T again. Ok. All cards on the table. These photos were not taken recently; more like 2-plus years ago, and this blog entry has been in draft form for the entire time. I suppose it's time to hit the publish button.
Living in the Northern Virginia area put us in close proximity to a number of important battlefields, so it is hard not to hop in a car on occasion and check out the places where Confederate General Robert E. Lee, an almost god-like figure to many American military historians, particularly those of the South, went toe-to-toe against a hodgepodge of Union generals. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 to the spring of 1864 whipped a succession of Union generals leading the Army of the Potomac in the area generally between Richmond, Virginia and what are today the Washington, DC suburbs. Outside of a bloody draw at Antietam, Maryland (September 1862: For a tour, go here Antietam Battlefield Tour and here Battlefield Paintings) a defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and frustration at Mine Run/Bristoe Station, Lee and his army would win victory after victory and ruin one Union general after another. Starting in May of 1864, however, he would be pitted against a new opponent; one who had a reputation for hard fighting and his own string of victories in the western Confederacy. That man was Ulysses S. Grant.
Their first clash would be a place called "the Wildnerness," already a place of bad memories for the Union because it was the scene of a serious defeat for the Army of the Potomac the previous year (Chancellorsville) and the sacking of its commander (Joe Hooker). The Wilderness, located about 20 miles west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was so-named because its second-growth woods concealed a dense undergrowth of shrubs and scrubby trees, having been clear cut in the years prior to the war to support local iron ore blast furnaces and then growing back as a tangled mess. To make matters worse, the area had few roads. If Grant wanted to attack towards the Confederate capital of Richmond and maintain his communications with Washington, however, he could not avoid the area, so he intended to march quickly through and try to bring Lee to battle in the open country to the south. There, his army, with its considerable numerical advantages in infantry and artillery could overwhelm Lee's smaller army, or so he thought. If, however, Lee decided to fight him in the Wildnerness, Grant would oblige him. Lee would do just that in a bloody 2-day battle from 5-6 May 1864. The ensuing campaign would be America's bloodiest until the Meuse-Argonne Campaign of 1918 (Meuse-Argonne Drive-Thru and Period photos from the Meuse-Argonne Campaign).
Still, it is an interesting place to go, and along with Spotsylvania a few miles further south, one of my favorite Civil War battlefields. Nearly 30,000 Americans would fall here in a 2-day fight for some worthless woods, a few cleared fields and small hills, and a couple of primitive road intersections. The battle would also mark a significant turning point in the nature of the war. Starting that spring, the conflict would become something of a death struggle, and the Wilderness would mark a new phase in the fighting. Armies prior to '64 would typically go on campaign, march and maneuver, fight a big battle or perhaps two, then probably go back to camp to rest and recuperate until the next campaign or battle. They would certainly not stay in contact for many days. Starting with the Wildnerness, however, they would embark on the bloodiest and longest campaign--the Overland Campaign--in American history up to the time, staying in contact and pounding each other for the next 40 days and suffering some 100,000 casualties, which were shocking figures at the time, so shocking that they--about 60,000 of them were Union--caused major political problems for the Lincoln Administration and earned Grant the nickname of "butcher." The 40,000 casualties suffered by Lee's army were also losses the Confederacy could ill-afford. These numbers go even higher if you link the Overland Campaign to the Siege of Petersburg and Richmond, which would last a further nine months and cost another estimated 70,000 casualties for both sides. The Wilderness would see the beginnings of the modern era of warfare for armies as they would for the first time make routine and extensive use of field fortifications--trenches and earthworks--making battlefields begin to look like what would be seen in the First World War (the Europeans should have paid more attention to such things). The Wilderness battle, even though a tactical victory for Lee, would also mark the beginning of the end for the Confederacy as Grant during Overland Campaign would take the initiative from Lee and force him into a siege at Richmond and Petersburg that would last until the end of the war and result in the ruin and surrender of Lee's army.
Don't expect a blow-by-blow account of the battle here. There are a number of books and websites for that, and they would probably do a better job than I can. My aim is to give you an overview and provide some feel for what took place in the photograph. This being one of the first wars in history that many of the soldiers, particularly Northern troops, were at least somewhat literate, first-person accounts are abundant. Perhaps reading those will spark your imagination. Where I can, I will also provide some period photographs, which I always find fascinating. If you do find yourself interested in the battle itself, I would recommend Shelby Foote's account in his classic 3-volume The Civil War: A Narrative (see part 3: Red River to Appomattox), Gordon Rhea's The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6 1864, or John Michael Priest's 2-volume account, Nowhere to Run and Victory Without Triumph. Priest's account is notable for its thorough, if not downright amazing, research, although the detail might be a bit mind numbing for casual readers of Civil War history. It is invaluable for walking the battlefield. For a unit history, look for Warren Wilkinson's Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen (a history of the 57th Massachusetts Infantry). For cool old photos, check out William Fassanito's Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns of 1864-1865, The National Historic Society's (William Davis and Bell Wiley) Civil War: A Complete Photographic History, and 99 Historic Images of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Civil War Sites (Gary Adelman and John Richter, ed). Also, go to the National Park Service website for a summary of the battle: NPS Summary. And this site for maps of the battle and unit movements: Map
|A little bit about Ellwood.|
|The same trenches today.|
|More remnants of trenches built by Ewell's Confederates. The view is towards the Federal lines.|
|Another shot of Saunder's Field from Union side. On the right just out of view is a small interpretative shelter.|
|More photos of the position. It's too bad the photos do not do them justice.|
|More Union entrenchments along the trail. These were built after the Union repulse on 5 May; there was no fighting here.|
|Confederate trenches dug late in the battle near the Orange Plank Road. These particular trenches probably saw little action, but fighting raged in this area on both the 5th and 6th of May.|
|The same general area not long after the war.|
|Fascinating photo of veterans walking the Orange Plank Road, I believe in the 1880s.|
|Graphic depiction of Longstreet's "friendly fire" incident.|
|The Confederates launched one last attack through these woods in an attempt to break the Union lines along the Brock Road.|
|They made a brief lodgement in the lines, but were quickly thrown out. Not long afterwards, the fighting on this part of the battlefield ended.|
|Union lines along the Brock Road.|
|Remnants of those lines.|
|The intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank roads today, plus one bewildered Husky. Scene of heavy fighting back in May of 1864.|
|Trenches marking the northern end of the Union line. Confederate forces would roll over these positions during a late evening attack on 6 May.|