The Wilderness: Ghosts in the Darkness


Nicholas E. Hollis
(All Rights Reserved)

Scholars tell us that Gettysburg was the pivotal battle of the Civil War – and its devastation on both armies was such that neither mounted a major action for almost one year.  But Wilderness was that next massive engagement, and it was by many measures more terrible, fought in the dense forests and tangled undergrowth south of the Rapidan River, west of Fredericksburg, Virginia.  The armies of Union commander U.S. Grant and CSA General Robert E. Lee clashed for two days (May 5-6, 1864) with staggering losses to both sides.  In terms of casualties, Wilderness was the third bloodiest battle of the entire war (nearly 29,000 casualties in two days).  Although neither side gained clear advantage, Wilderness marked the beginning of the long road to Appomattox as Grant moved south toward Richmond after the battle instead of withdrawing as his predecessors in Union Command had done in each of three earlier campaigns.

In Spring 1864, Lee ordered Longstreet to re-deploy from East Tennessee to central Virginia to guard Richmond against the anticipated Union campaign under Grant.  Longstreet’s 1st Corps was strategically posted at Gordonsville (28 miles southwest of Wilderness), enabling him to protect against invasion via the Shenandoah Valley, or quickly reunite with the main body of  Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, should the thrust come near Fredericksburg.

Early on May 4, Lee realized Grant was rushing directly, crossing the Rapidan, and summoned Longstreet.  “Old Pete” received the orders to march at 1:00 p.m. that day, and his columns broke camp and began a forced march toward Wilderness at  4:00 p.m. (three hours later).

Vastly outnumbered with only Ewell’s and Hill’s corps at hand on May 5, Lee sought to delay Grant’s drive, containing him in the dense woods long enough for Longstreet’s corps to move up on the right where offensive actions against the Union Army might be possible.  But intense fighting in the late afternoon/early evening of May 5, starting with attacks by Warren’s V corps and Sedgwick’s VI corps, left the Hill/Ewell line wavering with Union Commander Hancock’s Corps II threatening Lee’s right (Hill) near Widow Tapp Farm along the Brock Road.

STRETCHED TO THE LIMIT:  HETH’S DIVISION AT 4:30 P.M. ON MAY 5, 1864 -- As Grant’s troops massed to cross the Rapidan (May 3), Lee inexplicably delayed ordering Longstreet’s First Corps up from Gordonsville.  Permitting Longstreet to remain out of position brought the ANV to its greatest crisis since Antietam.  On May 5, A.P. Hill’s Third Corps faced overwhelming odds, yet held the field, buying precious time.  Heth’s division was outnumbered fifty to one (50:1).  Nearly shattered , they were spared destruction by the fall of darkness.

A Timely Intervention
Longstreet’s Texas brigades arrived early on May 6, running the last five miles after marching through the night, in time to shore up Hill’s disintegrating position, slamming into Hancock. 

Lee had ridden to the front, trying to rally Hill’s retreating men, when the Texans under Kershaw (Hood’s old brigade) moved up and shouted: “Lee, to the rear!” followed by a refusal of the men to go forward until their beloved leader took himself out of danger.

By 8:00 a.m., Longstreet had checked Hancock’s advance and began pushing back his right flank, while pummeling Wadsworth’s Federals on the left.  In “the fog of the battle,” with confusion and mistakes piling up, the Army of the Potomac suddenly seemed lethargic – and momentum shifted to “Old Pete.”  Wisely, Longstreet had held three brigades out of the heavy fighting as reserves – and, receiving information on the existence of unfinished railroad trace extending through the woods along the battlefield’s right (southern edge), ordered his fresh troops to move concealed under the dense cover along the twelve-foot-wide gap and form an attack line on Hancock’s left.  When the famous flank attack began at 11:00 a.m., with rebel yells magnifying their numbers as they came crashing through the woods, the Federals could hardly see them.

VERMONT’S STUBBORN STREAK: 11:00 A.M. ON MAY 6, 1864 -- Grant’s brigade holds on against Longstreet’s flank attack, while Mott and Birney collapse.  Today this area is endangered by developers.

Many fired blindly into the woods.  Errant federal artillery fire raked Vermonters under Brigadier General Lewis A. Grant from their rear, making the terrifying situation worse.  The men of the 3rd and 4th Vermont regiments in the first line, absorbed the brunt of the Confederate fire exploding from the woods, and were reinforced with the 2nd Vermont and the 6th Vermont. 

The Green Mountain brigades hung tough, under a hail of bullets, exacting ghastly casualties. The sons of Vermont were stubborn that morning.  Amidst the low-hanging smoke and fires, with most of their Federal comrades in rout, the Vermonters held the intersection of Brock and Orange Plank roads.

Heavy Hand of Fate: Longstreet’s Wounding
As Longstreet rode up to assess the success of his attack, and plan his next massive strike with  Brig. Gen. Micah Jenkins and others of his entourage, a volley of shots rang out from Mahone’s 41st Virginia lined up parallel to Orange Plank Road in the woods (but almost at right angles to the main Confederate battle line) – and “Old Pete” caught a near-fatal neck wound, lifting him straight up in his saddle. Others, like Jenkins, were not so fortunate and died instantly.

FRIENDLY FIRE TAKES A HEAVY TOLL – NOON ON MAY 6, 1864 – Longstreet’s party is fired upon by disoriented troops of Mahone’s 41st Virginia infantry.  Today’s cooperation among groups seeking to preserve the “Hamilton’s Thicket” area has been hampered by “friendly fire” of a political nature.

A hush fell on the advancing rebels. The counterattack stalled.  Lee intervened and, after using precious time to realign his troops, ordered a frontal assault on Hancock’s center – reminiscent of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg – with similar results.  The Union center held without great difficulty with rebels taking staggering losses. Exhaustion descended.  The troops dug new earthworks, while listening to the screams of the wounded being consumed by fires in the underbrush of “No Man’s Land.”

The Battle of the Wilderness had ended in stalemate, desperately fought.  Years later, veterans would liken the struggle to Indian warfare in the forests – a great bushwhacking in the woods. 

On the evening of May 6th, Lt. General U.S. Grant whittled sticks and chided some of his lieutenants: “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 commands, and try to think about what we are going to do instead of wondering what Lee is going to do.”

Grant had decided his next move: a march off Lee’s flank toward Spotsylvania Courthouse and Richmond, and he could take this bold action because of Vermont valor in holding the key road/intersections.  The orders were issued the following morning (May 7). The Union troops cheered when they realized Grant would not retreat.  Perhaps somehow this justified horrors of the Wilderness. But as one of the epic battles of the Civil War, much of what happened at Wilderness remains a mystery, blurred in the swirl of unspeakable terrors and events which followed.

Longstreet, borne off on a litter after designating R.H. Anderson to take his command, had the presence of mind and courage to raise his hat off his face – thereby reassuring his troops that their leader would fight another day.  Longstreet was moved to safety at a private home in Lynchburg, Virginia and later, further south near Augusta, Georgia. The mini-ball had passed through his neck and shattered his brachial plexus – an injury which cost him the use of his right arm. It was a slow recovery, but “Old Pete” rejoined Lee later in October 1864, and was placed in charge of Richmond’s defenses. Longstreet stayed by Lee’s side until Appomattox. 

BUSHWHACKED IN THE WILDERNESS – The driver of this overturned car had recently slowed for a battlefield turn-off on Orange Plank Road when he was rear-ended by a reckless motorist.  The victim suffered neck and back injuries near the site of Longstreet’s wounding (November 29, 1998).  After a protracted battle with NPS "warlord bureaucrats" known for their unsympathetic views on Longstreet, an expanded turnoff space and parking area with interpretive signs at the wounding site were opened to the pubic years later.  A granite monument honoring the Vermont brigades was also unveiled in 2006.

Call to Action
Veterans of the Battle of Wilderness, like the laconic Vermonters by nature, spoke little and wrote less about their experiences of May 5-6 for many years.  Yet, like ghosts in the darkness, the spirits of the thousands who fell there still can be heard on quiet nights in the month of May.  Please consider joining GLRP’s campaign to honor “Old Pete” and the valiant Green Mountain State brigades with an expanded viewing area near the wounding site and the intersections of Brock/Orange Plank Roads.

VERMONT BRIGADE MONUMENT - GLRP action, including tribute services, speeches, and letter writing (as reported in Civil War News articles), helped spark independent campaign in the Green Mountain State, which resulted in statue placement in 2006.


Suggested References

Benedict, G.G. Vermont in the Civil War: A History of the Part Taken by Vermont Soldiers and Sailors in the War for the Union, 1861-1865 (2 Volumes).  Burlington, VT: Free Press Association, 1897 (Volume 1, p. 235).

Grant, Gen. L.A. “In the Wilderness.”  Washington, DC: National Tribune (January 28, 1897).

Hollis, N.E. "Small Victories at Wilderness Battlefield" (Editorial). Culpeper Star-Exponent (October 21, 2009); and "Out of the Wilderness: Heroes on Both Sides are Easier to Locate" (Op.Ed). Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star (November 8, 2009).

Hollis, N.E.  Commentary: "Is Sacred Ground Walmart's Manifest Destiny." Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star (March 13, 2010).

Longstreet, James A.  From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America.  New York: Da Capo Press Edition, 1992 (pp. 551-571).

Reardon, Carol. The Other Grant: Lewis A. Grant and the Vermont Brigade (article published in The Wilderness Campaign).  University of North Carolina Press: 1997, pp. 201-235.

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