Originally a plentiful source of game for Virginia Indians, the Wilderness was settled in the eighteenth century by German emigrants, who established an iron industry among the pine, cedar, scrub oak, and dogwood, using the forest to feed their furnaces. By the 1840s, the last of the iron works, Catharine Furnace, was shuttered, only to start up again at the beginning of the war. In the meantime, much of the first-growth timber had been replaced by an even denser tangle of long vines, underbrush, and thickets. Despite the romantic renderings of some Civil War–era artists, this was no ordinary woods; in places it was virtually impenetrable. The ground, meanwhile, was uneven—marked by low ridgelines and deep ravines, and dotted with marshes created by the various streams that ran through it, including Wilderness Run, Hunting Run, Mineral Spring Run, Mott's Run, and Lewis's Run.
During battle, the underbrush made it difficult to see the distance of even a few paces and, as a result, firing lines were often uneven, disorganized, and confused, all of which tended to cause panic among the soldiers. "Men who fought in the Wilderness," the historian Stephen W. Sears has written, "would remember it with fear and hatred—a dark, eerie, impenetrable maze." The Battle of the Wilderness, in particular, is associated with scenes of fire. "The fires in the woods," the Harper's Weekly sketch artist Alfred Waud wrote, "caused by the explosion of shells, and the fires made for cooking, spreading around, caused some terrible suffering. It is not supposed that many lives were lost in this terrible manner; but there were some poor fellows, whose wounds had disabled them, who perished in the dreadful flame." In her novel Cease Firing (1912), the Virginia-born novelist Mary Johnston describes the night of May 5–6, 1864: "Night was not so black in all parts of the Wilderness. In parts it was fearfully red. The Wilderness was afire."
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Gray, M. P. The Wilderness during the Civil War. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Wilderness_During_the_Civil_War_The.
- MLA Citation:
Gray, Michael P. "The Wilderness during the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 10, 2009 | Last modified: October 27, 2015
Contributed by Michael P. Gray, an associate professor at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. His first book, The Business of Captivity: Elmira and its Civil War Prison, (2001) received honorable mention for the Seaborg Award. His next project is examining the Johnson's Island Prison in Ohio.