My previous article of this miniseries introduced Union veteran Morris Schaff and his authoring of The Battle of the Wilderness, the first book on its subject. That article also began considering why Schaff’s goal of writing careful, conventional battle history remains virtually unknown today. When we compare his ambition to the same ambition embodied in John Bigelow’s book, The Campaign of Chancellorsville, published the same year, 1910, and destined to garner wide respect for evaluating the tactics and grand tactics of another local battle, the obscurity that befell Schaff’s project is all the more striking.
The article below explores the principal, ironic impediment to Schaff’s hope of being remembered for his conventional history: his book’s parallel, unconventional goal of understanding the battle and its participants as affected by activist spirits and ghosts, and intelligent, even compassionate, vegetation. As I noted earlier, a critic who reviewed Schaff’s book in 1911 marveled at an author “who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” A second reviewer, commenting on his book in The Dial in 1912, worried that the pairing of very different interpretive methods was “a stumbling-block” for many readers. The Dial critic went on to relate the response of a “distinguished fellow-soldier” to Schaff: “When you get done with your poetry and get down to history you will write a valuable book.”
If Schaff’s diversions into the supernatural had been less prominent, readers might have understood those as efforts to enliven the book with analogy and allegory, or to achieve other purposes common among writers of his era. For instance, some of Schaff’s passages reflect the view, shared by many of the Civil War generation, that battlefield death could bring nobility, individual peace in the Christian afterlife, and North-South reconciliation. His book at one point has the allegory of Death encountering the mortally wounded Lieutenant Colonel Alford Chapman of the 57th New York Infantry; likely at no other place in the Wilderness had Death “met more steady eyes than those of this dying, family-remembering young man.” At another juncture, the spirits of dead soldiers, from both armies, rise “above the tree tops…a great flight of them towards Heaven’s gate…. [T]wo by two they lock arms like college boys and pass in together; and so it may be for all of us at last.”
Yet Schaff’s supernatural characters appear even more dramatically, across some 25 per cent of his book, in repeated interventions that alter battle outcomes and soldier experiences. For starters, there’s “The Spirit of the Wilderness,” which in turn has the capacity to conjure The Spirit of Slavery. Schaff at several points describes The Spirit of Slavery as a single being and at another as “a resurrected procession of dim faces” moving “in “ghostly silence.” The Spirit of the Wilderness is determined to punish the Confederacy for the miseries suffered in the same forest a century earlier by those people while alive and enslaved on Alexander Spottswood’s vast local landholdings (and more generally by all slaves since then).
(Click here for hi-rez version.)
First, The Spirit of the Wilderness in 1863 takes the life of Stonewall Jackson, who finds himself transformed into yet another specter haunting its depths. Then, a year later, the Spirit strikes down James Longstreet, “just as victory was in his [Robert E. Lee’s] grasp,” and in a battle where success was “absolutely necessary to save the life of the Confederacy.” Schaff’s very next paragraph describes the underlying forces at work, with “miraculous” by no means synonymous with “benevolent”:
Reader, if the Spirit of the Wilderness be unreal to you, not so is it to me. Bear in mind that the natural realm of the spirit of man is nature’s kingdom, that there he has made all of his discoveries, and yet what a vast region is unexplored, that region among whose misty coast Imagination wings her way bringing one suggestion after another of miraculous transformations….
(Click here for hi-rez version.)
Schaff portrays the Union army as suffering a kind of collateral damage from the interventions of the Spirit of the Wilderness. The drive for abolitionist reckoning, it seems, was somewhat intermittent. On May 4, 1864, the Spirit allows Stonewall to land a vaporous but effective blow. Wandering the corridor of the Orange Plank Road, the ghost-Jackson finds himself in Winfield Scott Hancock’s tent and among the Federal Second Corps at the Chancellorsville intersection. Jackson induces in the sleeping Hancock a debilitating dream, or at least one that exacerbates the waking associations of Hancock’s bivouac at the site of a Federal defeat. Schaff offers “perhaps” as a caveat for the dream scenario but goes on to present it as a reasonable analysis of Hancock’s subsequent behavior:
[J]udging from his reports of the…two days’ fighting at the Wilderness (which took place within less than three miles of where he slept), he not only thought about it [Jackson’s Chancellorsville flank attack], but dreamed about it. For, the entire time he was fighting Hill, he was haunted with the fear, paralyzing a great share of his customary aggressive and magnetic usefulness, that Longstreet would come up on his left by way of Todd’s Tavern and give him a blow on his flank such as Jackson had given Howard.
A nocturne by a ghost-Jackson at the Chancellorsville intersection, Schaff adds, would have roughly coincided with the anniversary of his mortal wounding nearby. Plus, the armies that Jackson “knew so well were on the eve of meeting again. What should be more natural…?”
(Click here for hi-rez version of sketch.)
The juxtaposition of Schaff’s two approaches to historical interpretation is most noticeable in another account of Union misfortunes, during the operations of May 1863 as well as May 1864. Schaff opens this discussion by attributing the Federals’ abandonment, on the evening of May 4, 1864, of their planned, speedy passage through the Wilderness the next day to George Meade and Ulysses Grant deciding to give Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps additional time to join the Army of the Potomac, and additional time to Union wagon masters to navigate trains along primitive forest roads. Yet Schaff immediately follows this analysis with a more dramatic explanation:
[T]here is something very striking in his [Grant’s] repetition of Hooker’s delay of the year before. All vitality (and bluster, for that matter) was Hooker till he reached the heart of the Wilderness, but no sooner was he there than he became mentally numb and purposeless as though he had breathed some deep, stagnating fumes. A year [later], almost to a day, the army marched again, briskly and cheerily, to the heart of the Wilderness; and…before the sun had set,–the orders for the following day seemed to indicate that the lotus in the fateful region’s gloom was again at work.
(Click here for hi-rez version.)
By 1908-1909, the period of Schaff’s postwar visit, the formerly activist Spirit of the Wilderness has settled into a coy retirement. It’s highly effective, however, as a muse for battlefield explorers and students. “[D]eep and evoking interest” in the vast forest, Schaff writes, comes in part from the Spirit presenting an “air of wild and surprised curiosity in whosoever breaks the solitude” and in part from its harboring (and sharing with intrepid, informed visitors) “the secrets of butchering happenings” during the war.
Before 1865 as well as after, Schaff’s Spirit of the Wilderness presides over one final class of supernatural beings: plants that communicate, succor, and remember (along with the occasional, empathizing brook). Whereas Schaff’s supernatural beings at the spirit- and ghost levels wreak havoc with the high command of the opposing armies, his sentient plants comfort and even memorialize the lower-ranking soldiers. Here, for example, is his description of Saunders’ Field and its fringe of trees moments before fighting erupts there on May 5, 1864:
In the woods not a living leaf is stirring, and the dead ones are waiting to pillow softly the maimed and dying. “The mortally wounded will be so thirsty!” says a spring beauty blooming on the bank of the little run that crosses the Pike…. “And some of them I know will cry for water,” observes a violet sadly. “And if they do, I wish I had wings, for I’d fly to every one of them,” exclaims the brooklet. [I]f one of them dies under me, I’ll toll every bell that hangs in my outstretched, blooming branches, declares a giant huckleberry-bush warmly. “But hush! Hush!” cries the bush, “here they come.”
Some 20 pages later in the book—after the war is over—Schaff comes to understand that vegetation in this same field, fast becoming overgrown, is marking the battle’s anniversaries. When “the south wind blows and the stars call out, ‘This is the fifth of May,’” Schaff asks the Saunders’ Field plants, “’do you break into your mellow speech and commemorate the boys I saw lying there beyond the reach of friendly hands?’ Yes, I know right well you do.”
Schaff obviously made no secret of his belief in the supernatural, his “misty coast” overflown by the imagination. Yet I can’t help but wonder about less obvious, additional motivations for the book’s pairing of such an approach with the orthodox method of historical interpretation examined my first article of this miniseries. Schaff’s identification of an emotionally positive, soothing aspect to the Wilderness battlefield, both during and after the fighting of May 1864, is unique among the accounts penned by the men who survived it, at least among those accounts that I’ve read.
Ironically, the battle of 1864, for all its death and maiming—and Schaff certainly acknowledges both—may have represented the high point of his army career; the site of this experience could have acquired lasting, positive associations. He won his sole brevet promotion, to Captain, at the Wilderness for “Gallant and Meritorious Services.” Those included wide-ranging courier work that brought close encounters with key Federal commanders; a breakneck ride from Confederate skirmishers; and a damaged belt and buckle, trophies of being grazed by their fire while escaping wounds as well as captivity. Afterwards, Schaff witnessed the first 48 hours of Spotsylvania Court House but had been dispatched rearward by May 13, when he was acting as “ordnance officer at Belle Plain” in Stafford County. He formally assumed “charge of Ordnance Department” on May 19, presumably still headquartered at Belle Plain.
On August 9, 1864, a Confederate time-bomb blew up an ammunition barge at one of the City Point wharves while it was under Schaff’s supervision. Some commentators initially attributed the titanic explosion, which claimed multiple vessels and killed or injured some 180 workers; guards; and bystanders to carelessness among Schaff’s stevedores. In mid-September 1864, he was transferred to an ordnance post in Reading, Pennsylvania. Transfers to arsenals at Watertown, Massachusetts and Mount Vernon, Alabama came during the postwar era. While posted to Alabama, newspapers reported, Schaff was court-martialed; convicted of manslaughter in the shooting of planter Frederick B. Shepard; fined $300; and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. (An abstract of his service record notes that Schaff was “in arrest July 1, to Dec. 26, 1867.”) He resigned from the army in 1871 and went on to author five books, including his Wilderness study, and serve the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in several official capacities. Schaff died in 1929.
The Dial review of 1912 had gushed that The Battle of the Wilderness was almost “a new form in literature;” its “peculiar characteristics, its creative artistry…make it stand out from the hundreds of narratives” of the war. I, too, admire Schaff’s creative vision but find its execution—the book’s pairing of conventional and unconventional interpretations—jarring more often than complementary. (And considerations of space preclude an evaluation of what I consider to be the book’s weakest, major component: a rambling, convoluted analysis of Confederate war aims and motivation.)
Yet The Spirit of the Wilderness served Schaff and his readers well by drawing him back to the forest in mind and body, and encouraging his effort to capture on paper, however imperfectly, those powerful qualities that make visiting battlefields so appealing and their postwar quiet so ironic. When Schaff is effective at blending spirit; nature; and tactics, some of the most compelling, early writing on the Fredericksburg-area battles results, as in his description of a Federal attack north of Saunders’ field:
[W]e are in one of the depths of the Wilderness. Notice the rapt, brooding, sullen stillness of the woods, the moss in tufts tagging those forlorn, blotched young pines, those dark shallow pools with their dead-leaf bottoms, that leaning stub with only one limb left, those motionless fallen trees, and those short vistas scrutinizing us with their melancholy gray eyes. Were you ever in a quieter spot or one where you felt the living presence of a vaster, more wizard loneliness? “Never, never.” Your voice even sounds strange; and, excuse me, if I remark a glint of wildness in your eyes…. “
Well, on the afternoon of the first day, about here the right of Keifer’s brigade formed…. On their left were those sterling brigades of Russell and Neill of the Sixth Corps, only a few of the men visible, the bulk completely buried by the thick undergrowth. …[T]he sun is on the point of setting….
The colors advance; let us go with them…. [N]ow comes a horrid thud as a shot strikes a corporal full in the breast. (Pushing aside the low, stubborn limbs and scrambling over these wretched vines, on goes the line.) There is no silence in the dismal Wilderness now. Smoke is billowing up through it, the volleys are frequent and resounding; bullets in sheets are clipping leaves and limbs, and scoring or burying themselves deep in the trunks….
The lines are slowing up under that frightful, withering file. Now they stand…. For nearly three hours they stand….
Noel G. Harrison
Special thanks to Greg Chapman for photographic assistance, and David Harper and D.P. Newton of the White Oak Museum for sharing the “Shaff” box with the public and this author.
Sources in order of appearance above–the two reviews: The Dial, 53 (Dec. 16, 1912): 486-487, The Nation, 92 (Jan. 19, 1911): 64-65; Franklin J. Roth background: Federal Census of 1900, Reading Eagle, May 20, 1928; Alford Chapman and arm-in-arm ghosts: Schaff, pp. 209, 218-219; Spirit of the Wilderness and Spirit of Slavery: Schaff, pp. 62-64, 124, 274; Spirit of the Wilderness striking Jackson and Longstreet: Schaff, pp. 63-64, 108; Imagination’s misty coast: Schaff, pp. 108-109; Hancock’s debilitating dream: Schaff, pp. 120-122; conventional and unconventional interpretations of the Grant/Meade May 4 decision: Schaff, p. 110; sketches and photographs at Germanna: William A. Frassanito, Grand and Lee, pp. 40-46, Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, pp. 71-72; Spirit of the Wilderness as postwar muse: Schaff, pp. 153-154; Saunders’ Field plants on May 5, 1864: Schaff, pp. 142-143; Saunders’ Field plants marking battle’s anniversaries: Schaff, p. 164; Schaff’s service at Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Belle Plain: Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy from 1802 to 1867 1: 576, Official Records 36, pt. 2: 701, Schaff, pp. 91, 206-207, 229-236, 298-307; Schaff at City Point and after the war: Paul H. Bergeron, ed., The Papers of Andrew Johnson: Volume 13, September 1867-March 1868: 66-69, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy from 1802 to 1867 1: 576, ibid., vol. 1, revised edition to January 1, 1879: 308, ibid., vol. 5, supplement: 107; Emmanuel Dabney, “City Point During the Civil War,” Encyclopedia Virginia; Bliss Perry, Morris Schaff: A Memoir, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 64 (Oct. 1930-Jun. 1932): 516‑521; Schaff, “The Explosion at City Point,” Civil War Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Massachusetts 2: 483; describes attack north of Saunders’ Field: Schaff, pp. 307-311.