The Battle of the Wilderness marked the start of U.S. Grant’s overland campaign against Richmond. This was his first campaign in the Virginia theatre, and his first against Robert E. Lee. When Grant arrived in the east, he found the two armies facing each other across the line of the Rapidan River, in substantially the same positions they had occupied for most of the war.
Grant’s plan for the spring of 1864 involved three different armies. To the south-east of Richmond General Butler was already in place on the James River. His Army of the James was to move up the river and threaten Petersburg. Meanwhile, General Sigel was to move up the Shenandoah Valley, one of Lee’s best source of supplies, to deny the Confederates the use of the valley. Finally, the Army of the Potomac, nominally still commanded by General Meade, but with Grant accompanying it, would attack General Lee’s army north of Richmond.
Grant’s aims were much misunderstood. Even after the war he was criticised for fighting his way towards Richmond, when he could have reached the same eventual location by sea without any losses. This misses the point. Grant wasn’t trying to capture Richmond. He was trying to destroy Lee’s army. The last thing he wanted to do was allow Lee to retreat into the defences of Richmond, where any Union assault would be very costly.
Grant decided to try and get past Lee’s right flank. This would allow the Union armies to be supplied from Chesapeake Bay, just as McClellan’s had been two years earlier. Indeed, the campaign would eventually take Lee and Grant back to some of the Peninsula battlefields.
Inauspiciously, Grant’s plan required his army to begin by marching through the Wilderness, the site of Lee’s great Chancellorsville triumphs in the previous May. Grant hoped that his army would be able to get through that area of scrub timber before Lee could respond, allowing them to fight in more open ground to the south.
On the face of it, there was already a massive mismatch in numbers between the two armies. Grant began the campaign with an army that mustered around 120,000 men. Lee’s was reported as somewhere between 62,000 and 66,000. However the two sides did not use the same method to count their armies. In Union armies every man (in and out of uniform) was counted. This would include bandsmen, cooks and all the other support staff needed by the army. On the Confederate side only the fighting men were counted. Not only would this exclude all of the support staff, it also took many officers out of the count. Comparing Union and Confederate army sizes is often very difficult.
Grant’s gamble in the Wilderness did not pay off. The march began early on 4 May. Progress was always going to be slow through the tangled woodlands of the Wilderness. Lee responded quickly to news of the move. On 5 May Ewell’s and A.P.Hill’s corps from Lee’s army collided with the Union army just south of Wilderness Tavern. On this first days fighting, 70,000 Union soldiers fought 40,000 Confederates. However, in the dense undergrowth of the Wilderness this numerical advantage mattered very little.
The Wilderness was one of the most horrific of all Civil War battlefields. The timber was dry, and caught fire easily. As the battle swung back and fore through the woods, many of the wounded were left behind, only to be killed by those forest fires. The customary fog of war was worse in the trees. Many men were killed by their own side in the confusion.
6 May saw some more controlled fighting. The day began with a strong Union attack on Lee’s left, which came amazingly close to capturing the Confederate commander when Union forces discovered his headquarters. Lee’s position was only saved by the arrival of Longstreet’s men.
There was now another near repetition of the events of Chancellorsville. With Longstreet’s arrival, Lee was strong enough to attempt a flanking attack on Grant’s left wing. This met with some success, but during the attack Longstreet was badly wounded by his own men, just as Stonewall Jackson had been the previous year, and had to be removed from the battlefield. With him went all the momentum on that flank (There the similarities end. Longstreet eventually recovered from his wound, and returned to the army before the end of the year).
Late in the day the Confederates had another success, this time on the Union right, which was also pushed back. For some of Grant’s officers this was too much – one brigadier rushed back to Grant’s headquarters to report that all was lost. This was where Grant began to demonstrate his value to the Union. Unlike most of his officers at the Wilderness, Grant had not spend the last few years being beaten by Lee, and was not intimidated by his reputation. With no panic at the centre, the situation was soon restored and the day's fighting slowly faded away.
In the two days of fighting, Grant had suffered very heavy casualties – 2,246 dead, 12,037 wounded and 3,383 missing for a total of 17,666 compared to probable Confederate losses of around 7,500. These were higher Union losses than at either Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville, two of the worst Union defeats of the war. Lee had every right to be satisfied with his army’s achievements in the Wilderness.
The true significance of Grant’s appointment only became clear on 7 May. As had happened so often in the past in Virginia, the Union men were ordered to withdraw from their trenches and prepare to march. The key question was in what direction? Every other Union commander in Virginia would have returned north after a battle like the Wilderness, but that was not Grant’s way. Much to the delight of many men in the Union army, Grant set them moving south east. Once again he was going to attempt to get past Lee’s right flank, this time in the direction of Spotsylvania Court House.