The Battle of the Wilderness: May 6 & 7, 1864
"...the conflagration raged"

Todd's Tavern

As the day wound down on May 6, Confederate Lt. General Ewell launched an assault on the Union right that General Gordon had urged for many hours that day. General Ewell described that part of the battle and their eventual movement to Spotsylvania which would bring some of the most horrific and prolonged bloodshed of the war.

Remains in the Wilderness
Warning: Possibly Disturbing Image
"The 6th of May was occupied in partial assaults on my line (now greatly strengthened) and in efforts to find my flank, which were promptly checked. About 9 a.m. I got word from General Gordon, through General Early in person, that his scouts reported the enemy's right exposed, and he urged turning it, but his views were opposed by General Early, who thought the attempt unsafe. This necessitated a personal examination, which was made as soon as other duties permitted, but in consequence of this delay and other unavoidable causes the movement was not begun until nearly sunset. After examination I ordered the attack, and placed Robert D. Johnston's brigade, of Rodes' division (that morning arrived from Hanover Junction), to support Gordon. Each brigade as its front was cleared was to unite in the attack. Hays was partly moved out of his works to connect with Gordon. The latter attacked vehemently, and when checked by the darkness had captured, with slight loss, a mile of the works held by the Sixth Corps, 600 prisoners, and 2 brigadier-generals--Seymour and Shaler. Of the force encountered not an organized regiment remained, and nearly all had thrown away their arms. They made no attempt to recover the lost ground, but threw back their line, so as to give up Germanna Ford entirely. Major Daniel, of General Early's staff, joined in Gordon's attack and was desperately wounded and maimed for life while gallantly assisting in this brilliant movement. On May 7 no fighting took place except that in extending to join General Hill's left, General Ramseur came upon a division of the Ninth Corps intrenching. This he put to flight by a sudden attack of his skirmishers, capturing several hundred piled knapsacks and occupying the ground. On the night of the 7th the general commanding sent me word to extend to the right, in conformity to the movements of the troops there, and if at daylight I found no large force in my front to follow General Anderson toward Spotsylvania Court-House. This was done." [5]

In the short term, the Union's aggressiveness cost its men dearly. Over 18,000 men in blue would become casualties in essentially two days of fighting. Confederate forces lost over 11,000 but could ill afford "victories" at such a cost. The Federal armies could more easily replenish their ranks given their larger population. The Southerners could not. The Union could, and did, continue to persistently push forward against their familiar foe. Unlike the patterns of previous commanders, General Ulysses S. Grant did not withdraw to re-supply and reorganize after this fierce, sanguinary struggle. Despite his losses, near Gettysburg-esque in number, he continued to push south towards Richmond.

Removing the woundedThe horrors of this battle both heralded those yet to come and extended far beyond a simple counting of recent casualties. Due to the discharging of weaponry in the dense forest, the surrounding woods caught fire and blazes roared throughout the battle. Many of the wounded died horrible deaths as the indifferent fires consumed them. Soldiers reported hearing the discharge of personal firearms as soldiers perhaps resorted to taking their own lives to avoid the slow agonizing death which the conflagration promised. General Grant offered a description of this tragedy in his memoirs. "Fighting had continued from five in the morning sometimes along the whole line, at other times only in places. The ground fought over had varied in width, but averaged three-quarters of a mile. The killed, and many of the severely wounded, of both armies, lay within this belt where it was impossible to reach them. The woods were set on fire by the bursting shells, and the conflagration raged. The wounded who had not strength to move themselves were either suffocated or burned to death. Finally the fire communicated with our breastworks, in places. Being constructed of wood, they burned with great fury. But the battle still raged, our men firing through the flames until it became too hot to remain longer." [46]