The Wilderness, Day Two

Artist Alfred Waud labeled this drawing "Rebel advance through the smoke, and seizure of a part of the breastworks on Brock road. The logs had caught fire." It depicted fighing that took place later in the day on May 6. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud labeled this drawing “Rebel advance through the smoke, and seizure of a part of the breastworks on Brock road. The logs had caught fire.” It depicted fighing that took place later in the day on May 6. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Here’s another short excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. This one is about the start of the fighting on May 6, 1864, the second day of the bloody struggle in the Wilderness.  The book is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at quality bookstores.

Fighting resumed bright and early on May 6. Grant had wanted the army to move at 4:30 a.m., but Meade, thinking that was too early for the exhausted and disorganized men–and perhaps because he suspected Burnside and the IX Corps would be late as usual–suggested 6:00. Grant said he would delay things by half an hour. Near dawn Meade and Lyman rode out to the Germanna Plank Road to find Burnside, who was supposed to move his men into the gap between the forces on the plank road and the turnpike. Burnside was late, however, delayed in part because the roads were clogged with artillery. One of his aides arrived and told Meade that if the general authorized the clearing of the roads, he would go back and hurry Burnside along. “No, Sir, I have no command over General Burnside,” Meade replied. The IX Corps was not under his control–that was Grant’s responsibility.

Back at headquarters the general ordered Lyman to report on Hancock’s progress down by the Brock Road intersection. Lyman mounted his horse at around 5:00 in the morning. Already he could hear musket fire from skirmishers, followed by the loud, crashing volleys that meant major fighting had erupted.

He found Hancock in a good mood. “We are driving them, sir; tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully,” he said. But Hancock’s mood darkened when Lyman informed him of Burnside’s delay. “Just what I expected,” Hancock snapped. “If we could attack now, we would smash A. P. Hill all to pieces!”

The Union forces were doing a pretty good job of it even without Burnside’s help. The situation was looking increasingly desperate for Lee’s army. But then, as a blood red sun rose higher in the sky, its light diffused by the smoke of battle, James Longstreet and the I Corps arrived, moving east down the Orange Plank Road toward the fighting.

A historical marker on the Wilderness battlefield driving tour details an incident that occurred as Longstreet’s men came up and prepared to counterattack. It took place near the Widow Tapp farm, where Lee had his headquarters. As the Texas Brigade, under the command of Brig. Gen. John Gregg began to advance, Lee rode along with it, swept up in the excitement of battle. But Gregg’s men refused to let him risk his life with them. “Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!” they yelled, some of them tugging on his bridle, until the general reluctantly turned back.

“Lee to the rear!” is a stirring story, even to a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee like me. It has entered the treasury of great Civil War tales. But as I read the story on the marker I think about Meade at Gettysburg on day two, sitting atop his horse on Cemetery Ridge, sword unsheathed, aides nervously arrayed behind him, with nothing between him and the advancing enemy. No markers recount that moment. No one after the war sought to add the patina of glory that would elevate the incident into legend. True, Meade lacked Lee’s charisma. He had been in command of his army for mere days at that point. His men hardly knew him. Yet it is also a great story and one that deserves to be told.

But perhaps Union soldiers felt less need to repeat such tales of glory. After all, Meade’s army had won the war. Lee’s veterans had to find solace in something other than victory.

Excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg by Tom Huntington, pp. 259-60. Copyright © 2013 by Stackpole Books.

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