Friday, May 6, 1864
General Winfield S. Hancock faced a dilemma of strategy. He needed to defend the vital intersection of the Orange Plank and Brock Roads from an attack on both flanks. At 5:00 A.M. Hancock deployed two divisions under Generals David Birney and George Getty to attack along the Orange Plank Road with support from artillery under General John Gibbon to protect his left flank. At the same time he positioned General Alexander Webb's brigade, including the Twentieth Massachusetts, to defend the Orange Plank and Brock intersection. Hancock was concerned about the whereabouts of Confederate General James Longstreet, who had yet to make an appearance at the Wilderness. Hancock assumed that Longstreet's arrival was imminent.
Hancock's attack along the Orange Plank Road was very successful during the first hour,as the Confederates were halted along the Plank Road and Hancock's men took prisoners from the divisions of Confederate Generals Henry Heth and Cadmus Wilcox. Around 6:00 A.M. the lead divisions of General James Longstreet, led by General Joseph Kershaw, attacked along the Plank Road east of the Tapp Farm. Hancock's offensive abruptly ended as Birney's and Getty's divisions were pushed east toward the intersection. At this point Hancock ordered Webb's brigade, including the Twentieth Massachusetts, north of the intersection to the relief of General Getty.
As the Twentieth Massachusetts entered the fray and moved west along the Orange Plank Road they came under the fire of Confederate General A.P. Hill. The Twentieth Massachusetts advanced to a clearing south of the Plank Road, where General Webb ordered them to "hold the position at any cost." The Twentieth held this position successfully until 11:00 A.M., when they were approached by General James Wadsworth of the Fifth Corps. Wadsworth ordered the Twentieth Massachusetts to leave their defensive position and come to the aid of General Birney, who was under severe fire. The Twentieth Massachusetts, led by Colonel George Macy, advanced from their breastworks and almost immediately were met by a rapid volley of gunfire from Abner Perrin's Alabama brigade. As the Twentieth Massachusetts sought cover in the underbrush they viewed their untenable situation. Perrin's brigade was secure behind breastworks at the top of a slope. The Twentieth Massachusetts, however, still continued to advance, and hand-to-hand combat ensued. The Twentieth was soon overrun by the Confederates, and they were forced to retreat. Losses to the Twentieth Massachusetts were severe. Officers Albert Holmes, George Macy, Henry Bond, Henry Patten, John Summerhays, William Perkins were wounded in the ill-fated attack. The greatest loss to the Twentieth was the mortal wounding of Major Henry Abbott, who died around 4:30 P.M. at a battlefield hospital. Colonels George Macy and Theodore Lyman stood by Abbott's side as he tragically succumbed to his wounds.
As the afternoon wore on the battle continued to rage. The thick tangled underbrush of the Wilderness was set ablaze by continual gunfire. General James Longstreet was wounded by his own men and was carried off the battlefield. By evening the Union forces held the vital Orange Plank and Brock Road intersection.
The casualty count for both armies was staggering, as the Union reported 18,000 and the Confederates reported 11,000. The Twentieth Massachusetts lost approximately 300 men in casualties, with the greatest number occurring in the ill-fated charge on Perrin's brigade. General James Wadsworth, who ordered the charge, was killed shortly after ordering the Twentieth Massachusetts into the fatal fray.1
1Richard F. Miller, Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2005), 334-40.