May 5

This Day in History

Civil War

May 5, 1864:

Grant and Lee clash in the Wilderness forest

The forces of Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee clash in the Wilderness forest in Virginia, beginning an epic campaign. Lee had hoped to meet the Federals, who plunged into the tangled Wilderness west of Chancellorsville, Virginia, the day before, in the dense woods in order to mitigate the nearly two-to-one advantage Grant possessed as the campaign opened.

The conflict quickly spread along a two-mile front, as numerous attacks from both sides sent the lines surging back and forth. The fighting was intense and complicated by the fact that the combatants rarely saw each other through the thick undergrowth. Whole brigades were lost in the woods. Muzzle flashes set the forest on fire, and hundreds of wounded men died in the inferno. The battle may have been particularly unsettling for the Union troops, who came across skeletons of Yankee soldiers killed the year before at the Battle of Chancellorsville, their shallow graves opened by spring rains.

By nightfall, the Union was still in control of the major crossroads at the Wilderness. The next two days brought more pitched battles without a clear victory for either side. Grant eventually pulled out and moved further south toward Richmond, Virginia, and for the next six weeks the two great armies maneuvered around the Confederate capital.

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