The Battle of the Wilderness was initiated on May 5, 1864 when the Army of the Potomac began its spring offensive by marching quickly through the Wilderness. Once through the tangled forest, Ulysses S. Grant planned to defeat Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a battle fought on open ground. However, Lee, whose army was only at half strength, boldly placed Ewell’s II Corps and Heth and Wilcox’s divisions of Hill’s III Corps squarely in the path of the Federal Army. At about noon, the Union V Corps, commanded by Warren, received orders to attack the corps of Ewell entrenched on the Orange Turnpike, near the Locust Grove.
Warren’s attack was repulsed by Ewell, but not after Confederate general J. M. Jones was killed, and generals Stafford and Pegram wounded. Warren reformed his line in the woods east of Ewell, with Sedgwick forming up part of his corps to extend the line. Warren’s corps was now placed south of the pike, with Sedgwick’s VI corps placed north of the pike.
In the meantime to the south, Getty’s division of Sedgwick’s corps and Hancock’s II Corps advanced against Heth’s division of the Confederate III Corps (Hill). This fighting was also inconclusive. Wilcox moved up to support Heth, so when darkness fell, the lines were more or less in the same places as they had been at the start of the Federal attack. Though outnumbered more than 2 to 1, the Confederates had held their ground.
As dawn broke on the morning of May 6, 1864, Grant ordered a general attack. Hancock’s troops attacked and were driving back the wearied Confederates when Kershaw’s division of Longstreet’s I Corps arrived and supported the line. When Field’s division arrived soon after, Longstreet ordered a counterattack. By mid-morning, the Confederate troops had driven Hancock back to the lines the day before.
The Confederates then found a new plan of attack. Longstreet’s adjutant, Moxley Sorrel, was placed in command of a “task force” comprised of the brigades of Mahone, Wofford, G. Anderson, and Davis. These troops moved through an unfinished railway gap so they could not be detected. When they attacked the Federal left flank around 11 A.M., they routed the weary Federals. Longstreet followed on this success by ordering the rest of Field’s division (Benning’s brigade, Perry’s brigade, and the Texas Brigade) forward. As the Texans advanced, Lee waved his hat and cried “hurrah for Texas” However, while directing this attack, Longstreet was wounded by friendly fire and Micah Jenkins killed. The attack was then delayed by Lee to organize the men. By this time, Hill was shifted to the 1.5 mile long forest gap in the Confederate line where Burnside’s newly arrived IX corps was gathering.
There was only minor cavalry skirmishing (they had been skirmishing for quite a while) near Todd’s Tavern between noon and mid-afternoon on May 6. At about 4 P.M., Lee decided to attack. Longstreet’s men pushed forward and captured the first line of Federal defenses. However, Union artillery compelled the Confederates to retire. For the rest of the day, except for sporadic attacks by Warren and Sedgwick on Ewell, no fighting took place. In the course of this action, the Confederate brigade of John B. Gordon made a heroic charge on the extreme Union right, under Sedgwick. This attack succeeded in capturing elements of the Union brigades of Shaler and Seymour, and the aforementioned Federal generals themselves.
The Battle of the Wilderness was the first major engagement of Grant vs. Lee. Even though the Confederates lost 8,000 men to the Union’s 18,000, Grant’s campaign towards Richmond continued. Grant shifted his army next to the east, where the two armies met again at Spotsylvania Court House from May 7 to May 20. This was the first battle in which a Union general did not turn back after not winning a victory against Lee. Grant was to press his advance until the Confederacy had “scraped the barrel” for troops, and “bled dry.”