Wilderness Battlefield

Location: Fredericksburg, Virginia

Webpage: National Park

General Description: The Battle of the Wilderness is administered as part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and consists of a driving tour to the main locations of the battle.  Following the defeats of General Lee’s Confederate Army of Virginia at Gettysburg and the taking of Vicksburg, Mississippi in the summer of 1863, President Lincoln was searching for a General that would be bold and decisive against the Confederates, especailly against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Virginia.  Overall command of the Union Army was given to General Ulysses S Grant following his victories in the Western Theatre, including Vicksburg.  While General Meade was the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Grant attached himself to this Army, thus being effectively in command of the Army of the Potomac.  His strategy was now different from his predecessors.  Instead of trying to capture Richmond, the primary goal was to use the Union vast superiority in manpower and armament to destroy General Lee’s army.  Therefore, General Grant strategy was to draw Lee into decisive battles where his superior numbers could be used to destroy General Lee’s army by threatening Richmond.  His first opportunity came in the spring of 1864 when he crossed the Rappahonock and Rapidan Rivers at three locations upstream of Fredericksburg to converge at Wilderness Tavern along the Orange Turnpike on May 4, 1864.  The tavern is located near the edge of the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, which was a dense forest of scrub oaks and shrubs, a young second growth forest left from the cutting of firewood to fuel the iron furnaces in the area since colonial times.  This hilly terrain was nearly impassable to 19th century infantry and artillery, a fact the General Lee was to use to his advantage.  By confronting the Union army which outnumbered his army by nearly 120,000 men against his 64,000, in the Wilderness would effectively negate this advantage, especially the artillery.  Also by this stage of the war, both sides had learned the advantage of trench warfare.  By quickly constructing defensive earthworks made of dirt and logs, an army could decimate an attacking army of over twice the size.  Not certain of Grant’s intentions, General Lee had dispersed his army over a wide front.  General Longstreet’s corps was around Gordonsville at the railroad so they could quickly head to the Shenandoah Valley or Richmond, Lee’s headquarters was at Orange Courthouse, and General Ewell closest to the Wilderness.  Once Grant’s intentions became clear on May 4, Lee knew it was imperative to intercept the Union in the Wilderness.  Fortunately, General Meade had camped short of the Wilderness to wait for his supplies to catch up from the Rapidan.  Ewell was ordered to intercept the Union army and camped just 3 miles from the unsuspecting Union forces.  Longstreet was ordered to move in from the southwest to hit the Union right flank, but it would take him a day to do so.  Due to an erroneous report about Stuart’s calvary to be in the Union rear around Fredericksburg, Meade ordered the bulk of his calvary to move east to intercept, thus depriving him of their scouting of the enemy and did not know how close they were.  Early on May 5, Ewell intercepted Warren’s 5th Corps as they were marching through farm fields towards the Orange Plank Road.  Believing it was only a small, isolated infantry unit, General Grant ordered Meade to attack.  However, upon seeing the line of breastworks the Confederates had constructed across Saunders Field, Warren delayed his attack requesting additional men to extend his lines.  By 1 pm, Meade was frustrated by the delay and ordered Warren to immediately attack.  The Confederates were able to not only stop the Union attack, but counterattacked the exposed right flank.  The fierce hand-to-hand combat continued until nightfall and set fire to the field.  Both sides were shocked as wounded soldiers from both sides were burned alive by the raging fire.  Unlike Ewell’s surprise, the advance of General A.P. Hill up the Orange Turnpike was detected by General Crawford’s men on Chewning farm and General Getty’s division was ordered by Meade to defend the important crossroads of the Orange Plank Road and Brock Road.  Due to the Union cavalry use of repeating rifles they were able to delay General Hill just long enough for the Union to arrive just in time at the crossroads.  General Hill had to withdraw to a position a few hundred yards to the west of the intersection.  Both sides continued to send in reserves throughout the day and the battle continued until nightfall.  Believing that General Hill’s men were spent from the previous day’s fighting, General Grant ordered an early morning full out assault at the intersection.  At the same time Warren’s corps would continue to press Ewell on the Orange Turnpike to keep them from coming to Hill’s aid.  By this point Longstreet corps was only 10 miles from the battlefield and they stopped to rest after marching all day and did not resume until after midnight.  General Lee expected them to be in position to relieve Hill by the morning of May 6, but by sunrise they had not arrived.  Union General Hancock corps attacked on schedule at 5 am and forced a retreat of the Confederates to the rear.  Before a total collapse occurred, the advanced troops from Longstreet’s Corps arrived at 6 am consisting of Brig Gen John Gregg’s 800-man Texas Brigade.  Without a pause they rushed to the battle.  General Lee was so excited and relieved to see the Texas Brigade that he began to move forward with them waving his hat and cheering.  When the Texans realized this they stopped and grabbed the reins of his horse and refused to move forward until General Lee moved back to the rear.  The Confederates, led by the Texas Brigade were able to counterattack the Union forces who were disorganized by the early morning assault and drive them back 100 yards beyond the Widow Tapp’s farm.  The Texas Brigade lost 250 of the 800 men in the attack.  At 10 am, the Confederate engineers had scouted out an unfinished railroad bed to provided easy access to the Union left flank.  Longstreet sent four fresh brigades up the bed to surprise the Union left and they managed to roll up the Union forces, who had to retreat to the Brock Road.  When Longstreet rode up with some of his officers along the Orange Plank Road he encountered some of these returning Virginian troops who mistakenly thought they were Federals, shot and severely wounded Longstreet in the neck.  Without Longstreet in command, the Confederates became disorganized and Hancock was able to stabilize his positions behind new breastworks.  On May 6, there were a number of inconclusive battles along the Orange Turnpike and by May 7, General Grant was faced with the prospect of attacking a strong line of earthwork defenses.  Instead he decided to change the field of battle by moving south along the Brock Road towards Spotsylvania Courthouse which would put his army between Lee and Richmond, forcing Lee to fight on more open ground where he could bring his superior numbers and artillery to better use.  Although the loses on both sides were high, the Union army was able to replace its men and armaments, whereas the Confederate army was shrinking.  Thus ended the first of four battles that makeup the Overland Campaign that would ultimately lead to the siege of Petersburg and Richmond later in the summer.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) There is no Visitor Center for the Wilderness Battlefield.  Instead they have constructed a kiosk with displays giving details about the battle.

2) We had purchased an Driving Tour Audio CD to enhance our experience of the battlefield, which I would strongly recommend as it does a better job of showing the chronological order of the battle, which is spreadout and overlaps portions of the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863.

3) The first stop of the tour is the location of Grant’s headquarters for the battle, which due to the terrain and brushy conditions of the Wilderness, did not provide Grant a view of the battle.  He had to rely on reports from his Generals.

WildernessGrantHQ

4) The next stop if the Wilderness Battle kiosk which give a good overview of the battle.  This is also the location of Saunders Field which is the site of the opening battle between Ewell and Warren.  By this point in the war, both armies were very adept at quickly building earthworks, even while under fire, and there are a number of well preserved trenches along the Confederate line on the south side of the field.

WildernessSaundersField

5) The next stop is the Higgerson Farm which has a short trail up to the farm.  This is the site of some of the most confusing fighting in the battle and I have to admit it confused me.  The Higgerson Farm is still in remarkably good shape and I recommend taking the short walk to the cemetery.  There you will find the burial site of General Stonewall Jackson’s arm!!  When he was wounded during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, his arm was broken and had to be amputated at a closeby tavern.  One of the surgeons was the brother of the owner of Higgerson Farm and he took it upon himself to take the amputated arm and bury it in the family cemetery.  Strange!!

WildernessHiggersonFarm WildernessJacksonArm

6) The next stop is the location of the Chewning Farm where exhibits attempt to describe its importance during the battle as it was occupied at different times by both armies.

7) The next stop is the Widow Tapp’s farm where the Texas Brigade made their famous charge to stop the Union advance and turn the Confederate retreat on May 6.  There is a trail that follows their charge with interpretive signs and monument.

WildernessTexasBrigade

8) The next stop is to a location where you can still see the unfinished railroad bed that General Longstreet used to attack the Union left flank on May 7 and rolled them up back to the Brock Road.

9) The final two stops are the location where Longstreet was wounded returning back from Brock Road and the intersection of Brock Road and the Orange Plank Road that was the site of so many battles on My 6 and 7.

WildernessCrossroads

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