May 5, 1864, witnessed the opening of the Battle of the Wilderness. Fought largely in the thick second-growth woods and small fields of Spotsylvania and Orange Counties, the soldiers of both armies often could not see but a few yards in any direction due to the dense vegetation and think smoke of battle. Fighting initially broke out along the Orange Turnpike between Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps and Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Confederate Second Corps. As more troops from both sides funneled into the action, fighting spread to the southeast. In the dry woods, burning cartridge paper kindled fires that added to the horror of the combat.
On the morning of May 6, Ulysses S. Grant launched a major assault against Confederates under Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s troops posted along the Orange Plank Road. Spearheaded by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, which pushed from northeast to southwest, the Union assault proved successful in forcing Hill’s soldiers from their position. “We are driving them beautifully,” exclaimed Hancock early in the attack.
The Confederate line began to crumble as Hill’s soldiers hurried toward Widow Tapp’s fields where their army commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, waited anxiously. Things looked dire. By concentrating their attacks, Hancock’s force had broken and disordered their foes; however, their moment of success turned brief. A Confederate counterattack was already forming. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps arrived on the scene just in time, counterattacking, pushing from west to east.
Brigade after brigade from Longstreet’s Corps rushed toward the field where—at the opposite side—Union soldiers crept from the woods and formed to attack the artillery which attempted to hold them off. Meanwhile, running eight abreast along the road and deploying into the woods and fields on their sides, Longstreet’s men advanced through Hill’s retreating soldiers. “In perfect order, ranks well closed, and no stragglers, those splendid troops came on.” Thousands of Confederate soldiers entered the Battle of The Wilderness, ending Hancock’s “beautiful” advance. The fight turned brutal as Longstreet’s veterans shoved the Union II Corps back in their own nearly unstoppable advance.
Describing this blood-soaked area of the battlefield following the battle, John Haley of the 17th Maine said, “The great, dark woods are filled with dead and wounded from both sides.” Another soldier likened it to a “vast, weird, horrible slaughter pen.” This is indeed hallowed ground.
Here my horse was mortally wounded by two or three rifle balls, but still able to
walk. At this time my line broke in confusion, and I could not rally them short of the breast-works.
Col. Robert McAllister, 11th New Jersey, commanding First Brigade, Fourth Division, II Corps.
At the command forward the gallant fellows sprang forward with a shout,
driving back the enemy’s first line without firing a gun.
Brig. Gen. Goode Bryan, Kershaw’s
Division, Longstreet’s Corps
In autumn 2021, CVBT announced the exciting news of a generous donation of land from local developers at The Wilderness battlefield. Fawn Lake Holdings, LLC, graciously gifted 30.4 acres of The Wilderness Battlefield to Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, increasing the preserved land along historic Orange Plank Road. The donated acreage saw major fighting in both phases of this see-saw action. CVBT extends special thanks to Mark Doherty, Lee Garrison, and John McManus (then a CVBT Board member) for their dedication to preserving this land where history happened.