May, 1864: Battle of the Wilderness Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On May 4, 1864, when Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Rapidan River, Robert E. Lee moved quickly to strike the Union army in the dense, overgrown Wilderness, hoping to minimize the Union’s manpower and artillery advantages. Fighting began the following morning along the Orange Turnpike and later along the Orange Plank Road. Fed into battle as they arrived, soldiers rarely saw their opponents in this wooded maze and were forced to fire blindly in the direction from which bullets and noise came. Combat was furious, incredibly confused, but inconclusive on the May 5.

On May 4, 1864, when Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Rapidan River, Robert E. Lee moved quickly to strike the Union army in the dense, overgrown Wilderness, hoping to minimize the Union’s manpower and artillery advantages. Fighting began the following morning along the Orange Turnpike and later along the Orange Plank Road. Fed into battle as they arrived, soldiers rarely saw their opponents in this wooded maze and were forced to fire blindly in the direction from which bullets and noise came. Combat was furious, incredibly confused, but inconclusive on the May 5.

Burying the dead at Fredericksburg, Virginia, after the Battle of the Wilderness. (National Archives)

May 6 brought another day of vicious, disoriented fighting, during which the tide of battle shifted frequently. A heavy, early morning Union assault drove the Confederates back and threatened disaster until just-arriving reinforcements stopped the advance. Later, though outnumbered, Lee managed to turn both of Grant’s flanks, but lines stabilized after dark. The situation that evening was similar to that in Chancellorsville the previous year. Joseph Hooker had retreated; Grant, however, pressed on toward Richmond on the night of May 7. Union losses numbered 17,000 and Confederate casualties exceeded 11,000.

Although the Battle of the Wilderness was a costly tactical draw, Grant’s decision to continue his offensive, to move southward toward Spotsylvania Court House, marked the beginning of the end. Grant maintained pressure on Lee and concluded the war on his terms.

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