Known as The Wilderness, the land is comprised of approximately 9,000 acres of rolling ﬁelds and dense woods and was the site of what became the ﬁrst stage of an epic a confrontation between the armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee during the Civil War in May, 1864. Even though the War had raged for three years, May 5-7, 1864 marked the ﬁrst time that Generals Grant and Lee met in battle.
Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, a mistake while enrolling in the United States Military Academy at West Point resulted in his name being changed to Ulysses S. Grant. His successes in the Mexican War and then in battles in Tennessee and Vicksburg during the Civil War, earned him the commission from President Lincoln in March 1864 of Lieutenant General, the ﬁrst such rank since George Washington. Grant was now the supreme commander of all Union forces.
Northern public support fanned by favorable newspaper coverage produced great expectations for the war's end under the leadership of Lieutenant General Grant. He arrived in Virginia in March 1864 with a strategy to win the war: constantly engage the Confederates in battle from northern Virginia southward for the purpose of capturing Richmond.
Lieutenant General Grant knew that both manpower and unfettered supply lines were on the side of the Union army. He believed that if he could continue to bombard the Confederate army, General Lee's forces would diminish naturally and their efforts would collapse because they had no reinforcements.
The ﬁrst engagements were in May 1864 when Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and Grant's Army of the Potomac met in what became known as the Battle of the Wilderness. The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River southward on May 4th with a force of nearly 101,000 soldiers. Lee's army numbered 61,000.
The difference in numbers of soldiers in the two armies was equalized quickly by geography. The density of the woods precluded orderly movement and signiﬁcantly reduced the effectiveness of artillery and cavalry. In his memoirs, Lieutenant General Grant wrote, "More desperate ﬁghting has not been witnessed on this continent than that of the 5th and 6th of May."
One of the key moments in the' battle occurred when the brush caught ﬁre. Many wounded soldiers could not muster the strength to ﬁnd their way out and were burned alive.
Even in the face of superior numbers, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fought valiantly and deterred the Union advance. After several days of intense ﬁghting, the Union army suffered 18,000 casualties; the Confederates suffered 6,000. Both armies, however, regrouped to ﬁght another day.
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Catton, B. (1953) The Army of the Potomac: A stillness at Appomattox. New York: Doubleday.
Catton, B. (1968) Grant Takes Command New York: Doubleday
Fitts, D. (2002, June) "Spectacular purchase of Wilderness Acreage" The War News
Gallagher, G.W. ed. (1997) The Wilderness Campaign Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press
Scott, R.G. (rev. ed. 1992) Into the Wilderness with the Army of the Potomac
"The Field of Battle in Virginia" map. (1864, May 14) New York Herald
Whitney, D.C. and Whitney, R.V. (1985) The American Presidents. New York: Doubleday
As for the Wilderness, it was uneven, with woods, thickets, and ravines right and left. Tangled thickets of pine, scrub-oak, and cedar prevented our seeing the enemy, and prevented any one in command of a large force from determining accurately the position of the troops he was ordering to and fro. The appalling musketry, the yells of the enemy, and the cheers of our own men were constantly in our ears. At times, our lines while firing could not see the array of the enemy, not fifty yards distant. After the battle was fairly begun, both sides were protected by log or earth breastworks.
Alexander Stewart Webb (1835-1911), Brevet Major-General, USA
Fought in both The Wilderness Campaign and the Battle of Spotsylvania where he was seriously wounded.
The African American Heritage Trail is supported in part by a Preserve America grant administered by the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. This product is based upon work assisted by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of the Interior.