In a war that he piled one horrific scene on another, soldiers had plenty of opportunity to catch their own glimpses of hell: “Hell’s half-acre” at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle; the Hell Hole at New Hope Church during the Atlanta campaign; “the vortex of Hell” at Gettysburg’s Wheatfield.
In that context, then, perhaps Horace Porter’s characterization of the Wilderness as “Hell itself” is just another hyperbolic turn of phrase chosen for its shock value in a crowded field of shocking descriptions.
I think Porter raises the bar, though to call it Hell itself. It’s not just like Hell—it is Hell. Hell embodied. Hell made real. Hell itself.
Here is what he wrote:
All circumstances seemed to combine to make the scene one of unutterable horror. At times the wind howled through the tree-tops, mingling its moans with the groans of the dying, and heavy branches were cut off by the fire of the artillery, and fell crashing upon the heads of the men, adding a new terror to battle. Forest fires raged; ammunition trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing. It seems as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.
The Wilderness featured all the carnage and suffering found at any other battle, plus the oppressiveness of the forest and, of course, all the fires. I wasn’t there, of course, but I can easily imagine that it must have come close indeed to the men’s classical understanding of what Hell was. Typified by Dante’s Inferno and seared into both armies by fire-and-brimstone preachers during the 1862-63 revivalist fervor, they were well educated on what to expect.
And then they saw it first-hand in the Wilderness.
When my publisher chose the phrase “Hell Itself” as the title of my new book—from several suggestions I had offered—I wasn’t sure how I felt. I had included it on the list because, as a title, it would be an attention-grabber. As a title, it’s bold, perhaps shocking—maybe off-puttingly so. It is in your face, unequivocal in its harshness. Perhaps some might even find it distasteful. Others might feel it trivializes something they consider quite real and deadly serious.
The title required a conceptual shift for me as a writer. I have long thought of the Wilderness as “the dark, close wood,” a characterization that comes from J. F. J. Caldwell, a South Carolinian from McGowan’s Brigade. “Danger is far less formidable in the bright, open, ventilated field, than in the dark, close wood,” Caldwell wrote in the regimental history; “and it is the experience of every Confederate soldier that we fought more cheerfully where we could see our enemies, were they never so numerous, than where they could creep upon us and deal their blows invisible.”
I used the phrase as the title of my first Wilderness book, The Dark, Close Wood: The Wilderness, Ellwood, and the Battle that Redefined Both, at the suggestion of John Hennessey, chief of interpretation at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, who invited me to write that book. He also graciously allowed me to use it as the basis for Hell Itself. Although I expanded the work significantly and restructured important parts of the narrative, The Dark, Close Wood sits at the core of Hell.
In writing that first book, I came to appreciate the Wilderness as a character, something that has influenced my interpretation there and at Chancellorsville. Conceptually, though, the new book forced me to rethink the Wilderness as an angrier place, not just an oppressive one. The new title, I think, puts more emphasis on the battle of the Wilderness than the Wilderness itself—at least in my mind.
One way I tried to counterbalance that was with a new appendix by the park’s natural resource manager, Gregg Kniepp, which talks about the Wilderness as a habitat. (It was fun working a little ecology into a history book!)
In the end, the expression “Hell itself” still sets my hackles a little on end. But I have come to believe that’s a good thing because war should always make us a little uneasy. The Civil War, 150+ years ago, was not a sanitized or, worse, romanticized event. It was an atrocity of national scope on the battlefield and the homefront.
At the battle of Franklin, one participant said, “the Devil had full possession of the earth.” I have studied the Civil War and written about it long enough that I believe such characterizations. I believe Porter when he says the Wilderness was “Hell itself.”
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All royalties from the sale of Hell Itself: The Battle of the Wilderness benefit The Friends of Wilderness Battlefield. Chris will be signing copies of the book at Ellwood, on the Wilderness battlefield, on Saturday, May 7 from 10 a.m.-noon.