The Wilderness

Last updated June 18th, 2007 by Jenny
Confederate Commander R.E. Lee

Each new year seemed to bring a new Union commander to face Lee. And 1864 was no exception. First it had been McClellan, then Pope, then McClellan again. Then it was Burnside and Hooker, and then George Meade. Now, Meade would remain in command of the Army of the Potomac, but Ulysess S. Grant would take charge of overall Union forces and travel with the Army of the Potomac as it went against Lee. Hill probably knew of Grant from West Point; Grant had been an upperclassman there when Hill arrived with the class of 1846. But Hill did not seem to record much, if any, surviving recollection of what he thought of Grant.

Hill's daughter Lucy was christened shortly before the spring campaign began on a bright May day by Rev. Richard Davis, rector of St. Thomas' Parish in Orange. Robert E. Lee served as the child's godfather and held her throughout the ceremony. The christening water was in an old-fashioned silver bowl that belonged to President Madison's mother. Soon after Dolly departed camp -- a sure sign to the troops that fighting was around the corner.

(For her part, Dolly proved as adventurous as her famous brother John. According to legend, one night Dolly learned that the infamous US Cavalry general Philip Sheridan was expected in a hotel not far from Confederate lines. Dolly snuck into enemy territory in hopes of picking up useful military information. But, she quickly became an object of suspicion and had to flee with shots ringing out behind her. Unlike Mrs. Richard Ewell, who meddled in camp and headquarter affairs, Dolly never intruded on the headquarters staff or in its affairs.)

Grant stepped off in early May with the Army of the Potomac; the object was not to capture Richmond but rather to destroy Lee. For his part, once he discovered Grant had broken camp, Lee moved to oppose him in the Wilderness.

The Wilderness was well named; a tangled thicket of scrub woods outside the town of Fredericksburg, it had been where Jackson had been wounded mortally almost a year to the day earlier at Chancellorsville. The author, Herman Melville, noted the horror of this place where

    In glades they meet skull after skull
    Where pine cones lay-the rusted gun,
    Green shoes full of bones, the mouldering coat
    And cuddled up skeleton;
    And scores of such. Some start as in dreams,
    And comrades lost bemoan;
    By the edge of those wilds Stonewall had charged-
    But the year and the Man were gone.

Such a place obviously worked to Lee's advantage -- scrub woods and the few open fields negated somewhat Grant's much larger numbers and artillery and cavalry superiority. Plus, Lee knew the ground better than did Grant and Meade.

On May 5, 1864, the lead elements of Grant and Meade ran into the advanced guards of the Army of Northern Virginia in the woods of the Wilderness. Hill's men, on the defensive behind make-shift breastworks, fought nearly the entire day, taking brutal punishment from Winfield Scott Hancock's crack Second Corps and elements of the Fifth Corps. The fighting was hot and confused: a confused free for all, hard and bloody. Hill's men, outnumbered, could only hang on and hope for nightfall. Hill personally performed brilliantly; he moved troops and was tirelessly in the saddle. A soldier remembered Hill "surrounded by his staff, this beloved general, whose custom it ever was to feel in person the pulse of the battle and who always stationed himself just beyond his men in action, sat, a stately presence, anxiously awaiting the issue of events." When asked where to take his men, this captain was told by Hill to "Face the fire, and go in where it is hottest!" Another soldier recalled of the Wilderness fighting that "Hill did not stand on the defensive, but made repeated dashes upon the lines of the enemy ... He conducted the engagement with great spirit and aggressiveness, repeatedly broke Hancock's line of battle, and compelled him to use his reserves in propping it up."

The Battle of the Wilderness

A brief account of the battle:

The opening battle of Grant’s sustained offensive against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, known as the Overland Campaign, was fought at the Wilderness, May 5-7. On the morning of May 5, 1864, the Union V Corps attacked Ewell’s Corps on the Orange Turnpike, while A.P. Hill’s corps during the afternoon encountered Getty’s Division (VI Corps) and Hancock’s II Corps on the Plank Road. Fighting was fierce but inconclusive as both sides attempted to maneuver in the dense woods. Darkness halted the fighting, and both sides rushed forward reinforcements. At dawn on May 6, Hancock attacked along the Plank Road, driving Hill’s Corps back in confusion. Longstreet’s Corps arrived in time to prevent the collapse of the Confederate right flank. At noon, a devastating Confederate flank attack in Hamilton’s Thicket sputtered out when Lt. Gen. James James Longstreet was wounded by his own men. The IX Corps (Burnside) moved against the Confederate center, but was repulsed. Union generals James S. Wadsworth and Alexander Hays were killed. Confederate generals John M. Jones, Micah Jenkins, and Leroy A. Stafford were killed. The battle was a tactical draw. Grant, however, did not retreat as had the other Union generals before him. On May 7, the Federals advanced by the left flank toward the crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse.

On site resources include battle reports for the Third Corps as well as an account of the battle written in 1892 about the role of Mahone's Brigade at the battle.

One of the officers killed fighting against Hill this day was General Alexander Hays, a personal friend of both Hancock and Grant. If they knew they killed Hays, it must have been somewhat sweet revenge as several months before at Gettysburg he had not only been in command of the division who repulsed Pettigrew and Trimble, but he had then taunted the Confederates by dragging their captured colors behind his horse.

Night finally, mercifully, fell. Hill had a brilliant day as a corps commander, perhaps the best of his career. But it came at a cost. By the end of the day, Hill was both sick and exhausted. The timing to fall sick was terrible.

Hill's lines were confused from the heavy fighting; in places they faced at right angles. Hill has been often criticized for not repairing the lines. Clearly, he was not more active the night of May 5th. But he also probably felt it was not necessary to disturb his exhausted me. Palmer, Hill's chief of staff, recalled that Hill was under the impression that James Longstreet was to be up as soon as midnight. James Longstreet's men were to form up behind the Third Corps, which would then at daylight fall back and form a second line behind the First Corps. This is what Hill told Heth and Wilcox when these two division commanders came to see him.

Cadmus Wilcox was nervous about the condition of the lines. He went to see Lee, and was told the same thing that Hill had said -- that James Longstreet was due up, and the divisions would be relieved before daybreak. Hearing that news, Wilcox did not press the point of how badly disorganized the III Corps was. For his part, Heth continued to pester Hill about the state and condition of the men; an ill finally snapped at him: "Damn it Heth! I will not have the men disturbed!" Heth remained worried to such an extent that he claimed that he rode to see Lee -- but claimed he couldn't find Lee's headquarters. Robertson does not give much credence to Heth's account, particularly his claim that he couldn't find Lee's headquarters which were conspicuous and just a few hundred yards from Heth's lines. After the War, Heth allegedly recounted that Hill told him not to disturb the men sometime after the battle, and Lee remarked that it is a division commander's duty anyway to make sure his men are ready for battle. Heth felt that he and Wilcox were the responsible parties in General Lee's mind; but his post-war account tried to shift the blame onto Hill who, obviously, could no longer comment on the matter.

Wilcox and Heth had both grew increasingly troubled as the night went on, but so did Hill. In fact, even though he was ill, he still rode out to see Lee near midnight. Lee repeated that James Longstreet was going to be up by morning. And with that, no one in the Third Corps or from Lee's headquarters made an attempt to correct the lines. Hill's Robertson noted that reorganization of the lines under the conditions -- a dark, heavily wooded area, just yards from the Union lines -- would have been "all but impossible" anyway. The Army of Northern Virginia would rest upon James Longstreet coming up.

By morning Hill was in the midst of a full-blown illness. A correspondent from London would say on the next day that Hill was so ill as to be "unfitted ... for service."

Longstreet did not appear as promised at dawn; the Union Second Corps attacked before he could come up and relieve Hill's exhausted men. Hill's lines were tattered and confused and were no match for the Federal onslaught. The lines of the "excited and chagrined Hill" began to fall apart under the Union assault. Samuel McGowan's crack South Carolina brigade ran, in Lee's words, like "a flock of geese." Things became so desperate that the sick Hill -- an old gunner -- helped to man one of Poague's cannons. His staff was almost killed by the vanguard of the IX corps that noted Hill and his staff in an open field. The day before, Lee and Stuart along with Hill had almost been killed under similar circumstances.

James Longstreet finally arrived and delivered a heavy blow to the Union forces; Hancock, commanding the Federals, would recall being rolled up like a wet blanket. But James Longstreet fell severely wounded. He would be lost to the Army for many months. Richard H. Anderson, one of Hill's division leaders, took command of his corps. William Mahone was elevated to head Anderson's Division. The team of Mahone, Wilcox, and Heth would be with Hill for the rest of the War.

The battle of the Wilderness ended in a draw. Grant's army was bloodied severely but he had failed to defeat or destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. While the Army of Northern Virginia had suffered severe losses, it's fighting spirit was in tact as well as it's unshakable faith in Lee.

As his army was moving to Spotsylvania, Lee noted in a letter to Ewell that "General Hill has reported to me that he is so much indisposed that he fears he must relinquish the command of his corps. In that case, I shall be obliged to put General Early in command of it." Though too ill to actively command his troops, Hill followed them closely in an ambulance.

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