Tuesday, May 6, 2014

May 5, 1864

May 5, 1864


Overland Campaign:

Battle of the Wilderness


Day 1: 
Battle of the Wilderness, early morning, May 5
As the morning opens, Hancock’s Federal II Corps is marching steadily south toward Todd’s Tavern in an attempt to form strong left flank and face east to oppose the advance of the Confederate right.  Meade orders Warren to turn west and attack the Rebels forming on the Orange-Fredericksburg Turnpike, not realizing that Ewell was there with an entire army corps---3 divisions---and as Warren deploys two divisions in response, he notices that the Rebels outflank him on the right, and Warren wants to wait for Sedgwick to arrive and hook up on his right. 
Warren's V Corps advances. 
Warren goes forward anyway, his initial attack at Saunders Field throws back Ewell’s line.  Sedgwick arrives, sends one division farther south to block Hill, and lines up the rest of his corps on Warren’s right to face Ewell’s left flank. 
Hancock takes hours to bring his lumbering II Corps forward to engage Hill.  Manuevering is difficult in the heavy, second-growth woods.  Line of sight is impossible, communication with neighboring units is sporadic, and signaling non-existant.  The Federals’ overwhelming advantage in numbers is nullified by the thick woods, where greater forces cannot be brought to bear, nor can the Union artillery make itself felt. 
Winslow Homer, Skirmish in the Wilderness
Fires begin to blaze up in the undergrowth, usually cause by the flame of cannon fire (what little there was), and troops from both armies try to rescue the wounded, but many burn to death as the fires rage through the thickets.  One soldier, Private Frank Wilkeson, writes afterwards:

I saw many wounded soldiers in the Wilderness who hung on to their rifles, and whose intention was clearly stamped on their pallid faces. I saw one man, both of whose legs were broken, lying on the ground with his cocked rifle by his side and his ramrod in his hand, and his eyes set on the front. I knew he meant to kill himself in case of fire—knew it is surely as though I could read his thoughts.
Fires in the Wilderness.  Drawing by Edwin Forbes.

As small-unit skirmishing rules the field, both armies decide to take the Brock Road---which Lee sees as the key to being able to split the Federal line---and Hill and his Rebels move quickly.  But Hancock’s bluecoats move more quickly, and massively.  Hancock’s men are badly used up, after the fighting, but the intersection of the Brock Road and the Orange Plank Road is in Union hands, and Hancock now outflanks Hill.  Lee is alarmed at the prospect, but he is confident that Longstreet will be up before dawn to hold back what he is convinced will be a Yankee attack by Hancock on the Rebel right flank.  There is a large gap between Ewell and Hill, which Grant decides to exploit the next day.  The armies rest, to the chorus of wounded men, some of them badly burned, in the night.

---William Dame of the Richmond Howitzers continues in his narration of his experience with Lee’s Army marching toward the Wilderness, and of the faith the soldiers had in Robert E. Lee:

Next morning, at daylight,—the 5th of May,—we promptly pulled out, and soon struck the highway, leading from Orange Court House to Fredericksburg, turned to the left and went sweeping on toward “The Wilderness.”

Here we got into the full tide of movement. Before and behind us the long gray columns were hurrying on to battle,—and as merry as crickets.

One thing that shone conspicuous here, and always, was the indomitable spirit of the “Army of Northern Virginia,” their intelligence about military movements; their absolute confidence in General Lee, and their quiet, matter of course, certainty of victory, under him. Here they were pushing right to certain battle, the dust in clouds, the sun blazing down, hardly anything to eat. . . .

And their intelligence! These men were not parts of a great machine moving blindly to their work. Very far from it! Stand on the roadside, as they marched by and hear their talk, the expression of their opinions about what was going on, you soon found that these men, privates, as well as officers, were well aware of what they were doing, and where they were going. In a general way, they knew what was going on, and what was going to go on, with the strangest accuracy. By some quick, and wide diffusion of intelligence among the men, they understood affairs, and the general situation perfectly well. For instance, as we passed on down that road to the fight, we knew . . . that General Grant had about 150,000 men moving on us. We knew that Longstreet was near Gordonsville, and that one Division of A. P. Hill had not come up. . . . In short, as I well remember, it was a fact, accepted among us, that General Lee was pushing, as hard as he could go, for Grant’s 150,000 with about 35,000 men; and yet, knowing all this, these lunatics were sweeping along to that appallingly unequal fight, cracking jokes, laughing, and with not the least idea in the world of anything else but victory. I did not hear a despondent word, nor see a dejected face among the thousands I saw and heard that day. I bear witness to this fact, which I wondered at then, and wonder at now. It is one of the most stirring and touching of my memories of the war. It was the grandest moral exhibition I ever saw! For it was simply the absolute confidence in themselves and in their adored leader. They had seen “Marse Robert” ride down that road, they knew he was at the front, and that was all they cared to know. The thing was bound to go right—“Wasn’t Lee there?” And the devil himself couldn’t keep them from going where Lee went, or where he wanted them to go.

Dame also gives more detailed commentary on the state of rations for the Confederates at this time:

I have alluded to rations; they were scarce here, as always when any fighting was on hand. Even in camp, where all was at its best, we had for rations, per day, one and a half pints of flour, or coarse cornmeal,—ground with the cob in it we used to think,—and one-quarter of a pound of bacon, or “mess pork,” or a pound, far more often half a pound, of beef.

But, in time of a fight! Ah then, thin was the fare! That small ration dwindled until, at times, eating was likely to become a “lost art.” I have seen a man, Bill Lewis, sit down and eat three days’ rations at one time. He said “He did not want the trouble of carrying it, and he did want one meal occasionally that wasn’t an empty form.” The idea seemed to be that a Confederate soldier would fight exactly in proportion as he didn’t eat. And his business was to fight. This theory was put into practice on a very close and accurate calculation; with the odds that, as a rule, we had against us, in the battles of the Army of Northern Virginia, we had to meet two or three to one. Then, each Confederate soldier was called upon to be equal to two or three Federal soldiers, and, therefore, each Confederate must have but one-half or one-third the rations of a Federal soldier. It was easy figuring, and so it was arranged in practice.

---Robert M. Magill, of the 39th North Carolina, records a traumatizing scene—of military executions:

Wednesday, 4th.—Witnessed a scene to-day that I humbly pray God I may never witness again. Army marched out and made to see fourteen men tied up to stakes and shot to death. Charges, desertion. Most of them belonged to the 58th North Carolina. Will this army prosper after such as this?

---George Michael Neese, an artilleryman in Chew’s Battery, attached to Stuart’s Cavalry Division, writes in his journal of the fighting he saw this day:

To-day about eleven o’clock we sighted the first new goods of the season in the way of live bluecoats; near the Wilderness we encountered a force of the enemy consisting of cavalry and artillery. They opened fire with their artillery and fired on our cavalry at first sight and right away, without wasting any time or opportunity, and were trying to do some ugly work from the start. We put two of our rifled guns in position and replied to their battery, but they had decidedly the advantage of us, both in position and the number of guns. We had only two guns engaged and the Yanks had eight, yet, as unequal as the first fierce conflict was, they did not budge us from our position with our two pieces. After fighting about an hour they ceased firing and we put in the last word and remained on the field an hour after the firing ceased; then we moved our battery to their left and flanked their position, thereby causing them to retire their guns and wholly abandon their first position. Undoubtedly the Yankee batteries did the best and most accurate firing to-day that I have seen or been around since the war; their shrapnel shot exploded all around and over us, and the everlasting ping and thud of slugs, balls, and fragments of shell filled the air with horrid screams for an hour, and the death-dealing mixture tore and raked up the sod all around us like a raging storm of iron hail. We had three men wounded, two horses killed, and several disabled.

From the way the shell howled closely around me today, if the Yanks keep on handing them around with the same familiarity and accuracy that they did this afternoon I am afraid that they will harvest me before I will be ripe, and gather me in before the season is over and the campaign ended.

---On the Roanoke River in North Carolina, the CSS Albemarle, with the CSS Bombshell and the CSS Cotton Plant, a transport full of troops, cruise down the river and encounter four gunboats of the USN blockading squadron: Miami, Mattabesett, Sassacus, and Wyalusing.  Albemarle’s opening shots disable a gun on the Mattabesett, after which the Sassacus fires a broadside at point blank range, which all bounce off of Albemarle’s armor.  Sassacus then fires on the Bombshell, with severe damage to its hull, and the Bombshell is finally forced to surrender.  Sassacus then attempts to ram the Albemarle, shattering its own bow, and losing its ram.  The crew of the Albemarle finds the shattered bow of the Yankee ship right at the muzzle of their Brooke rifle, so they fire two shells into the hull of the Sassacus, piercing the boiler and disabling the ship.  After the two ships part, the Federals attempt other measures, which all fail.  The Albemarle, having had 500 shots fired at it, steams back upriver with little damage.  Confederate Victory.

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