Author: Greg Mertz


Wilderness, Battle of the

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5–6, 1864, was the opening engagement of the Overland Campaign during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The newly appointed general-in-chief of the Union armies, Ulysses S. Grant, personally led the Army of the Potomac south across the Rapidan River in what he hoped would be a quick maneuver around the right flank of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, Lee engaged Grant where he had engaged Joseph Hooker almost exactly a year earlier—in the seventy-square-mile patch of tangled undergrowth known as the Wilderness. The battle that resulted was uncoordinated, bloody, and often confused, with a testy Grant pressing Lee’s men on May 5 and very nearly breaking through the Confederate lines on May 6. Lee was famously restrained by his men from leading a countercharge, and his top lieutenant, James Longstreet, was seriously wounded when he was accidently shot by Virginia troops near the spot where, at Chancellorsville the year before, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had been similarly wounded. Unlike Jackson, Longstreet survived, and amid burning trees the Confederates won a tactical victory. Grant, however, refused to turn back, confronting Lee again and again until finally stalling before Petersburg.


Spotsylvania Court House, Battle of

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, fought May 8–21, 1864, was the second major engagement of the Overland Campaign during the American Civil War (1861–1865). After the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–6), in which Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant had tried to turn Confederate general Robert E. Lee‘s right flank and was pushed back, Grant refused to regroup or retreat. Instead, he continued to maneuver south toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, next meeting Lee at the strategically important hamlet of Spotsylvania Court House. There, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed for nearly two weeks, with the heaviest fighting occurring for approximately twenty-one hours from May 12 to May 13. In what some historians have called the most intense combat of the war, the two sides fought largely hand to hand inside Confederate entrenchments. The worst of it occurred at an exposed portion of the line Confederates dubbed the “Mule Shoe” and a nearby a curve that came to be known as the “Bloody Angle.” Bodies piled up five deep in a driving rainstorm so that blood mixed with water and some wounded men drowned. “No Mardi Gras Carnival ever devised such a diabolical looking set of devils as we were,” a Mississippian recalled. “It was no imitation of red paint and burnt cork, but genuine human gore and gun powder smoke.” Casualties were horrific for both sides, but when it was through, Grant continued to push south.