A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee
By John Reeves
Pegasus Books, 2021, $28.95 hardcover
Reviewed by Kevin Pawlak
Of all the awful places created by the American Civil War, the horrors of the Wilderness rank high. The intense fighting between the war’s two best remembered commanders–Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–interspersed with the terrible image of dense woods catching fire and consuming wounded soldiers have seared the May 1864 battle into the American conscious. John Reeves’ new book, A Fire in the Wilderness, seeks to bring the human face to one of the Civil War’s most storied conflicts.
Upon first glance, a few oddities of the book stood out. The book has two modern maps, one of James Longstreet’s wounding on May 6, 1864 and the other of the fight along the Orange Turnpike on May 5, which, in that reverse order, grace the front and back inside covers. Additionally, the first few pages contain an order of battle for the Army of the Potomac down to division level, not a game changer itself except that there is no order of battle of any kind for the Army of Northern Virginia. Lastly, the book has no preface or introduction at the beginning, but takes the reader into the Wilderness Campaign immediately. However, the saying of “Never judge a book by its cover” or, in this case, its first few pages, rings true.
Reeves tells a popular history of the Battle of the Wilderness in a fast-paced narrative. While the book focuses on the Army of the Potomac’s experience in the tangled woods of Spotsylvania County, it does tell the story of the battle from both sides. As Reeves points out at the book’s end, he did not try to write a military history of the battle. Instead, he wove “politics and medicine and how we commemorate fallen soldiers” into the story of the Wilderness (224).
The battle’s story and Reeves’ supporting themes are told mainly through two characters: Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth and Pvt. William Reeves of the 76th New York. The two men came from two communities in western New York not far from each other but had vastly different backgrounds only to suffer the same fate in the Wilderness.
James Wadsworth, a wealthy New Yorker who vocally opposed slavery, volunteered to preserve the Union and abolish slavery at the war’s outset. Wadsworth commanded one of the Army of the Potomac’s fifteen infantry divisions during the Overland Campaign’s opening engagement. Wadsworth’s division was heavily involved in both days of the Battle of the Wilderness.
William Reeves and his comrades in the 76th New York Infantry fought under Wadsworth’s command and thus were at the center of the action on May 5 and 6. Reeves’ status was vastly different from Wadsworth’s. Rather than being a volunteer advanced in age, Reeves was only 19 years old when he enlisted as a substitute in August 1863. While much of Wadsworth’s life was behind him, Reeves, just married before heading off to the front, had most of his life in front of him.
Tragically, despite their different ranks, both became casualties of the Battle of the Wilderness. Reeves fell in action near the Higgerson Farm on May 5 while Wadsworth was struck down during James Longstreet’s counterattack on May 6. Perhaps the book’s most gripping section is towards the end, where Reeves (the author, who is not related to William Reeves) details the deaths and burials of both men and how their deaths impacted their families. Reeves became just the fourth Federal soldier buried at Arlington National Cemetery, where he still rests today far from his home and family in Section 27. Wadsworth’s remains returned to his hometown in Geneseo, New York. John Reeves demonstrates that despite their difference in rank, both men and their families (and families across the United and Confederate states) suffered similarly in their death but were commemorated differently.
Reeves features William Reeves and James Wadsworth as the centerpiece of his story but he does tell a holistic history of the Battle of the Wilderness. Included in this retelling is military analysis of Lee, Grant, and their subordinate officers.
At times, the book becomes too much of a popular history as it veers off into examining larger themes. However, this does not detract from the book’s value. It is a riveting read that brings a human element to a battle where humanity was lost amid the undergrowth and fires of the Wilderness.