Open main menu

A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/Battles of the Wilderness-Operations from Early's Division

< A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America

BATTLES OF THE WILDERNSS.

OPERATIONS OF EARLY'S DIVISION

On morning of the 5th, Ewell's corps was put in motion, my division bringing up the rear. A short distance from the Old Wilderness Tavern, and just in advance of the place where a road diverges to the left from the old Stone Pike to the Germanna Ford road, the enemy, in heavy force was encountered. and Jones brigade, of Johnson's division. and Battle's brigade, of Rodes' division, were driven back in some confusion. My division was ordered up and formed across the pike: Gordon's brigade being on the right of the road. This brigade, as soon as it was brought into line, was ordered forward, and advanced, through a dense pine thicket, in gallant style. In conjunction with Daniel's, Doles' and Ramseur's brigades, of Rodes' division, it drove the enemy back with heavy loss, capturing several hundred prisoners, and gaining a commanding position on the right. Johnson at the same time, was heavily engaged in his front: his division being on the left of the pike, and extending across the road to the Germanna Ford road. which has been mentioned. After the enemy had been repulsed. Hays' brigade was sent to Johnson's left, in order to participate, in a forward movement: and it did move, forward. some half-a-mile or so, encountering the enemy in force; but, from some mistake, not meeting with the expected co-operation, except from one regiment of Jones' brigade (the 25th Va.), the most of which was captured, it was drawn back Johnson's line, and took position on bis left.

Pegram's brigade was subsequently sent to take position on Hays left; and, just before night, a very heavy attack was made on its front, which was repulsed with severe loss to the enemy. In thin affair, (General Pegram received a severe wound in the leg, which disabled him for the field for some months.

During the afternoon there was heavy skirmishing along the whole line, several attempts having been made by the enemy, without success, to regain the position from which he had been driven; and the fighting extended to General Lee's right, on the Plank Road. Gordon occupied the position which he had gained, on the right, until after dark, when he was withdrawn to the extreme left, and his place occupied by part of Rodes' division.

The troops encountered, in the beginning of the fight, consisted of the 5th corps, under Warren; but other troops were brought to his assistance. At the close of the day, Ewell's corps had captured over a thousand prisoners, besides inflicting on the enemy very heavy losses in killed and wounded. Two pieces of artillery had been abandoned by the enemy, just in front of the point at which Johnson's right and Rodes' left joined, and were subsequently secured by our troops.

After the withdrawal of Gordon's brigade from the right, the whole of my division was on the left of the road diverging from the pike, in extension of Johnson's line. All my brigades had behaved handsomely; and Gordon's advance, at the time of the confusion, in the beginning of the fight, was made with great energy and dispatch, and was just in time to prevent a serious disaster.

Early on the morning of the 6th, the fighting was resumed, and a very heavy attack was made on the front occupied by Pegram's brigade (now under the command of Colonel Hoffman, of the 31st Virginia Regiment); but it was handsomely repulsed, as were several subsequent attacks at the same point.

These attacks were so persistent, that two regiments of Johnson's division were moved to the rear of Pegram's brigade, for the purpose of supporting it; and, when an offer was made to relieve it, under the apprehension that its ammunition might be exhausted, the men of that gallant brigade begged that they might be allowed to retain their position, stating that they were getting along very well indeed, and wanted no help.

During the morning, the fact was communicated to General Ewell, by our cavalry scouts, that a column of the enemy's infantry was moving between our left and the river, with the apparent purpose of turning our left flank; and information was also received that Burnside's corps had crossed the river, and was in rear of the enemy's right. I received directions to watch this column, and take steps to prevent its getting to our rear; and Johnston's brigade, of Rodes' division, which had just arrived from Hanover Junction, was sent to me for that purpose. This brigade, with some artillery, was put in position, some distance to my left, so as to command some bye-roads coming in from the river. In the meantime General Gordon had sent out a scouting party on loot, which discovered what was supposed to be the enemy's right flank resting in the woods, in front of my division: and, during my absence while posting Johnston's brigade, he reported the fact to General Ewell, and suggested the propriety of attacking this flank of the enemy with his brigade, which was not engaged. On my return, the subject was mentioned to me by General Ewell, and I stated to him the danger and risk of making the attack under the circumstances as a column was threatening our left flank, and Burnside's corps was in rear of the enemy's flank on which the attack was suggested. General Ewell concurred with me in this opinion, and the impolitic of the attempt at that time was obvious, as we had no reserves and, if it failed, and the enemy showed any enterprise, a serious disaster would befall, not only our corps, but General Lee's whole army. In the afternoon, when the column threatening our left had been withdrawn, and it had been ascertained that Burnside had gone to Grant's left, on account of the heavy fighting on that think, at my suggestion, General Ewell ordered the movement which Gordon had proposed. I determined to make it with Gordon's brigade supported by Johnston's, and to follow it up., if successful, with the rest of my division. Gordon's brigade was accordingly formed in line near the edge of the woods in which the enemy's right rested, and Johnston's in the rear, with orders to follow Gordon and obey his orders. I posted my Adjutant General, Major John W. Daniel, with a courier, in a position to be communicated with by Gordon, so as to inform me of the success attending the movement, and enable me to put in the other brigades at the right time. As soon as Gordon started, which was a very short time before sunset, I rode to my line and threw forward Pegram's brigade in a position to move when required. In the meantime Gordon had become engaged, and, while Pegram's brigade was being formed in line, I saw some of Gordon's men coming back in confusion, and Colonel Evans, of the 31st Georgia Regiment, endeavoring to rally them. Colonel Evans informed me that his regiment, which was on Gordon's right, had struck the enemy's breastworks and had given way. I immediately ordered Pegram's brigade forward, and directed Colonel Evans to guide it. Its advance was through a dense thicket of underbrush, but it crossed the road running through Johnson's line, and struck the enemy's works, and one of the regiments, the 13th Virginia, under Colonel Terrill, got possession of part of the line, when Colonel Hoffman ordered the brigade to retire, as it was getting dark, and there was much confusion produced by the difficulties of the advance. Gordon had struck the enemy's right flank behind breastworks, and a part of his brigade was thrown into disorder. In going through the woods, Johnston had obliqued too much and passed to Gordon's left, getting in rear of the enemy. Major Daniel, not hearing from Gordon, had endeavored to get to him, when, finding the condition of things, he attempted to lead one of Pegram's regiments to his assistance, and was shot down while behaving with great gallantry, receiving a wound in the leg which has permanently disabled him. Notwithstanding the confusion in part of his brigade, Gordon succeeded in throwing the enemy's right flank into great confusion, capturing two brigadier generals (Seymour and Shaler), and several hundred prisoners, all of the 6th Corps, under Sedgwick. The advance of Pegram's brigade, and the demonstration of Johnston's brigade in the rear, where it encountered a part of the enemy's force and captured some prisoners, contributed materially to the result. It was fortunate, however, that darkness came to close this affair, as the enemy, if he had been able to discover the disorder on our side, might have brought up fresh troops and availed himself of our condition. As it was, doubtless, the lateness of the hour caused him to be surprised, and the approaching darkness increased the confusion in his ranks, as he could not see the strength of the attacking force, and probably imagined it to be much more formidable than it really was. All of the brigades engaged in the attack were drawn back, and formed on a new line in front of the old one, and obliquely to it.

At light on the morning of the 7th, an advance was made, which disclosed the fact that the enemy had given up his line of works in front of my whole line, and a good portion of Johnson's. Between the lines, a large number of his dead had been left, and, at his breastworks, a large number of muskets and knapsacks had been abandoned, and there was every indication of great confusion. It was not till then, that we ascertained the full extent of the success attending the movement of the evening before. The enemy had entirely abandoned the left side of the road, across which Johnson's line extended, and my division and a part of his were thrown forward, occupying a part of the abandoned works on the right of the road, and leaving all those on the left in our rear. This rendered our line straight, the left having been previously thrown back, making a curve.

During this day there was some skirmishing, but no serious fighting in my front. The loss in my division during the fighting in the Wilderness was comparatively light.

On the morning of the 8th, it was discovered that the enemy was leaving our front and moving towards Spotsylvania Court House. General Lee's army was also put in motion; Ewell's corps moving along the line occupied by our troops on the day before, until it reached the Plank Road, where it struck across to Shady Grove, which is on the road from Orange Court House to Spotsylvania Court House. On reaching the Plank Road, I received through General A. P. Hill, who was sick and unable to remain on duty, an order from General Lee, transferring Hays' brigade from my division to Johnson's, in order that it might be consolidated with another Louisiana brigade in that division, whose Brigadier-General had been killed at the "Wilderness, and Johnston's brigade from Rodes' division to mine; and assigning me to the temporary command of Hill's corps, which was still in position across the Plank Road, and was to bring up the rear. I accordingly turned over the command of my division to Gordon, the senior Brigadier left with it, and assumed command of Hill's corps.


* In his official report, Grant says: "Early on the 5th, the advance corps, the 5th, Major-General G. K. Warren commanding, met and engaged the enemy outside his entrenchments near Mine Run;" and further on he says: "On the morning of the 7th, reconnoissances showed that the enemy had fallen behind his entrenched lines, with pickets to the front covering a part of the battle-field. From this it was evident to my mind that the two days fighting had satisfied him of his inability to further maintain the contest in the open field, notwithstanding his advantage of position, and that he could wait an attack behind his works." In mentioning his movement toward Spotsylvania Court House, he says: "But the enemy having become aware of our movement, and having the shorter line, was enabled to reach there first." If these statements were true, the only legitimate inference is that General Lee had an entrenched line on, or near Mine Run, previously established; that the battle commenced immediately in front of the works on this line; and that, after the two days fighting, he had fallen behind them to wait an attack. Whereas the fact is, that the only entrenched line on, or near, Mine Run, was that made, on its west bank, when Meade crossed the river at the end of November, 1863, and which was used for that occasion only. The fighting in the Wilderness began eight or ten miles east of that line, and at no time during that fighting was it used for any purpose. The "entrenched lines" occupied by our army on the morning of the 7th, were slight temporary works thrown up, on, or in front of the battle-field, though it is probable that, at some points, the line may not have been so far to the front, as our troops had advanced; as, in taking it, regard was necessarily had to the conformation of the ground. On our left, as will be seen above, the line was advanced in front of Grant's own line of the previous day.

Grant says General Leo had the advantage of position. As the latter had to move from his lines on the Rapidan and attack Grant in the Wilderness, how happened it that he was enabled to get the advantage of position, after the two days fighting. He also says that General Lee was enabled to reach Spotsylvania Court House, first, because he had the shorter line. The fact is, that, as the two armies lay in their positions at the Wilderness, their lines were parallel to the road to Spotsylvania Court House. Grant had the possession of the direct road to that place, and he had the start. General Lee had to move on the circuitous route by Shady Grove, and he was enabled to arrive at the Court House first with part of his infantry, because his cavalry held Grant's advance in check for nearly an entire day.