I was pleased to spend some time recently with a new book by historian Adam Petty, The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory (LSU Press, 2019). I reviewed the booked for the spring 2020 edition of Louisiana State University Press’s Civil War Book Review (read the review here).
Chris Mackowski: What drew you to the Wilderness in the first place?
Adam Petty: I’ve always found the battle of the Wilderness interesting. There is something about that first clash between Grant and Lee in the tangled Wilderness that is extremely compelling. I remember receiving Mark Grimsley’s little history of the Overland campaign for Christmas in 2009 and reading the part about the battle of the Wilderness. Something in it that caught my attention was his mention of the Mine Run line. I had never heard of Mine Run, and his mention of it piqued my interest.
Later, in 2013, when it came time to pick a topic for my first seminar paper in graduate school, Mine Run quickly came to the forefront. It was while writing that paper on Mine Run that I started thinking about parallels between Chancellorsville, Mine Run, and the Wilderness. I ended up deciding to focus my dissertation on how the Wilderness affected these campaigns and how the commanders, armies, etc. adapted to the Wilderness. As I researched these questions, I discovered unexpected things and gradually certain conclusions began to firm up in my mind, which became my book’s arguments.
CM: How much time did you get to spend on the battlefield during the course of your research?
AP: Not as much as I would like. I did my graduate work at the University of Alabama, so I was living in Tuscaloosa when I was researching and writing my dissertation. The fact is that graduate students are poor and I was dependent on university funding to pay for my travels to Virginia. Such being the case, I only had a few shots to visit Virginia, and I needed to spend most of the time doing research, or in other words collecting source material for the book. The typical day went something like this. In the morning, go to Chatham Manor (across the river from old Fredericksburg) and look through the massive collection of primary sources that the park’s staff has collected over the years. Then leave in the late afternoon or evening and go visit battlefields before it gets too dark. I would then do the same thing the next day and the next day until all my funding had been spent and it was time to go home to Alabama. My conclusions about the Wilderness rely more on the historical accounts that I collected than they do on my personal observations of the various Wilderness battlefields.
CM: What was your impression visiting in person the first time? Did that impression change over time as you did more visits/more research?
AP: In all honesty, my impression when I first visited the Wilderness battlefields was disappointment. You see, I had never been to any of these battlefields before I started researching this subject, so in my mind they were as I read about them in historical accounts. When I actually went to see them, I quickly realized that Virginia has changed quite a bit over the years and that the historical landscape that I read about in the sources, was in many ways gone. In short, I had unrealistic expectations. That being said, I came to better appreciate the parts of these battlefields that have been preserved. They are treasures.
CM: You drew on an incredible number of primary sources for your work. I was impressed by how well you managed them! What was the biggest challenge of that for you.
AP: Thank you! The source material on Chancellorsville, Mine Run, and the battle of the Wilderness is overwhelming. There are so many accounts of these different campaigns that the problem was not finding source material but deciding when to stop researching and start writing. You always say to yourself: “What am I missing?” “Is there another source out there that would change my conclusions or strengthen my arguments?” At some point you just have to tell yourself that enough is enough and accept that you just cannot look at everything.
Keeping things straight was definitely a challenge, especially for an inexperienced graduate student trying to write a book-length project for the first time. I spent quite a bit of time organizing the different material I found. After reading enough sources, you have a fair idea of what type of information you might run into. For instance, many accounts talk about vegetation, fires, field fortifications, the din of battle, etc. As I would read a source I would be looking for these themes that popped up a lot and if I found something on say fires, I would paste it into a word document that only contains accounts of the fires so that I could easily find quotations on that topic as I was writing. I did this for lots of different things and it helped me to manage a very large source base and it also helps me see patterns by looking at different descriptions of a certain topic. The fact that I was treating my subject topically allowed me to do this. If I was working chronologically, then the approach would naturally have been a bit different.
CM: As a fan of the Mine Run campaign, I was particularly pleased that you drew that into the conversation. How did the armies’ experiences there help you in your understanding of the overall story you were telling?
AP: I’m glad you asked this. People always ignore the Mine Run campaign because there was no big battle. This is a mistake.
I don’t think you can understand the initial steps of the Overland campaign without having a good grasp on what happened at Mine Run. There is a similar relationship between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. In each case, the failures of the late campaigns (Fredericksburg and Mine Run) set the context for Federal plans for the following spring campaigns (Chancellorsville and the battle of Wilderness/Overland campaign). I argue that Lee and Meade are drawing on their experiences from Mine Run during the initial steps of the battle of the Wilderness.
Another benefit of incorporating Mine Run into the study was that it helped me better understand soldiers’ changing reactions to the Wilderness. I won’t elaborate on this here, but suffice it to say that including Mine Run proved fruitful.
CM: You hold up your book as an example of how a memory study can help us better understand Civil War battles and Civil War landscapes (an assessment I wholeheartedly agree with!). Is there another battle or landscape in particular that you’d like to see get similar treatment?
AP: I suspect that any battle or battlefield would benefit from this sort of approach. Virginia is intriguing because there is a lot of retracing of steps. For example, there are multiple campaigns around Manassas, the Shenandoah Valley, or the Peninsula. That can make for interesting comparisons. I did some work with Chickamauga in my book for comparative purposes and I would really be interested in seeing this type of analysis of that battle and battlefield.
CM: What’s something I’ve not asked you about your book that I should have?
I would ask what my favorite chapter is.
My answer would be chapter three on the Wilderness mystique. It was a really interesting chapter to research and write. There are so many wonderful, vivid sources to draw on and the haunting aura that surrounds the Wilderness is simply fascinating. I was especially intrigued by the fires in the Wilderness and ended up writing a spin-off essay on them for an edited collection. (See American Discord: The Republic and Its People in the Civil War Era)
CM: What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?
AP: I worked with a lot of great sources while writing this book, but I really came to appreciate Theodore Lyman’s letters and notebooks. He had such a great eye for detail and such a great vantage point to observe from. It is hard to beat his accounts. I also particularly enjoyed the letters of Wilbur Fisk.
CM: Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?
AP: William Swinton. I don’t think you can overestimate the influence of his book on the Army of the Potomac. As an early published history of the eastern theater, it was available to veterans as they wrote their memoirs and in my experience it isn’t uncommon to find people parroting his conclusions. A prime example of this is Swinton’s interpretation of the Wilderness, which, in many ways, is still with us.
CM: What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?
AP: I like a passage at the end of chapter three, on what I call the Wilderness mystique:
“The Wilderness’s wounds have healed, the armies have left, and the dead have returned to mother earth. But the Wilderness mystique lives on, and will do so as long as men remember what happened in that Virginia forest so long ago.”
CM: What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?
AP: There are two places in particular that I enjoy visiting. First, I love to stand at Hazel Grove and just look over the Chancellorsville battlefield. It is a great vantage point and you can see what a great position it was for artillery. Beyond that, I visited it with my father and so I have good memories of walking the ground with him. There is something special about a father and son outing to a battlefield.
Another place that I like to visit is the piece of the Wilderness battlefield along the Plank Road. So much happened along that road and I can just imagine being there in the thick of it when I’m walking along the trail there. Over here I can see in my mind’s eye Lee with the Texans as they tell him to go back. Over there I watch as the Union breastworks catch fire and the Federal soldiers desperately fight the flames and the Confederates at the same time. It is a spot full of history.