Battle of the Wilderness

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 the end.

Dear Sister Emma | A Principle of Duty | Sickness and Suffering | Please Write Soon
I hope some day to return | Take good care of it...

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Last updated:
October 14, 2003

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