Fewer battlefields have more mystique than the Wilderness. For three days, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia hammered at each other in a dense second-growth forest that soldiers described as “the dark, close wood.” During the battle, the forest caught fire in a number of places, trapping wounded soldiers in an inferno so bad that men from both sides threw down their arms to rescue men from the flames, regardless of which side they fought on. While fires broke out during other battles—Chancellorsville, also in the Wilderness, comes to mind—the fires have become a central part of the Wilderness mythos. It was, said one Union officer, like “Hell itself.”
That phrase was coined by Ulysses S. Grant’s aid, Horace Porter. It captures the experience of soldiers there with an immediacy I still find chilling:
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.
Of the three original books Kris White and I did for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, the final one to make the conversion to the Emerging Civil War Series was the book that became Hell Itself. The blow-by-blow process of getting the book into the series would bore even the most stalwart ECW fan, but I do want to acknowledge the help of John Hennessey in getting the book into print.
I wrote the original book, titled The Dark, Close Wood, as part of a project to provide new interpretation for Ellwood, a historic home on the Wilderness battlefield that served as the headquarters for Union V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren. It was the second book that came out as part of the park’s book series but the third book I actually worked on. Significantly for me, it was the first book I wrote solo. That was scary and exciting!
Park historian Don Pfanz served as my liaison and all-around “writing fairy godfather” for the book. He provided a lot of helpful feedback and served as someone for me to bounce ideas off. The book would not have happened without him, and it’s one reason (of many) why I have undying personal loyalty to Don.
When the manuscript made the jump to the ECW Series, I beefed it up with about 40% new material, so it became Dark, Close Wood on steroids. I added a bunch of new photos and new Hal Jespersen maps, too. I really wanted the book to stand apart from its original form enough so that people who read both felt like they were getting “value added” from the new book.
Among the additions to the manuscript were several appendices that further explored key stories I wasn’t able to hit on in the original: the role of Federal cavalry during the battle, the relationship between Grant and AoP commander George Gordon Meade, and an in-depth exploration of the wounding of James Longstreet (a HUGE event that unfortunately gets overshadowed by the wounding of Stonewall Jackson in those same woods a year and three days earlier).
The appendix I was especially eager to include was a piece by my friend Greg Kneipp, the natural resources manager at Fred-Spot. Greg did a lot to help me over the years appreciate the battlefields as natural habitats, which has been an enduring gift. He wrote about the Wilderness as a wilderness and that really means for the many plants and animals who live there. Development has had a huge impact on the Wilderness, but the battlefields still ensures there’s some wilderness in the area.
In my own writing, I was particularly interested in what it was like to fight in an environment like that, so many of my additions to the text focuses on the fighting—not so much the tactical movements of regiments as the experience itself and the texture of the terrain. This fascinated me. It was a horrible, horrific place to fight, and I really tried to keep that as front and center as possible (even if the soldiers themselves couldn’t tell front and center).
As part of the arrangements to bring the book into the series, my royalties from Hell Itself go to support the Friends of the Wilderness, a friends group that does tremendous work on the battlefield. The centerpiece of their efforts continues to be maintenance of Ellwood and its grounds, and thanks to their efforts, the building is open and staffed during the summer season so battlefield visitors can visit there (and it is WELL worth it to do so!). They do other great work elsewhere on the battlefield, too. I’m proud to support them and sing their praises! (Learn how you can support the Friends of the Wilderness here.)
Walt Whitman famously said the real war would never get into the books. That’s maybe more true in the Wilderness than in any other place because the Wilderness itself swallowed so many of the stories that took place there. I hope my small effort helped cut through confusion enough to let in a little sunlight.
Hell Itself: The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864
by Chris Mackowski
Savas Beatie, 2016
Click here to read more about the book, including a book description, reviews, and an author bio.
Click here for the audiobook, narrated by Bob Neufeld.