Having “A Moment” at the Turning Point of the War
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!
12 Responses to Having “A Moment” at the Turning Point of the War
Just so you know: I completely agree with you with respect to Grant’s literal turn south at the Brock Road-Plank Road intersection being the figurative turning point of the Civil War. I have made this case repeatedly in discussions with fellow historians, scholars, writers, enthusiasts, etc., and also in the many PowerPoint presentations I give on the war. The turn, of course, was made by Grant in fulfillment of the commitment he had made to Lincoln and Halleck when he began his Overland Campaign, namely that “There will be no turning back. I propose (actually he said “purpose”) to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer”. And it did. And he did. His turn and the battle of Spotsylvania that followed represent the true turning point because after the same it was no longer possible for the Confederacy to win the war, and no one knew it better than Robert E. Lee, because he could count. Never before had he encountered a Northern commander of such doggedness, and one who could do something he could not do nearly as well–replace his losses.
Dr. Mackowski, I find myself wondering about the ill-fated General Sedgewick, at that turning point. His shocking death coming at Spotsylvania Courthouse, do you know if he had any direct contact with Grant during this time period?
JohncFazio-You and Chris make excellent points, i’m rethinking what I learned from purchasing/reading 450-500 civil war books. Great post sir-
Hear Hear! tuffncuddly
I’d like to put a ten year moratorium on the use of the phrase “turning point” in civil war scholarship. My hat is off to you, sir, because at least you gave us your working definition (i.e., “The Army of the Potomac remained on the inexorable offense from then on out.”)
Quite well written, enjoyable to read, prose.
When we come to the conference, I hope we will have time to share your moment.
Hi Chris. Great post. I wanted to highlight a rather rare and excellent sketch by Alfred Waud of General Alexander Webb at the Brock Road crossing at “10pm on May 7th” (the description at the top left is is mislabeled. I love the fire burning in the background and the soldiers sleeping behind the log barricade and their equipment hanging behind them. I think it perfectly captures the exact moment that you were writing about — and I would imagine that just a few minutes after this sketch, these weary soldiers were woken up to begin the march to Spotsylvania. Looking at this sketch, I can hear the low whispers of the officers, the crackle of the fire, and the hum of the sleeping soldiers. See it here at the LOC, https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.21158/
Thanks for sharing, Todd. That IS a great picture. And thanks, too, for the kind words.
Thanks Chris. According to the LOC, this sketch was part of the JP Morgan collection. Inscribed on verso: This sketch made while Genl Webb was on the extreme left momentarily expecting the order to move on Spotsylvania Ct. ho./ The men lay along the log works muskets against them- canteens and haver-sacks hanging -etc- very dark except for the light of a fire.
Chris – I totally agree with you. Grant’s ‘no turning back’ philosophy and actions were the turning point in the war.