On the morning of May 6, 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps launched a massive assault against A. P. Hill’s Third Corps along the Orange Plank Road. Ulysses S. Grant hoped the assault would damage the Confederates so severely that the arrival of James Longstreet’s First Corps would make no difference.
It didn’t quite work. One of the reasons was the appearance of Robert E. Lee at the Widow Tapp farm, seeking to rally his men before directing the Texas Brigade into action.
This simple rendering stands in contrast to this recent portrayal by Don Trojani:
That Lee felt compelled to risk his own life (and to use his example to rally his men) suggests what a near-run thing it was after all. Then again, so was Longstreet’s counterattack, which, as Hancock later admitted, rolled up his corps like a wet blanket and drove it all the way back to the Brock Road … in part, as it turned out, due to Hancock’s own mistaken orders as well as to the slow arrival of Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps.
Again, however, fate stepped in in the form of friendly fire in the Wilderness–this time badly wounding Longstreet.
I believe that the swing of fortune here … from the Confederates teetering on the brink of defeat to having their best chance at victory snatched away by misfortune … offers a somewhat different view of the Wilderness as a simple slugfest in the undergrowth. Yes, it was a battle between two heavyweights, but each side had its moments, only none of them were enough.
Moreover, these events remind us of the importance of one man, one leader, at the most critical moment. Lee placed everything on the line at the Tapp House, and in risking all, nearly lost everything. Longstreet’s brilliant counterattack, utilizing the roadbed of an unfinished rail road to outflank the Yankees, proved almost as impressive as did his assaults at Second Manassas, July 2 at Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. In the end, however, he came up just short, due in some part to the volley that felled him … a volley, I would argue, that proved more disastrous for the Confederacy at the Wilderness than did the one that hit Stonewall Jackson the year before (in terms of the outcome at Chancellorsville).
UPDATE: Someone agrees with me.