The Battle of the Wilderness, which took place from May 5 to May 7, 1864, was not so much important for what happened during it; it ended in a draw. It was vastly important because of what happened immediately after the battle.
Ulysses S. Grant, who had achieved great success as commander of Union forces in the west, had been appointed as commander of all Union forces in February 1864. He took command of the Army of the Potomac, nominally under the command of General George Meade, the main Union force which, while it had been victorious at the Battle of Gettysburg, had not had much success in its attempt to invade Virginia, especially against the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.
As part of a general strategy to launch multipronged attacks on the Confederacy, Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan River. His plan was to slip quickly through a heavily wooded area of Northern Virginia called the Wilderness and strike at Lee’s right flank. However, Lee anticipated the move and decided to meet Grant in the Wilderness, which he hoped that the dense foliage would negate the Union’s nearly two to one advantage.
There followed a confused struggle in the woods with isolated units colliding with one another and facing, besides enemy bullets and shells, fires touched off by the battle. The two days of fighting were inconclusive
The most important decision Grant took occurred on May 7, after the battle. The action had ended in a tactical draw as both armies had not been moved from their initial positions. However the Union forces lost far more men, 18,000 casualties, than had the Confederacy, which had lost 11,000. In every other instance when getting a bloody nose by General Lee, the Union general would order a retreat.
But not Grant. He said, “I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land on our rear and on both our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” Then he ordered an advance south, around Lee’s flank toward Spotsylvania. His men, despite the fact that they had just been through a bloody battle, cheered wildly. When Lee discovered what his opponent was doing, he realized that he was facing a different kind of Union general, an insight that was to be proven again and again in the following months.
The reason, therefore, that the Battle of the Wilderness was different from all of the previous actions in which the Army of the Potomac was bloodied by General Lee was that it had leader who refused to consider himself to be defeated, Grant knew that the Union had a massive numerical advantage over the Confederacy. Lee could win tactical victory after victory, but he could not afford to lose too many men, All Grant had to do was to bleed the Army of Northern Virginia until it could fight no more. He could afford to lose men in the process. The proof of his strategy was proven at Appomattox Courthouse less than a year after the Wilderness.