5 Essential Books on the Battle of the Wilderness
John Reeves is the author of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
Horace Porter, a staff officer for Ulysses S. Grant, provided a chilling description of the Battle of the Wilderness:
“Forest fires raged; ammunition-trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing. It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.”
The Battle of the Wilderness was the first epic clash between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. The Union lost 17,666 men and the Confederates lost 11,125 over the course of those two hellish days in May 1864.
The stakes for the battle couldn’t have been higher. If Grant failed in his spring campaign, then it’s quite likely that President Lincoln wouldn’t have been reelected later that fall. And that may have resulted in a negotiated peace of some kind. If Lee was unable to stop Grant, on the other hand, then it would only be a matter of time before the Confederacy lost the war.
I’m currently writing a book on the Battle of the Wilderness, and thought it might be useful to share five outstanding books on this monumental event.
1. The Battle of the Wilderness by Morris Schaff
This is one of my favorite books on the Civil War. Schaff was a staff officer for Major General Gouverneur Warren, who commanded the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Schaff was there at the Wilderness during the initial failed attack in the woods surrounding the Orange Turnpike. His account of Warren fudging the casualty numbers later that evening is poignant.
Schaff clearly loved his fellow soldiers and the book is written with tremendous compassion. He’s also funny, too. After describing how scary it was to hear a Rebel yell in the woods, he adds, “but I dare say you would have faced the enemy right well.”
2. The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864 by Gordon Rhea
Gordon Rhea is our finest historian of Grant’s Overland Campaign. And his narrative of the Wilderness is currently the best account of that battle. Rhea’s command of the primary source material is remarkable.
That’s one of the great strengths of this book. In addition to his masterful understanding of the battlefield tactics, Rhea has examined an extraordinary amount of sources. This allows him to go back and forth between official reports on the fighting and the more personal accounts — letters, memoirs, and histories — from ordinary soldiers. This book is required reading for scholars and general readers, who are interested in this battle.
3. The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere
Like Rhea, Steere has written a narrative account of the battle. A former soldier, who then worked for the National Park Service, Steere has an excellent understanding of the battlefield. His book is very strong on tactics and strategy. His final chapter that assesses the performance of Lee and Grant over the two days is particularly informative. Students of military history will be especially interested in this volume.
4. Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle by Stephen Cushman
“Bloody Promenade” is a fascinating and idiosyncratic book from a Professor of English at the University of Virginia. It’s not about military history per se. Rather, Cushman looks at the battle from every conceivable perspective. I really appreciate his expertise in textual criticism, though he’s made me self-conscious as I attempt to write my own account of the battle.
In an interview, Cushman said, “Grant was a killer. He was a professional killer. He knew that he had twice the number of men, and he knew he could always have more men and Lee couldn’t. So he knew he could trade two for one in a very cold and calculating way, and prevail.” Cushman has written a very good poem on Grant called “Whenever I Smoke a Cigar” that is included in this book. It begins,
Whenever I smoke a cigar, I think
of Grant in the Wilderness writing
orders out in fatless prose without revision
then chewing on a burnt-out stub and weeping
as numbers flooded in and names piled up
on lists the northern papers printed
along with the outcry Butcher, Butcher…
5. The Wilderness Campaign edited by Gary Gallagher
This is an outstanding collection of essays, compiled by a leading historian of the Civil War. I really enjoyed all of them. There’s one on the Army of the Potomac’s preparations for the Overland Campaign that is particularly insightful. I also liked the essay on Longstreet’s flank attack on day two of the battle. I often wonder if that flank attack was the Confederacy’s last chance for some sort of successful outcome to the war.
Readers might be especially interested in the essay titled, “‘Lee to the Rear,’ the Texans Cried.” The moment when Robert E. Lee tried to lead troops into battle on the morning of May 6 has become one of the most memorable episodes of the Civil War. This essay provides us with a more accurate understanding of what has become part of the Lee myth.
John Reeves is writing a book on the Battle of the Wilderness called Raging Fire in the Wilderness: The First Deadly Clash Between Grant and Lee.