1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wilderness

WILDERNESS, a large forest in Spottsylvania county, Virginia, U.S.A., on the S. bank of the Rapidan, extending from Mine Run on the E. to Chancellorsville on the W. It is famous in military history for the battles of Chancellorsville (1863) and Wilderness (1864) during the American Civil War.

Chancellorsville.—In May 1863 a three days' battle was fought at Chancellorsville between the Army of the Potomac, under General J. Hooker, and General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which had stemmed the tide of invasion in the East by taking up a defensive position along the right or south bank of the Rappahannock. General Burnside had suffered a severe repulse in front of the Confederate position at Fredericksburg in December 1862, and his successor resolved to adopt the alternative plan of turning Lee’s flank and so gaining the road to Richmond. General Lee had meanwhile weakened his forces by detaching Longstreet’s two divisions and the cavalry brigades of Hampton, Robertson and Jones. Hooker had now at his disposal 12,000 cavalry, 400 guns and 120,000 infantry and artillery, organized in seven corps (I. Reynolds, II. Couch, III. Sickles, V. Meade, VI. Sedgwick, XI. Howard, XII. Slocum). General Lee counted only 45,000 men of all arms effective. Hooker detached 10,000 cavalry under Stoneman and Sedgwick’s corps (30,000) to demonstrate on his flanks along the Rapidan and at Fredericksburg, while with the remainder he moved up the Rappahannock and crossed that river and afterwards the Rapidan and on the 30th of April fixed his headquarters at Chancellorsville, a farmhouse in the Wilderness. Lee’s cavalry under Stuart had duly reported the Federal movements and Lee called up “Stonewall” Jackson’s four divisions from below the Massaponax as soon as Sedgwick’s corps crossed the river at Fredericksburg. At Chancellorsville Anderson’s division was in position, and McLaws was sent to support him, while Jackson took three divisions to the same point, leaving Early’s division to observe Sedgwick. Hooker had cleared and entrenched a position in the forest, inviting attack from the E. or S. General Lee, however, discovered a route by which the Federals might be attacked from the N. and W., and Jackson was instructed to execute the turning movement and fall upon them. As soon as a brigade of cavalry was placed at his disposal Jackson marched westward with his corps of 22,000 men and by a détour of 15 m. gained the Federal right flank, while Anderson and McLaws with 20 guns and 12,000 men demonstrated in front of Hooker’s army and so kept 90,000 men idle behind their earthworks. One of Stuart’s cavalry brigades neutralized Stoneman’s 10,000 horsemen. Sedgwick was being contained by Early. Jackson’s attack surprised the Federals, who fled in panic at nightfall, but Jackson was mortally wounded. Next day the attack was resumed under the direction of Stuart, who was reinforced by Anderson, while McLaws now threatened the left flank of the Federals and Fitz Lee’s cavalry brigade operated against their line of retreat. Hooker finally gained the shelter of an inner line of works covering the ford by which he must retreat. Meanwhile, Early had checked Sedgwick, but when at last the Federal corps was about to overwhelm the Confederate division Lee came to succour it. Then Sedgwick was assailed by Early, McLaws and Anderson, and driven over the Rappahannock to join the remainder of Hooker’s beaten army, which had recrossed the Rapidan on the 5th of May and marched back to Falmouth. Phisterer’s Record states that the Federal loss was 16,000 and that of the Confederates 12,000 men.

See A. C. Hamlin, Chancellorsville; G. F. R. Henderson, Stonewall Jackson; A. Doubleday, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War and Official Records of the War of Secession.  (G. W. R.) 

Grant’s Campaign of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor.—On the evening of the 3rd of May 1864, after dark, the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major-General G. G. Meade and consisting of the II., V. and VI., and Cavalry corps, left its winter quarters about Culpeper to manœuvre across the Rapidan with a view to fighting a battle at or near New Hope Church and Craig’s Church. The army, and the IX. corps (Burnside), which was an independent command, were directed by Lieutenant-General Grant, the newly appointed commander of the armies of the United States, who accompanied Meade’s headquarters. The opposing Army of Northern Virginia under General R. E. Lee lay in quarters around Orange Court House (A. P. Hill’s corps), Verdiersville (Ewell’s corps) and Gordonsville (Longstreet's corps). The respective numbers were: Army of the Potomac, 98,000; IX. corps, 22,000; Army of Northern Virginia rather less than 70,000.

Britannica Wilderness.jpg
Redrawn from The Wilderness and Cold Harbor, by permission of Hugh Rees, Ltd.

The crossing of the Rapidan was made at Germanna and Ely's Fords, out of reach of Lee's interference, and in a few hours the two leading corps had reached their halting-places—V., Wilderness Tavern; and II., Chancellorsville. The VI. followed the V. and halted south of Germanna Ford. Two of the three divisions of cavalry preceded the march, and scouted to the front and flanks. Controversy has arisen as to whether the early halt of the Union army in the midst of the Wilderness was not a serious error of judgment. The reason assigned was the necessity of protecting an enormous wagon train, carrying 15 days' supplies for the whole army, that was crossing after the II. corps at Ely's Ford. Burnside's corps was far to the rear when the advance began, but by making forced marches it was able to reach Germanna Ford during the 5th of May. On that day the manœuvre towards Craig's Church was resumed at 5 A.M., Wilson's cavalry division moving from Parker's Store southward, the V. corps (Warren) moving from Wilderness Tavern towards Parker's Store, followed by the VI. under Sedgwick, the II. from Chancellorsville by way of Todd's Tavern towards Shady Grove Church. Of the other cavalry divisions, Gregg's went towards Fredericksburg (near where the Confederate cavalry corps had been reported) and Torbert's (which had acted as rearguard and watched the upper Rapidan during the first day's march) was not yet across the river.

Grant's intention of avoiding a battle until he was clear the Wilderness was not achieved, for Confederate infantry appeared on the Orange Turnpike east of Mine Run, where on his own initiative Warren had posted a division of the V. corps overnight as flank-guard, and some cavalry, judiciously left behind by Wilson at Parker's Store, became engaged a little later with hostile forces on the Orange Plank Road. This led to the suspension of the whole manœuvre towards Lee's right rear. The first idea of the Union headquarters was that Lee was falling back to the North Anna, covered by a bold rearguard, which Grant and Meade arranged to cut off and destroy by a convergent attack of Warren and Sedgwick. But the appearance of infantry on the Plank Road as well as the Pike had shown that Lee intended to fight in the Wilderness, and Hancock (II. corps) was called in from Todd's Tavern, while one division (Getty's) of the VI. was hurried to the intersection of the Brock and Plank roads to hold that point until Hancock's arrival. Getty arrived just in time, for Confederate skirmishers were found dead and wounded only 30 yds. from the cross roads. The division then formed up to await Hancock's arrival up the Brock Road, practically unmolested, for Lee had only two of his corps on the ground (Hill on the Plank Road, Ewell on the Pike), and did not desire to force a decision until Longstreet's distant corps should arrive.

Meanwhile Warren had been slowly forming up his attacking line with great difficulty in the woods. Grant appears to have used bitter words to Meade on the subject of Warren's delays, and Meade passed these on to Warren, who in turn forced his subordinates into premature action. In the end, about noon, Griffin's division of Warren's corps attacked directly along the Pike and crushed the enemy's first line, but, unsupported by the VI. corps on the right and Wadsworth's division (V. corps) on the left, both of which units were still groping their way forward in the woods, was forced back with heavy losses. Wadsworth took a wrong direction in the woods and presented himself as an easy victim to Ewell's right, soon after Griffin's repulse. The VI. corps advanced later in the day on Warren's right, but was only partially engaged. The result of the attack on Ewell was thus completely unsatisfactory, and for the rest of the battle the V. and VI. corps were used principally as reservoirs to find supports for the offensive wing under Hancock, who arrived on the Plank Road about 2 P.M.

Hancock's divisions, as they came up, entrenched themselves along the Brock Road. In the afternoon he was ordered to attack whatever force of the enemy was on the Plank Road in front of him, but was unwilling to do so until he had his forces well in hand. Finally Getty was ordered to attack “whether Hancock was ready or not.” This may have been an attempt to force Hancock's hand by an appeal to his soldierly honour, and as a fact he did not leave Getty unsupported. But the disjointed attacks of the II. corps on Hill's entrenchments, while forcing the Confederates to the verge of ruin, were not as successful as the preponderance of force on the Union side ought to have ensured. For four hours the two lines of battle were fighting 50 yds. apart, until at nightfall the contest was given up through mutual exhaustion.

The battle of the 6th was timed to begin at 5 A.M. and Grant's attack was wholly directed on Parker's Store, with the object of crushing Hill before Longstreet could assist him. If Longstreet, instead of helping Hill, were to attack the extreme Union left, so much the better; but the far more probable course for him to take was to support Hill on or north of the Plank Road, and Grant not only ordered Hancock with six of the eleven divisions of Meade's army to attack towards Parker's Store, but sent his own “mass of manœuvre” (the IX. corps) thither in such a way as to strike Hill's left. The cavalry was drawn back for the protection of the trains,[1] for “every musket” was required in the ranks of the infantry. Warren and Sedgwick were to hold Ewell occupied on the Pike by vigorous attacks. At 5 o'clock Hancock advanced, drove back and broke up Hill's divisions, and on his right Wadsworth attacked their left rear. But after an hour's wood fighting the Union attack came to a standstill, and at this moment, the critical moment for the action of the IX. corps, Burnside was still more than a mile away, having scarcely passed through Warren's lines into the woods. Then Longstreet's corps, pushing its way in two columns of fours through Hill's retreating groups, attacked Hancock with the greatest fury, and forced him back some hundreds of yards. But the woods broke the force of this attack too, and by 7.30 the battle had become a stationary fire-fight. After an interval in which both sides rallied their confused masses, Longstreet attacked again and gained more ground. Persistent rumours came into the Union headquarters of a Confederate advance against the Union left rear, and when Grant realized the situation he broke off one of Burnside's divisions from the IX. corps column and sent it to the cross roads as direct reserve to Hancock. At this moment the battle took a very unfavourable turn on the Plank Road. Longstreet had sent four brigades of infantry by a détour through the woods south of the Plank Road to attack Hancock's left. This was very effective, and the Union troops were hustled back to the cross-roads. But Longstreet, like Jackson a year before in these woods, was wounded by his own men at the critical moment and the battle again came to a standstill (2-2.30 P.M.).

Burnside's corps, arriving shortly before 10 A.M. near Chewning's house, the position whence it was to have attacked Hill's left in the early morning, was about to attack, in ignorance of Hancock's repulse, when fortunately an order reached it to suspend the advance and to make its way through the woods towards Hancock's right. This dangerous flank march, screened by the woods, was completed by 2 P.M., and General Burnside began an attack upon the left of Longstreet's command (R. H. Anderson's fresh division of Hill's corps). But Hancock being in no condition to support the IX. corps, the whole attack was, at 3 P.M., postponed by Grant's order until 6 P.M. Thus there was a long respite for both sides, varied only by a little skirmishing. But Lee was determined, as always, to have the last word, and about 4.15-4.30 a fierce assault was delivered amidst the burning woods upon Hancock's entrenchments along the Brock Road. For a moment, aided by the dense smoke, the Confederates seized and held the first line of works, but a counter-stroke dislodged them. Burnside, though not expecting to have to attack before 6, put into the fight such of his troops as were ready, and at 5.30 or thereabouts the assaulting line receded into the woods. Grant cancelled his order to attack at 6, and at the decisive point the battle was at an end. But on the extreme right of the Union army a sudden attack was delivered at sunset upon the hitherto unmolested VI. corps, by Gordon, one of Ewell's brigadiers. This carried off two generals and several hundred prisoners, and a panic ensued which affected all the Union forces on the Pike, and was not quieted until after nightfall.

Lee, therefore, had the last word on both flanks, but in spite of this and of the very heavy losses,[2] Grant had already resolved to go on, instead of going back like his various predecessors. To him, indeed, the battle of the Wilderness was a victory, an indecisive victory indeed, but one that had given him a moral superiority which he did not intend to forfeit. His scheme, drafted early on the morning of the 7th, was for the army to march to Spottsylvania on the night of the 7th-8th, to assemble there on the 8th, and thence to undertake a fresh manœuvre against Lee's right rear on the 9th. This movement required the trains with the fighting line to be cleared away from the roads needed for the troops at once, and Lee promptly discovered that a movement was in progress. He mistook its object, however, and assuming that Grant was falling back on Fredericksburg, he prepared to shift his own forces to the south of that place so as to bar the Richmond road. This led to a race for Spottsylvania, which was decided more by accidents to either side than by the measures of the two commanding generals. On the Union side Warren was to move to the line Spottsylvania Court House-Todd's Tavern, followed by Hancock; Sedgwick was to take a roundabout route and to come in between the V. and II. corps; Burnside to follow Sedgwick. The cavalry was ordered to watch the approaches towards the right of the army. The movement began promptly after nightfall on the 7th. But ere long the head of Warren's column, passing in rear of Hancock's line of battle, was blocked by the headquarters escort of Grant and Meade. Next, the head of the V. corps was again checked at Todd's Tavern by two cavalry divisions which had been sent by Sheridan to regain the ground at Todd's Tavern,[3] given up on the 6th, and after fighting the action of Todd's Tavern had received no further orders from him. Meade, greatly irritated, ordered Gregg's division out towards Corbin's Bridge and Merrill's (Torbert's) to Spottsylvania. On the latter road the Union cavalry found themselves opposed by Fitz Lee's cavalry, and after some hours of disheartening work in the woods, Merrill asked Warren to send forward infantry to drive the enemy. This Warren did, although he was just preparing to rest and to feed his men after their exhausting night-march. Robinson's division at the head of the corps deployed and swiftly drove in Fitz Lee. A little beyond Alsop's, however, Robinson found his path barred by entrenched infantry. This was part of Anderson's (Longstreet's) corps. That officer had been ordered to draw out of his (Wilderness) works, and to bivouac, preparatory to marching at 3 A.M. to the Court House, but, finding no good resting-place, he had moved on at once. His route took him to the Catharpin Road (Hampton's cavalry protecting him towards Todd's Tavern), and thence over Corbin's Bridge to Block House Bridge. At or near Block House Bridge the corps halted to rest, but Stuart (who was with Fitz Lee) called upon Anderson for assistance and the march was resumed at full speed. Sheridan's new orders to Gregg and Merritt did not arrive until Meade had given these officers other instructions, but Wilson's cavalry division, which was out of the line of march of the infantry, acted in accordance with Sheridan's plan of occupying the bridges in front of the army's intended position at Spottsylvania Court House, and seized that place, inflicting a smart blow upon a brigade of Stuart's force that was met there.

The situation about 9 A.M. on the 8th was therefore curious. Warren, facing E., and opposed by part of Anderson's corps, was seeking to fight his way to Spottsylvania Court House by the Brock Road. Wilson, facing S., was holding the Court House and driving Fitz Lee's cavalry partly westward on to the backs of the infantry opposing Warren, partly towards Block House Bridge, whence the rest of Anderson's infantry was approaching. All the troops were weary and hungry, and Sheridan ordered Wilson to evacuate the Court House and to fall back over the Ny. Warren fruitlessly attacked the Confederate infantry at Spindler's, General Robinson being severely wounded, and his division disorganized. The other divisions came up by degrees, and another attack was made about 11. It was pressed close up to, and in some places over, the Confederate log-works, but it ended in failure like the first. A third attempt in the evening dwindled down to a reconnaissance in force. Anderson was no longer isolated. Early's division observed Hancock's corps at Todd's Tavern, but the rest of Ewell's and all Hill's corps went to Spottsylvania and prolonged Anderson's line northward towards the Ny. Thus the re-grouping of the Union army for manœuvre, and even the running fight or strategic pursuit imagined by Grant when he found Anderson at Spottsylvania, were given up, and on the 9th both armies rested. On this day General Sedgwick was killed by a long-range shot from a Confederate rifle. His place was taken by General H. G. Wright. On this day also a violent quarrel between Meade and Sheridan led to the departure of the cavalry corps on an independent mission. This was the so-called Richmond raid, in which Sheridan defeated Stuart at Yellow Tavern (where Stuart was killed) and captured the outworks of Richmond, but, having started with empty forage wagons,[4] had then to make his way down the Chickahominy to the nearest supply depots of the Army of the James, leaving the Confederate cavalry free to rally and to rejoin Lee.

Finding the enemy thus gathered in his front, Grant decided to fight again on the 10th. While Hancock opposed Early, and Warren and Wright Hill and Anderson, Burnside was ordered by Grant to work his way to the Fredericksburg-Spottsylvania road, thence to attack the enemy's right rear. The first stage of this movement of the IX. corps was to be made on the 9th, but not the attack itself, and Burnside was consequently ordered not to go beyond a place called “Gate” on the maps used by the Union staff. This, it turned out, was not the farm of a person called Gate, as headquarters supposed, but a mere gate into a field. Consequently it was missed, and the IX. corps went on to Gale's or Gayle's house, where the enemy's skirmishers were driven in.[5] The news of an enemy opposing Burnside at “Gate,” which Grant still supposed to be the position of the IX. corps, at once radically altered the plan of battle. Lee was presumed to be moving north towards Fredericksburg, and Grant saw an opportunity of a great and decisive success. The IX. corps was ordered to hold its position at all costs, and the others were to follow up the enemy as he concentrated upon Burnside. Hancock was called in from Todd's Tavern, sent down to force the fords of the Po at and below Tinder's Mill, and directed upon Block House Bridge by an officer of Grant's own staff, while Warren and Wright were held ready. But once more a handful of cavalry in the woods delayed the effective deployment of the moving wing, and by the time that the II. corps was collected opposite Block House Bridge it was already night. Still there was, apparently, no diminution of force opposite Burnside, and Hancock was ordered to resume his advance at early dawn on the 10th.

Meade, however, had little or no cognizance of Grant's orders to the independent IX. corps, and his orders, conflicting with those emanating from the Lieutenant-General's staff, puzzled Hancock and crippled his advance. At 10 the whole scheme was given up, and the now widely deployed Union army closed on its centre as best it could for a direct attack on the Spottsylvania position. At 4, before the new concentration was complete, and while Hancock was still engaged in the difficult operation of drawing back over the Po in the face of the enemy, Warren attacked unsupported and was repulsed. In the woods on the left Wright was more successful, and at 6 P.M. a rush of twelve selected regiments under Colonel Emory Upton carried the right of Lee's log-works. But for want of support this attack too was fruitless, though Upton held the captured works for an hour and brought off 1000 prisoners. Burnside, receiving Grant's new orders to attack from Gayle's towards Spottsylvania, sent for further orders as to the method of attack, and his advance was thus made too late in the day to be of use. Lee had again averted disaster, this time by his magnificent handling of his only reserve, Hill's (now Early's) corps, which he used first against Hancock and then against Burnside with the greatest effect.

This was the fourth battle since the evening of the 4th of May. On the morning of the 11th Grant sent his famous message to Washington, “I purpose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” The 12th was to be the fifth and, Grant hoped, the decisive battle. A maze of useful and useless entrenchments had been constructed on both sides, especially on the Union side, from mere force of habit. Grant, seeing from the experience of the 10th that his corps commanders were manning these entrenchments so strongly that they had only feeble forces disposable for the attack, ordered all superfluous defences to be given up. Three corps were formed in a connected line (from right to left, V., VI., IX.) during the 11th, and that night the II. corps moved silently to a position between Wright and Burnside and formed up in the open field at Brown's in an attacking mass of Napoleonic density—three lines of divisions, in line and in battalion and brigade columns. Burnside was to attack from Gayle's (Beverly's on the map) towards McCool's. Warren and Wright were to have at least one division each clear of their entrenchments and ready to move.

Up to the 11th Lee's line had extended from the woods in front of Block House Bridge, through Perry's and Spindler's fields to McCool's house, and its right was refused and formed a loop round McCool's. All these works faced N.W. In addition, Burnside's advance had caused Early's corps to entrench Spottsylvania and the church to the south of it, facing E. Between these two sections were woods. The connexion made between them gave the loop around McCool's the appearance from which it derives its historic name of The Salient. Upon the northern face of this Salient Hancock's attack was delivered.

On the 11th the abandonment of Burnside's threatening advance on his rear and other indices had disquieted Lee as to his left or Block House flank, and he had drawn off practically all Swell's artillery from the McCool works to aid in that quarter. The infantry that manned the Salient was what remained of Stonewall Jackson's “foot cavalry,” veterans of Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But at 4.35, in the mist, Hancock's mass swept over their works at the first rush and swarmed in the interior of the Salient, gathering thousands of prisoners and seizing the field batteries that Lee had sent back just too late.

Britannica Spottsylvania May 12th.jpg
From The Wilderness and Cold Harbor, by permission of Hugh Rees, Limited.

The thronging and excited Federals were completely disordered by success, and the counter-attack of one or two Confederate brigades in good order drove them back to the line of the captured works. Then, about 6, there began one of the most remarkable struggles in history. While Early, swiftly drawing back from Block House, checked Burnside's attack from the east, and Anderson, attacked again and again by parts of the V. corps,[6] was fully occupied in preserving his own front, Lee, with Ewell's corps and the few thousand men whom the other generals could spare, delivered all day a series of fierce counter-strokes against Hancock. Nearly all Wright's corps and even part of Warren's (in the end 45,000 men) were drawn into the fight at the Salient, for Grant and Meade well knew that Lee was struggling to gain time for the construction of a retrenchment across the base of it. If the counter-attacks failed to gain this respite, the Confederates would have to retreat as best they could, pressed in front and flank. But the initial superiority of the Federals was neutralized by their disorder, and, keeping the fight alive by successive brigade attacks, while the troops not actually employed were held out of danger till their time came, Lee succeeded so well that after twenty hours' bitter fighting the new line was ready and the Confederates gave up the barren prize to Hancock. Lee had lost 4000 prisoners as well as 4500 killed and wounded, as against 7000 in the Army of the Potomac and the IX. corps.

There were other battles in front of Spottsylvania, but that of the 12th was the climax. From the 13th to the 20th the Federals gradually worked round from west to east, delivering a few partial attacks in the vain hope of discovering a weak point. Lee's position, now semicircular, enabled him to concentrate on interior lines on each occasion. In the end the Federals were entrenched facing E. between Beverly's house (Burnside's old “Gayle”) and Quisenberry's, Lee facing W. from the new works south of Harrison's through the Court House to Snell's Bridge on the Po. In the fork of the Po and the Ny with woods and marshes to obstruct every movement, Grant knew that nothing could be done, and he prepared to execute a new manœuvre. But here, as in the Wilderness, Lee managed to have the last word. While the Union army was resting in camp for the first time since leaving Culpeper, Ewell's corps suddenly attacked its baggage-train near Harris's house. The Confederates were driven off, but Grant had to defer his intended manœuvre for two days. When the armies left Spottsylvania, little more than a fortnight after breaking up from winter quarters, the casualties had reached the totals of 35,000 out of an original total of 120,000 for the Union army, 26,000 out of 70,000 for the Confederates.

Britannica North Anna.jpg
From The Wilderness and Cold Harbor, by permission of Hugh Rees, Limited.

The next manœuvre attempted by Grant to bring Lee's army to action “outside works” was of an unusual character, though it had been foreshadowed in the improvised plan of crushing Lee against Burnside's corps on the 9th. Hancock was now (20th) ordered to move off under cover of night to Milford; thence he was to march south-west as far as possible along the Richmond and Fredericksburg railroad, and to attack whatever force of the enemy he met. It was hoped that this bold stroke by an isolated corps would draw Lee's army upon it, and the rest of the Army of the Potomac would, if this hope were realized, drive down upon Lee's rear while Hancock held him up in front. Supposing, however, that Lee did not take the bait, the manœuvre would resolve itself into a turning movement with the object of compelling Lee to come out of his Spottsylvania lines on pain of being surrounded.

The II. corps started on the night of the 20th-21st. The alarm was soon given. At Milford, where he forced the passage of the Mattapony, Hancock found himself in the presence of hostile infantry from Richmond and heard that more had arrived at Hanover Junction, both from Richmond and from the Shenandoah Valley. He therefore suspended his advance and entrenched. The main army began to move off, after giving Lee time to turn against Hancock, at 10 a.m. on the 21st, and marched to Catlett's, a place a few miles S.W. of Guinea's bridge, Warren leading, Burnside and Wright following. But no news came in from Hancock until late in the evening, and the development of the manoeuvre was consequently delayed, so that on the night of the 21st-22nd Lee's army slipped across Warren's front en route for Hanover Junction. The other Confederate forces that had opposed Hancock likewise fell back. Grant's manœuvre had failed. Its principal aim was to induce Lee to attack the II. corps at Milford, its secondary and alternative purpose was, by dislodging Lee from Spottsylvania, to force on an encounter battle in open ground. But he was only offered the bait—not compelled to take it, as he would have been if Hancock with two corps had been placed directly athwart the road between Spottsylvania and Hanover Junction—and, having unimpaired freedom of action, he chose to retreat to the Junction. The four Union corps, therefore, could only pursue him to the North Anna, at which river they arrived on the morning of the 23rd, Warren on the right, Hancock on the left, Wright and Burnside being well to the rear in second line. The same afternoon Warren seized Jericho Ford, brought over the V. corps to the south side, and repulsed a very sharp counter-stroke made by one of Lee's corps. Hancock at the same time stormed a Confederate redoubt which covered the Telegraph Road bridge over the river. Wright and Burnside closed up. It seemed as if a battle was at hand, but in the night reports came in that Lee had fallen back to the South Anna, and as these were more or less confirmed by the fact that Warren met with no further opposition, and by the enemy's retirement from the river bank on Hancock's front, the Union generals gave orders, about midday on the 24th, for what was practically a general pursuit. This led incidentally to an attempt to drive Lee's rearguard away from the point of passage, between Warren's and Hancock's, required for Burnside, and in the course of this it became apparent that Lee's army had not fallen back, but was posted in a semicircle to which the North Anna formed a tangent. On the morning of the 25th this position was reconnoitred, and found to be more formidable than that of Spottsylvania. Moreover, it divided the two halves of the Union army that had crossed above and below.

Grant gave up the game as drawn and planned a new move. This had as its objects, first, the seizure of a point of passage on the Pamunkey; secondly, the deployment of the Army of the Potomac and of a contingent expected from the Army of the James, and thirdly, the prevention of Lee's further retirement, which was not desired by the Union commanders, owing to proximity of the Richmond defences and the consequent want of room to manœuvre. On the 27th Sheridan's cavalry and a light division of infantry passed the Pamunkey at Hanover Town, and the two divided wings of the Army of the Potomac were withdrawn over the North Anna without mishap—thanks to exactitude in arrangement and punctuality in execution. On the 28th the Army of the Potomac had arrived near Hanover Town, while at Hawes's Shop, on the road to Richmond, Sheridan had a severe engagement with the enemy's cavalry. Lee was now approaching from Hanover Junction via Ashland, and the Army cf the Potomac swung round somewhat to the right so as to face in the presumed direction of the impending attack. The Confederate general, however, instead of attacking, swerved south, and planted himself behind the Totopotomoy. Here he was discovered, entrenched as always, on the 29th, and skirmishing all along the line, varied at times by more severe fighting, occupied that day and the 30th. On the morning of the 31st the Union army was arranged from right to left in the order VI., II., IX. and V. corps, Sheridan having meantime drawn off to the left rear of the infantry.

Britannica Totopotomoy and Cold Harbor.jpg
From The Wilderness and Cold Harbor, by permission of Hugh Rees, Limited.

Now, for the last time in the campaign, the idea of a hammer and anvil battle was again taken up, the “anvil” being Smith's XVIII. corps, which had come up from the James river to White House on the 30th; but once more the lure failed because it was not made sufficiently tempting.

The last episode of the campaign centred on Cold Harbor, a village close to the Chickahominy, which Sheridan's cavalry seized, on its own initiative, on the 31st. Here, contrary to the expectation of the Union staff, a considerable force of Confederate infantry—new arrivals from the James—was met, and in the hope of bringing on a battle before either side had time to entrench, Grant and Meade ordered Sheridan to hold the village at all costs, and directed Wright's (VI.) corps from the extreme right wing, and Smith's (XVIII.) from Old Church, to march thither with all possible speed, Wright in the night of the 31st of May and Smith on the morning of the 1st of June. Lee had actually ordered his corps commanders to attack, but was too ill to enforce his wishes, and in the evening Wright and Smith themselves assaulted the Confederate front opposite Cold Harbor. The assault, though delivered by tired men, was successful. The enemy's first or skirmish line was everywhere stormed, and parts of the VI. corps even penetrated the main line. Nearly 800 prisoners were taken, and Grant at once prepared to renew the attack, as at Spottsylvania, with larger forces, bringing Hancock over from the right of the line on the night of the 1st, and ordering Hancock, Wright and Smith to assault on the next morning. But Lee had by now moved more forces down, and his line extended from the Totopotomoy to the Chickahominy. Hancock's corps, very greatly fatigued by its night march, did not form up until after midday, and meanwhile Smith, whose corps, originally but 10,000 strong, had been severely tried by its hard marching and fighting on the 1st, refused to consider the idea of renewing the attack. The passive resistance thus encountered dominated Grant's fighting instinct for a moment. But after reconsidering the problem he again ordered the attack to be made by Wright, Smith and Hancock at 5 p.m. A last modification was made when, during the afternoon, Lee's far distant left wing attacked Burnside and Warren. This, showing that Lee had still a considerable force to the northward, and being, not very inaccurately, read to mean that the 6 m. of Confederate entrenchments were equally—i.e. equally thinly—guarded at all points, led to the order being given to all five Union corps to attack at 4.30 a.m. on the 3rd of June.

The resolution to make this plain, unvarnished frontal assault on entrenchments has been as severely criticized as any action of any commander in the Civil War, and Grant himself subsequently expressed his regret at having formed it. But such criticisms derive all their force from the event, not from the conditions in which, beforehand, the resolution was made. The risks of failure were deliberately accepted, and the battle—if it can be called a battle—was fought as ordered. The assault was made at the time arranged and was repulsed at all points, with a loss to the assailants of about 8000 men. Thereafter the two armies lay for ten days less than a hundred yards apart. There was more or less severe fighting at times, and an almost ceaseless bickering of skirmishers. Owing to Grant's refusal to sue for permission to remove his dead and wounded in the terms demanded, Lee turned back the Federal ambulance parties, and many wounded were left to die between the lines. It was only on the 7th that Grant pocketed his feelings and the dead were buried.

This is one of the many incidents of Cold Harbor that must always rouse painful memories—though to blame Lee or Grant supposes that these great generals were infinitely more inhuman here than at any other occasion in their lives, and takes no account of the consequences of admitting a defeat at this critical moment, when the causes for which the Union army and people contended were about to be put to the hazard of a presidential election.

The Federal army lost, in this month of almost incessant campaigning, about 50,000 men, the Confederates about 32,000. Though the aggregate of the Union losses awed both contemporaries and historians of a later generation, proportionately the losses of the South were heavier (46% of the original strength as compared with 41% on the Union side), and whereas within a few weeks Grant was able to replace nearly every man he had lost by a new recruit, the Confederate government was almost at the end of its resources.

See A. A. Humphreys, The Campaign of Virginia, 1864-65 (New York, 1882); Military History Society of Massachusetts, The Wilderness Campaign; Official Records of the Rebellion, serial numbers 67, 68 and 69; and C. F. Atkinson, The Wilderness and Cold Harbor (London, 1908).  (C. F. A.) 

  1. Wilson's division, in its movement on Shady Grove Church on the 5th, had been cut off by the enemy's advance on the Plank Road and attacked by some Confederate cavalry. But it extricated itself and joined Gregg, who had been sent to assist him, at Todd's Tavern.
  2. The Union losses in the battle were 18,000, the Confederates at least 11,500.
  3. In consequence of a mistaken order that the trains which he was protecting were to move forward to Piney Branch Church.
  4. Owing to the circumstances of his departure, the angry army staff told him to move out at once with the forage that he had, and Sheridan, though the army reserve supplies were at hand, made no attempt to fill up from them.
  5. A further source of confusion, for the historian at least, is that on the survey maps made in 1867 this “Gayle” is called “Beverly” (see map II.).
  6. The tension was so great that, after threatening to deprive Warren of his command, Meade sent General Humphreys, his chief of staff, to direct the V. corps' attack.