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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Wilderness, Battle of the


Date(s): May 5-June 12, 1864
Location: Wilderness, Virginia (Google Map)
Other name(s): the most important engagements occurred at Parker's Store, Laurel Hill, Todd's Tavern, Germanna Ford, Spotsylvania (see separate entry), North Anna, Jericho Ford, Hanover Court House, Bethesda Church, Pamunky, and Cold Harbor.
Campaign: Grant's Overland Campaign (May-June 1864)
Outcome: Inconclusive


A series of bitterly contested engagements at locations between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, produced more than 80,000 casualties, no clear victor, and led Union leaders to lay siege to Petersburg, Virginia.

Early in May 1864, more than 100,000 Union troops entered Virginia and advanced toward the Confederate capital at Richmond. Approximately 64,000 Confederate troops tried to block their way. Over eight weeks, the two sides clashed multiple times across a rural district known as the Wilderness, including one solid month of continuous fighting.

The initial battle of the Wilderness on May 5-7, 1864, produced nearly 30,000 casualties without giving either side a clear victory. The next day, the two-week-long Battle of Spotsylvania began (see separate entry) that killed and wounded approximately the same number of men and yielded a similarly inconclusive outcome. With hardly a break, the two sides then fought for three days at the North Anna River on May 23–26 with no clear victor.

Finally, from May 31-June 12 (the most significant fighting occurring on June 3) more than 160,000 men clashed again at Cold Harbor. It resulted in a Confederate victory and 17,500 casualties. Union forces then dashed toward Petersburg, but Confederate troops managed to interpose themselves and dig in for a siege (see separate entry, Petersburg, Siege of).

Wisconsin's Role

The 2nd, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 36th Wisconsin Infantry regiments and Company G of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters (Berdan's Sharpshooters) took part in most of the battles.

In the opening engagement on May 5-7, the 2nd and 7th Wisconsin Infantry regiments were in the thick of the fighting and the 5th Wisconsin Infantry lost 142 of its men. On May 12, a company of the 5th Wisconsin Infantry stormed and seized a Confederate artillery battery at Spotsylvania, turned cannons sideways, and devastated the adversaries. On May 31, the newly raised 36th Wisconsin Infantry went into battle, just three weeks after leaving Madison. The next day, 240 of its soldiers charged an enemy entrenchment and 140 were either killed or wounded. The 36th lost a total of 400 men, including its commander, Colonel Frank Haskell.

Learn more

Read about the experiences of Wisconsin units in William D. Love’s “Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion” (Chicago, 1866), pages 933-944. Read a chronological account of the battles and details of each unit's participation in the regimental history chapters in E.B. Quiner’s “Military History of Wisconsin” (Madison, 1866), pages 284-290.

View battle maps

View related images

View original documents about the following engagements

Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864

Spotsylvania, May 8-21, 1864

North Anna River, May 23–26, 1864

Cold Harbor, May 31-June 12, 1864

[Source: Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefields (Washington, 1993); Estabrook, C. Records and Sketches of Military Organizations (Madison, 1914); Love, W. Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion (Madison, 1866).]
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