Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless eight days of the Civil War in the United States of America began. These are the opening days of the Overland Campaign, in which two armies rampaged south through north-central Virginia in their final race towards Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.
The Overland Campaign was recently featured in the TV series House of Cards. The crooked politician played by Kevin Spacey visits a newly dedicated (and fictional) battlefield park dedicated to the Overland Campaign, and meets a reenactor costumed as his own doomed Rebel ancestor. In real life, the park is known as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield, and despite the House of Cards fabrication, it’s not dedicated just to the Overland Campaign: there were so many fights in this region that Wilderness and Spotsylvania have to share space with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where major battles were fought in 1862 and 1963.
Those were also critical and immense conflagrations, but Civil War experts know the Overland Campaign was the greatest match of them all, because it was in these battles — Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor — that General Ulysses S. Grant faced General Robert E. Lee directly for the first time. This was the big one, the championship between the two top teams. This was the Finals, and it was a hell of a fight.
All the great battles leading up to the sprint of 1864 were the preliminaries, kind of like the first and second round NBA and NHL playoffs that are running on television this week. By May of 1864, the preliminaries were over and the competing champions had emerged. Union General Grant was the leader of the western conference, having taken out Pemberton at Vicksburg. Confederate General Lee was the leader of the eastern conference, a superstar and already a legendary winner despite a bruising close call against Meade at Gettysburg. Now, the two great generals were pitted directly against each other. Both would bring everything to the field.
The Wilderness was fought in brush and forest, as Grant attempted to advance towards Richmond and Lee attempted to turn him back. Two days of fierce fighting left thousands of wounded soldiers burning to death after the woods caught fire. The balance of this first confrontation went to Lee, but Grant’s most brilliant innovation was to refuse to shrink away in the shame of defeat. Instead, having distracted Lee with the taste of temporary victory, he simply ordered his Union army to gather its shattered resources and sneak past the burning battlefields to move closer to Richmond, thus anticipating a lyric that Civil War buff Bob Dylan would later write: he won the war after losing every battle.
The unhinged violence in the Wilderness would soon be overshadowed by an amazing 22-hour clash at the so-called Bloody Angle in Spotsylvania. This would be the longest unrelenting standoff at a single location in the entire Civil War. The 22-hour stalemate would finally collapse on the morning of May 13, and by this point the shape of Grant’s final victory began to make itself clear. Lee would not be able to break or frighten or even discourage Grant, though he would never stop trying.
To take the NBA playoffs metaphor further: the Civil War would go on nearly another year after the stalemates at Wilderness and Spotsylvania, but the game really ended with the Overland Campaign. The final year would resemble the last 90 seconds on the clock in a basketball championship game in which the losing team knows it has no chance but keeps desperately fouling and calling timeouts so that the last 90 seconds lasts a half hour. Lee made it last a year.
This weekend I attended a 150th anniversary reenactment of the opening battle of the Wilderness, the meeting on Saunders Field, at Spotsylvania Court House. Here are some pictures I took. First, a cavalry gathering before the event begins:
Scenes from the battle:
I spotted Robert E. Lee, quiet and keeping to himself as always, at an observation post with a few Texans.
Since I’m obviously a Civil War buff, some people ask me if I ever wanted to be a Civil War reenactor myself. Well, I sometimes wish I had the free time, and I would certainly join a Brooklyn regiment if I could — but I really don’t have the time, and actually what I really would love to do is play banjo or guitar with a Civil War reenactor’s band:
Indeed, period music is one of the things I enjoy most about Civil War reenactments. I also had a chance to visit the dulcimer tent this weekend:
All of this took place at a public field in Spotsylvania, not at the Wilderness battlefield itself. Being in a vast open field made it a bit hard to visualize the thick brush and forest of the actual Wilderness battlefield. Luckily, I also got a chance this weekend to tour some of the actual spots, which were a few miles away.
Here’s a shot I took earlier in the day at Saunders Field during a smaller National Park Service history walk. This is the break in the forest overlooking a small swale and gully. This is where it really went down in the early afternoon of May 5, 1864, 150 years ago today.