Battle of the Wilderness
BY NOAH ANDRE TRUDEAU
The great spring campaign of 1864 was about to get underway. For weeks Confederate General Robert E. Lee had watched the Union forces camped to the north of the Rapidan River grow in size and confidence. On May 2, 1864, he met with his senior officers atop Clark’s Mountain, a high point just south of the Rapidan River and the location of one of his best observation posts and signal stations. A staff officer, Major Jedediah Hotchkiss, later wrote that Lee had ‘concluded from the bustle in the Federal camps that an early movement was in contemplation.’ Hotchkiss also credited Lee with accurately predicting the exact points where Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac would cross the river. While Lee may have pinpointed the Federal crossings, little he did during the ensuing Battle of the Wilderness indicated he fully understood his enemy’s intentions.
The next day, May 3, Lee telegraphed his assessment of the situation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond. After ticking off the reported movements of Union forces as close as Virginia and as far away as Florida, Lee cautioned Davis to ‘look to see them operating against Richmond, and make…preparations accordingly.’ During the night of May 3 Lee was disturbed by reports from Clark’s Mountain that the Union army had begun to move. A query to the signal station brought back word that it was too dark to determine the precise direction of the Yankee movement. The officer in charge was told to report the enemy’s direction as soon as it was light. Lee ordered Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s II Corps to be ready to march at dawn.
More information continued to arrive during the pre-dawn hours of May 4 as Lee pondered a critical question–which way was the Union army coming at him? Would the Federals feint to the east and then bring the weight of their strength against Lee’s western flank? Was it more probable that the Union host would shift to the east and either cross the Rapidan River near Chancellorsville or the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg? Detachments of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry were spread along the Rapidan at every major ford to spot any crossings and gather intelligence about the composition of the forces involved. Reports began trickling in throughout the early morning hours.
The weather was clear on May 4, and Lee’s spotting stations had no trouble gauging the direction of the enemy’s march. At 9:30 a.m. came word that the Federals seemed to be moving to the right and heading for Germanna Ford and Ely’s Ford. Although Lee had correctly guessed the locations of the crossings and had been positively informed of the Northern march routes, it was not until midday that he became convinced the Union columns were definitely moving to his right. Only after making that determination did he allow his own various army corps to begin their marches. Orders went out to Ewell (whose men had been standing ready since dawn) to move his 17,000 men east along the Orange Turnpike. At the same time, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill was told to march his III Corps, some 22,000 strong, east from the Orange Court House area. Deciding to play it safe, Lee ordered Hill to leave one of his divisions, under Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson, to watch the river–just in case the enemy tried to slip behind him.
Lee’s remaining infantry corps, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s I Corps, had been serving in the Western theater and had only returned in late April. Minus a division on detached duty, the I Corps numbered 10,000 men. It was camped around Gordonsville, 10 miles southwest of Orange Court House. Lee’s operative plan anticipated the three corps forming a continuous north-south line, and Longstreet’s route was designed to bring his men up on Hill’s right flank, even as Hill himself took station off Ewell’s right.
Not long after midday, Lee broke camp and rode eastward with his staff, finally stopping at New Verdiersville about 6 p.m. Soon after setting up his headquarters in a small woods near the house of a family named Rhodes, Lee sent off another note to Davis suggesting that he still had not figured out the enemy’s intentions. ‘You will already have learned that the army of Genl Meade is in motion, and is crossing the Rapidan on our right,’ Lee wrote, ‘whether with the intention of [turning toward us and] attacking, or moving [away from us] toward Fredericksburg, I am not able to say.’ It was the disposition of his own forces that commanded Lee’s immediate attention.
Ewell’s corps, which had started the day’s march closest to where the enemy was crossing the Rapidan and had a less winding road to follow, would make first contact. Lee called upon his assistant adjutant general, Lt. Col. Walter Taylor, and briefed him about orders for Ewell. Taylor then set down Lee’s comments in a note he sent off to the II Corps commander at 8 p.m. ‘General Lee,’ Taylor told Ewell, ‘wishes you to be ready to move on early in the morning.’ If morning found the enemy moving toward Fredericksburg, Ewell was ‘to push on after him.’ If, on the other hand, the Yankees were there to fight and were moving toward Ewell’s men, Lee wanted Ewell to take up a defensive position along Mine Run–the same position they had successfully held against another Union movement the previous November.
Curiously, Lee omitted two obvious scenarios from his briefing, or perhaps Taylor simply neglected to include them. What if the Federals were taking up a defensive line of their own? What if they were moving south instead of east or west? By not mentioning what he wanted Ewell to do under those circumstances, Lee in effect limited Ewell to his general statement of purpose, which was ‘to bring [the enemy] to battle as soon now as possible.’ With this purposeful if vague phrasing, Lee opened the door to a series of events that would bring his forces to the brink of disaster the next day in the fast-developing Battle of the Wilderness.
Lee did not get much sleep that night. Each hour brought another courier with new bits of information that had to be weighed and evaluated. Lacking sufficient staff to handle the work, it fell to the army commander to process the confusing odds and ends. Around midnight a rider brought a message from Stuart stating the enemy’s main body lay near Wilderness Tavern. Lee realized by the early hours of May 5 that the Federals had marched into the Wilderness and suddenly stopped. He also knew that they were grouped into two large columns, one crossing by way of Germanna Ford, the other farther to the east via Ely’s Ford.
The numbers did not favor Lee. Counting the two divisions of Hill’s corps and the three in Ewell’s, there were five Confederate infantry divisions on hand to face perhaps four Federal corps. While Lee may have hoped to strike the enemy quickly, those aspirations were tempered by the knowledge that the earliest Longstreet’s corps could arrive on the scene would be late on May 5. Confrontation–not combat–became Lee’s watchword. A year earlier, at the Battle of Chancellorsville, he had fixed the enemy in place with two divisions and crushed their flank with three others. To enact a similar plan against Meade’s troops, he had five divisions to locate and hold the Federals in place while Longstreet’s divisions were being hustled up to deliver the flanking blow.
While Lee finished his pre-dawn breakfast, the Confederate columns resumed their march, Ewell’s men following the Orange Turnpike, Hill’s sidling off to the Orange Plank Road. Lee saddled up his horse Traveller, and decided to join Hill’s column.
Lee’s decision to ride with Hill instead of Ewell likely stemmed from several reasons. One was Hill’s unpredictability. The veteran officer suffered from various real and imaginary ailments and could not always be counted upon to exercise firm control of his troops. Then, too, Lee expected Hill to link up with Longstreet’s turning force. The junction of the two corps was critical, and the commanding general could keep a closer eye on this union by traveling with Hill’s veterans.
When Hill’s soldiers reached the weathered but still serviceable earthworks that stretched north to south along the course of Mine Run, the files likely slowed in anticipation of taking up the positions. But no order to halt was given. Instead, the columns continued to press toward the east. Realizing Lee’s intention to strike the enemy, the men sent up a rolling cheer. Some were heard to call out, ‘Marse Bob is going for them this time.’
No solid contact with the Federals had occurred when, around 6:30 a.m., Ewell’s aide, Major Campbell Brown, reported to Lee that Ewell had met token resistance and intended (per his understanding of Lee’s instructions) to ‘push on until he found them in force.’ Lee now changed his mind. Suddenly worried that his two increasingly divergent infantry corps could not support each other, he did not want Ewell barreling into a fight.
Lee gave Brown fresh instructions that significantly modified those of the previous evening. Lee was emphatic that he ‘did not want a general engagement brought on until Longstreet could come up, which would hardly be before night.’ Furthermore, Lee wanted to be certain that Ewell did not ‘get his troops entangled so as to be unable to disengage them.’ Behind this decision was the fact that Lee was still unclear as to the location and purpose of the enemy.
Lee continued on with Hill, the two generals riding near the head of the column. At least a full brigade of infantry, plus cavalry squads, screened the command party. Two miles west of Parker’s Store the advance elements ran into a Union cavalry force aggressively probing toward Mine Run.
The first encounters with the Union cavalry took place between 6:30 and 7 a.m. The horsemen, though outnumbered, succeeded in delaying the approaching Rebel columns. After a time-consuming deployment, one of Hill’s brigades finally shoved the stubborn troopers back two miles to Parker’s Store, where the open ground made it impossible for the cavalrymen to make a stand. Lee reached Parker’s Store sometime after 8 a.m. There, the officers could hear a deeper rumble of continuous firing farther south, where one of Stuart’s brigades was covering the Catharpin Road, which led east to Todd’s Tavern.
At Parker’s Store, Hill’s men entered the outer limits of the Wilderness, a densely forested region choked with underbrush and stunted trees that encroached on both sides of the narrow road, further slowing down the column, which could move only as fast as its flanking parties. Another three hours passed before Hill’s cautiously advancing columns, still pushing the Yankee cavalry, overran another open area around a farm known locally as the Widow Tapp’s. Here Lee pondered his situation. His biggest worry at the moment was establishing a firm connection between Hill and Ewell.
The message that Ewell’s chief of staff, Lt. Col. Alexander ‘Sandie’ Pendleton, brought to Lee shortly after noon could not have been comforting to the commander. The II Corps was taking up a line of battle along what Ewell termed ‘a commanding ridge’ on the western side of an open area called Saunders’ Field. Ewell also reported that the Federal force confronting him was growing in size. To make matters worse, at about 11 a.m. he observed a column of Union troops heading south across the Orange Turnpike. This would put them on course to enter the gap that yawned between Ewell and Hill. Lee told Pendleton that he preferred that Ewell not bring on a general engagement before Longstreet came up.
After making a sweep of the Tapp farm area, Hill’s advance elements disappeared into the gloom of the Wilderness as they continued to press the Union troopers. Lee dismounted and sat with Hill under a shade tree to discuss the developing situation. Not long after they began talking, Stuart checked in with news about the fighting along the Catharpin Road. The officers were deeply engrossed in their discussion when, without warning, a line of Union skirmishers eased out of the woods, stepping into the sunlit fields not 200 yards away.
Stuart stood up and stared at the Federals, but Hill did not move. Lee walked without panic toward the Orange Plank Road, calling for a staff officer, Walter Taylor. He reached his horse and mounted, which seemed to be the signal for everyone else to climb onto their horses, (save Hill, who wasted little time scooting for cover on foot). Startled by the flurry of activity, the Federals hurriedly withdrew back into the dense woods.
Closer at hand, Hill’s slow progress down the Orange Plank Road had stopped. The stubborn Union cavalrymen had been replaced by infantry of the Federal VI Corps. To underscore the increasingly tense situation, Hill’s artillerymen began to set up battery positions on a north-south line along a rise in Widow Tapp’s clearing.
Another emissary from Ewell arrived, bringing news indicating no change in the tactical situation at Saunders’ Field. The message from Ewell also confirmed his intention to pull back to the Mine Run entrenchments and dig in if he was attacked. Lee did not like the sound of Ewell’s plans and realized Pendleton had not properly explained the new orders to his commander. Lee explained that the corps was to fall back to Mine Run only in the event it could not hold its position–an important clarification. Not long after the messenger disappeared, heavy firing was heard from Ewell’s direction.
For the next hour and a half, there was little for Lee to do but listen to the sound of fighting on Ewell’s front and watch the slow deployment of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division of Hill’s corps in the woods along the eastern edge of Widow Tapp’s fields. Hasty, fragmentary reports from Ewell were difficult to piece into a coherent picture. Finally, with the firing showing no signs of letting up, Lee imposed himself on Hill to direct that his other available division, Maj. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s, be shifted north to connect with Ewell. This took place between 2:30 and 3 p.m.
According to Wilcox, the move through the dense woods was slow for the first half-mile. Then his leading regiment surprised and captured an enemy party, included several officers. At the same time Wilcox was wedging his way northward through the shadows of the Wilderness, Lee decided that it would be wise for Heth’s men to possess the Brock Road crossing, which lay about a mile east of the Tapp farm. He sent a staff officer to Heth with instructions to occupy the intersection if it could be done without bringing on a general engagement. Heth in turn sent back word that the enemy was posted in strong force and he did not know if he could take the position. The nervous officer asked Lee for a pre-emptive command to advance, which Lee declined to provide.
Not long after 3 p.m., the firing on Ewell’s front subsided into sporadic shooting, indicating that he was holding his own. Given Lee’s desire to probe the enemy but not bring on a general engagement, that was good news. Lee was content to let Heth’s men settle into their positions across the Orange Plank Road without further provoking a response, but he had not counted on the Federals’ changing the picture. At approximately 4:30 p.m., Union troops violently attacked Heth’s lines. Lee was not expecting the Northern surge, and he immediately issued orders recalling Wilcox’s division.
The Federal attacks roaring westward along the Orange Plank Road consisted of elements of the II and VI corps, joined at the end of the day by portions of the V Corps, under the overall coordination of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. Problems inherent in deploying so many men in the dense underbrush, along with the fierce defense mounted by Heth’s men, ended the Federal attack at dusk, just short of a decisive breakthrough. The fighting sputtered out around 9 p.m.
Meanwhile, Lee dictated two messages for Ewell. The first, at 6 p.m., noted that the ‘enemy have made no headway in their attack [against Hill].’ Lee had previously expected Longstreet’s arrival late on May 5, but now he told Ewell that he was hoping to have the I Corps on hand the following morning. Lee went on to sketch a plan that had echoes of the second day at Gettysburg. If Ewell believed there was no chance to operate against the enemy’s right flank, Lee proposed to crush their left, in which case the II Corps commander should be prepared to reinforce the Confederate right.
In a message following an hour later, Lee reiterated the previous note. ‘The enemy persist in their attack,’ said the dispatch, ‘and we hold our own as yet.’ The size of the enemy buildup against Hill gave Lee cause to hope that the Federals had weakened their right to reinforce their left. If such was the case, Ewell should advance and occupy the high ground near Wilderness Tavern in order to cut off the enemy from the river. If not, Lee repeated, ‘You [must] be ready to support our right.’
Ewell’s reply arrived about the time the firing ended. He had taken some hard knocks from two enemy corps, which, he was proud to proclaim, his men had bested. Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps ‘were very roughly handled’ and Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI ‘repulsed…handsomely.’ His own losses were not large, and his men had entrenched the whole line and could hold it. ‘If I attack at daylight (on which point I ask your views),’ Ewell continued, hedging his bets, ‘I will attack Sedgwick.’
At 11 p.m., the Army of Northern Virginia commander sent a message to Secretary of War James Seddon in Richmond summarizing the day’s bloody events. ‘The enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday at Ely’s and Germanna Fords,’ Lee wrote. ‘Two (2) corps of this army moved to oppose him. Ewell’s by the old turnpike, & 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 & four (4) pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon Genl Hill, who, with Heth’s & Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated & desperate assaults. A large force of cavalry & artillery on our right flank was driven back by [Brig. Gen. Thomas] 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 & men.’
The message suggested that Lee believed Grant was actually shifting troops from one flank to another. That movement was taking place to a small degree, but most of the Federals who had fought Ewell throughout the day were still in place as night fell, while the bulk of those who had attacked Hill had been positioned on that flank all the time. No hint was given regarding Lee’s plans for May 6, likely in case the message was captured or intercepted, nor was there any mention of Longstreet.
In fact, Lee had been thinking often of Longstreet. Shortly before he sent off his 6 p.m. dispatch to Ewell, Lee changed Longstreet’s orders. Instead of swinging into line alongside Hill, the I Corps was to march in support of Hill. Lee chose his aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Charles Venable, to deliver the important message, and the young officer dashed off to find Longstreet’s much-awaited soldiers. The fighting along the Brock Road was not entirely over when Venable returned. The aide reported that Longstreet had received the message and by way of reply had made it clear that his troops would be up in the morning when Lee needed them.
Lee apparently felt that Venable had failed to transmit a proper sense of urgency. He turned to Stuart, who promised that he would see to it that Longstreet was given a clear picture of the army’s perilous condition. Stuart delegated the task to his chief of staff, Major Henry B. McClellan, who set off at once.
When McClellan returned shortly after 10 p.m., it was not with the news that Lee wanted. McClellan had gone as far as Longstreet’s leading division and only spoken to its commander. The infantrymen were in bivouac, and the officer told McClellan that Longstreet’s orders (which he was not going to override on the unsupported word of a young cavalryman unknown to him) were to resume the march at 1 a.m.
Still not convinced that Longstreet fully appreciated how bad things were along the Orange Plank Road, Lee rustled up another courier, Catlett C. Taliaferro, and directed him to locate Longstreet ‘and urge him to use the utmost diligence in coming to his assistance.’ It was well past midnight before Taliaferro returned with a reply from Longstreet promising Lee that his men would ‘be with him at daylight and [ready to] do anything he wants done.’ Lee immediately sent the courier back to reiterate that Longstreet must 'strain every nerve to reach our lines before day.’
The net result of all this was that Lee was only able to catnap sporadically throughout the night. He worked steadily past 11 p.m., assessing field returns and generating his report to Richmond. The next few hours witnessed constant interruptions as first McClellan and then Taliaferro shuttled messages to and from Longstreet. There was also a visit from Wilcox and sessions with Hill. All in all, it was a long, wearying night filled with work and tension. Lee had now gone several days without adequate rest. The general surely felt taxed and worn, and perhaps that helps explain Lee’s utter failure to ready and consolidate Hill’s spread-out divisions for what he must have suspected the morning would bring.
At 5 a.m., with pile-driver force, units from the Union II, V and VI corps smashed into Hill’s zigzag lines. Once again the weary, outnumbered Confederates were magnificent in defense, but it was a losing proposition. To their repeated calls for assistance, Lee sent back an urgent appeal that they hold on until Longstreet arrived.
Showing the strain of the situation and successive sleep-deprived nights, Lee untypically lost his composure. At one point he spotted Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan moving back with the sluggish ebb tide. He rode over and gave the brigadier what amounted to a tongue-lashing, comparing the condition of McGowan’s veteran regiments to ‘a flock of geese.’ Spurred by Lee’s anger, McGowan immediately began to reform his brigade. The batteries the Confederates had spread along the western edge of the Tapp fields as a last resort also began to open fire, belching canister rounds eastward.
When Wilcox showed up to report the sorry state of his command, Lee sent him off to find help. ‘Longstreet must be here,’ Lee exclaimed. ‘Go bring him up.’ Meanwhile, enemy bullets were beginning to spatter against the artillery pits where Lee was giving directions and assisting Hill in rallying and reforming his troops. Walter Taylor never forgot the sight of Lee ‘dashing among the fugitives, [and who] personally called upon the men to rally.’ A staff officer present heard Lee ask no one in particular, ‘Why does not Longstreet come?’ His question was answered as a tightly massed column of fresh troops appeared on the Orange Plank Road.
Although Longstreet had deployed most of his arriving brigades along the south side of the Orange Plank Road, it was the leading unit north of it that Lee initially spotted. Even though the troops of the Texas Brigade (which also included Arkansans) had fought with Lee in many previous battles, their commander, Brig. Gen. John Gregg, was unknown to him. ‘General,’ Lee called out to the unidentified officer, ‘what brigade is this?’ ‘The Texas brigade,’ came the reply.
Knowing that the men were heading into a maelstrom where only dash and courage would carry the day, Lee next provided a bit of theater and inspiration. ‘I am glad to see it,’ he called out loudly enough for everyone nearby to hear him. ‘When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel–they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.’ He continued: ‘The Texas brigade always has driven the enemy, and I want them to do it now. And tell them, General, that they will fight today under my eye–I will watch their conduct. I want every man of them to know I am here with them.’ As the battle lines surged around and past him, Lee, in the grip of great emotion, cried out, ‘Texans always move them!’ A courier in the Texas ranks turned to a comrade and with tears coursing down his cheeks, exclaimed, ‘I would charge hell itself for that old man!’
As the 800 members of the Texas Brigade moved across the Widow Tapp’s fields, Lee rode with them. By the time the leading ranks had reached the middle of the clearing it became apparent that he intended to remain with them. ‘Go back, General Lee. Go back!’ came the cry. In the recollection of one onlooker, ‘Five or six of his staff would gather around him, seize him, his arms, his horse’s reins, but he shook them off and moved forward.’ Venable, who was also present, recalled that the ‘gallant General Gregg… turning his horse toward General Lee remonstrated with him.’ Lee eventually took Gregg’s hint and began to fall back while, fired by Lee’s inspiration, Gregg’s 800 soldiers charged into a Union meat grinder that killed or wounded all but 250 of them. The Texans and Arkansans gave their bodies to slow the Northern onslaught. The Union troops broke their own momentum to stop and gun down Gregg’s men.
Coming up to support Gregg was Brig. Gen. Evander Law’s Alabama Brigade. One of Law’s men later recollected seeing Lee and thinking that he ‘appeared to be very much perturbed over his misfortune and [it was] the only time I ever saw him excited.’ Lee repeated the scene with the Texas Brigade when told who the new troops were, crying, ‘God bless the Alabamians. Alabama soldiers, all I ask of you is to keep up with the Texans.’ Once more Lee’s fabled charisma was working. ‘It was impossible not to feel that every man that passed him was, for the time being, a hero,’ wrote an officer on the scene. An unabashed Lee admirer in the Alabama ranks thought the general ‘looked as though he ought to have been and was the monarch of the world.’
Longstreet’s powerful counterattack began around 6 a.m. For the next two hours brutal fighting raged in the Wilderness, with neither side gaining an advantage, but the seemingly irresistible momentum of Hancock’s attack had been checked. There was more good news coming to Lee. Starting around 8 a.m., the first files of Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps began to arrive. Recognizing that the principal action was taking place along the Orange Plank Road–now covered by the I Corps–Lee instructed Anderson to report to Longstreet for orders.
Lee seemed content to let Longstreet run the show. When word came from Hill that he needed one of Anderson’s brigades to help him stop an enemy effort to thrust between him and Ewell, Lee told the messenger, ‘Well, let’s see General Longstreet about it.’ Between 8 and 10 a.m., as the last spasms of fighting flared along the Orange Plank Road, Longstreet learned of an opportunity to use an unfinished railroad cut as a concealed avenue of approach to flank the enemy in front. He moved at once to take advantage of the opportunity.
By this time, Lee had recovered his customary composure and displayed none of the excitement he had exhibited when the enemy had broken through Hill’s lines. When a courier galloped up atop a hard-ridden, foam-flaked animal, Lee chastised the soldier, ‘Young man, you should have some feeling for your horse.’ When another of Hill’s officers appeared with a situation report, Lee quizzed him closely.
At least one bit of information seemed to bring Lee a certain peace of mind. Contact had been made by Hill’s men with Ewell’s, so for the first time in the engagement Lee had a continuous battleline running from the Orange Turnpike to the Orange Plank Road.
Lee’s decision to move Hill north of the Orange Plank Road kept him one step ahead of the Federals, who had tried and failed to exploit the gap with a portion of the IX Corps. With that hole plugged, the way was now clear for Longstreet to carry out his flank attack. That action, involving four brigades led by Longstreet’s assistant adjutant general, Lt. Col. G. Moxley Sorrel, got rolling about 11 a.m. It achieved the tactical surprise its organizers had hoped for and, in Hancock’s own words, began to roll up the Union battle lines like a wet blanket.
Once he was confident that the flank attack was well under way, Sorrel rode back along the Orange Plank Road to find Longstreet. Lee was with Longstreet as he passed around congratulations and, accompanied by staff and other officers, began riding toward the fighting. Lee intended to accompany the party but lingered behind to direct the clearing of the road to allow artillery to come forward. That delay was providential. In the swirling confusion of the battle, Longstreet’s group was mistaken for Federal cavalry and swiftly fired upon. Longstreet was felled by a serious wound in the neck.
Lee remained in place once the firing erupted. After a few minutes an ambulance rattled past and then returned bearing the stricken I Corps commander. An English observer, Francis Dawson, never forgot ‘the sadness in [Lee's] face, and the almost despairing movement of his hands, when he was told that Longstreet had fallen.’
Sorrel came up next with his report for Lee. Before he had been put into the ambulance, Longstreet had instructed the staff officer to tell Maj. Gen. Charles Field, next in command, to resume the drive to the Brock Road as quickly as possible. Sorrel found Lee ‘greatly concerned by the wounding of Longstreet and his loss to the army. He was most minute in his inquiries and was pleased to praise the handling of the flank attack. Longstreet’s message was given, but the General was not in sufficient touch with the actual positions of the troops to proceed with it as our fallen chief would have been able to do; at least, I received that impression, because activity came to a stop for the moment.’
Field, who now labored to bring some order to the various brigades scrambled together along the Orange Plank Road, got help from Lee, who remained near him, giving verbal directions. There was no thought of assuming any defensive position. Lee remained fixed on his intention, stated earlier to Ewell, to crush the enemy’s left.
The regrouping of Longstreet’s tangled striking force took several hours. Fortunately for Lee, the Federals seemed in no condition to spoil things by counterattacking. In fact, all their energies were directed at improving a crude defensive line that had been scratched out along the Brock Road. During the lull, sometime between 2 and 3 p.m., Lee rode north to meet with Ewell.
The meeting sparked controversy after the war, stemming from the writings of one of Ewell’s subordinate officers, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon. Early in the day, the capable and aggressive Gordon had spotted a glaring weakness in the Federal position north of the Orange Turnpike–the right flank of the Union line was in the air and vulnerable to a turning movement. Throughout the late morning and early afternoon Gordon had tried without success to convince Ewell that great opportunity beckoned to hammer the Union right.
The II Corps commander, worried about other threats to his troops, was unreceptive to Gordon’s entreaties. According to Gordon, it wasn’t until Lee showed up and overrode Ewell by approving Gordon’s bold flanking plan that the enterprise was allowed to proceed.
It is not known exactly what Lee said to Ewell, but not long after the meeting the II Corps commander gave Gordon the approval to begin the attack he had been seeking. It took until nearly dusk, however, for the flank attack to begin. While initially successful, it inflicted no serious damage on the Union army. (After the war in a conversation with William Preston Johnston, Lee was quoted as saying that ‘Ewell showed vacillation [at the Wilderness] that prevented him from getting all out of his troops he might.’)
Well before 4 p.m., Lee was back near the Orange Plank Road, where the follow-up attack was at last ready. Nearly four hours had passed since Longstreet’s wounding, and in that time the enemy had been left relatively unchallenged. Nothing Lee had seen in the performance of the Federal troops in two days of fighting suggested that the soldiers were of poor caliber or that their leadership was inept. Yet for reasons never explained, Lee had no second thoughts about ordering the troops massed on either side of the Orange Plank Road to assault Hancock’s firmly entrenched line.
The Southern push along the Orange Plank Road began shortly before 5 p.m. and matched valiant offense against determined defense. The Federals, behind earthworks and backed by cannons, had the odds in their favor, and despite a few scary moments they held on. After the attack failed, Lee rode glumly back to his headquarters at the Tapp house.
Upon reaching his tent, Lee immediately wrote a report of the day’s action. The message sent to Richmond was another masterful Lee exercise in terseness and positive spin: ‘Early this morning as the divisions of General Hill, engaged yesterday, were being relieved, the enemy advanced and created some confusion. The ground lost was recovered as soon as the fresh troops got into position and the enemy driven back to his original line. Afterward we turned the left of his front line and drove it from the field, leaving a large number of dead and wounded in our hands….A subsequent attack forced the enemy into his entrenched lines on the Brock road….Every advance on his part, thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed. Our loss in killed is not large, but we have many wounded; most of them slightly, artillery being little used on either side. I grieve to announce that Lieutenant-General Longstreet was severely wounded.’
More by instinct than actual order, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia strengthened its lines during the night. The next time the enemy came at them, the Southern soldiers would be ready–those who were left standing, that is. As many as one out of six soldiers who marched into the Wilderness wearing gray was either wounded, killed or missing by nightfall on May 6–a staggering 8,000 men in all.
In the cold equations of warfare, the Battle of the Wilderness bore mixed results for the Confederacy. An enemy army, superior in numbers of men and artillery, had tried and failed to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to bay. Yet, while more than holding his own, Lee had not been able to turn Meade’s force from its course. The leadership exercised by Lee was also mixed. Other than giving direction to the full and partial corps that were struck by the enemy on May 5, Lee had little tactical control over the combat. Thanks to Ewell’s adroit shifting of resources and the nullifying effects of the Wilderness on Hancock’s late-afternoon attack against Hill, the Confederate army barely managed to survive a bad day.
The record for May 6 was not much better. Lee’s failure to better prepare Hill’s men for Hancock’s dawn attack nearly began the day with a disastrous rout. After Longstreet’s wounding, Lee’s insistence on a late-afternoon assault along the Orange Plank Road resulted in the loss of thousands of valuable men. The Wilderness had triumphed over Lee on those two days. In the gloomy, smoke-filled forests, not even Robert E. Lee had been able to pierce the fog of war.
Each of these battles is a piece in the puzzle of the larger strategies that characterized the final year of the war. But if we don’t act swiftly...