The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and North Anna

Burying the Dead after the Wilderness campaign

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   The Army of the Potomac’s Fifth Corps was now commanded by General Gouverneur Warren, and the Corps’ First Division was led by General Charles Griffin. Hill’s entry for May 3 notes how abruptly its schedule switched from recreation to war: "Played Ball with the 44th. They beat the 16th badly. Marched to day toward Culpepper." The fun and games ended when "strike tents" sounded at 11 p.m. and the regiment began marching two hours later to Culpepper, through Stevensburg, and onto to a plank road that led them to the Rapidan River. At 10 a.m. on May 4, they crossed the Rapidan at Germanna Ford. Hill noted the significance of the date: "One year ago to [day] we were getting out of Chancellorsville 2 years ago the Rebs got out of Yorktown " The regiment turned off on the Gordonsville Road, marched around in the woods, and bivouacked. They had arrived in the Wilderness.

   There the first battle of the Virginia Campaign began. On May 5, 1864, when Grant ordered an attack, two days of vicious fighting broke out in woods so thick and smoky that soldiers fired blindly and wounded men burned to death in the flaming underbrush. On the first day of the battle the 16th Michigan was sent to guard a supply train and thus was largely removed from the fighting. Hill heard about Union losses the next day: "our Brigade lost heavily yesterday 5 o clock surrounded and apparently cut off 6th Corps broken, I fear a rout." On May 6 the Sixteenth rejoined the Third Brigade on the front, although at first the men were kept in reserve. Later, they advanced on the enemy and were involved in heavy skirmishing. "Finally this morning arrived at the front at 6AM, terrible fighting going on all along the lines," Hill reported. The next day the men of the Sixteenth were sent forward to find the enemy and take rifle pits, but eventually fell back. By four o’clock Hill was "sitting behind a trim tree all sliced by cannon shot and musketry." "The old 16th has fought well today," he wrote, understandably overestimating the killed and wounded, which officially numbered seven dead and thirty wounded.

Map of Battle of the Wilderness.

   The Battle of the Wilderness had ended, the Sixteenth’s Captain Charles Salter noted, "without being able to accomplish much (except to get immense numbers of men killed and wounded)." The Confederates had lost about 11,000 men while the Union army lost about 18,000. Lee had fought off Grant’s larger army, but unlike previous Union commanders Grant had no thoughts of retreating. He ordered a continued push south in hopes of turning Lee’s right and placing his army between Lee and Richmond.

   Secrecy was necessary so that Grant’s forces could arrive at its next destination — Spotsylvania Court House — before the enemy. Lee, however, anticipated Grant’s move, and when the Union advance guard arrived they found Confederate General Anderson’s men already entrenching. On the morning of May 8 Anderson repelled an uncoordinated Union attack.

   Secrecy had been effective at least within the Union army, for Captain Hill was surprised by the Union’s move. When Hill was relieved from picket duty at 2 a.m. on the 8th, he "found every thing had been moved," so he rushed to follow the column toward Spotsylvania. Since the Sixteenth was the rear guard for the move, they were not involved in the beginning of the battle at Spotsylvania. However, while moving to their assigned position at the front they ran into a swamp, where the delay led them to a vicious nighttime confrontation with the enemy. "Battle raging heavily—Col Locke wounded," Hill reported. Fourteen Michigan men died in the encounter and nearly fifty were wounded.

    On May 9th the Confederates busily erected an inverted U-shaped five mile line of breastworks around Spotsylvania Court House. The Sixteenth was ordered to the Union breastworks, but then was sent to the rear as defensive skirmishers whose other job was to round up stragglers. Hill’s journal recorded the skirmishing and reported only by hearsay on the general Union charge in front, believing it a success but acknowledging that it "cost many men."

   Thinking that the Confederate center was exposed, Grant ordered two attacks on the center of the Confederate line on May 10 to cut it off from the main army. The first attack failed; the second briefly broke through, but since was no reinforcing support the Union troops were driven back. Ordered to the trenches, the Michigan men were with Warren’s Fifth Corps on the front line all afternoon, where they did not charge but did encounter heavy musket fire. "Fighting still continues. A hard fight to day. The 16 in the Rifle Pits in front a hot fire all day. Corpl N Dennison and Private White of my Co wounded. . . . I believe all is going well." Finally at 9 p.m. they were relieved and allowed to bivouac behind the lines for the night.

Map of Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

   The next day, May 11th, the Michigan men were sent back to the breastworks and again engaged in heavy rifle fire. Hill was exhausted. "7th day of the fight, will it bring rest[?]" "The old 16th in the Rifle Pits again – much strengthened last night. Sharp firing and some shelling all day—suffered a thousand narrow escapes. Bivouwacked at 10 o clock."

   Grant still believed that the protruding center of Lee’s defenses was vulnerable, and he planned a surprise attack to begin at dawn on May 12th. The men of the Sixteenth were awakened at one in the morning and marched rapidly in the rain as Grant prepared the day’s assault. Union troops advancing on the right took horrific casualties, but the Sixteenth, which had been moved to the left near the Po River, was largely spared. Around noon, the Michigan men were sent into the breastworks and ordered to charge, but the order was soon rescinded. "Still the battle terrifically rages," Hill recorded. "When will the end come[?]" The fighting did not stop until after midnight, and even then the men of the Sixteenth slept on the battlefield at the ready. The single day’s casualties totaled nearly 7,000 on each side. Grant had again failed to break Lee’s defenses, but he promised to "fight it out on this line if it takes all summer," he told President Lincoln.

   After the Battle of Spotsylvania, Grant continued to look for weak spots in Lee’s lines during a week of maneuvering. Half of his army was ordered to swing around the Confederate right, then countermarched for an attack on their left. Hill’s entries of May 14 and 15 provide a mirror image of the maneuvering: "Rained all night. Marched 7 miles through the mud last night to the left Joined Burnsides forces," and "Rained all night. Moved rapidly to the right, and formed a junction with Gen Burnsides forces." When these moves yielded few results, Grant tried one more assault on the Confederate lines. On the moonlit night of May 17 the Michigan men and a few other regiments were "marched noiselessly to the front" (as Hill wrote) and ordered to dig trenches within a half mile of the Rebel lines. The next morning, according to Hill, "the fog rolled off and disclosed the Rebels with their strong works." The surprised Confederates opened an artillery fight which raged over the heads of the troops in the trenches, creating "a terrible shelling along the whole line." A Union assault farther down the line was repulsed.

   Rather than continuing to butt Union heads against the Confederate wall, Grant ordered his army to march southward from Spotsylvania past Guinea Station and across the Mattapony River, again trying to interpose federal forces between Lee and Richmond. Lee, however, again anticipated Grant’s move and beat his men to the strategic area below the North Anna River near Hanover Junction. "Left our works at 1 P.M. and moved rapidly to the left," Hill reported on the night of May 21 while camped near Guinea Station. The next day, a Sunday, gave Hill a chance to rue to the war’s violation of God’s day: "Sabbath after Sabbath and year after year the Holy Sabbath is made a day of murder."

    The Fifth Corps managed to cross the North Anna River on May 24 and withstood a surprise Confederate attack by a smaller force under General Cadmus Wilcox. They cleared just enough room in the next two days to set about tearing up the Virginia Central Railroad, which ran parallel to the river. Some of the Michigan men dug rifle pits, while those on skirmishing lines suffered some casualties. "Lost 3 men killed and wounded in the fornoon," Hill reported on the 26th. By this time Grant realized that the Confederate position near the North Anna was too formidable, and again he ordered a long flanking move to the southeast. After supper, the Sixteenth "fell in at 8 o clock P.M. for an all night march," Hill recorded on the night of May 26. "Issued 2 days rations to the men." The next day was "the first day in nearly a month that we have had no fighting," Hill wrote, but there was little relief, since the regiment marched nearly thirty miles east, then south, toward the Pamunkey River. The countryside was pretty and the plantations well cultivated, but "the Division straggled very much on the march in consequence of much rapid marching and excessive duty for days previously." On May 28th the regiment crossed the Pamunkey River near Hanovertown. The Union and Rebel cavalry fought an indecisive battle at nearby Haw’s Shop while the federal infantry continued to cross the Pamunkey. Hill was aware of the day’s significance. "The Cavalry holding the enemy in check 4 miles in front, we have secured The Position and are within 15 miles of Richmond," he wrote on the night of the 28th, his excitement accentuated by the underlining.

   As at the North Anna, Lee had drawn a strongly entrenched defensive line facing east behind Totopotomoy Creek. So shortly after his army crossed the Creek, Grant again shifted them south. "We are advancing in the direction of Gains Mill," Hill reported, "and appear to be in the extreme left flank of the Army." Two years earlier, the regiment had experienced its first severe fight in this neighborhood during McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign.

   The men of the Sixteenth realized how close they were to Richmond and knew that they would have to fight to advance further. For his part, Grant was running out of flanking room and would have to consider a direct attack. Lee, blocking the roads to Richmond, thought the same way and sent General Jubal Early’s division to attack the Fifth Corps’ left. On the morning of May 30 Early’s men charged into the Fifth Corps’ left flank near Bethesda Church. The Second Brigade was sent to meet the attack, as Hill’s diary notes, and in the afternoon the 16th Michigan was ordered to move up to support them. They formed a line under heavy fire and sent out skirmishers into an open field, where they were exposed to crossfire by Rebel sharpshooters. Major Robert Elliot was struck as he arrayed his men, and ten other Union soldiers were killed or wounded, but the Michigan men held their ground until the Union artillery arrived to halt the Confederate attack. "A hard fight today," Captain Hill recorded tersely in his diary back at the Union breastworks, "old 1st Div. doing admirably." "Poor Maj Elliott mortally wounded," he lamented. The next day’s entry confirmed Elliott’s demise. "The gallant Major Elliott is dead," Hill wrote, "died last night at 6 o clock. Peace to his ashes."

   On the whole, however, May 30th had been a good day for the Union forces. Warren’s men had pushed back the Confederate Second Corps, allowing the army’s southward shift to continue. Grant moved forward with his plan to mass the Union forces three miles south of Bethesda Church at Cold Harbor, the next major crossroads that led west to Richmond.  

Carl Guarneri, Saint Mary's College History department
Alyssa Sisco Ginn, Saint Mary's College Class of 2008

-- Next: Wounded at Cold Harbor