The 96th Pennsylvania in the Wilderness: May 5, 1864

As the 96th pressed through the tangled thickets that made up the Wilderness, the sights and smells of battle were all around. Corporal Keiser wrote of the scene, “we advanced… through the awefullest brush, briers, grape vines I ever was in. We soon met the enemy and the battle of the Wilderness began.”1 

This terrain made up the battlefield in the Wilderness (NARA)

As Federal units plunged headlong onto the narrow roads leading through the Wilderness, it quickly became apparent they were not alone. A line of Confederate defensive positions were placed across the Union army’s marching routes, leading to hot clashes between rival picket lines. The thick brush on either side of the roadway dropped visibility to a few feet, making organized attacks incredibly difficult. In these conditions, the armies of North and South clashed through May 5-6, in one of the most notorious struggles of the entire Civil War. 

Colonel Emory Upton (LOC)


Rousted from bed with marching orders at six in the morning, the 96th Pennsylvania moved with the other regiments of the Colonel Emory Upton’s brigade of the VI Corps. The 5th Maine, 121st New York, and 95th Pennsylvania, along with Lt. Colonel Peter Lessig’s 96th PA, all broke camp and marched onto a small farm road. VI Corps commander John Sedgwick directed the brigades of his second division, to which Upton’s Brigade was attached, to march this route to reinforce a neighboring unit’s flank.2 

In the meantime, confusion reigned within the command structure of Grant and Meade. The Wilderness was doing them no favor; their couriers carrying orders through the underbrush often got lost. It became obvious to Union headquarters that Lee intended to make a stand in the wooded areas near the Rapidan crossings. To this, Grant shortly replied, “That is all right.”3

Fighting broke out in the area along the Orange Turnpike, with dozens of regiments becoming engaged along a narrow front obscured by the dark woods. The fighting along the line was ferocious during the morning and mid-afternoon of the 5th, with one soldier referring to the “suspense and dread and hope which possess men during such minutes.”4


Around 11 a.m., Upton’s brigade was ordered to utilize the small farm road from the Germanna Ford to come to the aid of General Warren’s V Corps already heavily engaged with the enemy along the Turnpike. The 96th Pennsylvania led the flank march, but an officer from the trailing 95th regiment led the way. When the march came to a small knoll along the route, a picket line of Rebel soldiers fired on the front ranks, killing the officer. The regiments of Upton’s brigade quickly occupied the position on the small hill, about 200 yards in advance of the V Corps’ right flank, thereby shoring up the tenuous Union position near the Turnpike.5 

Company G, 96th PA witnessed the worst of the fighting during the afternoon hours of the first day in the Wilderness. Among the first squads to occupy the position near Warren’s right, Confederates still held positions in the woods directly in front. One man, Private Daniel Williams of Wiconisco, was captured during the confusing moments, and Henry Keiser only barely escaped. “We managed to get away in the thick brush,” he wrote.6

Through the afternoon, charge and counter-charge poured from both lines of men. To the right of the 96th Pennsylvania, the 15th New Jersey regiment felt the weight of the Confederate attacks. Their historian remembered, “It was impossible to see the enemy; and though we peered into the thick woods, we were fighting invisible foeman.”7 

VI Corps at work in the woods on May 5, 1864. (LOC)

Along the line, men furiously attempted to throw up entrenchments that could create some measure of protection from the glaring musketry coming from the “invisible foeman.” The 96th Pennsylvania’s position was especially perilous. Attached to the extreme left flank of Upton’s brigade, they had no troops on their open flank. About 200 yards behind and to the left stood Warren’s V Corps, but this provided more trouble than protection. 

When the V Corps made an attack across Saunders Field in the evening, the 96th PA was positioned across their line of attack. Confusing the men in blue for Rebels, a V Corps regiment fired on the companies of the 96th, wounding several men. “The balls struck all around me,” Keiser wrote, “passing down right by my breast as I turned on my side.” During the V Corps attack, Upton’s brigade held the line and waited for the results of battle. The furious fighting was apparent by the roar from a few hundred yards in their front. Stray artillery shells “flew over our heads at a lively rate,” a man in the 15th New Jersey wrote. “Musket balls and grape [shot] flew over us like hail,” Keiser scribbled into his diary during the fray. When it was over, the dead and wounded lay across the woods and small fields of the Wilderness.8 

As smoky twilight turned to uneasy darkness, the wounded moaned and small brush fires crackled. As one soldier wrote, years later, of the night of May 5, “The two armies were confronting each other and waiting for the struggle of the next day.”9 May 6 would prove to be even bloodier and more confusing than the previous day.

From Corporal Henry Keiser’s diary:

Thursday, May 5, 1864.  At 5 o’clock we got up.  Cooked coffee and started off at six.  The skirmishers were sent out ahead and we advanced in line of battle into the “Wilderness.”  The skirmishers were engaged  by ten a.m. and we advanced for two miles through the awefullest brush briers, grape vines I ever was in.  We soon met the enemy and the battle of the Wilderness began.  The battle raged hot until 4 o’clock when it partly ceased in our front.  D. T. Williams of our company, was taken prisoner.  Edward Pugh and myself were also very nearly taken, but we managed to get away in the thick brush.  About 4 o’clock our Regiment forms in line of battle on the edge of a small clearing.  While in this position the 39th Massachusetts coming up in our rear, mistook us for Rebels and fired a rally into us wounding two of Company B.  The balls struck all around me.   The balls passing down right by my breast as I turned on my right side see shot troops were coming through, the brush.  As luck would have it, for they in their excitement fired too high.  At six this evening the 5th Corps attempted to make a charge across the field and over us, but were repulsed, as musket balls and grape flew over us like hail, but we laid very low and some of our Regiment were injured.  Five of the Company A were sounded on the skirmish line.  Marched about five miles.  The day was fine.

Bibliography:
1.  Keiser Diary, May 5, 1864
2. Rhea, Gordon C. The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.) 106. 
3. Ibid., 131-132. 
4. Farley, Porter. “The 140th New York Volunteers, Wilderness, May 5th, 1864.” 23, in Farley Papers, Rundel Library. In  The Battle of the Wilderness, 144. 
5. “Report of Brigadier General Emory Upton, U.S. Army, in command of the Second Brigade.” September 1, 1864, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 36, Part 1. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1891.) 665-666. 
6. Keiser Diary. Private Daniel Williams was exchanged in March 1865 and returned to the regiment a year after he was captured at the Wilderness, May 15, 1865. 
7.  Haines, Alanson A. The History of the Fifteenth Regiment New Jersey Volunteers. (New York: Jenkins & Thomas, Printers, 1883.) 145. 
8. Keiser Diary and Haines, 145. 
9. Haines, 147. 

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