The Wilderness – May 5, 1864

SPECIAL EDITION – 150 YEARS AGO TODAY the men of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac rose before daylight. It had been Gen. Grant’s objective to march the Army of the Potomac directly through the Wilderness to more open ground beyond before Lee could react. But it was not to be. The Fifth Corps, under Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren, ran into trouble almost immediately. A small body of Confederates were spotted to the west and Gen. George Meade ordered Warren to attack them. The small body turned out to be Lt. Gen. Ewell’s entire corps.(Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the early morning action in a new tab.)

The fighting grew intense. The Sixth Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was rushed forward and thrown into the fight. Grant sent a message off to Maj. Gen. Hancock telling him to turn his Second Corps around and hurry back toward the Wilderness ready to fight. In the following excerpt from my novel An Eye for Glory, Sgt. Michael Palmer tells what it was like for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut:

Thursday’s dawn found us already marching toward the southwest on Catherine Furnace Road. Several hours later at the Brock road, a great cheer  arose from the ranks when we turned left. “On to Richmond!” was the cry, a cry soon stifled when the column first halted, then about-faced and marched back toward the dense thickets and entrapments of the Wilderness. At about half past four, echoes like that of distant thunder rolled over us. Every man knew without being told that, before the day was out, he would likely face the enemy in the forbidding depths of the Wilderness. All men of sound judgement knew no battle should ever be fought there, but battle there would be, savage and bloody. The fighting and dying had commenced anew—our time was at hand, and this thought both thrilled and terrified me. “Close up, men.” I heard the urgency in my own voice. “Keep the pace. We’re needed at the front. Stay in line!”

(Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the late afternoon action in a new tab.) The Fourteenth Connecticut was near the front of the long column of the Second Corps when it came upon the Brock Road at Todd’s Tavern. When the orders came to turn around, they were now near the rear of the column. The map correctly shows the position of Carroll’s Brigade of Gibbon’s Division as the Second Corps filed into lines of battle on both sides of the Orange Plank Road west of the Brock Road. Sgt. Palmer narrates that evening’s fight:

The rattle of musketry came from somewhere ahead, but nothing could be seen. Close underbrush screened all but what was less than ten or twenty yards away. Onward we pressed. Musket balls cleaved the air above our heads and slapped into tree trunks. Yells and screams and, from time to time, the dreaded Rebel yell reached our ears. Bodies of Federal dead lay here and there; the walking wounded stumbled rearward through our strong and steady line. Volleys of musket fire erupted just out of sight in front of us.

We came up behind a line of men in blue firing into the darkness beyond. Muzzle flashes eerily silhouetted the forms of our men as they engaged in their deadly business. Some turned in panic at our approach, thinking perhaps the enemy had surrounded them, but “Friends! Friends!” we called out, and they turned back to the enemy. They fired off the last of their ammunition and made way for us to file into their places.

The Rebels saw us before we saw them and they fired a volley at close range. A few of our men fell dead, several more were wounded.

“Steady, men, steady!” I called out. I raised my own rifle and took careful aim. “Fire!”

Many of our foes fell. The Rebels began to fall back, retreating down a slope, turning to fire at us whenever they could. We pursued them, steadily driving them backward. After an advance of about two hundred yards, our officers called a halt. We lay down in the woods to avoid the Rebel sharpshooters and waited for night to fall.

After dark the men of Company C dug a shallow trench and piled branches and fallen logs atop the excavated earth. The position was as secure as the ground would allow. The men lay upon the low earthworks all night, muskets at the ready. Most fell quickly asleep, victims of fatigue. Not even the chilly night air or the occasional firing the flared from deep in the Wilderness disturbed their slumbers.

Tomorrow: The second day of the Fourteenth’s sojourn in the Wilderness.

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