The Wilderness battle was fought July 1-3, 1864: 104,000 Union troops versus 61,000 Southern. Once again the carnage was appalling and once again Lincoln had the opportunity to end the struggle against the South’s independence as the British did some eighty years earlier with the colonies. Several peace conferences committed to saving the lives of soldiers and civilians alike would end in failure as Lincoln stood firm in his conviction to rule all the American States, and nearly half in subjugation.
“Not Since Hermann Destroyed the Roman Legions”
“Before the close of the day Grant’s army was on the south side [of the Rapidan], four thousand wagons filled with forage and ammunition, beef-cattle, cavalry, artillery and infantry. This feat was so pleasing that Grant regarded it as a great success and “undoubtedly a surprise to Lee.” The ensuing night the Union army entrenched and camped in the Wilderness, that tangled forest in which Hooker had come to grief.
Now that Grant was busy with his operations, Lee had not been idle. He had observed the movements of the enemy from every angle and had made a report to his government. Yet the crushing numbers of the enemy gave him concern. He made no excuses, raised no questions and expressed no doubts, but he must have more troops.
By April 30 the federal plans had been foreseen by Lee, precisely as they had been worked out by General Grant, and he had prepared his line of defense. In the Wilderness, he would attack Grant’s army on its left flank and throw it back on the Rapidan. He would make a strategic offensive and concentrate his forces and shut Grant up in that dense jungle.
Of this strategy of Lee’s it must be said it was one of his boldest and most skillful. His proposed plan, experts declare, broke all modern precedent – it was to be a duel in the dark. Such an engagement had not been fought since Hermann destroyed the Roman legions in the forest of Teutoburg.
But Lee was not bound by rule. He practiced his own theory of the art of war and, in the coming campaign, was to furnish such an example of the use of natural features to neutralize a superior force as will always be a model. Grant’s telegraph lines were to be rendered useless, his artillery rendered useless, his artillery wholly ruled out, the guns, three hundred of them, to stand silent. Cavalry was to be still more useless.
Five times the federal charge was made and five times it failed. [The last days’ assault] lasted but sixty minutes, yet it was one of the most disastrous Union defeats of the war. Six thousand Union soldiers were killed or wounded in an hour, and Cold Harbor passed into history with Fredericksburg. The fatality among the Union officers was astounding; they literally went forward and led their men into battle and death. The loss to Lee’s army was slight.”
(Robert E. Lee: A Biography, Robert W. Winston, William Morrow & Co., 1934, excerpts pp. 291-292; 306-307)