Historic America Reviews

The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea


In The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the first meeting between Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the darkened, tangled forest west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, which ended with high casualties on both sides but no clear victor.

Rhea clarifies and explains a battle that even its participants found confusing and hard to comprehend. With its balanced analysis of events and people, command structures and strategies, The Battle of the Wilderness is a thorough and meticulous military history. This is the first of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.

Prior to 1864, the Eastern Theater had mostly been a war of maneuver. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia jockeyed back and forth with the Union Army of the Potomac with little to show for it. In April 1864, both armies sat facing one another across the Rapidan River, almost exactly where they had been one year earlier.

General Ulysses S. Grant was determined to change that, and the Battle of the Wilderness proved it. This chaotic struggle touched off the Overland Campaign, a brutal grind toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Rather than retreat to lick its wounds, as Army of the Potomac usually did after a major battle, Grant ordered it around Lee’s flank to the southeast. Finally, President Abraham Lincoln found a General who was not afraid of Robert E. Lee.

With clear but detailed prose, Gordon C. Rhea shows how divided command crippled the Union Army. While George G. Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, Ambrose Burnside commanded the IX Corps, which was formally part of the Army of the Ohio. Because he technically outranked Meade, Burnside reported directly to Grant. Grant gave both generals considerable leeway during the battle. “The Union army’s overwhelming size should by itself have guaranteed success, but careless generalship had forfeited the golden opportunity,” he wrote.

The Confederate army was not without controversy. On May 6, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon found the Union army’s flank in the air and sought permission from his division commander, Jubal Early, to attack the exposed flank. By the time his corps commander, Richard Ewell, approved the plan, it was shortly before dark and Gordon had no time to exploit his success. Later, Gordon claimed Lee personally ordered the attack when he saw its potential. Rhea deconstructs this claim and finds Gordon embellished (or outright fabricated) events to enhance his reputation.

Like all previous offensives that day, he concluded, “In the end, Gordon’s plan accomplished little more than to add names to the casualty lists.”

Gordon C. Rhea (born March 10, 1945) is a military historian specializing in the Overland Campaign in Virginia during the American Civil War. He is a graduate of Indiana University, Stanford Law School, and Harvard University and is a practicing attorney in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. His other books include To the North Anna River (2000), The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House (1997), and Cold Harbor (2002).

The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea was published by Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) in 2007. The 520-page hardcover edition retails for $45.00 (paperback, $27.95). The Kindle edition sells for $14.49.

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