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The Battle of the Wilderness

Posted 10/09/2022

  The Battle of the Wilderness began on May 5, 1864 and continued until May7. This was Union Lt. General U.S. Grant’s first battle in Virginia fighting the Army of Northern Virginia, and there would be many more in the next year to follow. With a two pronged attack, one in Georgia by Union General Sherman on the same day, and Grant’s move across the Rapidan, the last year of the American Civil War had begun.

  One of the estimated 185,000 participants in the battle that took place at Locust, Grove, Virginia, a place of dense underbrush called the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, was John H. Worsham, who was in the 21st Virginia during the battle. John H. Worsham enlisted in the Confederate Army, April 21, 1861, and was promoted to Second Sergeant of the 21st Virginia in April 1863. Worsham was promoted to First Sergeant in December 1863, then to adjutant of the 21st Virginia on September 12, 1864. On September 19, 1864, Worsham was wounded at Winchester, Virginia and was declared permanently disabled. In 1912, Worsham published a book called, “One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry.”

  There are so many things that happened during this battle that most Civil War students know about, but I looked for a story that most do not know about the battle, and I have called upon John Worsham to help me with that matter.

  On the night of May 4, 1864, the 21st Virginia troops slept in a road not far from the location where the Union Army crossed the Rapidan on the early Morning of May 5. On that morning, the 21st was one of the first Confederate regiments to be hotly engaged with the Union Army, (Worsham, 1912). Worsham reports in his “Wilderness” chapter that the 21st had a Union regiment on the run when the retreating Unionist dropped into a gully while leaving the field to hide. Worsham then reports the 21st Virginia was able to take a great number of prisoners from the gully, save one Union soldier who hide under a tree branch. A few moments later, the 21st had to take cover in the same gully, then leaving, however, the Confederate regiment left one behind in the gully as well. Shortly, the two combatants found each other in the gully. The two entered into an agreement to engage in a fist fight, and whoever the winner might be would take the other as a prisoner. Worsham now states the following,” It will be noticed that there were then  and a Confederate in the gully, there being no danger as long as they did not show themselves. Soon they came in view of each other, and commenced to banter one another. Then they decided they would go into the road and have a regular fists and skull fight, the best man to have the other as his prisoner. When the two men came into the road about midway between the lines of battle, in full view of both sides around the field, one a “Yankee,” the other “a Johnny,” while both sides were firing, they surely created a commotion! This was true in our line, and I suppose in the enemy’s line, because both sides ceased firing! When the two took off their coats and commenced to fight with their fists, a yell went up along each line, and men rushed to the edge of the opening for a better view! The “Johnny” soon had the “Yank” down, who surrendered, and both quietly rolled into the gully, where they remained until night, when “the Johnny” brought “the Yank” into our line. The disappearance of the two men was the signal for the resumption of firing! Such is war!” 

  The battle of the Wilderness ceased when General Grant disengaged the battle and continued the offensive in another location. The Wilderness battle caused in excess of 29,000 casualties on both sides.

  This piece was ground recovered by a detectorist several years ago on private property on the Wilderness battlefield. This is the first iron piece the author has seen in a ground recovered condition.  This style finial  was originally reported to be a naval pike. In a museum in Intercourse, Pennsylvania this style piece is described as a naval pike, and one is on display. In several publications during my research, this style finial is also described as a naval pike. However, I have seen several of this style finial in the Illinois Military Museum, Springfield, Illinois that are on flagstaffs that were used by the Illinois troops during the war. I have seen this style finial on a flagstaff of an Ohio regiment as well as a New Jersey regiment. More will be said of these in a later post. This piece is 9” long and 1.35” wide. The is obvious damage to one side of the ferrule portion of the finial. This piece is in the authors collection.


  This next piece is brass, 4”X 2.21” and was ground recovered on the Wilderness battlefield on private property. The piece has obviously had a good portion of the tip broken off as well as the lower portion of the finial that would have screwed into the upper ferrule. This piece, in its present form is heavy brass and was much heavier before being broken in two separate places. This style finial has not been seen by the author before.

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(Worsham, 1912)

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