With Grant in command: Delaware’s gallantry in The Wilderness

Having sustained nearly 70,000 casualties during the nearly six hard-fought weeks of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 to July 14, 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac were not anxious to collide again anytime soon. Rather they kept their distance as the Yankees cautiously pursued the retreating Rebels from Pennsylvania back into Virginia.

Nothing more than a brief clash at Bristoe Station, Va., in October 1863 interrupted a combat hiatus that lasted well into 1864. That lull would end when President Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant — who had captured Vicksburg and gained a victory at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee — to the rank of lieutenant general and appointed him general-in-chief of the entire Union army.

On May 4, Grant ordered Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to cross the Rapidan River and move the Army of the Potomac through the heart of Virginia, in the general direction of Richmond. Gen. Robert E. Lee promptly responded by leading the Army of Northern Virginia from their encampment near Orange Court House to intercept Meade’s forces as they marched through what the “Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War” describes as the dismal area of “vines, brambles, scrub oak, and pine trees” known as The Wilderness, a few miles west of Fredericksburg.

Thus began a nine-month-long embrace of these two imposing forces that resulted in a staggering number of casualties, especially for the Union troops.

It was the first time that Grant, who accompanied and strategically guided the army, had faced Lee and, as Bruce Catton described in “Never Call Retreat,” “They simply looked for each other, and as soon as they found each other, they began to fight.” No cautious sparring for these aggressive commanders.

As part of the Union Second Corps, the 1st and 2nd Delaware Regiments were engaged in the heart of this continual conflict. Lt. Col. Daniel Woodall’s 1st Delaware, along with the other regiments of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, fought the enemy in a dense thicket for two days and suffered a number of losses.

James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” described The Wilderness as a place “where soldiers could rarely see the enemy, units blundered the wrong way in the directionless jungle, friendly troops fired on each other by mistake, gaps in the opposing line went unexploited because unseen, while muzzle flashes and exploding shells set the underbrush on fire to threaten wounded men with a fiery death.”

Cited in the 1st Delaware’s regimental history for bravery and gallantry in The Wilderness were the mortally wounded Lt. Charles J. Steel and the seriously wounded 1st Lt. James Kettlewood. The roster of enlisted men who were killed outright or later died from wounds included a litany of names: Webb, McKee, Shaw, Howard, Chaffins, Daily, Carey, Rhoads, Thornton, Foreaker, McColen, Cox, Aurtisto, Weigle, White and Berwagner.

On May 5, Col. William P. Baily’s 2nd Delaware, according to John E. Pickett’s regimental history, “was anchoring the far left [flank] of [Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott] Hancock’s [Second] Corps [line].” The regiment had earned its commander’s trust “due to its fine reputation for steadiness under fire and its aggressive ability in skirmishing with the enemy.”

The 2nd Delaware fought in support of the 1st Delaware operating in the same vicinity. Together, the 1st and 2nd Regiments “pushed [Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P.] Hill’s men back a considerable distance.” The next day the Delaware troops found themselves in the path when “the Confederates made a determined charge into the Federal lines...”

When the Rebels successfully broke through a gap in the Union lines, the 1st Delaware, with the 2nd Regiment in support, helped stop the enemy advance and were able to push them back into the woods. Although no record exists of its losses, the 2nd Delaware undoubtedly suffered casualties during this fighting.

“The Wilderness” would be embroidered on the banners of these two hard-fighting Delaware regiments. These flags were already proudly adorned with the names of now-famous battlefields, including the Peninsula, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

Additional sacrifice would soon be asked of these steadfast Delawareans. Despite the bitter losses in The Wilderness, Grant ordered his forces to turn the flank of Lee’s position and march south toward Spotsylvania — the site of their next encounter.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker, and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.