Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Review - "The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia's Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield" by Adam Petty

[The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia's Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield by Adam H. Petty (Louisiana State University Press, 2019). Hardcover, map, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,136/205. ISBN:978-0-8071-7191-2. $42]

The densely forested region west of Fredericksburg, Virginia known as "The Wilderness" remains a fabled place in Civil War historiography and lore. By any measure, it was not an ideal Civil War battlefield environment. Filled with barely penetrable second-growth timber and choking undergrowth, the Wilderness became legendary for its ability to instantly break up linear formations, reduce visibility on the ground to near zero, and thoroughly disorientate officers and common soldiers alike. It was also a place of fear, as the abundant vegetation provided ready fuel for fires that could and did consume the wounded. Reinforced by veteran accounts and many decades of popular writing and scholarship, tradition holds that the Wilderness was a unique and exceptionally difficult landscape of battle, one that the Confederates used to their advantage and both sides involved in their campaign planning. All of these aspects of Wilderness interpretation and more are challenged by historian Adam Petty is his compelling book The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia's Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield.

For the sake of making sure all readers are on the same page, the author carefully defines the Wilderness as the forested area south of the Rapidan River bounded on the west by Mine Run and the east by Mott's Run. An irregularly shaped mass (roughly twelve miles at its greatest depth and fifteen miles at its widest point), it encompassed in whole or in part three Civil War battlefields—those of Chancellorsville, the opening clashes of the Mine Run Campaign (most significantly, Payne's Farm), and its namesake Wilderness battle. From west to east, two main thoroughfares (the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road) ran parallel to each other through the Wilderness before meeting near the Wilderness Church, with the Orange Turnpike continuing on through Chancellorsville and beyond. The Germanna Plank and Brock roads were the primary means of north-south movement through the Wilderness.

Legend holds that the Wilderness was the product of the local iron industry's insatiable hunger for fuel. After the area was deforested for charcoal production, a thick morass of second-growth timber and tangled underbrush then blanketed the thinly-settled area. Petty's research reveals that this was in truth only a small part of the story, with the Wilderness primarily consisting of natural regrowth from abandoned tobacco-growing fields and other areas cleared in order to obtain wood for adjacent plank road construction. Thus, even the central myth of the Wilderness's origin turns out to be mostly false.

The book also successfully refutes the popular contention that the Wilderness was an utterly unique battlefield that presented exceptional challenges to the military formations that fought there. To begin with, Petty argues that, in addition to the many clearings present within the Wilderness, the wooded areas were far from consistent in vegetative density. In actuality, the full spectrum of growth patterns were present in the Wilderness, from thinly forested parts with good sight lines on up to the impenetrable thickets of legend. Some of the patterns are predictable. For instance, the second-growth areas on both sides of the plank roads formed some of the most challenging fighting environments and the source of much commentary from soldiers, as those areas were where much of the combat occurred during the 1864 Wilderness battle. The author's enumeration of the many similarities between the Wilderness and Chickamauga battlefields provides one of the book's most powerful arguments against the uniqueness of the Virginia Wilderness. Indeed, in Virginia alone there were many 'wilderness' patches of similar origins spread around the state, with the one south of the Rapidan and west of Fredericksburg remarkable only for its great size and the fact that multiple battles were fought within it.

Another Wilderness-related myth addressed in the study revolves around the popular notion that Confederate formations and soldiers fought better than their Union counterparts in that environment. To begin with, there is little reason to suppose that wooded surroundings intrinsically favored the Confederates. The two great events often cited in support of this idea, Stonewall Jackson's famous Chancellorsville flank attack and Longstreet and Gordon's rolling up the Union flanks on May 6, 1864, both took advantage of the fact that the Wilderness could very effectively screen such movements. However, Petty notes that the organization and impetus of all of these attacks broke down in the rough terrain well before decisive results could be achieved (and with both corps commanders shot by their own men!). He goes on to maintain that the attacks were successful not because the ground dictated them or they were conducted by superior forest fighters but because the Confederates in each case seized the tactical initiative and took bolder chances (though one might still contend that those traits were key elements of superior management of the forest environment). The idea that one side was better at forest fighting than the other perhaps hearkens back to the old canard that Confederate armies were filled with country boys and Union ranks filled with the sons of shopkeepers. Certainly, the consistently successful men in blue who fought all over the vast, lesser-developed West would never have conceded, nor did they demonstrate, any inferiority in forest combat. Whatever the perception and reality of the situation, the author's call for more studies of how both sides adjusted to and fought in the various environments they encountered (deserts, swamps, beaches, forests, plains, etc.) seems appropriate.

Associated with the above is the idea that Wilderness fighting evened the odds and nullified the use of field artillery, the one service branch where the Union Army demonstrated clear superiority. That's a number of things to unpack. While it was the case that the Wilderness terrain hindered the deployment of the Union army during the opening moments of the 1864 Overland Campaign, Petty effectively argues that the chief culprits were the road network (which favored east-west Confederate movements, and quicker deployment of their smaller army, over the north-south Union advance) and the extremely poor screening job performed by the Union cavalry. That the Wilderness stifled the use of artillery is generally speaking true, but Petty does helpfully refer the reader to a number of well-known examples of Union and Confederate gun concentrations (both large and small) doing good service during the Chancellorsville and Wilderness battles. In Petty's view, the notion that Lee's army was more familiar with the ground lacks clear support. That both armies possessed similar knowledge of the Wilderness seems to be the more defensible assessment. Given the events of the previous year, it might even be argued that, by the beginning of the 1864 Overland Campaign, the Army of the Potomac held the experience advantage when it came to marching and fighting in the Wilderness.

Finally, the book heavily disputes the traditional view that the Wilderness held great sway in the planning concerns of both armies during the key 1863-64 campaigns. The Union defeat at Chancellorsville is often traced to Hooker's decision to pull his advancing wing back into the Wilderness on ground that nullified his advantages. That Hooker was less concerned about fighting inside the Wilderness and more worried about Lee hitting his army as it was emerging from the Wilderness's narrow defiles and debouching onto the plains seems to show that avoiding Wilderness combat was not a priority. For the Union commanders leading all three major 1863-64 Wilderness campaigns, the most important considerations were avoiding Confederate entrenchments and securing safe river crossings. Though he admits the possibility of unstated worries, Petty did not find any written evidence that fighting in the Wilderness figured into Grant or Meade's mental lists of concerns. On the other side, Lee expressed in his own writings and reports no desire to ensnare the enemy in the Wilderness. To the contrary, he repeatedly lamented the problems the terrain caused his own army. Far from seeking to 'trap' the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness at the beginning of the Overland Campaign, Lee found his hand forced by the Union advance and his army fully engaged before it was ready. By also bringing Mine Run into the conversation, Petty further buttresses the argument that Lee felt more anxious than ebullient about fighting in the Wilderness by citing the general's decision after Payne's Farm to pull his army back behind Mine Run rather than feeding more troops into the Wilderness. Petty's well-supported determination that other factors overrode any concerns Union commanders might have had with fighting in the Wilderness, and that Lee had no interest in deliberately deploying his own army there, argue strongly against traditional interpretation. That the Wilderness mythology has been widely misused both as a means to evade responsibility for failure and a partisan weapon wielded for the purposes of either burnishing or tarnishing military reputations is one of the book's most important and revealing conclusions.

Adam Petty's The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory is revisionist history at its best. In addition to strongly challenging the ingrained mythology of the one of the war's most infamous battlegrounds, the study suggests the utility of drawing more connections between the environment and military history while also raising pertinent questions about how the historiography of other Civil War landscapes might also be usefully reassessed. Very highly recommended.

7 comments:

  1. Hi Drew. I just finished this for a review in Civil War News. The book is well-written, and in places quite interesting, but I have to say I disagree with your highly recommended closing.

    I found this to be something akin to a long essay, extended purposely into a relatively short book. I thought it was repetitious to the point of exasperation. He repeated himself in every chapter. Nor did it strike me as exceedingly fresh or all that original. The origin of the Wilderness was interesting and new, as was some of the Wilderness "mythology," but did anyone really think Lee was trying to trap Grant in it? If so, how do you account for the manner in which his troops were deployed at the outside? Lee was way out of position.

    I so wanted to be very impressed with this study. Maybe I was drinking Scrooge Juice the past couple weeks. I will go back and take a fresh look now that I have your take. Maybe I really just missed it all.

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  2. Drew: Thanks for this review. This fleshes out the description I had seen. Regarding field artillery, I'm not sure the point holds. Chancellorsville and the Wilderness are not a perfect "overlay". The good artillery positions at Hazel Grove and Fairview were not in play one year later because they were east of that fighting. In fact, because the character of the combat and terrain at the Wilderness rendered the Artillery Reserve virtually useless, Grant decided to disband it and only agreed to a compromise that reduced battery size to 4 guns. The Wilderness did not feature the level of "concentrations" that Chancellorsville did. In short, for good reason field artillery played a much more important role in May 1863 than it did one year later.

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    1. I'm not sure that anything said in your comment disagrees with the book or the brief general comment in the review.

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  3. That would be important for me as a prospective purchaser. Those two large clearings provided fields of observation and fire, and allowed substantial concentrations, that really weren't available at the Wilderness.

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    1. Yes, the book indeed devotes attention to contrasting the use of artillery in the Wilderness and Chancellorsville battles.

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  4. Does he have any sort of map that shows the different kinds of woods growth in different places?

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    1. There's a good map showing the extent and major features of the Wilderness, but it doesn't have that kind of detail. I wish it did. The different vegetation patterns are just described in the text.

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