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The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5–7, 1864, was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Both armies suffered heavy casualties, a harbinger of a bloody war of attrition by Grant against Lee's army and, eventually, the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginiamarker. The battle was tactically inconclusive, as Grant disengaged and continued his offensive.


The battlefield was the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, an expanse of nearly impenetrable scrub growth and rough terrain that encompassed more than 70 square miles (181 km²) of Spotsylvania Countymarker and Orange Countymarker in central Virginiamarker. A number of battles were fought in the vicinity between 1862 and 1864, including the bloody Battle of Chancellorsvillemarker in May 1863. It is often said that the Wilderness and Chancellorsville were fought in the same spot, but the 1864 battle was actually fought a few miles to the west, and only overlapped the old battlefield along the Brock Road on the Union army's left flank.

On May 2, 1864, the Army of the Potomac, nominally under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, but taking orders from Grant, crossed the Rapidan River at three separate points and converged on the Wilderness Tavern, which had been the concentration point for the Confederates one year to the day earlier when they launched their devastating attack on the Union right flank at Chancellorsville. But Grant chose to set up his camps to the west of the old battle site before moving southward. Unlike the Union army of a year before, Grant had no desire to fight in the Wilderness.

For Lee it was imperative to fight in the Wilderness for the same reason as the year before: his army was massively outnumbered, with ~61,000 men to Grant's ~101,000, and his artillery had fewer and worse guns than those of Grant's. Fighting in the tangled woods would eliminate Grant's advantage in artillery, and also the close quarters and ensuing confusion there could give Lee's outnumbered force better odds.


Actions in the Wilderness, May 5, 1864.
Actions in the Wilderness, May 6, 1864.

While waiting for the arrival of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and his two divisions of the First Corps (Pickett's division was absent, still recovering from its losses at the Battle of Gettysburgmarker, manning the defenses of Richmond) which had been posted to the west to guard the crucial railroad junction of Gordonsvillemarker, Lee pushed forward his Second Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and the 22,000 man Third Corps under the command of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, in a successful attempt to engage Grant before he moved south. On May 5, Ewell, on Lee's left flank, and Hill on the right, engaged Union soldiers.

On the left, Ewell met up with the V Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, and fought it to a standoff. For much of the day Ewell's 18,500-man corps actually held a slight numerical advantage on this part of the field. But on the right, Hill was hit hard and driven back by the Union II Corps under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and a division from the VI Corps. He held his ground, however.

On May 6, Hancock, now commanding close to 40,000 men, resumed the attack on Hill's corps, while heavy Union reinforcements on Ewell's front prevented Lee from sending Second Corps men to aid Hill. By late morning, Hancock had driven Hill's corps back more than and inflicted heavy casualties. With the Third Corps in dire straits Lee began to look desperately for Longstreet, who had been expected hours before.

Longstreet and the 12,000-man First Corps finally arrived at around noon, with perfect timing: Hancock's men were tired and disorganized from six hours of fighting. Lee was exuberant that the reinforcements had arrived and attempted to lead the 800-man Texas Brigade in a charge against the Union line. The brigade refused to advance as their line was not yet formed and they knew the South could not afford Lee being killed or wounded. Longstreet and the Texas Brigade launched their attack once Lee agreed to withdraw to a safer distance.

When Longstreet attacked the Union forces they withdrew, and within two hours the situation was totally reversed: Longstreet had regained all the ground lost and advanced further, forcing Hancock to regroup along the Brock Road. At a crucial moment in the fighting Longstreet attacked through a cutting of an unfinished railroad that had split the Union forces, increasing the confusion. However, Longstreet did not have enough men to complete his victory, and the fighting soon petered out near the Brock Road. As the fighting wound down on this part of the battlefield, Longstreet was badly wounded by friendly fire and did not return to the Army of Northern Virginia for several months. (By coincidence, Longstreet was accidentally shot by his own men only about away from the place where Stonewall Jackson suffered the same fate a year earlier.)

Just as this phase of the battle was ending a division of the Second Corps under Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon launched a final assault on the Union right, partially turning the Army of the Potomac's flank and taking close to 1,000 prisoners. But darkness fell and ended the battle, before the Confederates had a chance to press their advantage.

In one of the more horrifying incidents of the war, a brushfire broke out between the two armies' lines during the night. Hundreds of wounded soldiers left on the field died screaming as they were burned alive in front of their comrades.


Skulls remaining on the field and trees destroyed at the Battle of the Wilderness, 1864.
Although the battle is usually described as a draw, it could be called a tactical Confederate victory, but a strategic victory for the Union army. Lee inflicted heavy numerical casualties (see estimates below) on Grant, but they were a smaller percentage of Grant's forces than the casualties Lee’s army suffered. And, unlike Grant, Lee had very little opportunity to replenish his losses.

Understanding this disparity, part of Grant's strategy was to grind down the Confederate army by waging a war of attrition. The only way that Lee could escape from the trap that Grant had set was to destroy the Army of the Potomac while he still had sufficient force to do so, but Grant was too skilled to allow that to happen. Thus, the Overland Campaign, initiated by the crossing of the Rappahannock, and opening with this battle, set in motion the eventual destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Therefore, even though Grant withdrew at the end of the battle (which is usually the action of the defeated side), unlike his predecessors since 1861 Grant continued his campaign instead of retreating to the safety of Washington, D.C.marker The significance of Grant’s advance is noted by historian James A. McPherson:

On May 8 Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to resume its advance, skirmishing with Lee's Army at the Battle of Todds Tavern and, a few days later, fighting another major, inconclusive battle at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court Housemarker to the southeast.


Estimates of the casualties in the Wilderness vary. The following table summarizes estimates from a number of sources:
Casualty Estimates for the Battle of the Wilderness
Source Union Confederate
Killed Wounded Captured/
Total Killed Wounded Captured/
National Park Service       18,400       11,400
Bonekemper, Victor, Not a Butcher 2,246 12,037 3,383 17,666 1,495 7,928 1,702 11,125
Catton, Grant Takes Command 2,265 10,220 2,902 15,387        
Eicher, Longest Night 2,246 12,037 3,383 17,666       7,750
Esposito, West Point Atlas       15,000
      c. 7,500
Foote, Civil War       17,666       7,800
Fox, Regimental Losses 2,246 12,037 3,383 17,666        
McPherson, Battle Cry       17,500       under
Rhea, Battle of the Wilderness       over 17,666       about
Smith, Grant 2,261 8,785 2,902 13,948        

Gordon C. Rhea acknowledges the officially reported Union casualties of 17,666, but suspects that some of the returns—particularly in Warren's corps—were falsified on the low side, to minimize the negative impact of the battle on the public. He estimates Grant's loss at 17%. He accepts Union estimates of 11,000 Confederate casualties.

Battlefield preservation

Portions of the Wilderness battlefield are preserved as part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Parkmarker, established in 1927 to memorialize the battlefields of Fredericksburgmarker, Chancellorsvillemarker, Spotsylvania Court Housemarker, and the Wilderness. In addition to this land that has been protected by the National Park Service, several volunteer organizations have been active in preservation activities. The Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield have been active in helping to preserve and enhance the Ellwood Mansion, which was the headquarters for both Gouverneur K. Warren and Ambrose Burnside during the battle and the family cemetery there holds the plot where Stonewall Jackson's arm was buried. While the NPS acquired of Ellwood in the 1970s, the FOWB is responsible for the preservation of the 1790s era house and its interpretation.

The Civil War Preservation Trust in 2008 began a campaign to prevent the development of a Wal-Martmarker Supercenter on a tract north of the intersection of Routes 3 (the Germanna Highway) and 20 (the Orange Turnpike), immediately across Route 3 from the National Military Park, near the site of the Wilderness Tavern. Other organizations supporting the campaign are the Vermont state legislature and the "Wilderness Battlefield Coalition", which includes the Piedmont Environmental Council, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Parks Conservation Association, Friends of the Wilderness, and Friends of the Fredericksburg Area Battlefields.

Steve Szkotak of The Associated Press reported on May 4, 2009 (one day before the 145th anniversary of the battle), that actor Robert Duvall (who is a descendant of Robert E. Lee) was joined with Representatives Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Peter Welch (D-Vermont) in making a pledge "to do 'anything we can' to support the fight against the Wal-Mart store" and further added that they'll "graciously chase out Wal-Mart". Duvall is the first Hollywood celebrity to fight against the construction proposition, which had previously "drawn opposition from 250 historians, including David McCollough and James McPherson, and film-maker Ken Burns".Wal-Mart has argued that the store's location "near a strip mall and across from McDonald's will not diminish the battlefield". Local supporters for Wal-Mart also argue that the store "could bring needed jobs and tax revenue to the rural county". As a result, the Orange County planners have "scheduled a May 21 hearing on the proposal and will have the final say on the store".

On August 25, 2009, after a public hearing the day before, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 in favor of Wal-Mart building their store next to the battlefield. However, preservationists have vowed a court fight to block the construction and urged WalMart to reconsider their location.

See also


  1. Rhea, pp. 300-01.
  2. Rhea, pp. 435-36, 440.
  3. CWPT Leads Effort To Stop Wal-Mart At The Wilderness
  4. The Restoration of Ellwood -
  5. CWPT's Campaign to Stop the Wilderness Walmart
  6. A Letter to Mr. H. Lee Scott Jr., CEO of Walmart Corporation - The Wilderness Battlefield Coalition
  7. Press release, August 25, 2009, from the CWPT.


Further reading

  • Gallagher, Gary W., ed., The Wilderness Campaign, University of North Carolina Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8078-2334-1.
  • Longstreet, James, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America, J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1896, (reprinted by Da Capo Press) ISBN 0-3068-0464-6.

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