The battle of the Wilderness in May of 1864 was shaped by the terrain, which is why visiting the location itself is so important. The park itself doesn’t have an official Visitor Center like most. Your first stop can be at one of two places, either Ellwood, owned by the Lacey’s during the battle and location of Warren’s V Corps headquarters, or Saunders Field.
While going northwest on Germanna Highway, as if you were retracing the steps of the Union Army toward the Rapidan, you’ll turn left onto Highway 20 (there’s a gas station and McD’s on this corner), also called Constitution Highway, and formally known as the Orange Turnpike. You’ll pass Grant’s Headquarters on your right and there’s a short stop you can take if desired. Further on the left, you’ll see a sign that marks the turnoff to go to Ellwood. But if you want to see the field were Warren and Ewell clashed on May 5th, you’ll keep going west on the highway. Just like for the Union troops in the Army of the Potomac, the Wilderness will open up onto a field. Be mindful to start slowing down so you don’t miss the turnoff for the exhibit pavilion.
The Visitor Pavilion is always open to the public and free of charge, but it’s advised that you make your visit during the daylight hours. There will be a canister for the park maps to highlight all the best places to visit on your battlefield trip, along with a large map that will help you orient yourself to the events of the battle. There will occasionally be an interpreter or park ranger to give you a tour. Your best bet is to call the Fredericksburg Visitor Center or Chancellorsville Visitor Center for a schedule.
At the exhibit pavilion, you are situated pretty close to the middle of the action. If you walk from the exhibit onto the trail and look to your right, you’re facing east and the direction from which Warren’s V Corps and Sedgwick’s VI Corps would have established their earthworks. Looking to your left (west), you’re facing Richard Ewell’s Second Corps line. Ahead and several miles away is the Rapidan River. This is also the portion of the Wilderness where J Warren Keifer’s men under Truman Seymour’s brigade were mowed down by Pegram’s Confederates on the evening of May 5th, as well as where the US Regulars of Aryes brigade wandered into earlier that same day.
Take a moment to look around and see that swale that threw off the regiments as they marched across the field. From certain spots, you almost can’t see the tree line. And as you begin to walk west toward Ewell’s old earthworks, you don’t realize how steep that terrain is. On this path, take a minute to stop and read the memorial to the 140th Pennsylvania who were practically slaughtered that day. Notice the breakdown of 23 killed, 118 wounded and 114 missing. It might seem odd that over a hundred bodies would be missing completely when the Confederates didn’t take control of the field that day for very long.
On the evening of May 5th as the casualty report was being read to Warren at his headquarters, he made the comment, “This will not do.” In his grief and anxiety, he did something that (in my humble opinion) should never be done by any general on ethical grounds. Warren doctored the casualty numbers. Though there were far more confirmed dead and wounded, it was easier to say that a soldier was missing instead. The label of “Missing” in the casualty reports is far less disturbing than “KIA” or “Wounded”. While it’s hard to say what Warren might have been truly thinking, the motivation to change these statistics was clear when one takes a step back and sees the full scope of history. It was an election year. Lincoln was running against the infamous George McClellan, former general for the Army of the Potomac. McClellan’s platform promoted peace and an end to the war. The morale and public opinion of the war was at stake for Lincoln. If the North lost another battle, it could sway the votes to McClellan, who was interested in negotiating with the South. If things were looking up and the Union could claim more battlefield victories, Lincoln could maintain his position in the White House. By doctoring the numbers and making the action in the Wilderness seem not as costly as it truly was, Lincoln could get some extra brownie points with his constituents. Whether Warren was thinking of himself or of Lincoln’s presidency, it’s hard to say.
Continue down the path to the western tree line. Ahead, you’ll find what remains of Ewell’s earthworks. Do NOT walk on them. While they have lasted for over 150 years, they need to maintain their structure for future visitors and historians. Fall is sometimes the best time to see earthworks, as the fallen leaves can define their shape a little better. Here is where Edward “Allegheny” Johnson maintained his line against Ayres’ and later Upton’s divisions.
From here, you can either go back to where you parked and drive to the next stop OR push through the thicket (be careful of thorns) directly south to cross the highway. Look both ways! On the south side of the highway are more earthworks and some artillery pieces to mark where John Jones’ division was rooted out by Bartlett’s charging Federals. Along with the 1927 plaque marking the Wilderness battlefield, you’ll find a compass that will put into context where you are in relation to other battles or cities. A similar compass exists in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
Again, don’t climb the earthworks, but even during the summer, the shadows of the trees can help you see their height and length down the field. Facing east (as if you were a Confederate on the line), you’ll be facing where Bartlett made his daring escape on horseback after the Union was forced to turn back from the Wilderness. While much of the field is overgrown today, try to imagine what it might have looked like as a former ploughed cornfield.
Now, depending on whether you drove to Jones’ line or you walked, get back to your car because you don’t want to walk to the next stop. Turn onto Hill-Ewell Drive (yes, named for the generals). You’ll pass by some subdivisions and modern housing. Take this chance to look around at the woods that exist today. The Wilderness is still a wild place and I wouldn’t want to get lost their either.
The next few stops will be on your right as you drive south and then curve around back to the east, following the old Confederate battle lines. Stops #4 and #5 are the Higgerson and Chewning Farms. Both are worth a visit, but the farmhouses are long gone. Information plaques talk about the families who lived in the Wilderness and what actions took place there in May of 1864.
Stop #6 is Widow Tapp Field where Hill and Longstreet’s Corps fought back the tide of blue on May 5th and 6th. There’s a small dirt parking lot with a trail leading due-south. Get your bug spray ready and take a bottle of water with you for this part. You’ll find this field is flatter than Saunders, but there’s a bit more walking if you want to get in all the sights.
Read the information plaques along the way and let them be your guide as you go south toward Poague’s battery. Right about here is where Lee, Hill, and J.E.B. Stuart were startled by the band of Federal skirmishers jumping from the woods. While they had a narrow brush with potential disaster, Lee came out of it alive and realized he had to plug the gap between Hill and Ewell’s corps. So, if you are standing at the field cannons and facing the direction they are pointing, a little ways toward your left and an almost straight cut through the forest, is Saunders Field.
Leave the battery and take the right path toward a random cluster of trees in the middle of the field. Here, you’ll see an old well that belonged to a home that was built there after the war. You’re going to veer to your right a little and come to another cluster of trees. I want you to look underneath one of them for a medium-sized boulder. This isn’t any regular boulder. This was one of the first “monuments” to be erected on the Wilderness battlefield. It was put there in the early years following the war to replace a wooden sign that was nailed up, saying something to the affect of “Texans Here”. This, of course, is referring to Gregg’s brigade of Texans and Arkansans that led the charge on the morning of May 6th at the head of Longstreet’s corps.
Around that and a little further down, you’ll find another, more proper, monument to the Texans. You’ll find the pink granite similar to the other Texan monuments on other battlefields. Follow the sound of traffic and you’ll come to Orange Plank Road. It is still called Orange Plank Road and there’s a small marker to commemorate the moment when Lee tried to charge ahead of Longstreet’s corps in the charge on May 6th and the Texan soldiers cried “Lee to the Rear!” Please be careful when viewing the front of this marker, as it’s rather close to the road.
Now for the trek back to the parking lot. Instead of taking the path toward the well, you can walk along the hedgerow to the northern portion of the field. Again, there are some information signs to read. Get back in your car and continue down Hill-Ewell toward Plank Road. Take a left like you’re going to the Brock Road intersection that was so hotly contested over in 1864. On your right as you go, look out for the parking lot for Longstreet’s Wounding sight. You can only park there for about half an hour. Take the time to read the signs and see the marker to Wadsworth’s division that tried to flank Hill’s Corps on the morning of May 6th.
Further down the road is another stop for the Brock Road Intersection and here you can find a monument to the Vermont Brigade that engaged in some of the heaviest fighting on this side of the battlefield. There’s also a marker to the 12th New Jersey and a memorial to General Hays, who was shot down during the engagement.
While these aren’t the only stops in the Wilderness battlefield, these are the ones associated with the most fighting, and again, promotes the fact that historians should always be willing to get their feet on the ground to gain a full understanding of how the terrain influenced the battle (for better or worse).
For more about each stop or visiting the battlefield, visit: https://www.nps.gov/frsp/learn/photosmultimedia/wildvritual.htm