On May 6, 1864, Confederate General James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s trusted “Old War Horse,” fell grievously wounded by friendly fire at the Battle of the Wilderness, an inconclusive two-day clash in the Virginia woods that nonetheless marked a critical moment in the Civil War’s Eastern Theater. Longstreet’s fall profoundly affected Lee’s operational capacity at a pivotal juncture when the war hung in the balance.

Lee had launched a bold, slashing attack into the Wilderness to confront Grant, newly elevated as general-in-chief of Union forces. Famously saying “Get there first with the most men,” Grant aimed to leverage superior numbers and grind down Lee’s army. Lee sought to disrupt Grant’s plans, retain the initiative, and utilize the Wilderness’s dense woods to compensate for numerical inferiority, much as he had done when outflanking Hooker at Chancellorsville a year earlier.

Longstreet provided Lee’s chief offensive striking power, leading the First Corps which had hammered the Union left at Second Manassas and crushed the right at Chickamauga since Lee divided the army. But Longstreet regarded the woods as unfavorable for major offensive operations, instead urging Lee to swing around Grant’s forces and interpose between them and Washington. Essentially, he anticipated Grant’s operational concept and sought to disrupt it. Lee fatefully overruled him but awarded Longstreet freedom of tactical maneuver in conducting the attack. After delays marred deployment on May 5

with Ewell missing local opportunities, Lee counted on Longstreet’s seasoned corps to spearhead the May 6 assault. Longstreet enjoyed Lee’s confidence perhaps more than any subordinate, rendering his loss irreplaceable. 

Early that misty morning, Longstreet rode forward mounted on horseback to coordinate an attack by Major General Charles Field’s division. Mistaken for Union cavalry in the fog and smoke, a volley suddenly exploded from the 18th North Carolina Infantry that shattered Longstreet’s right shoulder and throat, also killing a sergeant beside him and wounding a brigadier general. Carried by stretcher to an ambulance, Longstreet was evacuated to a nearby field hospital as command devolved upon Charles Field, an able major general, but lacking First Corps’ three finest divisions now absent. Subsequent Confederate attacks were thus uncoordinated and piecemeal without Old Pete present to direct them.

Lee sorely lamented later that “the successful result of the whole plan depended upon Longstreet’s attack.” Even a stalemate here could force strategic adjustments by Grant, but absent Longstreet’s seasoned leadership, that prospect rapidly faded. With Longstreet bleeding out and Field unsure whether to renew his isolated assault, Lee squandered cavalry and infantry piecemeal without the benefit of Longstreet’s tactical oversight. Confederate attacks hence dissolved into confusion, allowing Grant to stabilize his lines. The Federals had clearly withstood Lee’s boldest blows and the entire strategic initiative now shifted to the North because of Longstreet’s fall. 

This marked a turning point in the Civil War’s Eastern Theater as the Confederacy largely maneuvered thereafter on the strategic defensive, lacking resources to confront Grant’s relentless operations based on exploiting Union advantages in manpower and logistics. Lee sorely felt Longstreet’s absence observing later, “All the skill, wisdom, and energy of the chief was required to remedy the blunders that had been committed.”

Without Longstreet’s counsel, Lee fought almost blindfolded, his lack of reliable long-range intelligence exposing the Army of Northern Virginia thereafter to strategic surprises and tactical reverses. Having seriously wounded Longstreet physically and robbed Lee of his most seasoned tactical fighter, the Wilderness now enabled Grant’s rise to usher in Confederate decline. Longstreet only rejoined Lee in October, still partly disabled with his arm in a sling. But even without his right arm, as Lee quipped affectionately, Longstreet was still superior to any other corps commander he now had in the field. Yet not even Longstreet could restore fortunes fully in the war’s final months.

Ironically the brilliance of Lee and Longstreet together had long masked flaws in the Confederacy’s high command and national strategy. Fortune on the battlefield at last abandoned the Army of Northern Virginia after Longstreet fell wounded precisely when the fate of their newly born nation hung by a slender thread in the thickets along the Orange Turnpike. Never again would the tactical partnership of Lee and Longstreet recapture the glories of Second Manassas or Chickamauga. Nor stem the Confederate losses after Grant ferociously wielded the Union’s deeper manpower reserves and material resources. Wounded grievously in body, mind, and spirit, Longstreet convalesced painfully for six months while Grant relentlessly pressed Lee toward Appomattox. Thus, the Wilderness marked a decisive turning point on the road there.