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Into “The Wilderness”

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Participants at our annual picnic/tour at the intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank Roads, scene of heavy fighting - and a pivotal location - during the Battle of The Wilderness. Note too our youngest trooper ever, starting his history lessons at an early age - Joshua, son of Liz and Karl.

We are all familiar with the song lyrics that tell us “Old Abe Lincoln Came Out of the Wilderness.” However, this year Lincoln Group members forged into The Wilderness, the scene of the 1864 Civil War battle that occurred May 5-6, 1864. Why? Our annual picnic/tour, of course.

The intrepid leader of this adventure was none other than Lincoln Group member and tour guide extraordinaire, Craig Howell. And, unlike many of the troops – Union and Confederate - who entered the fighting grounds of The Wilderness, Craig’s followers emerged intact – and with a better understanding of the history that transpired there.

Lincoln – in what must have seemed to him at times a never-ending search for an aggressive Union commander – had turned to Ulysses Grant, hero of Vicksburg. Congress had revised the lieutenant general ranks – and Grant had become a three-star general, directing all Union troops but attached to the Army of the Potomac. After Grant’s appointment, he and Lincoln met in Washington in March 1864. Lincoln made some general suggestions to his new commander. However, Grant made it clear that he would do things “my way.” One of his ideas: to move all the Union armies simultaneously. Meanwhile, Confederate General Robert E. Lee thought Grant would remain in the West. So much for that thought.

Grant’s plan was to move through and out of The Wilderness as quickly as possible; then move toward Todd’s Tavern and into the Mine Run area. At the same time Lee wanted to pin the Union troops down in The Wilderness - that 69 square-mile area of forests and bramble. Doing so would help negate the manpower factor (Union troops considerably outnumbered the opposition) plus the Confederates knew the area well. (Spoiler alert: Lee got his wish.)

Our tour followed the park’s "driving route.” The first stop: a battlefield exhibit shelter with map, where Craig pointed out just where we were – and where we and the troops were headed - as well as the terrain of the battlefield. Here we share some highlights of our day.

After this orientation, the group headed to Saunders Field where early in the fighting the Union troops held an advantage – until a Confederate counterattack. This pattern continued throughout the battle – one side would seem to be on the verge of victory until they were not.

As we toured, we learned of numerous complications to the battle plans. The Union cavalry failed to reconnoiter the enemy (too busy guarding the supply wagons instead). Generals arrived later than expected (One always needs a good breakfast – and/or lunch – before entering into battle.) A Union general landed right where Lee wanted him to be – right smack in the middle of the Wilderness. Confederate leaders experienced “very close calls” but avoided capture by nearby Union troops,

And what would a Civil War battle be without a widow, or two. The first was Permelia Higgerson, shown at the left. Seeing Union troops sweep through the clearing that was the family homestead, she did not mince words and the words she uttered were strong ones at that. Incensed at seeing destruction of her property – the Union soldiers trampled a fence and Permelia’s garden – she yelled “You’ll be back!” and they were – in record time! Craig remarked that Permelia's likeness reminded him of a charactor in the film The Wizard of Oz. We think you will know which one.

The second widow we “met” bears a name familiar to most history buffs – the Widow Tapp. One of the best-known incidents of the battle took place at the Widow Tapp’s farm. Lee’s army was facing defeat when who should appear to save the day but reinforcements from General Longstreet’s Corps. Of course, they had been expected to arrive "at any minute" – but arrive they did, led by the Texas Brigade. The Confederates moved to halt the Union advance with an excited Robert E. Lee ready to join them to lead the charge. However, the troops realized the danger facing Lee if he did so. Chants of “Lee to the rear!” erupted as a Texan grabbed the reins of Lee’s horse and led him away from the danger. The Union force was held at bay,

Yet, disaster still loomed ahead that day for General Longstreet himself. In the confusion of battle, he was severely wounded by friendly fire. Coincidentally, at Chancellorsville just a year before, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded – very near the visitor center where we had our picnic lunch. Again, friendly fire was the culprit. Longstreet, unlike Jackson, survived his wound and lived to fight another day – but not for several months.

We ended our tour at the intersection of the Brock and the Orange Plank Roads - the scene of heavy fighting, the most pivotal intersection in the battle and a turning point in the Union’s fortunes in war. The battle itself was a stalemate – the armies were essentially where they had been when the battle began.

In the past Union leaders had withdrawn when facing similar situations. However, this time there was a difference. No retreat or withdrawal from Grant. Instead, he turned his troops south – toward Spotsylvania Courthouse - and Richmond. His soldiers gave cheers and roars of approval.

No surprise ending here; after all, this adventure was entitled the “No-Back down” tour. Grant had told Lincoln that there would be no-back down and that he would continue to fight if it took all summer. Actually, the fighting lasted an additional eleven months. But Lincoln now had the commanding general he had waited for so long.

Peaceful now but not in 1864 - the historic intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank Roads was key to the battle and the scene of heavy fighting - as well as that of our group portrait shown above.

(Photos were taken by the author. The photo of Permelia is taken from the battlefield way-side marker on the park driving tour.)

Coming attraction: Craig is planning a Juneteenth walking tour for later this month. Watch this site for further information and plan to join us for another outing featuring good history and good fellowship.


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