Friday, May 2, 2014

The Battle of the Wilderness - A Virtual Tour

The Wilderness Battlefield - Photo by Jim Schmidt
Skirmish in the Wilderness - Winslow Homer
"The undergrowth was so heavy that it was scarcely possible to see more than one hundred paces in any direction. The movements of the enemy could not be observed until the lines were almost in collision. Only the roar of the musketry disclosed the position of the combatants to those who were at any distance." - Union Gen. Winfield Hancock

Next week, May 5-6 2014, marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness, the beginning of the "Overland Campaign" of May and June 1864 that include the signature battles of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor, and several others.

If it's possible to have a "soft spot" for a battle or campaign, this is one for me.  As explained in one of my very first posts (here), my interest in the Civil War was sparked by a visit to the Cold Harbor battlefield 20-plus years ago and the especially fortunate interaction with an attentive and energetic National Park Service Ranger.  Naturally my reading began with books about Cold Harbor, specifically, and the Overland Campaign, generally, which all started with the Battle of the Wilderness.

A few years later, I had the great pleasure of spending four days exploring all the battlefields associated with the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park with my life-long and best friend Curtis Fears.  It was our second battlefield trip together (the first being to Vicksburg) but the first where I really had a chance to prepare by soaking myself in the literature and planning must-see sites.

I remember it like yesterday.

All the places and people and events I had read about came to life. 

After our visit I collated our photographs into an album...soon after, I transferred that album into what became our "Battle of the Wilderness Virtual Tour," first posted on the web in 1999. Back then, even the NPS military park websites were fairly simple affairs, and our modest undertaking attracted attention and links and was even featured in the book Civil War on the Web as THE website to go to for information on the Battle of the Wilderness (we also had a Battle of Fredericksburg Virtual Tour).

Thanks to the "Wayback Machine" at, you can still see that website of ours here.

Obviously, battlefield and military park websites - official and otherwise - are much more sophisticated now, but I take great satisfaction in knowing that we exposed people to sights of the Wilderness that they may not ever get to see.

Below are some more photos from the Wilderness battlefield.

Saunders' Field

This clearing in the forest, known as Saunders' Field, witnessed the opening shots of the Battle of the Wilderness. At 1:00 pm on May 5, 1864, some 12,000 Union soldiers surged toward the wooden ridge shown below. Because the Federal battle front extended more than one mile in width, many Northern troops advanced through the tangled undergrowth on either side of the field. The clearing was maintained as one of the two major fronts during the battle, and was the scene of additional fierce fighting on May 6, including a Confederate flank attack on the evening of the 6th.

Modern view of Saunders' Field - Photo by Jim Schmidt
During the fighting in Saunders' Field, the dry grass and leaves caught fire, and soon flames were sweeping across the clearing. Efforts to retrieve the wounded and dying from the field were often futile, and the bodies of soldiers dead and alive were consumed by the fire. One veteran remembered the horrible scene thus:

"The almost cheerful Pop! Pop! of the cartridges gave no hint of the dreadful horror their noise bespoke. Swept by the flames, the trees, bushes, and took fire and dense clouds of smoke rolled across the clearing...The clearing now became a raging inferno in which many of the wounded perished. The bodies of the dead were blackened and burned beyond all possibility of recognition, a tragic conclusion to this day of horror."

This photograph shows Saunders' Field as it appeared shortly after the war (USAMHI)
Widow Tapp Farm

The Battle of the Wilderness raged for two days on two major fronts. One of them was the fighting along the Orange Turnpike axis through Saunders' Field. The other was along the Orange Plank Road. General Lee made his headquarters in the sole clearing along the road: the Widow Tapp Farm.
A cannon marks the location of Poague's four batteries of Confederate artillery on the Widow Tapp Farm - Photo by Jim Schmidt
Control of the Tapp Farm depended in no small part on the action and bravery of W.T. Poague's battalion of artillery. Poague's four batteries, sixteen guns in all, were sited facing east roughly perpendicular to the road, which crossed through the farm property.

There was fierce fighting on the farmstead on both days of the battle as Union General Winfield S. Hancock sent waves of soldiers west along the road to the eastern edge of the field.

Brock Road-Orange Plank Road Intersection

On the morning of May 5, 1864, this may well have been the most important intersection in America. The two wings of the Army of the Potomac were separated from the crossroads - one concentrating along the Orange Turnpike, and General Winfield Hancock's several miles south. Confederate General A.P. Hill's corps was headed straight down the Orange Plank Road. If Hill reached the intersection first he could cut the Union Army in two.

Modern view of the Brock Road-Orange Plank Road intersection - Photo by Jim Schmidt
General George W. Getty's division of the Federal VI Corps was rushed down from the north shortly before noon to occupy the position. As his forces moved into line, Confederate troops advanced to within musket range of the intersection. Getty's chief-of-staff, Hazard Stevens, remembered that Getty exclaimed "we most hold this ground at any risk!"

Getty's men arrived just in time: dead Confederate skirmishers were found within thirty yards of the junction. Getty dug in and held off the Confederates until Hancock's Second Corps came to his aid at about 2 pm. Remnants of the Union trenches extending north and south along Brock Road are still visible today.

Early on the morning of May 6, Hancock launched a massive attack along the Orange Plank Road, routing Hill's troops. At this critical moment, Confederate General James Longstreet's First Corps arrived, stalling the Union momentum. Longstreet then engineered a flanking attack, pushing brigade upon brigade of Union troops back to the Brock Road works. The Confederate offensive was disrupted by the accidental wounding of Longstreet, in an eerie repeat of Stonewall Jackson's wounding a year earlier in the same Wilderness.

A sketch from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War shows Confederate soldiers carrying the Brock Road breastworks.
The delay in the Confederate attack after Longstreet's wounding gave Hancock's troops precious time to construct a formidable array of breastworks across the intersection. Charles Weygant, of the 124th New York, remembered the Brock Road stronghold as "...the strongest line of temporary works it had ever been my fortune to stand behind." This didn't keep the Confederates from attacking, though, and they revived the assault at about 4 pm. At the climax of the fighting, the woods in front of Hancock caught fire, and the flames spread to the works themselves. A Union soldier in the 106th Pennsylvania remembered the Confederates "advancing like so many devils through the flames."

Below are additional photographs, including the 140th NY Volunteers Monument, the Wadsworth Monument, photos from Spotsylvania Confederate Cemetery.

I strongly encourage all readers ofthis blog to get out to one of our country's many national battlefields or national military parks.  Please thank the men and women of the NPS as well for their stewardship of these treasures.

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