The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory
Reconsidering Virginia’s Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield
Adam H. Petty
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2019, 208 pages
Book Review published on: June 5, 2020
Author Adam Petty offers a fresh, if not opposing, view of the oft-studied Civil War battlefield area widely known as the Wilderness in The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory. Petty builds upon his doctoral dissertation, “Virginia’s Wilderness: Investigating the Landscape of War,” through this book’s publication, casting his argument into the public domain and thus benefiting students of the Civil War and history buffs alike.
Petty, instead of separately considering the campaigns of Chancellorsville (May 1863), Mine’s Run (November 1864), and the Wilderness (May 1864), he focuses instead on the terrain common to all three campaigns, a patch of ground called the Wilderness, over which these battles were fought. The author goes on to assert that several myths cast their shadows around the Wilderness from Chancellorsville, the first battle, and persists that even today they are obscuring the truth and confusing history with tradition. Petty separates what he calls the Wilderness myth into three primary components. First, the Wilderness was a battlefield unlike any other and created unique battle conditions. Second, these conditions favored the Confederates who tried to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. Third, there was a mystique surrounding the Wilderness, which was associated with woe, gloom, death, destruction, hell, fire, and the supernatural among other things. The author examines the components of the myth through the lens of environmental history, memory history, and military history, which award-winning author and Civil War historian Earl J. Hess describes as a “welcome departure to Civil War history leading to a thoroughly revisionist study.”
To illustrate this point, Petty’s analysis of historical records and good scientific assumptions of the environmental conditions of the state of battlefield at that time help the reader visualize the battles in an up close and personal way. The Wilderness, a forest in Virginia that lays northwest of Richmond, made up part of the larger base of operations for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia, which served to protect the Confederate capital. In folklore, the Wilderness held the reputation as virtually one massive forest that swallowed up the Union forces, giving the Confederate forces a home field advantage. Petty challenges this myth by establishing the environmental history of the Wilderness beginning in the early 1700s. For example, Petty’s research of primary sources and existing literature reveals a plank road, called the Orange Plank Road, that resulted in clear cutting along the road and iron ore furnaces consuming large patches of the woods, up to four hundred acres a year, thus turning the land into a patchwork of open and tangled areas interspersed amongst the large, mature forest. This helps explain why fighting was almost impenetrable along the Orange Plank Road and why commands almost took to maneuvering around the clear-cut patches of briar patches so thick you could almost walk over it.
Another example of Petty’s approach deals with the mystique of death, hell, fire, and the supernatural. He contends the belief that the Wilderness held some supernatural power that increased with each successive battle and continued after the war. Imagine fighting over the same ground three times in one year. Think of the impact on the psyche of veterans of all three fights. Now consider that wildfires touched off by shelling in fuel-laden forests burned uncontrollably, swallowing everything in their paths, particularly the dead and wounded. Eerily, during the Battle of the Wilderness, advancing soldiers came across these burning and rotting corpses and were left understandably shaken. As the years went on, the legends of haunted ground grew. Petty coins this as “memory history.” He does a great job of building a picture of what happened compared to what grew into the collective memory by pointing out variances and offering explanations.
The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory provides a great supplement to students of the Civil War and to avid readers of the Wilderness campaigns. It compliments other scholarly works like Gordon Rhea’s five volume set on the Wilderness. I applaud Petty separating fact from fiction and believe he achieved his unconventional revisionist approach. The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory will make a great addition to the body of work of campaigns and battles fought in heavily forested areas.
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas