The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864

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Fought in a tangled forest fringing the south bank of the Rapidan River, the Battle of the Wilderness marked the initial engagement in the climactic months of the Civil War in Virginia, and the first encounter between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. In an exciting narrative, Gordon C. Rhea provides the consummate recounting of that conflict of May 5 and 6, 1864, which ended with high casualties on both sides but no clear victor. With its balanced analysis of events and people, command structures and strategies, The Battle of the Wilderness is operational history as it should be written.

LSU Press

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Never before has there been such a finely detailed -- and objective -- rendering of this battle.... Future accounts of the Wilderness will stand on the shoulders of Rhea's book" -- Chicago Tribune

"Both rich in colorful human incidents and provocative in its leadership assessments.... [Rhea's] book is now the first choice for anyone interested in understanding this critical battle." -- Blue and Gray

"Through [Rhea's] well-constructed profiles of the Union corps commanders, we come to know the strengths and weaknesses of those who held the lives of thousands in their hands." -- Washington Times

"Conventional military history at its best." -- London Times Literary Supplement

LSU Press

Booklist - Roland Green

This is the latest entry in the new category of regiment-by-regiment accountings of major Civil War battles, products made possible not just by revived interest in the conflict but by the rise of a new generation of Civil War historians able to research with the aid of computer databases. It's a well-written, absorbing, though decidedly bloody tally of the opening battle of the 1864 campaign in Virginia. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia extricated itself several times from the jaws of disaster, while the Union Army of the Potomac slogged to a tactical draw that was turned into a strategic victory by Grant's refusal to retreat. As portrayed in these pages, the battle reflects much credit on the soldiers and somewhat less on most of the generals but certainly deserves the full coverage this massive volume affords. This main selection of the History Book Club is indeed a valuable addition to Civil War collections.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Rhea, a Virginia attorney, offers what will likely become the definitive account of one of the Civil War's most confusing engagements: the Battle of the Wilderness, the first encounter between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, fought in Virginia. The author's reconstruction of the fighting highlights the difficulties of controlling troops once they had been committed to action. Grant's original plan was to maneuver Lee out of his defensive position along the Rapidan River, then crush his troops with superior numbers. Instead, Rhea notes, the Wilderness became a ``soldiers' battle,'' with raw courage compensating for inadequate generalship on both sides. Grant relied too heavily on the Army of the Potomac's commander, George Gordon Meade, who failed to coordinate the movements of subordinates disoriented by the broken ground they fought over. Rhea also critizes Lee for consistently taking the offensive with an army that could not afford the major losses it sustained in attacking. History Book Club main selection. (July)
Library Journal
Fought in a dense woods, the Battle of the Wilderness was the first clash between Grant and Lee. Two days of close-quarters fighting ignited the woods and trebled the casualty list with no advantage to either side; Lee stalemated Grant's superior force. Historian Rhea's revisionist history considers the Wilderness a Union victory. The author questions Lee's reputation as a brilliant strategist while praising Grant for a well-conceived battle plan. Personalities aside, the battle of attrition that would win the war had begun. Powerfully written, mingling official histories with diaries and letters, this study is filled with dramatic tension. As written by Rhea, the Battle of the Wilderness underscores how the Confederacy won many battles but lost the war. Strongly recommended for academic and public collections.-Robert C. Moore, DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Co. Information Svcs., Wilmington, Del.
Rhea, an attorney from Virginia, provides a detailed account of the battle that marked the initial engagement in the climactic months of the Civil War in Virginia, and the first encounter between Generals Grant and Lee. Rhea takes a fresh look at published sources and examines unpublished material, such as diaries, memoirs, letters, and reports, and scrutinizes the relationships between Lee and his corps commanders, and Grant and the head of the Union Army of the Potomac. Includes a complete bibliography of manuscripts, newspapers, personal narratives, biographies, unit histories, and dissertations. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807130216
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 536
  • Sales rank: 628,436
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 9.66 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Gordon C. Rhea is also the author of Carrying the Flag: The Story of Private Charles Whilden, the Confederacy's Most Unlikely Hero; The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7--12, 1864; To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13--25, 1864, winner of the Fletcher Pratt Literary Award; and Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26--June 3, 1864, winner of the Austin Civil War Round Table's Laney Prize; and In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee: The Wilderness through Cold Harbor. He lives in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

LSU Press

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Table of Contents

I May 2-3, 1864 : Lee and Grant make their plans 8
II May 4 : the armies maneuver for position 60
III May 5, morning : Lee and Grant find surprise and opportunity 94
IV May 5, afternoon : the grand offensive breaks down 145
V May 5, evening : Grant strives for a coordinated assault 222
VI May 6, morning : the tide shifts 283
VII May 6, midday : Lee struggles to retain the initiative 351
VIII May 6, evening : the armies reach stalemate 404
App The order of battle 453
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