At midnight on May 3-4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac and the Independent Ninth Corps, numbering approximately 120,000 men, left their winter camps in Culpeper County and marched south toward the Rapidan River fords. At early dawn, Union cavalry splashed across Germanna Ford, dispersing Confederate cavalry pickets there and enabling Union engineers to construct two pontoon bridges. General Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps thumped across the ford at 6 a.m., entering a dense, forbidding woodland known as the Wilderness. Meade intended to push through the Wilderness, wheel his army to the right, and attack Lee’s army, which he assumed would take up a defensive position behind Mine Run several miles to the west. Confident that Federal cavalry was between him and Confederate army, Warren ordered his men to bivouac near Wilderness Tavern.
The following morning Warrren resumed his march. No sooner had he started, however, than a courier dashed up with news that Confederate infantry was approaching on the Turnpike. Believing that Lee would fight a defensive battle behind Mine Run, General George Meade ordered Warren to strike the Confederates. The Fifth Corps chief, however, was apprehensive about making an attack in the Wilderness, where dense thickets would make it all but impossible to maintain a battle line and nullify the Federals’ numerical superiority. Warren’s protests notwithstanding, the Fifth Corps advanced astride the Orange Turnpike.
While Warren and Meade debated the merits of an attack along the Orange Turnpike, General Richard Stoddert Ewell’s Confederate corps built strong earthworks west of Saunders Field. When Warren’s men stepped out of the woods and into the open, Ewell’s troops exacted a fearful toll in casualties. The Yankees achieved a momentary breakthrough, but swift action by General John B. Gordon’s brigade sealed the breach. The arrival of the Union Sixth Corps did little more than broaden the front and lengthen the list of casualties.
Shortly after Warren spotted Confederates on the Orange Turnpike, Union General Samuel Crawford, at the Chewning farm, observed another enemy column headed up the Orange Plank Road toward its intersection with the Brock Road. This was a serious threat: if the Confederates gained possession of this point, they could drive a wedge between Warren’s corps, on the Turnpike to your right, and General Winfield S. Hancock’s corps, to the south. Meade quickly dispatched General George W. Getty’s Sixth Corps division to seize the crossroads. Around 4 pm, Getty attacked, his men tearing through the dense thickets in a vicious close-range fight with General A.P. Hill’s corps. Hancock soon arrived and rushed forward to support Getty, continuing the fight until nightfall—and exhaustion—ended the fighting.
The Federals resumed the offensive the following morning. A.P. Hill’s exhausted troops were forced back and the Confederates seemed on the verge of collapse until the Texas Brigade of Longstreet’s corps arrived, and staved off disaster. A pair of flank attacks—made by Longstreet on the southern portion of the field and by Gordon to the north—helped break the stalemate, forcing the Federals behind breastworks. However, just as Longstreet’s men were on the brink of success, Lee’s Old Warhorse was felled by an errant volley from his own troops. Lee himself had to organize for the final push against the Yankees along the Brock Road—a time-consuming effort in the Wilderness. The ensuing lull allowed Hancock the chance to rally his men and supervise the construction of earthworks.
Lee’s final assault turned out to be a colossal failure. Hampered by the heavy brush, the Confederates stumbled forward without cohesion until they reached obstructions in front of the Union line. There they were stopped cold by the crashing volleys from Hancock’s veterans. In one spot, Confederate troops dashed forward and planted their flags on the burning works. But their success was short-lived. Within minutes, Union troops counterattacked and reclaimed the works.
On May 7, both sides dug in and awaited attack. Realizing that he could make no further headway in the Wilderness, Grant ordered Meade’s army to pull out of the works after dark and head for Spotsylvania Court House. He had suffered some 20,000 casualties in the Wilderness, nearly twice as many as Lee, but his troops were not dispirited. When they discovered that the army was continuing to advance, they cheered their new leader. They had finally found a general determined to lead them to victory.