Battle of the Wilderness

May 6, 1864: Battle of the Wilderness-Second Day

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..”Attention Texas Brigade” was rung upon the morning air, by Gen. Gregg, “the eyes of General Lee are upon you, forward, march.” Scarce had we moved a step, when Gen. Lee, in front of the whole command, raised himself in his stirrups, uncovered his grey hairs, and with an earnest, yet anxious voice, exclaimed above the din and confusion of the hour, “Texans always move them.” …never before in my lifetime or since, did I ever witness such a scene as was enacted when Lee pronounced these words, with the appealing look that he gave. A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around, and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heart-felt tears. Leonard Gee, a courier to Gen. Gregg, and riding  by my side, with tears coursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.”

 

Private Robert Campell, 5th Texas Infantry

 

 

The fighting erupted early on the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness.  Grant assumed that Hill’s corps had been fought out on the first day and could be overrun with a strong attack.  At 5:00 AM Hancock attacked with three divisions, with two in support.  By 6:00 AM Hill’s corps was in full retreat and disaster loomed for Lee.  At that time the 800 man Texas Brigade, perhaps the elite fighting unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps arrived and saved the day.  Longstreet launched a two division counterattack up the Orange Plank Road, with the Texans, who suffered 650 casualties, leading the attack on the north side of the Road.  By 11:00 AM Hancock’s corps was in full retreat after Longstreet launched a four brigade attack against the left wing of Hancock’s line.  Hancock’s men rallied behind fortifications along the Brock Road.  In an episode reminiscent of Jackson’s fatal wounding a year ago, Longstreet was shot in the neck by a group of Virginians who thought he and his party were Union troops.  Longstreet, unlike Jackson, would survive his wounding, but he would be unable to rejoin the army until October.  Lee the next day would place General Richard Anderson in command of the First Corps in place of Longstreet.

On the Orange Court House Turnpike inconclusive fighting raged all day.  Shortly before dark General John B. Gordon launched a divisional assault against Sedgwick’s right that made good progress until Union reinforcements restored the Union line.  That brief crisis elicited this famous event:  a nervous Union officer stated his fears to Grant:  “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.”  Greatly annoyed, Grant responded , “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Here is Lee’s report on the second day. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

May 5, 1864: The Battle of the Wilderness Begins

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If you take a flat map And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,

The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.

The science of war is moving live men like blocks.

And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.

But it takes time to mold your men into blocks

And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies

Hamper your wooden squares. 

They stick in the brush,

They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,

And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

One assumes that there would be worse places for an attacking army to attempt to fight a battle than the Wilderness, but none come readily to mind.  With the dense shrubs and trees it was like trying to fight a battle blindfolded, determining where the enemy was more by sound than sight.

The battle of the first day of the wilderness was effectively divided into two actions.

On the Orange Court House Turnpike, Warren and his corps attacked Ewell’s corps.  Warren was rightfully concerned that his right flank was in the air and wanted to delay his attack until Sedgwick’s corps moved to support him on his right.  Meade was irritated by the delay and ordered Warren to attack before Sedgwick could arrive.  Warren’s attack at 1:00PM was hampered from the start due to Confederate attacks on his right flank as he advanced.  Ultimately the attack was repulsed with heavy loss.  Sedgwick’s corps attacked at 3:00 PM and was beaten back after an hour of fighting.  Piecemeal attacks by the two corps ensured that their attacks would fail.

South along the Orange Plank Road Hill’s corps beat off repeated Union attacks with fierce fighting continuing to nightfall.

The battle had been a day of bewildering confusion to all involved, with generals often being unable to locate their own forces in the dense undergrowth, let alone enemy units.  The woods quickly caught fire and smoke obscured what little visibility existed.  The screams of the wounded as the fire reached them added a Hellish quality to the battle that many survivors never forgot.

Lee had held his ground and now was in position to attack with Longstreet’s corps the next day.

Lee at 11:00 PM of a very long day sent a succinct description of the day’s fighting to the Secretary of War: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Virginia’s Bloody Soil

Something for the weekend.  Virginia’s Bloody Soil sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.  One hundred and fifty years ago the Battle of the Wilderness was to be fought in two days, the opening act in Grant’s Overland Campaign which would see 55,000 Union casualties and 33,000 Confederate casualties in under two months.  By the end of the campaign there were cries of “Grant the Butcher” throughout the North, the price of gold had doubled and Lincoln seemed destined for defeat in the fall.  However, Petersburg, the rail nexus that supplied Richmond from the south, was under siege by the Army of the Potomac, and Grant could fully replace his casualties while Lee could not.  A very grim war was about to get a lot grimmer a century and a half ago as it remorselessly ground towards its conclusion. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Gingrich 48-Obama 50: Remember Grant

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The most recent poll by Gallup matching Newt Gingrich against Obama has Obama up by a whopping two points:  48-50.   This, after a week when Gingrich has had a concerted attack by ABC to take him out as a candidate after the Marianne Gingrich non-revelation that Newt cheated on her, as she had cheated with Newt while he was married to his first wife.  Gingrich has gained 4 points in the trial heat.

Of course polls of the general election at this point in a presidential election year don’t mean spit, as President Carter could attest, as he led Ronald Reagan, often by vast margins, in the trial heat polls almost all of the year in 1980.  I bring up this poll now to counter-act some of the “woe is us” commentary too often seen in GOP circles currently.  Obama has presided over a disastrous first term, and will likely go down to defeat in the fall.  All the signs are there.  To listen to some of the Republican caterwauling at the present time, one would think that Obama was a shoo-in for a second term.  He isn’t and I am getting tired of the doom and pessimism brought on by a perfectly normal contested presidential nomination race.  This reminds me of an event in the Battle of the Wilderness in May of 1864: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

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