Fire in the Wilderness
Spring had arrived in the state of Virginia, but so had the Union army. It wasn’t the first time, either. 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 too. Thousands of soldiers lay buried under Virginia’s thick soil. Countless more bore wounds from physical scars, or the painful emotional blows from the hell they endured. That said nothing of the civilians caught in the crossfire, who lost their lives, their homes, and their precious family members who never returned from the fields. Few tables across the country escaped the tragic vacant chair.
While the losses stacked up in the Eastern Theater, one general in the West had quietly started beating the odds. General Ulysses S. Grant gained his first victories early in the war, with the captures of Forts Henry and Donelson. Although the bloody battle of Shiloh proved a bit of a setback (rumor had it rebel forces caught him drunk and unawares), the rest of Grant’s 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 after the war.
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, he went by the nickname “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. No one could navigate through the thick, snarled branches. People couldn’t see in the dim forest, with no carved-out paths or trails. The thick shrubs left little room for marching or battle formations. It was, to sum it up, a horrible place to even think about fighting a battle. Yet, in the opening offensive of 1864, Lee and Grant clashed here for the first time.
While Lee and Grant had never faced off before, veterans of both armies stood on familiar ground. Just a year previous, the Union had suffered one of its worst defeats in this exact area. During the Battle of Chancellorsville, storming rebels in gray had routed the entire Union flank. 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, and they had the upper hand. Many of their soldiers were hunters and woodsmen who knew the area cold. They were also hardened veterans who 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. Criminals and bounty hunters formed a large share of the new ranks. Boys who hadn’t even set foot near a battlefield plugged the empty gaps. Amongst more experienced men, morale had hit 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 ground. They lost track of all battle lines and formal commands. The thick trees scattered the regiments and ranks. Fighting broke down to every man for himself, and they had nothing to go on except the scatters of light from enemy rifles. And there were plenty of rifles, and cannons, and artillery. So much lead flew around the forest that leaves and twigs fell like a rain shower. Smoke billowed through the trees and further restricted visibility. 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, Union losses had mounted to horrific heights. They had given up most of their ground, and countless bodies in blue rags speckled the Wilderness. The forest’s cloak of darkness refused entrance to medical units. Disembodied cries echoed through the woods, lost soldiers stumbled around to find their regiments, and scattered sniper fire kept everyone on their toes. That would be bad enough on its own, but for an unfortunate many deep in the woods, things grew 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 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. Since most were incapacitated, they could do nothing but scream as the flames closed in on them, and then devoured them, 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 a 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, including the Wilderness. I’d say it’s a hollowed ground that’s not 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 histories of this battle, this plaque reminded viewers of the horrors of that night. It also stated that “both sides” worked together to try and carry wounded out of the flames.
Both sides. Boy did that get my wheels turning. The thought moved me 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’s one of the few known instances of fraternizing between these two armies in the Overland Campaign. 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, which devolved into an even bigger bloodbath (click here to read about it).
With the Overland Campaign, Grant brought the Eastern Theater a whole new type of war. Grand marches, pompous parades, and mass army movements disappeared. Strutting and feather-preening for fancy officers became a thing of the past. There was no more withdrawing and licking wounds after every defeat. Instead, Grant pushed attack after attack after attack. A soldier’s shovel became just as important as his gun. For the entirety of May and into June, men on both sides got fed to the cannons until the war settled down to a siege in Petersburg, and 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. 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. 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, the light emerges. People 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