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Battle of the Wilderness

The Battle of the Wilderness was the first battle of Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Virginia campaign against General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

The battle was fought in the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, an expanse of impenetrable scrub growth and rough terrain that encompassed more than 70 square miles of Spotsylvania County in central Virginia. A number of battles were fought in its vicinity between 1862 and 1864, including the bloody Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. It is often said that the Wilderness and Chancellorsville were fought in the same spot, but this isn't really the case. The Wilderness was actually fought a few miles to the west, and only overlapped the old battlefield along the Brock Road on the United States (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 ironically was 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.

On the other hand, for Lee, who was massively outnumbered as usual (65,000 men to Grant's 123,000), accosting Grant in the Wilderness was imperative for the same reason as a year ago--in a battle contested in the tangled woods, the value of artillery was limited, and Lee's artillery possessed fewer guns of lower quality than Grant's.

While waiting for the arrival of Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps, which had been posted 25 miles to the west in order to guard against an attack on the crucial railroad junction of Gordonsville, Lee pushed forward his Second Corps, commanded by Lieut. Gen. Richard Ewell, and the Third Corps under the command of Lieut. Gen. A.P. Hill in an effort to engage Grant before he moved south. The Confederates were able to do this, and on May 5, both Ewell, on Lee's left flank, and Hill on the right clashed with Union soldiers.

On the left, Ewell met up with the Union V Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren, and fought it to a standoff. For much of the day, Ewell's 20,000-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 two miles and inflicted heavy casualties. With the Third Corps in dire straits, Lee began to look desperately for Longstreet, whose arrival had been expected hours before.

At around noon, Longstreet and the 20,000-man First Corps arrived at last, and its timing was perfect. Hancock's men were tired from six hours of fighting and disorganized. When Longstreet hurled his forces at the Union attackers, they recoiled and within two hours, the situation was totally reversed. Not only had Longstreet regained all the ground lost, he'd advanced one mile beyond that, forcing Hancock to regroup along the Brock Road. At a crucial moment in the fighting, Longstreet attacked through the cut of an unfinished railroad that had divided the Union forces in two, 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 and did not return to the Army of Northern Virginia for several months.

Just as this phase of the battle was ending, a division of the Second Corps under Maj. Gen. John Gordon launched one 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 before the Confederates had a chance to press their advantage, and with that, the battle came to a close.

The battle is usually described as a draw; a better way of describing it would be as a tactical Confederate victory, but a strategic victory for the Union army. Lee inflicted heavy casualties on Grant's army, a total of 17,666 according to Army of the Potomac records. Lee, on the other hand, lost only about 7,500 men and ended the battle in possession of more of the field than it held when the fighting started. But at this point in the war, that wasn't sufficient. Grant, unlike Lee's previous adversaries, refused to retreat simply because he met a check. Lee would have to destroy the Army of the Potomac while he still had sufficient force to do so, and Grant was too skilled to allow that to happen.

On May 8, Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to resume its advance, and less than a week later, the two armies clashed again 10 miles to the southeast, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Portions of the Wilderness battlefield are now preserved as part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park, administered by the National Park Service.

This is the battle of the Wilderness in the American Civil War. For the French and Indian War battle, see Battle of the Wilderness 1755.