The Civil War's "Battle of the Wilderness": Beginning of a Bloody War of Attrition

The Civil War's "Battle of the Wilderness": Beginning of a Bloody War of Attrition

In the forbidding countryside of Virginia’s Wilderness, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee stumbled blindly toward their first wartime encounter.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Battle of the Wilderness marked the beginning of a 40-day campaign that included some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War.

The year 1864 was shaping up to be a critical one in the three-year-long Civil War. During the previous year, Federal armies had gained control of the Mississippi River and consolidated their grip on Tennessee. Only two significant Confederate military forces still remained in the field. In northern Georgia, General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, having retreated from Chattanooga, was engaging Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union forces on their drive toward Atlanta. Meanwhile, in the eastern theater, General Robert E. Lee’s redoubtable Army of Northern Virginia was opposed by the long-suffering Army of the Potomac, still buoyed by its great, if incomplete, victory at Gettysburg six months earlier.

In February 1864, the ever-aggressive Lee planned once again to take the offensive. Recognizing that the Confederacy lacked the resources to gain a permanent advantage by a lengthy campaign in northern territory, he aimed to embarrass the enemy and prevent them from initiating a major campaign of their own. In mid-March, Lee learned that Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had assumed command of all Union armies. Toward the end of the month, northern newspapers reported that the new Federal commander intended to make his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac. This indicated that Virginia would be his main theater of operations. Southern scouts confirmed that Grant had indeed joined Maj. Gen. George G. Meade at Culpeper Court House, a small Virginia town immediately north of the Rapidan River. Lee monitored Meade’s growing buildup with concern but not panic.

In Washington, D.C., Grant was the toast of the town. President Abraham Lincoln had summoned the victor of Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga to the Union capital to receive his well-earned promotion to lieutenant general—the first man since George Washington to hold that exalted rank in the United States Army. In promoting his fellow Illinoisan, Lincoln had ignored widespread rumors of Grant’s occasional binge drinking. “I can’t spare this man, he fights,” the president had said, joking that perhaps he should find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank and send a case to the rest of his generals to stiffen their resolve. The soldiers in camp were less impressed. One private noted the new commander’s less than impressive physical appearance. “Of all the officers in the group,” he said, “I should have selected almost anyone but him as the general who won Vicksburg. But for his straps, which came down too far in front of his shoulders on his rusty uniform, I should have taken him for a clerk at headquarters rather than a general.” Said another private: “He cannot be worse than his predecessors; and, if he is a fighter, he can find all the fighting he wants. We have never complained that Lee’s men would not fight.”

The main Union objective was the Confederate capital of Richmond, located approximately 70 miles to the south. The Union Army had been stymied along the Rapidan since the previous fall. What had prevented the Federals from advancing was not the river itself, but the strength of the defensive works at Mine Run, works that Lee, a former engineer, had converted into a natural fortress. High hills on the southern bank lined with interlocking rifle pits and artillery positions made crossing the river extremely difficult. If the Confederate leader could secure Richmond against secondary threats, he proposed to President Jefferson Davis on April 15, “I could draw [Lt. Gen. James] Longstreet to me and move right against the enemy across the Rapidan. Should God give us a crowning victory here, all their plans would be dissipated, and their troops now collecting on the waters of the Chesapeake would be recalled to the defense of Washington.”

The instrument to accomplish this was the Army of Northern Virginia. Heading Lee’s three corps were Lt. Gens. Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, and Ambrose Powell Hill. Lee’s premier fighting unit was Longstreet’s I Corps, which came primarily from the Deep South. On the face of it, Lee’s plan was logical. A few miles below the Rapidan fords on Lee’s right sprawled a densely wooded area known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. From the Confederate perspective, this location offered an ideal battlefield. Meade’s artillery and cavalry would be severely handicapped, and he would have difficulty applying his superior numbers in force. The 70-mile-wide, 30-mile-long stretch of second-growth timber, wiry underbrush, brackish water, and barren soil was all too familiar to the Union soldiers—they had suffered a disastrous defeat there at Chancellorsville exactly one year earlier. Indians legends said the Wilderness was haunted, and no one who had survived the previous spring’s debacle doubted it in the least.

Grant, who was probably the least superstitious man in either army, had no fixed plan of campaign beyond the general idea of avoiding the strong defensive line occupied by Lee at Mine Run and finding a way to draw him into an open battle. “My general plan,” he recalled later, “was to concentrate all the force possible against the Confederate armies in the field. To get possession of Lee’s army was the first great object. With the capture of his army Richmond would necessarily follow.” The only question was where. Federals had mustered nearly 120,000 men and 316 guns. The Army of the Potomac had been organized into three corps—the II, V, and VI—commanded respectively by Maj. Gens. Winfield Scott Hancock, Gouverneur K. Warren, and John Sedgwick. The IX Corps, reorganized under Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, was intended to function as a mobile reserve. The Confederates, for their part, had only 64,000 men and 274 guns. The Army of Northern Virginia stood on the east side of the Rapidan River. Mine Run was on its right, extending north. The Federals realized the difficulty involved and wanted to avoid fighting in the Wilderness if at all possible.

Grant planned to send Meade’s Army of the Potomac, supplemented by Burnside’s corps, directly against Lee, while Maj. Gen. Benjamin E. Butler’s Army of the James advanced up its namesake river toward Richmond and another army under Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel threatened the Confederates’ western flank. Lee, meanwhile, decided to wait and strike Grant when he crossed the Rapidan. The river drew an unofficial boundary between Union-held northern Virginia and the rest of the state still under Confederate control. Lee’s troops remained behind their works lining the river’s southern bank, just above the village of Orange Court House. On the river’s far side stood Meade’s army.

On May 4, Lee sent another letter to Jefferson Davis, stating: “You will already have learned that the army of General Meade is in motion, and is crossing the Rapidan on our right, whether with the intention of attacking, or moving toward Fredericksburg, I am not able to say. But it is apparent that the long threatened effort to take Richmond has begun, and that the enemy has collected all his available force to accomplish it. Success in resisting the chief armies of the enemy will enable us more easily to recover the country now occupied by him.” Other than writing to the Confederate president, Lee made no other preliminary moves to reunite his scattered army, which was still in various winter camps at Orange Court House, Gordonsville, and Clark’s Mountain. Perhaps Lee underestimated his new opponent—he had usually faced inferior generals on the battlefield. Lee’s I Corps commander, James Longstreet, had no such misperceptions. He had been Grant’s closest friend in the prewar army and had even served as best man in Grant’s wedding to a Longstreet cousin, Julia Boggs Dent of St. Louis. He understood Grant in a way that Lee did not. “That man,” he warned, “will fight us every day and every hour till the end of the war.” Lee ignored the prescient warning.

By the afternoon of May 4, the first critical phase of the Federal offensive had been completed: the crossing of the Rapidan at Ely’s and Germanna Fords. The cavalry had crossed the night before to establish a bridgehead and scout ahead. Once on the opposite bank, each of the Federal corps had headed in a southeasterly direction but had gone only a short distance before making camp. Warren’s corps went only as far as Wilderness Tavern, six miles south of the river. At the same time, Hancock stopped his command a shorter distance from the Rapidan at defeat-haunted Chancellorsville. Sedgwick, meanwhile, followed Warren’s route and had encamped along the road leading to Wilderness Tavern, one of the few landmarks in the gloomy woods. The army’s supply train was not expected to be south of the river until late ­on the fifth.

The Union soldiers, many of them as green as grass, camped for the night amid the disinterred remains of their hastily buried comrades at Chancellorsville. As night thickened, they grew uneasy, seized by “a sense of ominous dread which many of us found impossible to shake off.” “It was a very easy matter to discover just where pools of blood had been,” noted one soldier, “for those particular spots were marked by the greenest tufts of grass and brightest flowers to be found upon the field.” A veteran cavalryman pried up a bullet-shattered skull from a shallow grave and rolled it across the ground at the new men. “That is what you are all coming to,” he said, “and some of you will start toward it tomorrow.” Another veteran warned that “the wounded are liable to be burned to death.” Few soldiers slept well that night.