On this day in 1864, in the opening battle in the biggest campaign of the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops continue their desperate struggle in the Wilderness forest in Virginia. General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union forces, had joined George Meade’s Army of the Potomac to encounter Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the tangled Wilderness forest near Chancellorsville, the site of Lee’s brilliant victory the year before. The fighting was intense, and raging fires that consumed the dead and wounded magnified the horror of battle. But little was gained in the confused attacks by either side.
On May 6, the second day of battle in the Wilderness, Grant sought to break the stalemate by sending Winfield Hancock’s corps against the Confederate right flank at the southern end of the battle line. The Federals were on the verge of breaking through the troops of James Longstreet when they stumbled in the dense undergrowth.
Lee entered the fray to rally the Confederate troops, but his devoted soldiers urged him away from the action. Later in the morning, Longstreet’s men attacked Hancock’s forces and seemed poised to turn the Union flank. But, like the Union troops earlier, they became disoriented as they drove Hancock’s troops back. In the confusion, Longstreet was wounded by his own men, just four miles from the spot where Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by his own men the year before.
The Confederate attack halted when Hancock’s men found refuge behind hastily constructed breastworks. In the evening, Lee attacked the Union flank at the northern end of the battlefield and nearly turned the Federal line. Grant’s men, however, held their ground, leaving the exhausted armies in nearly the same positions as when the battle began. In two days, the Union lost 17,000 men to the Confederates’ 11,000. This was nearly one-fifth of each army.
The worst was yet to come. Grant pulled his men out of the Wilderness on May 7, but, unlike the commanders before him in the eastern theater, he did not go back. He moved further south towards Spotsylvania Court House and closer to Richmond. At Spotsylvania, the armies engaged in some of the fiercest fighting of the war.