Virginia's wilderness: investigating the landscape of war

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University of Alabama Libraries

This work reconsiders the myth surrounding the Wilderness, a forest in Virginia, which played host to three Civil War campaigns. This Wilderness myth has several components. First, the Wilderness was a battlefield unlike any other and created unique battle conditions. Second, these conditions favored the Confederates who tried to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. Third, there was a mystique surrounding the Wilderness, which associated it with woe, gloom, death, destruction, hell, fire, and the supernatural among other things. While evocative, this traditional interpretation reflects a distorted understanding of the forest as well as what actually took place within its bounds. This dissertation argues that the Wilderness myth was the product of hindsight and of a desire to explain away Union failures and highlight Robert E. Lee’s generalship. While the Wilderness truly was a very difficult battlefield that created trying combat conditions, many of the claims of Wilderness exceptionalism are unfounded, and consequently, the Wilderness did not give the Confederates a special advantage, nor did they try to trap the Union army there. The Wilderness’s threatening mystique, however, did set it apart from any other battlefield of the war.

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American history