Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review of Gottfried: "THE MAPS OF THE WILDERNESS: An Atlas of the Wilderness Campaign, Including all Cavalry Operations, May 2-6, 1864"

[The Maps of the Wilderness: An Atlas of the Wilderness Campaign, Including all Cavalry Operations, May 2-6, 1864 by Bradley M. Gottfried (Savas Beatie, 2016). Hardcover, 120 maps, photos, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. 340 pp. ISBN:978-1-61121-258-7. $39.95]

With completed atlases for First Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Bristoe Station-Mine Run, author Bradley Gottfried has achieved rapid progress toward his stated goal of mapping all the great campaign's of the Civil War's eastern theater. His fifth and latest volume is The Maps of the Wilderness, which covers the preliminary stages of the Overland Campaign, the cavalry operations before and during the Wilderness battle, and the main fighting that occurred between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia on May 5-6, 1864.

The Maps of the Wilderness boasts 120 multi-color maps, arranged into the Savas Beatie Military Atlas Series's trademark "action-sections," of which there are 24 here. Each map is part of a two-page spread: on the right side a full-page map and the left another complete page of text describing the action. Elevation changes and subtle undulations of the landscape, like ravines, are not explicitly represented on the maps but the general run of expected terrain features (ex. forests, fields, streams, roads, trails, fords, etc.) are present. For most of the fighting depicted, on map unit scale is maintained at the level of the regiment for infantry and cavalry (and battery level for the artillery). Confederate units are red and Union units blue, but these colors are frequently shaded to center attention upon those units specifically involved in the events recounted in the facing text.

Viewing these maps, the reader gains renewed appreciation of the horrifically destructive May 5 back and forth fighting across and around Saunders Field, as well as A.P. Hill's heroic stand against near incredible odds astride the Orange Plank Road. The visual detail employed in representing the main events of the following day (James Longstreet's counterattack and the rolling up of both Union flanks) is equally impressive. The extreme difficulty of maintaining direction and formation in dense, low-visibility terrain (really like no other major Civil War battle, even Chickamauga) is also effectively conveyed by both maps and text.  In creating The Maps of the Wilderness, Gottfried has performed truly yeoman work in attempting to flesh out the opposing lines of battle at the greatest degree of detail possible. This is never easy for any Civil War battle, but it must have been an especially difficult task to carry out for the Wilderness (particularly when trying to make sense of the often chaotic mass fighting the occurred up and down the Orange Plank Road), as many officers admitted to getting lost and not knowing where they were and who they were engaged with.

In terms of research, Gottfried relies primarily on the printed literature of the campaign and battle, though he does use quite a bit of manuscript material for the text's quotable ground-level fighting man perspectives. There is some original interpretation involved, with the author providing the example of his positioning the defensive line of Heth's Division closer to the Brock Road on May 5 than any other source has done. Gottfried also incorporates into the book's endnotes a number of helpful discussions regarding conflicting contemporary accounts of specific events and the varying conclusions drawn by later historians from them.

Perhaps inevitably when juggling hundreds of regiments back and forth between map and text, honest mistakes will occur, but unfortunately some made it past author and editor(s). For instance, though the units in question are seemingly correctly placed on map 4.3 (Page 45), on Page 44 the facing text mistakenly assigns three Stonewall Brigade regiments to George H. Steuart's mixed North Carolina-Virginia brigade. Without question, there will be those that will dispute the exact placement of particular units here and there by Gottfried, but such differences are native to all historical research endeavors and obviously no map study is immune from that. Atlases are invaluable tools for visual learning, and The Maps of the Wilderness uniquely enhances our appreciation and understanding of the terrible clash of arms that embroiled two great armies in early May 1864 and inaugurated the unprecedented period of sustained bloodletting later known as the Overland Campaign.


  1. Many thanks for your review of this latest SB atlas entry, Drew. Brad really worked hard on it (as he does all of his atlases). This was particularly detailed and difficult, as you note.

    Readers always ask, so. . . Brad has completed "The Maps of Fredericksburg" (which is in editorial development for 2017), and is working on "The Maps of Spotsylvania" now as well.

  2. Thank you for your insightful review of my recent book. It is truly a labor of love, taking hundreds of hours to create both text/maps, visiting battlefields, and traveling to manuscript collections. Reviews like yours make it all worthwhile.

    I wrote this series for a 13 year old boy-- me! When I was growing up there was nothing like these works and I really struggled to understand the dynamics of the campaigns. Now, boys, girls, men, and women, can get a much better understanding.

    On to Fredericksburg!


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