Wednesday, May 7, 2014

May 6, 1864

May 6, 1864


Battle of the Wilderness



Day 1:  As the day opens, Grant has called for all three army corps to attack at 5:00 AM.  Assuming that Hill’s Third Corps is badly damaged, he intends for the Army of the Potomac to exploit the gap between Ewell and Hill, and to send Burnside’s IX Corps through it.  However, the Rebels slightly anticipate the Federal attack, and strike against troops under Sedgwick that form the Federal right flank at 4:45 AM.  Soon, the firing is general all along the northern flank of the Union lines.
Hancock attacks A.P. Hill

By 6:00 AM, Lee assures Hill, Longstreet will come up to save the position.  But by then, Hancock attacks Hill, who has failed to entrench, and is about to break through Hill’s line and flank the whole Army of Northern Virginia, and Longstreet is not there.  When Longstreet’s troops arrive in the nick of time, just as Hill’s line begins to break. 
Longstreet's Counterattack, 6:00 AM
The first to arrive is Brig. Gen. John Gregg’s Texas Brigade, which has been reduced to only 800 men.  Gen. Lee, who is on the site, sees the Texas men and cheers them, waving his hat, yelling, “Texans always move them!”  Lee rides to lead the Texans into battle, when some of the soldiers grab the bridle of Lee’s horse, Traveler, and insist he go to the rear before they will charge: “Lee to the rear!  Lee to the rear!” they cry.  The Texans go in with their customary elan, and only 250 of the 800 emerge without wounds.  Longstreet, meanwhile, has lined up Fields’ division on the left, and Kershaw’s on the right, and both divisions strike Hancock’s line and drive it back some ways.

In the meantime, A.P. Hill and his tattered corps sidesteps to the left, and by the time that Burnside gets his tardy IX Corps into position, and begins to push through the gap, the Yankees find that there is no more gap: Hill is there to block him, and it is block enough.

Longstreet flanks Hancock's II Corps

Around 10:00 AM, Longstreet’s staff engineer reports that he has found an unfinished railroad bed that would provide a clear path to deploy troops for an attack on the Union flank.  Longstreet lines up four fresh brigades on his right, the senior Brigadier being William Mahone, with Lt. Col. Sorrel to guide them.  Longstreet launches this attack on the Union left, flanking Hancock’s men, and it succeeds quite well.  Hancock later relates that Longstreet rolled up his line “like a wet blanket.”  Catching up with advance units, Longstreet rides forward to push the attack onward.  As he rides with Generals Jenkins and Kershaw, he is shot (and Jenkins killed) by his own men who mistake the riders for Federals.  The attack slows and is finally blunted, because of the delay in passing on command authority.  Longstreet will be injured for many months, and be out of action.  In the command vacuum, the Rebel attack slows and halts, as Hancock is able to deploy troops to counter the threat.  Grant wants Meade to push Hancock and Burnside forward, but Hancock protests that his men  are out of ammunition and daylight.


John B. Gordon is finally given permission late in the afternoon to strike again at Sedgwick right flank.  The Federals fall back, and are turned, but Gordon cannot push the attack and cut the Yankees off from their supply line because darkness falls.

Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon, CSA

At one point during Gordon’s assault, an officer in the Army of the Potomac begins pointing out how Lee is turning the Federal flank, and threatening to cut them off.  Grant, sitting and whittling, loses his composure and offers this gem of military wisdom:  “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do."

As night draws on, the fighting dies down, but brushfires have started again, and soldiers from the two armies even declare truces in places, so that they can recover their wounded comrades to prevent their being burned in the fires.  Even so, over 200 Federal wounded perish in the flames.  In the end, Lee has desperately fought the Yankees to a standstill, and stopped their bid to steal a march on the Southern army and thus get between Lee and Richmond---and, the Federal losses are fearfully high.  Confederate Victory. 


















Gordon's men capture guns of the 4th U.S. Artillery, Batt. D

---George Michael Neese, an artilleryman serving in Chew’s Battery in Lee’s army, writes in his journal of his impressions of the battle, and the hellish vision he sees in one of the most savage battles on this continent:

May 6 — Very heavy musketry and some cannonading for about three hours this morning, in the direction of Chancellorsville, which was the opening chorus of a general battle that raged furiously all day along our lines. Our battery was engaged nearly all day, and had some very warm and dangerous work on hand just on the right of General Longstreet’s line. We fought cavalry and infantry, and were under the fire of a battalion of Yankee artillery for awhile, but held our position all day, and so did the Yanks in our immediate front. The fierce, sharp roar of deadly musketry filled our ears from morning till night, and a thick white cloud of battle smoke hung pall-like over the fields and woods all day along the battle lines. The smoke was so thick and dense sometimes during the day that it was impossible to discern anything fifty paces away, and at midday the smoke was so thick overhead that I could just make out to see the sun, and it looked like a vast ball of red fire hanging in a smoke-veiled sky. The country all along the lines, which is mostly timber land, was set on fire early in the day by the explosion of shell and heavy musketry; a thousand fires blazed and crackled on the bloody arena, which added new horrors and terrors to the ghastly scene spread out over the battle plain. A thousand new volumes of smoke rolled up toward the sky that was already draped with clouds of battle smoke. The hissing flames, the sharp, rattling, crashing roar of musketry, the deep bellowing of the artillery mingled with the yelling of charging, struggling, fighting war machines, the wailing moans of the wounded and the fainter groans of the dying, all loudly acclaimed the savagery of our boasted civilization and the enlightened barbarism of the nineteenth century. Even the midday sun refused to look with anything but a faint red glimmer on the tragical scene that was being enacted in the tangled underbrush where the lords of creation were struggling and slaughtering each other like wild beasts in a jungle.

---Battle of Walthall Junction:  Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, in command of 33,000 troops as the new Army of the James, has been landed at Bermuda Hundred, between the Appomattox and James Rivers, and is advancing west towards Petersburg to threaten the railroad between Petersburg and Richmond.  Rebel General Hagood’s brigade, understrength at about 1,000, strikes Butler’s advance troops and pushes them back.

---Stephen Minot Weld, an officer in the Federal army at the Wilderness battle, tells of a heart-breaking incident of treachery as his troops show care and compassion for a Confederate wounded soldier:

When we were advancing on this morning we passed several rebels lying on the ground, who had been wounded a little while before. One of them asked one of our men for some water. The man stopped at the brook, got him some water, and then went ahead. As soon as we had gone fifty yards or so, the fellow we had given water to drew himself up and shot one of our men. Some of the others went back and quickly put him out of the world. It was a mean, cowardly thing for a man to do who had been treated as we treated him.

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