Sunday, May 29, 2016

Voices in the Wilderness: 'Shrieks, cries and groans'

Remains of trenches occupied by the Union army on May 5-6, 1864, during Battle of Wilderness.
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When you walk by yourself  deep into the woods or fields of the Wilderness battlefield, you're never really alone. On nearly every step, history, tragedy and spirits of the past tug hard. Here are images from my recent visit and words from those who were there in 1864:


On May 5, 1864, the 118th Pennsylvania helped drive Rebels from these entrenchments at the western edge of Saunders Field, which was split by the strategic Orange Turnpike. But the Yankees' success was short-lived, and a stalemate resulted. A 118th Pennsylvania regimental historian described the terror the wounded on both sides faced during the battle:

"The business of war is to kill and maim, and the quicker this is accepted as a hard and bitter necessity the better are the soldiers. But the moans and wailings of the Wilderness battle-field stirred the stoutest hearts, and yet they could not be relieved. Wounded men make but little demonstration and rarely utter an outcry. Throughout the night, as the forest fires which had blazed since the early afternoon drew nearer and nearer to the poor unfortunates who lay between the lines, their shrieks, cries and groans, loud, piercing, penetrating, rent the air until death relieved the sufferer or the rattle of musketry that followed the advent of the breaking morn drowned all the other sounds in its dominating roar. There was no hope of rescue -- war's hard rules would not permit it, and there between the lines the men of both sides perished in the flames because there was no helping hand to succor, no yielding of the stern necessities of war."

-- 118th Pennsylvania regimental historian



If the Union army were whipped here, near the vitally important Brock and Orange Plank roads intersection, Ulysses Grant's army could have been crippled. A brigade of Vermont troops desperately held on in these woods on May 5-6, suffering 1,234 casualties, and the Rebels' advance was checked. A path from a small parking area on the Orange Plank Road leads to a massive, granite monument that honors the brigade's sacrifice.

"One engaged in that terrible conflict may well pause to reflect upon the horrors of that night. Officers and men lay down to rest amid the groans of the wounded and dying and the dead bodies of their comrades as they were brought to the rear. One thousand brave officers and men of the Vermont brigade fell on that bloody field. Was the result commensurate to the sacrifice? Whether it was or not, the battle once commenced had to be fought. There was safety only in success."

-- Union Brigadier General Lewis Grant, 1st Vermont Brigade, Aug. 27, 1864



The woods of the Wildnesss near the Brock and Orange Plank roads intersection..
Like many in both armies, Southern surgeon Spencer White scavenged from the enemy, picking up an "India rubber cloth that is big enough for four men to lie in or make a tent of." At the Wilderness, White also saw grievously wounded Union General James Wadsworth, who had been shot in the head leading a doomed charge down the Orange Plank Road. As he lay by the roadside, Rebels rifled the pockets of the 56-year-old general.

"As usual on such occasions, groans and cries met me from every side. I found Colonel James Nance, my old schoolmate, and Colonel Gaillard of Fairfield lying side by side in death. Near them lay Warren Peterson with a shattered thigh bone and still others who were my friends. Many of the enemy were there. Not far from these was an old man, a Yankee officer mortally wounded. I learned that he was Brigadier General [James] Wadsworth, once Governor of New York. (Note: Wadsworth actually lost the election for New York governor in 1862.)

"I picked up an excellent Yankee overcoat on the battlefield, but the cape is off. I will have a sack coat made of it. ... I have never before seen a battlefield so strewn with overcoats, knapsacks, India rubber cloths and everything else soldiers carry, except at Chancellorsville. The dead Yankees are everywhere. I have never before seen woods so completely riddled with bullets. At one place the battle raged among chinquapin bushes. All the bark was knocked off, and the bushes are literally torn to pieces."

-- Spencer Glasgow White, 13th South Carolina assistant surgeon, in letter to his wife, May 7, 1864



The Higgerson Farm, one of the few clearings in the Wilderness.
All that remains of Permelia Higgerson's modest home in the Wilderness.
Permelia Higgerson
On the afternoon of May 5, Pennsylvania troops swept across Permelia Higgerson's field, trampling her garden in the process. Incensed, she predicted the dastardly Yankees' demise. Her prophesy proved spot-on for the 7th Pennsylvania, cut off on Higgerson's farm and forced to surrender. Its officers were sent to a POW camp in Macon, Ga., while the enlisted men ended up in the hell of Andersonville. In an account published in 1865, a newspaper reporter recalled the regiment's predicament during the battle:

"The Seventh had advanced into the dense woods with the Second and Eleventh [Pennsylvania], but Colonel [Henry] Bolinger unfortunately could not see the movements of the other regiments and, hence receiving no orders, continued to press steadily forward, driving everything before him until suddenly the enemy closed in upon the rear of the regiment and cut off its retreat in that direction. A desperate attempt was then made to escape by another route, but it failed. Finding his command completely surrounded, Colonel Bolinger was compelled to surrender to save his regiment from being cut to pieces. As it was, many of his brave men were left in the Wilderness, never to be heard from again. The colonel and two hundred and seventy one of the officers and men were made prisoners. Forty escaped through the swamps and woods and returned to the camp."

-- Josiah Rhinehart Sypher, newspaper correspondent and author of 1865 history of the 7th Pennsylvania



Apparently intent on leading a charge during a moment of crisis on Widow Tapp's farm, Robert E. Lee was persuaded by soldiers in the Texas Brigade to seek safer ground. "Lee to the rear!" they shouted. The general took their advice, and the Rebels checked the Union Army's advance here on May 6.

"So much has been said about the Lee to the rear incident that, having been a member of the Texas Brigade, I wish to add my testimony to that given heretofore as to the claims of the Texas Brigade. But it will be seen from histories of the Army of Northern Virginia that Gen. Lee on several occasions attempted to lead his troops in battle. At the Wilderness on May 6, he tried to lead the Texas Brigade; later, in the fighting around Spottsylvania, he attempted to lead Howe's Mississippians and the Virginians at the Bloody Angle. In all of these attempts, he was prevented by the men around him as he would have been by any body of soldiers in his army had the same opportunity presented itself."

-- 1904 account of Confederate veteran Richard J. Harding, a captain in the 1st Texas Infantry



The vast, tangled forests of the Wilderness were broken by only a few cleared fields -- including this one on William Chewning's farm. On May 5, the Federals briefly held this area before they were forced to abandon the position to provide support along the Orange Turnpike. On the morning of May 6, Confederate General A.P. Hill narrowly escaped capture here.

"Before the troops came up, we rode to a house and outbuildings in the lower end of the field and dismounted. We had been there only a short while when we were startled by the breaking down of a fence. Just below and in plain view was a long line of Federal infantry clearing the fence to move forward. General Hill commanded, 'Mount, walk your horses and don t look back.' "

-- William Palmer, Hill's chief of staff,  after the war



When the lady of the estate returned to Ellwood Manor, she found the graves
 of 19 Union soldiers on  the lawn.
A beautifully carved stone step leads into Ellwood Manor, a Union headquarters/hospital.
Union General Gouverneur Warren, commander of the V Corps, used the stately Georgian-style manor of Southern sympathizer J. Horace Lacy as headquarters during the battle. The Union Army also used the house and surrounding grounds as a hospital site for thousands of wounded.  In his parlor office on the first floor, Warren may have received the staggering casualty figures: an estimated 18,400 Federal soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in the Wilderness.

"The appearance of the old place when we first returned was heart rending. All the paneling had been stripped from the walls, every door and window was gone, literally only the bare brick walls were left standing. The trees had been cut down, the yard and garden were a wilderness of weeds and briers, and there were nineteen Federal graves on the lawn. It was not until November that the worst places were sufficiently repaired for us to take possession, and then we had only attempted to restore part of the house."

-- Betty Churchill Lacy, second wife of J. Horace Lacy, in 1903.


-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? Email me here.


  1. John, a friend is asking about the battle of Altoona Pass. Do you have any information on that.

    1. Hi, Unknown. I have not been there. May go soon. John Banks

  2. Thank you John for refreshing my memory of the Wilderness Battle with your wonderful panorama pictures & post. You actually enlightened me on a couple of engagements as many times, the Spotswood Courthouse Battlefield was my ultimate target.

  3. Your panorama of Saunders Field is very useful to use in understanding the terrain of the battlefield.

    The initial action of the Battle of the Wilderness occurred in the area where your camera is sitting. Brig. Gen. John M. Jones' brigade of Virginians was deployed here when attacked by brigades of Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren's V Corps. The 48th & 50th Virginia regiments of Jones' brigade were stationed on the extreme right of his line - in the area south of your camera. Those regiments were flanked an overrun by Union regiments that emerged from the thick woods on the south side of Saunders field; the battle flags of both, the 48th & 50th Va, were captured by members of Brig Gen Lysander Cutler's "Iron Brigade".

    Sgt/Ensign Joseph H. Pickle (born 1844, Grayson Co., Va) was the color bearer of the 50th Virginia, he was killed when the flag was captured. Pvt J.N. Opel of the 7th Indiana Infantry was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the capture of the flag.

    Although Pvt. Opel was given the credit, there was some controversy as to who actually did the hands-on capture of the flag. Within the regimental history of the 7th Indiana there is this description :

    Statement of Private Thomas M. Mozingo, Co. E, 7th Indiana : "The facts, as to the capture of the flag, were that Perry S. Tremain, Robert L. Alyea and myself had a personal scrap with a rebel color-bearer. I was trying to get my gun capped, and found the tube was blown out; just then it was that Alyea and myself went at the color-bearer - Alyea striking the rebel with the muzzle of his gun, and I with the butt of mine, and in the scrap Perry got the flag, tore it from its staff ... ". Tremain managed to return to the Union lines but, Mozingo and Alyea were captured shortly afterwards and spent the rest of the war in Confederate POW camps.

    After the War, Tremain said he had given the flag to a Lt. Armstrong of his regiment; it is unclear how Pvt. Opel ended up with the flag.

    Later that afternoon, the Confederates counter-attacked and retook their original battle line and that night they recovered and buried their dead. There is no marked grave for Joseph Pickle; he is probably still on the battlefield. [See Find-A-Grave, memorial # 181188970].

    Joseph was a cousin of my great grandfather.