150 Years Ago This Week: Into the Wilderness

May 1864

During the first couple of days in May, 1864, fighting between opposing troops took place primarily west of the Mississippi River. As the military campaign along the Red River drew to a close with the Federals under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks withdrawing to Alexandria, La., Confederates captured the U.S. river transport Emma at David’s Ferry, followed by four days of skirmishing at former Governor Thomas O. Moore’s plantation.

There was fighting in Arkansas and along Booth’s Run in northern California, with the Federals fighting Indians there. In Richmond, the first session of the Second Confederate Congress convened, and President Jefferson Davis’ message condemned again the “barbarism of the enemy in their plunder and devastation of the property of non-combatants, destruction of private dwellings and even of edifices devoted to the worship of God; expeditions organized for the sole purpose of sacking cities, consigning them to the flames, killing the unarmed inhabitants and inflicting horrible outrages on women and children.” The president saw no immediate hope for foreign recognition, but was optimistic about military matters.

Orders were issued on Tuesday, May 3, by Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant through Maj. Gen. George Meade that the Army of the Potomac was to move out from their winter encampments in Culpeper County and move across the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford the next morning. The plan was to march around the right flank of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and head toward Richmond once more.

The result of these orders was to be a long, bitter and bloody campaign which again turned Virginia into a major killing ground. In Washington on this day, President Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet discussed the alleged atrocities committed by Confederates during the attack on Fort Pillow near Memphis on April 12.

Soon after midnight that following morning, May 4, the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford. This was the beginning of the major Federal push that was to culminate in the siege of Petersburg and eventually on the road to Appomattox. On this date, Gen. Meade had some 122,000 men present for duty, while Gen. Lee counted some 66,000 troops.

On the Peninsula between the James and York Rivers, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler started to move his Army of the James north from Fort Monroe toward Richmond. In the west, Maj. Gen. William Sherman started his 98,000-man Army of the Cumberland from Chattanooga into Georgia on the way to the important rail center at Atlanta.

On Thursday, May 5, following a minor skirmish between the Union and Confederate troops at the old Chancellor house on the battlefield of Chancellorsville the year before, the armies of Gen. Grant/Meade and Gen. Lee clashed in the extremely dense woodlands known as the Wilderness, just to the west and south of the Chancellorsville battlefield.

For two days in this incredible environment, where visibility was reduced to yards, the fighting was intense and savage. Many of the wounded of both armies lying on the ground in the tangled underbrush perished in agony when the heavy woods caught fire from small arms fire and artillery.

While leading a charge in the wooded confusion on May 6, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was badly wounded by friendly fire when he took a bullet in the throat; Brig. Gen. Micah Jenkins was killed by the same volley. The battle ended at nightfall on May 7, and casualties were staggering: Of more than 100,000 Union troops engaged, over 17,600 were casualties. Of 66,000 Confederates, casualties were over 7,500.

The outcome of the battle was a draw, and Gen. Lee expected Gen. Grant and Gen. Meade to remain where they were as he moved his army south toward Spotsylvania Courthouse and better defensive ground. Instead, Gen. Lee found himself and his army in a race with the Union army to be the first to reach Spotsylvania Courthouse, where the conflict would be renewed.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.