May 5, 1864: The Battle of the Wilderness Begins

Wilderness_May5

If you take a flat map
And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares.  They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

One assumes that there would be worse places for an attacking army to attempt to fight a battle than the Wilderness, but none come readily to mind.  With the dense shrubs and trees it was like trying to fight a battle blindfolded, determining where the enemy was more by sound than sight.

The battle of the first day of the wilderness was effectively divided into two actions.

On the Orange Court House Turnpike, Warren and his corps attacked Ewell’s corps.  Warren was rightfully concerned that his right flank was in the air and wanted to delay his attack until Sedgwick’s corps moved to support him on his right.  Meade was irritated by the delay and ordered Warren to attack before Sedgwick could arrive.  Warren’s attack at 1:00PM was hampered from the start due to Confederate attacks on his right flank as he advanced.  Ultimately the attack was repulsed with heavy loss.  Sedgwick’s corps attacked at 3:00 PM and was beaten back after an hour of fighting.  Piecemeal attacks by the two corps ensured that their attacks would fail.

South along the Orange Plank Road Hill’s corps beat off repeated Union attacks with fierce fighting continuing to nightfall.

The battle had been a day of bewildering confusion to all involved, with generals often being unable to locate their own forces in the dense undergrowth, let alone enemy units.  The woods quickly caught fire and smoke obscured what little visibility existed.  The screams of the wounded as the fire reached them added a Hellish quality to the battle that many survivors never forgot.

Lee had held his ground and now was in position to attack with Longstreet’s corps the next day.

Lee at 11:00 PM of a very long day sent a succinct description of the day’s fighting to the Secretary of War:

Lee at 11:00 PM of a very long day sent a succinct description of the day’s fighting to the Secretary of War:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
May 5, 186411 p.m. (Received 6th.)

Hon. SECRETARY OF WAR.

       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. A large force of cavalry and artillery on our right flank was driven back by Rosser’s brigade. 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. The gallant Brig. Gen. J. M. Jones was killed, and Brig. Gen. L. A. Stafford, I fear, mortally wounded while leading his command with conspicuous valor.

R. E. LEE.

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Published in: on May 5, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  

2 Comments

  1. I have driven through that country. Obviously more inhabited now with lawns, businesses that maintain their property. But one can imagine brush covered acre upon acre of small rolling hills. The enemy in grey and butternut would have some camouflage quality particularly after first rounds of black powder smoke and smoke from brush fires would hide them quite effectively. Then the terrain itself. Cross a hilltop and be exposed – drop down again in the small valleys out of sight… cannot imagine more difficult setting for the style of fighting of that era.
    Dennis McCutcheon

    • The soldiers of that period Dennis were not unused to rough terrain, but it is striking how many of the soldiers who fought in the Wilderness said that they never saw worse terrain to fight in during the War.


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