With Grant In the Wilderness
News of the Fighting In Virginia
Wilderness Tavern, Virginia
6 May 1864
With the return of fine weather, fighting has commenced between the Army of he Potomac and the Rebel army of General Lee. The scene of action is the old Chancellorsville battlefield of the previous year. Heavy firing coming from the direction of Parker’s Store went on all day indicating the two armies were in contention for the Orange Plank Road to Gordonsville. As I write, the prevailing situation is very uncertain. The local people call this place the Wilderness, and it is aptly named. A dense growth of scrub Oak and Pine obscures much of the field and the troops can easily lose their way. This has led to countless encounters with the Rebels which were not looked for. The few roads and other open spaces are deadly places, as they are highly prized and are the object of hard fighting.
Our Correspondent With Warren’s Corps
The past few days I have accompanied General Warren’s Corps. We broke camp and marched at midnight on the 3rd, crossing the Germanna Ford over the Rapidan the following morning. Cutler’s Brigade of that corps paused to make coffee before resuming their march. Rumors were flying that the Confederate army was already retreating and that General Benjamin Butler was to make a sortie from Fr. Monroe upon Richmond. A number of officers shared the view of their commands that the Army could confidently build on their success of a year ago at Gettysburg. These Western men are intrepid marchers. We made 24 miles the first day. They are the old Black Hat fellows who have performed such good service for the Army.
Virtually the Entire Army Engaged
Yesterday, as today, fighting was general all along the line. Virtually the entire Army has been heavily engaged. To say that the musketry was brisk would be a serious understatement of the facts of the case. The sound of the guns has been deafening—such as was never heard in this war. Late this afternoon, after several days without much sleep, I paused to rest against a haystack at the edge of a field only to slumber at the height of the contest—conditions which ought to have rendered sleep impossible. A passing infantryman roused me just in time to avoid capture by the enemy who were advancing in a rush opposite my position.
Wadsworth’s Division In the Thick of the Fight
I went in with Wadsworth and found myself on the edge of one of the rare clearings. The meadow in front of us was only some 800 yards long and half again as wide. A farmer told me this was Saunder’s Field. Word had come down from Headquarters for various commands to pitch into ‘em, as one soldier put it. In front of me were Cutler’s men. To our immediate left was Stone’s Brigade. We were supposed to have Griffin’s division as our supports on our right but they were nowhere to be seen in the dense woodlands we had been advancing through. Cutler’s command now includes a battalion of sharpshooters from New York. They fought well. Our line drove the Rebels steadily for almost a mile, only to rush headlong into their supports, and we, in our turn, were driven back to a line of hastily constructed works on the Lacy Farm just off the Orange Turnpike. The retreat had the look of a rout but the Wisconsin and Indiana men manfully rallied. I have since discovered that Gordon’s Brigade was fully on our flank and that it was stand and be killed or retreat and live. Colonel Mansfield offered the observation that his 2nd Wisconsin regiment has been much reduced in numbers due to almost three years of arduous service. Colonel Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Volunteers added that the veteran question had much vexed his command this past winter and that asking a man to re-enlist is, in truth, consigning him to almost certain death. That so many have elected to remain is testament to their manhood and commitment to the cause of the Union. To those inevitable cynics I merely say: would a man trade his life for hour hundred dollars and a 30-day furlough? Stone’s Brigade on our left behaved shamefully. It is said that General Stone had been drinking and was in no condition to lead his brigade when the fight began.
General Grant In Command
The Wilderness is a dark place full of foreboding. Anyone might lose his way here. Finding headquarters is a difficult and dangerous undertaking as the most sure path involves taking to the road where a man might blunder into the enemy or alternately be run down by some artillery battery, its horses clattering down that very road to unlimber in support of the infantry. With the blessings of Providence I found General Grant resting in repose underneath a tree surrounded by his staff. In the field, the General displays an unassuming character, an almost stoic calm amidst the firestorm he has unleashed with the Army’s march to this place. While all those about him presented a picture of agitation, even despair, the General merely sat on a camp stool underneath a tree and whittled a stick. Such singular behavior may strike some observers as odd yet it might have a calming effect on a nervous army in need of someone to look to who has not lost faith in the result. Couriers continually brought news that we were being hard pressed and that our army was suffering frightful losses. The Rebels were reported to be everywhere in great numbers. Yet the General continued to whittle, calmly directing General Meade to send this force here, and some other command there to some threatened point, betraying no greater emotion than a railroad station master engaging a special. I was able to speak to him for a few moments. General Grant was reticent to speak and said little in our brief interview. Nevertheless, what he did tell me is of the greatest importance for the preservation of our Union. “This Army will fight,” he said plainly. General Grant further expressed the view that he will continue the campaign along the same lines as it had begun even if it were to consume the entire summer.
Aggressive Picketing Leads To A Fight
Today, I took that bloody road forward yet again, to a point where our pickets had established their post in the very face of the enemy. These are not any of the picket posts of last winter along the Rappahannock, where a sentinel might exchange a bit of tobacco for a newspaper or some spirits. These men are in deadly earnest. No man can show himself for any length of time without becoming the object of enemy marksmen. We extend the same deadly courtesy to the enemy. I watched as some of our New York sharpshooters pressed forward and took several enemy prisoners. They were from Ewell’s corps and they proudly boasted that their comrades would run us out of these here woods by nightfall. Our action drew hostile fire from somewhere to our left and deep into the impenetrable growth of forest before us. A rabbit leapt out from the thicket and scurried for the rear prompting several of us to comment that at least someone had the intelligence to remove himself from so perilous a place. Seeing as the intermittent firing did not cease, two companies from the 2nd Wisconsin and a company of sharpshooters clad in forest green and displaying feathers in their caps pressed forward in a rush to drive the enemy pickets in. No sooner had this been accomplished when thousands of the enemy suddenly appeared in the woods just beyond the clearing forcing our men to return to their former positions. Our aggressive picketing drew a disproportionate response from the Rebels as Dole’s entire brigade of General Early’s command was what was advancing before us with only a handful of our men to stop them. The merest skirmish suddenly became a wholesale fight requiring a section of Stewart’s B Battery to come up hurriedly, unlimber, and fire directly down the Orange Turnpike. The remainder of Cutler’s Brigade was brought up to a line of intrenchments which our troops had occupied the day before. B Battery fired with good effect on the Rebels, showering them with a hail of splinters, the result of shell fired amongst the tree branches. The Old Iron Brigade of the West made still another charge into the dense woods and promptly forced the Rebels back. Briefly, we had possession of their works opposite only to be forced back yet again when General Early committed the remainder of an entire Rebel division. The action became so confused with regiments and brigades becoming all mixed in together that it is impossible to say which side retains the advantage or just where matters stand. Amidst this marvelous confusion it is not possible to send this by wire so it may be a considerable time, if ever, these words see print.
Wadsworth Among the Fallen
It is known that Colonel Mansfield of the 2nd has been wounded and has gone missing; perhaps made prisoner by the Rebels. Colonel Samuel Williams of the 19th Indiana killed, Colonel Henry Morrow of the 24th Michigan, severely wounded. General Wadsworth himself, mortally wounded. Great numbers of fine officers have fallen along with much of their commands. The Rebels have taken grievous losses.
The foregoing account written by Thomas M. Sobottke, portraying Samuel Wilkeson of the New York Tribune and based on research and observations on the field at the Green Bay encampment August 8, 9, and 10, 2003.