“About the first of May, we started for the Wilderness,” Private William J. Pace of the Newton Rifles wrote after the war, according to the regiment’s independent historian Jess McLean. “which was the beginning of one of the most hard fought campaigns of the whole war between the states.”
The Army of the Potomac, superior to the Confederates in personnel and artillery, was now led by Gen. U.S. Grant, who was determined not to take, as the cynics said, the usual “pause for refreshments” after each major engagement but, as Grant said, “to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
The federals had crossed the Rapidan in early May, 1864, and were strung out more than a mile in the blind brush and creeper tangle of the Wilderness woods west of Chancellorsville.
Grant intended to move his troops southward through the tangle and into the open where his superior numbers and massed cannon would have the advantage.
Lee, of course, preferred to confront the Yankees in the Wilderness and he hastened there with his troops before the federals could get through the tangled woods, though only Richard S. Ewell’s and A.P. Hill’s corps were up. They clashed with Grant’s troops on Thursday, May 5.
“They arrived this morning in close proximity to the enemy’s line of march,” Lee wrote the Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon in his daily dispatch at 11 p.m. Thursday.
“A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it, capturing many prisoners and four pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon General Hill, who, with Heth’s and Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated and desperate assaults. A large force of cavalry and artillery on our right flank was driven back by Rosser’s brigade.”
Longstreet’s two divisions were still marching east from Gordonsville, as they had been since Wednesday afternoon.
The troops, including Humphreys’ Brigade and the 13th Regiment, had marched 16 miles, crossing the North Anna by Brock’s Bridge, then turning north for the Cartharpin Road. Late Thursday afternoon, they stopped to rest and eat near Craig’s Meeting House before resuming their march cross-country at 1 a.m. on Friday.
The Battle of the Wilderness was unusual for all concerned.
“It was, as one veteran said,” Foote wrote in his trilogy, “a conflict ‘no man saw or could see’; ‘A battle of invisibles with invisibles,’ another called it.
“‘As for fighting,’ a third declared, ‘it was simply bushwhacking on a grand scale, in brush where all formation beyond that of regiments or companies was soon lost and where such a thing as a consistent line of battle on either side was impossible.’”
The Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio, Indiana, Maine and other troops under command of General Winfield Scott Hancock, advanced at 5 a.m. Friday morning, along the plank road and on both sides of it. They created what Lee later politely called “confusion” in the ranks of Hill’s outnumbered troops. Meaning they broke, falling back. Ewell’s troops were dug-in and they held.
“Longstreet himself…came riding up just before sunrise,” Foote wrote, “a mile or two in advance of his column, the head of which had reached Parker’s Store by then.”
They came on running. The Texans arrived first, followed by the Alabamans and then Kershaw’s [McLaws'] division of Georgians, South Carolinians and Mississippians.
The latter “hooted cruelly when Heth’s badly shaken troops fell back through their ranks,” Foote wrote. “‘Do you belong to Lee’s Army?’ they jeered, seeing their old comrades thus for the first time in eight months. ‘You don’t look like the men we left here. You’re worse than Bragg’s men.’”
“Longstreet’s Corp. was rushed into it on the morning of the 6th,” Private Pace of the Newton Rifles later wrote, “and I was wounded in the leg about a half hour after we came under fire.”
By 10 a.m., they had recovered the Confederate line—with Humphreys’ Brigade positioned on the plank road and to its left—and driven the federals back to where they’d been before sunrise.
“I immediately made arrangements to follow up the successes gained, and ordered an advance of all my troops for that purpose,” Longstreet officially reported months later.
“While riding at the head of my column, moving by the flank down the plank road, I came opposite the brigades which had made the flank movement, and which were drawn up parallel to the plank road, and about 60 yards therefrom, when a portion of them fired a volley, which resulted in the death of General Jenkins, and the severe wounding of myself. I immediately notified the commanding general of my being obliged to quit the field, and the command devolved on Major-General Field.”
The 13th Regiment, commanded by Major George LaValle Donald, lost 20 killed, 51 wounded, and 16 missing or captured, according to records compiled by Jess McLean.
Among the wounded was the author’s great grandfather Private Edward Parker Stanley of the Minutemen of Attala, whose experience was representative of many.
Family tradition says Private Stanley was in the trees towards sundown on May 6 when he was struck in one leg, possibly the left, by a bounding Yankee cannon ball. The leg was left attached below the knee by only a small amount of tissue.
By then, the Wilderness was on fire, burning sporadically in places, ignited by burning powder from the rifles and cannons.
“Dead pines,” wrote Foote, “their sap long dried to rosin, burned like twenty-foot torches, and the low clouds took on an eerie yellow cast, as if they reflected the glow from molten sulfur on the floor of hell.”
As the fire swept towards Private Stanley, his dangling leg was impeding his efforts to crawl away. So he used his pocketknife to cut away the remainder of his leg, left it behind and crawled back to safety. He was eventually carried to an aid station where the amputation was surgically completed.
On May 12, according to his wartime records, he was admitted to C.S.A. General Hospital in Charlottesville.
Grant had lost 17,666 troops (14,283 killed and wounded and 3,383 missing) in the Wilderness fight, “thickly strewn in the woods in front of his line,” as Foote put it; Lee about 11,400 killed, wounded and missing.
(The figures are from the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center.)
But Grant, whom Foote wrote wept privately in his tent in frustration for his losses, had only begun his Overland Campaign.