The Battle of the Wilderness
AFTER several abortively offensive movements by each of the armies during the autumn of 1863, they went into winter quarters: Lee, with his army well in hand, on the south bank of the Rapidan; Meade, between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock. The former’s headquarters were among some pines and cedars at the foot of Clarke’s Mountain, his principal depot of supplies at Orange Court House. The latter’s were on a knoll covered with tall young pines about a mile and a half northwest from Brandy Station. The bulk of the army of the Potomac was around Culpeper and Stevensburg; one corps, the 5th, under Warren after Hancock returned to duty, stretched northward along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad — at present the Southern — as far as Calverton. Our principal depot for supplies was at Brandy, where I passed the greater part of the winter in charge of the ordnance depot.
The town then consisted of only three or four houses, and is about midway between Culpeper on the south and the Rappahannock on the north. A good deal of military history of interest is connected with it; for in the rolling fields of the plantations about, Lee, just before setting out for Gettysburg, reviewed Stuart’s cavalry, ten to twelve thousand strong. The dew was still on his great victory at Chancellorsville, won in the month before, and the review, according to all ac counts, was a pageant, drawing people from far and near. Ladies, young and old, of Culpeper, Charlottesville, and more distant points in Virginia, were there, and around some of the horses’ necks, and hanging from the cantles of the saddles, and at the heads of the fluttering guidons, were bouquets and bunches of wild flowers which they had brought with them. They were proud, and justly so, of their sons, brothers, and lovers; and I really believe that the future of the Confederacy never looked so fair to them, or to those at its helm, as on that June day.
It will be remembered that in the deep mist of the morning following the review our cavalry crossed the Rappahannock and gave Stuart desperate battle right around Brandy; and it is a matter of history that it had its baptism on that field. For two years it had been a negligible quantity, and scorned by its enemy; but from then on to the end our cavalry met the enemy sternly, with increasing bravery and effectiveness. The battle lasted nearly all day and was very severe; Buford, Gregg, Custer, Merritt, Kilpatrick, and the lamented Davis, were all there. My tent at the station, pitched after dark and partly floored, I discovered later was over the grave of some one who had fallen in those repeated charges. I wandered over those same fields the other day: cattle and sheep were grazing up the slopes where the squadrons had marched in the June sunshine; killdeers with banded necks and bladed wings, turtle doves, meadowlarks, and serenely joyous little sparrows were flying and singing where the flags had fluttered and the bugles sounded.
In view of the fact that about all the supplies to meet the daily wants of the army, then consisting of a hundred thousand men, and between forty and fifty thousand animals, were sent to Brandy, it is easy to imagine that it was a very busy place. Supplies came by rail from Washington and Alexandria. Those for the ordnance, hospital, and clothing departments were put under cover in temporary buildings, while forage, and unperishable quartermaster and commissary stores were racked up and covered by tarpaulins along the track and sidings. Some of the piles were immense, and from morning till night trains of army wagons were coming and going, or stood occupying all the open space around the station, waiting for their turn to load.
In the history of the Fifth Massachusetts is the following letter from one of the sergeants of the battery. It is dated April 30, 1864.
“ The next battle will be a rouser ! The rebels of Lee’s army are all ready for us, and are said to be ninety thousand. They will give us a tough pull if my opinion amounts to anything.
“ To-day I was up to Brandy Station. You can form no idea of the bustle and confusion at this depot when the army is getting ready to move. It looked to me as if a thousand or more wagons were waiting to load, and there were immense piles of ammunition and all kinds of Ordnance Stores, etc., etc., and piles of boxes of hard bread as high as two and three-story houses. It reminded me some of a wharf in New York with twelve or fifteen ships loading and unloading.”
The trains were generally in charge of sergeants, but were often accompanied by the brigade and division officers in charge of special departments, so that those of us at the head of depots gained a wide acquaintance throughout the army. Frequently these officers staid with us for dinner; and as my fellow messmate was Dr. J. B. Brinton of Philadelphia, in charge of the medical supplies, and as doctors and surgeons, like certain aspiring lawyers, never cease to talk about their cases, I knew a good many surgeons well, and understood at least a part of their professional lingo.
The wagons were generally drawn by four mules driven by negroes, who rode the nigh wheeler and managed the team by a jerk line to the nigh leader. In these days it may seem like a shiftless way to drive a team, but it worked well, and possibly because the darkies and the mules, through some medium or other, understood each other perfectly; at any rate, the drivers talked to their teams as if they comprehended every word said to them. And sometimes it was worth listening to, when the roads were bad and some of the wagons ahead of them were stuck in the mud. “ Calline ” (Caroline, the nigh leader), giving her an awakening jerk of the line, " stop dreamin’ with dem y’ears of yourn.” “ Jer’miah ” (Jeremiah, the off wheeler), “ you’ll think the insex is bit’n you if you don’t put dem sholdahs agin dat collah.” “ Dan’l” (Daniel, the wheeler he is on), giving him a sharp dig in the ribs with his boot-heels, the road getting heavier every minute, “ no foolin’, you old hahdened sinnah! ” “Member, Mrs. N’nias” (Mrs. Ananias, off leader), reaching for her left hip with the tip of his black snake, “ if dis yere wagon sticks in dat hole ahead o’ you, you’ll wish your down in dakh grave ’longside dat lie’n husband o’ yourn.” And, on reaching the worst place in the road, yelling “ Yep! Yah! ” loud enough to be heard half-way from Washington to Baltimore, every prophet and lady mule in the team knew what to expect if the wagon stuck, and generally the faithful creatures pulled it through.
In one of the teams of the ammunition trains that came to the depot, there was a little bay mule, the leader, that wore a small and sweetly tinkling sheep-bell. I stroked her silky nose and neck often and was always glad to see her. On the Mine Run campaign, one of the abortive campaigns referred to above, in December, 1863, while riding from Ely’s Ford to Meade’s headquarters at Robinson’s Tavern on the Orange and Fredericksburg pike, a road which will be mentioned over and over again later, I overtook a long train. My progress by it was necessarily slow, for it was a pitch-dark night and the road narrow and very bad. But when I got near the head of the train I heard the little tinkling bell, and soon was alongside the faithful creature tugging away to the front. It may seem ridiculous, but I felt I had met a friend, and rode by her side for quite a while. I do not remember seeing her again till the army was crossing the James near Fort Powhatan.
While I do not wish to encumber the narrative with a burden of figures, yet it may interest the reader to know that we had in the Army of the Potomac, the morning we set off on the great campaign, 4300 wagons and 835 ambulances. There were 34,981 artillery, cavalry, and ambulance horses, and 22,528 mules, making an aggregate of 57,419 animals. The strength of the Army of the Potomac was between ninety-nine and one hundred thousand men. Burnside, who caught up with us the second day of the Wilderness, brought with him about twenty thousand more.
My original telegraph book, now before me, shows that I called for and issued between April 4 and May 2, the day before we moved, in addition to equipments and supplies of all kinds for infantry, artillery and cavalry, 2,325,000 rounds of musket and pistol cartridges as a reserve for what was already on hand. When Sheridan returned from his Trevillian Raid and battle, we then had gone as far on our way toward Richmond as the White House, Mrs. Washington’s attractive old home on the Pamunkey. At the mention of the memorable place, back comes the odor of mint being brewed in a julep, mint gathered in the famous war-stricken garden; and back come also the dust-covered soldiers removing the bodies of their gallant commanders, Porter and Morris, from ambulances, and bearing them aboard the boat for home. While at White House I ordered 88,600 rounds of pistol and carbine ammunition for Sheridan’s command alone. When we reached City Point a few days later, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, and Cold Harbor lay behind us; I called, on one requisition, for 5,863,000 rounds of infantry and 11,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, this 11,000 in addition to a like amount received at White House.
I should be untrue to my memory of Brandy if I did not record my high regard for my messmate through all that long winter of ’63 and ’64, Dr. J. B. Brinton, an assistant surgeon in the regular army. Transparency in minerals is rare, and always carries a suggestion of refinement; in the characters of men it is supreme, overtopping genius itself. It was Brinton’s steady characteristic, and in all the long procession of friends that have blest my way through life I recall no one more humanly real, or who had more natural sweetness, or who cherished better ideals. Moreover, there was a fountain of joyousness about him, too. I fondly believe that the recording angel has but little in his book against either of us for those winter days and nights. For I know we passed them without envy, hatred, or malice toward any one in the world.
There was an incident in our life at Brandy, connected with Gettysburg, which possibly is worth relating. Batchelder, whose map of the battlefield of Gettysburg is authority, and whom we had fallen in with while we were there, asked to join our mess at Brandy when he came to the army to verify the positions of the various commands. One night we had just sat down to dinner when he entered our big hospital tent, quite tired. “ Well,” he announced, after taking his place at the table, “ I have been down in the Second Corps to-day, and I believe I have discovered how Joshua made the sun stand still. I first went to舒regi-
ment and had the officers mark on the map the hour of their position at a certain point. Then I went to 舒 regi-
ment in the same brigade; they declared positively it was one or two hours earlier or later than that given by the other. So it went on, no two regiments or brigades agreeing, and if I hinted that some of them must certainly be mistaken, they would set me down by saying, with severe dignity, ‘ We were there, Batchelder, and we ought to know, I guess;’ and I made up my mind that it would take a day of at least twenty hours instead of thirteen at Gettysburg to satisfy their accounts. So when Joshua’s captains got around him after the fight and they began to talk it over, the only way under the heavens that he could ever harmonize their statements was to make the sun stand still and give them all a chance.” Any one who has ever tried to establish the exact position or hour when anything took place in an engagement will confirm Batchelder’s experience; and possibly, if not too orthodox, accept his explanation of Joshua’s feat.
My duties called me daily to Meade’s headquarters; and when my chief was away on leave I took his place there permanently. Meade at this time was in his forty-ninth year, and his Gettysburg laurels were green. His face was spare and strong, of the Romanish type, its complexion velvety pallid. His blue eyes were prominent, coldly penetrating and underhung by sweeping lobes that were inclined to channel. His height was well above the average, and his mien that of a soldier, a man of the world, and a scholarly gentleman. He wore a full, but inconspicuous beard, and his originally deep chestnut, but now frosted hair, was soft and inclined to wave on good, easy terms with his conspicuous and speaking forehead. His manners were native and highbred, but unfortunately they laid an air of restraint on all subordinates around him, the most serious defect in critical times that a good cause ever encounters in a commander. I doubt if the Army of the Potomac would ever have rallied around him had he been relieved and reappointed, as it did around McClellan. In social hours, when things were going well, no man in civil or military life would outshine him in genial spirits or contribution of easy and thoughtful suggestive speech.
He had, too, that marvelous instrument, a rich, cultivated voice. But nature had not been altogether partial: she had given him a most irritable temper. I have seen him so cross and ugly that no one dared to speak to him, — in fact, at such times his staff and everybody else at headquarters kept as clear of him as possible. As the campaign progressed, with its frightful carnage and disappointments, his temper grew fiercer —but, save Grant’s, everybody’s got on edge, and it was not to be wondered at. Notwithstanding, Meade was a fine, cultivated, and gallant gentleman, and as long as the victory of Gettysburg appeals to the people he will be remembered gratefully, and proudly too. In camp his military coat, sack in cut, was always open, displaying his well-ordered linen, vest, and necktie; when mounted, he wore a drooping army hat, yellow gauntlets, and rode a bald-faced horse with a fox-walk which kept all in a dog-trot to keep up with him, and on more than one occasion some one of the staff was heard to say, “ Damn that horse of Meade’s! I wish he would either go faster or slower.”
Hancock, who commanded the Second Corps, was, like Hooker, a very handsome, striking-looking man; both looked and moved grandly, satisfying every atavistic ideal of chieftainship. He was symmetrically large, with chestnut hair and rather low forehead, but great authority was in his open face, which, when times were storming, became the mirror of his bold heart; “ so that in battle, where his men could see him, as at Williamsburg and Gettysburg, he lifted them to the level of his impetuous valor. But when he was surrounded by woods and he could not see his enemy, as at Ream’s Station and the Wilderness, he was restless and shorn of much of his effectiveness, very unlike the great commander he was as he rode up and down his lines, inspiring them with his electrical energy, until severely wounded, when Pickett was coming on.” When he returned to duty I happened to be at Meade’s headquarters. Some one called out, “ There’s Hancock.” He was just dismounting and Meade was coming out from his quarters, bare-headed and with illuminated face. I can hear his rich-toned voice saying, “ I’m glad to see you again, Hancock,” as he grasped the latter’s outstretched hand with both of his. They had not seen each other since the great day.
Sedgwick, who commanded the Sixth Corps, was stocky, and was called, endearingly, Uncle John. No one served with him who did not love him. He had curling chestnut hair, was a bachelor, and spent lots of time playing solitaire. His whole manner breathed of gentleness and sweetness, and in his broad breast was a boy’s heart. I saw him only a few hours before it ceased to beat at Spottsylvania.
Sheridan I saw much less of than of any of the other corps commanders. for he joined the army just before we moved and was generally detached. He was not of delicate fibre. His pictures are excellent, and preserve faithfully the animation of his face, with its large, glowing dark eyes. With his close army associates, I have no doubt he was companionable, and Lee’s final overthrow is due in great measure to him. He had some of the hard mystery of greatness about him, and his name will last long.
Meade’s chief of staff was Humphreys, and as so much of the success or failure of an army hangs on that position, a word about him will not be out of place. Moreover, his services were great as a corps commander, for after we got in front of Petersburg, Hancock, on account of his Gettysburg wound, had to give up command, and Meade assigned Humphreys to succeed him at the head of the famous Second Corps. He was a small, bowlegged man, with chopped-off, iron gray mustache; and when he lifted his army hat you saw a rather low forehead, and a shock of iron-gray hair. His blue-gray unconquerable eyes threw into his stern face the coldness of hammered steel. I never saw it lit up with joy but once, and that was long after the war, as he met an old classmate at West Point on graduation day. Look at him well: you are gazing at a hero, one who has the austere charm of dignity and a well-stored mind. Like a knight of old, Humphreys led his brigade squarely up against the heights of Fredericksburg; and at Gettysburg on the second day he was only driven from the Emettsburg road salient after a most desperate defense, probably saving the line. He graduated in the class of 1831, Meade in that of 1835.
And now I come to two men on Meade’s staff whose names appear and reappear in the history of the Army of the Potomac: General Seth Williams, who was the Adjutant-General, and General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery. To set them forth so that the reader would see them and know them as they were, would give me keen pleasure, for there never was a sweeter-tempered or kindlier heart than Williams’s, or a braver one than Hunt’s. Williams’s hair was red, his face full, open and generous, and always lit up as if there were a harp playing in his breast. At Appomattox, when Lee was going through the trying ordeal of surrendering his army, the only one of all in the room whom he greeted with anything like cordiality was Williams; for all others his face wore its native dignity. Williams was from Maine, and had been Lee’s adjutant at West Point when he was superintendent.
Hunt, the chief of artillery, whose complexion was about the color of an old drum-head, had rather dull black eyes, separated by a thin nose. His West Point classmates loved him, and called him “Cupid.” He was lion-hearted, and had won brevet on brevet for gallant conduct. At Gettysburg it was Hunt, riding through the storm, who brought up the fresh batteries and put them into action at the critical moment of Pickett’s charge. Both he and Williams have long since made their bed in the grave.
There is a great temptation to dwell on other members of the staff. On Ingalls, a classmate of Grant’s, the chief quartermaster, a chunky, oracular-looking man who carried sedulously a wisp of long hair up over his otherwise balding head, and who, besides being the best quartermaster the war produced, could hold his own very well with the best poker players the old army or the new could show. On McParlin, the head of the medical department, Duane, the chief engineer, Michler, Wendell, and Theodore Lyman of Boston, of Meade’s staff. All were my seniors, and their character and services I remember with veneration. Especially would I love to dwell on those who were about my own age, not one of us over twenty-five, mere boys as it were: Sanders, Bache, Bates, Cadwalader, Biddle, Pease, George Meade; with several of whom I passed many a happy hour. So far as our services or personalities had significance, we were like little feathery clouds fringing great ones as they bear steadily on. And, like them, we have melted away. The big clouds, on the other hand, that we accompanied, at more or less distance, with such light hearts, Grant and Meade, are lying richly banded low down across the glowing sunset sky of History. When I visited the knoll, a few weeks ago, where Meade had his headquarters, — it is now bare, clothed only in grass, with here and there an apple tree or a locust in bloom, that have taken the places of the young pines, —I thought of them all. It is needless to say that the scene from the old camp offered its contrasts. Where desolation had brooded, clover was blooming; in the fields where the bleaching bones of cattle, horses, and mules, had stippled the twilight, the plough was upturning the rich red earth with its sweet, fresh breath of promise. In short, the choral songs of Peace and Home had replaced the dirge which underlies the march of glory.
Grant had his headquarters in the Barbour house in Culpeper, now the site of the county jail. At this time he was in his forty-second year, having graduated at West Point in 1843. I am not vain enough to think that anything I may say will add to the world’s knowledge of him. Several of his aides, many friends and admirers, have all told us about him in a friendly way, and lit their lamps about him. Now and then, too, a predaceous critic has driven his beak into him, and yet the mystery of his being is unpenetrated.
When he came to the Army of the Potomac — I remember the day well — I never was more surprised in my life. I had expected to see quite another type of man: one of the chieftain type, favored with a commanding figure, flaunting the insignia of rank, and surveying the world with dominant, inveterate eyes and a certain detached military loftiness. But behold, what did I see ? A mediumsized, mild, unobtrusive, inconspicuously dressed, modest and naturally silent man, with a low, gently vibrant voice and steady, thoughtful, softly blue eyes. Not a hint of self-consciousness, impatience, or restlessness, either of mind or body; on the contrary. the centre of a pervasive quiet which seemed to be conveyed to every one around him — even the orderlies all through the campaign were obviously at their ease. I often looked at Grant as I might have looked at any mystery, as day after day I saw him at his headquarters, especially after we had reached City Point, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, and Cold Harbor, with their frightful losses lying behind us.
There was nothing in his manner or his tone or his face that indicated that he had ever had anything to do with the victories of Fort Donaldson, Vicksburg, and Missionary Ridge, or that his unfinished task, so momentous for the country, troubled him. I felt, what all observers felt, that I was in the presence of a man built on a great plan. There was certainly something evoking about him; what of the earth, earthy, what of exceeding greatness, what dim constellation of virtues, were looking out of that imperturbable but sadly earnest face ? At one time, and not long before the period dealt with, lean Want had sat at his table. Few tried companions frequented his door or cheered his fireside then. The war comes on, the spirit of the age, as I believe, in the guise of Opportunity knocks at his door, and without powerful friends to back him, and with no social or political influence to clear the way for him, in less than four years, never courting advancement, never resenting malevolent criticism or ill treatment, tempted always, there he was aloft in the country’s eye the winner of its telling victories, a Lieutenant-General in command of all the armies of the North, and with the destiny of the Republic hanging on him! Has Genius ever shown her transcendency more masterfully ?
It is needless for me to add that, marvelous as this career had been, the future was to unfold it rising far above the level of Wonder. If his antagonist Lee be the culmination of the gentleman and soldier of our land, and of all lands, Grant made the splendor of his background for him by putting into the hitherto hard face of war two humanizing features, magnanimity and modesty in the hour of Victory.
There was one man on Grant’s staff whose name should not be forgotten; in fact, it ought to be carved on every monument erected to Grant, for it was through him, Colonel John F. Rawlins, his chief of staff, that Grant’s good angel reached him her steadying and uplifting hand. He was above medium size, wore a long black beard, and talked in a loud emphatic voice. Sincerity and earnestness was the look of his face.
He had on his staff three of my West Point acquaintances, Comstock, Babcock and Porter. Comstock had been one of the instructors in mathematics; Babcock and Porter had been in the corps with me. Captain Hudson of his staff I have good reason for remembering. I was playing “ seven-up,” with him and the late Admiral Clitz of the navy, when my ordnance depot at City Point was blown up by a torpedo. It was made in Richmond, and placed by a couple of daring Confederates clothed in our uniform on the deck of a barge loaded with artillery ammunition. Our innocent game was going on in the tent of Captain Mason, who commanded Grant’s escort. First came the explosion of the depot, that shook the earth and was felt for miles, then a solid shot tore through the tent. I doubt if a game of cards ever came to an end quicker than that one. We fairly flew from the tent, and at once came under a shower of bursting shells and falling wreckage. One of the barge’s old ribs, that must have weighed at least a ton, fell immediately in front of Clitz. Changing his course, he uttered only one remark, the first half of the 35th verse of the 11th chapter of the Holy Gospel of Saint John. Then, with eyes on the ground, and wondering, I suspect, what would come next, he passed at great speed right by Grant, who in his usually calm voice asked, “ Where are you coming, Clitz? ” The admiral hove to, and then streaked it for his war vessel, and we never finished the game.
The youngest and nearest my own age on Grant’s staff was “ Billy ” Dunn, one of the best and truest friends I ever had. He had reddish hair and naturally smiling eyes, and died not long after the war. Peace, sweet peace be on the spot where the brave and sweet-hearted fellow lies!
The looming gravity of the situation North and South, which I have tried to depict, left no doubt, I think, what the coming campaign called for in the minds of Grant and Lee. Of Lee’s plans we can rest assured, for a crushing defeat of Grant at the very outset of the campaign would drive him back across the Rapidan, stunned and helpless for months, as Burnside and Hooker had been left before him. Lee knew, and every observer of the times knew, that such a defeat would give to the Peace Party, on whom the last hope of the Confederacy hung, immediate and bold encouragement. At once, “ the War a failure ” would be the political cry, and at the coming presidential election Lincoln’s administration, pledged to the continuance of the War for the Union, would be swept away. In that case, leader and private in the Confederate Army knew that, once their milky-hearted friends got hold of the helm, under the cowardly cloak of humanity they would ask for an armistice. That granted, the goal would be reached and their weary, staggering Confederacy, weighted down with slavery, would be at rest. The children of the leaders of the Peace Party of the North are very fortunate that their fathers did not succeed, for where would their present pride of country be ? The situation called on Lee for a victory; on Grant, on the other hand, for the complete destruction of Lee’s army, for until then there could be no peace with safety and honor.
It does not seem necessary to discuss the military problem that confronted these two great Captains. The moves they made were determined primarily by the natural features of the country and the safety and facility of obtaining supplies.
As I have said, Grant’s and Lee’s armies were on the Orange and Alexandria, now the Southern, Railroad; the former between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock, the latter at Orange Court House and beyond. Each was about the same distance from his capital, whose capture meant in either case the end of the war. The Confederacy would have its place among nations if Lee took Washington, its death beyond resurrection if Grant took Richmond. Grant’s headquarters at Culpeper were about sixty miles southwest from Washington; Lee’s at Orange Court House, sixteen or eighteen miles farther south, were in the vicinity of seventy miles northwest from Richmond; in geometrical terms, the armies were at the apex of a flat isosceles triangle, its base a line running almost due north and south from Washington to Richmond. Twenty odd miles to the west, beyond the camps of both armies, rose the incomparable Blue Ridge, whose azure sky-line, stars, sun and moon were arrayed in matchless splendor, lifting the hearts of the sentinels of both armies, I have no doubt, above the passions of war to a sense of adoration. Down from this beautiful range come the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, — rivers whose names we shall repeat so often, — which, after flowing through many an oak and chestnut wood and by many a smiling plantation, meet in the northern belt of the Wilderness, about twenty miles as the crow flies east of Culpeper, and nearly the same distance west of Fredericksburg.
These rivers, the Rappahannock somewhat the larger, hold many secrets of the struggle, for the armies camped on their banks again and again, crossed and recrossed them, sometimes in victory, sometimes in dismal defeat. And now that I speak of them, I see them once more. Sunrise is breaking on them, and I hear their low musical tongues. The Rapidan is much the faster. The country through which they run, and the positions our corps occupied, can best be seen from the top of Mt. Poney, a wooded detached foothill of the Blue Ridge, that rises abruptly on the edge of Culpeper. We had a signal station on it. Looking north the railroad is seen bearing on southwestward from the Rappahannock, through an undulating farming section, that is green and lovely: first past Elkwood, then Brandy, and by one plantation after another, on into the old and attractive town of Culpeper. To the northeast, and four or five miles away, and about equidistant from Brandy and Culpeper, is a hamlet of a half-dozen ageworn houses called Stevensburg, sitting at the foot of a lonely bare hill that looks like a giant asleep. It is Colés or Lone Tree Hill, so called from a single tall primeval tree that spread its leafless limbs against the winter morning and evening skies. On and around this hill were the camps of Hancock. Warren’s Fifth Corps was at Culpeper and beyond ; the Sixth, under the beloved Sedgwick, near Brandy and Welford’s Ford on the Rappahannock, several miles northwest from Meade’s headquarters. A short while before we moved, Sheridan assembled the second and third divisions of his cavalry near Stevensburg. Custer had his headquarters in the Barbour House, and Wilson at the old Grayson Manor, known as Salubria, where Jefferson on many an occasion was a guest. Stevensburg, like so many of the old dreaming country towns of Virginia, has proud memories of her distinguished sons.
From the northwest comes into the little village the road from Brandy, and from the southwest that from Culpeper; and a mighty pleasant one it is to follow in May, when the rolling fields on either hand are dotted with herds of grazing steers and the meadow larks are piping their clear, high skyey notes. Meade and his staff came down the road from Brandy, Warren with all the troops around Culpeper down the Culpeper road, when we set off for the Wilderness. At the village these roads enter the main one that was built in Washington’s boyhood to connect Stevensburg and the upper settlements on the Rappahannock with Fredericksburg. This old highway is narrow, and its course from Stevensburg is almost due east, warping its way most of the time through sombre woods, woods with a natural deep silence, but flaming here and there with clumps of azaleas in their season. It crosses the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford, three or four miles above the point where it falls into the Rappahannock. At Sheppard’s Grove, a hamlet midway between Stevensburg and Ely’s Ford, a road branches from it to the right that runs to Germanna Ford on the Rapidan.
Alone in the woods along this road, and standing close by it is a little frame house painted white. In its narrow dooryard and under each window to the right and left of the door is a yellow rose-bush. On passing it lately, attracted by the beautiful roses then in full bloom and the open door, I ventured to call. — In the name of the Pilgrim’s Progress, will you tell me what this has to do with the Campaign of the Wilderness ? — Yes, I discovered that one of our old cavalry soldiers lives there. He was not at home, but his wife, a frank, naturally pleasant gray-haired woman, told me that she was born near by, her people rankly Southern, and that she fell in love with her husband while he was a sentinel at her father’s house. After the war — and she remembered the volleys in the Wilderness well — her Yankee lover came back, they were married, bought the little farm, built the house, and transplanted the roses from the old home.
About a mile and a half beyond their little clearing is Germanna Ford on the Rapidan. From there runs a road to Stevensburg; in our day it was called the Plank Road. All the roads that I have mentioned and over which we moved are intersected by many country roads that are but little more than tracks through the woods and fields.
There are two streams flowing through the landscape that spreads from Mt. Poney, which I should like to mention, for I am indebted to them for many a pleasant murmur, and because their mingled waters, pouring over the dam at Paoli Mills, now known as Stone’s, told me where I was in the still hours of the night, when misled by a guide while carrying Grant’s first despatches from the Wilderness. They are Jonas and Mountain runs. The former, much the smaller, rises in the fields beyond Brandy, the latter among the foothills of the Blue Ridge. They meet near Lone Tree Hill. From there Mountain Run winds on northeastwardly to the Rappahannock, through stretches of oak, pine, and cedar forest, where wild turkeys breed and redbirds sing.
When I was down there the other day, the miller at Clarico’s Mill, three or four miles above Stone’s, told me that a tame turkey, perfectly white, had joined a flock of wild ones and roamed the neighboring woods with them—which suggests that our natures, like theirs, perhaps, are not changed by the feathers we wear.
Finally, before leaving Mt. Poney there is one more feature to which I wish to call attention. Away to the south, after traversing a gently sloping country sprinkled with farms and woods, the eye catches the top of a blue veiled peak. It is Clarke’s Mountain, beyond the Rapidan, and was Lee’s signal station. The particular feature to which I wish to direct the reader’s eye is a vast expanse of forest green that lies east of Clarke’s Mountain. In spots, as you see, it is almost black, and reaches clear to the distant circling horizon. That is the Wilderness.
What is known as the Wilderness begins near Orange Court House on the west and extends almost to Fredericksburg, twenty-five or thirty miles to the east. Its northern boundaries are the Rapidan and the Rappahannock, and, owing to their winding channels, its width is somewhat irregular. At Spottsylvania, its extreme southern limit, it is some ten miles wide. There, as along the most of its southern border, it gives way to a comparatively open country.
This was the battle-region, for in its wooded depths three desperate engagements were fought between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, — Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spottsylvania, — in which, first and last, over sixty thousand men, whose average age did not exceed twenty-five years, were killed and wounded. A circle described from Piney Branch Church with a radius of five miles will take in all these fields.
This theatre of bloody conflicts is a vast sea, so to speak, of dense forest — a second growth more than a century old. It is made up chiefly of scrubby, lowlimbed, stubborn oaks, and disordered, haggard pines, — for the soil is cold and thin, — with here and there scattering clumps of alien cedars. Some of the oaks are large enough to cut two railroad ties, and every once and a while you come across an acre or two of pines some ten to twelve inches in diameter, tall and tapering, true to the soaring propensities of their kind. But generally, and above all where the battle was fought, the trees are noticeably stunted, and so close together, and their lower limbs so intermingled with a thick underbrush, that it is very difficult indeed to make one’s way through them.
The southern half of the Wilderness may be designated as low or gently rolling; but along the rivers and at the heart, where the engagement took place, it is marked by irregularly swelling ridges. Where the actual fighting was done, the surface of the ground resembles a choppy sea more than anything else. There, like waves, it will heave, sometimes gradually and sometimes briskly, into ridges that all at once wall drop and break in several directions. Soon recovering itself, off it will go again, smoothly ascending or descending for awhile, then suddenly pile up and repeat what it did before, namely, fall into narrow swales and shallow swamps where willows and alders of one kind and another congregate, all tied together more or less irrevocably by a round, bright-green, bamboo-like vine.
There is something about the feeble, moss-tagged pines, the garroted alders, and hoary willows, that gives a very sombre look to these wet thickets; and yet, for a few weeks in May and June, from them a swamp honeysuckle, and now and then a wild rose, will greet you joyously. As might be expected where the trees stand so thickly as they do in the Wilderness, a large number are dead. Here and there a good-sized oak has been thrown down by a storm, smashing everything in its way and pulling up with its roots a shock of yellowish earth, making a bowl-shaped pool behind it, on whose banks the little tree-frogs pipe the solitude. But most of them are only half-grown and are still standing, some broken off half-way; and others in falling have been caught in the arms of their living competitors and rest there with their limbs bleaching. The woods everywhere abound in tall huckleberry bushes, from whose depending limbs hang racemes of modest, white, bell-shaped flowers.
As in all the woods in Virginia, there are many dogwoods scattered about. Both they and the huckleberries were in full bloom when the battle was going on, the dogwoods, with outspread, shelving branches, appearing at times through the billowing smoke like shrouded figures. I wonder how many glazing eyes looked up into the blooming bushes and trees and caught fair visions!
The Wilderness is penetrated from west to east by two roads that set out from Orange Court House for Fredericksburg. The northernmost is called the Pike, the other, the Plank Road; both in the time of war had lapsed into common mud roads. Where the battle of the Wilderness was fought they are about two miles apart, and shortly after join at Chancellorsville. There is a road bearing south that leaves the Pike about a mile east of Wilderness Run, a little less than halfway to Chancellorsville, known as the Brock Road. It winds through the woods by Todd’s Tavern, and on to Spottsylvania. There is another that starts at Germanna Ford, crosses the Pike at Wilderness Run, climbs diagonally up to the leaning bridge, enters the timber, and unites with the Brock about midway between the Pike and the Plank Road.
If a map be available and the reader has interest enough in the narrative to consult it, their relations to each other, to the Lacy farm, and to the runs which I shall now mention, will, I hope, be measurably clear.
The Lacy farm, which may be called the heart of the Wilderness, lies just south of the Pike where the Germanna Ford road crosses it. It is a part of a once large domain known as Elkwood, and has what in its day was a stately homestead. Its fields, leaning against a ridge, all face the east. The two runs I have in mind are Wilderness and Caton’s, and they may well be called Warrior Runs, for at their cradle and along their voiceless banks more men lost their lives, and more blood mingled with the leaves that fall around them, than along any two runs in our country, I believe. Caton’s is much the smaller and heads among the swales, heretofore described, in the angle between the Germanna Road and the Pike. It loiters down out of the woods till it meets the former, and then follows it south to within a few rods of the Pike, when it strikes across and falls into Wilderness Run. The latter is born in and drains all the trapezoid between the Pike, the Plank and the Brock roads, or, in other words, the battlefield. Having gathered in all of the crimson-dyed waters, it flows noiselessly under willows and alders, gleaming in the sunlight and moonlight in front of the Lacy house, on to the Rapidan.
The clearings throughout the Wilderness, save the Lacy farm and the openings about Chancellorsville, at the time of the war, and it is almost as true now, are few and small. Many of them are deserted, and their old fields preëmpted by briars, sassafras, dwarf young pines and broom, beneath whose waving, dun, lifeless tops the rabbits in great numbers, and now and then a flock of quail, make their winter homes. There are several of these little clearings lying in the battlefield, but they were not large enough, and the lines so ran in reference to them, that they did not allow the artillery of either army to play a part. These lonely places are connected with one another and the roads by paths that are very dim and very deceitful to a stranger. Their real destination is known only to the natives and the lank cattle that roam the woods, getting a blade here and a blade there, oftentimes up to their knees in the swales and swamps for a tuft, the lonely kling-klang-klung of their bells pensively sweet to hear.
This whole mystery-wrapped country is a mineral region, holding pockets of iron ore and streaked with insidious veins of gold-bearing quartz. On account of these ores Colonel Spottswood, for whom the County of Spottsylvania is named, became the owner of large tracts of the Wilderness. He built iron furnaces, and the primeval forest was cut down and converted into charcoal to feed them. Some of the pits, and many of the wood roads from them, and from the ore-beds to the furnaces, are still traceable. All this was at an early day, as far back as the reign of King George II, for the colonel speaks of him in his deeds as his Sovereign Lord. The present timber aspect is due entirely to the iron furnaces and their complete destruction of the first noble growth.
And now, in reference to these furnaces, I beg to hint at something which is very real to me, and throws a note every once and a while into the narrative. There were gangs of slaves from Virginia sold to Georgia and the Southwest. Who knows whether some of the ore smelted in those furnaces did not find its way at last into hammered manacles around the wrists and ankles of the very men who had mined it, and who night after night had faithfully tended the smoldering pits ? Who knows what happened there, what wrongs, what heartbreakings due to slavery, and to slavery alone, which the Wilderness was witness to, or had had borne to it on a moaning south wind ?
Finally, has the Wilderness a memory ? Else why did it strike at slavery twice, when Jackson and Longstreet fell, one at Chancellorsville, the other in the Wilderness, on the same road, not two miles away, both generals being taken for enemies by their own men ? Answer this as you may, something tells me that there is something deep here. Reader, I do not know what it is, but let me say this to you in all seriousness. Add a few more bars to the ear, develop a few more lobes of delicate cells in the brain, and man will come near sharing in his Creator’s relation with sun, moon, and stars, and above all with his fellow mortal robed in green, called Nature. Then, then, perhaps, the woods of the Wilderness will tell us why it struck at the Confederacy twice.