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The Wilderness Battlefield

The Wilderness battlefield is part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Fought between May 5-7, 1864, The Wilderness was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War. The battle resulted in approximately 28,600 total casualties.

The battlefield is located between the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road west of Brock Road (Route 613). These two roads were also critical during the battle and the scene of heavy fighting. There is no visitors center here, only an exhibit shelter staffed part time.

A complete driving tour of the battlefield takes roughly two hours, with eight main stops. One of the most exciting episodes in the Civil War occurred in this clearing when Robert E. Lee tried to personally lead a counter attack at a critical moment. Men of the Texas Brigade shouted “Lee to the rear!” and refused to advance until he withdrew to safety.

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The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern

the-battles-for-spotsylvania-court-house-and-the-road-to-yellow-tavern-may-7-12-1864-by-gordon-c-rheaIn The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the maneuvers and battles from May 7, 1864, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant broke convention and flanked Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of the Wilderness, through May 12, when his attempt to break Lee’s entrenched army by frontal assault reached a chilling climax at what is now called the Bloody Angle.

Drawing on previously untapped materials, Rhea challenges conventional wisdom to construct a detailed and thorough account of Grant and Lee at Spotsylvania, including the rise of Union cavalry commander Philip Sheridan and death of the legendary J.E.B. Stuart. This is the second of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.

In the aftermath of the Wilderness, General Grant learned from his mistakes, but familiar problems still shadowed his army. At Spotsylvania, Ambrose Burnside continued to conduct the IX Corps at a glacial pace. His failings “… were so flagrant that the army talked about them openly.” While Sheridan’s ride south in pursuit of J.E.B. Stewart earned him fame and resulted in Stewart’s death, it also deprived Grant of the eyes and ears of his army at a critical time. The result was eight days of brutal combat, with little to show for it. Once again, Grant’s divided command was a hindrance.

The Battle of Spotsylvania showed Grant’s stubborn determination and persistence, but Rhea puts the blame squarely on Grant for his failure to decisively defeat Lee. Grant’s impulsiveness and impatience undermined what was otherwise a sound strategy. He imposed unrealistic timetables and gave little time for preparation, so plans that looked good on paper failed miserably in execution. As the battle progressed, Grant took an increasingly active role and sidelined Maj. Gen. Meade. Meade was unable or unwilling to temper Grant’s more aggressive tendencies.

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The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea

the-battle-of-the-wilderness-may-5-6-1864-by-gordon-c-rheaIn 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.

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The Ultimate Sacrifice

Cold Harbor Battlefield, Richmond National Battlefield Park, 3215 E. Broad St. Richmond, Virginia 23223. (804) 226-1981

The Deterioration of Lee’s Army

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

As I’ve been visiting battlefields and researching the American Civil War in Virginia, and reconciling that information with my own experiences in the military, it hit me what a massive and difficult endeavor fighting the Civil War actually was. At the height of the war in the Gettysburg Campaign, General Robert E. Lee commanded roughly 75,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia. To put that into perspective, in 1860 Richmond, Virginia had a population of 37,910. How difficult is it to sustain an army the size of a city?

To sustain any army, it needs food, uniforms (shoes especially), guns and ammunition, access to clean water, sanitation, shelter from bad weather, and some kind of medical care. It’s estimated dysentery alone, brought on by poor sanitation, caused over 95,000 deaths in the Union and Confederate armies. 415,000 soldiers died from disease, accidents, drowning, heat stroke, suicide, murder, and execution, far exceeding battlefield deaths. Those are the soldiers that died–far more were simply incapacitated, bedridden, or unable to fight.

It’s incredible how long these large armies continued to fight without just completely deteriorating from attrition alone.

Beyond basics like food, clothing, shelter, and weapons, soldiers need to have a reason to continue fighting–they must believe in a cause, in eventual victory, and be willing to endure hardship and work together, especially in an army where regular pay is virtually nonexistent. This psychological measure of a soldier’s willingness to fight is called morale. Even the best fed and well-equipped army in the world will disintegrate if its morale is low enough.

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Civil War Ballads: Muleshoe

David Matthews (no, not that one) wrote and recorded this song for Classic Images’ Civil War 125th Anniversary Series VHS (1987) on the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. It also appeared on his 1994 album Shades of Blue & Gray: Songs From The Civil War, released by Delta, and re-released on various alternatively-titled albums over the years. “Muleshoe” refers to a salient in the Confederate breastworks at the Battle of Spotsylvania.

As Yankees fixed their bayonets to charge the Muleshoe
they laid their knapsacks and their bedding down
With death so close beside them they weren’t goin’ very far
In a moment there’d be life’s blood on the ground

Carved in blood-red soil rebels built their fortress well
Like a lion with its pride they vowed to fight
And their earthen scar would prove to be a grave for Yankee blue
Raw courage was their armor inside the Muleshoe

Place the ring upon your finger and the laurel on your head
And the golden star upon your crisp lapel
If only for a moment just inside the Muleshoe
The price was paid for glory by the gray and by the blue

Like a dagger poised in darkness Federals waited for the call
To slash into the rebels in their way
Like a ninety-nine pound hammer Yankees charged down at the pines
And the searing flames of rifles sent the rebels to their graves

Battle of Spottsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup

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