Winning and Losing in the Wilderness

It’s always been a nice question as to who won (and lost) the battle of the Wilderness. Much depends on how you define the problem as well as how you define winning and losing. For those who think that Robert E. Lee won, they point to Lee fighting Grant to a standstill while inflicting heavy losses, just like he had at Chancellorsville the previous May.

However, it’s fairer to say that on the battlefield proper, Lee and Grant fought each other to a standstill. Had Hooker not withdrawn in May 1863, Lee would have attacked the Union position once more (and, given that the position was protected by earthworks, perhaps the outcome would not have been what some call Lee’s greatest victory). Thus, it may be fairer to say that the Wilderness was a tactical draw, as neither side held the advantage. Then again, if that’s true, many Civil War battles were tactical draws, with the winner and loser determined by what happened next. For example, this would be true of Antietam and Chancellorsville (as fought): it’s what happened next that leads us to pick winners and losers. One might advance the same argument for Gettysburg, although I think that it would be somewhat harder to make.

What is different about the Wilderness is that from the beginning Grant envisioned it as the first in a series of battles that together formed a campaign. Grant’s strategic objective would not be achieved in a single battle; moreover, at the time the Wilderness was fought, opportunity beckoned for Union success elsewhere (ten days later people would understand things differently). In truth, Grant had achieved what he had set out to do: he had taken the initiative, crossed the Rapidan, engaged Lee in battle, avoided defeat, and retained the initiative to fight again. Indeed, one might say that his initial instructions to Meade–that where Lee went Meade would go also–got things backwards. Where Grant went, Lee had to go, or he’d risk a major defeat.

In June 1863 Robert E. Lee launched a campaign to seek decisive battle through a series of engagements against portions of a strung-out and poorly-led foe. As we know, that did not quite turn out the way Lee had hoped it would. In Lee’s eyes, however, the campaign was the means, the battle the ultimate end. Grant reversed this in 1864: engaging in battles was a means (so was maneuver) to achieving the goal of the campaign. People might still expect a Waterloo, but Grant expected something different. Much like the Vicksburg campaign, where a series of battles served the larger ends of a campaign (and a campaign that looked far more like how Lee wanted the Pennsylvania campaign to turn out than the actual Gettysburg campaign), Grant sought to achieve certain goals in the Wilderness, and did so. When he broke off fighting, it was not because he was defeated, but because continued fighting did not serve his ends.

Lee may have fought Grant to a standstill, but that was all. The rate of attrition at the Wilderness over the long run actually favored Grant; Lee had failed to capture the initiative; and Grant advanced rather than retreated. What made Chancellorsville a Confederate victory was Hooker’s decision to retreat and regroup; what made the Wilderness a Union victory, in the end, was that Grant achieved his aims and continued to advance. The Wilderness served Grant’s ends: it did not serve Lee’s.

12 thoughts on “Winning and Losing in the Wilderness

  1. M.D. Blough May 8, 2014 / 6:40 am

    And that is why I see the Wilderness as a Union victory and not just in the Civil War standard of who left first. To me, a draw leaves both sides in the same status in relation to each other as they were before. In the Wilderness, Lee failed to stop Grant, to, as he had done to others before him, get him to pull back. Instead, Grant continues to move against the ANV into the heart of Virginia. Anything Lee does after that, even Cold Harbor, merely delays the coming of the day that Lee dreaded, being forced into being besieged in Petersburg.

  2. jfepperson May 8, 2014 / 9:04 am

    The question of how much you hurt the other guy usually plays a role in how much you prevent him from doing what he wants to do next. But in a tactical draw, which I think the Wilderness was, that becomes less important. Grant won the battle by deciding to “keep moving on.”

    • M.D. Blough May 8, 2014 / 10:48 am

      That’s why, if I HAD to pick an event as THE turning point, I’d pick when Grant makes it clear to the AOP that there will be no retreat, only more hard, vicious fighting, and they cheer him. Before, Lee was always given time to recover and recoup and Grant never let up the pressure. It wasn’t brute strength, it was persistence.

      • Jimmy Dick May 10, 2014 / 9:33 am

        I agree. I wrote a long essay on it and borrowed from Catton’s work on the event. My students picked several battles, but none of them after Gettysburg. (online course and this was before my responses to forums). After my essay and responses they opened up the discussion which of course is always interesting for the multiple perspectives. The conclusion reached was that there were several turning points, but the end result was that the war would not be won in a single battle, but in a determined effort to end the ability of the South to fight a war. It is the US History to 1865 survey course so we have to take the broad view due to the limited time.

  3. John Foskett May 8, 2014 / 11:29 am

    I think that it depends on how broadly you view the battle. I checked off “neither” because I believe that on the evening of May 6 it was a tactical draw, looked at narrowly in terms of controlling the field. Neither had been forced to leave the field to the other. If, however, one concludes that Grant’s objective was to keep the pressure on Lee and that Lee’s objective was to force Grant to pull back, Grant “won”. One could respond that this latter analysis is not about who won the battle, but about larger campaign success.

  4. Buck Buchanan May 8, 2014 / 12:59 pm

    This is how I answered the question on another website…

    My initial call would be to say the Confederates because of the casualties they caused on Meade.

    But lets go back and remember the objective. For Lee, it was hit the AOP so hard in the tangle of the Widlerness that it would be stuck there. This would allow his smaller force to keep the larger AOP at bay and keep his Rapidan River line intact. So by sundown on 6 May Lee appeared to have a tactical victory…but at what price? 11,500 casualties he could ill afford, his best general down and he had lost his ability to maneuver on his terms.

    For the Union Grant’s plan to get rapidly through the Wilderness and get to Lee in open country failed. The AOP & the IXth Corps had suffered casualties equal to Chancellorsville the year prior. However, he had breached Lee’s Rapidan line and he had accomplished what he had set out to do; namely, bring the ANV to battle and prevent it from getting away. This the AOP achieved.

    And more importantly, the Southward movement along the Brock Road instilled a long missing ingredient into the equation for the Soldiers of the AOP…along with their determination, courage and devotion to duty was added hope. The hope that by staying on the offensive their sacrifices of the previous 3 years would be worth it. It also caused Lee to realize that maybe he had underestimated the new Union commander.

    And if not for some rookie mistakes by Sheridan at Todd’s Tavern and a forest fire which kept Dick Anderson on the move, Grant & Meade could have beaten Lee to the crossroads at Spotsylvania and brought Lee to battle in more open country.

    So, Confederate tactical victory but Federal operational and strategic victory.

    • jfepperson May 8, 2014 / 5:29 pm

      Grant was not trying to “get rapidly through the Wilderness…” If you look at the orders for May 5th, they directed a march westward into the Wilderness and designated formation of a line smack dab in the middle of the Wilderness.

      • John Foskett May 9, 2014 / 7:00 am

        It was his predecessor a year earlier who was trying to sneak through before Lee figured it out.

        • jfepperson May 9, 2014 / 11:53 am

          Indeed. Grant was actually trying to ensure that Lee could not hide behind the Mine Run entrenchments. The plan called for a march slightly south of due west in order turn that line. When there were signs that Lee was moving east beyond Mine Run, the march was adjusted to be more due west to confront Lee.

  5. Al Mackey May 10, 2014 / 7:38 am

    I don’t think it matters who won or lost in the Wilderness. I don’t think Grant was putting up a tally of wins and losses. He was concerned with putting Lee’s army out of action, and I don’t believe he thought it would only take one battle. Richmond was important to him because Lee had to fight to defend it, and that meant that any threat Grant made to it had to be countered. Grant’s goal was to win the war, not to win a battle.

    • M.D. Blough May 10, 2014 / 11:32 am

      Vicksburg clearly taught Grant to think in terms of an overall campaign and not just on the outcomes of individual battles.

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