In the early spring of 1864, Grant had worked up a plan for the destruction of the CSA Army. As Grant put together his massive army, Lee lay waiting in the jungle like tangle of the Wilderness. Grant had a two to one advantage in troops but Lee knew the terrain. It would be a defenders dream and Lee hoped to turn Grant’s attack into a slaughter of the Union army.
On may 5th the campaign started among the same area as the battle of Chancellorsville. In the tangle of woods, bits of human flesh and blackened bones rose from half dug graves from previous battles. ” birds nesting in hollow eye sockets of weathered skulls that bore silent witness to the previous year’s fighting; and horses dug uneasily at decayed legs and arms still swathed in remnants of enemy clothing. Even the low shrubs seemed rotten with bloodstains.”
The battle of the Wilderness began with a chance encounter. Within a few hours the battle raged into something different. Under the dense woods savage fighting started. The infantry could rarely see each other among the twisted trees and roots of the scrub oaks and pines. Men fired blindly into smoke and darkness, often hitting friend and foe alike. By noon the battle had become nothing but chaos. Units separated and became scattered. Opportunities wasted. Men confused and confounded were scattered in every direction.
Under the woods of the wilderness filled with smoke from rifle and cannon fire and the burning brush one vet said it was a “battle of invisibles with invisibles” another explained ” it was a blind bloody hunt to the death, in bewildering thickets, rather than a battle.”.
As the day went on throughout the afternoon, men crawled on their stomachs trying to move forward as musket balls filled the air. Then even worse, exploding artillery shells set the underbrush on fire. The brush fire spread quickly and soon the screams of wounded men and animals filled the air as the fire over took those too badly wounded to crawl away.
The Federals kept coming in wave after wave not allowing Lee any chance to maneuver. By nightfall a stalemate was held as exhausted men lay with their rifles in their hands knowing that the enemy was only ” a biscuit’s toss away.”
Grant had managed to secure a position to attack Lee’s right and at dawn he ordered the assault. After being driven back around one mile, the confederates, spurred on by General Lee, prevailed. Managing to smash Grant’s right, capturing two Generals and 600 prisoners and nearly cutting off Grant’s supply line. As night fell the fighting continued as brushfires raged burning around 200 wounded men alive. “Screams echoed through the forest, the wind screeched through the tops of flaming pine, and the gamy scent of charred flesh filled the air.” One officer described it as an “unutterable horror”.
Grant had lost 17,500 men in the last two days. Later that night Grant would go into his tent, lay face down on his cot and wept. The only sign of strain he showed in the two days so far in the battle that seesawed back and forth.