What could possibly stop a war? A white flag being raced and waved by either of the parties? A leader coming in front and raising both of his hands in surrender? Maybe some civilians protesting to stop the chaos? How about two men in a fistfight in the middle of the gunfire and artillery bombardment? To the soldiers of the American Civil War, it was no doubt the last one. Both sides paused one time to get a front-row seat view when two men engaged in a fistfight over a gulley that made the war stop, at least for a while.

Battle of the Wilderness

Battle of the Wilderness. (Kurz & Allison, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was during the Battle of the Wilderness of the American Civil War that the barfight-style wrestling match went down between May 5 and 7, 1864. This battle was the first of Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant‘s 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee and the whole Confederate Army in Northern Virginia. The area had dense woods that were often filled with mist and fog, making it hard for the troops of both sides to spot their enemies. It also made attacking a challenge, as soldiers would have to rely and fire on sound instead of visual cues. There was a small clearing between the two sides called the Saunders Field. Obviously, soldiers wouldn’t want to go out on that open clearing unless they wanted to commit suicide— the area was full of holes from artillery shells from both sides, and the grass was afraid to grow for fear of catching a bullet.

The Confederate soldiers had a bit of an advantage, as they were familiar with the terrain. When all was said and done, both armies would end up suffering heavy casualties: around 29,000. More than 17,000 from the Union and about 11,000 from the Confederate army.

Skirmish in the Saunders

An account written by cavalryman John Worsham of the Twenty-first Virginia Infantry recalled how the skirmish ensued in the middle of the gun fires in his book called “One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry.”

The Rebel Assault on Ft. Sanders, the Fight over the Ditch. (Theodore Russel Davis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As mentioned above, visibility was quite a challenge in the thick woods of the wilderness. And amidst the swirl of combat, the soldiers of both the Confederate and Union Army ran in confusion as they sought cover. There was a gully across that field that was washed by the rains, and some of the soldiers retreated into this gully to protect themselves from enemy fire. When Worsham’s unit advanced to it, they forced the enemies out from the gully and drove them to the rear. One of the Yankees remained hidden under an overhanging bank that they missed seeing. And so they fell back across the field as the Yankees followed them to the edge of the woods, shooting them as they crossed. One of their soldiers decided to hide in the gully to cover himself from the bullets, unaware that a Yankee was there, too. The Yankee, on the other hand, had not noticed the Confederate soldier as well.

Both of them started moving about in the gully, thinking they were safe and covered as long as they did not pop their head out. It wasn’t until they came closer and saw each other that they found out they were not alone. They started to hurl insults at one another, but there was only one way to see who really was the better soldier: hand-to-hand combat til the best man wins and the loser is taken as a prisoner, and so that’s what they agreed to.

Out in the Field

Meanwhile, the other troops were busy firing, unaware of what was ensuing between their fellow in the gully. And so, the two men did not care about being exposed to the artillery anymore, as they decided their boxing ring would be the Saunders Field. They came out in full view of both sides, perhaps while one of them was saying, “Come at me, bro,” as he took off his coat and cracked his knuckles. Soon, fists started flying as the two commenced to fight. The other soldiers noticed what was going on, and before they knew it, they paused their battle for a bit to come forward and watch in better view as the two brawled in the middle, and then they began cheering for their own fighter.

Soon, Johnny Reb got the best of Billy Yank. As agreed, the Yank surrendered to him as a prisoner before the two rolled back into the gully as if nothing had happened. Once the show was over, the fighting resumed, and the bloody carnage of the Battle of the Wilderness recommenced. The warzone is indeed a crazy, crazy place.