Battle of the Wilderness: ‘Men dropped like leaves’

May 2

Handout image. U.S. Army War College (USAWC) “On to Richmond.” Artist: Mort Kunstler. This painting depicts Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant on the field during the Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, May 5-7, 1864. (Photograph by: Megan Clugh, USAWC Photographer).

A regimental history of the 10th Massachusetts included an account of the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness, an anniversary that will be commemorated this weekend in Spotsylvania and Orange counties in Virginia. Remembered as one of the most difficult and deadly battles, it took place in a dense thicket of tangled brush and trees that made it impossible for the attacking Union forces to maintain a battle line and furnished the Confederates with excellent cover.

According to the account in the Springfield, Mass. newspaper, The Republican, an unidentified writer recalled that members of Company H were caught between friendly and enemy lines, “and exposed to terrific infantry fire from both sides. They were obligated to lie flat on the ground, and kept up a fire on the enemy in that position. The firing of the confederates at this time was perfectly terrific. …It seemed to come from two or three lines of battle, one above the other, a perfect hail of balls.”

The writer said the 2nd Rhode Island was at the extreme right of the Massachusetts 10th and took a terrible beating. When it fell back, “a most destructive fire was poured into the right flank of the Tenth. Men dropped like leaves of autumn, still the line wavered not. The ground was being literally covered with the wounded, the dying, and the dead.”

He continued, “All this time not an enemy could be seen. Perfectly covered by the woods and abattis, we could only fire at the direction of the flashes of light, and puffs of smoke from their rifles, while our men could undoubtedly be very distinctly seen by them.” [Editor's note: An abattis is a fortification formed of tree branches.]

Neither side could claim victory in this battle. However, the price was roughly 30,000 casualties, about 18,000 for the Union and 11,000 for the Confederates.

 

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