The scene of savage fighting with the ambushed enemy
. . . defies description. No one could see the fight fifty feet
from him. The roll and crackle of the musketry was something terrible,
even to the veterans of many battles. The lines were very near each
other, and from the dense underbrush and the tops of the trees came
puffs of smoke, the "ping" of the bullets, and the yell
of the enemy. It was a blind and bloody hunt to the death, in bewildering
thickets, rather than a battle.
Warren Lee Goss
Recollections of a Private:
A Story of the Army of the Potomac
Just as Private Goss described, the area in northern Virginia
known as the Wilderness was a frightening place for a fight. The
forest there was like a jungle, tangled with brambles and crisscrossed
by creeks and ravines. It was May of 1864 and Ulysses S. Grant had
just been named the new head of the Union forces, replacing a long
line of failed generals. To launch his first campaign as commander,
Grant planned to march down through the Wilderness and bring the
enemy into battle in the open country further south.
But Robert E. Lee, the skillful Confederate general, had other plans.
Although his troops were severely outgunned and outnumbered, he
marched them straight into the Wilderness and struck at the Union
soldiers before they could make it across the thick divide of cedar,
pine, and scrub. And for the next two days, a bloody battle raged
beneath the canopy of trees.
To make matters worse, flames broke out in the underbrush and ignited
the log barricades that the Union soldiers had constructed. Still,
the two sides continued fighting in the shroud of blinding smoke.
Many wounded men, unable to crawl to safety, burned to death.
At the end of two days, the Union army had lost more than 17,000
men. But unlike his predecessors, Grant refused to retreat. Instead,
he shifted his troops to the left and over the course of the next
two weeks, smashed at Lee's army again and again. At the end of
bitter fighting, neither side could claim victory. But one thing
was certain: Lee's army had suffered losses it could never replace.
Shortly after the battle, A.P. Hoadley wrote to his sister, "I
think General Grant will soon finish it up and then we'll all go
home once more." His prediction proved to be accurate. For
the Confederacy, the Wilderness Campaign marked the beginning of