Title: The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5 – 6, 1864
Author: Gordon C. Rhea
Publisher: Louisiana State University Press; Baton Rouge, LA; 2004
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Gordon C. Rhea’s The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5 – 6, 1864 was fought in a tangled forest fringing the south bank of the Rapidan River, marking the initial engagement in the climactic months of the Civil War in Virginia, and the first encounter between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, two of the best generals in American history.
In this exciting narrative, Rhea provides a superb recounting of that conflict of May 5 and 6, 1864, which ended with high casualties on both sides but no clear victor. With its balanced analysis of events and people, command structures and strategies, The Battle of the Wilderness is operational history as it should be written.
This book begins a highly detailed military history of Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864. Gordon Rhea gives this month, from May 5th to June 3rd, 1864, the detailed attention it requires and has never received. The 2,000 pages in four volumes allow for the full story of the campaign, the personalities, the failures, and successes.
This first book in his series covers the major battle of The Wilderness, an area Grant wished to get out of quickly. Through a series of Union miscalculations and command problems, Lee manages to get in Grant’s way. What follows is a confused bloody two-day battle that has been termed “Bushwhacking on a grand scale”.
Lee loses Longstreet and starts to make the hard decisions about personnel that he has avoided since 1862. Grant while testing his relationship with Meade and Burnside, is trying to learn the AOP’s generals too.
He is trying to delegate and trust his subordinates, without dominating all of the army’s actions, while his subordinates are learning to trust him and his command style. Grant is forced to deal with the problems this creates, while Lee takes steps that were unthinkable in 1863.
Two days of close-quarters fighting ignited the woods and enlarged the casualty lists with no advantage to either side. Lee stalemated Grant’s superior force, yet historian Rhea considers the Wilderness a Union victory, in part because Grant refused to retreat. The author questions Lee’s reputation as a brilliant strategist while praising Grant for a well-conceived battle plan, but demonstrates how both sides made mistakes and missed opportunities.
Personalities aside, the battle of attrition that would win the war had begun. Powerfully written, mingling official histories with diaries and letters, this study is filled with dramatic tension.
An excellent series of maps help the reader stay abreast of the battle and understand the confusion of both sides, though I would have liked several more maps to help clarify the troop movements, especially at the regimental level.
Rhea’s writing style is clear and easy enough for the layperson yet technical enough to challenge the thinking of historians and military professionals. As written by Rhea, the Battle of the Wilderness underscores how the Confederacy won many battles but lost the war.