More desperate fighting has not been witnessed on this continent than that of the 5th and 6th of May. Our victory consisted in having successfully crossed a formidable stream, almost in the face of an enemy, and in getting the army together as a unit. We gained an advantage on the morning of the 6th, which, if it had been followed up, must have proven very decisive. In the evening the enemy gained an advantage; but was speedily repulsed. As we stood at the close, the two armies were relatively in about the same condition to meet each other as when the river divided them. But the fact of having safely crossed was a victory.
Deep in the blazing Wilderness, he faced a decision. Far from the telegraph lines but still fully away of the weighty responsibility and anxious waiting in the Federal capital, Grant pondered his choices. Precedent pointed to a retreat – a typical response for drawn battles or thrashings experienced by the Army of the Potomac.
However, Grant had already determined to fight it out. The press had dubbed him “Unconditional Surrender” Grant after his successes in the West and he could not arrange new terms without pressure on the Confederates and dogged victories secured by hard fighting.
Charles Dana explained: “The previous history of the Army of the Potomac had been to advance and fight a battle, then either to retreat or lie still, and finally go into winter quarters. Grant did not intend to proceed that way. As soon as he had fought a battle and had not routed Lee, he meant to move nearer to Richmond and fight another battle.”
However, the question loomed. How would the Union boys respond to a new advance after their multi-day struggle in the Wilderness? They had spent the last few weeks eyeing the newly promoted lieutenant general who had arrived from the West. They had wondered how Grant would fare when he faced the legendary and infamous Robert E. Lee who had sent so many other army commanders scurrying in retreat.
Grant issued orders that set the tone:
May 7, 1864, 6.30 A.M.
MAJOR-GENERAL MEADE, Commanding A. P.
Make all preparations during the day for a night march to take position at Spottsylvania C. H. with one army corps, at Todd’s Tavern with one, and another near the intersection of the Piney Branch and Spottsylvania road with the road from Alsop’s to Old Court House. (excerpt)
He was not planning a retreat and the orders clearly detailed an advance, continuing with instructions for the corps’ marching roads and medical preparations.
The Battle of the Wilderness cost the Army of the Potomac over 17,000 casualties. However, the common soldiers rallied and responded to Grant’s orders. Charles Dana analyzed the happenings: “As the army began to realize that we were really moving south, and at that moment were probably much nearer Richmond than was our enemy, the spirits of men and officers rose to the highest pitch of animation. On every hand I heard the cry: ‘On to Richmond!’ ”
General Warren’s V Corps started the march toward Spotsylvania Court House. Unlike other commanders, Grant and Meade moved with their troops. In post-war years, Grant described the scene:
Warren’s march carried him immediately behind the works where Hancock’s command lay on the Brock Road. With my staff and a small escort of cavalry I preceded the troops. Meade with his staff accompanied me. The greatest enthusiasm was manifested by Hancock’s men as we passed by. No doubt it was inspired by the fact that the movement was south. It indicated to them that they had passed through the “beginning of the end” in the battle just fought. The cheering was so lusty that the enemy must have taken it for a night attack. At all events it drew from him a furious fusillade of artillery and musketry, plainly heard but not felt by us.
The Civil War reached a literal turning point that night when the troops and the generals reached the intersection of Brock Road and the Orange Plank Road. There, General Grant turned south. He had not won a decisive victory, but he would not retreat. Instead, he pressed forward, following the Army of Northern Virginia and aiming for Richmond.
The soldiers had recognized a different spirit of command and determination in their lieutenant general. Orders had offered hope. However, as he turned his horse’s head to the south, the troops knew there would be no retreat and greater sacrifice and the ultimate goal of victory waited ahead on a long campaign road.
Want to visit the intersection of Brock Road and Orange Plank Road? In addition to the history connected to Grant’s turn south, this area was heavily fought over during the Battle of the Wilderness.
Roads in the Wilderness offered passage through the dense trees and undergrowth and the practical way to move armies. Intersections became key places to reach, secure, defend, or capture.
On the first day of the battle – May 5, 1864 – Union soldiers led by General George W. Getty hurried to the intersection, arriving before the General A.P. Hill’s Confederates. Earthworks were constructed and fought over in the next hours with attacks and counterattacks. Fires blazed as the undergrowth ignited, and many casualties died in the flames.
The fighting seesawed back and forth for two days and ended in a stalemate when Union Gen. U. S. Grant ordered his troops onward to Richmond. Thousands of bodies were left behind and the landscape resembled a mangled scorched hell. The scene the V Corps marched through and Grant witnessed in the fire-lit darkness had a look of fiery hell.
Today, Brock Road and Orange Plank Road intersection is preserved as part of Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park. You’ll find a small parking area and several historical markers and monuments nearby, related to the battle. A short trail loops through the words, focusing on interpreting the Wilderness fight that occurred here. Take time to remember Grant, his decision to fight on, and the decisive and visual moment when he turned south at this intersection.
If you are following the National Park Service’s driving tour, it’s Stop #8. There is no admission fee at this site and it is open from dawn to dusk.
Intersection Coordinates: N 38° 18.041 W 077° 42.566
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, Chapter LI. (Accessed at Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4367/old/orig4367-h/p4.htm#ch51)
Dana, Charles. Recollections of the Civil War. (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996).