One-tank road trip: the Wilderness
The Wilderness was one of the nastiest battles of the entire Civil War, fought in a tangled second-growth timberland near Fredericksburg, Virginia, in early May 1864. It was the first significant encounter of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, and resulted in almost 29,000 casualties. Untold scores of wounded men burned to death when the heavy underbrush caught on fire.
Now, mush of the scene of so much carnage and bloodshed is a well-[preserved battlefield park, part of which recently escaped destruction when Wal-Mart reversed course and decided to donate land to the NPS instead of constructing yet another Supercenter on it. Kudos to them!
I have visited this battlefield twice in the past few months while in Virginia for other purposes. The battlefield, along with nearby Chancellorsville, is part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which was established in 1927 to preserve as much of the terrain as possible.
More than 500,000 visitors come to the military park each year. This small shelter serves as the visitors center for the Wilderness (larger facilities at the other nearby parks offer more conveniences such as restrooms, museum displays, and restrooms).
Unlike Gettysburg National Military Park, the Wilderness does not boast an array of monument, but there are a handful of ones of interest to the Civil War buff. This one memorializes the contributions of the Texas Brigade, one of Robert E. Lee’s most celebrated units.
During a Confederate attack on May 6, Lee uttered, “Texans always move them!” and began riding impulsively to the front with them. When the troops realized the danger to their commander, they insisted that he go to the rear for safety. Grabbing the reins of his horse, Traveller, the Texans would not allow Lee to move forward. Finally, when General Longstreet informed Lee that he had things well in hand, Lee relented.
One leading general whose life ended in the Wilderness was James Wadsworth, a wealthy New York politician and land owner. He had played a prominent role on the first day at Gettysburg. He was the oldest Union division commander in the Wilderness at the age of 56. Shot in the head, he lingered in a Confederate field hospital for two days before expiring. He is buried in Geneseo, NY.
Wayside markers dot the Wilderness battlefield, explaining what transpired back in 1864. They serve to orient the visitor to key events, people, and locations.
Maps and explanatory plaques line the walls of the visitors center in the Wilderness, giving the visitor an overview of the strategic importance of the battle and a high level look at the tactics and movements of the opposing armies.
In a scene eerily familiar to the Confederate high command, Rebel troops mistakenly shot a corps commander and killed several nearby soldiers. Back in 1862 at Chancellorsville, the victims included Stonewall Jackson, who eventually died from complications (pneumonia). Two years later, James Longstreet fell from friendly fire (he recovered and eventually resumed command). One of his leading subordinates, veteran general Micah Jenkins, was not so lucky.
If you go:
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is best accessed off of I-95 near Fredericksburg, VA, but traffic on the interstate can be absolutely brutal at times (coming from the south Richmond can be a mess, and from the north both Baltimore and Washington are usually nightmares in the morning or at evening rush hour).
I much prefer to use U.S. Route 15 to drive through Virginia – so much Civil War history along this scenic route, although traffic in recent years has indeed picked up dramatically. Take U.S. 15 to Culpeper, Va., and then head east on Virginia Route 3 through the countryside to reach the Wilderness battlefield.