It started as an accidental clash of two huge armies. It changed the Civil War. It was the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Major Gen. George Meade commanded the 101,000 Federal forces that left winter quarters in Culpeper County to head toward Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s 61,000-man army, which had wintered near the town of Orange.
They all came together in an area in central Virginia known as the Wilderness…some 70 square miles of tangled scrub brush and second-growth trees interspersed with a few cleared fields.
On the northern part of the battlefield, Union forces moved from the Germanna Plank Road intersection west on the Orange Turnpike when they encountered the Confederates, who had thrown up earthworks at Saunders field. Federal charges were repulsed again and again and a flanking movement by the Confederates almost overran the entire force. Darkness brought the fighting to a halt.
On the southern part of the battlefield, Union forces raced to beat the Confederates to the intersection of Brock Road and the Orange Plank Road. Here, it was the Federals who entrenched against the charging Southerners. Another flanking movement by the Confederates again rolled up the Union lines. This time, it was the wounding of Confederate General James Longstreet that brought the attack to a halt and the Union lines held.
Across the battlefield, fires from bursting shells and spent wadding had broken out. Rolling smoke sometimes hid the landscape, where the wounded died when unable to crawl away from the flames. Douglas Southall Freeman wrote, “It was war in Inferno.”
Finally, with the two sides at a stalemate, Grant put into motion his Overland Campaign strategy that eventually resulted in the surrender of Lee and his army 12 months later.
He gave the order to move the army to the Brock Road intersection and, rather than turning to go regroup across the river as other Union generals had done, the troops were to march toward Spotsylvania Court House and another battle with Lee. The soldiers cheered.
It was a key turning point in the war. NPS historian emeritus Ed Bearss calls this “the most important intersection in the Civil War” because the Union army turned to fight again.
In two days of horrific fighting in the Wilderness, the armies suffered 29,000 casualties — killed, wounded, captured or missing. Two Union generals were killed as were three Confederate generals.
In his personal memoirs after the war, Grant wrote, “More desperate fighting has not been witnessed on this continent than that of the 5th and 6th of May.”
Resources and References: A wealth of information exists about the Battle of the Wilderness. Here are a few recommended websites and a bibliography of highly-regarded books on the subject.