150 years ago, The Battle of the Wilderness began. It was a nasty, bloody contest, though most significant for what happened when it ended - because it changed the shape of the war - maybe of war itself.
The battle itself was a nasty piece of work. It got its name from where it took place, in The Wilderness - the same second growth woodland where the Battle of Chancellorsville happened the previous year. It was a hideous place to fight - dense woodland, full of cuts and streams and swamps, where no one could see anything, generals had the devil's time maintaining control of their men, no one could move through all the woods, and once the shooting started, the whole thing caught fire and turned it into a hellscape. No one really intended to fight there - Grant's idea was to march throughout the wilderness before Lee could get to him, to fight on the open ground to the south. But Lee got wind of the movement and moved to block it, attacking the Army of the Potomac in the woods. And that's how it went.
There were two main roads running throughout he woods, and the battle was fought almost as two separate engagements on and around those roads. On the union right, Warren’s V corps ran into Ewell's corps, entrenched in the jungle - Warren was ordered to attack, and did, but in an uncoordinated and piecemeal fashion that gained no ground and led to great slaughter. On the union left, a separate battle developed between other Union troops (Hancock’s II corps, mainly) and AP Hill’s men - here, strong Union numeric advantages went to nothing because of the mix of bad coordination and the impassable terrain the battle was fought over. Both sides fought until dark and then waiting to do it again in the morning.
They picked up where they left off the second day. The union left (especially) tried to get into position for an early attack, but things bogged down, and dragged out - but they did finally get their numbers to bear, and started to drive Hill's men back. And finally, it went beyond that - they drove Hill back, and broke the lines, and finally came close to a complete breakthrough. But in the best of circumstances, in the Civil War, any battle demolished the formations of the men fighting, the winners as much as the losers. Over and over, you read of attacks that shatter the enemy, but peter out because the victors are as disorganized as the losers. And here, the Union army was driving them, but they were coming apart - and this was far worse than the usual circumstances. Command and control were almost impossible to maintain in the wilderness; combined with the tendency for organization to disintegrate in the face of too much success or failure, the Union attack was ripe for the picking.... And they ran square into Longstreet’s corps, which had spent the previous day slogging around in the woods, far from the battle, only to turn up here and now, just when it counted. They hit the union army when it was disorganized, out of control, and worn out - and blew the line to shreds. They drove them back to where they started, but the Yankees had fieldworks built there - so when the rebels came in the Yankees were waiting. And the same thing happened that usually happened when men attacked entrenchments in the Civil War. They were wrecked.
And that was that. They hung around another day, but neither side had much stomach left for fighting. The battle had a lot in common with Chickamauga, actually, as well as Chancellorsville. Much like Chickamauga, this was a terrible ground for a fight; much of the battle was the same kind of back and forth uncoordinated slog; and once again, it was a Longstreet attack (or counter attack) that caved in the Federal forces; and that led to the same last ditch stand by the Union that wrecked the southerners almost as bad as they were wrecked. HOwever, unlike Chickamauga, where the Army of the Cumberland was wrecked by the battle, The Army of the Potomac was still going strong. They were shot up - but they had a lot of men, and whatever troubles they had at the command level (and they had some pretty serious commend problems in the spring of 1864), they were structurally intact and ready to keep going. In that, this fight looks more like Chancellorsville - hard fighting, a few moments of total disaster, but the army intact and mostly ready for more.
Still, the north had been beaten. Warren’s corps never really got anywhere (getting shot up the first day, then again the second day, then ending the whole thing by getting routed out of their position by a flank attack that only dissolved because of the night time woods.) Hancock on the left had been shot up badly as well. (Sedgwick’s VI corps, and parts of Burnside's IX fought on both sides of the battle, often in the middle between the other two - with no more success than anyone else had.) The Union had been stopped cold, trying to get through the Wilderness, at significant loss. Lee was still waiting with plenty of fight. In the past, when the Yankees invaded the south and lost, they tended to go back home and try again. But this time, everything changed.
The truth is, throughout the war, there were few examples to this point of armies fighting battles and then trying to press their advantage (let alone continuing after a defeat, if they had a choice.) Lee during the Seven Days; Lee after Second Bull Run; Lee after Chancellorsville - Lee, that is. And after victories; not after a defeat. And of course, there was the Vicksburg campaign - a series of coordinated attacks and battles, one after another, with no space given to the confederates to regroup. Which is to say, Grant. And here was Grant again. And while he had been blocked on his first attempt to get into the south, he was not the sort of man who looked at failure as anything forgone. So after a day resting, he got his army up and marching, and turned them south - marching around the Wilderness, headed for Spotsylvania Courthouse.
And that made all the difference. The Army of the Potomac certainly thought so - every account is full of the thrill the men in the ranks felt when they discovered they were heading south, looking to take the battle to the enemy, not go back home and think about what to do next. And this is despite their knowing that this meant blood and death for them. I doubt anyone imagined just how much blood and death would be coming - I don't know how they could, though you might have gotten a notion of it looking at the carnage of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Chickamauga - sustained carnage. But the men in the ranks seem to have understood what Grant understood - that you had to fight until you were beat, really beat - and they weren't beat.
Somewhere in here, probably at Spotsylvania in fact, you can see 20th century warfare being born. Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg prefigure WWI, that is certain: trench warfare; extended warfare - those are all new. But that change started in the Wilderness. Civil War battles tended to be battles - armies marched around to get to a position to fight - they fought - then went where they went to think about what to do next. Other than Lee at the 7 days and Grant at Vicksburg, there aren’t a lot of examples of armies fighting a sustained series of battles, day after day until the issue was decided. Even when one battle led to another, as Second Bull Run led to Antietam, or Chancellorsville to Gettysburg, or Chickamauga led to Chattanooga - there were gaps. Armies separated and began new campaigns. But not so much here. Grant headed off around Lee - Lee moved to cut him off again - they ran into each other and did it again a couple days later. Then Grant moves, Lee moves, they tried again - not quite coming to blows at North Anna, but then moving again - another slaughter at Cold Harbor - move again - Petersburg. And then siege.
It was different. Grant started the battle and kept at it. So did Lee, though he had less choice. But this period of the war, changed the way war was waged. It became steady, endless, relentless. Even before this, it was very difficult to win a battle and win a war, though everyone still seemed to think it was possible. Europe got fooled by Sedan, a big decisive battle that sort of stopped the Franco-Prussian war: only sort of, since the French people repudiated the government that surrendered and kept on fighting... But it did leave Europeans thinking they could win a decisive battle and through it a war. But it didn't work like that anymore, and wouldn't until the Blitzkriegs. In 1864, Grant pressed on, fight by fight, trying to get around Lee, but always ready to fight when they met again. In the end, he settled for a siege, to keep Lee in place while Sherman, later Sheridan, beat the South - but either way, he waged an endless campaign. As did Sherman - who don’t have to fight Johnson for every river crossing as Grant did Lee - but the principals were the same. Move around this line, confront the next line. Sherman was less willing to attack directly, Johnston was less willing to force a fight than Lee was, and both of them had more room to move around in. So there was less bloodshed in the west - but there were no rests, no stops. Sherman would push on until he had won - as Grant did.