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Stumps littered the American landscape in the decades before the Civil War. Americans were intimately familiar with them—although, as in the paintings of Thomas Cole, a given stump field might take on complex and seemingly contradictory meanings (see Fig. 5.1).1 Sometimes stumps signaled clearing, progress, development, expansiveness . Sometimes politicians climbed on top of them, filled their lungs, and speechified for hours. At the same time, stumps also suggested a certain kind of loss, and they were capable of breaking plows: they sometimes caused Americans to stumble. once war broke out, of course, the stumps multiplied unimaginably (see Fig. 5.2). Many Americans noted the grim parallel, the analogy, the linguistic echo, the bond of kinship between wounded veterans and devastated trees, the limbs and trunks cut down in their prime. Amputees, formerly a tiny minority, now became the limping symbols of the entire nation: they lined city streets, begging, singing melancholy ballads, demanding attention , sympathy, prosthetics. They embodied the lingering of war’s horror.2 And out in the countryside, rough patches of woodland from Maine to Georgia, from Virginia to California, ravaged by rapid expansion and military necessity, cast thin shadows on the blood-soaked fields (see Fig. 5.3). Herman Melville, imagining postwar Virginia in his 1866 poem, “The Armies of the Wilderness,” saw “stumps of forests for dreary leagues / Like a massacre.”3 Wilderness: Before the war, there was a full spectrum of meanings. it could be a dark, howling place, full of wild beasts and “savage” indians. it could be a place of sublime refreshment, dominated by natural eleFiVE Stumps in the Wilderness AAR o N SAC H S Stumps in the Wilderness 97 ments, perhaps a waterfall, far from the madding crowd, offering a small minority a reprieve from the majority. it could be a wasteland, a desert not suitable for human dwelling, or a place already ruined by human misuse . it could be a rural region, a swath of middle landscapes, deriving its meaning from its lack of urbanity—a frontier, a margin, the forested edge of settlement, where human art blended with the forces of nature.4 After May 1864, though, “the wilderness” meant a bloody, ragged patch of central Virginia, meant the hellish stench of scorched wood and flesh (see Fig. 5.4). The Battle of the Wilderness. For many years, not yet having dug into the documentary history of the Civil War, and not having found any photographs of the landscape, i assumed that this particular “wilderness” was largely symbolic. All battles are chaotic (and all named retrospectively ), but this one was particularly gruesome and confused. it was at the Wilderness, perhaps, that Grant truly earned his reputation as an indomitable commander—and a butcher. it was an election year; northern civilians were tiring of the carnage and the stalemates; Lincoln felt sure he would be unseated by the Democrats, who had started to preach Figure 5.1. Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch), 1839, oil on canvas. 102 × 155.8 cm. Andrew W. Mellon Fund, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1967.8.1. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Figure 5.2. Unidentified photographer, Unidentified Soldier with Amputated Arm in Union Uniform in Front of Painted Backdrop Showing Cannon and Cannonballs, Library of Congress. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Figure 5.3. Unidentified photographer, Ft. Sanders, Knoxville, Tenn., 1863, stereoscopic photograph, Library of Congress. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Figure 5.4. Alfred Waud, Wounded Escaping from the Burning Woods of the Wilderness, Library of Congress, pencil and “Chinese white” on brown paper. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 100 Aaron Sachs peace, who seemed willing to offer independence to the Confederacy. The new leader of the U.S. military had only a few months in which to march on Richmond. And so it was on the night of May 5, after sustaining devastating losses, that he revealed the North’s new strategy, the strategy that would lead to Appomattox one year later: absorb the casualties, bring in reinforcements, and press on. To reach the Promised Land, Grant decided, he had to go through the Wilderness. Yet Virginia’s Wilderness was also an actual piece of physical and cultural geography, whose name had been in use for decades before it saw...


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