14 thoughts on “Who Won the Battle of the Wilderness?

  1. Shek May 7, 2014 / 7:40 pm

    At the tactical level, I’d say it was a draw. The AOP had more casualties in absolute terms, but the ANV had more in relative terms. At the strategic level, neither side found the decisive battle they were looking for, so there were no objectives to check off. I guess you might possibly score this in favor of Grant since through mere attrition, the Confederacy couldn’t sustain higher casualty rates for long. However, it would take several more weeks before I think you could argue strategic progress on this particular account. At the operational level, it was a clear Union victory. Grant had seized the initiative, and Lee would have to dance to Grant’s tune. This is why I’d score it a victory for Grant, as it set the tone for the campaign to come.

  2. SF Walker May 8, 2014 / 1:46 pm

    I’d pretty much agree with Shek’s answer–the Battle of the Wilderness was a tactical draw; Grant crushed a Confederate flank on the first day and got one of his own flanks rolled up on the second. It was, however, a strategic Union victory, as Grant advanced southward after disengaging. The AOP lost about 17,500 men and Lee lost anywhere from 8,500 to 11,000 or so, depending on whose estimates one cares to believe. The problem for the AOP was that its losses here were largely sustained by the army’s good units–Hancock’s II Corps, Warren’s V Corps, and Sedgwick’s VI Corps to be precise.

    On the eve of the Wilderness, Grant had about 80,000 battle-tested, reliable troops out of his total strength of around 120,000. Since his losses were mostly subtracted from the former figure (including some very competent Union commanders from those units) I’d say this battle hurt Grant’s offensive power as much as or more than Lee’s; it increased the percentage of green and/or poorly-led troops in the Army of the Potomac. Further losses among veteran Union regiments at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor would make this problem worse. It’s also true that Lee lost mostly veteran soldiers in this battle as well.

    Grant would wait until the Battle of Five Forks for his first clear victory over Lee, but he would end up winning the war, so I’d say the AOP managed to remain as effective in combat as it needed to be.

  3. Rob Baker May 9, 2014 / 5:08 am

    I’d say tactically it is a Confederate victory. Strategically it was a Union victory.

    At the end of the battle, Lee held the field and inflicted more casualties than Grant (although if we look at percentages of casualties, Lee took the heaviest losses exacerbated by the fact that he could not replace them). Strategically however, this was only a step in his grand strategy of staying on the offensive and force the Confederate Army into subsequent battles that they could not sustain. I guess if are to argue who had the most victorious day, we must argue what matters most, tactics or grand strategy. Clausewitz or Liddel?

  4. Ron V. Killian January 22, 2016 / 11:56 am

    It is clear: the battle was a draw. It is stated in every account, article, survey, book, review ,etc on this battle.

  5. James F. Epperson January 23, 2016 / 10:26 am

    It was a Union victory. The Federals had four objectives:

    1. Cross the Rapidan;
    2. Bring the enemy to battle;
    3. Destroy the enemy army;
    4. Attain a position from which the campaign could be continued.

    They achieved 3 out of these 4, and the only one they didn’t achieve is the one that was almost never achieved in the war. In fact, given the superiority of the Federal position after the battle, it might be called a decisive victory.

    • SF Walker January 23, 2016 / 12:45 pm

      How was the Federal position after the battle superior? Lee still held the interior lines, plus his army was still between Grant and Richmond and in supply. Grant was in a position to continue the campaign, but I don’t see any other real advantages he had at that point.

      • James F. Epperson January 25, 2016 / 9:29 am

        “How was the Federal position after the battle superior?”—Grant had the shorter road to Spotsylvania. If not for command screw-ups (mostly by Sheridan) the Federals would have gotten there first.

  6. Tyrus07 January 23, 2016 / 12:38 pm

    I vote for General Lee. First of all, I am at the South. Secondly, I think that Lee won at The Wilderness in the same way that Sir Douglas Haig won at First Ypres (Wipers). Yes heavy casualties in the BEF, the Imperial German Army was forced to shift the focus to another part of the front (Verdun), they were tactically defeated by the BEF, and the drive to Paris (Richmond) was stopped. As for attrition, consider the US Grant was forced to strip Washington of troops…it was overloaded anyway…by the time he got to Cold Harbor (Red Leg Infantry=artillery units from the DOC converted to infantry). Recommend new book by TJ Stiles, “Custer’s Trials”. I had no idea that when he rode off to the Little Bighorn that Custer was also running away from a margin call on Wall Street. A few days after he died, the collection agent showed up on Mrs. Custer’s front porch wanting payment.

      • Tyrus07 January 24, 2016 / 1:41 pm

        No, forced to shift. Defeated on that front. Anybody but Grant, Sherman, or possibly George Thomas would have called it quits and gone back.

      • Tyrus07 January 24, 2016 / 1:46 pm

        Change the question: Who won the Overland Campaign?

        Another possible link for you
        to set up: Was McClellan trying to duplicate the campaign that he observed in the Crimea when he set out on the Peninsula Campaign? Richmond as Sebastopol and Malakof Redoubt?

  7. bob carey January 23, 2016 / 1:26 pm

    Grant won. The fact that the AoP continued it’s movement toward Richmond is all one needs as proof.

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