On May 3, 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac once again crossed the Rapidan River into Orange County, Virginia. The Yankees had been there before at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, and Mine Run. This time a new general, Ulysses Grant, led the offensive.
The Union army comprised 120,000 men, the Army of Northern Virginia 65,000. Federal invasions in the Shenandoah Valley and the Peninsula of Virginia below Richmond prevented reinforcement of Lee’s army. Lee’s First Corps, commanded by Longstreet, lay a hard day’s march away.
But when the Union army forded the Rapidan on May 3 and 4, Lee ordered the Confederate army to march toward them. Lee’s objective was to pin the Union army in the Wilderness. The Wilderness was an area of heavy woods and underbrush in the eastern side of Orange County.
Lee sent his second and third corps up two parallel roads – the Orange Plank Road and Orange Turnpike – toward Grant. General Richard Ewell commanded the Second Corps, General A. P. Hill the Third. Private William Dame of the Richmond Howitzers wrote that the soldiers assumed Lee had only 35,000 available to confront Grant’s army.
“And yet, knowing all this, these lunatics were sweeping along to that appallingly unequal fight, cracking jokes, laughing, and with not the least idea in the world of anything else but victory.”
Quoted in G. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 (L.S.U. Press 1994), p. 84.
The Union commanders did not know of Lee’s movements. On the morning of May 5, the Union V Corps marched south down the Orange Plank Road, but Ewell’s Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was moving up the road to stop them. At the same time, A. P. Hill’s Third Corps moved up the Orange Turnpike, which paralleled the plank road about three miles away.
Ewell arrived first and began to dig in.
Federal skirmishers confronted the Confederates at Saunders Field, one of the few clearings in the Wilderness. The field was about 800 yards wide and 400 yards deep. The road bisected the field.
Doles’s Brigade, including both Cherry brothers, took a position on the Confederate right in Saunders Field. I have stood in trenches of the 4th Georgia Infantry a short way into the woods that border Saunders Field. I may have walked where my great-grandfather stood 150 years ago.
Gordon Rhea describes the action in the field in his book The Battle of the Wilderness, pp. 125 ff.
The Union’s Iron Brigade – an elite unit, the wearers of black hats – advanced along the southern end of Saunders Field and drove through a Confederate brigade. They did not realize that Doles was on their flank.
“Rising like specters out of a patch of dense underbrush, Doles’s veterans rocked the Iron Brigade’s exposed flank with a terrific volley.” Id. at 157. Then Gordon’s Brigade, their companions at Gettysburg, attacked the Iron Brigade from another direction. “For the first time in the Iron Brigade’s history, it broke and tumbled rearward in confusion. . . .” Id. At 161.
Crab described the battle:
On the 5th of May, the battle opened with us in a pine thicket by their charging our lines with great force early in the morning. Our troops gave way on our left, and we then did some doubling up of our brigade into almost a ring. We retreated slowly after considerable slaughter of our company with almost the first fire. Brother James was acting on ambulance corps, and I saw him do brave acts, which were complimented by many, in carrying our wounded off the field under so terrific a fire, and at one time, I really thought our army was lost, as the enemy ran fresh troops in so fast and so nearly all around us that it looked like folly to attempt to rout them or drive them back.
But our reserves under Gen’l Gordon came whooping by and through us, and it turned the tide so completely and so quickly that it astonished me. I fell in with the fresh troops and followed the enemy to where it would have been foolhardy to have gone further – in fact, to where it looked like we would return only at great risk to our lives, which was the case as some brave fellows bit the dust in returning from there.
Crab suffered a few wounds during the action. He wrote:
In this battle, a bullet passed just above my left knee, going through all my clothes and grazing the skin, drawing blood. In less than a day it had swollen so much and turned green and hard, I was afraid it would disable me or cause me much trouble, but it soon got well. I also had a bullet pass through my jacket and shirt near where one had 12 months before on the left side, also grazing the skin. But otherwise, I was unhurt.
The story we heard from Crab’s grandchildren was that Colonel Cherry’s pocket Bible – tucked into his breast pocket — had stopped a minie ball. And indeed you can feel an indentation in the cover of the Bible. But he does not mention that story in his memoir.
Crab writes only those few paragraphs about the battle. Rhea’s book tells the story of both days, which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war. The Union casualties were so great that one night General Grant lay on his cot and wept.