CHAPTER SEVEN: “’Oh, I Am Heartily Tired of Hearing about
What Lee Is Going to Do’: Ulysses S. Grant in the Wilderness”
by Ryan Longfellow
Commentary · Images · Additional Resources · Suggested Reading
By Brian Matthew Jordan, co-editor, “Engaging the Civil War” Series
On Saturday, July 22, 2017, I stood at the intersection of the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road. A group of nine Sam Houston State University undergraduates clutching notebooks huddled around me. It was day eleven of an intensive, eighteen-day Civil War field experience course that I was leading with my colleague Jeremiah Dancy.
The previous afternoon found the class gathered up along the low, stone fence that lines Gettysburg’s Cemetery Ridge, discussing the repulse of Pickett’s Charge. After more than a week on the road—after tramping the fields of Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, among others—the “Angle” afforded some of the students a sense of relief. As they snapped obligatory photographs of the Copse of Trees, they exhaled. Gettysburg, they knew, was “the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”
Then they stepped into the knotted scrub of the Wilderness.
Suddenly, whatever hope or clarity Gettysburg had offered was lost. As we stood atop the subtle knoll where Ulysses S. Grant fretfully whittled his way through the battle of the Wilderness, those three days in July seemed a world away: the ecstasy of victory dulled by the likes of Bristoe Station and Mine Run, campaigns that more closely resembled the stalemate and indecision of the war’s first two years. Even the promises of the new grand strategy supplied by our cigar-chomping hero seemed hollow, as three of the five synchronized strikes Grant designed that spring fizzled, and the Wilderness battle itself soon devolved into scenes of unprecedented agony and horror.
At the intersection of the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road, we considered one of those scenes, reading an account left to us by St. Clair Augustine Mulholland of the 116th Pennsylvania: “Soon, the fire communicated to the trees and bush, and in less than an hour, acres of ground over which the armies had struggled and fought during the two awful days was a mass of fire.” “This,” Mulholland remarked, “was the saddest part of all the battle. How many poor, wounded souls perished in the flames none but the angels who were there to receive their brave spirits will ever know.”
Yet despite the wall of smoke that choked the Wilderness on the morning of May 7, the men of the Army of the Potomac knew this: after thirty-seven wearying months of war, they finally had a general who, even in the face of great loss, would fight. So it was that by all accounts, many Union men erupted with cheer as they pressed south on the Brock Road. The days of George McClellan and Joe Hooker were over.
Though sobered by the Wilderness and anxious about our afternoon in the trenches coiled about Spotsylvania, the students “kept moving on,” intuiting that they stood, literally and metaphorically, where two roads diverged in a wood.
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ECW Chief Historian Christopher Kolakowski considered Grant’s situation in the Wilderness in a Nov. 18, 2016 post, “Grant, the Wilderness, and the Loneliness of Command.”
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ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski pondered the Wilderness as “the” turning point of the war in a July 4, 2013 post, “‘The’ Turning Point of the War: The Wilderness, not Gettysburg.”
The Wilderness today is a much more mature forest than it was in 1864, when it was seventy square miles of second-growth forest.“It is a region of gloom and the shadow of death,” one Federal infantryman said. A Union officer there in 1863 for the battle of Chancellorsville described
stunted trees, such as scraggy oaks, bushy firs, cedars, and junipers, all entangled with a thick, almost impenetrable undergrowth, and criss-crossed with an abundance of wild vines.
“This, viewed as a battleground, was simply infernal,” one soldier lamented. The officer corps agreed: “It is impossible to conceive a field worse adapted to the movements of a grand army,” one wrote. “A more unpromising theatre of war was never seen,” said another. Today, the understory of the forest is mostly clear, with a high canopy overhead. (photo: Chris Mackowski)
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On April 30, 1864, President Lincoln wrote a letter to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to lay out his expectations for the coming campaign season:
Not expecting to see you again before the Spring Campaign opens, I wish to express, in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine. If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it. And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you.
Yours very truly
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Grant initially intended to travel with the Army of the Potomac as a way to stay out of the political entanglement of Washington, expecting to leave the operations of the army to its commander, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. Grant found himself ill-suited to hands-off management in the heat of battle, though, and as the Overland Campaign progressed, he took a more active role in the management of the army’s operational and tactical affairs. Meade chafed under the arrangement, but Grant recommended him for promotion. “General Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations,” Grant wrote, calling him one of “the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with.”
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The use of fortifications became one of the most distinctive features of the war in 1864. Lee’s dwindling manpower situation forced him to adopt defensive operations for most of the Overland Campaign, although he looked for opportunities to take the initiative whenever circumstances allowed. Fortifications became standard operating procedure for both armies, although Confederates typically chose the ground and constructed their lines first. (credit: NPS)
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The Wilderness might best be remembered because of the fires that burned through the forest. By some accounts, as many as thirteen separate conflagrations broke out. “Between the lines, these fires spread unchecked over acres,” one Union soldier wrote, “disfiguring beyond possibility of recognition the bodies of the killed and proving fatal to hundreds of helpless wounded men who lay there looking for the friendly aid which never came and who died at last the victims of the relentless flames.” (credit: Library of Congress)
ECW contributors have written extensively about the Wilderness. You can read those posts here.
The Wilderness Battlefield is part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. You can visit online here.
The three major housing developments mentioned in the introductory essay are
While the Wilderness might not be so wild these days, the Civil War Trust has helped by saving more than 250 acres of land there. Learn more.
· Gallagher, Gary (ed.) The Wilderness Campaign (UNC Press, 1997)
· Mackowski, Chris. Hell Itself: The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864 (Savas Beatie, 2016)
· Rhea, Gordon. The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 (LSU Press, 1994)
About the Author
Ryan Longfellow works as a history teacher, chairs the social studies department at Spotsylvania (Virginia) Middle School, and facilitates the World History Learning Community. In 2015 he was chosen as the Spotsylvania County mentor teacher of the year. For more than fifteen years, Ryan has worked as a park guide at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, interpreting the battlefields of central Virginia, including the Wilderness.