Unlike Ambrose E. Burnside and Joe Hooker before him, Grant left the Army of the Potomac's organization and command largely as he found it. He did appoint Philip H. Sheridan to lead the cavalry corps, and assigned James H. Wilson, a topographical engineer and former member of Grant's staff, to command a 3,500-man cavalry division. Grant also instructed Burnside's Ninth Corps, which had been fighting in the West, to rejoin the Army of the Potomac, boosting Union force strength to 118,000, compared with Lee's 65,000.
Grant's army began crossing the Rapidan River on Wednesday, May 4, 1864—the Second Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock at Ely's Ford, and Gouverneur Warren's Fifth Corps and John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps both at Germanna's Ford—and that night slowly converged around the Wilderness Tavern. Just to the west lay Lee's veteran army, heavily outnumbered and its leadership less certain than in the past. While James Longstreet ably commanded the First Corps, Richard S. Ewell and A. P. Hill, promoted to head the Second and Third corps respectively, were not as reliable. Lee hoped to offset these disadvantages by ensnaring Grant in the brambles of the Wilderness. He was assisted by James Wilson's Union cavalry, which did not properly picket the roads. As morning dawned on May 5, Grant's men had no idea that the Army of Northern Virginia was waiting to pounce.
When Warren's men finally attacked about one o'clock, they marched across Saunders Field, Higgerson Field just to the south, and the woods in between. Griffin's men fared particularly well at Saunders Field, but the Confederate position overlapped the Union right, and Ewell's reserves had a habit of showing up at the right place and at the right time. Griffin needed reinforcements and was not receiving them. Frustrated, he stormed to the rear, where he found Meade and erupted into a rant witnessed by Grant. ("The air was full of God-damns," the historian Shelby Foote has written in one of many embellishments of this famous incident.) Not quite catching Griffin's name, Grant proclaimed, "Who is this General Gregg? You ought to arrest him!" Meade calmly responded, "It's Griffin, not Gregg, and it's only his way of talking." (Griffin was a popular Regular Army veteran whose classmates at West Point had included Confederate generals Hill and Henry Heth and Union general Burnside.)
Longstreet, meanwhile, was to the south and out of the fight, his men positioned along the Catharpin Road. Lee ordered him to march to Hill's rescue and counterattack. Expecting reinforcements to arrive in the morning, Hill told his men to rest rather than dig entrenchments or straighten their lines. When Hancock renewed his attack at five o'clock on the morning of May 6, however, Longstreet had still not arrived. Hill's men collapsed. Only sixteen artillery pieces under William T. Poague—a Rockbridge County native who would later serve as treasurer of the Virginia Military Institute—managed to hold back the flood of Hancock's men until, at around seven o'clock, Texans under Confederate general John Gregg suddenly appeared.
While the fighting raged around Widow Tapp's Field, the Confederates discovered an unfinished railroad bed running south of and parallel to the Orange Plank Road and determined that it would offer them the cover they needed to advance beyond Hancock's left flank. Lee and Longstreet reacted immediately, sending a column, under the command of Longstreet's staff officer Gilbert Moxley Sorrel, down the corridor. At about eleven o'clock, Confederates emerged from the cut, rolling up the Union flank. Though demoralized, the Union soldiers managed to regroup behind earthworks that ran along the Brock Road.
In an effort to press the attack, Longstreet accompanied fresh troops advancing toward the Brock Road line. The air was dark with smoke from a number of small forest fires, and sight lines were further hampered by the dense brush of the Wilderness. As the general approached Confederate units preparing to join the assault, including a brigade of Virginians commanded by William Mahone, shots rang out. Confederate general Micah Jenkins, a staff officer, and a courier were all killed. Rounds slammed into Longstreet's right arm and neck, lifting the burly South Carolinian out of his saddle. As Longstreet put it in his memoir, "the flow of blood admonished me that my work for the day was done."
At dusk, Confederate general John B. Gordon, of Ewell's corps, attacked Sedgwick's Sixth Corps on the right end of the Union line, briefly breaking through and capturing hundreds of prisoners, including two Union generals. Ewell had been aware of the vulnerability earlier in the day, but had prevaricated. Now it was too late to push the advantage. This moment became the subject of much controversy after the war, with former Confederates using Ewell to deflect blame away from Lee. (Much the same happened to Ewell based on his decision not to attack Culp's Hill on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.)
The three days of fighting, meanwhile, revealed deep flaws in the command structure of the Army of Northern Virginia. A. P. Hill had erred when he failed to improve his lines on the night of May 5, while his recurring illness, which dated back to his West Point days and flared up during times of stress, incapacitated him for portions of the battle. Ewell, too, performed poorly, particularly on May 6. And Longstreet, Lee's ablest subordinate, would take five months to recuperate and return to the army.
And what Grant did, instead of retreating as the Army of the Potomac had always done in the past, was march south. When the troops realized what was happening, they wildly and spontaneously cheered Grant. The Northern press followed suit, praising the general-in-chief's determination to confront Lee. The bloody reward of that determination—Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor, when Northern morale would be most sorely tested and Grant would be catcalled a "butcher"—was yet to come.
May 6, 1864, 4 p.m. - Confederate general James Longstreet's troops attack Union positions on the Brock Road during the Battle of the Wilderness.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: January 21, 2010 | Last modified: November 26, 2013