At Ease: A Tavern at the Crossroads
Where was it? Is any part of it preserved? These are questions we commonly hear in connection to the Wilderness Tavern, and today we've collected some resources to answer those inquiries and share some extra history about this site and landmark that was part of both the Chancellorsville and Overland Campaigns during the Civil War.
Wilderness Tavern as it appeared in the 19th Century.
Scroll to the end of this email to see the
remains of the outbuildings as they appear today.
The Tavern & The Crossroads
(Adapted from an article in On The Front Line, Winter 2021) Civil War officers and soldiers recognized the landmark buildings of Wilderness Tavern and Ellwood Manor in the area now called Wilderness Crossroads. Here, Germanna Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike met, and traces of the historic roadbeds are still visible in some of the preserved land. Wilderness Tavern itself had been used as a stagecoach stop and was the home of William Sims at the time of the Civil War. The main structure, built around 1810, was destroyed after the battle and the site is believed to be located under modern Route 3. A small remnant of the tavern outbuilding remains and is preserved—visible from a small National Park pull-off. (This location is also a good place to view the Wilderness Crossroads lands that CVBT has preserved.) On May 4, 1864, leading elements of the Army of the Potomac started crossing the Rapidan River and heading east toward Wilderness Crossroads. The army paused in the open ground, allowing the wagon trains to catch up; this delay gave General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia a little extra time to head for the Wilderness to strike advancing Federal columns. The following day—May 5, 1864, Union General Gouverneur K. Warren acted on the received cavalry reports and headed his infantry divisions into the Wilderness, not realizing that Confederates had been rushing toward the same area. Battle erupted as the infantry clashed. As the fighting increased, more and more troops of the V, VI, and IX Corps passed through on the crossroads and near Wilderness Tavern, heading into the blazing battle. Supply wagons clustered near the tavern, bringing the logistical and medical first aid support for the thousands embroiled in the conflict further south and east. During the Battle of the Wilderness, the Wilderness Tavern and area around the crossroads was the location of several Union field hospitals. The Fifth Corps hospitals were slightly east of the tavern and Sixth Corps slightly west near the modern intersection of Routes 3 and 20. The crossroads area also served as a command center for the Union army. Grant’s headquarters, located on the knoll which now bears his name, overlooked the roads, wagons, and hospitals. Warren made his headquarters at Ellwood Manor. Generals Meade, Sedgwick, and numerous others with stars on their shoulder boards waited and plotted the battle unfolding at the front. Today, Wilderness Tavern is gone — remembered by interpretive signs and the fragments of a structure. However, the historic crossroads rests quiet while modern traffic rushes along the highways. The land is preserved and the history is remembered, echoing back to those days when wagons rumbled, generals studied maps, prisoners arrived and the wounded found relief where roads met before stretching into the trees and battle beyond.
Looking Toward Ellwood
Library of Congress.
This photograph was taken in 1864 from Old Wilderness Tavern, looking toward the Lacy House (Ellwood). Much of the land in the background has been preserved by Central Virginia Battlefields Trust or the National Park Service.
Union Veteran who lived at Wilderness Tavern?
Research conducted by a volunteer at Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park has been highlighted in an article and video created by the National Archives. Telling the story of Charles Sprout weaves together many locations and stories of the Central Virginia area.
Enslaved and living at Ellwood or Chatham prior to 1861, Charles Sprout found freedom for himself and later enlisted in the 1st United States Colored Cavalry. After the Civil War, he returned to Central Virginia and his pension records state his postal address and place of employment was Wilderness Tavern. When Sprout died in 1926, he was laid to rest in Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
To explore more details of Sprout's life, please check out this post on the National Archive blog which also includes links to the video!
The ruins of an outbuilding at Wilderness Tavern.
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.