Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Booknotes: The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory

New Arrival:
The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia's Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield by Adam H. Petty (LSU Press, 2019).

During the Civil War and after, Virginia's Wilderness became a legendary place, a thickly wooded forest with exceptionally choked undergrowth that combined to blot out the sun and render disoriented travelers almost instantly lost. Some accounts read like a medieval fairy tale, with Union soldiers substituting for stray children and the Confederates for the monsters lurking in every dark recess in readiness to pounce on the unwary. I'm sure we've all lost count of how many authors continue to assert that the Wilderness somehow evened the odds between the opposing armies during the 1864 Overland Campaign. However, Adam Petty's The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia's Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield, which "tracks how veterans and historians of the Civil War created and perpetuated myths about the Wilderness," offers a "highly revisionist" alternative interpretation.

From the description: "According to Petty, the mythology surrounding the campaigns in the Wilderness began to take shape during the war but truly blossomed in the postwar years, continuing into the present. Those myths, he suggests, confounded accurate understandings of how the physical environment influenced combat and military operations. While the Wilderness did create difficult combat conditions, Petty refutes claims that it was unique and favored the Confederates."

The book examines the Wilderness's place in the war and remembrance of it using a broad perspective. "Unlike previous studies of the Wilderness, this work does not focus on a single battle or campaign. Instead, Petty explores all the major clashes there―Chancellorsville, Mine Run, and the battle of the Wilderness―which allows Petty to observe changes over time, especially regarding the attitudes and actions of generals and soldiers. Yet Petty’s study is not a narrative history of the campaigns. Instead, he reconsiders traditional interpretations surrounding the nature of the Wilderness and how it affected military operations and combat. His work analyzes not only the interaction between military campaigns and environment but also how the memory of that interaction evolved into the myth we know today."

This sounds very interesting, just the kind of thing Earl Hess (who also contributed an enthusiastic jacket blurb for the book) was arguing for in his recent essay advocating the continual expansion of new topics to be examined under the general umbrella of military history.

1 comment:

  1. I am reviewing this for Civil War News. Not far enough in to have formed any judgments, but it is very well written.

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