Author Interview--Adam H. Petty (The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Adam H. Petty to talk about his new book The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia’s Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield, published by the Louisiana State University Press.

Adam Petty is an editor at the Joseph Smith Papers and he received his Ph.D. from the University of Alabama.

Adam to start, could you tell our readers what you are showcasing in Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory and how you came to write a book about the battles/campaigns in the Wilderness.

AHP: My first year in graduate school at the University of Alabama, I had to take a research seminar, which meant writing a paper. I was interested in doing something on the Mine Run campaign but wasn't really sure how I was going to approach it or what argument I would make. Naturally I went and talked to my advisor, George Rable, about this dilemma and he suggested that I take an environmental approach. I ended up doing just that, and eventually that paper turned into an article that was published in Civil War History. During the process of researching that seminar paper, I started thinking about parallels between Chancellorsville, Mine Run, and the Battle of the Wilderness. I was especially interested in how the Wilderness figured into these three campaigns and how the soldiers and armies adapted to fighting in such a hostile landscape. These questions subsequently became the focus of my dissertation. As I conducted my research, I began to see patterns, which in turn led me to draw certain conclusions. Taken together, my findings suggested that a historical myth had grown up around the Wilderness, which had distorted our understanding of the region and its role in the aforementioned military campaigns.

My hopes for the project were simple. First, I sought to undermine what I came to call the "Wilderness myth," which basically asserted that the Wilderness was a unique landscape that produced unique combat conditions that favored the Confederates, circumstances which in turn led Robert E. Lee to trap the Union army there at the start of the Overland Campaign in May 1864. This was my historiographical intervention. Second, I wanted to showcase one approach for using environmental history in a Civil War context by combining it with military history while also taking into account the role of memory. In the end, the book turned out to be primarily a work of military history, which I think was enhanced by the addition of the other two elements. 

A central element of your book is that the Wilderness was not a unique landscape, how do you illustrate that, especially from an environmental perspective? How do you get to the Wilderness assuming a mythical status?

AHP: Traditionally, historians have asserted that the Wilderness was an extra-thick forest that had resulted from the region's mining industry. The trees were cut down to feed furnaces, then the mining operations were abandoned, and in a few decades up grows the tangled Wilderness. My challenge to this interpretation relied on the excellent work done by Noel Harrison, John Hennessy, and Sean Adams. They collectively argued against the traditional origin story. Among other things, they pointed to the part that tobacco cultivation played in creating the Wilderness landscape. Worn-out tobacco fields that were abandoned and overgrown with thick, stumpy trees were common place in Virginia and during my research I discovered examples of this phenomenon. I also found examples of Union soldiers describing other Wilderness-like areas in Virginia. These written sources persuaded me that the Wilderness was not a unique landscape, but actually typical of various parts of Virginia where tobacco had made its presence felt. 

What is really unique about the Wilderness is not the landscape itself, although it was admittedly a challenging one, but the mystique that grew up around the landscape. I argue that the Wilderness's menacing aura developed for a number of reasons, but I believe the key event is the battle of the Wilderness. It is after that battle that all of the ideas about the Wilderness really begin to form and then solidify. 

It is indeed interesting how the Wilderness changed in the minds of people over time. You mentioned earlier that there were three campaigns in the Wilderness, how did U.S. and rebel opinion of the region change as a result, and between these three campaigns? Also obviously, what is the third campaign that nobody talks about anymore?

AHP: Well, to start, the campaign that nobody talks about is Mine Run. Poor Mine Run always gets neglected because there was no large-scale combat, at least by Civil War standards. There was skirmishing and a sharp fight at Payne's Farm, but there was no big battle, no blood bath on the scale of Chancellorsville or the Battle of the Wilderness. It is important, however, to include Mine Run in any discussion of how attitudes towards the Wilderness evolved.

In general, what you see is that the soldiers' awareness of the Wilderness grew over the course of the three campaigns. There are always outliers, but the evidence suggests that Union soldiers tended to do this before their Confederate counterparts. By the battle of the Wilderness soldiers in both armies have set the Wilderness apart as a distinct place and their descriptions of the region are increasingly negative. It is not clear, however, what caused these changes. I suggested a few possibilities in my book, but I do not think it is something you could definitively prove one way or another. 

One of the challenges you mention is that soldiers started to change their description of the region, how do we tackle the difficulty of wartime writing and post-war writing presenting different narratives? How difficult is it to discern hindsight in Civil War-era writing and how does it skew the writing of later historians?

AHP: I saw the differences between wartime and postwar accounts as an opportunity rather than a challenge. These differences allowed me to make comparisons and see how the interpretation of events, people, and places have changed overtime. This of course begs the question of why these changes in interpretation happened. I think of a lot of it has to do with the context in which accounts are written. Wartime accounts are written in a certain time and place with certain sources at hand. If, for say, you are a soldier writing about the battle of the Wilderness in 1864, then you are still pretty close to the events temporally. You are writing in your journal or perhaps in a letter home or to a newspaper. You have a certain audience in mind. You are writing during the Overland campaign. You have your memory to draw on. Maybe you've talked to your buddies around the campfire about the battle. Maybe you've heard camp gossip. Maybe you've read a newspaper account of what supposedly happened. All of these things and no doubt others play into how these soldiers are creating their accounts in the immediate aftermath.

Postwar sources aren't written in a vacuum either. They aren't coming straight from a person's memory. I think there are some questions that historians should ask themselves when they approach these sources. What controversies are brewing about a particular battle or campaign? Whose reputation is at stake? What have other veterans, historians, etc. written up to that point? What sources are available to postwar writers? Do they have access to the OR, newspaper articles, their own wartime writings, or maybe William Swinton's early history of the Army of the Potomac. In other words, what are postwar writers responding to? In my experience, postwar writings tend to become an echo chamber where the different memoirists or historians repeat essentially the same interpretation over and over again, which makes you think they are drawing on a common source. My own research has suggested that Swinton's history exerted a large influence on how the Wilderness and the battle of the Wilderness were remembered. Many postwar writers more or less parroted Swinton's sentiments and modern historians continue to do the same.
In answer to your second, question, sometimes it can be very difficult to detect hindsight and other times it seems quite obvious. Hindsight is always a danger when writing military history. At the time, people were thinking about a campaign or battle in a certain frame of mind. For instance, the contemporary evidence suggests that entrenchments, river crossings, and logistics were driving Union decision making at the onset of the Overland campaign rather than the Wilderness. The Union high command wants to avoid attacking Confederate entrenchments and hopes to evade a battle while crossing the Rapidan. It also wants to be able to supply the army. These are the concerns that shape their decisions about where to direct the Army of the Potomac. They are either not taking the Wilderness into consideration or they are letting other concerns take precedence. This is how they are thinking about it during the war, yet postwar accounts emphasize how important it was for the Federals to avoid fighting a battle in the Wilderness and they castigate the Union commanders for allowing this to happen. This becomes a consistent element in histories and memoirs that just isn’t there in the wartime accounts.
Despite all the differences between wartime and postwar accounts, it is important to recognize that there are many similarities between them also. Not everything in a postwar account is necessarily skewed or wrong and not everything in a wartime account is correct. Many of the elements that you see in wartime accounts are repeated in postwar ones. For instance, my research suggested that descriptions of combat at the battle of the Wilderness written during and after the war are remarkably similar. The difference between wartime and postwar accounts, however, becomes more apparent when you look at the interpretation of these combat conditions.

Now, I would like to take a small step back from your book and briefly talk the Wilderness as a historical park today. Much of the Wilderness battlefield is lost, turned into subdivisions, or otherwise altered; if you know, how is the presentation of the Wilderness battlefield today based on the factors (environmental, military, woodland look, ec) discussed in your book? Is there a particular section that is accurate in look today? Do you think it would be possible to restore the Wilderness to a battlefield look, should we do it?

AHP: First of all, I would point out that the Fredericksburg Spotsylvania National Military Park is responsible for the preserved sections of the Chancellorsville and Wilderness battlefields. This park was not among the early, large parks like Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Shiloh where large-scale preservation took place. FSNMP has preserved only small portions of the battlefields. Timothy Smith has written some excellent books on battlefield preservation and I would encourage people interested in the topic to take a look at his books. Anyways, you are correct that large portions of the battlefields in the Wilderness are gone at this point, although I would add that the pieces that we have left are precious gifts to those who want to understand these battles better. On a side note, the Payne's Farm battlefield has been preserved by the Civil War Trust and can also be visited. As far as I know, that is the only part of the Mine Run operational area that has been preserved. 

It has been several years now since I've had the chance to visit FSNMP, so I'm not necessarily up to date on what interpretive approaches they are taking there. I will say this though, that the park's staff members really know their stuff and do amazing work. They were always very helpful when I visited the park and I could not have written my book without their assistance. I have a great respect for the park's staff and I don't think they get enough praise for the excellent work they do. 

You also asked if there was a particular section that was accurate in look today. That is a very difficult question to answer. The thing is that historical landscapes aren't static. The trees in 2020 aren't going to look the same as they did in 1863-64. We have some images of what the Wilderness looked like, but it only captures bits and pieces of a large region. We mostly rely on written accounts to capture the historical landscape, but I don't feel that these accounts are specific enough to know whether any particular patch of ground looks just as it did during the war. 

Would be possible to restore the area? In all honesty, I'm not sure if that could ever happen. Whether it should be done or not is not really my decision to make. I think the folks at FSNMP know more about these issues than I do, so I leave it to them to decide what approach, if any, ought to be taken toward restoring the Wilderness. 

To close, how do you hope your book will impact Civil War history, both scholarship and teaching? What are your future plans?

AHP: I hope that my book will cause at least a few historians to rethink their approach to the Wilderness and the battles that were fought in that region. In a broader sense, I also hope that it will provide a model that other people who wanted to investigate interactions between military campaigns and environments could follow. Whether it will actually have an impact on Civil War scholarship and classroom instruction is anybody's guess at this point. 

As far as future plans go, most of my energy for the next few years is dedicated to helping finish the last two volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers (Documents volume 14 and Documents volume 15). We will see where things go from there.