Today on May 7, 1864, Union and Confederates forces clash at the Battle of the Wilderness in the dense forests of Virginia.
The Battle of the Wilderness marked the beginning of a major Union offensive towards the Confederate capital of Richmond. The civil war was entering its fourth year and morale across the rebellious southern states was starting to waver. In February 1864, President Lincoln tapped Ulysses Grant to lead the Army of the Potomac while the Confederates were still under the command of Robert E. Lee. Following his promotion, Grant immediately prepared to launch an overland campaign against Lee. His objective was to keep him occupied with defending Richmond and stop him from reinforcing against Sherman’s advances in Georgia.
On May 4, 1864, Grant led the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan River to flush out the enemy. The north outnumbered the south by almost 2-to-1 (115,000 to 65,000 troops). As a result, Lee was determined to confront the enemy in the dense Virginia woods known as the Wilderness. The forest stopped Grant’s army and artillery units from advancing in an orderly manner. Furthermore, Lee’s soldiers were more familiar with the terrain, allowing them to launch guerrilla-style skirmishes. A series of bloody and chaotic battles ensued over the next two days, causing massive casualties on both sides. On May 6, two brigades broke and fled back to the Union headquarters. Panic was now rampant across the northern ranks, but Grant refused to retreat.
By the third day, it was apparent neither side was going to make any significant traction. The situation was dire for Grant as his casualties were almost three times higher. Even worse, his enemy was now firmly entrenched behind strong defensive earthworks. Before the campaign, he made a promise to Lincoln that he would never halt the advance, regardless of the outcome. So that night he ordered his soldiers to leave their positions during the cover darkness and march south around the enemy lines. The Battle of the Wilderness was tactically inconclusive as the fighting resumed further south near Spotsylvania Court House.