On May 5, 1864, the Battle of The Wilderness opened Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign and was the first confrontation between Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The battle began in Saunders Field as Union troops were trying to break free of the dense undergrowth of the 70-square mile region of second-growth forest in Spotsylvania County locally known as 'The Wilderness.'

The original hardwood trees of The Wilderness had been cut down to provide fuel for antebellum ironworks. The thick bramble of the second-growth forest made it difficult to maneuver or even see the enemy and added to the horror of the fighting as muzzle fire ignited rapidly spreading fires in the dense undergrowth and deadfall. Lee wanted to push the Yankees back into the dense forest, however, where their superior numbers in men and artillery would not be such an advantage. Two days of brutal fighting left fields of unburied dead in a charred Wilderness. The battle was a draw, but Grant did not retreat like his predecessors. Instead, he pulled his troops out of their trenches and began a night march to Spotsylvania. Anticipating his move, Lee followed.

Visiting the Wilderness Battlefield

Your best bet to tour Wilderness Battlefield is to begin at the exhibit shelter on Route 20 in Locust Grove located about six miles west of Chancellorsville. Here, the Gordon Flank Attack Trail is an easy, well-marked 2-mile loop trail through the dense forest known as 'The Wilderness.' Interpretive signs and markers guide the way, and a trail brochure is available in the exhibit area. One-third of the casualties of the Battle of The Wilderness occurred here, and many of the battle trenches and earthworks remain visible.

wilderness battlefield gordon flank attack trail new york volunteers monument

A monument to the New York Volunteers lies along the Gordon Flank Attack Trail at Wilderness Battlefield.

wilderness battlefield gordon flank attack trail dead fall

The dense second-growth forest and 'deadfall' of tangled fallen trees and brush made it difficult for soldiers to maneuver or even see the enemy during the battle.

For your next stop, turn right out of the parking lot at the exhibit shelter, and make the first left onto Hill Ewell Drive where there is a scenic, eight-stop driving tour with interpretive signs and short hiking trails. The first stop at Saunders Field features an artillery display and original Confederate earthworks. Trenches were constructed by troops upon orders to 'dig in.' The trenches provided shelter against enemy fire for both the soldiers and their artillery. The Confederate trenches at Saunders Field are among the hundreds of miles of Civil War trenches and fortifications that remain visible throughout Virginia to this day.

wilderness battlefield saunders field confederate trenches forest

The Saunders Field stop on the Wilderness Battlefield driving tour features well-preserved Confederate entrenchments.

At the next stop, you can see the remnants of the Higgerson farm where old Mrs. Higgersen taunted the Yankees from her front porch, both during their march to battle and upon their subsequent retreat. Further down the road is the site of Widow Tapp Farm. Widow Tapp leased her land, owned no slaves, housed five of her relatives in a modest log cabin, and made a subsistence living from corn and a few pigs and cows.

wilderness battlefield tapp field trees trail

The Tapp family took refuge at a nearby Confederate hospital while the battle raged over their farm. Today an easy, scenic walking trail with interpretive signs describes the dramatic events that saved the Confederates at this modest farm.

When Union forces attacked A.P. Hill's Corps along the Orange Plank Road, the Confederates fell back to Widow Tapp Field while Longstreet brought up additional artillery. With his usual intensity, Robert E. Lee attempted to lead the counter attack against the Union Army himself. With cries of "Lee to the rear!," the Texas Brigade insisted that the General remove himself from the battlefield. Lee would not retreat until they grabbed the rains of his horse and pulled him away. Tapp Field is the site of one of several 'Lee to the Rear' incidents that occurred during the Civil War in Virginia.

After Tapp Field, there are two more stops on the Wilderness Driving Tour, then you can follow the National Park Service Map to Spotsylvania and then the Stonewall Jackson Ambulance Ride to Guinea Station. The route takes you through Spotsylvania Battlefield and ends at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. This scenic route is a pleasant driving tour and is popular with runners and cyclists. Operated by the National Park Service and staffed by park rangers, the Stonewall Jackson Shrine is open daily to the public for self-guided tours of the grounds and building.

West Point graduate, Mexican War hero, Virginia Military Institute instructor, and Brigadier General Stonewall Jackson died in an outbuilding on the Chandler Plantation where he was taken to recover from his wounding at Chancellorsville. Located about 27 miles south of The Wilderness Battlefield in Guinea Station, the building was dubbed the 'Stonewall Jackson Shrine' by the railroad that acquired the property and subsequently donated it to the National Park Service. Jackson lasted six days here, and then died of pneumonia.

Ellwood Manor, located about 1 mile east of the Wilderness Battlefield Exhibit Shelter on Route 20, served as a headquarters and hospital for both sides during the Civil War and is perhaps most well known as the final resting place of Stonewall Jackson's amputated arm. Jackson was shot three times by Confederate musket fire during a night reconnaissance at Chancellorsville. Surgeons amputated Jackson's arm at Wilderness Tavern (which had been converted to a hospital) and removed it to Ellwood for burial in the family cemetery. The Friends of Wilderness Battlefield conduct tours of the house, and the grounds, including the burial site, are open to visitors.

Pictured at the very top: The National Park Service driving tour of Wilderness Battlefield follows the Confederate Line along Hill Ewell Drive. Well-preserved Confederate entrenchments are visible along the tour.

Visit Civil War Trust and National Park Service for battle details and information about the preservation of this battlefield.