|Unit History Project|
Battle of the wilderness
Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
As the last year and a half of my service in the army was on staff duty, I will endeavor to relate an incident at the Battle of the Wilderness, which although personal to myself, will serve to show the responsibility often imposed upon a staff officer, and the results depending upon his ability to perform the duty required of him.
In the spring of 1864, when Grant crossed the Rapidan and commenced operations “on that line” which took him “all summer” and winter, too, I was serving on the staff of General James S. Wadsworth who commanded the 4th Division of the 5th Army Corps. The army crossed the river in two columns; the right, composed of the 5th and 6th Corps, the left of the 2d Corps. The 5th Corps was the advance of the right column, and crossed the Rapidan at Germanna Ford on the morning of May 4th, followed by the 6th corps, and bivouacked that night at the Old Wilderness Tavern, a point where the plank road from Germanna intersects the Orange Court House and Fredericksburg turnpike, the 6th Corps camping nearer the river. The 2d Corps crossed further down the river at Ely’s Ford, and bivouacked at Chancellorsville. Thus the morning of May 5th found the Army of the Potomac on the south side of the Rapidan, with all its trains, and in that portion of Virginia called the Wilderness.
It is perhaps necessary that the characteristic features of this region should be fully realized in order to gain a just appreciation of the difficulties attending the performance of duty during the singular and terrible struggle that ensued. The whole face of the country is thickly wooded, with an occasional opening, and intersected by a few narrow wood roads. But the woods of the Wilderness have not the ordinary features of a forest. The original timber had nearly all been cut down, and in its place had arisen a dense undergrowth of low-limbed and scraggy pines, stiff and bristling chincapins, scrub oaks and hazel. It is a region of gloom and the shadow of death. Maneuvering was out of the question; the troops could not receive direction by point of the compass and were soon hidden from the sight of the commander, as no officer could see ten files on either side of him. Artillery was wholly ruled out of use and cavalry still more useless. The dispositions for the continuance of our advance on the 5th of May were made on the supposition that our advance through the Wilderness would not be interfered with, and the two columns were moving a long distance apart, the 5th Corps being ordered to a point on the Orange Court House plank road called Parker’s Store, and the 2d Corps to Shady Grove Church, a considerable distance south. The 5th Corps had not advanced far before it met with opposition; the cavalry were driven back by a strong infantry force. When Gen. G. K. Warren, who commanded the 5th Corps, reported this fact to Generals Grant and Meade they said it was but a small force that the enemy had left to watch our movements while the main force sought a new position and ordered Warren to attack and capture or disperse it. Warren counselled that it would be better to wait the arrival of the 6th Corps; that if but a small force was there it could have but little effect on the great campaign on which we were entering, and if a large force was found we would be prepared for the emergency; but he was overruled and ordered to attack with the force in hand, and it soon developed that Ewell’s whole corps was there, holding a strong position across the turnpike.
In this attack, the 5th Corps lost about 3,000 men without being able to accomplish anything, and fell back to the original line held in the morning. It also developed that the other corps of the Confederate army were advancing on the Orange Court House plank road, a road which runs parallel with the turnpike, but about four miles south., and Getty’s division of the 6th Corps was ordered forward to get possession of the intersection of the Brock road with the Orange Court House plank road, which is about four miles east of Parker’s Store, with orders to hold it at all hazards until the arrival of the 2d Corps, which had been recalled and ordered there by way of the Brock road. This was a strategic point, and the possession of it by the enemy would cut our army in two. Getty, though hard pressed, held his ground until the arrival of Hancock, when an attack was ordered.
The terrible rattle of musketry, distinctly heard at the position held by the 5th Corps, told the deadly work going on in those dense woods. At this time Wadsworth’s division was ordered to the support of Hancock, but, as it had to march several miles in line of battle through an interminable thicket, it arrived too late to be of any assistance that day, so the troops lay on their arms all night, in good position to attack in the morning. After our lines had been adjusted satisfactorily and the staff had returned to the General with that information, he remarked “that as our ammunition was pretty well exhausted some one would have to go back to the train for a supply, and also to Gen. Warren for orders,” and turning round to me said: “Captain Montieth, you had better go.” I was soon in the saddle, and accompanied by two orderlies started on my mission, and taking a course due north, with the north star as my guide, came out of the woods at the proper place, went to Gen. Warren’s headquarters, received my orders, and then to the ammunition train. Taking ten pack mules, each loaded with two thousand rounds, I started on my return trip, followed by a large number of officers’ servants anxious to reach their masters with supplies, horses, etc. I entered the woods at the point where I came out, but could find no guiding start to steer my course by going south, but kept on in what I supposed was the right direction, until I came to an opening and could see the light of fires, and could hear distinctly the noise of troops moving hurriedly forward. Halting my train, I dismounted to reconnoiter, and creeping along the edge of the woods soon discovered that instead of taking the ammunition to our troops I was making straight for the enemy and was then close to them. I had gone to far to the right.
My anxiety increased, fearing that the animals would make a noise that would betray us to the enemy, or that I might not be able to reach the division in time. I therefore retraced my steps to the north as quickly as possible, got out of the woods, and re-entered them farther to the left, where I found a line of sentinels posted at speaking distance to serve as a guide to persons desiring to reach the front; but this had been done subsequent to my leaving. I reached the division about three o’clock in the morning, and had barely time to distribute the ammunition when it was the hour to attack, and a bloody battle followed in which all the ammunition was required. This was the most anxious night spent during my service, and the task the most important and difficult to perform.
At early dawn on the morning of the 6th our division moved forward to the attack, and striking the enemy in the flank drove them back across the plank road, then wheeling to the right drove them west on the plank road for a mile or more. Here a halt was called to reform our line, but now the enemy’s reinforcements came up, and, although various trials were made during the forenoon, no farther advance could be made.
I shall always remember the heroic conduct of the Gen. Wadsworth on this occasion; how he led his troops forward on that plank road, but the gallant example which would have been invaluable in open ground, could only be seen by those near him, and was lost to those hidden in the thicket. There was then a lull in the engagement for some time ---- until about twelve o’clock; during this time I was alone with the General. He told me that he felt completely exhausted and worn out; that he was unfit to command, and felt that he ought, in justice to himself and his men, to turn the command of the division to Gen. Cutler. He asked me to get him a cracker, which I did. I have often thought since, that had a little more time been afforded he might have retired from the command, and thus the life of this brave and patriotic soldier been spared. But now the attack of Longstreet commenced, and in a few minutes the troops on our left gave way, and our line was forced into the retreat, although the most heroic efforts were made by Gen. Wadsworth to stem the current. His last words to me were: “I will throw these two regiments on their flank,” meaning the 56th Pennsylvania and 76th New York, “and you hurry forward the 1st Brigade,” and in this effort he fell with a bullet through his head, and the whole line was driven back to the ground occupied by the 2d Corps in the morning. Thus ended the battle of the Wilderness, a battle which no man could see, and whose progress could only be followed by the ear, as the sharp and crackling volleys of musketry and the alternate Union cheer and confederate yell told how the fight surged and swelled. The battle continued two days, but decided nothing, and its only result appeared in the tens of thousands of dead and wounded in blue and gray that lay in the thick of the woods.
Source: Montieth, Robert, “The Battle of the Wilderness and the Death
of General Wadsworth.,” War Papers. Read Before the Commandery
of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United
Published by the Commandery. Volume 1, Milwaukee: Burdick, Armitage & Allen
1891. p. 410-415.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History