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Civil War battle was draw

Dense, thick underbrush and a near-jungle environment made the Wilderness in northeastern Virginia arguably the Civil War's most hellish battlefield environment.

Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the commencement of fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness, which pitted Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 119,000-man Army of the Potomac and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's 64,000-troop Army of Northern Virginia.

Fighting ended May 7, 1864, when Grant withdrew his forces after two days of bloody combat ended in a stalemate, with an estimated 18,000 Union casualties and 8,000 Confederate casualties, according to the National Park Service.

When fighting began 150 years ago on Monday, the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment, composed of men from Erie County and northwestern Pennsylvania, found itself in the thick of the most intense fighting that day.

The regiment fought in nearly every major Eastern theater battle during the war.

At the Wilderness, the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry began its attacks with about 600 troops and suffered more than 100 casualties on the first day, according to George Deutsch, an Erie native and Civil War historian who lives in Catonsville, Md.

Strong Confederate entrenched positions were formidable obstacles.

The inhospitable terrain made attacks even more harrowing.

Few roads traversed the Wilderness, an area several miles long and several miles wide just south of the Rapidan River, where Union forces crossed May 4, 1864.

A thick tangle of secondary-growth forest and dense undergrowth severely limited visibility and rendered maintaining formations in long, continuous lines either in advance or retreat an impossibility.

"At that time, that area of woods was very dry,'' Deutsch said. "Places caught fire during the fighting. You had wounded troops on both sides who could not move fast enough who died from smoke inhalation or who burned to death.''

Much of the fighting was done by small units; even regiments would have had trouble staying together, Deutsch said.

Grant's Overland Campaign -- a series of battles in Virginia in May and June 1864 -- began with the Wilderness fight.

After Union forces crossed the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford on May 4, Grant hoped to move his army quickly south through the dense terrain and meet Lee's Confederate forces on open ground.

"Grant's intent was not to necessarily capture a particular city or drive on Richmond,'' Deutsch said "His intention was to destroy the Confederate army, which was tantamount to victory.''

As strung-out Union forces slogged south through the Wilderness roads, about 5 miles south of the Rapidan River, troops on the Germanna Plank Road came upon the Orange Turnpike, which ran east and west.

There, in the morning, they encountered Lee's army, moving toward Union forces from the west across two parallel roads.

"Grant did not have maneuver space to use his superior forces and his artillery there,'' Deutsch said. "It became a slugfest in the woods, which was very advantageous to Lee. You had two days of a bloody stalemate.''

Fighting began on the Orange Turnpike at about 1 p.m. on May 5.

The turnpike cut through a clearing -- one of the few extensive clearings in the Wilderness -- known as Saunders Field, about 400 yards deep and 800 yards wide, where Confederates dug in and fortified their position.

Troops from the 83rd Pennsylvania were part of a brigade that attacked the field just south of the road, while another Yankee brigade attacked the position just north of the turnpike.

The 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment was commanded by Col. Orpheus Woodward, of Harborcreek, and Lt. Col. DeWitt McCoy, a lawyer from Meadville.

The regiment was assigned to the Union Army Fifth Corps, 1st Division, and 3rd Brigade, whose regiments included the legendary 20th Maine, 44th New York, 16th Michigan and the 18th Massachusetts.

When fighting began at Saunders Field, advancing units of the 3rd Brigade, commanded by J.J. Bartlett, managed to stay together against a barrage of fire.

Woodward was shot in the leg and would later have it amputated.

When the brigade approached the Confederate lines, the two armies exchanged fire at point-blank range.

Some of the Union troops overran the right flank of a Virginia brigade in its entrenchment.

Soon, Union troops overran the position, sending confused and panicked Confederates into a retreat.

"At that time, it was an exception that you broke through a fortified line,'' Deutsch said.

"Bartlett's Brigade and the 83rd Regiment penetrated almost a half-mile,'' Deutsch said. "But Bartlett's brigade drove so deep, that the Union troops on the right side of the turnpike did not break through, and the 3rd Brigade found themselves in thick woods, surrounded on three sides.''

A retreat to its original position was the brigade's only option.

"That field became a bloody stalemate over the next few days,'' Deutsch said.

Although the battle continued May 6, the 83rd Regiment did not fight on its second day.

On May 7, 1864, Grant withdrew his army southeast, hoping to reach the Spotsylvania Court House several miles away and interpose his army between Lee and Richmond, Va.

Lee's forces, however, got there first and were able to block the Union army's movement.

That led to the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21). On May 8, the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment attacked a Confederate trench at the Battle of Laurel Hill. The fight devolved into bayonet and club-musket combat. The 83rd Regiment suffered about 200 casualties, according to Deutsch.

The Overland Campaign continued into June. It's beginning -- the Wilderness fight -- ended in a draw.

"Lee held a slight tactical advantage, but that was negated by Grant, who was determined to continue south,'' Deutsch said. "Grant made the operational decision to disengage from the Wilderness and continue heading south and continue the campaign.''

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