May 6, 1864: Battle of the Wilderness-Second Day

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Wilderness_May6_1400

 

 

 

..”Attention Texas Brigade” was rung upon the morning air, by Gen. Gregg, “the eyes of General Lee are upon you, forward, march.” Scarce had we moved a step, when Gen. Lee, in front of the whole command, raised himself in his stirrups, uncovered his grey hairs, and with an earnest, yet anxious voice, exclaimed above the din and confusion of the hour, “Texans always move them.” …never before in my lifetime or since, did I ever witness such a scene as was enacted when Lee pronounced these words, with the appealing look that he gave. A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around, and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heart-felt tears. Leonard Gee, a courier to Gen. Gregg, and riding  by my side, with tears coursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.”

 

Private Robert Campell, 5th Texas Infantry

 

 

The fighting erupted early on the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness.  Grant assumed that Hill’s corps had been fought out on the first day and could be overrun with a strong attack.  At 5:00 AM Hancock attacked with three divisions, with two in support.  By 6:00 AM Hill’s corps was in full retreat and disaster loomed for Lee.  At that time the 800 man Texas Brigade, perhaps the elite fighting unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps arrived and saved the day.  Longstreet launched a two division counterattack up the Orange Plank Road, with the Texans, who suffered 650 casualties, leading the attack on the north side of the Road.  By 11:00 AM Hancock’s corps was in full retreat after Longstreet launched a four brigade attack against the left wing of Hancock’s line.  Hancock’s men rallied behind fortifications along the Brock Road.  In an episode reminiscent of Jackson’s fatal wounding a year ago, Longstreet was shot in the neck by a group of Virginians who thought he and his party were Union troops.  Longstreet, unlike Jackson, would survive his wounding, but he would be unable to rejoin the army until October.  Lee the next day would place General Richard Anderson in command of the First Corps in place of Longstreet.

On the Orange Court House Turnpike inconclusive fighting raged all day.  Shortly before dark General John B. Gordon launched a divisional assault against Sedgwick’s right that made good progress until Union reinforcements restored the Union line.  That brief crisis elicited this famous event:  a nervous Union officer stated his fears to Grant:  “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.”  Greatly annoyed, Grant responded , “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Here is Lee’s report on the second day.

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, Via Orange Court-House, May 6, 18648 p.m. (Received 4.45 a.m., 7th.)

SECRETARY OF WAR.

       Early this morning as the divisions of General Hill, engaged yesterday, were being relieved, the enemy advanced and created some confusion. The ground lost was recovered as soon as the fresh troops got into position and the enemy driven back to his original line. Afterward we turned the left of his front line and drove it from the field, leaving a large number of dead and wounded in our hands, among them General Wadsworth. A subsequent attack forced the enemy into his intrenched lines on the Brock road, extending from Wilderness Tavern, on the right, to Trigg’s Mill. Every advance on his part, thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed. Our loss in killed is not large, but we have many wounded; most of them slightly, artillery being little used on either side. I grieve to announce that Lieutenant-General Longstreet was severely wounded and General Jenkins killed. General Pegram was badly wounded yesterday. General Stafford, it is hoped, will recover.

R. E. LEE.

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