Battle of the Wilderness, 1864

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Ulysses S. Grant versus Robert E. Lee: A Confederate army under Lee forces a Union general under Grant to do battle in the wilderness – literally rough, shrubby terrain. Which side is more willing and capable of accepting casualties in this attritional contest? .

wilderness preview 1

The real significance of this battle is how the Federal high command, specifically Grant, kept their resolve to defeat the Confederacy. Instead of viewing this battle as a setback, Grant could view it as a victory because he furthered his strategic goal to advance south. Davis bleakly sums the battle’s significance up in this way:

Lee’s men would not fight again. Their sacrifice had decided little. Lee could not stop Grant, and Grant could not yet destroy Lee. The final decision would have to wait for other fields. The Wilderness, in the end, like the ground that hosted the battle, was just a tangled, confused, and painful stopping place along the way. (1991: 209)

In such an inconclusive battle, it is somewhat odd explaining why neither side decisively won or lost. Terrain is partly responsible; the rough wilderness reduced both sides’ ability to maneuver and attack, giving the battle a World War I feel in how it played out. However, both sides had chances to decide the battle in their favour. Burnside’s ineptness left the gap in the Confederate center to be just that, a gap, and Longstreet’s unfortunate accident brought his own attack to a grinding halt.
wilderness preview 2Notes
This is another one of those battles that has been scheduled for quite some time and just kept getting delayed by the many other great battles. Admittedly, I should have animated an American Civil War battle much sooner and that this battle is no the most interesting of that conflict. Why not Gettysburg? Chattanooga? Vicksburg? Antietam? The reason is quite simple: my friends over at have a solid section for the American Civil War (take a look at the bottom of this page for the link) and I wanted to avoid overlap as much as possible. As much as possible. Mr. Cagney does cover the Battle of the Wilderness in his “Grant’s Overland Campaign” animation but it is naturally not covered as extensively as his other single battle animations. Other instances, the battle fits too well with the season that I animate it anyways. Cowpens is coming soon to both of our sites while Brandywine and Okinawa will eventually be featured on both as well.
– Jonathan Webb
Works Consulted
Davis, William C. Rebels & Yankees: The Battlefields of the Civil War. New York: Salamander, 1991.
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
MacDonald, John. Great Battles of the Civil War. New York: MacMillan, 1988.
Scott, Robert Garth. Into the Wilderness with the Army of the Potomac. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Confederate soldiers:
George G. Meade:
Map of America:
Map of the world:
Robert E. Lee:
Ulysses S. Grant:
Union soldiers:

Readers Comments (9)

  1. I would say that the Confederacy won this in a tactical sense in that they pushed pack Grant’s army while taking less casualties and that fighting in the woodlands hurt the Union more than the South. Also, I think that Gordon’s attack on the right flank of the Union line was actually a pretty stinging blow, they captured over 1000 prisoners.

  2. From a Confederate perspective, at best this battle could be called a draw. In order for it to be called a Tactical victory, the Army of the Potomac would have had to withdraw, as it had done so many times before.

    However, Grant’s decision, after stabilizing his lines, to continue his advance South meant he retained the initiative, and significantly enhanced Union morale. These factors outweigh casualty lists, which are typically higher for attacking forces in this era. Combine this with the fact that the Confederacy’s manpower problems could not sustain these types of losses for ever and the hat tip, both tactically and strategically, must go to Grant.

  3. Great animation — but why are the Confederates blue and the Union red?

    Just seems a bit counter-intuitive…

  4. Matt C: Thanks for the nod. Forgive me for not adhering to the traditional colours; blame it on me being Canadian I suppose.

  5. wow this is true

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  7. Red is an appropriate color for the Union, as red is typically the color of the aggressor.

  8. Maybe Lee didn’t want the Union to win the war, so he won this battle against Grant face to face.

  9. Tactically I would have to give the edge to the Confederate insofar as they held off a force much larger than their own. The Army of the Potomac was not able to bring their numerical superiority to bear. That was not just due to the nature of the train which naturally favored the defense. The Army of the Potomac was notorious from beginning to end for dribbling troops into battle instead of massing for a decisive attack as Lee was able to due routinely. In fact this was one of the major reasons fore the 1864 re-organization and consolidation into three corps. Another weakness was that fact that since this was a civil war it was necessary to keep bungling incompetents in major commands- i.e. Burnside and Butler.

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