Wilderness Exhibit Shelter
— North Wall —
Collision of Giants
By 1864 the war had become not just a clash of armies, but of ideas. To be resolved on the fields of Virginia and Georgia that year was not only the fate of the Union, but also the fate of Southern society. The armies on both sides took to the task with unprecedented fury.
The Stakes"...We should neglect no honorable means of dividing and weakening our enemies...It seems to me that the most effectual mode of accomplishing this object...is to give all the encouragement we can, consistently with the truth, to the rising peace party of the North."
Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis, June 10, 1863.
Crushing defeats, lost territory, and shortages of men, food, and armaments beset the Confederates in 1863. Their hopes in 1864 lay not in absolute victory, but in Northern disunity. Continued military stalemate might result in Abraham Lincoln losing the coming presidential election. But could a shrinking land base, inadequate industry, and insufficient transport sustain the outnumbered Confederate armies long enough? Could Lee again forge victory against great odds?
Divided over the issue of slavery, discouraged by huge losses without great victories, and rent by political division, the Union war effort sagged in 1864. What happened on the battlefields of Virginia and Georgia that spring and summer would decide the war. Would Lincoln - determined to carry the war to a victorious end - survive the election? Or would the Democrats - pledged to negotiate an end to the war - assume power over a dismembered Union?
By 1864, the Confederacy's diminishing hopes for independence lay with Robert E. Lee. Creative and agressive, the 57-year-old Virginian consistently achieved victory where none seemed possible. He would face his greatest test as his army plunged into the Wilderness in May 1864.
Unlike Lee, Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant rode to prominence on an inexorable tide of growing industrial and military power. His victories bore the mark of patience and determination, not dash and creativity. By 1864 he had risen to the command of all Union armies. Less inspiring than efficient, he attached himself to the Army of the Potomac for the 1864 campaign.
With Grant in overall command, the war would be radically different in 1864. He pledged to "hammer continuously" at the South. The advance of the Army of the Potomac would be one of five major offensives along a 1,500-mile front. Grant halted the exchange of prisoners. Civilians would suffer at the hand of advancing armies - yielding crops, livestock, and in some cases homes to Union Forces. The goal: to defeat Confederate armies and demolish the South's capacity to wage war.
In Virginia, Grant set as his objective not the Confederate capital at Richmond, but Lee's Army. On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac started across the Rapidan River below Lee's right flank. Grant hoped to move quickly through the choked, tangled area known as the Wilderness and engage Lee in the open land to the south and west. But combersome wagon trains slowed him down. On May 5 the armies collided in the Wilderness.
"Lee's army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also."
U.S. Grant to George Gordon Meade, April 9, 1864.
The Forgotten Commander
Respected but little applauded, possessed of an acerbic temper, and overshadowed by Ulysses S. Grant, Major General George Gordon Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac during the Battle of the Wilderness. Grant commanded all
Union armies, but his decision to ride with the Army of the Potomac would mark that army as his own, leaving Meade to toil in relative obscurity for the next eleven months.