own men and were as likely to start up a friendly-fire fight. Hill, however, adamantly made the case that none of that was necessary and that the men needed rest after the hard day they had. Repeatedly, the division commanders petitioned for something to be done about their lines, but Hill finally snapped, saying, “Damn it, Heth! I don’t want to hear any more about it; the men shall not be disturbed.” His outburst can be reasoned away that Hill was not in the best of health and was cranky (admit it, you would be too if you weren’t feeling well).
But finally, Wilcox defies orders and at least tries to get ready for Longstreet’s arrival by establishing new, straighter earthworks for the First Corps.
By dawn’s light, Hill’s corps would be rudely awakened by Hancock’s skirmishers probing ahead and priming the field for the coming assault while Ewell opened the ball with a deafening roar of artillery around the Turnpike.
The assault on Hill’s line was devastating. Because neither Wilcox nor Heth’s division made any big attempts to straighten out their lines, the soldiers had little to no earthworks to fall back to. They had no place to form and many were low on ammunition. Some regiments fired back, many didn’t. Officers gave orders to retreat, but in the din of battle, the command was lost on some who fell into the hands of the charging Federals. Some brigades made a decent stand, like Thomas’ Georgians and Kirkland. Stone’s men decided to play a little dirty and used wounded Union soldiers as shields to help hold their line. The thinking was that the bluecoats, seeing their own men, wouldn’t fire. It worked and his portion of the line held for a considerable time. Cooke, near the left flank, had some forethought and had dug some earthworks and established a battery that hammered into Wadsworth’s coming division. But, like the rest of Hill’s corps, they were compelled to fall back.
The momentum of Hancock’s men only lasted for about an hour before the regiments and brigades became entwined and bunched in the thicket. Gaps formed along the line and the men ran low on ammunition after firing volley after volley into the retreating Confederates.
Much of Hill’s corps came flooding onto Widow Tapp Field. “The men, appreciating that their position was no longer tenable, fell back from both flanks into the Plank Road, and came pouring down the road past the open field near the Tapp House, where Lee stood among the tall and scattered pines.” It was a scene of “utter, and apparently, irremediable confusion, such as we had never witnessed before in Lee’s army.” All around were “standing and moving wagons, horses and mules, and threading their way through the tangled mass, each with his face to the rear, were hundreds of the men of Wilcox’s and Heth’s divisions, which were being driven from their lines.”
It was unparalleled chaos and Lee saw every bit of it. Shocked and enraged, he called to McGowan, “My God! General McGowan, is this splendid brigade of yours running like a flock of geese?” To which McGowan replied, “General, the men are not whipped. They only want a place to form, and they will fight as well as ever they did.” Yes, that’s what you say to your superior when you’re caught on a retreat. Desperate, Lee sent Wilcox and his aide, Charles Venable to go see what was holding up Longstreet and more men to go get their supply trains ready to leave in the event that they couldn’t hold the Wilderness.
As the Federals were beginning to breach the tree line, Poague’s battery of 12 guns opened up, raking fire and rotating to help hold back the tide. In the process, he was also firing into more retreating gray coats. Hill, a former artillery officer, even lent his hand in firing the guns.
Further north toward Saunder’s Field, the Confederates were doing better, but not by much. The Rebs had strengthened their lines substantially, adding abatis (forward-facing spikey trees to slow an attacking enemy). Sharpshooters with their effective Enfield rifles were stationed in front of these abatis to deter any idea about charging the works. Richard Ewell had also moved around his artillery, sending some much-needed pieces toward the gap between his and Hill’s line to the south. Ewell had been given the order to attack at 4:45am, a full fifteen minutes before either Sedgwick or Warren planned to move. As a result, Uncle John’s northern sector were caught off guard by the assault.
Despite the surprise, no impression was made and for a while, the action between Ewell’s northern line and Sedgwick’s wing were like two bulls bashing their heads together, gaining little ground and accomplishing next to nothing in the grand scheme of the field. Some brave attempts, like that of Neill’s Brigade, were made to break the line, but the Federal troops were caught in a marsh and became sitting ducks to Pegram’s men across the way. Much like Stone’s men the previous day to the south of Saunders Field, Neill retreated and incurred heavy losses.
Griffin’s division waited anxiously for the order from Warren to charge. But it didn’t come. Like the previous day, and like at Mine Run, Warren defied the order to advance and collaborate his offensive with Sedgwick’s corps. His observation of the strengthened Confederate works supported his declaration that a charge would be futile and impossible to execute with any degree of success. Meade, however, implored Warren to simply keep Ewell busy so that he wouldn’t go to Hill’s aid further south. If Hancock could keep Hill on the run, then the complete decimation of the Confederate southern wing was possible, especially with Burnside’s help… But where was Burnside?
The night before, the IX Corps and its three divisions under Potter, Willcox, and Stevenson, had been encamped near Germanna Ford, less than 5 miles from Wilderness Tavern, where they would meet the following morning at 4am – ideally. They began marching around 1am, but the going was slow. Their line of march was going right behind Sedgwick’s battle lines, which were bogged down by artillery and supply wagons. Just one of the divisions reached the Wilderness Tavern around 5am, a whole hour off schedule. Burnside himself didn’t make an appearance until 6am with the rest of his entourage. Lieutenant Morris Schaff had been given the task of escorting the IX Corps through the Wilderness and toward the gap that – to their knowledge – was still wide open for that flank/rear assault that had been discussed earlier. By now, the battle was raging to the north and the south and could be clearly heard by the troops of the IX Corps.
Stevenson’s division – Burnside’s best and most experienced division – was left behind around the Wilderness Tavern as reinforcements, while Potter and Willcox advanced – in that order – toward the gap. This was around 6:30am. In a move that boggles the mind, Burnside decided to stop for breakfast in the middle of a LITERAL battlefield.
Burnside’s tardiness to the main event and Warren’s obstinance to attack was about to be the least of the Federal army’s troubles. Because, just as they had feared the day before, Lee was about to get bailed out by his “Old War Horse”.
(To Be Continued…)