As musket fire crackled through the dense woods, the three regiments of sturdy Vermont infantrymen steadfastly held their position along Brock Road, a key thoroughfare at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. Outnumbered nearly five to one, the Vermont Brigade fended off relentless Confederate assaults for over six crucial hours, buying invaluable time for the Union Army. Their valorous stand remains one of the most dramatic episodes of the Overland Campaign.
Outflanking Lee’s Army
In early May 1864, Ulysses S. Grant launched the Overland Campaign, seeking to defeat Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and capture the strategic Confederate capital of Richmond. Rather than directly attacking Richmond’s fortifications, Grant aimed to stealthily outmaneuver Lee’s forces, drawing them into open battle. Swiftly crossing the Rapidan River, Grant’s 120,000-strong Army of the Potomac headed south through a densely wooded area known as the Wilderness. Realizing Grant’s intent, Lee rushed to intercept him within the remote, tangled woods, aiming to nullify the Union’s numerical advantage.
Collision Course in the Wilderness
Early on May 5th, advance units from both armies violently collided west of Brock Road, igniting the Battle of the Wilderness. Lee desperately sought to delay Grant’s advance and await the arrival of Longstreet’s First Corps before mounting a major assault. Thus, Confederate forces focused on stubborn defense rather than aggressive offense. Brigade commander George Getty was ordered to spearhead the Union defense along Brock Road while Burnside’s Ninth Corps marched south down the road to raid Lee’s supply lines. Alone, Getty’s men faced an early morning onslaught from A.P. Hill’s Confederates.
The Thin Green Line
At the center of Getty’s line stood the battle-hardened Vermont Brigade, comprised of three infantry regiments totaling just 1,200 men. Earlier that morning while awaiting deployment orders, many of the weary Vermonters had kindled small fires to brew coffee. A staff officer rode by, demanding to know “what are those men doing with fires?” Brigadier General Lewis Grant boldly replied, “They’re veterans sir, and know what they’re about! Vermonters can always make coffee under fire!” Now their mettle would be severely tested.
As A. P. Hill’s men emerged from the vegetation, firing ragged volleys, Grant coolly anchored his right flank to the southern bend of Brock Road while staunchly defending the northern stretch. Repeated Confederate charges were repulsed as the Vermont regiments poured devastating fire into the woods from their roadside embankments. Twice the rebels nearly collapsed the Vermont line before Grant skillfully conducted a fighting withdrawal, refusing his flank along a ridge as the Confederates surrounded their position.
Gallantry Under Fire
Bent on crushing the isolated Vermont Brigade, Confederates assaulted all morning from three sides, unleashing a “sheet of lead and iron.” The unfaltering Vermonters “lay flat, loading and firing… with the precision of target practice.” Grant expertly transferred regiments along his line to bolster weakening sections, as the Green Mountain Boys grimly held on. Their brigade flag was shot down five separate times. Blood darkened the forest floor as their mounting casualties were carried to the rear. Yet still they clung to their position, buying time for Burnside’s Ninth Corps approach.
As afternoon wore on and ammunition dwindled, Grant reluctantly ordered a withdrawal. The Vermont regiments defiantly fired a thundering parting volley before reversing their line in good order. Their courageous stand had delayed massive Confederate attacks on the Union army for nearly seven hours. Grant rewarded their gallantry by commemorating their coffee kindling that morning as “a capital offense… that ought to be forgiven.”
Though ultimately forced to retreat, the Vermont Brigade’s heroic defense significantly disrupted Lee’s timetable, helping thwart the Confederate aim to overwhelm Union forces in detail. Their steadfast valor along Brock Road remains a stirring example of stubborn fortitude amidst desperate odds – a proud legacy for the Green Mountain State.