The Battle of the Wilderness: May 6, 1864
"Go back! General Lee! Go Back!"

The Wilderness
Despite the indecisive results of the previous day, General Grant would continue to display his trademark persistence by ordering an early morning attack. General Hancock would relate, "During the night of the 5th, I received orders to move upon the enemy again at 5 a.m. on the 6th." The general who displayed such steadfast courage at Gettysburg had fortified his position on General G. K. Warren's left and, with dim light flickering through the maddeningly thick Virginia woodland that gave this region its name, moved forward against CSA Lt. General Ambrose Powell Hill. Having heard of the pending arrival of Longstreet's Corps, Hancock detached some of his forces to meet them along the Brock Road. His remaining force drove the men of Hill's Corps south. "After a desperate contest, in which our troops conducted themselves in the most intrepid manner, the enemy's line was broken at all points, and he was driven in confusion through the forest for about 1 miles, suffering severe losses in killed, wounded, and prisoners. Our line, which had become somewhat disordered by the long distance which it had pressed after the enemy through the wood, was now halted, to adjust its formation before advancing farther."

Lee to the Rear MarkerIn his "History of the Civil War" published in 1917, James Ford Rhodes wrote of Longstreet's auspicious arrival on the field as the Southern right flank collapsed. The Confederates of Hill's Corps had retreated back through the clearing at the Widow Tapp Farm and Robert E. Lee determined to stop them. Not knowing of Longstreet's proximity, he rode forward. He suddenly noted men rushing towards the conflagration and not away from it. They were Longstreet's Texans. As Rhodes writes, "At one time the Confederate right wing was driven back and disaster seemed imminent, when Longstreet came up and saved the day. A Texas brigade of Longstreet's corps went forward to the charge, and Lee, who like his exemplar Washington was an eager warrior and loved the noise and excitement of battle, spurred onward his horse and, in his anxiety for the result, started to follow the Texans as they advanced in regular order. He was recognized, and from the entire line came the cry, "Go back, General Lee! go back!" [4]

Longstreets TrenchesGeneral Longstreet reported these events somewhat less dramatically. "...an advance was made by the whole line of the enemy, and the divisions of the Heth and Wilcox broke and retreated in some confusion. With considerable difficulty, but with steadiness, opening their ranks to let the retreating divisions through, Kershaw formed his line on the right and Field on the left of the plank road. Having checked the advance of the enemy, I ordered a general advance by my line, which was made with spirit rarely surpassed, and before which the enemy was driven a considerable distance. The woods were dense and the undergrowth almost impossible to penetrate. This success was not purchased without the loss of many of the bravest officers and men of my corps. The circumstances under which they fought were most unfavorable. Thrown suddenly, while still moving by the flank, and when hardly more than the head of the column could face the enemy, into the presence of an advancing foe with their ranks broken each instant by bodies of our retreating men, they not only held there own, but formed their line, and in turn, charging the enemy, drove him back in confusion over half a mile to a line of temporary works, were they were re-enforced by reserves." [5]

The Widow Tapp FarmAfter repulsing Hancock's forces, Confederate scouts found an unfinished railroad bed which could allow a clandestine movement upon the unsuspecting Union left flank. However, as he moved forward with his men, Longstreet would fall prey to the plot of an eerie drama mirroring the events two years prior. Longstreet received a near fatal wound to the neck which reportedly lifted him off of his horse when hit. As with Stonewall Jackson two years prior almost to the day and on the ground of Virginia's Wilderness, Longstreet's own men not knowing his identity, fired upon their general and his party of officers as they moved forward against the Union troops. [C] Longstreet would somewhat laconically describe the Confederate success and the tragedy that followed. "They moved by the flank till the unfinished railroad from Gordonsville to Fredericksburg was reached. Forming on this railroad facing to the north, they advanced in the direction of the plank road till they encountered the enemy in flank and rear, who was then engaging the brigades of Gregg, Benning, and Law in front. The movement was a complete surprise and a perfect success. It was executed with rare zeal and intelligence. The enemy made but a short stand, and fell back, in utter rout with heavy loss, to a position about three-quarters of a mile from my front attack.

I immediately made arrangements to follow up the successes gained, and ordered an advance of all my troops for that purpose. While riding at the head of my column, moving by the flank down the plank road, I came opposite the brigades which had made the flank movement, and which were drawn up parallel to the plank road, and about 60 yards there from, when a portion of them fired a volley, which resulted in the death of General Jenkins, and the severe wounding of myself."

Lee to the Rear MarkerGeneral Lee would proudly report his army's success while lamenting his top corps commander's wounding. "Early this morning as the divisions of General Hill, engaged yesterday, were being relieved, the enemy advanced and created some confusion. The ground lost was recovered as soon as the fresh troops got into position and the enemy driven back to his original line. Afterward we turned the left of his front line and drove it from the field, leaving a large number of dead and wounded in our hands, among them General Wadsworth. A subsequent attack forced the enemy into his intrenched lines on the Brock road, extending from Wilderness Tavern, on the right, to Trigg's Mill. Every advance on his part, thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed. Our loss in killed is not large, but we have many wounded; most of them slightly, artillery being little used on either side. I grieve to announce that Lieutenant-General Longstreet was severely wounded and General Jenkins killed. General Pegram was badly wounded yesterday. General Stafford, it is hoped, will recover." [5]

The first image on this page shows the site where Union General James Wadsworth received his mortal wound. An artillery shell shattered the tree in the foreground and fatally wounded the blue clad general.