Battle of the Wilderness

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Battle of the Wilderness
c. 1864
5 x 7 in.
Chicago History Museum

On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac led by General Ulysses S. Grant entered “the Wilderness,” a thick forest of cedar and pine trees in northeastern Virginia. The next day, the Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee, arrived and struck the first blow in what would become one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Civil War. As depicted in this scene, the armies fought at close range, creating great clouds of smoke, dozens of small forest fires, and terrifying confusion as men struggled for position in the darkening gloom. Wounded men actually burned to death in the flames. Here, Confederate forces are on the left while Union forces are on the right. Do you see the bearded Confederate officer in the lower left foreground? That may be General James Longstreet, accidentally wounded by his own men. The bloodletting lasted days, prompting Grant to write President Abraham Lincoln, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Finally, on May 20, Grant decided to stop. Lee’s army, although outnumbered nearly two to one, had proven too tough to break. In sixteen days of fighting, the Union army suffered 36,000 casualties while Confederate losses were half that much. But, Grant would be able to replace his losses, while Lee would not. 

1. How did the artist’s depiction of the forest help to convey the experience of battle to the audience? What other elements of the image help to show the terrible nature of the battle?

2. Many people called Grant a “butcher” for fighting this way; do you agree or disagree?

3. Why do you think Lee might have been able to replace his losses?

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