In the afternoon of May 6th, 1864, James Longstreet of the First Corps had launched a devastating flanking maneuver upon the Federal left from an unfinished railroad cut in the Wilderness. Led by one of his staff officers, four Confederate brigades poured into Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and forced them back to their earthworks along the Brock Road. Though the attack went off without nearly a hitch, the intersection was still controlled by Union forces. As long as Hancock had that intersection of the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road secured, the Army of the Potomac could shift their forces south and strike their way toward Richmond or Lee’s supply train along the Central Virginia Railroad.
Longstreet had to keep up the momentum and pressure on Hancock and immediately began to make plans for a fresh assault to follow up. They’d do the same as before, traveling further down the unfinished railroad cut to screen their movements and then turn north to bash into the Union’s left flank and crumple them all the way to the Rapidan.
Once more, Longstreet sent his chief engineer, Martin Smith, to scout the location and make sure they had enough of a ridgeline to execute the plan. They did and Longstreet gathered up his own band of officers, including Kershaw and Micah Jenkins, leading a brigade of South Carolinians toward the launching point. With Wofford’s Georgians regrouping after the first assault, Longstreet believed he had enough to give the Federals a run for their money. This time, he would give the honors of leading the charge to Smith, his engineer.
Longstreet and his staffers led the Confederate column along the unfinished railroad, everyone in high spirits. One of the general’s aides, Andrew Dunn, had been concerned about exposing the general at the head of the column, but Longstreet brushed the concern aside.
The 12th Virginia Infantry under Mahone’s brigade was coming back toward the unfinished railroad after becoming disconnected from the rest of the regiment. They had been situated upon the right flank of Mahone’s brigade below the railroad. After they advanced, they circled back across the Orange Plank Road toward the railroad cut. The rest of Mahone’s line was between 35 to 75 yards south of the Plank Road, dressing their lines and reforming for the next attack.
Before the battle, Jenkins’ regiment had been outfitted with new uniforms of a dark material. In the Wilderness or even dim light, the Confederates looked like a mass of Union blue. One Confederate officer within the 12th VA reported that they were, “some distance off in the thick underbrush, hearing the cheers and seeing this body of dark-uniformed men, took them for Yankees and fired a volley.” Mahone’s men, who were on the other side of Longstreet’s column, mistook this for Union rifle fire and engaged in a deadly crossfire with Jenkins’ men in the middle.
“In the shaded light of the dense tangle, a shot or two went off, then more, and finally a strong fusillade,” said Moxley Sorrel, the staff officer who had led the first flanking assault and with Longstreet during this shootout.
It was only until the color bearer of the 12th VA (the same one who had been caught in the mud during the first flanking assault) made an appearance, that the truth came out. But not soon enough for lead elements of Jenkins’ brigade to seek cover and begin firing to the north toward where they suspected the “Federals” were shooting from. Kershaw rushed in on horseback between to stop, declaring that “They are friends!”. Longstreet rode forward to help in stopping the senseless bloodshed, as officers and men had been struck down already.
In the engagement, Longstreet – a hefty man to begin with – suddenly rose onto his stirrups and then sat down heavily. Then, blood began to pour down his neck and chest. A bullet had entered through his neck and exited his right shoulder, leaving a gaping hole. He managed to stay seated in his horse, swaying from side to side until his aides hurried forward to pull him from the saddle. A British soldier, Francis Dawson recounted that the general “reeled as the blood poured down over his breast, and was evidently badly hurt.” Sorrel, who stayed by his side, remarked that the commander was “nearly choked with blood.”
Both sides finally stopped firing upon one another and looked on in horror at the scene they had caused. Fortunately, many of the shots had been high. They laid the injured general under a tree, fearing the worst. Dawson mounted and ran for the first doctor he could find. Luckily, it was Dr. J.D.S. Cullen (also called “Dorsey”), the First Corps’ medical director. The Brit gave his horse to the doctor and he sped off to attend to Longstreet.
Meanwhile, the general was still conscious, though bleeding profusely. He gave whispered orders for Major General Fields, one of his division commanders, to take control of his corps and continue the flanking attack. A dispatch was written to Lee to appraise him of the situation, giving the same instructions to continue the work he had set out to do against the Union left flank. Dr. Cullen arrived and managed to stop the bleeding from Longstreet’s neck. Still, the Georgian General was in no condition to continue command. Even he wrote later that, “The flow of blood admonished me that my work for the day was done.”
To add to the mix, Federal artillery began to lob shells in their direction, their attention drawn to the action that had just taken place. But like the shots between Mahone and the 12th VA, their aim was too high to cause much concern.
Longstreet wasn’t the only commander to be taken out in the “friendly fire” incident. While Micah Jenkins was shouting, “Steady, men! For God’s sake, steady!”, he had been shot through the temple, the bullet lodged in his brain. For a while, he was still conscious, though delirious, babbling, and incoherent, given to convulsions and seizures. The wound being inoperable, Jenkins died after a few hours and command of his brigade was given to Bratton.
An ambulance wagon was summoned and they put Longstreet on a stretcher, his hat covering his face to shield him from the sun. The sight of their commander in such a state made the troops around him believe he was dead. To give them hope, Longstreet lifted his hat from his head to show that he was still alive. Cheers rang out that Longstreet later said, “eased my pains somewhat”.
The artillery major Robert Styles paints the picture of the effect of their fallen commander. “I never on any occasion during the four years of the war saw a group of officers and gentlemen more deeply disturbed. They were literally bowed down with grief. All of them were in tears. One, by whose side I rode for some distance, was himself severely hurt, but he made no allusion to his wound, and I do not believe he felt it.” Longstreet’s jacket and boots were taken off while in the ambulance. “I noticed how white and dome-like his great forehead looked and, with scarcely less reverent admiration, how spotless white his socks and his fine gauze undervest, save where the black red gore from his breast and shoulder had stained it.”
About an hour’s ride in the ambulance brought the general to the Confederate field hospital behind the lines. Here, Dr. Cullen and three other surgeons examined and probed the wound, declaring it to be “not necessarily fatal.” A newspaper on May 28th gave greater detail, saying “The ball struck him on the right of the larynx, passing under the skin, carrying away a part of the spine of the scapula, and coming out behind the right shoulder.”
The wound was enough to pull him out of the army action. He was first sent to Lynchburg to recover in the company of a relative. A nurse caring for him in Charlottesville recounted, “He is very feeble and nervous and suffers much from his wound. He sheds tears on the slightest provocation and apologizes for it. He says he does not see why a bullet going through a man’s shoulder should make a baby of him.” When Federal cavalry raids made it too dangerous for him to stay in Virginia, he traveled back home to Augusta, Georgia to convalesce. Though, with Sherman on the horizon, Georgia would prove to not be safe for the general either.
Longstreet was never the same after he recovered. Though he would return to the army in October of that year, he never regained the full use of his right arm and his voice could not reach the booming heights it once had. Though he had a right to be bitter, Longstreet conceded in his memoirs that it was a simple mistake, one that happens in wars such as this.
The parallels between Jackson and Longstreet’s woundings are uncanny. They occurred a year and four days apart from one another and just five miles away. Though the circumstances were a little different, they were similar in many ways. Jackson was wounded after a successful flanking maneuver, just as Longstreet had, and both were on their way to exploiting that victory when they were wounded. Both were wounded by accident because of a lack of visibility by the shooters. Jackson was wounded at night, while Longstreet was veiled by the Wilderness. And of course, both were shot down by men from their own army.
The ramifications of their absence from the army afterward were also similar. One newspaper wrote, “Heaven grant that Lee may not lose his left arm now, as he lost his right arm then!”, alluding to losing Jackson the previous May and the possibility of losing Longstreet in 1864. Lee trusted both Longstreet and Jackson and while both had their flaws, they were both successful commanders in the Army of Northern Virginia who had bagged victories or reversals for Lee in the past. One of the classic “What If” scenarios of the Civil War had been “What if Jackson had been with Lee during Gettysburg?”. Comparatively, we can ask, “What if Longstreet had stayed with Lee during the Overland Campaign?” Lee would go on to fight a defensive war against Ulysses S. Grant, and few could match Longstreet on the defense. Lee didn’t have a general he believed could replace Longstreet, just as he struggled to replace Jackson.
While the wounding of Jackson and Longstreet could be valued the same in the detriment to strategy and morale for the army henceforth, there’s an extreme inequality about how each are remembered. Jackson was killed, which can add weight to the loss and elevate him to the level of “Confederate God” or even sainthood. Jackson became a martyr for the Confederate cause in 1863 and even through to today. Longstreet, however, did survive his wounding which weakens the inclination to engage in hero worship. And because he lived on, he had plenty of chances to tarnish his reputation.
After the war, Longstreet became a Republican – Lincoln’s party. To the south, this was a crime comparable to treason for those who had pledged their loyalty to the Democratic party. Controversy over his relationship with Lee in the post-war years also brewed resentment from the defeated south. Longstreet, as honest and candid as a man could be, said that he did not agree with some of Lee’s decisions, especially at Gettysburg. This has been misconstrued over the years to say that Longstreet hated Lee, which was far from the truth. They stayed in close, friendly contact until Lee’s death, so there was nothing to suggest that they hated one another.
Even today, the difference in the attitude toward Jackson and Longstreet’s wounding sites can be seen. Jackson has a “shrine” dedicated to the event along with a visitor center, while Longstreet has a road sign and a few parking spots.
Historians have batted back and forth about whose wounding was more devastating to the Army of Northern Virginia. But regardless of who was more important – Jackson or Longstreet – one can feel the resonance of this quote about both incidences in the Wilderness, “The evil genius of the South is still hovering over those desolate woods. We almost seem to be struggling against destiny itself.”
Also, here’s a great video done by Chris Mackowski of the Emerging Civil War giving an on-the-ground tour of the wounding site.