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From such a scene of action, so difficult for the movement of troops, so heset with the intricacies and entanglements of wild woods but imperfectly known, it may be that other commanders, at an earlier stage of the war, would have thought themselves fortunate in accomplishing a safe retreat. No such thought was now entertained.
Combined with the movement thus commenced by Giant, and an essential element of the situation, was the landing of a considerable army under Butler at Bermuda Hundred, directly threatening Richmond. The army of the Potomac was so advancing as to cover Washington. Lee might now have retired on Lynchburg as his base and assumed the aggressive—and such was not improbably his earlier purpose; but the formidable movement south of Richmond, which he was to defend at all hazards, left him no such alternative. It was on the 5th of May that the new army of the James, under Maj.-Gen B. F. Butler, occupied Bermuda Hundred. This command consisted of the 10th and 18th Army Corps, re spectively under Maj-Gens. Q. A. Gilmore and W. F. Smith. The communications south of Bichmond were immediately threatened, while a fleet of gunboats, under Rear Admiral S. P. Lee, was ready to advance up the river toward that city. This combined movement below the Rebel capital apparently determined the course of Lee in his present relations to the army which had boldly crossed the Rapidan, threatening the flank of his formidably entrenched forces.
Failing in his efforts to crush our advancing columns, which he had allowed to cross the Rapidan unopposed, Lee now found, on the morning of the 6th, that it was too late, even to retreat at once upon Richmond, his adversary being too close upon his flank. At the same time, he could not abandon that city to its fate, threatened as he now knew it was, and fall back on Lynchburg. He accordingly determined to give battle, resuming the aggressive, availing himself of his advantages over the Union army, from the nature of the ground, for rapidly concentrating his men at whatever point he chose. On the morning of the 6th his troops were early in motion.
"The Wilderness" will ever be memorable as one of tha bloodiest fields of the war. The character of the country is much the same as that on which the battle of Chancellorsville was fought, the battle-field being in fact, a portion of the same forest. The ill success of the advance, which ended with that engagement, undoubtedly emboldened the Rebel army to hope a like result on the present occasion, and led to that bravery and persistence in assault, which, from the nature of the conflict, necessarily produced an almost unprecedented harvest of carnage and agony.
In the forenoon of Friday, the 6th of May, Hancock's corps, reinforced by Wadsworth's division of the Fifth Corps, L. A. Grant's brigade from Getty's division of the Sixth Corps, and other forces, advanced on our left, steadily pushing back the enemy (at first apparently only A. P. Hill's Corps), for the distance of about two miles and occupying their front line of breastworks. Hancock held the position gained, until, soon after noon, he was impetuously attacked by heavily massed forces of the enemy, including the corps of Longstreet (who was severely wounded in this action), and in turn forced back, with serious loss to his former position, of the morning. In like manner, Sedgwick, on the right drove the Rebel forces in his front, but was compelled to yield before the assaults of their reinforced column, giving up all the ground he had gained. Following up their temporary success, tho Rebel troops pressed on until the right flank of our army was partly turned, and the danger of fatal disaster seemed imminent. The coolness of Sedgwick, and the well-tried valor of the Sixth Corps, saved the day. In addition to his other losses, however, was that of a considerable number of prisoners, including two commanders of brigades, Gens. Shaler and Seymour. A stampede among the teams in the rear of this corps had commenced just at night, and general confusion was menaced. But the incipient panie, which had not extended to the men in line, was fortunately stayed. During the night, all transportation wagons, and ambulances, were kept in orderly motion toward Chancellorsville. Some even retired beyond that place, to Ely's Ford, but were promptly recalled in the morning—an advance being intended, and not a retreat. If there had been a thought, in the minds of any one, of returning north of the Rapidan, the Lieutenant-General himself entertained no such design for a moment.
The Rebel assailants closed the day's work by a night attack, still later than that just spoken of, upon the center, breaking through Warren's lines, forcing him backward for a considerable distance, and compelling Sedgwick's corps to hasten its withdrawal rearward and to the left, to prevent being cut off from the remainder of the army. A stand was ore long made by the Fifth, however, and the final success of this overwhelming attack averted. The rout of the Union army, and its precipitate flight across the Rapidan, which Lee had seemed on the point of accomplishing, was completely foiled. His efforts to that end had cost more heavily than he could afford, without the anticipated success.
The persistent bravery and good conduct of our men, no less than the gallantry of our generals and other officers, were conspicuous in the actions of these two days. Few armies would have stood against such odds. It is a wonder—as the study of this battle will more and more disclose—that any army so situated and so assailed should have escaped annihilation. By his peculiar advantages of communication, Lee was enabled, by his command of roads in the rear of the Wilderness, as we have seen, to precipitate the mass of his army first on our left, repelling the temporarily successful advance' of Hancock; then upon the right, forcing Sedgwick backward, after a destructive resistance, ultimately flanking him, partially doubling up his force, and making important captures; and finally piercing the center, being seemingly on the point of driving Warren's corps pellmell, until by reinforcements and skillful dispositions, the latter was enabled to meet the shock.
A portion of Burnside's Corps, which crossed the Rapidan on the 5th, participated in the engagement, and aided to save the day.
The total losses on each side have been variously estimated, but probably fell little short of 18,000 (killed, wounded and prisoners), during the two days. Among the killed was the much lamented Gen. James S. Wadsworth, commander of a division in the Fifth Corps—a gentleman of large estate, and of large heart, who bravely sacrificed all for his country.
While the two days' fighting has many of the aspects of a drawn battle, and was by no means decisive in result, it may be observed that Grant maintained his purpose of drawing out Lee and establishing himself beyond the Rapidan; while Lee, on the contrary, vainly exhausted all his efforts, with a loss believed to be relatively (though not actually) greater than Grant's, to force the latter to retrace his steps. The next movement, as will be seen, was, with Grant, a bold advance, and, with Lee, a prompt retreat. The latter had discovered, on the morning of the 7th, the march of our cavalry under Wilson and Gregg toward Spottsylvania Court House, with indications of a general movement in that direction. He immediately began to fall back. His whole line of works on Mine Itun was abandoned, and his intrenchments in the Wilderness were only held by a rear guard, whilo the work of burying his own dead, caring for his wounded and securing the prisoners he had captured, received hurried attention. An attempt appears to have been made to embarrass Hancock on the left, and a claim was put forth by the Rebels that he had, for a time, been driven. There can have been little more than some harassing of his flank, soon obviated by tho support which Burnside rendered.
While the Rebel army was moving southward, to take up its new position on tho Po river, beyond Spottsylvania Court House, the National forces were executing a nearly unobstructed movement toward the left, by Chanccllorsville and beyond Fredericksburg—a substantial pursuit, in the guise of a threatened turning of the enemy's right. Many of our dead and wounded in the Wilderness were unfortunately left on parts of the field that had been crossed and recrossed, remaining in hostile possession. In spite of extraordinary exertions, and a care quite unusual in the midst of movements so engrossing, there were many whose sufferings remained unalleviated for days, or who experienced the added torture of listen'ing helplessly to approaching fires, which ran through the woods, and from which, if they were not actually intended to do tjiis cruel work, the Rebels at least took no pains to rescue the wounded and dying. Some were saved after remaining for days in these wild and bloody thickets, and thero are those still surviving, no doubt, who can repeat the tale of the sufferings, though never adequately describe the horrors that followed the great contests of the Wilderness.
The march of the rear of our army from the position held by the Fifth Corps, at the close of the conflict on the night of the 6th, to Chancellorsville, nine miles distant, was completed on the 9th of May. On the previous day the main army was well up to the banks of the Ny, near Spottsylvania CourtHouse, about fifteen miles south-east of Chancellorsville. The former place had already been entered by Custer's cavalry, and temporarily held, but this force was soon withdrawn. Grant's headquarters were twenty miles south-eastward from the battlefield of the 6th, as early as noon on the 8th. Our forces speedily occupied Fredericksburg, which was made a depot for the wounded, a large number of the houses of that city being taken for temporary hospitals. The movement in this direction—a small force clearing the way for the transportation of the wounded, while the main army advanced toward Spottsylvania—was heralded in Richmond prints: "Grant retreats towards Fredericksburg." In similar style, it had been an nounced, at an earlier day, that he was "falling back on Vicks' burg," while driving Pemberton into that city, preparatory to the capture of his whole army. Communication with the Potomae, by way of Fredericksburg and Belle Plain, was an essential auxiliary to his movement on Richmond, and marked a rapid advance in that direction.
The news of the unchecked progress of Grant, thus far, pressing Lee forward or drawing him on by flank movements, gave an assurance of the firm footing our forces had gained in a greatly advanced position, and of a determination of purpose, which, in spite of all losses, occasioned a general satisfaction more positive than the true history of the case, bating all exaggerations of the moment, would, perhaps, fully warrant. President Lincoln, moderately and justly estimating the results