The Battle of the Wilderness


Who: Ulysses S Grant and George Meade (Union) vs Robert E Lee (Confederacy)

What: Confederate tactical victory, Union strategy victory. Actual battle inconclusive.

Where: Spotsylvania County, Virginia

Why: Part of Grant’s Overland Campaign to take Richmond

When: May 5-7, 1864

“As desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed” – Ulysses S Grant

In March 1864, Ulysses S Grant had been promoted and given command of all Union armies. Choosing the Army of the Potomac for his headquarters, he devised a strategy to strike at the heart of the Confederacy and destroy Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The Army of the Potomac crossed the river on May 4, and Robert E Lee decided to confront Grant in the dense woodland known as the Wilderness, not far from the site of the Battle of Chancellorsville. By engaging Grant in the thick woods, Lee could negate Grant’s numerical advantage of around 100,000 to Lee’s 60,000. The two armies met on May 5. The fighting was chaotic, with cavalry and artillery almost useless in the thick brush, which set on fire and trapped many of the wounded, and the thick smoke from the fires and rifles effectively blinding the troops. The next day Grant attacked, driving the Confederate right flank under A.P Hill back almost a mile, before a timely counterattack from James Longstreet’s corps. Longstreet was shot by one of his own men in the shoulder. Lee ordered another attack, breaking the Union line. Uncharacteristically for a Union commander, Grant refused to retreat, steadying the breaking lines. By the end of the battle, the two armies had barely moved from their original positions, but had suffered huge casualties: 17,000 Union and 7,000 Confederate. Grant moved his troops from their positions and moved onwards, setting up the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, which would begin the next day on May 8.

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