The Wilderness battlefield is part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Fought between May 5-7, 1864, The Wilderness was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War. The battle resulted in approximately 28,600 total casualties.
The battlefield is located between the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road west of Brock Road (Route 613). These two roads were also critical during the battle and the scene of heavy fighting. There is no visitors center here, only an exhibit shelter staffed part time.
A complete driving tour of the battlefield takes roughly two hours, with eight main stops. One of the most exciting episodes in the Civil War occurred in this clearing when Robert E. Lee tried to personally lead a counter attack at a critical moment. Men of the Texas Brigade shouted “Lee to the rear!” and refused to advance until he withdrew to safety.
In The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the first meeting between Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the darkened, tangled forest west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, which ended with high casualties on both sides but no clear victor.
Rhea clarifies and explains a battle that even its participants found confusing and hard to comprehend. With its balanced analysis of events and people, command structures and strategies, The Battle of the Wilderness is a thorough and meticulous military history. This is the first of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.
Prior to 1864, the Eastern Theater had mostly been a war of maneuver. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia jockeyed back and forth with the Union Army of the Potomac with little to show for it. In April 1864, both armies sat facing one another across the Rapidan River, almost exactly where they had been one year earlier.
General Ulysses S. Grant was determined to change that, and the Battle of the Wilderness proved it. This chaotic struggle touched off the Overland Campaign, a brutal grind toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Rather than retreat to lick its wounds, as Army of the Potomac usually did after a major battle, Grant ordered it around Lee’s flank to the southeast. Finally, President Abraham Lincoln found a General who was not afraid of Robert E. Lee.
The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.
The old lady smiled as she gingerly poured another round of tea into antique cups. A trio of strangers in their early twenties, two men and one woman, sat across from her. Two heavy, red leather photo albums were laid out on the burgundy coffee table, and drops of tea were spattered perilously close to the yellowed photographs. In one of the photographs, a young girl wrapped in a white cotton dress sat in a porch swing. In the other, a group of uniformed men stood in a field in front of several flowering dogwoods.
Mike, a young man of medium build with light brown hair, glasses, and a distinctive chin, cringed whenever a dab of liquid threatened to overflow onto the table. “Are you sure you don’t need any help with that?” he asked as he watched the old lady’s hands tremble. His companions, an inscrutable young woman with dark brown hair and piercing eyes named Aurelia, and a short man with a pocket-marked complexion named Greg, did not pay the situation any mind.
The old lady did not seem to mind either. “When I was a girl, my mamma used to tell me a story,” she began, “which is why I asked you to come here today.” She paused, and Mike, Greg, and Aurelia leaned closer. In the hallway, a black and white spotted cat’s paw peeked from under a locked door and massaged its trim.
Several tense seconds passed while the old lady poured the last drop of tea. “When I was a girl,” she continued as the teapot clattered back onto the tray, “my mamma used to tell me about Great-Grandpa James Earl Chesterton II. Now, my mamma’s great-grandpa—my grandfather—fought in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.” She recited the name with great pride. “He fought from the Second Battle of Bull Run all the way to a place called the ‘Wilderness.’ Some folks say he even survived Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, but some folks ‘round here will say anything.”
Mike pinched Aurelia, who had started to nod off. “Go on,” he urged.
The old lady smiled and her eyes twinkled as if she was hearing the story herself for the first time. “My great-grandpa was a dashing officer, but no matter how many fights he was in with Yankees, he fought even harder with his fellow officers. In 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness, he and his regiment were ordered to escort a wagon through the Wilderness south to Richmond. No one knows exactly what was in that wagon, but it must have been valuable—artillery, ammunition, shoes—maybe even gold or silver bars. I know one thing: no one would have sent that many men to guard some supplies if they weren’t of great importance.”
“What happened to them?” Greg interrupted, suddenly interested.
“No one knows for sure, but my mamma always told me that the regiment caught the cholera in the forest and died, but before the illness took Great-Grandpa James, he managed to haul the loot to his family’s farm and hide it.”
“Where’s the farm?” Mike asked.
The old lady smiled, wryly. “We’re here right now. I wanted to buy this place for years and finally, when my Charles passed away, I did.”