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Bad as was being shot by some of our own troops in the battle of the Wilderness, – that was an honest mistake, one of the accidents of war, – being shot at, since the war, by many officers, was worse… James Longstreet

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The Wilderness campaign Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c 1997 edited by Gary W. Gallagher Wilderness, Battle of the, Va., 1864 Book. xv, 283 p.: ill., maps ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [265]-267) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG   

Gary W. Gallagher has rounded up an impressive array of scholars to take another look at the 1864 Wilderness campaign. The Wilderness was selected because it inaugurated an epic confrontation between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee that would continue unabated until the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered eleven months later at Appomattox Court House. This collection of eight essays examines Union and Confederate expectations in the spring of 1864, analyzes an important test of the armies’ high commands, and sifts through conflicting evidence to interpret some of the most gripping incidents of the two days.

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Brooks Simpson leads off with an examination of the “Great Expectations” of the northern press regarding the Union army’s new leader, Ulysses S. Grant, and the opening of the Wilderness campaign. Like Lincoln, Simpson finds it ironic that so little attention was paid to the series of successes which opened 100,000 acres in the Western Theater and so much to a single  defeat. Relying largely on newspaper coverage of the war, Simpson asserts we can better appreciate the results if we consider the context of Grant’s overall strategy in refashioning the way the war was to be won by subordinating individual actions to the larger objectives of the war. While the north was waiting on a single victory Grant was happy to wage a war of attrition since he had learned that encirclement and strangulation were far more effective than attempting to attack a better led – if weaker – enemy.

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Using a number of sources that challenge both contemporary and more recent writing, editor Gallagher’s essay, “Our Hearts Are Full of Hope,” substantiates his claim that the morale of Confederate soldiers was surprisingly high in spring 1864. Soldiers’ letters consistently show a loyalty to the Confederacy that transcended attachments to state or locality. One key to their loyalty was the soldiers’ profound bond with Lee, which was best illustrated by James Longstreet’s corps upon its return to Virginia. Other vital ingredients of high army morale were the religious revival of that spring and a strong belief in the justness of the rebel cause.

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In his essay, “I Dread the Spring,” John J. Hennessey authoritatively sets the stage for the Army of the Potomac’s march south in May 1864 by thoroughly examining the views of Union officers and soldiers, which stood in sharp contrast to those of the previous year. Reasons for their greater optimism included better food and supplies, acceptance of emancipation, the strong collective identity necessary to the health of any organization that came from the emergence of regimental histories, the Gettysburg victory, changes in military leadership, and the restoration of civil government (which quieted the more politically conservative Union generals).

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Gordon Rhea examines the “Union Cavalry in the Wilderness” and concludes that the opening performances of Philip H. Sheridan and James H. Wilson proved bumbling and inept. Rhea condemns Sheridan for failing to screen the Army of the Potomac’s critical western flank and for not discovering the approaches of two Confederate corps. Wilson is blamed not only for not detecting Lee’s position, but for unwittingly supplying the Confederates critical information about Grant’s location and intentions. Overall, Rhea concludes, the two premier union cavalry officers in their first outing in the Eastern Theater showed uninspired leadership. George G. Meade also comes in for criticism for giving in to Sheridan’s persistent petitions to conduct a cavalry war rather than concentrating the cavalry toward Lee.

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In “Escaping the Shadow of Gettysburg,” Peter S. Carmichael claims that Confederate corps commanders Richard Ewell and Ambrose Powell Hill were mediocre lieutenant generals, failing to recognize the sound service the two rendered on May 5 and 6, 1864. Carmichael argues that too much attention has been paid to the personalities and physical characteristics of the corps commanders and too little to Lee’s decisions and instructions – of which he is highly critical. Ewell’s and Hill’s conduct at the Wilderness is partly attributed to Lee’s slowness to react to the Federal movement toward the Rapidan River and his failure to assure that Longstreet’s corps was closer to the Wilderness. The essay concludes that Ewell was understandably cautious, given his orders not to get entangled with the enemy, and Hill can be excused for refusing to rectify his disordered lines late on May 5. Carmichael relies too heavily on secondary accounts, stumbles over his premises and trips to a conclusion supported by assumptions not supported elsewhere.

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Robert K. Krick’s “‘Lee to the Rear,’ the Texans Cried,” shows his authoritative and engaging style as he examines one of the more romantic episodes of the battle. Sifting through a large amount of  material (the endnotes form nearly a separate essay), Krick describes the actions of Longstreet’s corps, particularly John Bell Hood’s old “Texas Brigade,” and William T. Poague‘s guns in this interpretation of Lee’s  actions during the repulse of the Union troops north of the Plank Road on May 6.

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Carol Reardon’s flowing narrative, “The Other Grant,” seems mislabeled. The focus is on the heroic “Vermont Brigade” that Lewis A. Grant formed, and which Reardon credits with saving the day for the Union on May 5. Reardon carefully weaves accounts by these Vermont soldiers to reinterpret the roles of Winfield Scott Hancock‘s Second Corps and George W. Getty’s division of the Sixth Corps along the Plank Road, which, in turn, offers some of the best impressions of the intensity of individual fighting on this aptly named Virginia terrain. Relying heavily on the soldiers’ own words, Reardon not only assures these Vermonters of renown, but she brings to the struggle a writing style that personalizes the battle.

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“Like a Duck on a June Bug” is the way one Confederate soldier described the results of Longstreet’s flank attack against the Union left, along the Plank Road, near noon on May 6, and which Krick compares favorably with the more acclaimed movement by Jackson a year earlier at Chancellorsville. No better illustration of the flank attack can be found in Virginia during the Civil War than that made by the greatly outnumbered “makeshift Confederate force which inflicted thirty minutes of terror on Hancock’s corps. Unfortunately, in his thought-provoking essay, Krick concludes that however successful Longstreet’s attack and however damaging his wound, “only overwhelming defeat could have stalled Grant’s campaign.”

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