The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 17/Number 99/The Wilderness

Featured in Volume 17, Number 99 of The Atlantic Monthly. (January 1866)


In conversation with a young Rebel on the field of Fredericksburg, I learned that a certain Elijah of his acquaintance sometimes conveyed travellers over the more distant battle-fields. Him, therefore, I sent to engage, with his horse and buggy, for the following day.

Breakfast was scarcely over the next morning, when, as I chanced to look from my hotel window, I saw a thin-faced countryman drive up to the door in an old one-horse wagon with two seats and a box half filled with corn-stalks. I was admiring the anatomy of the horse, every prominent bone of which could be counted through his skin, when I heard the man inquiring for me. It was Elijah, with his "horse and buggy."

I was inclined to criticize the establishment, which was not altogether what I had been led to expect.

"I allow he a'n't a fust-class hoss," said Elijah. "Only give three dollars for him. Feed is skurce and high. But let him rest this winter, and git some meal in him, and he'll make a plough crack next spring."

"What are you going to do with those corn-stalks?"

"Fodder for the hoss. They're all the fodder he'll git till night; for we're go'n' into a country whar thar's noth'n' mo' for an animal to eat than thar is on the palm of my hand."

I took a seat beside him, and made use of the stalks by placing a couple of bundles between my back and the sharp board which travellers were expected to lean against. Elijah cracked his whip, the horse frisked his tail, and struck into a cow-trot which pleased him.

"You see, he'll snake us over the ground right peart!"

He proceeded to tantalize me by telling what a mule he had, and what a little mare he had, at home.

"She certainly goes over the ground! I believe she can run ekal to anything in this country for about a mile. But she's got a set of legs under her jest like a sheep's legs."

He could not say enough in praise of the mule.

"Paid eight hundred dollars for him in Confederate money. He earned a living for the whole family last winter. I used to go reg'lar up to Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, buy up a box of clothing, and go down in Essex and trade it off for corn."

"What sort of clothing?"

"Soldiers' clothes, from the battle-fields. Some was flung away, and some, I suppose, was stripped off the dead. Any number of families jest lived on what they got from the Union armies in that way. They'd pick up what garments they could lay hands on, wash 'em up, and sell 'em. I'd take a blanket, and git half a bushel of meal for it down in Essex. Then I'd bring the meal back, and git may-be two blankets, or a blanket and a coat, for it. All with that little mule. He'll haul a load for ye! He'll stick to the ground go'n' up hill jest like a dry-land tarrapin! But I take the mare when I'm in a hurry; she makes them feet rattle ag'in' the ground!"

We took the plank road to Chancellorsville, passing through a waste country of weeds or undergrowth, like every other part of Virginia which I had yet seen.

"All this region through yer," said Elijah, "used to be grow'd up to corn and as beautiful clover as ever you see. But since the wa', it's all turned out to bushes and briers and hog-weeds. It's gittin' a start ag'in now. I'll show 'em how to do it. If we git in a crap o' wheat this fall, which I don't know if we sha'n't, we kin start three big teams, and whirl up twenty acres of land directly. That mule," etc.

Elijah praised the small farmers.

"People in ordinary sarcumstances along yer are a mighty industrious people. It's the rich that keep this country down. The way it generally is, a few own too much and the rest own noth'n'. I know hundreds of thousands of acres of land put to no uset, which, if it was cut up into little farms, would make the country look thrifty. This is mighty good land; clay bottom; holds manure jest like a chany bowl does water. But the rich ones jest scratched over a little on 't with their slave labor, and let the rest go. They wouldn't sell: let a young man go to 'em to buy, and they'd say they didn't want no poo' whites around 'em; they wouldn't have one, if they could keep shet of 'em. And what was the result? Young men would go off to the west, if they was enterpris'n', and leave them that wa'n't enterpris'n' hyer to home. Then as the old heads died off, the farms would run down. The young women would marry the lazy young men, and raise up families of lazy children."

The country all about Fredericksburg was very unhealthy. Elijah, on making inquiries, could hear of scarcely a family on the road exempt from sickness.

"It was never so till since the wa'. Now we have chills and fever, jest like they do in a new country. It's owin' to the land all comin' up to weeds; the dew settles in 'em, and they rot, and that fills the air with the agur. I've had the agur myself till about a fortnight ago; then, soon as I got shet of that, the colic took me. Eat too much on a big appetite, I suppose. I like to live well; like to see plenty of everything on the table, and then I like to see every man eat a heap."

I commended Elijah's practical sense; upon which he replied,—

"The old man is right ignorant; can't read the fust letter; never went to school a day; but the old man is right sharp!"

He was fond of speaking of himself in this way. He thought education a good thing, but allowed that all the education in the world could not give a man sense. He was fifty years old, and had got along thus far in life very well.

"I reckon thar's go'n' to be a better chance for the poo' man after this. The Union bein' held together was the greatest thing that could have happened for us."

"And yet you fought against it."

"I was in the Confederate army two year and a half. I was opposed to Secession; but I got my head a little turned after the State went out, and I enlisted. Then, when I had time to reconsider it all over, I diskivered we was wrong. I told the boys so.

"'Boys,' says I, 'when my time's up, I'm go'n' out of the army, and you won't see me in ag'in.'

"'You can't help that, old man,' says they; 'fo' by that time the conscript law'll be changed so 's to go over the heads of older men than you.'

"'Then,' says I, 'the fust chance presents itself, I fling down my musket and go spang No'th.'

"They had me put under arrest for that, and kep' me in the guard-house seven months. I liked that well enough. I was saved a deal of hard march'n' and lay'n' out in the cold, that winter.

"'Why don't ye come in, boys,' says I, 'and have a warm?'

"I knowed what I was about! The old man was right ignorant, but the old man was right sharp!"

We passed the line of Sedgwick's retreat a few miles from Fredericksburg.

"Shedrick's men was in line acrost the road hyer, extendin' into the woods on both sides; they had jest butchered their meat, and was ishyin' rations and beginnin' to cook their suppers, when Magruder struck 'em on the left flank." (Elijah was wrong; it was not Magruder, but McLaws. These local guides make many such mistakes, and it is necessary to be on one's guard against them.) "They jest got right up and skedaddled! The whole line jest faced to the right, and put for Banks's Ford. Thar's the road they went. They left it piled so full of wagons, Magruder couldn't follah; but his artillery jest run around by another road I'll show ye, hard as ever they could lay their feet to the ground, wheeled their guns in position on the bluffs by the time Shedrick got cleverly to crossin', and played away. The way they heaped up Shedrick's men was awful!"

Every mile or two we came to a small farm-house, commonly of logs, near which there was usually a small crop of corn growing.

"Every man after he got home, after the fall of Richmond, put in to raise a little somethin' to eat. Some o' the corn looks poo'ly, but it beats no corn at all, all to pieces."

We came to one field which Elijah pronounced a "monstrous fine crap." But he added,—

"I've got thirty acres to home not a bit sorrier'n that. Ye see, that mule of mine," etc.

I noticed—what I never saw in the latitude of New England—that the fodder had been pulled below the ears and tied in little bundles on the stalks to cure. Ingenious shifts for fences had been resorted to by the farmers. In some places the planks of the worn-out plank road had been staked and lashed together to form a temporary inclosure. But the most common fence was what Elijah called "bresh wattlin'." Stakes were first driven into the ground, then pine or cedar brush bent in between them and beaten down with a maul.

"Ye kin build a wattlin' fence that way so tight a rabbit can't git through."

On making inquiries, I found that farms of fine land could be had all through this region for ten dollars an acre.

Elijah hoped that men from the North would come in and settle.

"But," said he, "'twould be dangerous for any one to take possession of a confiscated farm. He wouldn't live a month."

The larger land-owners are now more willing to sell.

"Right smart o' their property was in niggers; they're pore now, and have to raise money.

"The emancipation of slavery," added Elijah, "is wo'kin' right for the country mo'e ways 'an one. The' a'n't two men in twenty, in middlin' sarcumstances, but that's beginnin' to see it. I'm no friend to the niggers, though. They ought all to be druv out of the country. They won't wo'k as long as they can steal. I have my little crap o' corn, and wheat, and po'k; when night comes, I must sleep; then the niggers come and steal all I've got."

I pressed him to give an instance of the negroes' stealing his property. He could not say that they had taken anything from him lately, but they "used to" rob his corn-fields and hen-roosts, and "they would again." Had he ever caught them at it? No, he could not say that he ever had. Then how did he know that the thieves were negroes? He knew it, because "niggers would steal."

"Won't white folks steal, too, sometimes?"

"Yes," said Elijah, "some o' the poo' whites are a durned sight wuss 'n the niggers!"

"Then why not drive them out of the country, too? You see," said I, "your charges against the negroes are vague, and amount to nothing."

"I own," he replied, "thar's now and then one that's ekal to any white man. Thar's one a-comin' thar."

A load of wood was approaching, drawn by two horses abreast and a mule for leader. A white-haired old negro was riding the mule.

"He's the greatest man!" said Elijah, after we had passed. "He's been the support of his master's family for twenty year and over. He kin manage a heap better 'n his master kin. The' a'n't a farmer in the country kin beat him. He keeps right on jest the same now he's free; though I suppose he gits wages."

"You acknowledge, then, that some of the negroes are superior men?"

"Yes, thar's about ten in a hundred honest and smart as anybody."

"That," said I, "is a good many. Do you suppose you could say more of the white race, if it had just come out of slavery?"

"I don't believe," said Elijah, "that ye could say as much!"

We passed the remains of the house "whar Harrow was shot." It had been burned to the ground.

"You've heerd about Harrow; he was Confederate commissary; he stole mo'e hosses f'om the people, and po'ed the money down his own throat, than would have paid fo' fo'ty men like him, if he was black."

A mile or two farther on, we came to another house.

"Hyer's whar the man lives that killed Harrow. He was in the army, and because he objected to some of Harrow's doin's, Harrow had him arrested, and treated him very much amiss. That ground into his conscience and feelin's, and he deserted fo' no other puppose than to shoot him. He's a mighty smart fellah! He'll strike a man side the head, and soon 's his fist leaves it, his foot's thar. He shot Harrow in that house you see burnt to the ground, and then went spang to Washington. Oh, he was sharp!"

On our return we met the slayer of Harrow riding home from Fredericksburg on a mule,—a fine-looking young fellow, of blonde complexion, a pleasant countenance, finely chiselled nose and lips, and an eye full of sunshine. "Jest the best-hearted, nicest young fellah in the wo'ld, till ye git him mad; then look out!" I think it is often the most attractive persons, of fine temperaments, who are capable of the most terrible wrath when roused.

The plank road was in such a ruined condition that nobody thought of driving on it; although the dirt road beside it was in places scarcely better. The back of the seat was cruel, notwithstanding the corn-stalks. But by means of much persuasion, enforced by a good whip, Elijah kept the old horse jogging on. Oak-trees, loaded with acorns, grew beside the road. Black walnuts, already beginning to lose their leaves, hung their delicate balls in the clear light over our heads. Poke-weeds dark with ripening berries, wild grapes festooning bush and tree, sumachs thrusting up through the foliage their sanguinary spears, persimmon-trees, gum-trees, red cedars with their bluish-green clusters, chestnut-oaks, and chincapins, adorned the wild wayside.

So we approached Chancellorsville, twelve miles from Fredericksburg. Elijah was raised in that region, and knew everybody.

"Many a frolic have I had runnin' the deer through these woods! Soon as the dogs started one, he'd put fo' the river, cross, take a turn on t' other side, and it wouldn't be an hour 'fo'e he'd be back ag'in. Man I lived with used to have a mare that was trained to hunt; if she was in the field and heard the dogs, she'd whirl her tail up on her back, lope the fences, and go spang to the United States Ford, git thar 'fo'e the dogs would, and hunt as well without a rider as with one."

But since then a far different kind of hunting, a richer blood than the deer's, and other sounds than the exciting yelp of the dogs, had rendered that region famous.

"Hyer we come to the Chancellorsville farm. Many a poo' soldier's knapsack was emptied of his clothes, after the battle, along this road!" said Elijah, remembering last winter's business with his mule.

The road runs through a large open field bounded by woods. The marks of hard fighting were visible from afar off. A growth of saplings edging the woods on the south had been killed by volleys of musketry: it looked like thickets of bean-poles. The ground everywhere, in the field and in the woods, was strewed with mementoes of the battle,—rotting knapsacks and haversacks, battered canteens and tin cups, and fragments of clothing which Elijah's customers had not deemed it worth the while to pick up. On each side of the road were breastworks and rifle-pits extending into the woods. The clearing, once a well-fenced farm of grain-fields and clover-lots, was now a dreary and deserted common. Of the Chancellorsville House, formerly a large brick tavern, only the half-fallen walls and chimney-stacks remained. Here General Hooker had his head-quarters until the wave of battle on Sunday morning rolled so hot and so near that he was compelled to withdraw. The house was soon after fired by a Rebel shell, when full of wounded men, and burned.

"Every place ye see these big bunches of weeds, that's whar the' was hosses or men buried," said Elijah. "These holes are whar the bones have been dug up for the bone-factory at Fredericksburg."

It was easy for the bone-seekers to determine where to dig. The common was comparatively barren, except where grew those gigantic clumps of weeds. I asked Elijah if he thought many human bones went to the factory.

"Not unless by mistake. But people a'n't always very partic'lar about mistakes thar's money to be made by."

Seeing a small inclosure midway between the road and the woods on the south, we walked to it, and found it a burying-ground ridged with unknown graves. Not a headboard, not an inscription, indicated who were the tenants of that little lonely field. And Elijah knew nothing of its history; it had been set apart, and the scattered dead had been gathered together and buried there, since he passed that way.

We found breastworks thrown up all along by the plank road west of the farm,—the old worn planks having been put to good service in their construction. The tree-trunks pierced by balls, the boughs lopped off by shells, the strips of timber cut to pieces by artillery and musketry fire, showed how desperate the struggle on that side had been. The endeavors of the Confederates to follow up with an overwhelming victory Jackson's swift and telling blows on our right, and the equally determined efforts of our men to retrieve that disaster, rendered this the scene of a furious encounter.

Elijah thought, that, if Jackson had not been killed by his own men after delivering that thunderstroke, Hooker would have been annihilated. "Stonewall" was undoubtedly the enemy's best fighting general. His death was to them equal to the loss of many brigades. With regard to the manner of his death there can be no longer any doubt. I have conversed with Confederate officers who were in the battle, all of whom agree as to the main fact. General Jackson, after shattering our right wing, posted his pickets at night with directions to fire upon any man or body of men that might approach. He afterwards rode forward to reconnoitre, returned inadvertently by the same road, and was shot by his own orders.

The Battle of Bull Run in 1861, Pope's campaign, and Burnside's defeat at Fredericksburg in 1862, and, lastly, Hooker's unsuccessful attempt at Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863, had shown how hard a road to Richmond this was to travel. Repeatedly, as we tried it and failed, the hopes of the Confederacy rose exultant; the heart of the North sank as often, heavy with despair. McClellan's Peninsular route had resulted still more fatally. We all remember the anguish and anxiety of those days. But the heart of the North shook off its despair, listened to no timid counsels; it was growing fierce and obdurate. We no longer received the news of defeat with cries of dismay, with teeth close-set, a smile upon the quivering lips, and a burning fire within. Had the Rebels triumphed again? Then so much the worse for them! Had we been once more repulsed with slaughter from their strong line of defences? Was the precious blood poured out before them all in vain? At last it should not be in vain! Though it should cost a new thirty years' war and a generation of lives, the red work we had begun must be completed; ultimate failure was impossible, ultimate triumph certain.

This inflexible spirit found it embodiment in the leader of the final campaigns against the Rebel capital. It was the deep spirit of humanity itself, ready to make the richest sacrifices, calm, determined, inexorable, moving steadily towards the great object to be achieved. It has been said that General Grant did not consider the lives of his men. Then the people did not consider them. But the truth lies here: precious as were those lives, something lay beyond far more precious, and they were the needful price paid for it. We had learned the dread price, we had duly weighed the worth of the object to be purchased: what, then, was the use of hesitating and higgling?

We were approaching the scene of Grant's first great blow aimed at the gates of the Rebel capital. On the field of Chancellorsville you already tread the borders of the field of the Wilderness,—if that can be called a field which is a mere interminable forest, slashed here and there with roads.

Passing straight along the plank road, we came to a large farm-house, which had been gutted by soldiers, and but recently reoccupied. It was still in a scarcely habitable condition. However, we managed to obtain, what we stood greatly in need of, a cup of cold water. I observed that it tasted strongly of iron.

"The reason of that is, we took twelve camp-kettles out of the well," said the man of the house, "and nobody knows how many more there are down there."

The place is known as Locust Grove. In the edge of the forest, but a little farther on, is the Wilderness Church,—a square framed building, which showed marks of such usage as every uninhabited house receives at the hands of a wild soldiery. Red Mars has little respect for the temples of the Prince of Peace.

"Many a time have I been to meet'n' in that shell, and sot on hard benches, and heard long sermons!" said Elijah. "But I reckon it'll be a long while befo'e them doo's are darkened by a congregation ag'in. Thar a'n't the population through hyer thar used to be. Oncet we'd have met a hundred wagons on this road go'n' to market; but I count we ha'n't met mo'e 'n a dozen to-day."

Not far beyond the church we approached two tall guide-posts erected where the road forks. The one on the right pointed the way to the "Wilderness National Cemetery, No. 1, 4 miles," by the Orange Court-House turnpike. The other indicated the "Wilderness National Cemetery, No. 2," by the plank road.

"All this has been done since I was this way," said Elijah.

We kept the plank road,—or rather the clay road beside it, which stretched before us dim in the hollows, and red as brick on the hillsides. We passed some old fields, and entered the great Wilderness,—a high and dry country, thickly overgrown with dwarfish timber, chiefly scrub oaks, pines, and cedars. Poles lashed to trees for tent-supports indicated where our regiments had encamped; and soon we came upon abundant evidences of a great battle. Heavy breastworks thrown up on Brock's cross-road, planks from the plank road piled up and lashed against trees in the woods, to form a shelter for our pickets, knapsacks, haversacks, pieces of clothing, fragments of harness, tin plates, canteens, some pierced with balls, fragments of shells, with here and there a round-shot, or a shell unexploded, straps, buckles, cartridge-boxes, socks, old shoes, rotting letters, desolate tracts of perforated and broken trees,—all these signs, and others sadder still, remained to tell their silent story of the great fight of the Wilderness.

A cloud passed over the sun: all the scene became sombre, and hushed with a strange brooding stillness, broken only by the noise of twigs crackling under my feet, and distant growls of thunder. A shadow fell upon my heart also, as from the wing of the Death-Angel, as I wandered through the woods, meditating upon what I saw. Where were the feet that wore those empty shoes? Where was he whose proud waist was buckled in that belt? Some soldier's heart was made happy by that poor, soiled, tattered, illegible letter, which rain and mildew have not spared; some mother's, sister's, wife's, or sweetheart's hand, doubtless, penned it; it is the broken end of a thread which unwinds a whole life-history, could we but follow it rightly. Where is that soldier now? Did he fall in the fight, and does his home know him no more? Has the poor wife or stricken mother wailed long for the answer to that letter, which never came, and will never come? And this cap, cut in two by a shot, and stiff with a strange incrustation,—a small cap, a mere boy's, it seems,—where now the fair head and wavy hair that wore it? O mother and sisters at home, do you still mourn for your drummer-boy? Has the story reached you,—how he went into the fight to carry off his wounded comrades, and so lost his life for their sakes?—for so I imagine the tale which will never be told.

And what more appalling spectacle is this? In the cover of thick woods, the unburied remains of two soldiers,—two skeletons side by side, two skulls almost touching each other, like the cheeks of sleepers! I came upon them unawares as I picked my way among the scrub oaks. I knew that scores of such sights could be seen here a few weeks before; but the United States Government had sent to have its unburied dead collected together in the two national cemeteries of the Wilderness; and I had hoped the work was faithfully done.

"They was No'th-Carolinians; that's why they didn't bury 'em," said Elijah, after a careful examination of the buttons fallen from the rotted clothing.

The ground where they lay had been fought over repeatedly, and the dead of both sides had fallen there. The buttons may, therefore, have told a true story: North-Carolinians they may have been: yet I could not believe that the true reason why they had not been decently interred. It must have been that these bodies, and others we found afterwards, were overlooked by the party sent to construct the cemeteries. It was shameful negligence, to say the least.

The cemetery was near by,—a little clearing in the woods by the roadside, thirty yards square, surrounded by a picket-fence, and comprising seventy trenches, each containing the remains of I know not how many dead. Each trench was marked with a headboard, inscribed with the invariable words,—

"Unknown United States soldiers, killed May, 1864."

Elijah, to whom I read the Inscription, said, pertinently, that the words, United States soldiers indicated plainly that it had not been the intention to bury Rebels there. No doubt: but these might at least have been buried in the woods where they fell.

As a grim sarcasm on this neglect, somebody had flung three human skulls, picked up in the woods, over the paling, into the cemetery, where they lay blanching among the graves.

Close by the southeast corner of the fence were three or four Rebel graves, with old headboards. Elijah called my attention to them, and wished me to read what the headboards said. The main fact indicated was, that those buried there were North-Carolinians. Elijah considered this somehow corroborative of his theory derived from the buttons. The graves were shallow, and the settling of the earth over the bodies had left the feet of one of the poor fellows sticking out.

The shadows which darkened the woods, and the ominous thunder-growls, culminated in a shower. Elijah crawled under his wagon; I sought the shelter of a tree: the horse champed his fodder, and we ate our luncheon. How quietly upon the leaves, how softly upon the graves of the cemetery, fell the perpendicular rain! The clouds parted, and a burst of sunlight smote the Wilderness; the rain still poured, but every drop was illumined, and I seemed standing in a shower of silver meteors.

The rain over and luncheon finished, I looked about for some solace to my palate after the dry sandwiches, moistened only by the drippings from the tree,—seeking a dessert in the Wilderness. Summer grapes hung their just ripened clusters from the vine-laden saplings, and the chincapin bushes were starred with opening burrs. I followed a woodland path, embowered with the glistening boughs, and plucked, and ate, and mused. The ground was level, and singularly free from the accumulations of twigs, branches, and old leaves, with which forests usually abound. I noticed, however, many charred sticks and half-burnt roots and logs. Then the terrible recollection overtook me: these were the woods that were on fire during the battle. I called Elijah.

"Yes, all this was a flame of fire while the fight was go'n' on. It was full of dead and wounded men. Cook and Stevens, farmers over hyer, men I know, heard the screams of the poor fellahs burnin' up, and come and dragged many a one out of the fire, and laid 'em in the road."

The woods were full of Rebel graves, with here and there a heap of half-covered bones, where several of the dead had been hurriedly buried together.

I had seen enough. We returned to the cemetery. Elijah hitched up his horse, and we drove back along the plank road, cheered by a rainbow which spanned the Wilderness and moved its bright arch onward over Chancellorsville towards Fredericksburg, brightening and fading, and brightening still again, like the hope which gladdened the nation's eye after Grant's victory.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.