Battles in the East

“Hell Itself” – Wilderness Conclusion – May 6th, 1864

Longstreet’s wounding dealt a morale blow to Lee and his Confederates. Overriding Longstreet’s order that Field should take his place and initiate the flanking attack, Lee instead moved Richard Anderson into the void, who knew next to nothing about the terrain or Longstreet’s plan. On top of that, Longstreet’s First Corps were a mangled mess of men facing every direction. Some south, some north, and many were still ready to head east along the railroad cut. However, it would take time for the Confederates to reassemble their lines to make a more unified attack.

In the meantime, oblivious to the tragedy along the railroad cut, Hancock had ordered his men back to the Brock Road. They, like the First Corps, were scattered and muddled in the Wilderness. Regiment flags were planted upon the earthworks to help rally the soldiers who straggled back through the mess. All the while, they strengthened their defenses and planned to defend the intersection at all costs.

About 11:30, Meade heard about the flank attack along the Plank Road and voiced plans to take troops from the stagnant corps along the Orange Turnpike to help Hancock down south. Gouverneur Warren of the V Corps was not inclined to help. Not only were his reserves spent, but one of his division commanders had been killed (Wadsworth) and he didn’t feel he could spare any of his battle-weary troops. John Sedgwick of the VI Corps was in a similar position, but was willing to give up one brigade for Hancock. As the situation escalated around 1:30pm, Meade ordered one of Robinson’s brigades to Hancock and gave orders to Phillip Sheridan and his cavalry command to take special care of the supply trains that fed back toward Ely’s Ford. As a result, Sheridan had to relinquish Todd’s Tavern further along the Brock Road to Rosser’s Confederate Cavalry.

The day had become a true reversal for the Army of the Potomac. Instead of operating on the offensive with the objective to obliterate Robert E. Lee’s army, they now had to go on the defensive just to survive. Ewell’s heavily entrenched position and Longstreet’s flanking attack had made the Federal army sweat. But the day wasn’t over.

Wilderness_May6_1400Out of the blue, about 2pm, Ambrose Burnside with his division and a half FINALLY showed up to the show. After leaving a brigade under Willcox’s Division to occupy Ramseur around the Chewning Farm, Potter’s division and Willcox’s other brigade under John Hartranft made their way south to link up with Hancock. Of course, they had to stop for a nice champagne basket luncheon in the Wilderness before continuing, but they managed to arrive while Lee was focused on concentrating his forces. The original plan to strike at Longstreet’s left (north) flank was still looking like a valid possibility. The going, however, was slow and cautious, as the Federals couldn’t see very far through the thicket in front of them.

A few brigades of Alabamians and Floridians found out about the appearance of the IX Corps on their left and turned about to face them, creating a right-angle to the rest of the line. Orders had come from General Lee himself to get ready for a frontal assault on the Union works along the Brock Road, but the brigades under Oates and Perry made the executive decision to defy those orders and protect the Confederate left. It was a good thing they did, otherwise Burnside would have pounded into their flank just as effectively as Longstreet had done a few hours before.

The two forces in this disconnected portion of the battlefield hammered away at one another across a swampy terrain in some intense fighting that didn’t amount to much of a military gain. The Confederates continued to stand their ground and while Burnside could have done well with some help from Hancock, the II Corps commander had lost the will to fight after the debacle in the flank attack.

Still, the Federal general had more coming to him. By 4pm, Lee had his battle line ready and faced the well established earthworks along Brock Road. From Kitching’s brigade on the far right down to Miles on the left, the Union line stretched far beyond the reaches of the Confederate’s two divisions that were massing against them. Not to mention 12 guns that were aimed right at the oncoming graycoats.

Despite this, at 4:15, Lee ordered his men forward in a bold charge – not unlike Pickett’s charge less than a year earlier. Predictably, Union artillery stalled their advance. Confederates hunkered down and fired back, but as one historian of the 124th New York recounted, “the rapid fire of the foe had but slight effect on our line, behind its bullet proof cover; over the top of which we, with deliberate aim, hurled into their exposed but unwavering line an incessant and most deadly fire. Again and yet again did their shattered regiments in our front close on their colors, while fresh troops from the rear moved up and filled the gaps.”

It wasn’t just the Federal’s firepower that stalled the unified assault. The Wilderness, as it had been doing since the first hour of this engagement, had made it nearly impossible for the brigades to march on in a cohesive fashion.

Providence, as Lee liked to believe, was on their side though. Within half an hour of the assault, the brush just south of the Plank Road caught fire in the midst of the battle and a strong wind pushed the flames east and right into the section where Mott’s division had been. “Presently huge clouds of strong black pine smoke, such as almost eats one’s eyes out, rolled over and completely enveloped our regiment.” As a result, the brigades along this section of the burning line broke and made for the rear to escape the flames.

Confederates_capture_Brock_Road_earthworks.234The Confederates, specifically Jenkins’ former brigade, stormed the works and breached the line. One Federal remarked that the Rebs charging through the sheet of fire around the works looked like, “so many devils through the flames, charging over the burning works upon our retreating lines.” More Confederates fled for the gap as Federals turned to try and staunch the hemorrhage of their line. Infantry combat broke down into vicious clubbing, bayonetting, and point-blank shooting from both muskets and heavy artillery, as the breach had developed squarely in the path of a Federal battery.

The Rebs finally had to fall back from the heavy combat, as they were unsupported by neighboring brigades who had become too occupied with Federals in their front or through the confusion in the Wilderness. While this break in the defenses might have seemed fortuitus at the time, my own opinion is that the Confederates would have never been able to take full advantage of the breach while the majority of Hancock’s earthworks were still in tact and his troops free to move behind the lines to plug that gap. At that point, it was a numbers game and the First Corps was not up to the task of totally sweeping the II Corps out of their defenses, no matter how tired and beleaguered they were.

Taking in the situation, Meade sent word for Hancock not to renew any attack for the rest of the day. He was well put up in his earthworks and running low on ammunition as it was. Orders were given to Burnside, however, that he should try to push on through to the Confederate left or assist Hancock if an attack renewed. With elements of Anderson’s division bolstering the line with Oates and Perry, they were at little risk of a breakthrough on that score.

By 6pm, both armies had gone quiet again. But that quiet was soon to be broken around Saunders Field for the first time since that morning.

john b gordon
Brigadier General John B. Gordon

To understand how this newest commotion began, we’ve got to turn back the clock to before dawn on May 6th. John B. Gordon and his Georgian brigade had been moved from the far right of Ewell’s line to the far left, capping off the flank next to Pegram. In the wee small hours of the morning, Gordon sent out a recon team to see just how far the Federal line extended in front of theirs. To his amazement, their line stretched far beyond Union general Truman Seymour’s right. Through careful probing, they found that the Union’s extreme right flank was dangling in the open with hardly any earthworks. Gordon, astounded by his luck, went out personally to see this for himself. There was even a small clearing just above the terminating end of the flank to mass his troops. By all accounts, it was perfect.

When an army’s flank is unprotected like this, the maneuver that Longstreet had initiated around noon can be devastating. Flanking, as opposed to frontal assaults, have proven successful on countless occasions and combined with the element of surprise, it can be the undoing of an army’s position in any engagement. The fact that the Federals and Confederates had spent two days hacking away at each other with hardly any ground gained to show for it, this was like manna from heaven for Gordon.

He sent an aide, Thomas Jones, to General Jubal Early, his immediate superior, to tell him of the plan. Ewell happened to be close by and listened to the plan, but both refused Gordon permission to send in his brigade. Jones reported back to Gordon, and the brigadier general decided to go and explain it all himself. The reason for withholding the green light lay in false intelligence that Burnside’s IX Corps was still being held in reserves and that more Federals were lurking in the Wilderness beyond Seymour’s line. Sending in a brigade, or even a division, would be risky and potentially costly. This was about 9am, which meant that Burnside was actually not in reserves anymore and had made his way toward the center gap between the two Confederate corps. Even Stevenson’s brigade had been sent to support Hancock when Longstreet came on the field.

Historical accounts suggested that Ewell thought the plan might have worked, but backed up Early until he could see the ground for himself and confirm that it was a sound plan. In the course of the day, Ewell never made it to Gordon’s side of the line. And as if coincidence sided with validating Early, a batch of Union infantry were spotted around Germanna Ford and gave Cowles’ cavalry a hard time. This happened to be Ferrero’s troop of very green (new) soldiers guarding the ford and posed no threat to Gordon’s position.

Events continued in the Wilderness, but Gordon never forgot his plan. And when Robert Johnston’s North Carolina brigade was added to his left at about 1pm, further strengthening the force available to him to make that flanking maneuver, the situation began to look a little more favorably to Ewell. By now, it was confirmed that Burnside was not in reserves, so that concern was put to rest. He decides that Gordon’s plan is worth a shot. Controversy over Lee’s influence in this change of heart ensued in the post-war years and remains inconclusive whether Gordon petitioned Lee personally or if the plan had come up as a “one-two punch” tactic to line up with Lee’s follow-up charge on Hancock after Longstreet was taken out.

What Ewell and Gordon didn’t realize was that around 2pm, Alexander Shaler’s New York Brigade was brought in to stack on Seymour’s flank, strengthening it a little – but not much. Also, Neill’s brigade to Seymour’s left had moved back some, causing Seymour to spread his troops thin. Fruitless exploratory charges on the Confederate front had also weakened his position. Shaler marveled at the situation on the Union right, “The most extraordinary fact was seen that an army of 100,000 men had its right flank in the air with a single line of battle without entrenchments. I lost no time in informing General Seymour that I would not be held responsible for any disaster that might befall the troops at this point, calling on him for at least 4,000 or 5,000 more men to properly defend that point.”

By that afternoon, Seymour’s men were hunkering down, brewing coffee and finishing up burial detail. All the while, Gordon was taking Johnston and Pegram’s brigade, swinging to the left and north of the Federal line and getting their troops massed for this flanking maneuver that was intended to match the success of Longstreet’s.

24fadbe05d774a34177cc0b8b57adf8dA doctor of the 4th New York remembers that twilight charge. “Suddenly out of the dusk in front, and to the rear of us, burst the Ki-yi Ki-yi close to us, and with it the rebels were seen crossing the breastwork we had just put up. The men in front of us were so much surprised that they immediately ran, leaving the pork in the pan and the coffee on the fire and their arms. Some of our boys raised up to run, but under command to lay down again until the front line men ran in among us, when we joined them in the stampede.”

And a stampede it was. The troops of Shaler and Seymour’s brigades fled in wild confusion as infantry swept forward and Confederate artillery lobbed shells into their midst. “Staff officers yelling and calling on the men to rally and support the artillery and the men throwing away their guns and running like mad men and them Rebs a yelling as they came up on the charge with that peculiar yell they have. It sounds like a lot of school boys just let loose. I thought Hell had broke loose.” Neill’s brigade had managed to turn to face the coming Confederates and put up a two-lined resistance against Pegram’s brigade.

Still, the assault appeared to be going well. They had even captured Seymour and Shaler, the two brigadier generals given the task of guarding the flank. Confederates had made it to the Germanna Plank Road and were starting to roll up Sedgwick’s line – or so it seemed. While the whole right wing of the Union army seemed in a tizzy of panic, Grant stayed as chill as ever. In fact, he had become a little indignant at the scene.

wildrnsbattl_30571_lgAs ambulances, wagons, and troops all rushed around headquarters, preparing for a rout, an officer rushed up to the smoking general. “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his own army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Grant turned to the officer and heatedly replied, “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

That had been much of Grant’s attitude for that evening. His calm and ability to somehow stay grounded in the midst of chaos, made an impression on his subordinates and his troops. This was not the average eastern theater general and the game had changed for the Army of the Potomac.

Gordon’s flank attack had lost steam by 8pm as darkness settled in. Not only did Neill’s brigade hold the flank, the Confederates had suffered as many other regiments and brigades had during the whole engagement. The Wilderness broke up their ranks, disconnecting regiments from each other. Even though it had been effective in startling the Federals, it wasn’t able to demolish the dangling flank as it had intended. Morris’ brigade was sent in to help Neill and the line became anchored on the Germanna Plank Road. Without added infantry support from Ewell, Gordon couldn’t hope to accomplish much else. Still, he persisted and tried to renew the attack at 10pm, which was stoutly repulsed. With his several hundred prisoners, his troops backed off.

There were quite a few fingers pointed at Sedgwick after the flank attack. A seasoned general should not have allowed his flank to be so open as it was. Seymour – who had a long list of faults – was also put on the spot for the near crisis. Surprisingly, Keifer – the officer who lost so many troops in a useless charge on May 5th – defended Seymour, but threw Shaler under the bus for not establishing a better position on the flank.

Wilderness6At the end of the day on May 6th, so many faults were found in both armies to try and explain why, after two days, neither army had accomplished much at all. Warren had been ordered to attack too soon before support could be given by Sedgwick at Saunders Field. He also stubbornly refused to charge against Ewell’s earthworks, and while he had the right idea that it would be a waste of men, he left Sedgwick’s brigades hanging in the process. Hancock failed to send in a unified assault on May 5th. His entire half of the army was also in a big tangled mess of officers who were sending in troops in a piecemeal fashion (that never works). Sedgwick, normally very competent, didn’t perform his best against Ewell and the flank attack had caused an unnecessary panic that could have been avoided if he had secured his right a lot earlier in the game. Burnside… well, Burnside only solidified his reputation for slowness. If he had been there on time to strike at Hill’s flank and rear on May 6th, Longstreet would have had a tougher fight ahead of him. Hancock completely ignored the unfinished railroad cut and failed to use it against Hill or Longstreet. A flank attack by the Union army would have been just as devastating as the one Longstreet had dished out.

On the Confederate side, even more faults can be found. Ewell was great on the defensive for May 5th, but neglected to either confront the Federals on May 6th or support Hill around Plank Road. Hill turned away his division commanders and refused to allow them to straighten out their lines at the end of May 5th, which jeopardized the entire corps the following morning when Hancock made his attack. Lee (as “wonderful” as he is) tried to rely on a frontal assault tactic when theoretically, he was in no position to do so with the amount of troops he had left. Longstreet was slow to come up to Widow Tapp Field and though he swooped in just in time to save the Confederate right wing, his presence on the field much sooner would have motivated Lee to take the initiative earlier in the battle instead of telling his commanders not to bring on a general engagement. The flank attack done by Gordon on the evening of May 6th could have been done in consort with Longstreet’s attack to greater affect if he was supported by more infantry.

Above it all, the Wilderness bogged down both armies. Countless primary source accounts and battle reports blame the dense, second-growth forest as the reason for slow troop movements. Regiments and brigades became disconnected from one another in the thicket, mired in the marshes, burned in the brushfires that popped up everywhere. Visibility was a joke, as soldiers in blue and gray could hardly make friend from foe when the rifle smoke hung low. The Wilderness is a prime example how terrain can change the course of a battle. In most of the flaws listed above, if the environment had been better, things would have panned out very differently.

c7856eafef4cd73dc44ee8bae8ae9dd0--military-art-military-historyNow, Grant and Lee had a decision to make. What would they do now? Lee had his line anchored from the Rapidan to the unfinished railroad, even across Chewning Farm. His earthworks were nigh impenetrable. But, he had done part of what he wanted. He had stalled Grant’s advance toward Richmond. If he had moved quicker, he could have stopped him completely and tried to push him back to the Rapidan. But, Grant and Meade’s reflex to turn and meet the enemy where he appeared had proved in his favor. On the defensive, he fared better in casualties (about 7,750). As it was, Lee saw that he needed to remain in his earthworks until Grant made a move, forfeiting the initiative just as he had at Mine Run. By now, it was something of a numbers game, and he knew that it was a mathematical certainty that if he continued to attack Grant where he was, he would lose more men and eventually his army.

8213112_f520Grant, distraught from the heavy toll in the Wilderness (17,666), knew that he wasn’t going to crush Lee here. He needed to get the Army of Northern Virginia onto open ground and out of his earthworks. Retreat, however, was not in his vocabulary and he wouldn’t allow such a move to mark his leadership. He looked to the south, toward Richmond, and saw a better spot. Spotsylvania Courthouse wasn’t just a better piece of ground than the Wilderness, but roads fanned out from its center, allowing for easy supply movements. It was also still between Lee and Richmond and would prove to draw out the King of Spades from his entrenchments. He reasoned that if he could move his corps out by early morning on May 7th, they could reach Spotsylvania by dawn on May 8th. However, he had learned well enough by the action around the Wilderness that Meade was not to be trusted with troop movements. From now on, Grant would take the lead.

For the thousands of soldiers who played a part in the events of May 5th and May 6th, the memory of the Wilderness will never be forgotten. Whether they were being treated in the field hospitals behind the lines or secure in their earthworks, many wondered what it was for. A Federal doctor recalled how soldiers were wounded “in every conceivable way, men with mutilated bodies, with shattered limbs and broken heads, men enduring their injuries with heroic patience, and men giving way to violent grief, men stoically indifferent, and men bravely rejoicing that it is only a leg.”

Nightmarish images of the fires that consumed the dead and wounded would haunt the soldiers for years to come. “Forest fires raged; ammunition trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing.”

And still, the horrors would continue. The war was not over, and the Overland Campaign had just begun. The armies would face one another again under new elemental challenges and death would continue to hover over central Virginia.

 

Resources and Extra Reading:

“Battle of the Wilderness: May 5th – 6th, 1864” by Gordon Rhea
“Hell Itself: The Battle of the Wilderness May 5-7th, 1864” by Chris Mackowski
“The Wilderness Campaign” by Gary Gallagher
“Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle” by Stephen Cushman

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