Battle of the Wilderness

Battle of the Wilderness
Date May 5–7, 1864
Location Spotsylvania County and Orange County, Virginia
Victor Inconclusive (Union offensive continued)
United States (Union) Confederate States
Military Leaders
Ulysses S. Grant
George G. Meade
Robert E. Lee
Military Units in Battle
Army of the Potomac
IX Corps
Army of Northern Virginia
Unit Strength
101,895 61,025
Casualties and Deaths
Total: 17,666 Total: 11,125
2,246 killed
12,037 wounded
3,383 captured/missing
1,495 killed
7,928 wounded
1,702 captured/missing
Part of the American Civil War

The Battle of the Wilderness was one of the battles that took place during the American Civil War between Union and Confederate armies. The opposing forces met in Orange County and Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and the battle lasted from May 5 to May 7 in 1864.


Union President, Abraham Lincoln, had become increasingly frustrated with the performance of his leading generals. Despite several changes to the command of the Union forces, the Civil War had dragged on, and the early objective of capturing the rebel capital at Richmond, Virginia had never been achieved.

Lincoln attributed the successive failures to indecision and lack of aggression amongst his generals. He had also come to the conclusion that the priority should be the destruction of the Confederate army rather than the taking of Richmond. He believed that once the army was defeated, Richmond would have no option but to surrender.

Lincoln decided to appoint Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant as supreme commander of the Union army. He was impressed by Grant’s successes in the western theater, where he had scored notable victories over the Confederates in Shiloh in 1862 and Vicksburg and Chattanooga in 1863.

Grant became general in chief of the Federal army in March 1864 and immediately launched his Virginia Overland Campaign, of which the Battle of the Wilderness was to be the first engagement with the enemy.

From the start, Grant’s leadership differed to that of his predecessors. Instead of headquartering himself in Washington, he chose to establish his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac. Secondly, he did not undertake widespread administrative changes by changing or dismissing the commanding officers below him. Finally, he agreed with Lincoln that the main focus of the Union army’s campaign should be the total defeat of the Confederate forces, and not the capture of Richmond.

He planned to use the numerical superiority of the Federal forces to launch coordinated assaults on the Confederate forces in several different areas. While Grant hoped for and sought a telling victory over the Confederate army, he realized that it might take much longer to gain total victory, and knew his resources could last longer than those of the Confederates’. His mindset, therefore, was to engage the enemy at every possible opportunity, regardless of cost.

Grant withdrew Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps from the western theater and had these troops join up with the Army of the Potomac. This boosted the number of troops he had available to 118,000, nearly double the amount available to the Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee.

Lee had been anticipating the more aggressive approach that Grant was likely to take, and had given careful consideration to how the Union general was likely to initiate his campaign. He was uncannily accurate in his assessment of what Grant’s initial actions would be.

Grant wasted no time in mobilizing his forces and he marched to the Rabidan River, which he began crossing on May 4 at Ely’s Ford Germanna’s Ford. He consolidated his troops around Wilderness Tavern.

The Wilderness was a 70 square mile region of rough terrain covered in brush and brambles. Lee’s deployment of troops was based on his correct assessment that the Union army would advance through this area. He felt that the inhospitable terrain would work against the Union soldiers, and he planned to attack the Union forces there.

The Battle

The Confederates launched an attack on the morning of May 5, taking Grant by surprise, because he was unaware that the Confederates had so many troops in the Wilderness area. The Confederates had been concealed in the woods near Saunder’s Field.

Even though Grant ordered his army to immediately counterattack, it was almost 1pm before the offensive was launched. In previous battles, Union leaders had adopted a much more cautious approach, preferring to engage in meticulous preparation and ensuring supply lines before attacking, and this probably explains the delay before Grant’s orders were carried out.

Grant entertained no excuses from his generals, who protested that the army could not move effectively through the brambles, and he insisted his troops move forward over the hostile terrain. They suffered heavy casualties because of the impediments, but gradually began to overcome the Confederates as more and more Union men were brought in.

Over the remaining two days of the battle, heavy fighting took place and the Union army was losing more soldiers than the Confederates. But Grant maintained his aggressive stance and continued to push extra troops into the field.

On May 7, Grant realized that several units of the Confederates had positioned themselves in areas that would be difficult to take with a straightforward attack. They had taken cover behind earthworks that had survived from previous military encounters in the area, and also had used an incomplete railway track to provide strongholds.

Grant opted instead to try to draw the Confederates out by seeming to threaten Richmond. He intended to move his troops to the Spotsylvania Court House, which would position his army between the Confederate army and Richmond.

However, by the time the Federal troops arrived there, Lee had already taken control of the crossroads. The theater of war had now moved away from the Wilderness. Grant’s Overland Campaign would resume the next day with the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Casualties and Aftermath

Grant’s tactics resulted in the Union army suffering many more casualties than the Confederates did. In total, 2,246 Union soldiers died, 12,037 were wounded, and 3,383 were taken prisoner or missing.

On the Confederate side, 1,495 troops were killed, 7,928 were wounded, and 1,702 were taken prisoner or missing.

The Battle of the Wilderness marked the end of the Confederate rebellion. While neither side emerged as clear winners in the battle, the new strategy adopted by Grant was enough to ensure that the Union army would eventually overcome the Confederates.

Once again, Lee had demonstrated his skill as a master tactician, and, as had so often happened in previous confrontations, he had managed to survive an engagement in which he was seriously outnumbered. However, he found it difficult to replace men and keep supplies coming to his army, whereas this was never a problem for Grant, who essentially had unlimited resources.

2 responses to “Battle of the Wilderness”

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