For the 20th Maine boys hurrying west from their recently constructed breastworks near the Old Wilderness Tavern in central Virginia, the slaughter began sometime after 1 p.m. on Thursday, May 5, 1864.
At noon Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin had received an order to probe westward along the Orange Turnpike with his 1st Division of the Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac. Pickets had reported increasing contact with veteran elements of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Griffin deployed his three brigades into line of battle, with the 3rd Brigade under Brig. Gen. Joseph Jackson Bartlett, in the center. In turn, Bartlett deployed his five veteran regiments into two lines:
• The 18th Massachusetts Infantry, 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, and 44th New York Infantry formed the first line, which extended from south to north (left to right) across the the Orange Turnpike. The road separated the Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers.
• The 118th Pennsylvania Infantry on the left (south) and the 20th Maine on the right (north) formed the second line. The Maine boys followed the 83rd Pennsylvania, and Major Ellis Spear anchored the right flank of the 20th Maine on the turnpike.
Sometime after 1 p.m., not long after leaving their breastworks to advance west at the double quick, the Yankee struck Confederate skirmishers. Serious shooting broke out in the tangled Wilderness; blinded by gun smoke and the thick secondary growth, officers struggled to maintain lines that “were broken” as the 1st Division pushed west, remembered Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of Co. H, 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. He repeatedly loaded and fired in the “disorganized battle,” where “every man fought for himself and by himself.
“With remorseless determination the rebels poured their deadly fire upon our men, and they, with irresistible power, pressed back the foe,” Gerrish sensed the battle’s changing fortune. Confederate troops pulled back through the woods and then “retreated across a small field that had been cleared in the heart of the great forest.”
Such man-made gaps existed in the tangled Wilderness, where subsistence farmers scratched miserable livings from fields wrested at great effort and expense from the surrounding forest. Two miles to the southeast spread fields farmed by Catharine Tapp, who along with five relatives and a hired hand lived in a 1½-story log cabin.
She leased her fields near the Orange Plank Road, and Union and Confederate troops would batter each other senseless at the Widow Tapp Farm as fighting spread across the Wilderness.
Along the Orange Turnpike, Confederates vanished into the woods bordering the western edge of Gerrish’s “small field,” planted in corn a year earlier but left fallow this spring. Corn stubble pocked the field, which spread across the Orange Turnpike.
Locals called this site “Saunders Field”; Gerrish knew not its name as “our regiment … worked its way well up to the front line,” and the 20th Maine boys “stood for a moment and looked upon that field.”
Gerrish inaccurately gauged its dimensions. In “The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War,” author John J. Pullen described Saunders Field as measuring “about 800 yards north and south” and “about four hundred yards” from east to west.. “The ground sloped down to a gully in the middle — the dry bed of a stream — and then ascended to the Confederate works on the west side,” he noted.
Today, visitors can turn southeast off Constitution Highway (Route 20) onto the Hill-Ewell Road, park, and venture along the western edge of Saunders Field. Signs warn visitors to stay off the grassy remnants of Confederate earthworks. Representing Southern artillery, a solitary howitzer points east toward the distant tree line from which the 20th Maine boys emerged that Friday afternoon.
Gerrish and his comrades “saw where the bullets were falling into the dried soil, and the little clouds of dust arising so thickly, we were reminded of heavy drops of rain falling just before the shower comes in full force,” Gerrish judged the effect with a countryman’s intimacy with nature.
But the Union boys came not as sightseers. The 20th Maine’s right flank “now rested upon the turnpike,” Gerrish noticed, and “the order was given to charge … and across the field we dashed.”
Confederate infantrymen fired repeatedly; “zip, zip, zip came the bullets on every side,” Gerrish recalled, and the 20th Maine’s formation shed bodies like an autumn-frosted tree sheds leaves in an October gale. The Maine boys “dashed up a little swell of land” on the field’s “farthest side” before plunging “under the shadow of the trees.”
In the dark shade “a red volcano yawned before us and vomited forth fire, and lead, and death,” Gerrish witnessed the carnage engulfing the Union regiments. “Our lines staggered for a moment, but with desperate resolution our men threw themselves upon the enemy’s guns.”
The resulting “conflict of giants” found “North and South arrayed against each other, man against man,” as “the sons of the Pine Tree State crossed bayonets with those who were reared under the orange groves of the far South,” Gerrish recalled the desperately personal combat.
“The rifle barrels touched, as from their muzzles they poured death into each others faces,” he remembered. “The ground shook with the roar of musketry; the forest trees were flaming with fire, and the air was loaded with death.”
Union boys hammered their Confederate counterparts; “foot after foot the rebels retreated, their gray forms mantled with fire as they went,” Gerrish watched his enemies pull back.
“Slowly and steadily we advanced, giving blows with a mailed hand as we pursued the foe,” he recalled. “What a medley of sounds, — the incessant roar of the rifle; the screaming bullets; the forest on fire; men cheering, groaning, yelling, swearing, and praying!”
The 20th Maine boys triumphantly drove their enemies before them. The battle, or at least the day, seemed won.
It was not.
Next week: The Wilderness, Part IV — Trapped
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org