Sometimes I think about the books I’ll read again when I’m retired and have all the free time in the world. The Leatherstocking Tales always come to mind when I do this—not in the order they were written, but in “chronological order” from when Natty is the youthful Deerslayer, on his first warpath, to when we bid farewell to him as an old man on the ever-advancing westward Prairie. Another is Gordon Rhea’s meticulous and superb series on Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign.
The Battle of the Wilderness is actually the first in that series, but it’s the fourth one I’ve read, and I’ve scoured the Internet looking for news of when and if the fifth and further ones are coming out (Gordon, if you’re out there with a Google Alert set on your name, please let me know.) As I’ve previously reported, these books and their author seem unique in their ability to simultaneously: (a) convey a great deal of detailed information about troop movements; (b) capture the perspectives of the individual soldiers fighting the battles; and (c) explain the strategy underlying it all and the thoughts going on in the heads of the commanding generals. Most battle narratives I’ve read focus on only one of these areas and give short shrift to the other two. Rhea consistently balances all three in works that are both scholarly and accessible to the average reader.
Now, having said that. Let me take issue with one of the first strategic overviews he gives in this first book of his excellent series.
On the face of it, Lee’s plan had an appealing logic. The possibilities became even more exciting upon a close look at the map. A few miles below the Rapidan fords on Lee’s right sprawled a densely wooded tract known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. From the rebel perspective, the Wilderness offered an ideal battlefield. [Major General George G.] Meade’s imposing artillery and cavalry would be hobbled, and the Federals would have difficulty bringing their numbers to bear. Accosting Meade in the Wilderness made eminent sense as a southern objective.
Like all of Rhea’s writing, this appears a lucid and reasoned synopsis of Lee’s battle strategy. Except it strikes me as relying too much on hindsight.
The whole Overland Campaign is a string of battles in which the Federals aggressively attack the Southerners and get slaughtered in great numbers—the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor; they all follow that pattern. Every one a numerical loss for Grant but every one an opportunity to whittle away at the unreplaceable veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia and drive closer to the rebel capital in Richmond. What’s different about the Wilderness is that it was fought in the Wilderness, a place that caused just as many problems with communication and unit cohesion for Lee as it did for Grant.
For Lee to snag Meade in the toils of the Wilderness, he would have to take steps to retard the Union advance. Otherwise, the Federals might march through the Wilderness before Lee had sufficient opportunity to maneuver into place. Even [Lieutenant General Richard S.] Ewell’s corps, which held the downriver portion of the Rapidan defensive live, would need nearly a day to swing across the roads radiating from the fords. And if the Confederates failed to win the race against Meade, the consequence would be catastrophic. A massive Union host would stand between the Army of Northern Virginia and the capital it was charged to defend.
I don’t think Lee wanted to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. I think Lee felt like he had to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. To allow the Federals to march past and onto Richmond was unthinkable. But the fact was Grant did not march the Army of the Potomac towards Richmond when he had the chance. After crossing the Rapidan he turned the blue columns west towards Lee, not south towards Richmond, because Lee’s army, not the Southern capital, was Grant’s objective. Lee did not yet know it, but Lincoln and Grant had figured out that as long as Lee led an army in the field, the Confederacy would live on, regardless of how many of its cities the Federals occupied.
Lee had earlier described the first precept of his military philosophy: to do “everything in my power to make my plan as perfect as possible, and to bring the troops upon the field of battle.” The Wilderness was clearly the Confederates’ most advantageous field of battle. To better the chances of fighting there, one possibility was to fortify Germanna Ford and Ely’s Ford. A few well-placed brigades at the crossings might buy the Army of Northern Virginia time to move across Meade’s path. A second option involved edging substantial contingents from Ewell, [Lieutenant General Ambrose P.] Hill, and perhaps even [Lieutenant General James] Longstreet toward the Wilderness. With their marching time reduced, these units would be able to ambush the enemy in the woodland and hold them there until the rest of the Confederate army came up. As [Brigadier General E. Porter] Alexander later put it, “In view of the great probabilities that Grant would move upon our right flank very early in May, it does not seem that there would have been any serious difficulty in having both Hill and Ewell out of their winter camps and extended a few miles in that direction and Longstreet’s corps even as far down as Todd’s Tavern [below the Wilderness].
The impossibility of removing Longstreet from the rail line prevented Lee from advancing the entire 1st Corps, but there was no compelling reason against sidling substantial elements from Longstreet, Ewell, and Hill toward the Wilderness. Doing so would sharply increase the odds of pinning Grant in the thickets with little weakening of the Confederate defensive works.
Inexplicably, Lee neglected to take any steps calculated to influence Meade’s advance or to ensure that the Confederates would reach the Wilderness ahead of him. [Major General] Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry patrols were instructed to sound the alarm on Meade’s approach, but they were not expected to offer any serious obstacle to the Union army’s progress. No attempt was made to fortify the Rapidan crossings or to hold rebel infantry in readiness to offer resistance. And not a single Confederate unit was ordered toward the Wilderness to get a jump on the northerners.
Inexplicably? There’s nothing inexplicable about it. Lee did not want to fight Grant in the Wilderness, where his movements and communications would be just as hobbled as Grant’s. He wanted to find out where Grant was going and then attack him in pieces as he had done to so many other Northern generals. The clashes ultimately came in the Wilderness, but it was not ground of Lee’s choosing.
Leaving the pace of the Federal movement to chance, Lee chose to rely solely on his second precept: “The rest must be done by my generals and their troops, trusting to Providence for the victory.”
The gamble exposed the Army of Northern Virginia to fearsome risks. Lee’s troops were dangerously outnumbered, and the capacity of his generals remained a matter of genuine concern. By failing to take steps to ensure that his army would meet the enemy on advantageous ground, Lee was courting disaster.
Having neglected to lay plans with his accustomed degree of care, Lee had nothing to fall back on but Providence, the final ingredient in the gray-haired general’s formula for victory. Fortunately for the rebels, Providence had not abandoned them. At that very moment, its hand could be seen in decisions being made across the Rapidan by the Union top command.
And this is the most perplexing of all. Providence? Does Rhea know what Lee meant when he spoke of Providence? Lee meant the divine hand of Almighty God, whom Lee and Lincoln and hundreds of others had deluded themselves into thinking actually cared one way or the other in this bloody flight in one corner of His creation. Is that what Rhea means, too? I hope not. One of the lessons war is supposed to teach all of us is that God is not on anybody’s side.
It is a device he returns to a few more times, to explain away the quirks of fate that bend Lee’s way but never, it seems, those that bend Grant’s. Here he speaks of Providence playing a role in the Union decision to stop the blue columns in the Wilderness rather than marching through it.
Headquarters, however, decided to stop the troops in the Wilderness during the afternoon of May 4. Providence, it seemed, was restoring to Lee the opportunity that he had neglected to achieve by his own planning.
A shame that Providence couldn’t figure out a way to resolve this conflict without such a horrific loss of life.
But I’m willing to cut Rhea some slack because he’s so good at putting together so many other pieces of the puzzle. He’s especially good at putting in details of the individual soldier’s experience, culled from the many diaries, letters and remembrances that he cites throughout his impressive work. Here’s a moving example from the Union side, a private with some time to kill the night before the Battle of the Wilderness would begin in earnest.
As darkness fell, Private Wilkeson, who had heeded admonitions to collect as much food and water as possible, strolled around Chancellorsville. In some places, polished skulls covered the ground. Leg bones, arm bones, and ribs protruded from shallow graves. Other soldiers joined him. Together they studied remains for bits of clothing to determine whether they belonged to Yankees or Confederates. They built a fire where the graves were thickest. Sitting on the long, low mounds, they talked about the previous spring’s fighting. Smoke drifted through the air. Trees swayed and sighed in the wind. A veteran recounted how the year before, the wounded had helplessly burned to death in thick underbrush. Listeners shuddered and drew closer around the fire. “This region,” whispered the veteran, waving his arm toward the surrounding woods, “is an awful place to fight in. The utmost extent of vision is about one hundred yards. Artillery cannot be used effectively. The wounded are liable to be burned to death. I am willing to take my chances of getting killed, but I dread to have a leg broken and then to be burned slowly; and these woods will surely be burned if we fight here. I hope we will get through this chapparal without fighting.” The speaker took off his cap and quietly smacked it clean of dust from the day’s journey. The men sat silently smoking, staring into the fire. An infantry soldier, who had been stabbing a shallow grave with a bayonet, pried out a skull and rolled it across the ground. He spoke in a deep, quiet voice. “This is what you are all coming to, and some of you will start toward it tomorrow.” The group broke up, most of the men scurrying back to their regimental camps. A few, including Wilkeson, remained by the dying embers and smoked. Lee, they said among themselves, was going to face Grant in the Wilderness. And all of them agreed that Lee held the advantage. After midnight, Wilkeson crept under his caisson, resting his head on a knapsack and dozing to the pops of rifle shots from cavalry pickets patrolling toward Fredericksburg. Dawn was not far off, and with it would come another march and perhaps battle. And somewhere to the west, in blackness beyond the farthest glow of Meade’s dying campfires, Lee’s soldiers were filing by thousands onto Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike.
It sometimes easy to forget how much death the Civil War brought, and how difficult it must have been for the men who lived through it to see so much of it going on around them. A callousness towards it is to be expected, I suppose, as is a kind of resignation and ambivalence should it ever find you.
The other thing Rhea is so good at is not over-dramatizing the mythic events that surround so many Civil War battles. Indeed, in Cold Harbor, he bit by bit dismantles most of that battle’s common folklore through meticulous research and cogent analysis. In The Battle of the Wilderness, his treatment of one of the first “Lee to the rear” stories of the war is refreshing in its simple recitation of the facts and lack of heart-swelling hyperbole.
It is one of the most interesting aspects of the Wilderness—that twice the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia came within inches of being captured by enemy troops or being wounded in battle. It was partly a result of the tangled mess that was the battlefield. No one, Federal and Confederate commander alike, really knew where they were or where the enemy was at any given time. Chance encounters with potentially disastrous effects happened frequently.
Suddenly a line of Union skirmishers materialized from the shadows and nervously probed into the field, guns ready. Lee self-assuredly walked toward Orange Plank Road calling for his adjutant Taylor. [Major General James E. B.] Stuart stood up and stared straight at the Yankees. Hill remained still, his aide [Colonel William H.] Palmer at his side.
Within pistol shot of the bluecoats, and for a moment breathlessly frozen in time, stood as rich a prize as a Yankee mind could imagine. Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, and Powell Hill were helpless, unprotected, and ripe for plucking.
The three Confederate generals escaped that encounter, the Federal commander not realizing who they were and believing their presence indicated a larger Confederate force he was not ready to meet. But a closer call would come later, when Lee’s own enthusiasm and need to strike a killing blow would compel him to attempt to lead an infantry charge himself.
For me, it is actually a sign of how desperate the Confederate situation was becoming. As in many of his battles, Lee’s army was divided, with Longstreet’s corps not engaged on the first day and marching hard to reach the battle on the second. Lee counted heavily on Longstreet’s early morning arrival, but when the Union general Hancock attacked on May 6, Longstreet was not yet up and the men of A. P. Hill’s corps were not ready for it. Tired and wounded from the battle of May 5, they broke and ran from the advancing Federal troops.
Lee and Hill were furiously attempting to restore order. The commander in chief’s composure was shattered. He was “excited and chagrined,” recalled an onlooker, and he spoke “rather roughly” to unheeding soldiers. Spotting [Brigadier General Samuel] McGowan bobbing along in a sea of gray uniforms, Lee rushed to the brigadier and shouted, “My God! General McGowan, is this splendid brigade of yours running like a flock of geese?” McGowan answered, “General, the men are not whipped. They only want a place to form, and they will fight as well as they ever did.” [Major General Cadmus] Wilcox materialized out of the vortex of troops and reported on his division’s perilous condition. Lee had no time to listen. It was obvious what had happened. Without reinforcements, all was lost. “Longstreet must be here,” Lee exclaimed in exasperation. “Go bring him up.” Relegated to the role of messenger, Wilcox rode off, swept along by soldiers hurrying to escape the Federal onslaught. In anticipation of the worst, Lee directed his aide [Lieutenant Colonel Walter H.] Taylor to ride to Parker’s Store and prepare the army’s supply train for immediate retreat. [Charles] Venable was dispatched to help find Longstreet.
Here’s a glimpse of Lee we’ve seldom seen, but will see more of here in the Wilderness and in the battles yet to come. The master of grand strategy, the general who moves the pieces on the chessboard but lets them do the actual fighting, is forced to take tactical command of the situation and act the part of a combat general. His army is smaller than it used to be, divided, and is losing both good men and good leaders. As he and A. P. Hill work to restore order, the former artilleryman Hill actually dismounts from his horse and helps to fire one of the Confederate cannon. What a scene that must have been!
Longstreet’s men do come up—in the nick of time—as the Union troops are actively advancing through the clearing Lee had been using for his headquarters. A blow must be struck and struck hard if the Confederate Army is to survive and Lee, painfully short of aggressive combat generals, again takes direct command.
Gregg’s troops swept past the batteries where Lee was standing. [Brigadier General John] Gregg was a stranger to Lee, having served in the Confederacy’s western armies before joining the 1st Corps during the Tennessee campaign. Flushed with excitement, Lee eased his horse next to Gregg and shouted above the din, “General, what brigade is this?”
“The Texas brigade,” came the answer.
“I am glad to see it,” cried Lee. “When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel—they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.” Pausing to study the approaching blue line, Lee added by way of encouragement, “The Texas brigade always has driven the enemy, and I want them to do it now. And tell them, General, that they will fight today under my eyes—I will watch their conduct. I want every man of them to know I am here with them.”
“Attention, Texas Brigade,” Gregg boomed for all to hear. “The eyes of General Lee are upon you. Forward. March.”
Lee could not contain his excitement. He raised high in his stirrups. Emotion transformed his face. Tearing off his hat and waving it high, he shouted, “Texans always move them!”
“A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around,” recalled a Texan near Gregg’s front ranks, “and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heartfelt tears.” Leonard Gee, one of Gregg’s couriers, summed up the feeling. “I would charge hell itself got that old man,” he swore in a voice choked with emotion.”
Indeed they would, and Lee knew it. He was counting on their love of him as one of the key weapons they had left to them, to be used in crucial situations where men must be motivated to do what they otherwise wouldn’t. But Lee feels the need to do still more.
The Texans continued on, eight hundred strong, straight at the Federals. Still agitated, Lee spurred his horse through the cannon and advanced with Gregg’s soldiers. At first the Texans did not notice that Lee was with them. Part way across the field, however, it became apparent that he intended to lead the charge himself. That would never do. Ahead was death, especially for a man on horseback.
“Go back, General Lee. Go back!” came the cry, spreading across the entire column. But Lee would not stop. The Texans slowed their pace, looking over at the bareheaded man. Lee’s gray hair splayed in the breeze. His eyes were fixed on the front. “We won’t go on unless you come back,” the troops shouted, but he ignored their pleas. Several soldiers attempted to lead the general’s horse to the rear, and a particularly tall Texan seized his rein. It appeared to one onlooker that “five and six of his staff would gather around him, seize him, his arms, his horse’s reins, but he shook them off and moved forward.”
According to Venable, who was the only aide present, Gregg remonstrated with Lee. “Well then, I will go back,” replied the rebel commander, and began turning his horse around. “Yonder is General Longstreet,” cried Venable, pointing out the commander of the 1st Corps to Lee. Lee and Longstreet conferred briefly on troop dispositions; then Lee moved a little way off. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Venable informed Longstreet of Lee’s attempt to lead the Texas brigade’s charge. Something had to be done to prevent him from risking his life again.
Longstreet handled the assignment with “affectionate bluntness,” the staffer later recounted. Riding over to Lee, Longstreet assured the gray-haired general that he could restore the Confederate line if given a free hand. But if not needed, he would like to leave, “as it was not quite comfortable where we were.” As Longstreet recalled it, Lee was “off his balance.” Reluctantly, the Virginian rode to the rear, leaving the immediate details of the fighting to his trusted subordinate. Taking firm control, Longstreet ordered Hill’s soldiers to re-form while he prepared his 1st Corps to counterattack. Up and down, Longstreet rode, his horse at a walk, addressing each regiment as it slipped into line. “Keep cool, men, we will straighten this out in a short time—keep cool,” Palmer heard him repeating.
Here, and in other places, Rhea portrays Lee as being moved by his own passion, but I think there is more calculation than passion in these actions. Lee knew the effect his presence had on his men, and their willingness to charge even certain death to prove their worthiness to them. But here, unlike the third day at Gettysburg, Lee feels he can no longer hang back while his men take all the risks. His presence among them will inspire them all the more, and the longer odds against him require that additional inspiration. But more importantly, he can never again ask his men to do what he is not willing to do himself.
And despite their refusal of his risking his own safety, they perform as Lee needs them to and as they must if the Confederacy is to survive.
Gregg’s Confederates charged again. This time the Union line bowed back. But the Federals were too numerous for the lone rebel brigade. Face-to-face fighting continued, with neither side willing to retreat. “For 25 minutes we held them steady,” boasted a Confederate who lived through the carnage, “and at the expiration of that time more than half of our brave fellows lay around us dead, dying and wounded, and the few survivors could stand it no longer.” So severe was the combat that many Federals fired without finishing loading. Later, a rebel recalled ramrods driven into trees so deeply that he could not pull them out. Gregg was nearly killed, and blood flowed from several bullet wounds in his horse. His seasoned troops could not withstand such punishment. At his command, they grudgingly gave ground. The brigade had been diminished to a skirmish line. Of 800 men who went into action, fewer than 250 returned unharmed. The 5th Texas lost its commander, its officers, and nearly two-thirds of its troops. The 3rd Arkansas lost its colonel and all but two officers. Some companies were almost obliterated. In one, a single soldier survived to answer the next day’s roll call. The price had been high but Gregg had accomplished his goal. He had rocked the Union assault column back on its heels.
After this retreat a brigade of Georgians go in, and after they are “badly cut up,” a brigade of Alabamians charge forward.
Taking notice of the Alabamians, Lee asked, “What troops are these?” A private in the 15th Alabama called back, “Law’s Alabama brigade.” Lee shouted, “God bless the Alabamans. Alabama soldiers, all I ask of you is to keep up with the Texans.” To William Perry, who was commanding Law’s brigade, the effect was electrifying. “It is impossible not to feel that every man that passed him was, for the time being, a hero,” he later wrote.
Yes, send more of them in, Bobby Lee. Pump them full of passion and fidelity, and then send them in to their deaths. He had to. Even though he was running out of men, many of whom were well nigh impossible to replace, he had to keep pushing them harder and harder. It was the only chance he had to win.
But at what cost? Let’s move forward several hours, after Longstreet has completed a successful flank attack on Hancock’s men, and is out scouting with his staff in an attempt to keep the pressure on.
Shots rang out and deadly minie balls whizzed through the air. Someone cried out, “Show your colors.” The 12th Virginia’s color bearer—the same man who had refused to give the flag to [Lieutenant Colonel Moxley G.] Sorrel a few minutes before—kept his wits. Boldly striding into the roadway, he waved the flag overhead. The headquarters cavalcade was caught in the cross fire. [Brigadier General Micah] Jenkins’ soldiers fell to their knees and aimed blindly into the brush. Realizing that the shooting came from Confederates [Brigadier General Joseph B.] Kershaw dashed into Jenkins’ troops in an attempt to prevent an even greater tragedy. “They are friends,” he screamed. Immediately understanding what had happened, Jenkins’ men held their fire. Bullets ricocheted through the woodland. In these thickets, where figures could be perceived only dimly through smoke and trees, men on horseback ran a special risk. A lead projectile tore through Jenkins’ skull, tumbling the handsome South Carolinian from his horse. “F-r-i-e-n-d-s!” screamed Kershaw. Longstreet rode forward to try to stop the firing. He was a heavy man and maintained a firm seat in his saddle. Looking over, Sorrel saw Longstreet lift straight up, then drop down hard. A confused look clouded Longstreet’s face. Blood spurted from a gaping hole in his neck. More gushed from an exit wound behind his right shoulder. Not yet fully comprehending what had happened, the War Horse tried to turn and ride back. Slowly he slumped in the saddle. His body began to flop from side to side. Seeing that Longstreet was about to fall, his aides jumped to the ground. They quieted his horse, then lifted Longstreet and laid him under a tree.
Longstreet was one of Lee’s original corps commanders. Shortly after the Seven Days in 1862, Lee organized the Army of Northern Virginia into two mighty corps, the first under James Longstreet, the second under Stonewall Jackson. It was in this configuration that the army won all of its glory, at battles like Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Lee’s masterpiece of strategy, Chancellorsville. But it was at Chancellorsville that Jackson was killed, shot accidently by his own troops while scouting for a fresh attack. The army was never the same after that, Lee creating three corps out of what had once been two, and never again regaining the one-two punch of aggressiveness and power that Jackson and Longstreet had brought him. And now, almost a year to the day later, at a spot less than two miles away from where Jackson had been shot, Longstreet was wounded accidently by his own troops while scouting for a fresh attack on the enemy. Longstreet would recover, but psychologically, it was a blow from which the army wouldn’t.
Longstreet was bleeding profusely from where a bullet had entered his neck and passed out his right shoulder. His staff conducted a hurried examination and concluded that the wound was fatal. Francis Dawson, a British volunteer, mounted and darted rearward to find a doctor. “Giving the sad news to the first surgeon I could find,” he later wrote, “I made him jump on my horse, and bade him, for Heaven’s sake, ride as rapidly as he could to the front where Longstreet was.” It just so happened that Dawson had given his mount to Dr. J. S. D. (“Dorsey”) Cullen, the 1st Corps’ medical director. Cullen reached the prostrate Longstreet without delay. The general was choking on his own blood. Laboring feverishly, the doctor tried to stanch the hemorrhage.
Longstreet, despite his condition, remained preoccupied with the battle. Propped against a tree, a bloody froth bubbling at his mouth, he called orders to a passing colonel. “Tell General Field to take command,” he rasped, “and move forward with the whole force and gain the Brock Road.” Field was quickly summoned to Longstreet’s side. Realizing that his injury might be fatal, Longstreet conducted a whispered conversation with his division commander. “Assume command of the corps,” Longstreet told him. “Press the enemy.” Longstreet’s instructions to his aide-de-camp were in the same spirit. “He urged me to hasten to General Lee,” Sorrel later recorded, “report what had been accomplished, and urge him to continue the movement he was engaged on; the troops being all ready, success would surely follow, and Grant, he firmly believed, be driven back across the Rapidan.”
Dr. Cullen meanwhile managed to check the flow of blood. The general was lifted onto a litter and a hat placed over his face to shield him from the sun. Word traveled quickly, and gray-clad soldiers crowded the road to verify reports of Longstreet’s injury for themselves. The inert form, face covered, seemed to confirm their worst fears. “He is dead, and they are telling us he is only wounded,” soldiers murmured. Concerned about the morale of his corps, Longstreet drew on his seemingly inexhaustible reserve of energy and lifted his hat with his left hand. The response was immediate. “The burst of voices and the flying of hats in the air,” Longstreet later reminisced, “eased my pains somewhat.” Longstreet was lifted into an ambulance and a somber procession jostled toward the Confederate hospital tents at Parker’s Store. The general’s staff rode silently with the wagon, one distraught officer standing on the conveyance’s rear step to be nearer the injured Longstreet. “I never on any occasion during the four years of the war saw a group of officers and gentlemen more deeply disturbed,” recorded a passing artillery major. “They were literally bowed down with grief. All of them were in tears. One, by whose side I rode for some distance, was himself severely hurt, but he made no allusion to his wound, and I do not believe he felt it.” The artilleryman looked inside. Longstreet’s hat, coat, and boots had been removed and the blood had drained from his face. “I noticed how white and dome-like his great forehead looked and, with scarcely less reverent admiration, how spotless white his socks and his fine gauze undervest, save where the black red gore from his breast and shoulder had stained it. While I gazed at his massive frame, lying so still, except when it rocked inertly with the lurch of the vehicle, his eyelids frayed apart till I could see a delicate line of blue between them, and then he very quietly moved his unwounded arm and, with thumb and two fingers, carefully lifted the saturated undergarment from his chest, holding it up for a moment, and heaved a deep sigh.” Within the hour, Longstreet’s ambulance had reached the Confederate field hospital. There Dr. Cullen and three other surgeons probed the wound. It was, they concurred, “not necessarily fatal.”
Both armies struggled and lost good men in the Wilderness. I think that’s the point I’m trying to make. This wasn’t a cakewalk for Lee—a happy jaunt to lure Grant into the Wilderness so they could bushwhack him. The Confederates got tangled and turned around just as much as the Federals did, and Lee, with less men and more to lose, had to turn several more somersaults than Grant in order to keep from losing his army. Contrast Rhea’s depiction of Lee’s desperation when Federal troops stumble into the very clearing of his headquarters to that of Grant’s cool-headedness under the same threat.
The general-in-chief was seated on a stump. For a few moments, it appeared that the fighting might reach him. Grant rose and surveyed the scene, cigar smoke mingling with smoke from Union cannon. “General, wouldn’t it be prudent to move headquarters to the other side of the Germanna road till the result of the present attack is known?” suggested an edgy officer. Grant responded quietly, punctuating his remarks with puffs from his cigar. “It strikes me it would be better to order up some artillery and defend the present location.” A Federal battery was obediently rolled forward. The precaution, it developed, was unnecessary. Union artillery fire deterred Confederates from entering the Lacy clearing.
They say Gettysburg was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, but I think it was actually the Wilderness. Lee still had men to fight with after Gettysburg, and was willing to risk them in aggressive moves against his enemy. After the Wilderness, however, he was finally hamstrung by the lack of replacements and Grant’s constant pressure into a perpetually defensive posture. Rhea echoes this reality in the typically sound analysis he provides at the end of the book.
But in a broader perspective, the battle manifested a Confederate failure. The southerners had been unable to maintain the initiative. Now the Army of Northern Virginia’s offensive capacity was spent. The armies faced each other across a few hundred yards of shattered brush. The grand maneuvers that had served Lee so well in the past were no longer possible. The only reasonable course of action remaining to the Confederates was to stay in their strong defensive line and wait for Grant to make a mistake.
This is what makes the Wilderness different from the other battles of the Overland Campaign. It confirmed once and for all that the ghastly mathematics of the North’s superior numbers would finally bring the war to an end. One has to wonder how many lives could have been saved if Lee had allowed himself to recognize this fact prior to Appomattox.