Into the Widow Tapp Field

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General Robert E. Lee and his proud Army of Northern Virginia had held its own throughout May 5, 1864, the first day of the battle of the Wilderness. Lee, whose army was outnumbered nearly 2 to 1, countered every move that the Federals threw at him. But as dawn came across the dark Virginia woods, the Yankees resumed the offensive that had stalled the day before.

Federal commanders Ulysses S. Grant and George G. Meade planned to focus their May 6th offensive on the Orange Plank Road sector of the battlefield. Along this road was stationed Meade’s largest corps, the 2nd, as well as his most reliable corps commander Major General Winfield Scott Hancock.

Thus far, in the early days of the Overland Campaign, all of Meade’s corps commanders, with the exception of Hancock, had failed him. The 5th Corps commander, Gouverneur K. Warren, refused to attack in a timely manner, which allowed the Confederates to gain the advantage in the Orange Turnpike sector, specifically at Saunders Field.

Major General John “Uncle John” Sedgwick was “…constitutionally slow…”

Phil Sheridan, Grant’s hand picked cavalry leader, failed to cover the movements of the army, and failed to accurately locate the enemy.

Tapp farm.909

Tapp Farm (Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Collection.)

Hancock on the other hand had followed his orders closely and helped a division of the 6th Corps, under George Washington Getty, to secure the key to the Wilderness Battlefield, the Brock Road/Plank Road Intersection. The intersection led to the rear and flank of the Union Army. If the Army of Northern Virginia was able to secure the intersection, they could turn north and possibly smash their adversary against the Rapidan River. If the Army of the Potomac held the intersection, they held the inside route to Richmond.

On May 5th, both sides grasped the importance of the intersection. Lee pushed Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s Third Corps toward the intersection. Henry Heth’s division led the way. Heth, who seemed to have a propensity to be slowed by Union cavalry, tangled with Lieutenant Colonel John Hammond’s 5th New York Cavalry. Hammond’s regiment was aided by the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves. The tenacity of these two regiments slowed two-thirds Hill’s corps long enough for Getty’s division to arrive and secure the intersection for the Union.

Looking west across the Widow Tapp Field.

Looking west across the Widow Tapp Field.

Meade later issued orders for Hancock’s 27,000 men to bolster the line held by Getty. Throughout the afternoon of May 5th, reinforcements made their way to woods around the intersection. The action seesawed back and forth and darkness closed the fighting. Lee’s men were unable to seize their objective and Hancock was unable to fully crush Hill.

Throughout the night of May 5th/morning of the 6th, Hill’s exhausted men waited for reinforcements in the form of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps. Longstreet’s Corps had started the battle 27 miles from the Wilderness, near Gordonsville, Virginia. Longstreet’s men had just arrived back in the Eastern Theater, following an eventful stint in the Western Theater.

During the first day of battle, Lee hoped to stop Grant’s monster in the Wilderness, which he successfully did, though Lee did not want to bring on a general engagement until the army was all together, that was already out of the question.

Both Hill and Second Corps commander Richard Ewell performed well on the 5th. Now it would fall on Longstreet to come up and finished what the rest of the army had started.

Lee waited throughout the 5th for Longstreet. The army commander assured Hill that Longstreet’s 14,000 men would be on the field to relieve his corps before daylight. Few of Hill’s men took time to entrench that evening, their commanders, including Hill, believed that “Lee’s Old War Horse,” would be up in time for battle, he was not.

Around dawn of the 6th, a Union juggernaut, consisting of elements of the 2nd, 5th, and 6th Corps rolled forward, smashing Hill’s exhausted men. With nearly 20,000 Union soldiers attacking from the front and flank, Hill’s men began breaking for the rear.

Map created by Hal Jesperson. www.cwmaps.com

Map created by Hal Jesperson. http://www.cwmaps.com

The men of the Third Corps broke from the woods into an open field, the Widow Tapp Farm, the field where Lee himself was waiting for his second in command.

The Widow Tapp Farm was a modest homestead, to say the least. The farm and field were rented from James Horace Lacy, by 59-year-old Catherine Tapp. Catherine and six other people lived at the farmstead, including her four-year old daughter Eliza “Pheenie” Tapp. On May 5th, the Tapp’s were ushered down the Orange Plank Road, which ran on the south side of their farm, away from the coming battle. Pheenie described making her way shoeless, down a road, covered in blood and gore.

The young child heard that the “bad men in blue” were about to get a whipping. She knew why too. She thought it was because they were throwing pebbles in the spring. That is what she always got a whipping for. As she passed to the rear, Pheenie saw a wounded Union cavalryman. Her party stopped and gave him water. Pheenie thought the man had two mouths because as he drank the water it exited his throat as quickly as he drank it.

Now, Lee saw Hill’s fine corps pouring into the Tapp clearing. Lee called out to a passing general, Samuel McGowan. McGowan’s five South Carolina regiments had broken. “My God! General McGowan is this splendid brigade of yours running like a flock of geese?” Lee shouted. “They just want a place to reform and they are ready to fight as well as ever.” Replied McGowan.

More men poured from the woods toward the field. Only 16 guns of William Poague’s battalion stood in defiance to the oncoming blue mass. The crisis had reached it zenith.

Trenches scratched out by Longstreet's men after the morning action in the field.

Trenches scratched out by Longstreet’s men after the morning action in the field.

Aides began to notice a compact formation of men confidently approaching the battlefield. The formation was in a marching column, eight men abreast. “Look out down the road. Here they come! The instant the head of his column was seen, the cries resounded on every side, ‘Here’s Longstreet. The old War Horse is up at last. It’s all right now.’”

Longstreet had started his morning about three miles short of the battlefield. With the foresight of a veteran officer he ordered the two division he had at hand on the road, side by side. Thus, when the First Corps arrived, they arrived with their full strength at hand.

A member of the 4th Texas recalled:

“Breaking instantly into a double quick movement, we pressed on toward the Plank Road. Half a mile from it, an order came from General [John] Gregg to report, with the Texas Brigade, as soon as possible to General Lee. Reaching the Plank Road, we found confusion, such as we had never witnessed before in Lee’s Army. It {Plank Road} was crowded with standing and moving wagons, horses and mules, and threading their way through the tangled mess, each with his face to the rear, were hundreds of the men of Wilcox’s and Heth’s Divisions which were being driven from their lines.”

As Longstreet’s men moved to the field they passed the Third Corps field hospitals, with, “hideous sights, fractured limbs and bloody clothing, [that] did not add much to our courage.”

Third Corps men making their way to the rear could hear Longstreet’s men calling out “Do you belong to General Lee’s Army? You don’t look like the men we left here. You are worse than Bragg’s men.”

Lee at first did not recognize the men at the head of the column. He called out to the brigade and asked who they were. The Texas Brigade was the reply. Lee knew that Longstreet had arrived indeed, for only Longstreet’s corps contained Texans (and boys from Arkansas).

Lee spoke to a general he did not recognize, Brigadier General John Gregg. Gregg had assumed command of the brigade while they were still in the west. Now Lee tasked this unknown with saving his army. “I am glad to see it.” Lee shouted over the din of battle. He admonished Gregg, “When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel-they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them. The Texas Brigade always has driven the enemy, I want you to do it now. And tell them, General that they will fight under my eye-I will watch their conduct. I want every man to know I am here with them.”

Longstreet and Lee met and shook hands. Artillerist William Dame said of Longstreet, “Like a fine lady at a party, Longstreet was often late in his arrival at the ball. But he always made a sensation and that of delight, when he got in with the grand old First Corps sweeping behind him as his train.”

Longstreet's counterattack. Map created by Hal Jesperson. www. cwmaps.com

Longstreet’s counterattack. Map created by Hal Jesperson. www. cwmaps.com

Lee’s staff officer Charles Venable lamented fifteen years after the battle, “It was superb, and my heart beats quicker to think about it even at this distance in time.”

The Texas Brigade fronted, facing north along the Turnpike, and wheeled into the field. As they passed Lee, “A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around, and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heartfelt tears.”

Robert E. Lee, his eyes set toward the front, rode toward the enemy with the Texas Brigade. After a few moments officers and men realized the gravity of the situation and forced the general to the rear. It took men taking the bridle of his horse, and a few words from Longstreet, to convince Lee to go to the rear and allow his subordinates, and men, to do their jobs. One Texan said, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.” Hell is what awaited.

Driving into Hancock’s hammer, which by now resembled a blob, rather than a compact linear formation, Gregg’s men righted the situation north of the road. To the south of the road, the brigades of Colonel John Henagan and Brigadier General Goode Bryan smashed into the Federals. “He [Lee] sat his fine gray horse ‘Traveler,’ with the cape of his black coat around his shoulders, his face flushed and full of animation.” Recalled Colonel William C. Oates, “The balls were flying around him from two directions. His eyes were on the fight then going on south of the Plank Road between Kershaw’s Division and the flanking column of the enemy.”

For more than two hours the battle raged. Finally the tide turned in favor of the southern army. But it came at a high price. Henagan’s brigade three of its six regimental commander were casualties, including the Colonel of the 3rd South Carolina James Nance. Nance was described by Sergeant Andrew Werts “{as one} of the best soldiers in Lee’s army.” (A monument to Nance sits on the south side of the Orange Plank Road, one of the few monuments on the field.)

Losses in the Texas Brigade were high as well. The 4th Texas lost 30 men killed or mortally wounded, 100 wounded or missing, out of 207 engaged.

The 3rd Arkansas lost all but two officers and 65% of its men in the Wilderness. Their Colonel, Van Manning, was blown off his feet by a shell. The shell hit him in the thigh; he was captured and sent to Fort Delaware prison.

The 5th Texas carried 188 men into the Wilderness at the end of May 6th there were 77.

The "Lee to the Rear Monument." The monument was placed in 1903 by James Power Smith, a former staff of Stonewall Jackson.  Many of the Texas dead were buried in a temporary cemetery behind this monument, and was marked by a white quartz boulder.

The “Lee to the Rear Monument.” The monument was placed in 1903 by James Power Smith, a former staff of Stonewall Jackson. Many of the Texas dead were buried in a temporary cemetery behind this monument, and was marked by a white quartz boulder.

South Carolinian Augustus Dickert claimed “here [in the Wilderness] lay the dead in greater numbers than it was ever my fortune to see, not even before the stone wall at Fredericksburg.”

Lee’s War Horse righted the ship. With his troops at hand Lee could now look at taking the offensive himself, which he did, near 11 AM. He and Longstreet launched a daring flank and frontal attack on Hancock’s sector of the army, an attack that stalled due to the wounding of Lee’s most trusted subordinate.

Yet, a counter offensive and the next 11 months of war may not have been possible had Longstreet not arrived when, and where he did. The historian of McGowan’s Brigade did not over state the importance of what happened at the Widow Tapp Farm, when he penned “Here I honestly believe the Army of Northern Virginia was saved.”

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Campaigns, Leadership--Confederate, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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