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The fighting ceased at dark. Neither side had secured any decisive advantage. Hill had been driven some distance backward, and his two divisions had been considerably broken and disordered. General Humphreys, a very cautious commentator, expresses the opinion that had there been but an hour more of daylight Hill would have been driven wholly from the field; but Hancock's late arrival, owing to his long detour through Todd's Tavern, moving on a single, narrow road, prevented a complete success. Grant certainly had not expected to be attacked at that time and place, or he would not have sent Hancock away toward Shady Grove Church. Calling the Second Corps back from its turning movement, he had sought with one tremendous effort to lift and throw his antagonist. But he had underrated the valor and endurance of the Army of Northern Virginia, not to be daunted and not to be surprised; commanded by resolute, audacious, untiring leaders; defending a country with which it had become familiar by long occupation, and which was of a kind with that in which its soldiers had been reared. Upon the Union right the Fifth and Sixth Corps had met with varying fortunes in their contest with Ewell, but with no serious reverses.
THE WILDERNESS.—SECOND DAY.
When night fell on the 5th of May the woods were full of the wounded, yet the utmost exertions of the medical staff and the ambulance corps could not avail to bring off the sufferers. The undergrowth was so dense that it was almost impossible to find the victims of the afternoon's battle, and the hostile lines were so close that any movement quickly brought down a heavy fire. During the night Grant, Meade, and Humphreys were earnestly engaged in preparing for the struggle of the coming day. On either side fresh troops were coming up: Longstreet's powerful corps, with Anderson's division of Hill's corps, from Orange Court House; Burnside's Ninth Corps from the line of the Rappahannock. The relative value of these re-enforcements was, however, far from equal, the preponderance being vastly on the Confederate side in point both of numbers and of discipline. The general plan of battle for the 6th was, in brief, as follows: Hancock, with his own four divisions, Getty's division of the Sixth Corps, and Wadsworth's division of the Fifth, was to attack Hill at five o'clock in the morning, and if possible destroy or drive him off the field before the Confederate re-enforcements should arrive. On the right the remaining divisions of the Fifth and Sixth Corps, under the personal observation of Grant and Meade, were to occupy Ewell so closely as to prevent his sending re-enforcements to Hill. As soon as Burnside should arrive from the bridge over the Rapidan, as he was expected to do at an early hour, his corps was to be directed toward the Confederate center. Assuming Hill's corps to have been at that time disrupted by the tremendous assault preparing against it, Burnside was relied upon to pierce Lee's line north of the plank road, whereupon the demonstrations of the Fifth and Sixth Corps were to be converted into a furious attack upon Ewell, by which it was hoped to close the day with a complete victory for the Union arms. It will be seen that Hancock's part in the coming battle was fully equal to what had been intimated by the responsibilities he had borne and the success he had achieved at Gettysburg. He was to command half of the army, and the active operations of the day were all to be made dependent upon his resolution and energy. The only miscalculation of the commander in chief was in regard to the nature of the country, the tenacity of the enemy and their capability for initiative, and the time of the arrival of the Confederate re-enforcemerits. Exactly at five o'clock Hancock advanced to the attack; but already, a few minutes before, Ewell had opened on Sedgwick, to relieve the anticipated pressure upon Hill and to gain time for Longstreet to get up. The fire thus kindled swept fast down the line from the right across the front of Warren. Wadsworth advanced gallantly to his appointed work of striking Hill's flank, and the divisions of Birney, Mott, and Getty, with Carroll's and Owen's brigades from Gibbon's, all under the general command of Birney, flung themselves upon the Confederate intrenchments which crossed the plank road. The attack and the defense were alike of the most desperate nature. The night had given time for commanders to rectify their lines; the Confederates were near, and the contest became at once close and savage. But the impetus of that well-prepared assault could not be resisted. Hill's troops gave way; Hancock's men leaped, first, a log intrenchment, and then, three or four hundred yards farther back, a line of rifle pits. In less than an hour the Confederate right was routed and in flight, colors and prisoners were taken, and for the moment all presaged a complete victory for the Union arms. The enemy had been driven a mile through the forest, almost to their wagon trains.
But three causes now combined to relieve the pressure upon the Confederate right and to give the Army of Northern Virginia that one chance of which it so well knew how to take advantage. The Union columns had become terribly mixed and disordered in their forward movement, under the excitement and bewilderment of battle, through woods so dense that no body of troops could possibly preserve their alignment. In some cases they were heaped up in unnecessary strength; elsewhere great gaps existed unknown to the staff; men, and even officers, had lost their regiments in the jungle; thousands had fallen; the men in front were largely out of ammunition, which it was impossible to bring up in such a place. The second cause now entering to give the Confederate arms relief was the arrival of Kershaw's division. These troops, undismayed by the signs of wreck which met their view on every side, moved gallantly into action against Hancock's left, which was farthest advanced, and, throwing themselves with the utmost determination upon that part of our line, forced it back until it came abreast of the center. The third, and even more important cause which operated to check the course of Hancock's victory, and finally to turn it into defeat, was a misunderstanding between himself and General Gibbon as to the disposition to be made of the forces under the command of the latter officer. That misunderstanding has never been explained, but the bearing of the results will now be indicated.