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Battle of the Wilderness

May 5–7, 1864

Fought between May 5 and 7, 1864, the Battle of the Wilderness was the first major battle in Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign.

On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the western theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Unlike previous Union generals, whose leadership was marked their own timidity, Grant was tenacious. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant's focused on defeating Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee was destined to lose a war of attrition, as long he was persistently engaged.

On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. The Wilderness was a tangled area of dense forest and undergrowth that had hampered the maneuverability of Federal forces during a previous Union defeat at Chancellorsville (April 30 to May 6, 1863). Major General George Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, but as General-in-Chief of the Armies, Grant chose to accompany Meade's army in the field so that he could personally supervise overall campaign operations. Grant planned to use the Wilderness to screen his operations, but he also planned to pass through it before it impeded the Union army as it had done before.

Lee, whose army was greatly outnumbered (101,000 to 61,000 men), was forced to assume a defensive position and to engage the Federals in the Wilderness where their numerical superiority would be negated. He ordered two corps, under the command of Lieutenant Generals Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill, to the Wilderness to engage the Federals. Lee also ordered a third corps, commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet, which was stationed farther away, to move to the Wilderness as quickly as possible. On May 5, Ewell's men advanced into the Wilderness along the Orange Turnpike and dug in upon reaching a clearing known as Saunders Field. Federal troops, commanded by Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, attacked Ewell's line with little success. To the south, Union forces, commanded by Brigadier General George Getty, were able to block A.P. Hill's progress up the Plank Road. Fierce fighting raged throughout the day, and by nightfall, Hill's corps was on the point of collapse.

At 5:00 a.m. on May 6, the Federals renewed their assault on Hill's corps, pushing the Rebels back. However, Longstreet's corps arrived on the scene at about 7:00 a.m. and prevented a Rebel collapse. Meanwhile, the Confederates discovered an unfinished railroad bed that offered them an opportunity to surprise the Union line. Longstreet launched a successful flanking attack from the rail line, but during the confusion of battle, he was severely wounded by his own troops just a few miles from where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville a year earlier. On May 6, the fighting concluded when the Rebels launched two more afternoon assaults with limited success.

By May 7, the two armies had fought to a standoff. The Battle of the Wilderness was one of the more gruesome of the war, as raging fires in the thick undergrowth burned many of the wounded soldiers to death. When the battle ended, the Federals had suffered the same fate as previous Union forces that had fought in the vicinity. Lee had inflicted about 18,000 casualties on Meade's army, while suffering approximately 11,000 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Grant, however, unlike his predecessors, did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to disengage, to march his army around Lee's forces, and to move deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of the Wilderness included:

Infantry units:

  • 4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 8th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 60th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 110th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 122nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 126th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery units:

  • Battery H, 1st Ohio Light Artillery Regiment

Cavalry units:

  • 2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
  • 6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

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