150 years since battle of Wilderness

It is July 4, 1863. As the dust settles on the deserted battlefield of Gettysburg and a somber Independence Day is celebrated across the Union, another important battle out west comes to its conclusion. The long siege of Vicksburg reaches its end with the surrender of the city to the forces of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

During early 1863, Grant is frustrated by his failure to capture Vicksburg with a direct strike by his army. So he sets siege to the city. Through the increasing heat of the months of May, June and July 1863, the Northern navy has blockaded the Mississippi below the city and prevents any supplies from reaching Vicksburg. Desperation comes quick to the inhabitants of Vicksburg. A lack of food and supplies makes life miserable for the citizens of the city, but they hold out. Finally they can stand it no longer, and the city surrenders. A short distance down the river, on July 9, 1863, Port Hudson, Louisiana, falls to Union forces under the command of Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks.

When he hears about the fall of Vicksburg, President Lincoln is pleased: “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” And is again under Union control. The Union control of the Mississippi splits the Confederacy into two parts and allows the Union to use the river for the transportation of men and supplies.

After the fall of Vicksburg, Grant begins the “Overland Campaign.” Throughout the rest of 1863 and early 1864, Union troops fight their way through Mississippi, Tennessee and eastern Virginia. Early in 1864, Lincoln appoints Grant to command all of the Union armies.

The new commander is a short, stocky, dark-haired man, rather shabby in appearance. Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, Grant attended West Point and fought in the Mexican-American War, but disliked the hardships and loneliness of the peacetime army. After resigning his commission, he tried his hand at various civilian occupations, none very successful. He was a married man of 40 when the Civil War broke out.

He was refused a commission in the Union army but was appointed a colonel in the 21st Illinois Volunteers by Illinois Gov. Richard Yates. Grant used this time to refresh his memory of army life. Then in April 1861, Lincoln promoted Grant to brigadier general at the urging of Grant’s congressman, Elihu B. Washburne.

After his success at Vicksburg, Grant moves north and east, always making a point of engaging Southern armies. He is quick to seize an opportunity and is decisive in battle. Grant understands the cold arithmetic of the Civil War. By striking the Confederate army when and where he can, Grant intends to exhaust them. The Union always has more ammo, more food and, most importantly, more men to refresh their armies. The South does not.

May 5, 1864 is a typical Southern spring day: hot and humid. All around the Union troops, the world is fresh and green, but because of the rising heat, the wool uniforms of the men tug at them and drive them crazy with itching. Under the command of Grant, they move with caution on the curving paths that snake through dense woods known as the Wilderness. Except for the cadence of the footsteps, the woods around them is silent: no scamper of wildlife, no chatter of birds.

But the Union men know the woods are far from empty. They know that Gen. Robert E. Lee and his men are not far away from them. And the Southerners know the area far better than the Union men do.

The first clash between the soldiers happens in a flash. And then the battle begins in earnest. The cavalry and the light artillery are left behind to watch from the sidelines. Horses and cannon are impediments in the thick undergrowth. Now the sound of bullets and the clang of clashing steel fill the silence. As the battle wears on, the moans and cries of the wounded and the dying are added to sounds of battle. The smell of sulfur and nitrate hang heavy in the sultry air.

The battle breaks off on the 5th at the fall of night. It resumes early on the morning of May 6, 1864. At some point on the 6th, something, probably an errant spark from a rifle, ignites the dense underbrush. For the men, on both sides, the smoke, the sounds and the stench seem a preview of hell, but the battle continues for the rest of the day.

On the evening of the 6th, Grant and Lee pull their armies apart. Lee’s army melts in to the darkness, and Grant’s army makes a dispirited departure in a long line of men and horses.

The battle of the Wilderness is a nominal victory for Lee, for he has, for now, stopped Grant’s attack. But the battle has cost both armies: The Northern dead and wounded totaled 17,266 (of whom 2,246 are dead), and the Southern total of dead and wounded is 11,2033 (of whom 1,477 were killed).

Both Grant and Lee realize that they will meet again – and soon.

Alma L. Southmayd lives in Lake Placid.