On no American battlefield did the landscape do more to intensify the horror of combat. One soldier called the Wilderness "a wild, weird, region... [a] dense and trackless forest." For decades loggers had cut and re-cut these forests to fuel nearby iron furnaces, leaving behind an impenetrable mix of deadfall, brush, and re-emerging growth. For the soldiers who fought here, that meant fear, fire, and shock—battle lines popped up and disappeared into the gloom like deadly phantoms.
The armies of Lee and Grant collided here in the first clash between the two leaders. In 1864, Lee stood as perhaps the last and only hope for a struggling Confederacy. Union General Grant entered battle knowing the summer's campaign would help determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. What he could not know—no one could—was that the Battle of the Wilderness would comment 11 months of grinding combat that would both transform and decide the American Civil War.
The battle began when Union and Confederate forces collided in this small field astride the Orange Turnpike.
The outcome of the fighting hinged on which side could control this elevated clearing.
By battle's end, Lee's men had constructed
several miles of earth and log defenses. Modern Hill-Ewell Drive follows the remains of the Confederate line.
When the Confederate leader attempted to lead his troops in a counterattack across this field, his men forced him back to safety with the cry, "Lee to the rear!"