Thursday, August 28, 2014

Another Civil War Battlefield: The Wilderness of 1864

T again.  Ok.  All cards on the table.  These photos were not taken recently; more like 2-plus years ago, and this blog entry has been in draft form for the entire time.  I suppose it's time to hit the publish button.

Living in the Northern Virginia area put us in close proximity to a number of important battlefields, so it is hard not to hop in a car on occasion and check out the places where Confederate General Robert E. Lee, an almost god-like figure to many American military historians, particularly those of the South, went toe-to-toe against a hodgepodge of Union generals.   Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 to the spring of 1864 whipped a succession of Union generals leading the Army of the Potomac in the area generally between Richmond, Virginia and what are today the Washington, DC suburbs.  Outside of a bloody draw at Antietam, Maryland (September 1862: For a tour, go here Antietam Battlefield Tour  and here Battlefield Paintings) a defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and frustration at Mine Run/Bristoe Station, Lee and his army would win victory after victory and ruin one Union general after another. Starting in May of 1864, however, he would be pitted against a new opponent; one who had a reputation for hard fighting and  his own string of victories in the western Confederacy.  That man was Ulysses S. Grant.

Their first clash would be a place called "the Wildnerness," already a place of bad memories for the Union because it was the scene of a serious defeat for the Army of the Potomac the previous year (Chancellorsville) and the sacking of its commander (Joe Hooker).  The Wilderness, located about 20 miles west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was so-named because its second-growth woods concealed a dense undergrowth of shrubs and scrubby trees, having been clear cut in the years prior to the war to support local iron ore blast furnaces and then growing back as a tangled mess.  To make matters worse, the area had few roads. If Grant wanted to attack towards the Confederate capital of Richmond and maintain his communications with Washington, however, he could not avoid the area, so he intended to march quickly through and try to bring Lee to battle in the open country to the south.  There, his army, with its considerable numerical advantages in infantry and artillery could overwhelm Lee's smaller army, or so he thought.  If, however, Lee decided to fight him in the Wildnerness, Grant would oblige him. Lee would do just that in a bloody 2-day battle from 5-6 May 1864.  The ensuing campaign would be America's bloodiest until the Meuse-Argonne Campaign of 1918 (Meuse-Argonne Drive-Thru and Period photos from the Meuse-Argonne Campaign).

When I first began visiting the battlefield some 20-plus years ago, I often had the place and its trails to myself.  People and vehicular traffic were light and it still had an air of needing to be explored.  Fanciful thinking on my part; after all, even 20 years ago, the battlefield was nearly 130 years old and had been walked by thousands before me, but when you're wandering a historical site all by yourself, it's okay to think like that I suppose.  Today, however, while it is not nearly as crowded and popular as places like Gettysburg and Antietam, and it is still possible to be alone on the trails, the place does not feel the same.  The battlefield is nearly surrounded by housing developments and the roads are very busy.  It is not uncommon to see a house sitting in an area where dozens of men were felled all those years ago, and crossing the roads can be hazardous to your health.  The situation came close to getting much worse when Walmart not too long ago tried to put a store nearby; thankfully, that effort was blocked by a coalition of both local and national concerned parties.

Still, it is an interesting place to go, and along with Spotsylvania a few miles further south, one of my favorite Civil War battlefields.  Nearly 30,000 Americans would fall here in a 2-day fight for some worthless woods, a few cleared fields and small hills, and a couple of primitive road intersections.  The battle would also mark a significant turning point in the nature of the war.  Starting that spring, the conflict would become something of a death struggle, and the Wilderness would mark a new phase in the fighting.  Armies prior to '64 would typically go on campaign, march and maneuver, fight a big battle or perhaps two, then probably go back to camp to rest and recuperate until the next campaign or battle.  They would certainly not stay in contact for many days.  Starting with the Wildnerness, however, they would embark on the bloodiest and longest campaign--the Overland Campaign--in American history up to the time, staying in contact and pounding each other for the next 40 days and suffering some 100,000 casualties, which were shocking figures at the time, so shocking that they--about 60,000 of them were Union--caused major political problems for the Lincoln Administration and earned Grant the nickname of "butcher."  The 40,000 casualties suffered by Lee's army were also losses the Confederacy could ill-afford.  These numbers go even higher if you link the Overland Campaign to the Siege of Petersburg and Richmond, which would last a further nine months and cost another estimated 70,000 casualties for both sides.  The Wilderness would see the beginnings of the modern era of warfare for armies as they would for the first time make routine and extensive use of field fortifications--trenches and earthworks--making battlefields begin to look like what would be seen in the First World War (the Europeans should have paid more attention to such things).  The Wilderness battle, even though a tactical victory for Lee, would also mark the beginning of the end for the Confederacy as Grant during  Overland Campaign would take the initiative from Lee and force him into a siege at Richmond and Petersburg that would last until the end of the war and result in the ruin and surrender of Lee's army.

Don't expect a blow-by-blow account of the battle here.  There are a number of books and websites for that, and they would probably do a better job than I can.   My aim is to give you an overview and provide some feel for what took place in the photograph.  This being one of the first wars in history that many of the soldiers, particularly Northern troops, were at least somewhat literate, first-person accounts are abundant.  Perhaps reading those will spark your imagination.  Where I can, I will also provide some period photographs, which I always find fascinating.  If you do find yourself interested in the battle itself, I would recommend Shelby Foote's account in his classic 3-volume The Civil War:  A Narrative (see part 3:  Red River to Appomattox), Gordon Rhea's The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6 1864, or John Michael Priest's 2-volume account, Nowhere to Run and Victory Without Triumph.  Priest's account is notable for its thorough, if not downright amazing, research, although the detail might be a bit mind numbing for casual  readers of Civil War history.  It is invaluable for walking the battlefield. For a unit history, look for Warren Wilkinson's Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen (a history of the 57th Massachusetts Infantry).  For cool old photos, check out  William Fassanito's Grant and Lee:  The Virginia Campaigns of 1864-1865, The National Historic Society's (William Davis and Bell Wiley) Civil War: A Complete Photographic History, and 99 Historic Images of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Civil War Sites (Gary Adelman and John Richter, ed).  Also, go to the National Park Service website for a summary of the battle:  NPS Summary.  And this site for maps of the battle and unit movements:  Map

The site of U.S. Grant's headquarters during the battle sits on a small wooded knoll of VA Hwy 20.  Not much to see here; just a spot on a small hill in the woods and this sign.  George Meade was the actual commander of the Army of the Potomac (AoP) while Grant was commander of all Union forces.  However, since Grant traveled with the army and outranked Meade, he was the one really running the AoP.  It made for an interesting and sometimes contentious relationship.  Meade was a meticulous and cautious general who liked to have everything ready before launching an attack. Grant on the other hand liked to pitch in as soon as troops were available and damn the consequences.  Unfortunately, this bungled chain of command would cost the AoP opportunities and the lives of many Union soldiers. 
Across the road from Grant's headquarters is Ellwood or the Lacy House, built around 1790.  During the battle, it served as the headquarters for the Union 5th Corps, commanded by Governeur Warren.   Some 24 cannons were also deployed in the area around the house.  `The house was recently restored and now holds a small museum with a staff.  While the site is a very nice place to visit, I think I kinda liked it more when the house was abandoned, the grounds were overgrown, and you had to know where you were going to find the place.
A little bit about Ellwood.

Buried in the Ellwood house family cemetery is (allegedly) the arm of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, famous Confederate general who lost the aforementioned appendage during the nearby battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863.  Jackson would soon afterwards die of complications (pneumonia)  from the wound, leading many Southern historians and wannabe historians over the  years to forever ponder how the Confederacy might have fared if Jackson had lived.
Park Service map.  Warren's 5th Corps started the battle off when Union forces detected Confederates of Richard Ewell's Corps marching up the road in the center of the map towards them.  Turning to his subordinates, Warren said "They have discovered our movements.  Send for some of the most available troops at once."  With that, the AoP's movements through the Wilderness were suspended and they prepared to attack down the road, then known as the Orange Turnpike, to meet Ewell's Confederate corps marching towards them at Saunder's Field.  The "turnpike" was not much of a turnpike, but a simple dirt track through the woods (it is now a very busy VA Hwy 20).  
The old Orange Turnpike (Hwy 20) and Saunder's Field from the east and looking west towards the Confederate positions.  Across this field, Union forces opened up the attack on the Confederates deploying at the edge of the woods on the far side:  Wrote one Union soldier from Maine, "The order was given to charge.  The right of our regiment now rested on the Turnpike; and across the field we dashed.  Zip, zip, zip came the bullets on every side.  The field was nearly crossed.  We dashed up a little swell of land on its farthest side and were under the shadow of the trees.  A red volcano [of muzzle flashes] yawned before us and vomited forth...lead and death.  Our lines staggered for a moment, but with desperate resolution our men threw themselves upon the enemy's guns."
Similar view in 1866.  Union forces made multiple advances across Saunder's Field on both days of the battle, but all failed.  The Confederates launched a number of counter assaults.  One such assault swept across the field and overran some Union troops in the swale in the middle of the photograph and took them as prisoners.  When the Confederates were subsequently forced to retreat, some remained in the gully between the lines with their prisoners and proceeded to rob them of their canteens.  To their surprise and pleasure, the canteens held whiskey rather than water.  While the battle raged over their heads, the Confederates (Virginians) proceed to get drunk with their prisoners.  At some point, an argument broke out, which led one Virginian and a Federal to stagger out of the gully and settle things with their fists.  The firing stopped and troops of both sides watched while the two fought it out.  Once the Confederate wrestled the Federal back into the ditch, the firing resumed.  One might be tempted to say, "only in America," but certainly there are similar accounts of such incidents in humankind's wars.

North side of Saunders field looking in the same direction.  On 5 May, Confederate troops marched up through the gap in the trees towards you and deployed just inside the woods.  New Yorkers and men from US regular infantry regiments charged up the slope in the center of the photograph only to be bloodily repulsed by Virginians and North Carolinians.   Savage fighting would continue in this area on both days of the battle.
Similar view today.   The Turnpike is to the left.  The monument is to one of the New York regiments, the 140th.  Nearly half of the unit's 529 men fell in the charge.  Said a captain from the regiment, "The regiment melted away like snow.  Men disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them." 
View from the Confederate side looking east with the remnants of trenches in the foreground.   The fighting here swayed back and forth on the first day and at times, the fighting was hand to hand before the Southerners forced the Northerners back across the field.  Said a North Carolina soldier, "'Twas claw for claw, and the devil for us all."  A Federal soldier recalled a "medley of sounds...the incessant roar of a rifle; the screaming bullets; the forest on fire; men cheering, groaning, yelling, swearing, and praying!"  All this created an experience in the minds of the survivors that we can never forget."
Confederate entrenchments at Saunders's Field (date unknown).  The fortifications were thrown up after the initial fighting.   By 1864, soldiers on both sides were becoming experts at digging trenches to protect themselves from enemy fire, so much so that some generals on both sides thought the troops lacked spirit.  Said a North Carolina soldier, "A bayonet served to loosen the dirt, and the shovels followed after.  Our men were good woodcutters and were not slow to fell trees as the basis for the works...It was surprising to see how hastily they threw up trenches in a night and even in a few hours." 

The same trenches today.
More Confederate field fortifications built by Ewell's men after the initial fighting.  Said a New York soldier, "The Confederates now commenced to strengthen the position...felling timber and covering it with earth.  The woods resounded with the strokes of their axes as the busy worked plied their labor within three hundred yards, and in some places less than one hundred yards of our line, yet so dense was the thicket that they were entirely concealed from our view."  Soon, that New York soldier would be ordered to attack those positions with predictably tragic results.

More remnants of trenches built by Ewell's Confederates.  The view is towards the Federal lines.

Another shot of Saunder's Field from Union side.  On the right just out of view is a small interpretative shelter.
The Higgerson farm where, in a somewhat amusing story, a certain Mrs. Higgerson--not a particularly attractive lady-- decided to taunt the "cowardly yankees" marching past her house looking for the flank of the Confederate forces defending the Sander's Field position.  She told them they would soon be coming back in a hurry.  Indeed, they would. 
Site of the Higgerson house today.  A large Confederate counterattack swept through here on the 5th of May and pushed the Union forces back to their starting points.  One of the attacking Confederate brigades was led by General John B. Gordon, a tiny man, but a brave officer who led from the front and a gifted speaker with a knack for inspiring troops. Said one soldier, "He's the most prettiest thing you ever did see on a field of fight.  It'ud put fight into a whipped chicken just to look at him."  Gordon, who started the war as a junior officer with no military experience, rose to lieutenant general and a corps command, as well as one of Lee's most trusted subordinates.  He would after the war serve as a senator from Georgia, as well as governor of the state.
Across the road from the Higgerson house, give or take a few hundred yards, is a picnic area.  From the picnic area, a trail heads off into the woods.  If you stay on the trail, it will take you to all the way to the Brock Road.  If you stray off the trail and do a little bushwacking, you can reach the Lacy House.  If you keep your eyes open, you will find some of the more interesting and best preserved field works in the area:  Positions built for Union artillery batteries.  They have eroded considerably over the past 20 years, but still outline distinctly the positions dug for about 10 artillery pieces.  They were probably assigned to the Union 5th Corps considering their location in relation to the Lacy House.

More photos of the position.  It's too bad the photos do not do them justice.
More Union entrenchments along the trail.  These were built after the Union repulse on 5 May; there was no fighting here.
The Chewning farm, a place of missed opportunities for the Union Army.  As I mentioned earlier, the fighting in the Wilderness was largely over crossroads, open areas, and a few spots of high ground.  The Chewning farm was both open and one of the few areas of high ground.   Washington Roebling, the aide to Union 5th Corps Commander Governeur Warren, said "This field was a commanding plateau overlooking the ground to the north and west..."  Plus, the position was almost dead-center between the two Confederate positions; the northern one centered on Saunder's Field (Ewell's Corps), and the southern one center on the Brock Road (A.P. Hill's Corps).  Early in the battle, before the Confederates could put troops there, a Union division occupied the farm where it could see A.P. Hill's Corps marching up the Orange Plank Road.  Instead of attacking or fortifying the hill, however, the division was recalled and sent elsewhere; something not uncommon in the confusion of a smoke-filled battlefield, even more so in the days before radio communications. Even today, with all of our technology, the same fog of war creates similar mishaps and missed opportunities on the battlefield.
Another shot of the Chewning Farm.  On the second day, Confederate troops occupying the place were pulled out and sent to deal with fighting off to the south.  Not long afterwards, an entire Union corps (the 9th) moved into the gap, but was fought to a standstill by Confederate reinforcements. 

Confederate trenches dug late in the battle near the Orange Plank Road.    These particular trenches probably saw little action, but fighting raged in this area on both the 5th and 6th of May. 

The Orange Plank Road.   Stay with me here 'cause the fighting, and the sequence of fighting was confusing.  On the 5th of May, Confederates from A.P. Hill's Corps marched up this road (towards you) to seize the Brock Road intersection about a mile ahead (behind me).  They were stopped by the Winfield Scott Hancock's (what a great name for a general, and one of the best commanders on either side during the war) 2nd Union Corps, which counterattacked. 

Fighting raged back and forth in those woods between A.P. Hill's men and those of Hancock's corps.  The woods made the fighting confused; the woods and the smoke made everything hard to see.  A Confederate general wrote, "The troops engaged could not be seen...the rattle of musketry alone indicating where the struggle was severest, and the points to which the reinforcing brigades should be sent."  The fighting was also brutal.  Of one Confederate regiment from North Carolina, 201 of 340 men were casualties that day.  In front of the regiment, the men counted 157 Union bodies.  The fighting continued into the night before eventually dying out, but even then, flareups of fighting continued.  One Confederate wrote that a Union soldier accused a Confederate of having a canine ancestry.  "The reply to this was a shot, and the reply to that was a volley, which we answered in turn, and for a while we had a battle all to ourselves."   The Confederates were exhausted, disorganized, heavily outnumbered, and hanging on for dear life when the fighting finally ended due to darkness.
The fields of the Widow Tapp farm. Overnight, Hancock put together a massive force to decide the issue.  He would overrun the Confederates with sheer numbers.  Early in the morning on the 6th of May, his force moved inexorably forward and soon the disorganized Confederates of A.P. Hill's Corps were fleeing to the rear.  Thousands of Confederate troops retreated across this field towards these guns, representing what was a line of 16 cannon that morning.  They were the only thing standing between the Confederates and disaster.

In the nick of time, however, two divisions of James Longstreet's 1st Corps arrived on the field, having marched almost all night, and pretty much running the last several miles (ever tried that carrying a 10lb rifle, ammunition, and a pack?).  They were sent immediately into the attack to repulse the victorious,l but increasingly disorganized Union forces emerging from the woods on the other side of the field.  Wrote one onlooker, "In perfect order, ranks well closed, and no stragglers, those splendid troops came on, regardless of the confusion on every side, pushing their steady movement onward like a river in the sea of confused and troubled waves around them."  I doubt they were in perfect order, but it was an admirable feat and turned the tide for the Confederates.
The "Texas brigade," (which also included a Georgia regiment), one of the elite units of the Confederate army, played a conspicuous role in the counterattack.  It also paid a heavy price; of the 800 men in the considerably understrength brigade, less than 250 were in the ranks when the unit was pulled out of the line.   The old Confederate states do not have many monuments to their troops on Civil War battlefields.  Texas is an exception, however.  If Texans fought there, Texas most likely has erected a monument to them identical to this one.
The counterattack also marked one of the most famous (Confederate) incidents of the war in the East; the "Lee to the rear" episode.  General Lee was at the Widow Tapp Farm during the fighting and was distressed at the rout of A. P. Hill's men.  He had never seen the men of his army so disorganized.  When Longstreet's men arrived on the field, he attempted to lead the counterattack, placing himself at the front of  the Texas Brigade.  The Texans, however, refused to move forward until Lee had gone to the rear.  Longstreet later recalled Lee was "off his balance."  Perhaps.  He was, after all, watching nearly a third of his army retire from the field in a disorganized mob and realizing the war could be lost if the situation was not reversed.

Longstreet's attack stopped Hancock, but failed to drive him back.  Longstreet then devised a flank attack which rolled up Hancock's flank "like a wet blanket" as Hancock himself told Longstreet after the war.  Hancock's men retreated towards the Brock Road.  Unfortunately, the area where Longstreet's attack took place is now the site of an exclusive gated housing community.

As the counterattack progressed, Longstreet and his staff moved forward at the head of reinforcements, but were hit by friendly fire in this area, victims of the confused nature of the fighting, heavy smoke, and limited visibility in the woods. Longstreet was seriously wounded and one of his brigade commanders was killed.
The same general area not long after the war.

Fascinating photo of veterans walking the Orange Plank Road, I believe in the 1880s.
Graphic depiction of Longstreet's "friendly fire" incident.

The Confederates launched one last attack through these woods in an attempt to break the Union lines along the Brock Road.
They made a brief lodgement in the lines, but were quickly thrown out.   Not long afterwards, the fighting on this part of the battlefield ended.

Union lines along the Brock Road.

Remnants of those lines.

The intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank roads today, plus one bewildered Husky.  Scene of heavy fighting back in May of 1864.
Fighting began to die down all along the line by the late afternoon on the 6th, except for one final spasm on the far northern flank of the Union army that evening.  Brigadier General John B. Gordon persuaded his division and corps commander that the Union flank was "in the air" (not anchored on a geographic feature or protected by cavalry) and should be attacked. Unfortunately, it took a while before his argument won over his superiors and nearly dark before the attack could be organized.  Night attacks in the Civil War were rare and for good reason as they usually did not do so well.  The idea of armies "owning the night" is a recent capability. There were no night-vision goggles, infrared sensors, thermal optical devices, or GPS's in those days.  This one proved no exception.  Despite some initial success in rolling up and capturing a good portion of two Union brigades, the attack petered out, having lost out to the darkness, confused and lost commanders, disorganized troops, and Union reinforcements.  Afterwards, both Grant and Lee sat back to see what his opponent would do thought about his own next move.  They would meet again for another knock-down drag-out fight at a place just down the road called Spotsylvania Court House.

Trenches marking the northern end of the Union line.  Confederate forces would roll over these positions during a late evening attack on 6 May.

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