by Adam Petty
Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2019. Pp. xxii, 186.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $42.00. ISBN: 0807171913
Rethinking the Wilderness
This interesting and insightful little book by Dr. Smith, editor of the Joseph Smith papers, is “revisionist” in the very best sense of the term. It is not a narrative about one battle, as the title might suggest, but rather an analytic treatment of how the forested area known as “the Wilderness” shaped the Chancellorsville (April-May 1863) and Mine Run (November-December 1863) campaigns and the Battle of the Wilderness (May 1864) and how these fights, particularly the last, were mythologized during the postwar era, which has negatively influenced attempts to understand what actually happened.
Petty opens by carefully discussing the area known as ‘The Wilderness”. He then presents telling evidence that on both sides the commanders failed to fully understand how the terrain would affect movement and combat. Some important myths are shattered as Petty, for example, shows us why Robert E. Lee could not have deliberately tried to ensnare U.S. Grant in the Wilderness, because if that was his intention, his movements and dispositions would have been different.
There’s a lot in here for the careful reader, as Petty shows how particular aspects of the terrain affected each of the three operations, often in different ways, why commanders erred in planning, and how veterans and others tried to explain what happened afterwards, which in turn helped develop the mythic version of events, notably as incorporated in the “Lost Cause” narrative.
The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory is not a narrative treatment of these operations, and is best read by those who are somewhat familiar with the events as they have until now been understood.
Note: The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory is also available in several e-editions.
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