May 6, 1864 – Fighting raged a second day as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant learned that General Robert E. Lee would not be an easy foe to overcome.
The battle between Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac (under Grant’s overall direction) and Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia had been terrible on the 5th. Since then, the battlefield had split into two sectors:
- In the southern sector, Grant expected Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to attack and destroy Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s weakened Third Corps at dawn.
- In the northern sector, VI and V corps under Major Generals John Sedgwick and Gouverneur Warren would attack Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, preventing Ewell from helping Hill.
- In the center, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s reserve IX Corps would come up and attack Hill’s left flank and rear.
Lee expected Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps to be up on Hill’s right at dawn, but the troops had gotten lost in the brush and would be delayed. Ewell renewed the battle at 4:45 a.m. by assaulting Sedgwick’s and Warren’s Federals as they were preparing to launch an attack of their own. After Ewell made no progress, the Federals counterattacked. The Confederates held their ground, but Ewell could spare no men for Hill on his right.
President Abraham Lincoln had been anxiously awaiting news from the battlefield all day on the 5th. He finally received a dispatch from Grant on the morning of the 6th, but it simply read, “Everything pushing along favorably.” Throughout the day, Grant sat and smoked his cigar as he whittled pieces of wood, awaiting reports from the field.
In the southern sector, Hancock launched his attack at 5 a.m., pushing Hill’s Confederates back toward Lee’s headquarters at the Widow Tapp farm. The Confederate guns at the farm continuously fired canister into the oncoming Federals to no avail. Hancock told a courier, “Tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully!”
Grant had expected Burnside’s IX Corps to come up between Warren and Hancock by dawn. But Burnside was running late, which did not surprise Meade, who had previously served under him. Hancock continued pushing the Confederates back without waiting for Burnside’s troops. Hill’s line eventually broke as the Federals closed in on the Tapp house.
Suddenly, Brigadier General John Gregg’s Texas brigade, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps, arrived on the scene around 6 a.m. Lee, who had been anxiously awaiting Longstreet’s arrival, asked them, “What brigade is this?” When told they were the Texas brigade, Lee said, “I am glad to see it. When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel–they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.”
Then, in a rare display of excitement, Lee raised his hat and urged them forward, shouting, “Texans always move them!” Lee began advancing with the troops, but when they saw this, they began hollering, “Go back, General Lee, go back!” They stopped Lee’s horse and refused to proceed until Lee went back to safety. Lee complied, and the Texans charged furiously into the stunned Federals.
Soon after, Longstreet arrived with the rest of his two divisions. They, along with Gregg’s men, replaced Hill’s Confederates and counterattacked. The fighting was vicious and confused in the tangled brush and vines of the Wilderness. Gregg lost 550 of his 800 Texans, but the momentum began shifting as the Confederates slowly pushed the Federals back.
Around 10 a.m., Longstreet learned from commanders familiar with the area that the bed of an unfinished railroad lay south of the Orange Plank Road, hidden by the brush. This was an excellent spot from which to assault Hancock’s left flank. Longstreet directed his aide, Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrell, to lead four brigades in an attack that began at 11 a.m.
The Federals wavered under this sudden assault, which Hancock later said rolled up his flank “like a wet blanket.” Longstreet renewed the main attack on Hancock’s front, adding to the pressure and pushing the Federals back to the Brock Road. Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth, commanding a Federal division, was mortally wounded.
Longstreet and his aides followed their advancing troops along the Orange Plank Road. To their right, Sorrell’s Confederates suddenly appeared and, mistaking them for Federals, fired on them. Brigadier General Micah Jenkins, commanding a brigade, was killed. Longstreet was severely wounded when a bullet passed through his throat and lodged in his right shoulder.
Coincidentally, Longstreet was just four miles from the spot where Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire almost exactly one year before. The surviving aides helped Longstreet from his horse, and his doctor pronounced the wounds “not necessarily mortal.” Longstreet would survive, but rumors of his death spread through the ranks and demoralized the troops. A lull fell over the battlefield.
Lee temporarily took over Longstreet’s corps and looked to renew the attack. Grant had ordered Hancock to counterattack at 6 p.m., but Lee hit Hancock’s line with an attack of his own at 4 p.m. Brush fires came up between the armies, forcing the Federals back to their breastworks along the Brock Road. The Confederates could not dislodge them, and the fight ended in stalemate.
In the center, Burnside finally arrived around 2 p.m. to fill the gap between Hancock and Warren. But instead of flanking Hill as planned, he now ran into the survivors of Hill’s corps who had shifted to the center to fight alongside Longstreet’s men. The Confederates held firm against Burnside’s assaults.
Back in the northern sector, Brigadier General John B. Gordon, commanding a brigade in Major General Jubal Early’s division, saw that Sedgwick’s right flank was vulnerable and urged Early, and then Ewell, to approve an attack. After several hours of vacillation, Gordon sought permission directly from Lee, who approved. Gordon’s men finally attacked at 6 p.m., overwhelming the Federals just as Gordon hoped.
The Confederates captured two Federal generals, 600 other prisoners, and nearly cut the Federal supply line. However, the advance was stopped by darkness. Gordon later asserted that had his plan been approved earlier, his men would have destroyed the Federal right. Instead, “the greatest opportunity ever presented to Lee’s army was permitted to pass.”
News of this unexpected flank attack caused panic at Federal headquarters. One brigadier told Grant, “I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Grant angrily replied:
“Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always 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.”
Elsewhere on the field, opposing cavalries skirmished lightly at Todd’s Tavern, as Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen met the Federals under their new commander, Major General Philip Sheridan, for the first time.
Fighting gradually ended all along the line as night fell. Troops began scrambling to rescue wounded comrades before they burned to death in the raging forest fires. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon that the Federal advance, “thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed.”
The Federals knew they had gotten the worst of this battle. An army half their size had nearly routed both VI Corps on the right and II Corps on the left. In fact, the Federals had been more thoroughly defeated here than at Chancellorsville a year ago:
- Joseph Hooker only had one flank turned last year, but this time Grant had both turned
- Hooker had nearly surprised Lee last year, but this time Lee surprised Grant
- Lee lost 13,000 men last year, but this time he lost just over half that amount
The Federals sustained 17,666 casualties (2,246 killed, 12,037 wounded, and 3,383 missing) while the Confederates lost about 7,500. These totals were more one-sided than any other battle except Fredericksburg. With Lee scoring such a decisive tactical victory, most Federal troops believed that Grant would do what his predecessors had done and retreat.
In Grant’s less than impressive debut in the Eastern Theater, he learned that unlike most of the western commanders he faced, Lee would take the fight to him. Grant retired to his headquarters that night and wept, but when he was done, he emerged with a new resolve. He told a Washington correspondent preparing to return to the capital, “If you see the president, tell him, from me, that whatever happens, there will be no turning back.”
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