The Toll on Corps Command in the Wilderness
At 8:00 pm the night of May 6th, 1864; General Robert E. Lee reported briefly to the Confederate War Department the cost of meeting General Ulysses S. Grant among the dark entanglements of the Virginia Wilderness. The loss of Confederate manpower had been quite significant but none could have been more painful than the knowledge that this forest, already once visited, would demand another corps commander of him.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet had been ordered back to the Virginia front from Tennessee in mid April endeavoring to reattach the 1st Corps to the Army of Northern Virginia as fast as time and distance would permit.
His timing proved to be impeccable, found to be at Parker's Store along the Plank Road about dawn, his men were ordered to march forward and relieve the divisions of Henry Heth and Cadmus Wilcox three miles distant. The head of the column, lead by Major General Joseph Kershaw had scarcely arrived, making its deployment to the right of the road when the lines of federal blue made contact. It was all that these battle worn divisions could handle as they broke from position and retreated.
The advancing column opened ranks to allow the retreating divisions through, having been told that they would be relieved at daylight, none in Hill's Corps, thought it wise to dig entrenchments, and the surprise advance of the enemy caused their hasty departure. These fresh divisions, still deploying were ordered to advance and the enemy's progress was stopped and driven back.
It was then about 10 o'clock, General Lee had already sent his chief engineer, Brigadier General Martin Luther Smith, a New Yorker, to examine the enemy's left and reported back to corps command that the flank was exposed enough that an attack in that direction could produce satisfying results. The engineer was personally asked to take a small party out and find a way that the extreme left of the federal line could be assaulted.
The operation became Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert Moxley Sorrel's moment in the sun. General Longstreet's chief of staff, moving off to the right and the veteran brigades of Anderson, Mahone and Wofford were collected within an hour, on the move, and assembling within the unfinished railroad grade that stretched between Fredericksburg and Gordonsville.
Once the attack was launched it slammed into the flank and rear of Major General Winfield Hancock's 2nd Army Corps causing it to crumble and take to yet another position approximately three quarters of a mile away. The initial success was so complete, the lieutenant general ordered an all out advance and rode down the Plank Road with a large party of mounted officers and orderlies; Sorrel, Kershaw and Brigadier General Micah Jenkins all present.
As they rode out Micah Jenkins was openly impressed, commenting to the chief of staff how splendid the attack had gone, and how he looked forward to smashing what was left of them all. As they rode down the Plank Road, one of John Mahone's regiments, the 12th Virginia Infantry, managed to get way out in front of the rest of the brigade determined to get at the flank of General Wadsworth's men. Realizing it had gone too far, too fast, it began withdrawing where the rest of the division had aligned itself along the road.
General Longstreet's party continued forward down the Plank Road just as the 12th Virginia began to appear before the remainder of the Confederate battle line. The over zealous outfit was mistaken for a federal advance and the troops on the opposite side opened up on them. The mounted party found themselves caught right in between.
Several shots fired found their mark upon the group of officers and orderlies. Brigadier General Micah Jenkins scarcely finished his congratulatory praise and fell prostrate, a musket ball had crashed into his head. Captain Alfred E. Doby, an aide de camp to General Kershaw, and orderly Marcus Baum were both instantly killed. General Longstreet's right arm dropped to his side. A musket ball had passed through his right shoulder and clear through his throat, lifting him high in the saddle. Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw shouted to the battle line: "Friends!" in a successful but tardy effort to get them all to recover arms.
Major General Charles Field having knowledge of the corps commander's intent was passed temporary command of 1st Army Corps and told to keep them moving; however similar to the year before, the loss of the field commander caused delays, troops were shifted and commands devolved once again. The time lost allowed General Hancock to strengthen his own lines and all future attacks were met with obstinate resistance, permitting nothing more to be gained in the assault.
General Robert E. Lee would lose his most valued corps commander. Lieutenant General James Longstreet would manage to recover from his wounds taking him from the field for a brief five month period, and would not rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia himself until they had been boxed in along the defensive labyrinth surrounding Petersburg.
The Virginia Wilderness proved to be a hellish environment in the era of Civil War battlefield tactics. It provided a wonderful defensive barrier but proved expensive, continually making sacrificial demands of Lee's most senior and experienced leadership. The dense thicket, both, a blessing and a curse, had proven to the Confederates that sometimes lightning does strike twice and history does repeat itself.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at firstname.lastname@example.org