Fire in the Wilderness
It was May 5, 1864.
Spring had arrived in the state of Virginia, but so had the Union army. It wasn’t the first time, either. In fact, they had marched through Virginia for quite some time. Month after month, battle after battle, year after year. Since 1861, the boys in blue had slugged it out, and lost, against the formidable General Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. These fights carried a heavy price tag. Thousands of lives had been lost. Countless more were wounded from physical scars, or the painful emotional blows from the losses of fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers. That said nothing of the many civilians caught in the crossfire whose lives were lost and houses burned. There weren’t many tables across the country that didn’t have the tragic vacant chair.
While the losses stacked up in the Eastern Theater, there was one general in the Western Theater who had quietly started beating the odds. General Ulysses S. Grant got his first victories early in the war with the captures of Forts Henry and Donelson. Although the bloody battle of Shiloh was a bit of a setback (rumor had it that rebel forces caught him drunk and unawares), the rest of his Civil War record was pretty clean. His crowning achievement came with the battle of Vicksburg. A months-long siege ended on July 4th, 1863 with a victorious Grant, and a city that refused to celebrate Independence Day for more than eighty years afterward.
As 1863 waned into 1864, and the Army of the Potomac suffered more and more setbacks, Abe Lincoln took notice of the hardened General Grant. By then, his nickname was “Unconditional Surrender.” Despite his rumored Achilles heel of alcohol, Abe Lincoln had found a fighter. He turned to Grant to take the reins of the embattled Army of the Potomac. Someone had to beat General Lee.
That’s just what Grant marched into Virginia to do. By May of 1864, spring had thawed the grasslands. Wildflower super blooms marked the places of last year’s fallen. Buds appeared on the trees, especially in a place known locally as “the Wilderness.”
Unsuitable for farming or even habitation, the Wilderness was a tangled mess of giant evergreens, young saplings, vines, and undergrowth. In the thick and snarled branches, navigation was impossible. It was hard to see through all that growth. There were no carved-out paths or trails. There was no room for marching. It was, to sum it up, a horrible place to even think about fighting a battle. Yet, it was here that Lee and Grant would clash for the first time in the opening offensive of 1864.
Lee and Grant had never faced off before, but veterans of both armies were on familiar ground. Just a year previous, the Union had suffered one of its worst defeats of the entire war in this exact area. During the Battle of Chancellorsville, the entire flank was routed by storming rebels in gray. Although it cost them one of their best generals, the Confederacy marched away victorious. Now, almost a year later, the rebs were ready for another go. They had the advantage, too. Many of their soldiers were hunters and woodsmen who knew the area. They were also hardened veterans. They wouldn’t back down from a fight.
As for the Union army, death and injury had severely thinned its veteran ranks. Although they had massive amounts of replacements, they weren’t exactly the cream of the crop of soldiers. Many were criminals and bounty hunters. The rest were still boys who hadn’t even set foot near a battlefield. Amongst more experienced men, morale was at an all-time low. A bloody offensive was the last thing they wanted or needed. Grant, as tough as he was, had his work cut out.
The first shots of the Battle of the Wilderness opened on May 5, 1864. As could be expected, it didn’t take long for the Union army to get bogged down in the treacherous trees and shrubs. There were no formal battle lines. There were no organized commands. In the dark and thick woods, it was every man for himself. Units and regiments were scattered and fragmented. They had nothing to go on except the scatters of light from their enemies’ rifles. And there were plenty of rifles. And cannons. And artillery. There was so much lead flying around that leaves and twigs fell like a rain shower, and the whole forest was soon wrapped in thick smoke. It was much more than any soldier had bargained for.
R.E. McBride of the Union Blue writes – “… All we could see of the enemy was the flash of their guns. … From 4 o’clock on we were into it all along the line, hot and heavy, teeth and nails, nip and tuck. It was a continuous roar of musketry, rising and swelling like the sound of surf pounding on the shore…. About dark, the roar died away and we began to look around… Matters are exceedingly confused, and some of our men sleep in the Rebel lines but not as prisoners.”
Charles Weygant, of the 124th New York, didn’t experience it any better – “The terrible tempest of disaster swept on down the Union line, beating back brigade after brigade… until upwards of twenty thousand veterans were fleeing, every man for himself, through the disorganizing and already blood-stained woods toward the Union rear… Hancock’s officers… planted their colors on nearly every rising piece of ground they came to; and, waving their swords and gnashing their teeth shrieked the order “Rally, men, rally,” but to no purpose.”
By the time night fell, the Union losses were horrific. They had given up most of their ground, and there were countless bodies in blue rags scattered throughout the Wilderness. The forest was too dark and thick for any medical units to retrieve the wounded. Disembodied cries echoed through the woods, lost soldiers stumbled around to find their regiments, and scattered sniper fire kept everyone on their toes. It was the makings of a scary night, but for an unfortunate many deep in the woods, it was about to get ten times worse.
During the heat of the battle, spark showers from thousands of rifles had ignited the dead leaves and underbrush in the Wilderness. With all the branches and twigs around, the fire had plenty of food, and it fast grew out of control. The Wilderness went from the hell of a battlefield to the hell of a burning inferno.
Blue or gray, soldiers scattered in any direction that they hoped was away from the flames, which took down anything in their path. The woods grew so hot that many an unlucky soldier had his ammunition pouch ignited on his waist. Smoke choked off the exits, as did crashing limbs and falling embers. The wounded had it the worst of all. Many were incapacitated. They could do nothing but scream as the flames closed in on them. They were then devoured, one by one.
“…With crackling roar like an army… it came down upon the Union line,” writes Union Private Warren Lee Goss of the fires. “The wind drove the blinding smoke and suffocating heat into our faces. This, added to the oppressive heat of the weather, was almost unendurable… The men fought the enemy and the flames at the same time. Their hair and beards were singed and their faces blistered….”
It’s that type of hellish scenario that is hard to even imagine. Two enemy armies desperate to escape, while the heat of the flames pressed in, and human screams cut the air. Yet, these moments of darkness can also set the stage for unprecedented acts of human compassion.
In 2016, my husband and I toured many of the Civil War battlefields. One of them was the Wilderness. I’d say it’s one of those battles that isn’t as well known today. Fights like Gettysburg, and the bloody climax of the war’s final days, sort of overshadow it. Perhaps that’s why we didn’t encounter many others as we walked through the quiet woods, took in the fading trenches and cannon emplacements, and wondered what it must have been like all those years ago.
While we walked about, we came upon a plaque that told about the fires of May 5. Relegated to a side note in many of the histories of this battle, this plaque reminded viewers of the horrors of that night. It also said that “both sides” worked together to try and carry wounded out of the flames.
Both sides. Boy did that get my wheels turning. I was moved almost to tears as I imagined blue and gray-clad soldiers throwing their weapons down and picking up anything they could use as a stretcher instead. I imagined the peril they put their own lives in to try and rescue their fellow soldiers, no matter what side they fought for.
As powerful as that must have been, it was one of the last chances for fraternizing that these two armies would ever see. Just a few days after his troops had been beaten bloody and incinerated in the Wilderness, Grant put them back on the march toward Spotsylvania. It would be an even bigger bloodbath (click here to read a previous post about it).
With the Overland Campaign, Grant brought the Eastern Theater a whole new type of war. There were no more grand marches or large army movements. There was no more strutting and feather-preening for fancy officers. There was no withdrawing and licking wounds after every defeat. Instead, it was attack, after attack, after attack. For the entirety of May and into June, men on both sides were under fire until it settled down to a siege in Petersburg. Trench Warfare was born.
It is an ugly chapter of history, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that plaque in the Wilderness. That quiet plaque that made a scant mention of something that should never be forgotten. The fact that even when the world burns around us, humans know what the right thing to do is. Help each other. It moves something deep down inside.
It was a strange (and heartbreaking) coincidence that as I researched and wrote this article, the beloved Cathedral Notre Dame in Paris burned. As I watched the updates, I could only sob. It was devastating for all of us. Yet, in the middle of that terrible day came unity. In a time of great division, people from all over the world reached out to France. French people banded together and prayed and sang hymns in the streets. Thousands of people asked how they could help. What they could do. Because that’s what being a human is.
Moments like this, and the story of the fires in the Wilderness, give me profound hope in human kind. There is so much pain in the world, and it sometimes forces many innocent people into impossible situations. Yet, even in those darkest hours, there are stories of light. There are people who cast off their guns and put out a helping hand. Even though it feels like the world is on fire, I know there are people who will spread the light. Whether in blue, or whether in gray.
BONUS ROUND! Some of you might have heard of the fantastic, and out-of-this-world super bloom that went on with the California Poppies this year. My husband and I were fortunate to be able to go and see them. It was like nothing I have ever seen. Please enjoy the photos by clicking here.
“The Battle of the Wilderness” – G.C. Rhea
“Bloody Roads South” – N.A. Trudeau
“Atlas of the Civil War” – National Geographic
“Recollections of a Private: A Story of the Army of the Potomac” – W.L. Goss
“Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac” – F. Wilkeson
The Wilderness National Battlefield
All photos by M.B. Henry