I thought if I waited until dusk, I might be able to stand at the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection in the Wilderness and have a “moment.” During the day, the intersection almost always has traffic passing through, and in the early evening, it’s crammed with commuters heading home to Fawn Lake or Lake of the Wilderness or any number of other destinations. The Wilderness is none too wild these days.
Waiting until dusk would also get me closer to what I think of as “the moment” in the Wilderness: the moment when Ulysses S. Grant changed the very nature of the war by shifting his army southward around Robert E. Lee instead of eastward away from him.
I’ve written before that I think of this as the turning point of the war—none of that Gettysburg nonsense!—because the back and forth was finally over. The Army of the Potomac remained on the inexorable offense from then on out. Lee might have scored tactical victories on the defense, but Grant, not Lee, called the shots.
My teenage son, Jackson, rode along with me into the Wilderness this evening. It was, he said, “an adventure”—a reason for father and son to spend a little time together before winding down the day. A ten-minute ride through the gloaming brought us down Plank Road from the east to the intersection. As we neared, a red-lit communication tower stood over the road like a robotic science-fiction sentinel guarding a fire station on the right side of the road.
We passed through the intersection and turned into the parking lot, pulling into a space in front of a sign that said “No parking from dusk until dawn.” It was still dusk by only the most generous of interpretations, and only then if someone was very high in a tall tree looking at the fading line of light blue on the western horizon toward Culpeper. Fortunately, we weren’t going to walk far or be away from the car long.
Jackson and I walked to a small greenspace near the intersection. Cars from north and east dutifully stopped at their respective stops signs and took turns passing through. Less often, a car would come from the west or the south, but always there was someone passing through. For being 8:45 at night, the intersection was surprisingly busy—as busy as I’d ever seen it, really.
“Did you have your moment yet?” Jackson asked.
“Not yet,” I said.
It was hard to conjure an image of the dust-covered man riding down the road from the north and arriving at the intersection, not to lead his men eastward out of the Wilderness but southward toward Spotsylvania. But as I recounted the moment to Jackson, I began to feel it just a little: the busyness of the intersection, the cheers from the men as they realized there really was no turning back, the cool of the evening after the heat of the day, the fires in the forest, the noise.
My modern perspective, with its benefit of hindsight, also allowed me to feel the weight of the moment. The turn. The shift in momentum. The forward motion. The road to Appomattox.
It all happened for me in just a flash: the moment I’d come here to have. Headlights cutting through the intersection prohibited any real reverie, but I’d found what I’d come for.
One hundred and fifty four years ago, right now, in this spot.
Jackson and I returned to the car and headed out of the Wilderness, passing through the intersection as just one more in a long line of headlights in the dark. We went northward, away from Spotsylvania where the army marched. I’ll visit there tomorrow.
For now, it’s enough to relish the moment.
Ryan Longfellow explores the Wilderness as a turning point of the Civil War in his essay “’Oh, I Am Heartily Tired of Hearing about What Lee Is Going to Do’: Ulysses S. Grant in the Wilderness,” part of Turning Points of the American Civil War, available as part of our “Engaging the Civil War” Series with Southern Illinois University Press. If you haven’t already, order your copy today!