Trees are split by bullets and underbrush burnt by fire on the field where the Battle of the Wilderness was fought May 5–6, 1864. A twelve-mile-wide, tightly forested tract of land just west of Fredericksburg in Spotsylvania County, the Wilderness was a treacherous place to fight. Armies could barely maneuver and soldiers had difficulty seeing the distance of even a few paces. The choking smoke from flames ignited by musket and artillery fire only made it worse, so that veterans remembered the battle as a combination of confusion and terror.
In this photograph, probably taken by members of Mathew Brady's team, light peeks eerily through the canopy. Union ordnance officer Morris Schaff, in a postwar memoir, wrote of a "Spirit of the Wilderness," some ethereal power that imbues the landscape here. "It is the holding of the secrets of butchering happenings like these," Schaff wrote, "and its air of surprised and wild curiosity in whosoever penetrates the solitude and breaks its grim, immeasurable silence, that gives the Wilderness, I think, its deep and evoking interest."