Did you know that a Civil War battle came to a halt because both sides ceased shooting to watch two men fist fighting? There’s just something about two people in a fist fight that’s irresistible to watch. We can’t look away. And that is exactly what happened during the Battle of the Wilderness.
In May 1864, Union forces met the armies of the Confederacy at a dense wooded area known as “The Wilderness.” Close to 200,000 men met and for three days a hellish battle occurred. It was the first time that the Union’s Ulysses S. Grant would face Confederate Robert E. Lee, a meeting that would further to intertwine the two men for the rest of history. Who could have guessed that in the middle of this huge battle a fist fight would break out, stopping the battle dead in its tracks.
There was a clearing between the two armies called Saunders Field. Being the only real open area between the opposing armies meant that it was full of artillery shells and the holes made by those shells, along with bullets. As the two sides clashed near a gully in the field, a Union soldier hid there to avoid being captured by the enemy. Then a Confederate soldier threw himself into the gully to avoid the hail of Union bullets coming toward him. They were the only two in the gully and didn’t even see one another.
John Worsham of the Twenty-first Virginia Infantry described one such encounter in his book, One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry.
“Running midway across the little field was a gully that had been washed by the rains. In their retreat many of the enemy went into this gully for protection from our fire. When we advanced to it, we ordered them out and to the rear. All came out except one, who had hidden under an overhanging bank and was overlooked. When we fell back across the field, the Yankees who followed us to the edge of the woods shot at us as we crossed. One of our men, thinking the fire too warm, dropped into the gully for protection. Now there was a Yankee and a Confederate in the gully—and each was ignorant of the presence of the other!
After a while they commenced to move about in the gully, there being no danger so long as they did not show themselves. Soon they came in view of each other, and they commenced to banter. Then they decided that they would go into the road and have a regular fist and skull fight, the best man to have the other as his prisoner.”
A few quips here, a slight insult there and soon the two men were bickering with each other. After what I imagine was a well-timed “Yo Momma” joke, the two men decided to step outside of their hiding spots, in the middle of an intense battle, to settle their differences with a fist fight. Also, because it’s 1864 and “honor” or something like that, they decided that the loser would become a prisoner of war to the opposing army.
They were halfway between both sides of the battle, in full view of everyone in each opposing army. And the men in each of those armies stopped fighting the Civil War to watch a fistfight. All the other soldiers even ran up to get a better view of the fight. THE WHOLE CIVIL WAR STOPPED TO WATCH! This is so funny to me.
Soldiers on both sides stopped firing their rifles. Troops even moved in closer to get a better view of the Civil War pugilistic side show. There’s no official word on how long the fight lasted, only that “Johnny [Reb] soon had the Yank down.” The Union soldier, true to his word, surrendered. They both returned to the gully, fighting resumed, and the man was taken back to Confederate lines.
One has to wonder what the Vegas odds would be on this fight? Think Floyd Mayweather could have a fist fight intriguing enough to stop a battle?
More than 120,000 Yankees fought close to 70,000 Rebels to an ultimately unsettled result. Both sides had tens of thousands of killed or wounded, and the Union Army pushed further into Virginia. Even though it wasn’t a win or a loss, it did add some unique Civil War history.