On May 5th, 1864, the Army of the Potomac crossed Germanna Ford near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Union General Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps crossed into the woodland known as the Wilderness early in the morning, unaware of an immediate Confederate threat. Ulysses S. Grant thought the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee were 7 miles away, but in reality they were marching down the Orange Turnpike about to stumble upon Grant’s lead elements.Warren’s force collided with Gen. Richard Ewell’s Corps, igniting the Battle of the Wilderness. The VI Corps under Gen. John Sedgwick marched to aid Warren, but ferocious fighting in Saunders Field halted both corps. Ewell’s troops held a line of fortifications and waited for any more attacks by either Federal corps. That night, Gen John Gordon assaulted the Union left and forced a withdrawal while Union infantry rushed to hold the crossroads of the Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike
The next day, Sedgwick’s corps struck Ewell’s lines north of the Orange Turnpike. While the fighting raged on, Hancock’s II Corps and Burnside’s IX Corps attacked two Confederate corps to the south at the Chewning and Tapp Farms. These fields were a break in the dense forest fighting for the troops, and attempted control of these areas was crucial to the battle. General Lee rode out in front of Gregg’s Texas Brigade and called them to action. Lee, under fire, inspired the troops to hold until Longstreet could send reinforcements to AP Hill. Longstreet arrived, slamming into Hancock’s flank, but the dense wood and fires caused confusion. Longstreet was wounded in the neck by his own troops in the confusion, and the battle began to wind down. A final attempted assault by confederate troops proved indecisive, and the Battle of the Wilderness drew to a close.
- The Orange Turnpike
The Orange Turnpike, modern day Constitution Highway, was the initial route for Union troops marching towards the Confederate troops. Notice the woodland to either side and how troops would have felt marching through the trees. Warren’s V Corps led the Union advance along this road on May 5.
- Saunders Field
The battle began in Saunders Field, one of the major clearings of the battle. Get out of your car and explore the site, walking from the woods on your right across the open ground. This route shows the march of the Union forces under Charles Griffin as they met Gen. Edward Johnson’s Division. There is a trail that leads into the woods which is a good walk to experience in order to see how disorganized you can become while marching through thickets and woodlands. You may notice a monument as you walk across the field. This commemorates the 140th NY as they, along with many other Union troops, furiously assaulted the Confederate lines.
While you continue along the road, get out to investigate the Confederate entrenchments constructed by Ewell’s corps. The line at the top of Saunders Field is well preserved and shows the extensive fortifications that the Confederates used throughout the Overland Campaign.
Further along the line of fortifications you will come to the very top of Saunders field. The view in front of you is that of the attack Gen. John Gordon launched in the late afternoon to smash the V Corps back. Gordon swept through the field and pushed back the Union troops. The cannon in Saunders Field is a monument for the position of the 1st NY Artillery whose guns were captured in Gordon’s attack.
- The Higgerson Farm
One of the main clearings of the battle, The Higgerson Farm was controlled by Confederate troops for the majority of the battle and they stopped attacks from Burnside’s IX Corps.
- Tapp Field
On May 6th, a furious engagement raged on in the Tapp field between AP Hill’s corps and the II Corps. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, rode out in front of his soldiers and urged them on. This act inspired a Confederate counterattack- one that gave Longstreet time to bring up reinforcements. Walk across the field to see artillery trenches, the Tapp farm, and a monument to the Texas Brigade.
- Longstreet Arrives
Longstreet’s Corps arrived to support AP Hill just in time, smashing the Union left flank back along the Brock Road. Longstreet suffered a wound in the confusion of battle, keeping him out of battle for 6 months. There is a small trail leading to monuments and markers.
- Union Trenches
Hancock’s II corps entrenched along the intersection of the Orange Plank Road and the Brock Road on the night of May 5, encountering fierce combat. The trenches are still along the road, but are very hard to get a picture of, due to their proximity to the roads. An attack on this position after Longstreet’s arrival on May 6 was held and concluded the battle