May 5, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia caught the Federal Army of the Potomac in the forbidding Wilderness, and a chaotic battle opened the spring campaign.
Major General George G. Meade’s Federal army, under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command, had begun moving around Lee’s right the previous day before stopping in the Wilderness, an uninhabitable forest of undergrowth, brush, vines, trees, and ravines. The Federals resumed their march at 5 a.m., as Grant was anxious to get out of the Wilderness and into open ground, where he could use his superior numbers and artillery to attack the Confederates.
Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates moved to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. The Federal cavalry did not warn of Lee’s approach mainly because Meade had dispatched most of the troopers eastward to confront Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen operating in the Fredericksburg area. The rest of the Federal troopers were not adequately deployed because Grant did not expect Lee to rush forward and meet him. By early on the 5th, Lee’s three corps were on the move:
- Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps moved northeast along the Orange Turnpike
- Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps moved along the parallel Orange Plank Road, farther south
- Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps, stationed back at Gordonsville, was to join Ewell and Hill via the Brock Road
As Major General Gouverneur Warren’s Federal V Corps moved southeast, one of his divisions on the Orange Turnpike was suddenly stopped by Ewell’s Confederates to the west. Warren reported this to headquarters, unaware that Ewell’s entire corps was approaching. Grant instructed Meade, “If any opportunity presents itself of pitching into a part of Lee’s Army do so without giving time for disposition.” At 7:30 a.m., Meade ordered Warren to attack, and the first major battle of the year between these armies began.
The Federals advanced slowly, as men got lost in the thick brush, officers could not convey orders, signalmen could not convey signs, and gun smoke obscured vision. By 9 a.m., Ewell had deployed his entire corps on either side of the Orange Turnpike, and Warren directed his remaining three divisions to come up and reinforce the one facing the Confederates.
Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps moved to come up on Warren’s right (north). Meade informed Grant, “Warren is making his dispositions to attack, and Sedgwick to support him.” Grant approved and called for Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps, held back in reserve, to cross the Rapidan River and join the action.
Warren’s Federals nearly broke Ewell’s line, but as Ewell’s men fell back behind breastworks, they began overlapping Warren’s right flank. Warren asked Meade for permission to suspend the attack until Sedgwick could come up. Meade consented, thus giving Ewell time to bring up reinforcements. When Sedgwick still had not arrived by 1 p.m., Meade ordered Warren to resume the assault without him.
The Federals advanced, but as Warren feared, they quickly wavered under enfilade fire from the right. Some units made progress against the Confederate line, while others were repulsed. The famous Federal Iron Brigade, now filled with raw recruits after losing most of its veterans at Gettysburg, broke and ran for the first time.
The fighting turned chaotic as the dense brush of the Wilderness disoriented the combatants. Many soldiers were killed by friendly fire. Gaps in the lines went unexploited because the enemy could not see them. Officers tried using compasses to determine which direction they were facing. Sparks from the guns caused brush fires, and men too wounded to move were burned to death.
Sedgwick’s Federals arrived on Warren’s right around 3 p.m. and attacked Ewell north of the turnpike in an effort to turn Ewell’s left. The Confederates repulsed the effort, and fighting surged back and forth for about an hour before both sides disengaged to build defenses.
On Warren’s left, the Confederates repelled several attacks and captured a section of a Federal artillery battery. However, the Confederates were soon pinned down by fire from Federal reinforcements, and by nightfall, the fighting in this sector of the field ended in stalemate.
To the south, Federals spotted A.P. Hill’s Confederates advancing up the Orange Plank Road. Lee directed Hill to seize the intersection of the Orange Plank and Brock roads, since Longstreet was expected to come up via the Brock. Meade also needed the crossroads to continue his southward advance out of the Wilderness, and so he detached Brigadier General George W. Getty’s division from Sedgwick’s corps to hold it.
Intense fighting took place at close quarters in dense brush, with the smoke causing mass confusion and disorientation. The Federals finally repelled the initial attack and forced the Confederates back west. Meade ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, in the Federal vanguard marching out of the Wilderness, to come back north and reinforce Getty. Hancock’s troops began arriving around 4 p.m.
The Federals attacked, but Confederates from Major General Henry Heth’s division soon pinned them down. Hancock told a courier, “Report to General Meade that it is very hard to bring up troops in this wood, and that only part of my Corps is up, but I will do as well as I can.” Hancock then sent another division forward, nearly breaking the Confederate line until it was reinforced by Hill’s reserve division under Major General Cadmus Wilcox.
The brutal fighting ended at nightfall with the Federals controlling the Brock Road. Lee sent orders to Longstreet to come up using the Orange Plank Road instead. Longstreet later wrote, “The change of direction of our march was not reassuring.” Elsewhere, opposing cavalry forces under Federal Brigadier General James H. Wilson and Confederate Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser also fought to a stalemate on the southern end of the field.
President Abraham Lincoln received no news about the battle because Grant had barred the reporters from using the military telegraph. A witness at the War Department saw Lincoln “waiting for despatches, and, no doubt, sickening with anxiety.”
Grant recognized that Lee’s right had been weakened and issued orders that night to concentrate on destroying Hill’s corps the next day. Warren and Sedgwick were to continue their assaults on Ewell to prevent him from aiding Hill, and Burnside’s IX Corps would come up between the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road to attack Hill’s flank and rear. After Hill was destroyed, the Federals would then turn to destroy Ewell.
Lee retired to his headquarters at the Widow Tapp farm, about a mile to the rear of his army and just four miles south of Grant’s headquarters. It became immediately apparent to Lee that Grant, unlike his predecessors, would not commit his forces piecemeal. From this point on, the Confederates would face the full power of the Army of the Potomac.
Nevertheless, Ewell had held firm, and Hill, despite having just 15,000 men and being scattered like “a worm fence, at every angle,” also held with Longstreet coming up to reinforce him. Lee permitted Hill’s men to rest, expecting Longstreet to come up next morning on Hill’s right (south). Hill would then close with Ewell to form a more compact line. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon at 11 p.m.:
“The enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday at Ely’s and Germanna Fords. Two Corps of this army moved to oppose him–Ewell’s, by the old turnpike, and Hill’s by the plank road. They arrived this morning in close proximity to the enemy’s line of march. A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it, capturing many prisoners and four pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon General Hill, who, with Heth’s and Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated and desperate assaults… By the blessing of God we maintained our position against every effort until night, when the contest closed. We have to mourn the loss of many brave officers and men.”
Both Grant and Lee ordered hostilities to resume early next morning.
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