Finally, after marching through the early morning hours, James Longstreet’s First Corps finally appeared out along the Plank Road to face Union General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps. In the lead was John Gregg and his brigade of Texans and Arkansans and were some of the first to witness this near rout of their fellow soldiers from A.P. Hill’s Third Corps. Jeers and cheers rose from both sides. Longstreet’s men called out, “Do you belong to General Lee’s army? You don’t look like the men we left here. You are worse than Bragg’s men!” (They’re going to need some aloe for that burn!)
Robert E. Lee, spotting his Old War Horse, became excited beyond belief. He approached Gregg and asked what brigade this was. He didn’t recognize the general who had transferred to Longstreet’s corps from the western theatre during the fall. When he replied to Lee that they were Texans, Lee replied, “I am glad to see it. 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. The Texas brigade always had driven the enemy, and I want them to do it now. And tell them, General, that they will fight today under my eye – I will watch their conduct. I want every man of them to know I am here with them.”
Say no more! Gregg relayed the message to his men and they rushed ahead to meet the Federals. Only, they realized Lee was literally with them! Riding ahead of the column, the soldiers realized this was no place for a general of his importance. Cries and pleas went out for “Lee to the rear!” They refused to go any further if Lee didn’t get back to safety. Some reputedly grabbed for Traveler’s (Lee’s horse) reins and tried to stop the general from endangering himself. (Historian’s take: Lee, in this moment of excitement and potential reversal, wanted to be part of the action and perhaps slipped into his old mindset of when he was in the Mexican War. He wanted to take the initiative and be the one to lead his army to victory from the front, not the rear.)
Gregg hurried to tell Longstreet and the Old War Horse talked some sense into Lee, saying (paraphrase) “If you’ve got this handled, I’ll go to the rear because this isn’t a place I’d like to be.” Lee finally withdrew and let Longstreet’s corps save the day.
Within the First Corps are two divisions. Kershaw’s division marched south of the Plank Road while Field’s division took the north side and through Widow Tapp Field. Field’s division was headed by Gregg. The task ahead of them was tricky. Not only did they have to charge into a field of fire, but they had to change from column to line formation in the Wilderness with Hill’s corps still retreating through their ranks. The Texans, bolstered by the speech Lee had given, charged ahead with little support on their flanks, straight into a fierce and crazy fight that tore them to pieces. Out of 800 in the brigade, less than 250 came back unharmed.
More brigades came up to take their place, including Rock Benning’s brigade and Law’s Alabamians. The fighting became too intense on Wadsworth’s front (the extreme Federal right flank) that Hancock sent Eustis and Wheaton’s brigades from further down on the line to support him.
Birney and Mott’s Union division were driven by Kershaw on the south side of the road. Brigadier General Lewis Grant of Getty’s division was left alone after Eustis and Wheaton were redirected to support Wadsworth, but they had a couple of advantages. The scant and tangled earthworks that Hill’s men had made the previous day had been vacated. The Federals utilized these barricades and in time, were supported. Still, Confederate fire converged from their front and their flanks as Longstreet’s corps advanced into the Wilderness. Action see-sawed along the Plank Road, mostly attributed to the weathered state of Hancock’s disordered men.
One historian from the 10th New York recorded that “The continuous rack of musketry – the excitement – the cheers of our own brigade – the sometimes sharp and again sullen yells of the enemy – all of this happening in our own immediate vicinity, had deadened our senses to the fact that we were not alone engaged.”
Hancock called for reinforcements at about 6:30am. Meade responded that the only troops he could spare were Stevenson’s Division of the 9th Corps, which was kept around the Wilderness Tavern as Burnside “advanced” on toward the middle gap in the Wilderness. Meade didn’t want to dish out these last fresh troops unless it was absolutely necessary.
A.P. Hill, though his men were battered, went to establishing a loose line between the Widow Tapp Field and Chewning Farm to the north, supporting the artillery that had been put there earlier by Richard Ewell of the Second Corps. Meanwhile, Longstreet had taken his corps and remnants of Hill’s division to concrete his line several yards east of the clearing, completely dominating the Plank Road in the process.
Now, more than ever, it was imperative to get Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and John Sedgwick’s VI Corps to cripple Ewell’s corps around Saunders Field. Still, Warren wouldn’t move to General George Gordon Meade’s orders. “The major-general commanding considers it of the utmost importance that your attack should be pressed with the utmost vigor. Spare ammunition and use the bayonet.” … Yeah, Warren still wasn’t moving.
Sedgwick on the other hand, did get his butt in gear and attempted another attack. Truman Seymour’s brigade was again thrown into the fray, much to the reluctance of his troops who knew about the previous day’s debacle with Keifer’s men. “Every man from private soldier up to the regimental commander, knew by the experience of the previous night, and by the difficulties already met, that such an attack in such force, was next to madness.” Still, five waves of attack were initiated, disrupting the breakfast of some Confederates sitting safely behind their entrenchments.
Regardless, the Federal assault was again beaten back, as they had the previous morning. Hungry Confederates looking for a prize to compensate for their troubles, rushed the field as the bluecoats retreated to scavenge through knapsacks and haversacks. Many of them didn’t leave the field alive.
Seeing the futility of bashing away at the Confederate position, Meade finally ordered Sedgwick and Warren to slack off and call back their troops to strengthen their own lines, but keep up the artillery fire that had stalled any notion of Ewell trying to come up the Orange Turnpike. Confederates took this chance to tend to their wounded.
Later that morning, Burnside’s two divisions on the move toward the gap weren’t making much headway. After stopping for breakfast in the middle of a freakin’ battle, his two divisions didn’t get moving again until 7:30am. By then, Ramseur’s Confederate brigade that had been held in reserves was sent in to help fill the gap along with the artillery that Ewell had put there. The combination of the barrage and one completely fresh brigade of Rebs managed to halt the entirety of Burnside’s forces, reduced to heavy skirmishing.
An hour was wasted by Burnside and his aides as they consulted what they should do about this roadblock. Poor Hancock had been told by headquarters that Burnside was well on his way to helping him out, but not even Meade or Grant knew about the extensive delays until about 9am. New orders were given for Burnside to turn south and join up with Hancock’s corps to help them take on Longstreet. Leaving one of Willcox’s brigades to occupy Ramseur, he took the rest of his command and began to cut his way through the Wilderness. He soon realized, as the rest of the Army of the Potomac had discovered the day before, that the Wilderness was an unkind place for soldiers to march through. No amount of messages and orders from high command were going to make Burnside push harder through the mess and tangle of thicket that separated him from Hancock’s corps.
Hancock was dealing with his own frustrations and anxieties. Disturbing misinformation and recon continued to filter back to him about two supposedly missing divisions from Hill and Longstreet. One, belonging to George Pickett (of the famous charge at Gettysburg) was mysteriously absent. Extrapolation led him to believe that the missing divisions could come up from Todd’s Tavern at the Brock-Catharpin intersection at any moment. So, too, did the believed Confederate advance (by evidence of heavy artillery fire and Ramseur’s men) in the gap between him and Warren racketed up his paranoia.
The shuffling and repositioning of brigades in the center led to boundless confusion and blunders. One example is of Webb’s brigade ordered from reserves (instead of a division under Barlow) to come to the front. Without deploying a skirmish line, they had inadvertently passed straight through Getty’s line of battle and ran smack-dab into the Confederates.
Stevenson’s division being held at the Wilderness Tavern was finally pulled in to help Hancock. However, this only proves the old adage true that “too many cooks in the kitchen spoils the broth”. Commanders from brigade to division level were unsure of who was in charge of certain areas of the field. Some were giving orders to detachments that were not their own. Hancock’s wing of the army had parts of it from Warren’s, Sedgwick’s, and Burnside’s corps, making for a jumbled mess that actually brought much of the action to a standstill.
Matters became worse to Hancock as his fears seemed to be coming to pass. Word was spread that Wadsworth was taken out of the game (his horse was simply shot out from under him) and Cutler’s men had been driven all the way back to the Lacy field. Orders had also been given to Sheridan down near Todd’s Tavern to go out to meet some advancing troops, supposedly the missing division of Longstreet’s corps under Pickett. What he didn’t know was that the engagement further south was simply a cavalry battle and the troops that they believed belonged to Pickett were only Federal convalescents streaming to the rear. Pickett was actually in Richmond. Further north, the artillery was hot, it’s true, but no graybacks ever made it close to the edge of the Lacy field as long as Grant kept up the Federal artillery fire around his headquarters.
For almost an hour, Hancock devoted himself to responding to these imaginary threats by taking brigades and moving them to his flanks, thinning them out to try and make one continuous line of Federals. In some cases, he would countermand his own orders, and brigades that were told to go south were then ordered back to where they were. It was a big, confusion mess for everyone involved.
Luckily for him and all those under his command, the battle in his front seemed to ease off between 10am and 10:30am. Longstreet and Hancock had fought themselves to near exhaustion, while Burnside was still lost somewhere above them, and neither Sedgwick or Warren could make any offensive move against Ewell’s entrenchments.
All of that changed when the Rebs took notice of a manmade terrain feature just to their south. Prior to hostilities breaking out in 1861, the construction of a railroad had been in progress that passed from Fredericksburg, two miles below Chancellorsville, and straight through the southern portion of the Wilderness. The project had been abandoned, leaving a substantial ridge-like railroad cut with dense forest on either side. It ran somewhat parallel to the Orange Plank Road and could provide excellent cover for either army to pass behind and wind up on their enemy’s exposed flank or rear. Gibbon’s division on the left of the Union line could have exploited it and since the army had been roaming about in that area for the last few days, they would have certainly known about it. However, with all the excitement in their front and dealing with Hill – and now Longstreet – the unfinished railroad wasn’t on their radar.
It was, however, seen by the Confederates. Longstreet hadn’t been engaged with Lee’s army during the Chancellorsville or Mine Run battles, so he wouldn’t have known of it. But the Georgians under Wofford’s brigade would have. Sent to scout, they discovered that not only was the railroad cut perfect for executing a flanking maneuver on Hancock’s left, there were ridges and ravines that extended from the cut toward the Union line that would allow the troops to funnel in concentrated mass with adequate screening to completely surprise the Federals. Chief engineer Martin Smith, who knew Longstreet well and was the mastermind behind Vicksburg’s defenses the previous year, confirmed that utilizing this terrain for a massive flanking attack was a sound plan.
Longstreet decided to act. He gathered up four brigades under William Mahone, George “Tige” Anderson, and Wofford’s Georgians, and put them under his trusted staff officer, Moxley Sorrel. The 26 year old former bank clerk had never led troops into battle before, but he was determined to make his general proud. Along the way down the railroad cut, he collected up John Stone’s brigade to aid in the attack. The column went about half a mile to the east and turned north where they could hear the potshots being taken by Hancock’s far left flank.
The attack wasn’t a complete surprise, as Robert McAllister of Mott’s Division had discovered the Rebel activity on his flank. But by the time Sorrel sounded the charge, it was too late. The tightly packed lines of gray swept down the ravines and into the Union’s flank. At the same time, Kershaw renewed his attack on the front. Chaos erupted across the lines as startled and exhausted troops failed to hold their lines. McAllister, who had seen the Rebs coming, barely made it back to the Brock Road on his bullet-riddled horse.
Federal brigades began to crumble like dominoes. To one Federal officer, the enemy appeared “like an army of ghosts rising out of the earth.” Regiment after regiment broke and ran for their Brock Road defenses that had been made the day before. Commanders and generals tried their best to rally their troops, and with a few short-lived exceptions, they failed miserably.
The Confederates, despite their success, struggled some in the assault. The 12th Virginia ran onto marshy land, their color bearer becoming stuck up to his knees. When Sorrel offered to take the flag and continue on, the soldier refused and said, “We will follow you”.
Wadsworth, above the Plank Road, had his front attacked by Field’s division as well. Just prior to this, he had been contemplating surrendering his command because he had begun to feel the weight of the battle. Now, with his position threatened, he jumped into action again and tried to form his line parallel to the Plank Road to stop Sorrel’s tide of grays. It couldn’t hold, given that Confederate artillery from the Widow Tapp Field began to enfilade into the Federal line, tearing it to pieces. While charging a regiment of Alabamians with the 20th Massachusetts, Wadsworth’s horse became spooked and ran uncontrollably – with its rider – into the Confederate line. The general gained control of his mount, but as he turned back with his aides by his side, a bullet tore through his skull, splattering brains upon those beside him.
Federal troops became mixed in the rout. Hancock and his subordinates continually failed to rally any sort of resistance against the Confederates. The flank attack worked as beautifully as Thomas Jackson’s had during the battle at Chancellorsville a year ago. This 1864 flank attack, however, would prove to be the last in Longstreet’s involvement in the Wilderness, just like it had been for Jackson in 1863.