Wilderness Exhibit Shelter
— East Wall —
The Battle of the Wilderness
On May 5, 1864, Lee moved swiftly eastward through Orange County and struck the Federals along two roads - the Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike. Two bloody, largely separate battles exploded. They would evolve and eventually merge into a huge conflict that would engulf the Wilderness and consume thousands of lives.
After joining the Army of the Potomac in March 1864, Grant reported that "the troops feel like whipping somebody." No one was more eager for a fight than the general himself. When Meade reported Confederates advancing down the Orange Turnpike on May 5, Grant ordered his subordinate to pitch into the enemy without delay.
The fighting commenced in Saunders Field. General Gouverneur K. Warren's Fifth Corps charged across the clearing, engaging General Richard S. Ewell's Confederates in hand-to-hand combat. Fighting spilled into the woods adjoining the road, as Grant and Meade attempted to outflank the Southern line. Ewell thwarted their efforts, however, and by evening the exhausted combatants entrenched.
Confederate Flank Attack
May 6 was a comparatively peaceful day for Union soldiers on the Orange Turnpike. Following a brisk exchange of gunfire that morning, the fighting had tapered off. Now, as the sun dipped below the western horizon, Northern soldiers began to relax and prepare themselves dinner. Rifle fire in the woods north of the road interrupted their meal. Five thousand Confederates, led by General John B. Gordon, had taken position on the Union army's right flank and were attacking.
Panic spread rapidly down the Union line. Two Federal generals and 800 other men fell captive. Nightfall and a stiffening Union defense, however, limited Gordon's gains. Though battered, the Army of the Potomac ultimately took position in a new set of works, ensuring that the Battle of the Wilderness would end in stalemate.