The 96th Pennsylvania in the Wilderness: May 6, 1864

Dawn broke over the Wilderness on May 6 with two armies locked in a deadly stalemate. Lee had positioned his Confederate infantry and artillery across Grant’s line, stymieing any attempt at a Union breakthrough. The previous day’s fighting around the Orange Turnpike had been brutal and unrelenting. Engaged in this fighting were the V and VI Corps under the command of Gouverneur K. Warren and John Sedgwick.

VI Corps Commander John Sedgwick

Little sleep could be had among the ranks of the Central Pennsylvanians of the 96th regiment. Skirmish fire and occasional blasts of artillery punctuated the thick, humid May evening. In the darkness, between volleys of musketry, came the cries of the wounded and the dying. “Some prayed, some cursed, some cried, and some asked to be killed and put out of their misery,” remembered the regimental historian of the 121st New York, placed in rear of the Pennsylvania soldiers.1 Sleep, for those still in the lines of blue and butternut facing each other in the inky black darkness of the forest, came on with the knowledge that this may be their last.

The men of Upton’s brigade were rousted from their rest in the predawn hours of May 6 with orders to charge the enemy works shortly after daybreak.2 To the left of their position, the infamous Saunders Field lie just beyond the tree and brush line. Hundreds of unmoving forms lie in the field, although some still cried out for help around day break. “We had notice to have our breakfast and be ready to attack at daylight,” a colonel in the 121st New York wrote.3 Men along the Union line near the Orange Turnpike prepared for the day’s fight.

Just as the regiments in Upton’s brigade prepared to move to the attack, shots rang out farther to the right, building until a cacophony of musketry and artillery roared to life. The Confederates had moved first. At 4:45 a.m., they had moved on the Union’s hanging flank with a ferocious infantry assault, catching the Union pickets and commanders off guard. With Rebel soldiers pouring over the VI Corps extreme right flank, the attack planned for dawn had been cancelled.4



With the fighting growing ever deadlier on the right, the focus was taken off the Union center along the Orange Turnpike where the 96th Pennsylvania was located. Intermittent skirmish fire proved annoying, but the regiment incurred little damage during May 6. Corporal Keiser instead reported that “the musketry on the right was the heaviest I heard during the war.”5 The attack presented a serious danger to the VI Corps’ position and the right flank of the entire Union army. If the VI Corps units under James Ricketts gave way, the Army of the Potomac could lose its supply line at the Rapidan River fords and be cut off.

Under the threat of envelopment, Colonel Upton was ordered by John Sedgwick to send two regiments in an effort to stave off disaster on the right.6 The 121st New York and the 95th Pennsylvania marched off to the right and into some of the most desperate and confused fighting of the war.

Back in the center of the Union line along the Orange Turnpike, things backed off to a relative calm. Occasional firing and gunsmoke clouded through the air, but the thunderous crashes from the fighting in the woods to the right kept up anxiety about an impending attack on the positions along the Orange Turnpike that never materialized.

VI Corps in rifle pits along the Orange Turnpike. May 6, 1864. (Waud, LOC)

In the evening, disaster struck for the VI Corps. A final assault on the corps’ entire right flank began to take its toll. Soon, individual soldiers, then companies and whole regiments fled towards the rear. “The attack was very alarming,” wrote one soldier in a unit adjacent to the 96th Pennsylvania. Flames taking hold in the underbrush also made for an uncomfortable stay in the Union line. The bodies between the lines were partly or totally consumed by the small fires, which sent up huge volumes of smoke and added to the confusion.7

With the flank in serious danger of collapse but stabilized just after dark, the center could only dig deeper rifle pits and wait for orders. “After dark we commenced digging rifle pits, but at 11. . . we were to move to the rear,” wrote Corporal Keiser.8 The men were ordered to keep as quiet as possible, in an attempt to forestall a Confederate attack on the withdrawing forces. “Men stooped and trailed arms,” a New Jersey officer wrote, “and held their canteens with their hands as to prevent rattling.”9

A march of about a mile down the turnpike landed Upton’s brigade around the vicinity of Wilderness Tavern. The major scenes of the Battle of the Wilderness were over, and the toll was ghastly. Almost 30,000 men are thought to have fallen in the tangled backwoods of the Wilderness.10 For the 96th Pennsylvania regiment, the losses were light. A few men wounded and the capture of Private Williams from Company G amounted to the casualties in the “coal-heaver” regiment.

In the weeks to come, however, Company G, 96th Pennsylvania would face its most desperate fighting of the war. Many young men would be lost as the battles of the Overland Campaign shifted south and east towards Spotsylvania Court House.

From Corporal Henry Keiser’s Diary: 

Friday, May 6, 1864.  The Rebels kept up a brisk fire all night in our front, but none of our Regiment were hurt.  Fighting has been heavy all day on right and left, while nothing but skirmish and artillery in our front.  Four men of each company were detailed to cut and carry timber to build rifle pits tonight.  At seven this evening the Rebels made a desperate charge on our right wing and succeeded in turning that flank.  After dark we commenced digging rifle pits but at Eleven p.m. eve we were move to the rear to make up a new line on account of our right having  been turned. The musketry on the right was the heaviest I heard during the war. 

Bibliography:  
1. Best, Isaac O. The History of the 121st New York State Infantry. (Chicago: Lt. James H. Smith, 1921.) 121. 
2.  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.) 666.
3. From Best, 121-122. 
4. Upton OR, 666. 
5. Keiser Diary
6. Upton OR, 666. 
7. Haines, Alanson A. The History of the Fifteenth Regiment New Jersey Volunteers. (New York: Jenkins & Thomas, Printers, 1883.) 148. 
8. Keiser Diary
9. Colonel Ryerson in Haines, 149. 
10. “The Wilderness.” The Civil War Trust. Web. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/the-wilderness.html?tab=facts. Accessed 1 May 2014. 

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