Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania

Grant felt so strongly about his drive south against the Army of Northern Virginia that he decided to position himself with the force that would do the attacking, the Army of the Potomac. He had decided earlier to allow Meade to remain the commander of this venerable army, so Grant and Meade would travel together. Grant would communicate with Sherman and his other subordinates by telegraph as Grant's headquarters moved south.

Grant pushed off on May 4, part of his grand plan to move all major Union armies against the Confederacy at once. Grant had considered trying to maneuver the Army of the Potomac around Lee's left flank, proceeding south toward Charlottesville before turning southeast toward Richmond, but he decided to move by Lee's right flank instead. Doing so would allow the Army of the Potomac to better defend Washington, D.C. Grant expected that if the Army of the Potomac set out for Richmond, Lee's army would try to defend Richmond rather than making a quick dash to Washington. To proceed past Lee's right flank, Grant would have to march through territory called the Wilderness, which was exactly what its name implied. Grant hoped he could march through this tangle with his 120,000 soldiers and battle Lee on the far side in open farm country.

The Battle of the Wilderness

But Robert E. Lee was never one to do what his opponents wanted him to do or thought he would do. Lee only had about 65,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia. He felt that if he could attack in the Wilderness, the Federals would have a much harder time making their men and artillery work effectively than they would in open country. As soon as Lee detected that Grant had moved into the Wilderness, he set his own army in motion. The Army of Northern Virginia smashed into the Army of the Potomac broadside and launched the Battle of the Wilderness. It also launched a new kind of war — ceaseless war. For the next eleven months, the two armies were engaged almost continuously, and there were casualties practically every day.

Burying the dead at Fredericksburg, Virginia, after the Wilderness Campaign, May 1864 Photo courtesy of the National Archives (111-B-4817)

The Battle of the Wilderness lasted through May 5 and 6. It was a confused and bewildering fight in a dark, dry forest. Units became separated. Whole divisions became lost for hours. Units fired on other units of their own army. At the end of the first day's fighting, generally a draw, portions of the woods caught fire and burned wounded men to death. On the second day, Lee's hopes were almost realized; his smaller army took advantage of the confused terrain and began to outflank both the north and south ends of Grant's vast host. But Confederate general James Longstreet was wounded by his own men, and nightfall dampened the Confederate advantage.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

By this time, Grant had had enough of the Wilderness. He wanted to get out, and he thought he saw an advantage. If he could march overnight out of the Wilderness and reach the crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House, he would be closer to Richmond than Lee's army. He then could capture Richmond or force Lee to attack the Army of the Potomac on ground of Grant's own choosing. Grant set the army in motion on May 7 but discovered on May 8 that Lee had anticipated the move and barely won the race for the crossroads. Grant attacked, but Lee's men held on. Over the course of the next couple of days the Rebels built miles of formidable log-and-earth breastworks.

Grant threw division after division against the Confederates over the next two weeks. He broke the Confederate line twice, but the Southerners managed to patch it enough to keep their army together.

“I… propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” — General Ulysses S. Grant to his staff in Washington, D.C., from the battlefield at Spotsylvania Court House, May 11, 1864

The casualties were terrific — 29,000 for the two armies together in the Wilderness, 30,000 for the two armies together at Spotsylvania. In total, almost 60,000 men were lost — a third of the 175,000 men who began the campaign. Lee could make up some of his losses by calling on troops in Richmond, but Grant had far more resources and manpower to draw on. Bloodied but not defeated, the Army of the Potomac shifted out of its battle lines again and raced toward Richmond around Lee's right flank.

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