See C. Dowdy, Lee's Last Campaign (1960); E. Steere, The Wilderness Campaign (1960, repr. 1987).
The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5–7, 1864, was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Both armies suffered heavy casualties, a harbinger of a bloody war of attrition by Grant against Lee's army and, eventually, the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. The battle was tactically inconclusive, as Grant disengaged and continued his offensive.
The battlefield was the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, an expanse of nearly impenetrable scrub growth and rough terrain that encompassed more than 70 square miles (181 km²) of Spotsylvania County and Orange County in central Virginia. A number of battles were fought in the vicinity between 1862 and 1864, including the bloody Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. It is often said that the Wilderness and Chancellorsville were fought in the same spot, but the 1864 battle was actually fought a few miles to the west, and only overlapped the old battlefield along the Brock Road on the Union army's left flank.
On May 2, 1864, the Army of the Potomac, nominally under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, but taking orders from Grant, crossed the Rapidan River at three separate points and converged on the Wilderness Tavern, which had been the concentration point for the Confederates one year to the day earlier when they launched their devastating attack on the Union right flank at Chancellorsville. But Grant chose to set up his camps to the west of the old battle site before moving southward. Unlike the Union army of a year before, Grant had no desire to fight in the Wilderness.
For Lee it was imperative to fight in the Wilderness for the same reason as the year before: his army was massively outnumbered, with 61,000 men to Grant's 101,000, and his artillery had fewer and worse guns than those of Grant's. Fighting in the tangled woods would eliminate Grant's advantage in artillery, and also the close quarters and ensuing confusion there could give Lee's outnumbered force better odds.
While waiting for the arrival of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and his two divisions of the First Corps ( Pickett's division was absent, still recovering from its losses at the Battle of Gettysburg, manning the defenses of Richmond) which had been posted 25 miles (40 km) to the west to guard the crucial railroad junction of Gordonsville, Lee pushed forward his Second Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and the 22,000 man Third Corps under the command of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, in a successful attempt to engage Grant before he moved south. On May 5, Ewell, on Lee's left flank, and Hill on the right, engaged Union soldiers.
On the left, Ewell met up with the V Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, and fought it to a standoff. For much of the day Ewell's 18,500-man corps actually held a slight numerical advantage on this part of the field. But on the right, Hill was hit hard and driven back by the Union II Corps under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and a division from the VI Corps. He held his ground, however.
On May 6, Hancock, now commanding close to 40,000 men, resumed the attack on Hill's corps, while heavy Union reinforcements on Ewell's front prevented Lee from sending Second Corps men to aid Hill. By late morning, Hancock had driven Hill's corps back more than two miles (3 km) and inflicted heavy casualties. With the Third Corps in dire straits Lee began to look desperately for Longstreet, who had been expected hours before.
Longstreet and the 12,000-man First Corps finally arrived at around noon, with perfect timing: Hancock's men were tired and disorganized from six hours of fighting. When Longstreet attacked the Union forces they withdrew, and within two hours the situation was totally reversed: Longstreet had regained all the ground lost and advanced one mile (1.6 km) further, forcing Hancock to regroup along the Brock Road. At a crucial moment in the fighting Longstreet attacked through a cutting of an unfinished railroad that had split the Union forces, increasing the confusion. However, Longstreet did not have enough men to complete his victory, and the fighting soon petered out near the Brock Road. As the fighting wound down on this part of the battlefield, Longstreet was badly wounded by friendly fire and did not return to the Army of Northern Virginia for several months. (By coincidence, Longstreet was accidentally shot by his own men only about away from the place where Stonewall Jackson suffered the same fate a year earlier.)
Just as this phase of the battle was ending a division of the Second Corps under Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon launched a final assault on the Union right, partially turning the Army of the Potomac's flank and taking close to 1,000 prisoners. But darkness fell and ended the battle, before the Confederates had a chance to press their advantage.
In one of the more horrifying incidents of the war, a brushfire broke out between the two armies' lines during the night. Hundreds of wounded soldiers left on the field died screaming as they were burned alive in front of their comrades.
On May 8 Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to resume its advance, and a few days later the armies clashed again at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House to the southeast.
Although the battle is usually described as a draw, it could be called a tactical Confederate victory, but a strategic victory for the Union army. Grant withdrew at the end of the battle, usually the action of the defeated side; but, unlike his predecessors since 1861, Grant continued his campaign instead of retreating to the safety of Washington, D.C. Lee inflicted heavy numerical casualties (see estimates below) on Grant, but they were a smaller percentage of Grant's forces than the casualties his army suffered. And, unlike Grant, Lee had very little opportunity to replenish his losses. Understanding this disparity, part of Grant's strategy was to grind down both armies by waging a war of attrition. The only way that Lee could escape from the trap that Grant had set was to destroy the Army of the Potomac while he still had sufficient force to do so, but Grant was too skilled to allow that to happen.
Estimates of the casualties in the Wilderness vary. The following table summarizes estimates from a number of sources:
|National Park Service||18,400||11,400|
|Bonekemper, Victor, Not a Butcher||2,246||12,037||3,383||17,666||1,495||7,928||1,702||11,125|
|Catton, Grant Takes Command||2,265||10,220||2,902||15,387|
|Eicher, Longest Night||2,246||12,037||3,383||17,666|| 7,750 |
|Esposito, West Point Atlas|| 15,000 |
|Foote, Civil War||17,666||7,800|
|Fox, Regimental Losses||2,246||12,037||3,383||17,666|
|McPherson, Battle Cry||17,500|| under|
Portions of the Wilderness battlefield are preserved as part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, established in 1927 to memorialize the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and the Wilderness. In addition to this land that has been protected by the National Park Service, several volunteer organizations have been active in preservation activities. The Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield have been active in helping to preserve and enhance the Ellwood Mansion, which was the headquarters for both Gouverneur K. Warren and Ambrose Burnside during the battle and the family cemetery there holds the plot where Stonewall Jackson's arm was buried. While the NPS acquired of Ellwood in the 1970s, the FOWB is responsible for the preservation of the 1790s era house and its interpretation. The Civil War Preservation Trust in 2008 began a campaign to prevent the development of a Wal-Mart Supercenter on a tract north of the intersection of Routes 3 (the Germanna Highway) and 20 (the Orange Turnpike), immediately across Route 3 from the National Military Park, near the site of the Wilderness Tavern. Other organizations supporting the campaign are the "Wilderness Battlefield Coalition", which includes the Piedmont Environmental Council, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Parks Conservation Association, Friends of the Wilderness, and Friends of the Fredericksburg Area Battlefields.