Capturing the Wilderness’s signature horror: fire

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?

Waud’s compelling visual chronicle 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. 

Fire was present across the battlefield. A blaze burned in or near Saunders Field on May 5, and one soldier remembered with horror “the almost cheerful ‘Pop! Pop!’ of cartridges gave no hint of the almost dreadful horror their noise bespoke…The bodies of the dead were blackened and burned beyond all possibility of recognition.”

An original sketch by Waud showing the rescue of wounded, later published as an engraving, below.

But based on anecdotal evidence, the fires seem to have been most intense on the south end of the battlefield–along the Orange Plank Road, and they seem to have raged fiercest on May 6 and May 7. Visiting a year after the war, John Trowbridge found a charred area just west of Wilderness Cemetery #2. His guide explained to him, “‘Yes, all this was a flame of fire while the fight was go’n’ on.  It was full of dead and wounded men.  Cook and Stevens, farmers over hyer, men I know, heard the screams of the poor fellahs burnin’ up, and come and dragged many a one out of the fire, and laid ’em in the road.'”


Waud’s May 6, 1864 sketch turned into an 1880s engraving.

At least twice on May 6, the burning woods materially affected the battle–first by causing some of Longstreet’s men to divert during his late-morning attack, and most famously when the woods and Union logworks along the Brock Road caught fire in late afternoon, allowing the Confederates for a time to breach the Union line.  Wherever fire raged, wounded perished.  A Mississippian in Longstreet’s command remembered, “…the woods had caught on fire, and dense volumes of smoke, mingled with the pungent smell of burnt powder, rendered the movements of the troops difficult, while the noise of battle raging in that dense thicket, scarcely drowned the shrieks of the wounded as the spreding fir of the underbrush and leaves caught them.  The demon of destruction was in the very air.”

Men on both sides watched in  horror as fire did its deadly work. Union artilleryman Frank Wilkeson was along the Plank Road on May 6:  The wounded soldiers lay scattered among the trees. They moaned piteously….[They] were haunted with the dread of fire….I  saw many wounded soldiers in the Wilderness who hung on to their rifles, and whose intention was clearly stamped on their faces. I saw one man, both of whose legs were broken, lying on the ground with his cocked rifle by his side and his ramrod in his hand, and his eyes set on the front. I knew he meant to kill himself in case of fire–knew it as surely as though I could read his thoughts.

Seven miles away, at Laurel Hill (see here for a post about this home), Katherine Couse recorded on the morning of May 7 “that we are choked with smoke—from camp fires—and woods fire.” The intense fires on the south end of the field inspired Confederate General R.H. Anderson to start his march early on the night of May 7-8. The early start ended up the decisive factor in the race to Spotsylvania Court House the next morning–marking the fires at the Wilderness as both strategically important and hauntingly destructive.

2 thoughts on “Capturing the Wilderness’s signature horror: fire

  1. “So far as I can tell, they were never incorporated into the images Waud did of the Battle of the Wilderness”

    Briefly looking at the sketch and the image that follows it they could possibly feature some of the same subjects at least. The sketch on the bottom left has the man with rifle and bayonet and his socks hiked up rather high over his trousers almost to the knee, just like the man second from left on the stretcher team. The sketch of the man on his hands and knees has the same sort of hat and facial hair as the man on the front left of the stretcher team. Just an observation.

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