Battle in the Wilderness: Grant Meets Lee


This is Grady McWhiney’s book in the “Civil War Campaigns and Commanders” series.  It’s a very short book that can be read in a single sitting and gives us a basic view of the battle in the Wilderness.  I found the book to be very useful.  It gives short biographical sketches of all the major officers involved in the battle and has a number of maps to illustrate the progress of the battle.  It also includes an order of battle and suggestions for further reading at the end.

There is a bit of lost cause nonsense early in the book, where McWhiney claims, “When Lee met Grant in the Wilderness, they were headed in different directions.  Lee’s great successes had been in the past; the future belonged to Grant.  He did not have to outfight Lee in the last year of the war; he simply overwhelmed him with men and guns.” [pp. 18-19]

McWhiney does a good job in describing the roads in the Wilderness to us.  “Four roads offered the best access to the Wilderness:  the Germanna Plank Road crossed the Rapidan River and the northern part of the Wilderness and linked up with the Brock Road, which continued southward past Todd’s Tavern and on to the New Spotsylvania Court House.  Running east and west and crossing the Germanna and Brock Roads were the Orange Turnpike [now State Route 20] and the Orange Plank Road [now State Route 621].  From Orange Court House, where Lee had his headquarters, the Turnpike went to Fredericksburg by way of Chancellorsville; so did the Plank Road, which ran a few miles south and roughly parallel to the Turnpike from Lee’s headquarters eastward until it intersected the Turnpike just west of Chancellorsville.  If the Army of the Potomac intended to go anywhere in the Wilderness it would have to move north and south on the Germanna and Brock roads and east and west on either the Turnpike or the Plank Road.” [p. 35]

The Federal planners wanted to be through the Wilderness before Lee could react and bring on a battle before the Army of the Potomac could get through the tangle of forest, “but the narrow roads slowed the long lines of men and wagons.  As night fell, Warren’s and Sedgwick’s men were strung out along the Germanna Road and Hancock’s Corps was deployed near Chancellorsville, where the terrain provided an eerie setting for the night’s bivouac.” [p. 42]

The battle began on the morning of May 5, 1864 when the Army of Northern Virginia’s II Corps, under the command of Richard S. Ewell and marching eastward on the Orange Turnpike, ran into Army of the Potomac V Corps troops under the command of Gouverneur K. Warren.  Two of Lee’s corps, the II under Ewell and the III Corps under A. P. Hill, were marching into action.  The I Corps under James Longstreet was about a day behind.  The confusing nature of the Wilderness initially helped Lee.  “Partly because the Wilderness was a nightmare for horsemen, the cavalry of both armies had done their work so poorly that neither commander knew the other’s exact location or strength.  Meade thought that Warren had met a delaying force, perhaps a division, left behind by Lee to cover a Confederate concentration farther south along the North Anna River.  Uncertain just what Warren faced, Meade ordered Sedgwick to cover Warren’s right flank and Hancock to halt his march southward until Warren could determine the actual strength of the Confederates he had encountered.” [p. 45]

The book gives us a basic description of the troop movements and the battle’s progression over time through Grant’s decision to move south.  “In the past, after such a battle, Federal commanders usually retreated to regroup and to plan future movements, but not Grant.  He was a different leader, engaged in a different type of warfare.  Instead of retreating, he would try again to move around Lee’s right flank.  There would be no retreat by either army.  On the morning of May 7, Grant directed Meade to prepare for a night march to Spotsylvania Court House.  The Wilderness had been neither a victory nor a defeat for either side.  Lee had managed to turn both Federal flanks, but instead of retreating Grant decided to press on toward Richmond, giving the weakened Confederates no time to recover.” [p. 86-87]

This book will give you a very quick understanding of the Wilderness.  It’s not as complete a look at this battle as Gordon Rhea’s book, but this is a book you can read in a day and gain basic knowledge about what happened.


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