May 4, 1864. In Virginia, Grant’s army of 120,000, began the massive, coordinated Overland Campaign, advancing toward Richmond to engage Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, now numbering 64,000. Thus began a war of attrition that would include major battles at the Wilderness (May 5-6), Spotsylvania (May 8-12), and Cold Harbor (June 1-3).
Sherman Begins His March
And in the west, Sherman advanced toward Atlanta with 100,000 men to engage Joseph E. Johnston’s 60,000-strong Army of Tennessee. Grant had ordered Sherman to “move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.” From Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the army had been since capturing the key railroad junction in November, Sherman’s army essentially followed the railroad, pushing Johnston’s army back, all the way to Atlanta, Georgia, an important hub for the Confederacy.
Private Vividly Remembers Fighting in the Wilderness Amidst Skulls and Bones of the Old Battlefield
“In the evening, after supper, I walked with a comrade to the spot where [a year earlier Union] General Pleasanton had massed his guns and saved the army under Hooker from destruction, by checking the impetuous onslaught of Stonewall Jackson’s Virginian infantry . . .. We walked to and fro over the old battle-field, looking at bullet-scarred and canister-riven trees. The men who had fallen in that fierce fight had apparently been buried where they fell, and buried hastily. Many polished skulls lay on the ground. Leg bones, arm bones, and ribs could be found without trouble. Toes of shoes, and bits of faded, weather-worn uniforms, and occasionally a grinning, bony fleshless face peered through the low mound that had been hastily thrown over these brave warriors. As we wandered to and fro . . . many infantry-men joined us. It grew dark, and we built a fire at which to light our pipes . . .. We sat on long, low mounds. . . . One veteran told the story of the burning of some of the Union soldiers who were wounded during Hooker’s fight around the Wilderness, as they lay helpless in the woods. It was a ghastly and awe-inspiring tale. . . . This man finished his story by saying shudderingly:
“‘This region,’ indicating the woods beyond us with a wave of his arm, ‘is an awful place to fight in. The utmost extent of vision is about one hundred yards. Artillery cannot be used effectively. The wounded are liable to be burned to death. I am willing to take my chances of getting killed, but I dread to have a leg broken and then to be burned slowly; and these woods will surely be burned if we fight here. I hope we will get through this chapparal without fighting,’ . . . As we sat silently smoking and listening to the story, an infantry soldier who had, unobserved by us, been prying into the shallow grave he sat on with his bayonet, suddenly rolled a skull on the ground before us, and said in a deep, low voice: ‘That is what you are all coming to, and some of you will start toward it to-morrow. . . . ‘”
Private Wilkeson continued: “On the second day of the battle of the Wilderness, . . . I saw more men killed and wounded than I did before or after in the same time. I knew but few of the men in the regiment in whose ranks I stood; but I learned the Christian names of some of them. The man who stood next to me on my right was called Will. He was cool, brave, and intelligent. In the morning, when the Second Corps was advancing and driving Hill’s soldiers slowly back, I was flurried. He noticed it, and steadied my nerves by saying, kindly: ‘Don’t fire so fast. This fight will last all day. Don’t hurry. Cover your man before you pull your trigger. Take it easy, my boy, take it easy, and your cartridges will last the longer.’ This man fought effectively. During the day I had learned to look up to this excellent soldier, and lean on him. Toward evening, as we were being slowly driven back to the Brock Road by Longstreet’s men, we made a stand. I was behind a tree firing, with my rifle barrel resting on the stub of a limb. Will was standing by my side, but in the open. He, with a groan, doubled up and dropped on the ground at my feet. He looked up at me. His face was pale. He gasped for breath a few times, and then said, faintly: ‘That ends me. I am shot through the bowels.’ I said: ‘Crawl to the rear. We are not far from the intrenchments along the Brock Road.’ I saw him sit up, and indistinctly saw him reach for his rifle, which had fallen from his hands as he fell. Again I spoke to him, urging him to go to the rear. He looked at me and said impatiently: ‘I tell you that I am as good as dead. There is no use in fooling with me. I shall stay here.’ Then he pitched forward dead, shot again and through the head. We fell back before Longstreet’s soldiers and left Will lying in the windrow of dead men. . . .”
Frank Wilkeson, Turned Inside Out, Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac (1997), pp. 49-51; 197-199
Underage Solider Volunteered in 1864, Civil War Book of Days, Vermont Humanities Council
Recollections of a Private Solider in the Army of the Potomac, E-book, Internet Archive
– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter A. Gilbert