The Union army continued marching through the Wilderness on the morning of May 5th. The Confederate Second Corps under Richard S. Ewell advanced to strike the column, and skirmishing broke out in Saunders Field, a rare open area in the thick woods of the Wilderness. Grant's goal was to destroy Lee's army, so he had told his generals, “"If any opportunity presents itself of pitching into a part of Lee's army, do so without giving time for disposition.” This is just what the Federals did. Their advance halted and Gouverneur Warren, commander of the V Corps, deployed to attack the greycoats.
The battle soon
began to demonstrate the distinctive of the Overland Campaign. As
Ewell's men arrived, instead of driving towards the enemy they began
digging breastworks. As Warren deployed his men, he also did not
attack, as he saw the Confederate position extended beyond his flank.
He wanted to wait until Sedgwick brought up his VI Corps, but Meade
was impatient. It had already taken a long time to deploy in the
thick forest, and so he ordered Warren to attack.
As the Federals advanced at 1 pm, they found it impossible to stay aligned in the difficult terrain. They lines were already thrown into disarray when they reached Saunders Field. They reformed as best they could at the edge of the field, and then charged toward Ewell's men. They were met by heavy fire, and the attack was unsuccessful. As Warren had feared, the overlapped Union flank was hit by enfilading fire, and Romeyn Ayres' brigade on that flank had to take cover. Joseph Bartlett's brigade made some progress, and secured a portion of the Confederate line, but without support he was forced into retreat. The famed Iron Brigade attacked, but it was unusually repulsed. Warren ordered artillery to move into Saunders Field to support his infantry, but the Confederates counterattacked after the retreating Federals, and were able to capture the guns with hand to hand fighting. At 3 pm, after Warren's attacks had been driven back, Sedgwick arrived on his right. He attacked Ewell's lines, but after an hour of back and forth fighting both sides pulled back and dug in.
Several miles to
the south, the Confederate Third Corps under A. P. Hill had also
struck the Federal lines, moving along the Orange Plank Road,
parallel to the Turnpike, down which Ewell had attacked. Hill was not
able to achieve a surprise like Ewell. He pressed forward,
skirmishing heavily with Union cavalry who were trying to defend the
intersection with the Brock Road. Just as the Confederates were able
to capture it, the Federals were reinforced by the division of George
Getty, which stopped the southern advance with a volley.
|Artillery in the Wilderness|
Although thus far the Confederate advance had not been unsuccessful, there was a major flaw in their dispositions. There was a large gap between Ewell and Hill which, if they could overcome the terrain, the Federals could exploit to great advantage. The point was driven home when blue skirmishers appeared on the edge of field of the Widow Tapp house, where Lee had established his headquarters. The Confederate generals made it to safety, but it was clear that this problem needed to be addressed.