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.

Trenches in the Wilderness

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.

SOURCES

“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

72 Comments on “Fire in the Wilderness

  1. Riveting post, MB. This is a Civil War battle I had barely heard of, and you chronicled it expertly. Nice that there were some decent actions after the inferno, but one is still struck by the inhumanity of it all — so much killing, and the Confederacy basically fighting to save the ghastly institution of slavery.

    • I agree – it is hard to read about it day in and day out. Especially the Civil War – both the causes of and the horrid results. Yet, these bright spots are a welcome relief. They are good reminders that sometimes, we humans are capable of doing the right thing!

  2. It’s truly amazing the extremes of humanity, to both cause destruction and also bring light in the face of tragedy.

    • I couldn’t agree more – such an illustration of the light and dark we all have.

  3. Seems Satan brought his own flames of hell to the battle. “There weren’t many tables across the country that didn’t have the tragic vacant chair.” Poetic and well said. I have read it would be rare to find a family in the nation that had not lost a soldier in the Civil War.

    • Yes – satan’s flames are a very good way to describe what happened that night! Very well put. It was indeed rare – over 600,000 soldiers were killed in that war. That says nothing of civilians.

  4. Very well written! I was there a number of years ago but never had a camera then. Should have.

    • Glad you liked it! It’s a pretty interesting place to visit – lots of history with both Chancellorsville and Wilderness. Hope you get a chance to go again!

  5. Such pain and sadness! How I wish school history books had been written with this sense feeling of being there. I would have been so much more interested.

    • I totally agree -when the history is colored with emotion and the real lives of real, every day people, it makes it so much easier to connect with.

      • Absolutely! A teacher who loves the subject helps immensely too. All too often they are so overworked that the enthusiasm fails them. Thank you for the work you are doing in making history come alive.

      • It is my pleasure. I’ve always kind of felt it was a calling. And I was most fortunate to have a very enthusiastic history teacher in school.

  6. I love the way you blend the personal and the historical. I am always happy when I see you have a new post. Keep up the good work. Can’t wait for your next one.

    • Thank you so much!! Glad you enjoy the posts. Your compliments gave me a big smile! 🙂

  7. I’m not a christian, but i was sad, and shocked, when i heard about Notre Dame. I’m not american either (and although the war stories aren’t new), I always learn something from your posts. What’s the wilderness today?

    • That is very flattering, thank you for sharing that. I love being able to help people learn. I’d say the Wilderness of today, at least through my eyes, is how divided people are across the board.

      • hmmm, I meant in Virginia, what’s that wilderness now? A school, a closed in community, the highway?

      • Oh hahaha! Sorry, I read into that question wrong! 🙂 Today, the Wilderness is preserved as a National Battlefield and historic site. Many of the trenches are still there, as are the cannon emplacements. It’s quite interesting to walk through. (Sorry it took me so long to answer this question for you, for some reason, it went into my spam folder).

  8. M.B, I absolutely loved your post! Well done, it’s beautifully written, with drama, suspense, and an emotional finale. And those poppies gave me goosebumps. They’re just gorgeous and their symbolism made me think of WWI fallen soldiers. It’s hard not to get emotional. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful, moving story.

    • They made me think of that too! Great minds do think alike 🙂 I’ve read in a lot of WWI books and memoirs that 1918 saw one of the most incredible poppy superblooms across Flanders Fields bc of the fallen buried underneath. It made me think of that a lot. But don’t get me started on WWI I have a hard time shutting up once I get going hahaha. Thanks so much for your kind words – glad you liked the poppies!

  9. Very well-written post. I’ve visited two of the Civil War battlefields (Gettysburg and Vicksburg) but would like to see more. Have you read Cherow’s biography of Grant? Really excellent. Grant’s legacy is underestimated, I think, both as general and president.

    • I’ve been to Gettysburg as well, but not Vicksburg. I’d love to go visit someday. And I have read Chernow’s book, and I thought it was excellent. I had a hard time putting it down. Not that I would expect anything less from Chernow he has so many great books. Such a wonderful coverage of Grant – and I totally agree, underestimated is a great word to use when it comes to General Grant.

  10. Wonderfully written account! There were certainly lots of heart-wrenching decisions made during that fire. I can’t imagine the feelings and the actions of those involved.

  11. Thank you for your touching post on this (forgotten) Civil War battle. I wish I could write so vividly as you do. I am too very fascinated by how it could be to be alive through these battles long ago. We have letters, books and photos from the time to help us understand.

    • Yes -those letters and memoirs are an excellent source to draw on for the personal experience. Thank you for your very kind words!

  12. Your stories are always so captivating, and I like how you find a bright spot in an ugly situation. Thanks for enlightening me about this event.

    • I’m glad it moved you 🙂 We must always look for those bright spots, it’s the only way to make it through!

  13. Your descriptive writing is amazing. I could picture in my mind how horrific that battle must have been. I loved how you tied this part of history in with the Notre Dame fire, and the amazing display of humanity brought about in these events that are now a part of history. Your knowledge of history is a gift for us all. Thank you.

  14. I didn’t realize both sides were helping to carry the wounded away to safety. It’s those kinds of stories that give you hope.

    It must have been an emotional experience to be there and see the terrain. A previous commenter said he liked how you combine your thoughts with history, and I agree. It’s one of the things that make your writing so engaging.

    • The US Civil War especially has a lot of examples of both sides putting their swords away for the cause of humanity. Probably bc it was family fighting each other in a painful amount of circumstances 🙁 yet it does give me a lot of hope for the good in humanity! Visiting battlefields is always a powerful experience too. I’m so glad you enjoy the posts, it means a lot! 🙂

  15. This is a powerful story well told, M.B. Instances of human kindness like this one, or the one of soldiers during WWI putting down their arms to celebrate Christmas together (only to resume fighting shortly thereafter), do provide glimmers of hope. I often don’t share your optimistic outlook about humankind, even though I want (and need) to.
    Best wishes,
    Tanja

    • It’s not always easy, is it? 🙁 We must cling to those little glimmers of hope, and sometimes I have to REALLY cling to them! Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts.

  16. How I missed this, I will never know.

    At The Wilderness, three forces clashed: the union, the confederacy and nature. The fire of The Wilderness was like the mud of Verdun, it was an enemy that no one expected and could not be beat.

    • Couldn’t have said it better myself! Those “third armies” so often have the final say too. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts

  17. Powerfully written as always. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how these times must have been, filled with so much uncertainty. Thank you for always giving me a glimpse into history and those places of a time long past.

    • It is indeed hard to imagine, but it also gives me hope in a weird way. If they got through that, we can get through our own challenges too! So glad you came by and shared your thoughts, I always love hearing from you! <3

      • Absolutely. Thank you again for sharing such powerful stories with us. I am sorry to have been so absent. Your writing does mean a lot to me. Much love to you and thank you for all you do. ❤️

      • No apologies necessary <3 There's a lot going on in life these days! I'm just always glad to hear from you whenever that may be, because your thoughts are always wonderful!

      • Thank you so much for understanding. However I will always come around as you and your writing is important to me. Have a wonderful day my friend. Hugs

  18. I can barely imagine the horrors of this event. Your vivid details help bring it to life, and although it is terrifying, it is also important to remember what these men suffered. Thank you for your writing, Friend.

  19. Even though these battles were a part of my education as a Virginian, your telling of details make it come alive and more tragic than just learning the facts in a book.

    • That is incredibly flattering! Thank you so much, you’ve made my day 🙂

  20. Years ago I lived in the Allegheny Mountains in a tiny village called Hot Springs, Virginia. I had no idea I was so close to such historical landmarks. Thank you for sharing. 🙏🏻

    • You are most welcome! Glad you enjoyed it. I would love to live closer to Virginia! I guess I shall just have to visit more often

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