Details of the Civil War’s key Battle of the Wilderness (1864)

Battle of the Wilderness - Civil War

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This is a detailed account of what would come to be known as The Battle of the Wilderness, which was the first battle of Grant’s Virginia Overland Campaign against Lee.

Considered one of the Civil War’s “Decisive Battles,” more than 3500 lives were lost over these few days.






Unparalleled Slaughter on Both Sides.

Heavy Captures of Artillery and Prisoners.


Army of the Potomac, “Marching Along”

Scenes from Civil War Battle of the Wilderness (2)

Wednesday Night, May 4, 1864

The grand Army of the Potomac has at last taken the initiatory stride in the long-expected advance, and tonight finds our troops again across the Rapidan. No extraordinary amount of prescience is necessary to see another sanguinary conflict close at hand; adventitious circumstances only can delay it.

The 2nd Army Corps, Maj. Gen. Hancock, forms the extreme left of our army, the 6th occupying the right and the 5th the center.

The river was crossed at Germania, Culpepper Mine, and Ely’s Fords without opposition by the enemy. The 2nd Corps broke camp at about 10 pm last night, and, under cover of the darkness, marched toward the Rapidan, the divisions moving in their numerical order.

Ely’s Ford was reached at 5 o’clock this morning, where a battalion of the 58th New York Engineers, commanded by Major Wesley Brainard, had, during the night, constructed two pontoon bridges, over which our troops immediately passed to the south bank of the river.

Gregg’s Cavalry Division preceded the infantry several hours before, and picked up a dozen or more of the enemy’s pickets.

The plank road leading to Fredericksburg was thoroughly patrolled several miles beyond Chancellorsville, but no force of the enemy discovered. The troops of the 2nd reached the old battlefield of Chancellorsville at noon to-day, where they were advantageously disposed on commanding eminences by Gen. Hancock, and a halt for the night ordered.

Our crossing the river without opposition occasioned some surprise among the troops. That Grant’s Budden advance in this direction was unexpected by the rebel General there is every reason to believe.

Now that we have a foothold south of the Rapidan, Lee will undoubtedly use his best endeavors to fight a battle on ground of his own choosing. We have succeeded in completely flanking him on his right, which will of course compel his evacuation of his works on Clark’s Mountain and at Mine Run.

Our cavalry have patrolled the country in the direction of Orange Court House, and report no force of the enemy this side of Mine Run.

Song - The battle of the wilderness

The condition of the troops could not be better. Although just from their winter huts, and unaccustomed for a long time to fatigue, they have never marched so well as they have on this occasion. Every one remarked the small number of stragglers, and, if there is any index to the true state of reeling among troops, straggling, or the absence of it, is one.

The men seemed to repose unbounded confidence in Gen. Grant, whose plans they are to execute, and are aware of the momentous campaign which has just been inaugurated.

To-night bivouacking on the spot one year ago yesterday, made forever sacred by the blood of brave heroes, and lulled to rest by the notes of the whip-poor-will, far from home and relatives and friends, the soldiers of this great army, confident in the justice of the cause in which they are battling, dream but of victory.

Evidences are visible of the great battle which occurred here one year ago. The graves of our men, buried by the enemy in immense trenches, are visible on every side, and in many places scores of skulls grin horribly at the mournful observer.

Trees cut down by solid shot and shells, and pierced and scarred by bullets, meet the eye on every side. The remains of a Sergeant killed in the battle were discovered and identified by his former comrades to-day, and with reverential hands and with fitting marks of respect, consigned to their final resting place.

The walls and chimneys of the Chancellorsville mansion are still standing, and only tend to intensify the desolated aspect of the surrounding country.

MORE: The real Gettysburg Address: Photos, analysis & full text of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech (1863)

Scenes from Civil War Battle of the Wilderness (3)

Thursday Night, May 5, 1864

Darkness closes around the soldiers of this army, and finds them tired and weary, sleeping in their war harness, while vigilant sentinels far in the advance keep watch over tho foe whom they so nobly and successfully battled to day.

At an early hour this morning the march was resumed in the direction of Todd’s Tavern, which point was reached before noon, and the troops placed in line of battle.

At 12 am., Gen. Wilson, commanding Kilpatrick’s former cavalry division, made his whereabouts known by a brisk cannonading, several miles southwest of “The Tavern,” and in the vicinity of Shady Grove Church, where for three quarters of an hour, he was sharply engaged with a large body of cavalry and a considerable force of infantry, by whom he was gradually forced back upon the 2nd Corps.

The movoments of Lee this morning soon revealed his real design — an attempt to cut our lines by a desperate attack. On discovering his intentions, Gen. Warren was directed to attack him at once, which he did at about 11 am.

Scenes from Civil War Battle of the Wilderness (1)

A determined musketry fight of an hour and a half ensued, in which Warren handsomely drove him from his position with the infliction of great loss. Griffin’s division of the 5th corps led the attack and suffered severely, its loss being nearly 1,000 in killed, wounded and missing.

Finding his efforts to break our centre futile, the enemy next attempted to interpose an overwhelming force between Warren and Hancock, the latter of whom, in accordance with orders, was marching his corps rapidly to form a junction with the former.

Fortunately, his advance, consisting of Birney’s Division, came up not a moment too soon, and just in time to circumvent the rebel General, who, at 2-1/2 p.m., made a desperate onslaught on the divisions of Birney, Gibbon, and Getty, the latter of whom had been temporarily detached to form the extreme right of Hancock’s command.

The fight raged hotly until some time after dark, and resulted in the repulse of the enemy at all points.

Scarcely any artillery was brought into requisition, the character of the ground rendering it useless. The battle-field is covered with a thick growth of underbrush and medium-sized oak trees, and it is owing to that fact that our losses are comparatively light.

Music - The battle of the Wilderness

Friday, May 6, 1864

Constant picket firing occurred along our entire lines throughout the night (Thursday) and one or two severe attacks were made upon Sedgwick, which were handsomely repulsed. At a quarter to five am, the ball opened in full blast by the Rebels assaulting and making a desperate attempt to turn the position of the 6th Corps.

Artillery was used on both sides, but owing to the entire ground being covered by undergrowth of pines, the musket was chiefly relied upon.

The attack extended rapidly along our entire line, and at about 7 o’clock was especially severe on both our right and left flanks, which the foe seemed determined to break in turn, for which purpose they adopted their inevitable tactics of rapidly concentrating and hurling masses of men upon the point of assault.

Owing to the wooded condition of the entire battlefield, this system has been more successful to them and damaging to us than it could be in open ground, where artillery could be brought into requisition.

At 11-1/4 o’clock, a desperate assault was made upon the 5th Corps, particularly upon the 4th Division, commanded by Gen. James S Wadsworth. While gallantly rallying his men, and at their head, leading the charge, this noble man and devoted soldier was shot in the forehead and fell dead, his body remaining in our possession.

Battle of the Wilderness

The following photos are from the main eastern theater of war, Grant’s Wilderness Campaign, May-June 1864. They were all taken by Timothy H O’Sullivan during May of 1864.

They offer some more fascinating glimpses into the Civil War — rather incredible when you consider how new photography was at the time, the risks that are inherent when shooting pictures during an active military campaign… and simply the fact that these images have survived until now.

Generals looking at a map

General Ulysses S Grant examining map held by General George G Meade (May 21, 1864):

civil war photography may 1864 6

Soldiers filling canteens

In Fredericksburg, Virginia:

civil war photography may 1864 1

Soldiers drawing water from a well

Army of the Potomac:

civil war photography may 1864 3

Troops occupying North Anna River

Federal troops occupying line of breastworks on the north bank of the North Anna River, Virginia (May 25, 1864):

civil war photography may 1864 5

Confederate redoubt commanding Chesterfield bridge

Interior view of Confederate redoubt commanding Chesterfield bridge. Captured by 2nd Corps under Gen. Hancock — North Anna River, Virginia (May 23, 1864):

civil war photography may 1864 7

U S Grant’s headquarters

Church in Massaponax Church, Virginia — temporary headquarters of Gen Ulysses S Grant — surrounded by soldiers (May 21, 1864):

civil war photography may 1864 2

Burial of Federal dead

In Fredericksburg, Virginia:

civil war photography may 1864 4

100 years ago in Virginia — 141st had heavy losses in Battle of Wilderness (1964)

by Major John W. Keeler — The Evening Times (Sayre, Pennsylvania) July 8, 1964

More than 100 years ago Northern and Southern forces met in the great Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, and the 141st Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment was in the thick of the fight.

Major John W. Keeler of Wyalusing, now on the headquarters staff of the U.S. Air Force Academy, has done considerable research on this battle, which involved so many young men from this area.

The name of the road was Brock Road. Actually it was little more than a wagon trail through a thick second growth of pine timber. It was warm and the roads and woods back to the fords of the Rapidan River were littered with discarded overcoats and blankets.

The 141st Pennsylvania Volunteer regiment moved into line of battle along Brock Road. They formed facing west at the intersection of another road — the Orange Plank Road, It was May 5, 1864, and these men from the hills of Bradford, Susquehanna and Sullivan counties were a ‘‘million miles’? — and for some, an eternity — from home. They were one small regiment in the greatest army ever assembled on the American continent. They were part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s army and they were in the Virginia Wilderness.

During the march of the day before, the 131st had rested on the battlefield and scene of the terrible Union defeat of just a year ago — Chancellorsville. Some of the men had wandered through the woods and fields and found the bleached bones of comrades still unburied.

Corporal James Coburn of Company B wrote in his diary: ‘I visited the works I helped to build a year ago today, saw the grave of my former friend Robert McKinney.” Another diary says: ‘‘Faded caps, knapsacks and haversacks with the familiar ‘141 P.V.’ still on them, identified to us the bones of many a comrade who had worn them, and who seemed to have quietly waited our coming to bury them.”

And now the 141st was back. Brock Road was just five miles west of the position they held at Chancellorsville a year ago. They were in the same stubby pine growth, the same warm Virginia air and they faced the same terrible enemy — Robert Lee and the mighty Army of Northern Virginia.

But the 141st was not the same. They were not the farm and town boys they were twelve months before. Now they were soldiers, hardened, battle-proven, combat soldiers. And the names embroidered on their regimental colors told nearly as much as the deep lines now etched in each face.

The names were places — Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Kelly Ford, Mine Run, Morris Farm and Gettysburg. Of the thousand in the regiment who marched to Harrisburg just twenty months before, 307 formed a line of battle this day on Brock Road.

It was 5 p.m., before the 141st was ordered into action. All day bullets whined over their heads as they dug trenches along the road. Out in front, some 400 yards, Getty’s division clashed with the Rebels of Gen. A.P. Hill’s corps. Far to the right rumbled another part of the line locked in battle with the Confederates.

Shortly before dark a Confederate regiment, the Seventh North Carolina, found a gap between the Union Second and Fifth Corps. As the Southern soldiers streamed through the breach, the 14lst was ordered forward with the 20th Indiana to plug ‘up the hole. They struck the North Carolinians in a clearing near the intersection of the roads and drove back the threat to the Union line.

“The night was long,” one 141st volunteer writes. They lay by their muskets and listened to the enemy chop trees and construct entrenchments just a few yards away. Some of the men pulled picket duty and they tell of stumbling over dead bodies and wounded men as they went to their posts.

By morning both great armies were aligned and ready for the second and most terrible day of this battle in the Wilderness.

The 141st awoke as the sun’s first rays filtered through the trees. At the foot of a gentle slope some twenty rods in front of the regiment ran a small brook. At the far side of the stream on the crest of another slope waved a Confederate flag, and ‘behind a line of felled trees Rebel muskets glistened.

The order to attack came down the line, “Fix bayonets,’’ shouted Lt. Col. Gny Watkins, commanding the 141st. Sgt. Stephen Rought of A Company fumbled at his belt and dis- covered he had lost his bayonet. He mumbled a curse, picked up his musket and told the men of his platoon, “‘I’ll have that flag.”

ALSO SEE: What happened during the Civil War’s deadly Battle of Antietam in 1862

Minutes later the Union line advanced. The men of the 141st were out of their entrenchments, down the slope and splashing across the brook before the first Confederate shots were fired. Sgt. Stephen Rought headed straight for the Rebel flag. He was one of the first up the slope and over the enemy barricade. Capt. Joseph Hurst of Camptown writes, ‘‘The whiz of bullets in our ears, through the powder-smoke and through the bramble bushes, we found ourselves over the works.’’

Sgt. Rought, flailing his musket like a club, smashed his wav toward the Rebel colors. A Confederate officer aimed his pistol at the Sergeant’s head. Another Confederate grabbed the flag. Almost simultaneously, Capt. Marcus Warner dropped the aiming Rebel officer with a single shot, and Rought’s clubbed musket smashed  the skull of the man with the flag. Sgt. Rought scooped up the colors as they fell to the ground.

The 141st pushed on through the thick woods. They overran a second Confederate line. Some of the men grabbed a mouthful of corn bread as they crashed through a group of Confederates cooking breakfast. The regiment gathered in 40 prisoners from the Thirteenth North Carolina regiment whose flag Sgt. Rought had captured.

But then, things changed. General James Longstreet and his famed First Corps came pouring through the woods to meet the Union attack. General Lee himself started to lead one of the brigades to halt the Federal drive. They were Texans and they refused to go forward until General Lee went to the rear. Then they came on with a wild rush.

The two mighty armies locked together in a violent hand-to-hand slaughter. The Wilderness roared with the terrible crash of thousands of muskets and cannons. Cheers and yells sometimes could be heard over the din of battle as a regiment or brigade charged over an enemy unit. Late in the afternoon the woods caught fire and hundreds of wounded men died screaming in the flames.

The Confederate attack rolled up the right of General Grant’s army. They might have destroyed it there in the Wilderness except for one single act of fate. In the dim light of the heavy underbrush, a group of Confederates mistook General Longstreet and his staff for enemy cavalry. They fired. Several fell from their horses, including Longstreet, with a bullet through his throat.

The Rebel attack hesitated and seemed to lose its drive with the wounding of their great corps commander.

Then they struck again and only after the Union line had been rolled back to the Brock Road, were they halted. Here, exhausted and nearly out of ammunition, the 141st again entered the fight. With several other regiments, they checked the Confederate advance. At one point their log breasts works were aflame and they battled Rebels with charge and countercharge in the fire. 

As night fell the violence subsided. Dr. David Craft, the 141st chaplain and historian, says, “both armies were peeled, bleeding and tired.’’ The men fell exhausted on their arms. Only the moan of the wounded could be heard now.

The Battle of the Wilderness was ended.

The men of the 141st found themselves again on Brock Road only a few yards from where they had formed for battle the day before.

Losses to both armies had been frightful. Of the 307 in the 141st who went into the battle, 232 answered roll call on the night of May 6.

It is doubtful that any of these men from the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania realized this night that the terrible battle they had just taken part in was the beginning of the end of the American Civil War.

Many of them had yet to die — at Spotsylvania, bloody Cold Harbor and Petersburg. But for General Grant and Sgt. Rought and a hundred thousand men in the Army of the Potomac, the first step to Appomatox had been taken.

NOW SEE THIS: How the Civil War ended, and find out the details of Lee’s surrender to Grant (1865)

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