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Maelstrom in The Wilderness

Early 1864 found the Army of the Potomac in winter quarters at Brandy Station, Va.

As the season transitioned to spring, dramatic changes had reshaped the army. Many of the original volunteers were gone, having been lost to death, wounding, disability or disease. A large number of enlistments had expired, and many veterans chose not to come back, having had their fill of the misery of war. More than half of the men re-enlisted, however. Conscripts and substitutes, some admittedly of dubious quality, filled out the rest of the ranks.

Rigorous training over the previous few months had molded these draftees and volunteers into a fighting force, and eliminated the bad eggs. Morale increased, and before long the army exuded confidence and a willingness to meet their enemies.

Such was the case within the ranks of the 1st Vermont Brigade.

Organized three autumns earlier by St. Albans’ own Maj. Gen. William F. Smith, “Old Baldy” had built a formidable fighting force out of five sturdy Vermont regiments—the 2nd through the 6th infantries. The 2,850-strong brigade joined Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps.

About 60 miles away in Washington, President Abraham Lincoln lamented the inability of previous Union commanders to achieve decisive results. On March 9, 1864, he appointed Ulysses S. Grant lieutenant general of the Union armies. Grant made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, but chose not to replace its commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. This arrangement enabled Grant to oversee strategic direction, with Meade handling tactical and combat operations.

In his role as chief strategist, Grant directed a multi-front campaign to put down the rebellion before the November election. He ordered Meade to move his army overland towards Richmond and force Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to fight in the open, where superior numbers and artillery would prevail. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler and his Army of the James were to push up its namesake river and threaten Richmond. In the Shenandoah Valley, Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s troops had the distinction of toppling the Confederacy’s breadbasket. And in Georgia, Grant’s trusted friend, Maj. William T. Sherman, would take the war to the civilian population.

Meanwhile in Meade’s army, the evening parade on May 3, 1864, included the announcement of orders that the army would move the following day at 4 a.m. The troops burst into cheers in anticipation, after weeks of drilling and maneuvers.

May 4: Defang the Confederacy

As the army began to move out, a 2nd Vermonter reflected, “Never in a war before did the rank and file feel a more resolute earnestness for a just cause, and a more invincible determination to succeed, than in this war; and what the rank and file are determined to do everybody knows will surely be done. We mean to be thorough about it too. We are not going to destroy the military power of the dragon Confederacy and not destroy its fangs also.”

Wilber Fisk. Author's Collection.
Wilber Fisk. Author’s Collection.

Another member of the 2nd, Pvt. Wilbur Fisk, confined his comments to the task at hand. “We left our old camp at early dawn, and took the war path once more. The morning was bright and clear, the air cool and refreshing, as we bid adieu to our winter’s home, and started on what we knew to be the most perilous campaign of the war.”

It appeared a grand time to once again march off to war—long blue columns of 118,000 men, 835 ambulances and 4,300 supply wagons filled with 10 days rations and supplies of forage and ammunition along with beef cattle to keep the troops fed.

The Vermont Brigade and the rest of its Sixth Corps crossed the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford. The federal Third Corps and Fifth Corps also crossed at this point.

Other Vermonters were among the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters and the 1st Vermont Cavalry, which crossed at nearby Ely’s Ford with its Second Corps.

An additional corps, Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s Ninth Corps, remained in reserve.

The day appears to have unfolded much as Grant planned—quietly. Vermonters left behind their impressions of the first day out.

Pvt. Seth Eastman of the 6th Vermont wrote, “We started in the twilight of that early morning with gloomy forebodings as to what the next few days would mean to us. We marched all day, crossed a small river on a pontoon bridge, and camped for the night without seeing or hearing any danger.”

Others added color commentary to the mundane march. Pvt. Luther Harris of the 4th Vermont wrote to his sweetheart that that the sight of the crossing “was magnificent, that the line looked like a huge projectile worming its way towards the enemy.” Sgt. Ransom Towle of the 4th Vermont made a brief note in his diary, “Passed by General Grant in plain dress on a wiry little pony. Grant looks plain, important, icy and thoughtful.”

By nightfall, the Vermont Brigade had reached its goal. Brig. Gen. George Getty, who commanded the Vermonters in his Second Division of the Sixth Corps, reported that his men had marched two miles passed the ford and set up camp.

May 5: The Deadliest Day in Vermont Military History

Fighting broke out early as Union forces collided with elements of Lee’s army. Initial success by the federals soon ground to a halt. Grant’s plans to move quickly through The Wilderness had evaporated as fighting spread out all along the front. Grant and Meade decided their men would fight it out where they were positioned.

About midday, the Union center at the intersection of the Brock Road and the Orange Plank Road appeared a weak spot. A breach here might split the Army of the Potomac in half.

Meade ordered Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps into motion. Getty’s 2nd Division—including the Vermont Brigade—was hastily directed to shore up the center at the vital crossroads.

Sedgwick’s orders to Getty, issued around noon, clearly displayed his fondness for the Vermonters, as it specifically directed that Getty “should take the Vermont Brigade” along with two others of the division.

Upon reaching the intersection, they moved south a few hundred yards and halted. Facing west toward the dense woods, the Vermont soldiers began erecting temporary defenses, which would prove vital later that day. The 3rd and 4th Vermont stood in line, with the 2nd and 6th Vermont forming the brigade’s second line. The 5th Vermont remained in reserve.

“Two bullets went through my haversack and one through my canteen. Another passed so near my neck that it burned my skin, then entered my blanket. When I unrolled it, I found nineteen holes in it.”

Shortly after 4 p.m., the Vermonters went forward over their defensive works and into the woods. The line formations quickly crumbled in the dense underbrush. Officers were unable to see any point in the line within just a few yards. After moving inward a few hundred yards, the Vermonters crashed directly into the hidden Confederates from Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division—North Carolinians, Virginians, Alabamians and Tennesseans.

Bullets ripped through fast and thick. Pvt. Henry Houghton of the 3rd Vermont noted, “We marched in on the left of the Orange Plank Road with scrub oak so thick that we could not keep any formation and the first we knew of the enemy we received a volley from a line of battle within a stone’s throw. One man on my left fell dead, a bullet went so near the face of the man in my rear that it took an eye out. Two bullets went through my haversack and one through my canteen. Another passed so near my neck that it burned my skin, then entered my blanket. When I unrolled it, I found nineteen holes in it.”

The engagement quickly became general all along the line. The 2nd and 6th Vermont promptly moved up in support of the 3rd and 4th Vermont, while the 5th Vermont held a position to the left.

The hot, humid air soon filled with thick smoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder. Hundreds of Vermonters had fallen in the opening volleys. Casualties continued to mount as the “rebels had the advantage of position, inasmuch as their line was protected by a slight rise of ground, while ours was on nearly level ground,” observed Col. Lewis Grant in his after-action report.

Brigade commander Lewis Grant. Author's Collection.
Brigade commander Lewis Grant. Author’s Collection.

The Vermonters hugged the ground as closely as possible, and kept up a rapid fire as best they could. Officers who remained on horseback or stood erect to direct their troops were shot down in staggering numbers. Men could only aim and fire at the wall of smoke before them.

“We soon came upon the enemy,” Pvt. Fisk recalled. “There was one line ahead of us. We followed close to them, and were equally exposed. The rebels gave us a warm reception. They poured their bullets into us so fast that we had to lie down to load and fire. The front line gave way and we were obliged to take their places. We were under fire for over three hours, before we were relieved. We were close to them and their fire was terribly effective. Our regiment lost 264 men killed and wounded.

Pvt. Fisk’s account also described the devastating effect the incessant exchange of gunfire had on the immediate terrain.  

“Just a little to the rear of where our line was formed, where the bullets swept close to the ground, every bush and twig was cut and splintered by the leaden balls. The woods was a dense thicket of small trees about the size of hop poles, and they stood three times as numerous as they usually are set in a hop yard; but along the whole length of line I doubt if a single tree could have been found that had not been pierced several times with bullets, and all were hit about breast high. Had the rebels fired a little lower, they would have annihilated the whole line; they nearly did as it was. I could say that I had a bullet pass through my clothes on each side, one of them giving me a pretty smart rap, and one ball split the crown of my cap into two, knocking it off my head as neatly as it could have been done by the most scientific boxer.”

Sixth Corps badge worn by Capt. Elijah J. Wales of the 2nd Infantry, who was critically wounded on May 5. Author's Collection.
Sixth Corps badge worn by Capt. Elijah J. Wales of the 2nd Infantry, who was critically wounded on May 5. Author’s Collection.

In spite of the rebel pressure, the Vermonters held their ground amid the roar of musketry. The volume of projectiles continued to shred bushes and trees. Soldiers on both sides bore powder-grimed faces and blackened lips from biting cartridges.

The men firing opposite them were familiar foes—the 15th and 46th North Carolina, and the 40th, 47th, 55th and 22nd Virginia. The Vermonters had battled them during the Seven Days, at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and elsewhere. Though these Confederates hit the Vermont Brigade, the New Englanders gave as much as they got: 53 of 65 men in Company K of the 46th North Carolina Infantry became casualties.

The Confederates initially struck the Vermont line at its center. As more rebel troops joined the fight, they concentrated their firepower on the exposed left flank of the Vermonters. Col. Grant, realizing he was outgunned, and sought to relieve pressure on the beleaguered left by coercing the 20th Indiana and the 40th New York to assist his men. The two regiments joined the 5th Vermont in a desperate charge.

The Vermonters experienced devastating wounds. Pvt. Henry Wright of the 6th Vermont was he was struck in the bowels and taken from the field. His father, Pvt. David Wright of the 3rd Vermont, had been standing next to his son. Moments later, he was blinded by a bullet. A New York soldier found him wandering aimlessly and sightless. Wright Sr. survived the war; his son Henry died in a field hospital the following day.

Pvt. Eastman came upon a severely wounded man, “Shot through the head, the ball entering at the temple, just back of the eye, and passing through. It came out in the same place on the other side of his head. Both his eyes were out of the sockets and located on his cheeks. He was moaning and said that he was blind and that all was dark. … A drafted man came up, and stood looking at the wounded man. … He said it was too bad to use men in that way and that they had dragged him out here to fight against his will. He said he would never fire another gun in this damn nigger war.”

Though the charge by the Indianans, New Yorkers and Vermonters failed the break the Confederate line, it did stabilize the Union position. Perhaps most importantly though, the attack bought the Vermonters two precious hours that allowed the 4th and 6th Vermont to fall back to the Brock Road, where they found themselves in the relative safety of the breastworks they had erected earlier in the day. The 2nd, 3rd and 5th Vermonters poured in to join them. Together, they held off charging rebels. Exhausted and low on ammunition, the Vermonters soon found welcome relief, as Hancock sent in two brigades that drove the rebels off.

The Brock and Orange Plank roads had been held but at a dreadful cost—a scene detailed in an official report by Col. Grant.

“Darkness came on and the firing ceased. One engaged in that terrible conflict may well pause to reflect upon the horrors of that night. Officers and men lay down to rest amid the groans of the wounded and dying and the dead bodies of their comrades as they were brought to the rear. One thousand brave officers and men of the Vermont Brigade fell on that bloody field.”

Pvt. George Godfrey of the 4th Vermont added context to the casualty figures. “The Vermont Brigade alone lost more men killed and wounded on the 5th of May then the whole of the Second Corps.”

Library of Congress.
Library of Congress.

A new enemy now emerged—fire.

Arid conditions, leaves fallen from the previous season, and dry under-brush combined with firearm and artillery gunpowder, lint and sparks to ignite portions of The Wilderness. The luminosity of flames glowed orange through the night. The conflagration consumed the wounded and dying lay where they had fallen, an estimated 250 soldiers from Vermont and elsewhere in the Army of the Potomac. Spent bullets melted by the inferno gave testimony to the phrase “wilderness of woe.”

As both sides licked their wounds, Col. Grant received orders for a new attack at 5:00 a.m. the next day. This time, the Vermonters would support Hancock’s Second Corps advance.

A premonition of death haunted Col. Grant. Thinking his fate sealed, he gave personal items to a servant and to another man, as well as direction for the disposition of his horses. Many other Vermonters had ominous thoughts. One soldier recalled “pale and anxious faces in the brigade when the order was given.”

May 6: Out of Confusion and Disorder

Grant and Lee moved to attack each other in the early morning hours. Although Lee had his troops on the move earlier, Hancock’s Second Corps struck first. Rebel divisions under the command of Gen. A.P. Hill soon gave way. The Vermonters were in the second line behind Hancock’s men as some 25,000 federals crashed into 14,000 Confederates.

Pvt. Fisk observed, “We advanced directly down to the same place we had fought the day before. Our dead comrades lay on the ground, just as they had fallen, many of whom we recognized. We would have gladly fallen out to give them a decent burial, but we had no time to think of that. We drove the enemy this time and captured some prisoners. The prisoners were mostly North Carolinians, and some of them came into our lines swinging their hats and saying, ‘the tar heels wouldn’t stand this morning.’”

The Second Corps continued to advance. The Vermonters moved with it, suffering stray bullets along the way.

By this time, Hill’s Corps spilled out in tremendous disarray into a clearing in the Wilderness known as Widow Tapp’s Farm. The Army of the Potomac appeared within reach of victory. Suddenly, Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet arrived on the scene with fresh divisions commanded by major generals Joseph Kershaw and Charles W. Field.

The counterattack that followed nearly overwhelmed Hancock’s lines, driving them into confusion in the dense undergrowth. Here, Maj. Gen. Getty had his horse shot out from beneath him and fell wounded. Maj. Gen. Frank Wheaton replaced him.

“Our line was pressed back on both flanks, so that the Vermont Brigade stood well out in front, like a bulge or a great knot in the line.”

The Vermonters suddenly found themselves out front and bearing the brunt of the Confederate attack. The brigade quickly seized possession of two previously constructed Confederate breast works situated on a swell of elevated ground. The position afforded them breathing room in front and on either side.

Col. Grant explained, “The enemy’s advancing lines came upon us in great force. They were met by a terrible fire of musketry, broken and sent back in confusion. They reformed, and with fresh troops returned to the attack to be again slaughtered and sent back. This was repeated, and each time the attack in our front was met and repulsed. But at each advance the Confederates gained substantial advantage on our right and left. Our line was pressed back on both flanks, so that the Vermont Brigade stood well out in front, like a bulge or a great knot in the line.”

Pvt. Fisk likened their position to the base angle on the letter V, “and the rebels were fast closing up the sides.” He also recalled the moment when a shot felled a comrade. “He less timid than myself, had raised himself up and was loading and firing as fast as possible. The ball struck near his heart. He exclaimed, ‘I am killed’ and attempted to step to the rear, but fell on me and immediately died.”

The Vermonters found themselves alone once again. Maj. Richard B. Crandall of the 6th Vermont reported that they drove “back the rebel hordes, but our dead lie in winrows.” Longstreet with 7,000 Confederates then hit them with a surprise flank attack launched from an unfinished railroad bed just below the Orange Plank Road. Col. Grant remarked, “Perceiving that it was worse than useless to attempt further resistance there, I ordered the regiments to rally behind the breast-works on the Brock Road, at which point we had been ordered to rally in case of disaster. Our entire lines at this part of the army went back in disorder. All organization and control seemed to have been lost.”

Pvt. Eastman later described the macabre scene produced by the mayhem of the shifting battle lines.

“I was shamelessly demoralized. I didn’t know where my regiment had gone to, and to be candid about it, I didn’t care.”

“As we ran we were obliged to run to the right of the line as the rebels came in our left flank. This took us over a part of the ground that had already been fought over that morning by another part of the army. The ground was covered with the dead and wounded in indescribable confusion. Hundreds of men in blue and gray clothing lay in every possible situation that could be imagined: on their backs with wide open eyes, on their faces, some with their legs bent under them, and others cut in two, as artillery had been used in that part of the field. A part of the ground was swampy and many had fallen in the mud. Others were in the mud to their knees. One in particular was in the mud to his knees and had fallen over backwards. He was stone dead, but had, in some way, gotten out his bible and had spread it over his breast, as if that was going to do him some good.”

Pvt. Fisk was not spared the confusion. “I had got among a lot of stragglers and I had begun to consider myself a straggler too. At any rate, I was shamelessly demoralized. I didn’t know where my regiment had gone to, and to be candid about it, I didn’t care.”

Out of the disorder, the Vermont Brigade reached the intersection and took up a position in the front works on the Brock road, and awaited another rebel assault. The attack soon arrived, but without Longstreet, who had been accidently shot by his own men.

Pvt. Fisk stated that the Confederate assault came from the left, as they “tried to break our lines and they tried it hard. They charged clear up to the breastworks, and fairly planted the colors on top of it, but they did not live to hold them there long. The ground in front of the works was literally covered with rebel dead after they left. One Colonel lay dead clear up to the breastwork. Two were shot on top of the breastwork, and fell on our side. I believe I have never heard such a murderous roar of musketry as was made to repel that charge. The rebels fell back and did not renew the charge.”

Portions of the earthworks caught fire. The flames spread to the woods, consuming many wounded Confederates therein.

The Vermonters Continue On—With a Fighting General

The fighting in the Wilderness had essentially concluded, aside from minor skirmishing. By the evening of May 7, the remnants of the Vermont Brigade had rejoined the Sixth Corps. The Army of the Potomac once again moved forward, heading deeper into Virginia.

Even more bloodshed would await the Vermonters at Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor. “But we had a man at the head who intended to win if it took every man in the army,” Pvt. Eric Ditty of the 6th Vermont observed of Lt. Gen. Grant.

“I Believe We Have Lost All Human Feeling Whatever”

The Vermont Brigade was among 32 infantry brigades engaged in the Wilderness. Yet, they suffered one-tenth of all Union brigade losses. Of the 1,234 casualties, 191 were killed, 947 wounded, 96 missing or captured and 151 died from the effects of their wounds. Of all the officers present, 75 percent were lost.

For those who survived, memories of brutality and carnage would last a lifetime.

Pvt. Darius Priest of the 2nd Infantry, who had suffered a wound, wrote his wife, “Fifty of our company have been shot since the fifth of May so there is but ten left in the company now. I have shot eight of the devils and killed one with my bayonet. Some of our boys have knocked their brains out with the butts of their guns. I believe we have lost all human feeling whatever, for to step on a dead man or to kneel in pools of blood and lean over the dead bodyes of our own men will get used to it after awhile.”

Col. Grant wrote perhaps the best moving tribute to his men.

“It is with sad heart that I inform you of so great a loss of Vermont’s noble sons, but it is with certain pride that I assure you that there are no dishonorable graves. The brigade has met the enemy in his strongholds, attacked him under murderous fire, and in the very face of death has repulsed with great slaughter repeated and vigorous attacks upon our lines, and, on no occasion has it disgracefully turned its back to the foe. The flag of each regiment, though pierced and tattered, still flaunts in the face of the foe, and noble bands of veterans with thinned ranks, and but few officers to command, still stand by them; and they seem determined to stand so long as there is a man to bear their flag aloft or an enemy in the field.”

Special thanks to Tom LeDoux

References: Manuscript of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Grant’s Report of the Battle of The Wilderness, John Gibson Collection; Emil and Ruth Rosenblatt, Hard Marching Everyday: The Civil War Letters of Wilbur Fisk; George Benedict, Vermont In the Civil War; Gary Gallagher, The Wilderness Campaign; Robert Poirier, They Could Not Have Done Better, Thomas Seaver and the 3rd Vermont; Howard Coffin, The Battered Stars; Howard Coffin, Full Duty; George T. Stevens, Three Years in The Sixth Corps; George Parsons, Put the Vermonters Ahead; Ken Burns, The Civil War; Horace K. Ide and Elliott Hoffman, History of the 1st Vermont Cavalry Volunteers in The War of the great Rebellion; Otis F.R. Waite, Vermont In The Rebellion; Theodore S. Peck, Revised Roster of the Vermont Volunteers.

John Gibson is a former Vermont native now residing in Maryland and has been a Vermont collector for 26 years. See the collection online at: vermontcivilwar.org.

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