The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864
Fought in a tangled forest fringing the south bank of the Rapidan River, the Battle of the Wilderness marked 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. Gordon C. Rhea, in his exhaustive study The Battle of the Wilderness, provides the consummate recounting of that conflict of May 5 and 6, 1864, which ended with high casualties on both sides but no clear victor. Whereas previous studies have stood solely on published documents - mainly the Official Records and regimental histories - The Battle of the Wilderness not only takes a fresh look at those sources but also examines an extensive body of unpublished material, much of which has never before been brought to bear on the subject. These diaries, memoirs, letters, and reports shed new light on several aspects of the campaign, compelling Rhea to offer a critical new perspective on the overall development of the battle. For example, it has long been thought that Lee through his superior skill as general lured Grant into the Wilderness. But as Rhea makes clear, although Lee indeed hoped that Grant would become ensnarled in the Wilderness, he failed to take the steps necessary to delay Grant's progress and even left his own army in a position of peril. It was only because of miscalculations by the Federal high command that Grant stopped in the Wilderness rather than continuing on to a location more favorable to the Union forces. Throughout The Battle of the Wilderness Rhea gives close attention to the hierarchy of each army. On the Confederate side, he scrutinizes the evolving relationship between Lee and his corps commanders. On the Federalside, he reviews the several tiers of command, including the tense alliance between Grant and George G. Meade, head of the Union Army of the Potomac. Rhea presents a balanced analysis of events and people, command structures and strategies, while gracefully infusing excitement and immediacy into a subject for which he obviously feels great enthusiasm. Both the general reader and the specialist will find this important contribution to Civil War scholarship rewarding.