Theodore Gerrish and his 20th Maine Infantry comrades knew little about strategy —
— but they certainly knew how to fight when the generals got their strategy all wrong.
Ulysses Simpson Grant intended to hustle the well-rested and -equipped Army of the Potomac through The Wilderness on Wednesday, May 4, 1864. By emerging into the open terrain farther south, his army would “turn” the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia and force Robert E. Lee to withdraw toward Richmond or fight where superior Union numbers might destroy his veterans.
But Grant’s divisions bogged down in the impenetrable Wilderness, and Lee’s Johnnies came spoiling for a brawl on Thursday, May 5.
In the 20th Maine’s camp “near the old Wilderness tavern” on the Germanna Plank Road (the modern Route 3), “we were awake at an early hour,” noted Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of Co. H. The regiment belonged to the 3rd Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Jackson Bartlett, a New Yorker fearless as any officer who ever lead men into mortal combat.
The brigade, in turn, belonged to the 1st Division commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin, and he reported to Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, who led the Fifth Corps. These officers were important; their men paid the price when Grant incorrectly figured that Lee would not attack in The Wilderness.
“It was a beautiful morning. The rising sun sent its rays of light down like golden needles through the tops of the pine trees,” Gerrish described the natural beauty surrounding the camp. Kindling fires, the 20th Maine boys boiled their coffee and “sat down to our rude breakfasts with appetites such as are unknown in lives of luxury and ease.”
Sensing an impending fight, the Maine boys dealt individually with the tension. Some men joked “about hunting for the Johnnies through the forest” and “marching down to Richmond,” Gerrish saw. “Another class more thoughtful and equally brave” lay “upon the ground silent, alone, thoughtful” and “thinking of wives and little ones far away, and wondering if they would ever see them again.”
Yet other soldiers leaned against trees and wrote letters home. “It was well that they did this,” he later realized, “for before the sun went down that day, some of them were cold in the embrace of death.”
Meanwhile, Union pickets guarding the Orange Turnpike about a mile to the west made contact with Confederate infantry about dawn. The pickets saw enemy troops “forming a line of battle” not far away and also noticed “a large cloud of dust in that direction,” according to a warning message sent to Warren.
The dust cloud indicated movement on the Orange Turnpike.
Gerrish noticed the “cavalry men” bringing into the Union Lines “the thrilling intelligence that General Lee’s army in great force was rapidly advancing.” Anticipating an attack, Griffin ordered his men to build breastworks.
“The trees were all cut down for a distance of some ten rods (165 feet) in front of the line, and their trunks trimmed of all their branches, and piled up for breastworks, from behind which we would give the enemy a warm reception,” Gerrish described the construction undertaken by the 20th Maine and the other 3rd Brigade regiments. Finishing their work before noon, the Maine boys again boiled coffee “and ate our hardtack.”
By now senior Union generals realized that Confederates threatened the Army of the Potomac’s right flank, as represented by the Fifth Corps. Grant sent orders for Gen. John Sedgwick to deploy his Sixth Corps on Warren’s right flank and Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock to anchor his Second Corps on Warren’s left flank.
And Warren should stir things up out there on the Orange Turnpike.
At 1 p.m. Griffin received orders to advance his division “and attract the attention of the enemy, while the left of our line of battle was fortifying its position,” Gerrish set the stage.
Griffin deployed his three brigades — with Bartlett’s brigade in the middle — “in two lines of battle, our regiment being in the second” line, Gerrish recalled. The brigade probed west with the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, and 44th New York Infantry forming the first line from south to north (left to right); the Orange Turnpike separated the Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers.
Forming the second line were the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry on the left and the 20th Maine on the right, located behind the 83rd Pennsylvania. Major Ellis Spear, who commanded the Maine boys that fine day, kept his right flank tucked against the turnpike.
Cheering, Griffin’s warriors charged at the double quick. “We soon encountered the enemy, and pressed his advanced lines back upon his reserve,” Gerrish remembered.
Here he noticed the thick growth that would turn the Battle of the Wilderness into a nightmare. “The ground was covered with a second growth of pine trees, stunted and covered with limbs, many of which, dry and dead, came nearly to the ground,” Gerrish recalled.
Then the armies collided, and the world exploded.
In the opening moments of the fight, the 20th Maine boys experienced the natural difficulties that would plague soldiers throughout the developing battle. Men could not see far in the tangled growth; “under cover of the dense underbrush,” Confederates fired “deadly volleys upon us,” Gerrish noted.
“The air was filled with lead. Minie bullets went snapping and tearing through the pine limbs; splinters flew in every direction; trees were completely riddled with bullets in a moment’s time,” he remembered.
Punching through human flesh, a disintegrating Minie “ball” (yet another name for the spiraled bullet) created larger exit holes than it did an entrance wound. Men fell around Gerrish, and “blood ran in torrents; death lost its terror; and men for a time seemed transformed to beings that had no fear.”
Next week: The Wilderness, Part III — Slaughter at Saunders Field
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.