The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam

CHAPTER XIII.
THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN.

THE region of the conflict between North and South, in the Spring of 1864, which has passed into history as that of the Wilderness Campaign, is the locality in Virginia south of the Rapidan, thickly set with scrub oak and dense pine, growing on a soil composed of sand and clay unsuited to agriculture, interspersed with swamps and dense underbrush unfavorable to military operations. The section of country was more or less known to the Confederates, as here, a year or so earlier, Lee had greatly harassed Hooker and subjected him to defeat. Included in the actions in the Wilderness are those that followed the battles in the desolate region, viz., those around Spottsylvania and on the banks of the North Anna, with the second battle of Cold Harbor—a month of fighting that brought its pitiful tale of loss to both combatants, but especially to the Federal troops, whose casualties alone amounted to over 50,000, in killed, wounded, and missing. To Grant, with his known resolute character, doggedness, and military capacity of holding on and wearing down his opponent’s force by mere attrition, was, as we have seen, given supreme command of the Army of the Potomac. On his reaching Meade and reorganizing the latter’s army, Grant’s design was to cross the Rapidan and move upon the Confederates at the earliest moment, his objective point being the “rebel” capital, together with the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia. Besides General Meade, and General Burnside, whose separate command, which had just been organized at Annapolis, was now added to the strength of the Army of the Potomac, Grant had at his disposal the services of other general officers of tried ability—Hancock, Warren, and Sedgwick, with Sheridan in command of the Federal cavalry. Other contemporary movements included the despatch of a column under Major-General Ben. Butler, to ascend the James River and cut the Confederate communications with Richmond, and, if possible, capture Petersburg. Other simultaneous movements were those under Generals Sigel and Crooks, to operate in the Kenawha and Shenandoah valleys, destroy the Central Railroad and the Virginia and Tennessee R.R., and prevent rebel supplies from reaching Lee and his army from the region round Southern Virginia. Unity of action, in this common scheme for the overthrow of the South, included the despatch of General W. T. Sherman (who had been in command of the Military Division of the Mississippi), on his renowned March through Georgia, where he had General J. E. Johnston and J. B. Hood successively to contend against, and where he won the battles of Dalton, Resaca, Kenesaw Moimtain, occupied Atlanta, and then set out on his famous “march to the sea.”

By this time the two great captains of the North and South were to manifest their strategical skill and test the mettle of their respective commands in the Wilderness labyrinths. The movement began, on May 4th (1864), by Grant throwing his right wing across the Rapidan, where Lee’s army was on the alert to receive him, and where its chief was eager to draw him into the heart of the Wilderness, and there seek to bring on a general engagement. In this, Lee succeeded but too well, as Grant was soon to learn, when he found himself enmeshed in Nature’s entanglements in the region. Moving his left wing forward on the road towards Chancellorsville, Grant now sought to flank Lee, and, by gaining Gordonsville, to fall upon the Southern rear. For the incidents of the fighting that ensued in the Wilderness thickets, we cannot do better, for the reader’s information, than draw upon the intelligent narrative furnished in the [“]Werner Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica” (See Vol. V., pp. 551–2, which we have the Publisher’s kind permission to quote). There, the writer of the article on [“]The Wilderness Campaign” remarks that:

Lee was fully aware of the advantages of the Wilderness for defensive operations, and resolved, if possible, to bring on a general engagement in the midst of the thicket. Two lines of advance running nearly due east and west, and parallel to each other, were open to Lee, and along these roads, on the morning of the 5th (of May), he promptly advanced, Ewell’s division taking the turnpike (or northerly) road, while Hill’s division advanced along the plank-road (the southerly thoroughfare). Longstreet’s division was, during the first day’s battle, left at Gordonsville to cover Lee’s rear, and did not come up in time to take part in the first of the fighting. Burnside’s command in the Northern army was also too late in arriving to take part in the first day’s fighting, he having been left on the Rappahannock to cover the rear of the Federal army. When the Union forces first struck the Confederates, they supposed it to be merely a rear-guard which they had encountered, and that the army of Lee was in retreat. But they were soon convinced that they had made a mistake, and in a few moments the fighting was sharp and results bloody. The attack was begun by the advance of Ayres’s and Bartlett’s brigades, which were sent to the right and left of the turnpike road to disperse whatever force might be found there. The Confederates were driven back; but the situation was soon changed by the quick advance of Stuart’s cavalry brigade of Confederates, and shortly afterward by the arrival of Rhodes’s division, and their attack on the Federal troops.

The effort to support Ayres and Bartlett proved abortive, as the thickets were so dense that before aid could arrive they had been driven back in confusion. On the whole, the fighting at this point was very disastrous for the Federals, McCandless’s brigade alone losing two full regiments in its effort to escape from its entangled position on the right of the Federal advance column. So far, the Union army had lost three thousand men, besides several guns, while the Confederates retained possession of the contested ground. A little after one o’clock the Sixth corps, which had been sent to the aid of the Fifth, was struck by Ewell. The Confederates were at first repulsed, but a terrific charge by Rhodes’s men drove the Federals back, the Confederates being afterward, in turn, forced back. When the fight for the day was over, the Union troops were in possession of the disputed ground. Meantime, General Grant had the conviction carried home to him that General Lee meant to fight him in this tangle of thickets, and he now began to make his preparations for such a contingency. He ordered Hancock to the assistance of Getty, who was holding the junction of the Brock road, which runs at right angles with the turnpike. Soon after Hancock arrived here he was ordered to attack and drive back Hill, but this he failed to do, the men fighting at close quarters, and at night each army drinking from the same “branch,” or brooklet, so close were their positions to each other. This ended the first day’s fighting in the Wilderness.

Early the next day the fighting was resumed, Lee commencing the attack at about 4:30 a.m. In the meantime, Burnside and Longstreet had come up to their respective armies, and the lines of battle of both were now fully formed. Grant’s line extended over a frontage of five and a half miles—from Todd’s tavern to Germania Ford, Sedgwick occupying the right, to the left of Sedgwick, in regular succession, being Warren, Burnside, and Hancock. Lee’s army was disposed as it was on the preceding day, with the exception that it was now in three sections, Ewell being on the left. Hill in the center, and Longstreet on the right. Lee began his assault by attacking Sedgwick, but the Confederates were easily repulsed, and Warren and Hancock made an attack on Hill. For a time the troops of Hill gave way, but at the critical moment Anderson’s brigade of Hill’s division was thrown forward, and Longstreet’s troops suddenly coming to the support of Hill’s shattered lines, the tide of battle was turned and Hancock was driven back. At the most critical juncture in the fight. General Longstreet was seriously wounded by his own men, and the loss of time occasioned by the change of officers necessary after this occurrence was fatal to the Confederate success. Before General Lee himself could reach the scene and restore order, the Federals had regained all they had lost by the attack which Longstreet had made. At four o’clock, Lee, in person, led Hill’s and Longstreet’s men to an assault against the enemy, and for a time the Union left was in extreme danger. But a prompt and desperate charge made by Colonel Hoffmann, according to Hancock, was the turning-point of the engagement, and saved the left wing from entire destruction. To add to the horror of the situation, the woods were afire from the burning powder of the guns, and many dead and wounded were consumed by the flames. Nightfall did not cause the fighting to cease, for just at sunset General Lee sent forward a heavy column, led by General Gordon, against the right wing of the Federal army, and threw it into the greatest confusion. Federal reinforcements were hurried up, however, and the total darkness of the night put an end to the fighting of the second day, in which, it was estimated, the Federals had lost at least fifteen thousand men, and the Confederates about ten thousand. The total losses for the two days were about twenty thousand and thirteen thousand, respectively.

On the morning of May 7th it was apparent that General Lee had determined to assume the defensive and let Grant attack him. This Grant at once began by attempting a flank movement, his objective point being Spottsylvania Court House, 13 miles away. The column of the Federal advance along the Brock road was led by Warren’s division, and after considerable delay, occasioned by its own cavalry, which obstructed the road, the Federal advance reached a point two or three miles from the Court House. No serious fighting had taken place, and the Federal commanders were elated with the idea that Lee had probably been unaware of the attempt made to turn his flank; but they were again to be undeceived in a terrible manner. No sooner had the head of the Federal column arrived at the point indicated above than they were met by a terrific fire and forced back, each successive command, as it came up, sharing the same fate. The attempt to turn Lee’s flank had failed, and Grant ordered his army to strengthen its position by entrenchments. All of this and the following day was spent in maneuvers, on both sides, for positions, Lee always barring any southward movement on the part of Grant by throwing his men across the line of march. At last, on the 10th, Grant attacked, and the battle of Spottsylvania Court House took place, after which Grant and Lee began their famous movement to reach Richmond, the one to obtain possession of the Confederate capital, the other to defend it. Lee was successful, and when Grant arrived at Hanover Junction, on May 23d, he found Lee’s army between him and Richmond, in a strong position, already entrenched. The position of Lee’s army was impregnable. Grant knew it would be madness to attempt to turn his position, so after a little desultory skirmishing the same tactics as before were resorted to. Grant withdrawing his forces on the 26th and again attempting to flank Lee. Lee followed Grant’s movements closely, at every turn interposing his army between the Federals and the Confederate capital. Several stands were made by both armies, but on no occasion was a pitched battle fought, until the old battlefields of McClellan’s campaign of two years before were reached. Here the Wilderness Campaign proper ends, as the battle of Cold Harbor has been placed by war-historians in another category. Soon after this battle, the Federal army, having described a semi-circular path around the city of Richmond, was transferred to the south bank of the James River, and the siege of Petersburg, the final act of the great drama, was begun.

No characteristics of the Wilderness stand out with greater prominence than do the heroism and determination exhibited by both armies. Never before had Lee’s ability as a tactician and strategist had greater demands made upon it, and never before had those demands met with a fuller response. An impartial judge would find it hard to award the palm for superiority to either army. On the one hand, the Federal army was at a disadvantage on account of the intricate nature of the country, and on the other, the Confederate forces were largely outnumbered. But, despite all advantages or disadvantages, no men in any circumstances could have done better than did both armies, and the claims of both Lee and Grant to greatness, even had they no other foundation, would find a solid basis in the conduct, by each, of this one campaign. On the battlefields several soldiers’ cemeteries have been established, but thousands were unburied, and lay undisturbed amidst the thicket that once gave back the din of conflict and flamed in lurid brightness with the fire of battle.

After the battles in the Wilderness, Grant, sick of fighting in the tangled forest and of the defensive contest he was obliged there to maintain, ordered Meade to despatch Warren, by a night-march, towards Spottsylvania Court House, with the view of cutting off Lee from his communications with the Confederate capital, and with some idea of forming a junction with Butler on the Jardes River. Ever watchful of his adversary, the Southern leader cleverly anticipated the new Federal movement, and ordered the corps of Ewell and Anderson to proceed thither (to the Court House) by the shortest route. In this, the Confederates won the race for position on the Spottsylvania Ridge, heading off Warren’s command by a more rapid night-march and a better knowledge of the country. At sunrise, on the morning of May 8th, Anderson managed to throw up hasty entrenchments on the Ridge and formed a line of hattle ready to be hurled upon Warren and the advance corps of Grant’s army, at this time ignorant of their being forestalled by the Confederates, save, as it was thought, by some dismounted men of Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry. General Warren, on arriving at the Ridge and pushing on his advance to secure the position, was met with an unexpected and withering Confederate fire, which threw his command into confusion; but, on bringing up the remainder of his corps, he renewed the attack, only to be met, however, by a severe repulse. During the night the Confederate commands of Early and Ewell came upon the scene, together with General Lee, and the position taken up by Warren on the previous day was strengthened against the expected renewed attack on the morrow. The 9th of May brought the whole of Grant’s army to the Court House, when a general assault of the Confederate lines was ordered, Warren, Sedgwick, Hancock, and Burnside taking part in the attack. In the melee that ensued, the Federals lost heavily, though they fought gallantly, delivering during the day no less than twelve assaults.

The day of the 11th was spent by the Federals in getting ready for an elaborate attack on the right center of the Southern line, that part of the Confederate position being deemed by General Grant the weakest, as it proved. On the following day, the assault was fiercely launched, Hancock massing his men there chiefly against the command of General Edward Johnson of Ewell’s division. After a desperate resistance by the latter, his command was overpowered, and the Confederate defense line was cut in two, while 3,000 of Johnson’s men, including the General himself, were taken prisoners by Hancock. The consequence of this was to force Lee to withdraw to interior lines, after a vain attempt had been made to recapture the position that Johnson had lost. The enemy were unable, however, to penetrate further the Southern position or break Lee’s lines at other points. It was then that Grant, in his wonted dogged way, wrote to the War authorities at Washington: “I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer”—a threat, however, which, as we shall presently see, was not enforced. From the 14th to the 18th (of May) desultory fighting went on; though two determined assaults on the Southern lines were delivered by the Federals, which Lee was able to repulse, with heavy losses to the Union troops. On the 19th Lee discerned signs of the Federals giving up the attempt to carry his position and of moving off, possibly with the design of marching directly upon Richmond. This, however, was not Grant’s immediate purpose ; his motive clearly was to draw Lee from his strong position, which he found he could not hope to take, in spite of his announced purpose “to hold on all summer.” Presently Grant’s design, in abandoning the region of the Spottsylvania Court House, was to take up a position on the North Anna River, one of the head streams of the Pamunkey, so as to get round the Confederate right, but really to disengage Lee from a position which Grant had spent twelve days in finding to be unassailable.

No sooner was this Federal movement noted by Lee than he sought to interfere with it. This he did, first, by inflicting, through the agency of Swell’s corps, a heavy blow upon the retiring Federals, which delayed its movements from the 19th to the 21st of May, and then by ordering an advance of his own men, by a shorter route than that taken by Grant, to the south bank of the North Anna. This accomplished, he once more surprised his adversary by revealing the Confederates in mass confronting him. When Grant reached the river, he at once threw Warren and Hancock’s commands across it to grapple again with the foe. Only Hancock’s corps was opposed by Lee in crossing the stream; after which the Southern leader astutely thrust his center between the two wings of Grant’s army and put the Federals at enormous disadvantage. Being thus handicapped, the Federal commander, after a reconnaissance which showed the hopelessness of renewed fighting in the region, recrossed the North Anna, contenting himself with the small game of destroying some miles of the Virginia Central railroad. After this, he set out with his entire army, and, after making a wide detour eastward, he advanced southward along the Pamunkey in the direction of the York River and the waterway into Chesapeake Bay. This new movement, which was effected towards the close of May, brought Grant into water-communication with the sea; while Lee met it by retiring south with his army toward Richmond, and took up a strong position in front of the Chickahominy, the Federal forcing of which river would, as Lee felt sure, bring on a great battle.

A sore struggle, indeed, here ensued, that which precipitated the bloody battle of Cold Harbor, near the site of that of Gaines’ Mill, which had been fought two years before. The operations in the region began on May 31 by a preliminary conflict between Sheridan’s cavalry corps and that of Fitzhugh Lee. The army of the Potomac coming up on the following day, the Federals proceeded to entrench themselves temporarily behind some slight earthworks, from which, on the 3rd of June, they advanced to the attack. Lee’s success in preparing for the assault was instantly apparent in the hot repulse the Federals met with, the attacking columns being met with so disastrous a fire that hardly any life could live before it. So dire was the Confederate fire that seven colonels of Hancock’s attacking columns fell mortally wounded. The battle was no sooner begun than it was ended; the losses to the Federals resulting from all casualties in the engagements of the 1st and 3rd of June reaching, it is chronicled, close upon 10,000! So incredible seems the havoc in the Unionist ranks in these two days’ fighting, that we deem it proper to vouch for the figures from an authoritative source—that given in A. A. Humphreys’ narrative of “The Virginia Campaign of 1864–65,” where that writer affirms that “according to the report of the Medical Director, Surgeon McParlin, the wounded brought to the hospitals from the battle of the 3rd of June numbered 4,517. The dead were at least 1,100. The wounded brought to the hospitals from the battle of the 1st of June were 2,125; the killed were not less than 500. The wounded on the 1st and 3rd of June were, therefore, 6,642, and the killed not less than 1,600; but, adopting the number of killed and missing furnished General Badeau from the Adjutant-General’s office, 1,769 killed, 1,537 missing (many—most, indeed—of them, no doubt, killed) we have 8,411 for the killed and wounded, and for the total casualties, 9,948.” The Southern losses, it may be added, were, on the other hand, not more than 1,600. From this it will be seen how severely Grant had been beaten at Cold Harbor—a beating which he so far scrupled at the time to admit that he hesitated for a while to send a flag of truce to General Lee, asking permission to rescue his wounded from the battlefield and bury his dead. The battle closed with the Confederates in full possession of their position and defenses; while Grant withdrew his army from the field, and, crossing the James, proceeded to lay siege to Petersburg. Thus ended, practically in failure to Grant’s designs, the Wilderness Campaign, with the contests that grew out of, or followed upon it. The ambition which led the Federal lieutenant-general so boastfully to engage in it, cost the North a loss bordering upon 60,000 men!”

Before passing to another chapter, it will, perhaps, seem proper here to answer a question which the readers may probably have asked himself, “What, meanwhile, had become of Lee’s invaluable cavalry officer, General J. E. B. Stuart?” The answer, unhappily, is a brief one, viz., that he lost his gallant life in an engagement on the 11th of May (1864), near Richmond, when repelling a raid upon the Confederate capital by General Sheridan, who had been detached upon that mission by General Grant after the opening battles in the Wilderness. His loss was a severe one to the Confederacy, as he ranked foremost among the Cavalry generals of the Civil War.[1]

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