On this day (May 6) in 1864, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s 101,000-man Army of the Potomac and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s 61,000-man Army of Northern Virginia fought the first of what would be a bloody series of encounters between these two now famous antagonists.
Grant, who had been called east in early March 1864, promoted to lieutenant general, and ordered to take overall command of the Union army, was then ordered by President Abraham Lincoln to commence what officially was designated as the 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against Lee.
This 1864 campaign was to be part of a coordinated offensive strategy across a number of southern states. Grant was to engage Lee in Virginia, while Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was ordered to invade the heart of the Confederacy, and Gen. Philip Sheridan was to engage and defeat the “rebels” in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and in the new state of West Virginia.
Grant chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, although Gen. George Gordon Meade retained formal command of that army.
The battle fought this Friday and Saturday (May 6-7) was designated as the Battle of the Wilderness because it was waged in a wilderness area of some 12 miles by 8 miles of dense forest and foliage near the previous battle sites of the Union defeats at Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862) and Chancellorsville (May 2-4, 1863), both in Spotsylvania County, Va.
The Battle of the Wilderness was the first of four bloody encounters fought in May and June 1864 between Grant and Lee, and was the beginning of Grant’s “war of attrition,” which was designed to destroy Lee’s increasingly depleted army, occupy the Confederate capital at Richmond, and finally end the increasingly unpopular, bloody Civil War.
These four battles were: 1. Battle of the Wilderness (May 6-7); 2. Battle of Spotsylvania (May 8-12); the Battle of Cold Harbor (June 1-3); and the Battle of Petersburg (June 15-18). In all of these encounters, Union casualties usually exceeded those of the Confederates so that some consider them Confederate victories. For example, in the Battle of the Wilderness, Union casualties were, by best estimates, 17,666 (2,246 killed, 12,037 wounded, and 3,383 captured or missing) while Confederate losses were just more than 11,000 (1,495 killed, 7,928 wounded, and 1,702 captured or missing).
Union casualty rates were so high that many northern newspapers were beginning to refer to the Union commander as “Butcher Grant.” Although the Battle of the Wilderness is sometimes described as a tactical Confederate victory (i.e., Lee survived to fight on until April 1865), it was clearly a strategic victory for the Union army.
Although Union casualty figures usually were considerably higher than that of the Confederates, the federal losses represented a smaller percentage of the total number of fighting men engaged than that suffered by Lee’s smaller army.
Also, most importantly, Union losses were readily replaced, whereas the Confederate losses were irreplaceable.
Interestingly, for the entire Civil War (1861 to 1865), Union losses far exceeded those of the Confederates. The best estimates of Union losses, compiled by the U.S. War Department, are about 360,000 killed or mortally wounded. Of those killed, some 67,000 actually died in battle. Disease was responsible for some 224,000 Union deaths, while about 30,000 died while prisoners of war and some 28,000 from causes not known or stated.
Therefore the best estimate of total Union casualties from all causes is about 642,000. The total number of Confederate casualties (deaths, wounded, and missing) is less accurately estimated to be about 478,000.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.