Battle of the Wilderness

The Battle of the Wilderness introduced Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s historical engagements against Gen. Robert E. Lee into the landscape of the Civil War. Fought May 5 – 7, 1864, this was the first encounter that pitted these two infamous leaders against one another. The fighting was bloody and brought heavy casualties to both sides.


On May 4th, 1864, Grant’s Army of the Potomac moved over the Rapidan River at three points before regrouping at the Wilderness Tavern. This put Grant on the edge of the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, a dense area in central Virginia. This was not the first time this forest arena would see fighting. It was near this spot that Stonewall Jackson fought the Battle of Chancellorsville just a year earlier. Grant’s goal was move past the dense bush and combat Lee’s army in the open ground around the forest.

The First Engagements

On the morning of May 5th, the Union began what would be a two-day long offensive against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The Union V Corps engaged the Confederate Second Corp led by Gen. Richard Ewell on the Orange Turnpike. Later in the day, a second offensive began between the Third Corps with A.P. Hill in command and the Union’s Getty’s VI Corps supported by Hancock’s II Corps on Plank Road.

Grant worked to move there two groups through the dense wilderness to the open regions just south and east of the forest. Lee followed the movements of both corps and intercepted them on parallel roads. Grant had Lee woefully outnumbered almost two to one with better armaments. General Lee knew the thick underbrush would work to eliminate Grant’s advantage. The fighting was fierce and encumbered by the landscape. As darkness set in, both sides moved to obtain reinforcements.

May 6th

As the sun rose the next day, Hancock’s II Corp. attacked the A.P. Hill corps driving them back. Grant realized the Third Corps were weak and near collapse. Before General Hill could lose the battle, the First Corp held by Gen. James Longstreet arrived to bolster the Confederate’s position. This surprise flank attack initially drove Hancock back but failed when Virginians mistook the Confederates for the enemy attacked Longstreet’s force, wounding the commander.

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

The peak of the battle started May 7th when fighting moved southeast of the wilderness. Grant took his troops beyond the dense growth in an attempt to regain his advantage in better conditions. The initial fight in Spotsylvania would mark the end of the Battle of the Wilderness and begin a longer offensive that would continue until the May 19th Harris Farm Engagement.


Ultimately, the Battle of the Wilderness was a tactical draw. Grant went into the fight with a clear advantage. At the beginning of the campaign, Grant had 118,700 men cumulated into five different corps. Lee brought a mere 64,000 men to the fight. Lee bolstered his position by forcing Grant to fight in dense wilderness, eliminating his advantage and creating to the draw scenario.

The end of the Battle of the Wilderness left Grant with approximately 17,666 casualties as compared to Lee’s 11,000. Grant lost 17 percent of the initial force fight in these three days.

History does not award this battle to either the Union or Confederate armies. At the end, Grant disengaged and moved to an open area that would allow his army to stay on the offensive.