From John Hennessy. We did this post a few years ago, but it’s worth remembering this week, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness.
On May 7, 1864, Alfred Waud recorded this simple, compelling set of sketches, entitled “Escaping from the fire in the woods–‘Wilderness.'” It shows four separate scenes, each of struggle. So far as I can tell, they were never incorporated into the images Waud did of the Battle of the Wilderness. Instead, they have been largely ignored. But look at them closely. They bespeak of the battle’s signature horror: fear associated with fire.
In the public mind, many battles are remembered for a signature moment or phenomenon. At First Manassas, it’s the civilians. At Gettysburg it’s Pickett’s Charge. At Petersburg, the Crater. At the Wilderness, it’s fire. Over the decades many of these rather simple associations have been challenged in some form. The civilians weren’t nearly as integral to Union defeat at Manassas as many believe. Historians have revised our view of Pickett’s Charge sufficiently that its traditional name has barely survived. And the Crater, we know, is a story that goes well beyond the bold efforts of Pennsylvania miners and drunken commanders. But what of the fires in the Wilderness?
Beyond the anecdotal, we know little with certainty. But, some digging into what we do have leaves little room to challenge or doubt the traditional view that fire and human suffering were closely intertwined in the Wilderness in May 1864. Fire is, in the public’s mind, the signature horror of the Wilderness, and by all accounts it should be.
The Army of the Potomac’s Medical Director, Thomas McParlin, said of the fighting and fires:
The hostile lines swayed back and forth over a strip of ground from 200 yards to a mile in width on which the severely wounded of both sides were scattered. This strip of woods was on fire in many places, and some wounded, unable to escape, were thus either suffocated or burned to death. The number who thus perished is unknown, but it is supposed to have been about 200.
If McParlin’s estimate is right, then nearly 10% of Union deaths at the Wilderness resulted from fire–a staggering number. Read More…