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BOOK REVIEWS The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864. By Gordon C. Rhea. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. Pp. xvii, 512, $34.95.) Here is a welcome addition to the unusual number of good battle studies that have appeared in recent years. Gordon Rhea has written a strong narrative that makes the maneuvers and engagements of the two-day Wilderness standoff comprehensible while recreating a sense of the mistaken assumptions and battlefield confusion that are indispensable for a full understanding. His research is impressive (especially in its use of unpublished material), his style is quite readable, and his use of quotation is impeccable. The story Rhea tells is a familiar one: the Army of the Potomac, 100,000 men strong, crosses the Rapidan River intent on turning Lee's right flank and forcing him to retreat or give battle in open country. Instead, Lee's 65,000 veterans march rapidly eastward and catch the Union army before it can exit the expanse of brambles, ravines, and second-growth timber known locally as the Wilderness. Rhea wants to make the story less familiar. He argues that Lee did not ensnare the Federals in the Wilderness through brilliant leadership, as his early partisans maintained, but was in fact careless about the threat to his right flank and the beneficiary of Northern mistakes. The argument, however, is not original: others have faulted Lee for his initial dispositions (which left his entire First Corps a full day's march from the Wilderness). It is also overblown. Rhea maintains that if it had pushed hard enough, the Union army could have executed its turning movement and escaped the Wilderness in one day. Lee should have recognized the danger and, to forestall it, moved his forces closer to the Wilderness. By failing to do so, he concludes, Lee exposed his army to "fearsome risks" and was "courting disaster " (29). Yet one must seriously doubt whether the Union army could have done what Rhea thinks it should have done. Not only did Lee think the Army of the Potomac was not up to the task, but the Union commanders did not either. They worried, with reason, that such an ambitious advance would far outstrip their supply wagons. Rhea seems to denigrate such mundane concerns . But Maj. Gen. George G. Meade—in a May 6 circular which Rhea does not mention—emphatically stressed the importance of economizing ammunition usage. Many Union troops, indeed, shot away their entire fifty-round supply of ammunition during the first day's battle, and without immediate replenishment their predicament would have been dire. BOOK REVIEWSI69 Such displays of armchair generalship are unrewarding. Rhea does much better when he explains why commanders did what they did instead of kibitzing about what they should have done. It is in his ability to reconstruct the circumstances as they appeared to men at the time and to evoke the ebb and flow of the combat itself that Rhea really shines. He brings to life the tantalizing opportunities, sudden reversals, and desperate fighting in a way few authors can match. His concluding assessment of the battle, for its part, is on the whole judicious and well done. Rhea could have done even more. Some units in the Wilderness battles performed well. Others, placed in seemingly identical circumstances, did not. Why? The author's explanations are too often perfunctory. The collapse of Hancock 's Second Corps on the afternoon of May 6, for example, simply begs for analysis. 'They were not running, nor pale, nor scared, nor had they thrown away their guns," one observer wrote of the veterans he saw in retreat. "They had fought all they meant to fight for the present, and there was an end of it!" (375-76) Similarly, Rhea does not do enough to illuminate the cultures of the rival armies. His portrayal of the Confederates' offensive spirit is so vivid that it inspires one to wonderjust where such a spirit could have come from. It was notjust Lee. Time and again, Rebel leaders at all levels of command chose the counterattack—frequently despite incredible odds—as the best solution to a battlefield crisis. Often enough, it worked. Clearly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 168-169
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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