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Battle of the Wilderness
Part of the American Civil War
File:Battle of the Wilderness.png
Battle of the Wilderness by Kurz and Allison.
Date May 5–7, 1864
Location Spotsylvania County and Orange County, Virginia
Result Inconclusive (Union offensive continued)[1]
United States United States (Union) Confederate States of America CSA (Confederacy)
Ulysses S. Grant
George G. Meade
Robert E. Lee
101,895[1] 61,025[1]
Casualties and losses
(2,246 killed
 12,037 wounded
 3,383 captured/missing)[2]
(1,495 killed
  7,928 wounded
 1,702 captured/missing)[2]

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.

Background and opposing forces[]

The battlefield was the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, an expanse of nearly impenetrable scrub growth and rough terrain that encompassed more than Template:Convert/mi2 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 approximately 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.


File:NPS Wilderness May5.png

Actions in the Wilderness, May 5, 1864.

File:NPS Wilderness May6.png

Actions in the Wilderness, May 6, 1864.

While waiting for the arrival of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and his two divisions of the First Corps (Pickett's division, still recovering from its losses at the Battle of Gettysburg, was manning the defenses of Richmond) which had been posted 25 mi (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 2 mi (3.2 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. Lee was exuberant that the reinforcements had arrived and attempted to lead the 800-man Texas Brigade in a charge against the Union line. The brigade refused to advance as their line was not yet formed and they knew the South could not afford Lee being killed or wounded. Longstreet and the Texas Brigade launched their attack once Lee agreed to withdraw to a safer distance.[3]

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 1 mi (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 4 miles (6.4 km) 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 brush fire 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.



Skulls remaining on the field and trees destroyed at the Battle of the Wilderness, 1864.

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. Lee inflicted heavy numerical casualties (see estimates below) on Grant, but as a percentage of Grant's forces they were smaller than the percentage of casualties suffered by Lee's smaller army. And, unlike Grant, Lee had very little opportunity to replenish his losses.

Understanding this disparity, part of Grant's strategy was to grind down the Confederate army 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. Thus, the Overland Campaign, initiated by the crossing of the Rappahannock, and opening with this battle, set in motion the eventual destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Therefore, even though Grant withdrew at the end of the battle (which is usually the action of the defeated side), unlike his predecessors since 1861 Grant continued his campaign instead of retreating to the safety of Washington, D.C. The significance of Grant's advance is noted by historian James A. McPherson:

Both flanks had been badly bruised, and [Grant's] 17,500 casualties in two days exceeded the Confederate total by at least 7,000. Under such circumstances previous Union commanders in Virginia had withdrawn behind the nearest river. Men in the ranks expected the same thing to happen again. But Grant had told Lincoln "whatever happens, there will be no turning back."

While the armies skirmished warily on May 7, Grant prepared to march around Lee's right during the night to seize the crossroads village of Spotsylvania a dozen miles to the south. If successful, this move would place the Union army closer to Richmond than the enemy and force Lee to fight or retreat. All day Union supply wagons and the reserve artillery moved to the rear, confirming the soldiers' weary expectation of retreat. After dark the blue divisions pulled out one by one.

But instead of heading north, they turned south. A mental sunburst brightened their minds. It was not another "Chancellorsville ... another skedaddle" after all. "Our spirits rose," recalled one veteran who remembered this moment as a turning point in the war. Despite the terrors of the past three days and those to come, "we marched free. The men began to sing." For the first time in a Virginia campaign the Army of the Potomac stayed on the offensive after its initial battle.[4]

On May 8 Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to resume its advance, skirmishing with Lee's Army at the Battle of Todds Tavern and, a few days later, fighting another major, inconclusive battle at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House 10 mi (16 km) to the southeast.


Estimates of the casualties in the Wilderness vary. The following table summarizes estimates from a number of sources:

Casualty Estimates for the Battle of the Wilderness
Source Union Confederate
Killed Wounded Captured/
Total Killed Wounded Captured/
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 –
      c. 7,500
Foote, Civil War       17,666       7,800
Fox, Regimental Losses 2,246 12,037 3,383 17,666        
McPherson, Battle Cry       17,500       under
Rhea, Battle of the Wilderness       over 17,666       about
Smith, Grant 2,261 8,785 2,902 13,948        

Gordon C. Rhea acknowledges the officially reported Union casualties of 17,666, but suspects that some of the returns—particularly in Warren's corps—were falsified on the low side, to minimize the negative impact of the battle on the public. He estimates Grant's loss at 17%. He accepts Union estimates of 11,000 Confederate casualties.[5]

Battlefield preservation[]


Proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter Location

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.[6] 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 180 acres (73 ha) of Ellwood in the 1970s, the FOWB is responsible for the preservation of the 1790s-era house and its interpretation.[7]

The Civil War Preservation Trust in 2008 began a campaign to prevent the development of a 138,000-square-foot (Template:Convert/acre m2) Wal-Mart Supercenter on a 55-acre (22 ha) 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.[8] Other organizations supporting the campaign are the Vermont state legislature and 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 Battlefield, and Friends of the Fredericksburg Area Battlefields.[9]

Steve Szkotak of The Associated Press reported on May 4, 2009 (one day before the 145th anniversary of the battle), that actor Robert Duvall (who is a descendant of Robert E. Lee) was joined with Representatives Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Peter Welch (D-Vermont) in making a pledge "to do 'anything we can' to support the fight against the Wal-Mart store" and further added that they'll "graciously chase out Wal-Mart".[10] Duvall is the first Hollywood celebrity to fight against the construction proposition, which had previously "drawn opposition from 250 historians, including David McCollough and James McPherson, and film-maker Ken Burns".[10]

Wal-Mart has argued that the store's location "near a strip mall and across from McDonald's will not diminish the battlefield".[10] Local supporters for Wal-Mart also argue that the store "could bring needed jobs and tax revenue to the rural county".[10]

On August 25, 2009, after a public hearing the day before, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 in favor of Wal-Mart building their store next to the battlefield. However, preservationists vowed a court fight to block the construction and urged Wal-Mart to reconsider their location.[11] And on September 23, 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Friends of Wilderness Battlefield along with residents of Orange and Spotsylvania Counties filed a legal challenge against the proposed big-box development on the battlefield.[12][13]

In popular culture[]

An American independent feature film featuring the Battle of the Wilderness, Wicked Spring, was shot between January and August 2000 and released on DVD worldwide in December 2003.

Civil War commemorative stamps[]

File:The Wilderness Centenial 1964 Issue-5c.jpg

U.S. Postage Stamp, 1964 5-cent issue, Battle of the Wilderness centennial commemorative stamp.

During the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, the United States Post Office issued five postage stamps commemorating the 100th anniversaries of famous battles, as they occurred over a four-year period, beginning with the Battle of Fort Sumter Centennial issue of 1961. The Battle of Shiloh commemorative stamp was issued in 1962, the Battle of Gettysburg in 1963, the Battle of the Wilderness in 1964, and the Appomattox Centennial commemorative stamp in 1965.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 NPS
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bonekemper, pp. 307-08. Although estimates of Union casualties are relatively consistent across sources, historians have presented significantly different figures for Confederate casualties. See the Aftermath section on casualties.
  3. Rhea, pp. 300-01.
  4. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 726-8.
  5. Rhea, pp. 435-36, 440.
  6. CWPT Leads Effort To Stop Wal-Mart At The Wilderness
  7. The Restoration of Ellwood -
  8. CWPT's Campaign to Stop the Wilderness Walmart
  9. Fitts, Deborah (August 2009). "CWPT Leads Effort To Stop Wal-Mart At The Wilderness". Civil War News (Historical Publications Inc.). Retrieved 2010-06-14. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Steve Szkotak (2009-05-05). "Actor Duvall Fights to Block Wal-Mart Near VA. Battlefield". The Virginian-Pilot. 
  11. Press release, August 25, 2009, from the CWPT.
  12. "National Park Advocates and Local Residents File Legal Challenge to Wilderness Wal-Mart Approval" 23 September 2009. Retrieved 4 December 2009.
  13. "National Parks Conservation Association Supports Wal-Mart Lawsuit". National Parks Conservation Association. 2009-09-23. Retrieved 2010-06-14. 


Further reading[]

  • Gallagher, Gary W., ed., The Wilderness Campaign, University of North Carolina Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8078-2334-1.
  • Longstreet, James, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America, J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1896, (reprinted by Da Capo Press) ISBN 0-3068-0464-6.

External links[]

ca:Batalla de Wilderness da:Slaget ved the Wilderness de:Schlacht in der Wilderness es:Batalla de la espesura fr:Bataille de la Wilderness it:Battaglia del Wilderness nl:Slag in de Wildernis ja:荒野の戦い ru:Битва в Глуши fi:Wildernessin taistelu sv:Slaget i vildmarken zh:莽原之役