Located in the city of Fredericksburg and surrounding Spotsylvania County, Central Virginia, the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park is home to the battle sites of four important American Civil War battles: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.
One of the most famous battles of the American Civil War, the Battle of the Wilderness is known as the opening phase of General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. This will be the first battle between General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee which will see fighting with the forests ablaze. This battle is the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.
With little gains in the East after Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln appointed General Ulysses S. Grant general-in-chief of all Union Armies in early 1864. General Grant will initiate a war of attrition with a campaign to fight General Lee’s Army in a series of costly battles all the way to the Confederate Capital of Richmond.
In the spring of 1864, General Grant made his headquarters with General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Together, on May 4, 1864, they will cross the Rapidan River and travel through a forested region known as the Wilderness with the goal of getting on General Lee’s vulnerable flank at Orange Court House.
On May 5, 1864, the battle began when General Lee intercepted General Grant’s larger army as they traveled through the Wilderness, which negated the Union’s numerical superiority. Fighting raged in Saunder’s Field on the first day, exploded at the Brock/Plank Road intersection, and grappled throughout the forested region.
On May 6, 1864, General Grant launched an all-out attack at dawn to destroy General Lee’s right flank. Led by General Winfield Hancock, the Federals would have almost succeeded if it wasn’t for the last-minute arrival of General James Longstreet’s Corps. A Confederate counter and flank attack sent the Federals reeling. The day ended inconclusively with forest fires sweeping through portions of the battlefield.
By the morning of May 7, 1864, the battlefield was a stalemate, with the forest ablaze. Despite the costly nature of the battle, General Grant refused to order a retreat like all his predecessors had done.
Instead, he withdrew to the south, closer to Richmond, where he would say, “There’s no turning back.”