The Wilderness: The Turning Point

For those of us who study and think about the American Civil War, there are any number of turning points—those moments when the course of the war, and, thereby, the fate of the country, hung upon a single instant or decision.  And, like a
discussion about the designated hitter rule in baseball, arguments and opinions revolving around the Turning Point can become heated.  And, as you can imagine, having written a book about the Battle of the Wilderness, I have an argument and opinion of my own.

A lot of people look at Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg as the turning point of the Civil War.  That moment, when a wave of men in grey and butternut crested against the snake rail fencing near “that copse of trees” and were driven back again by other men opposing them.   The South would never again be so ascendant.  It was a turning point.

Another moment: Abraham Lincoln setting pen to paper to enact the mighty Emancipation Proclamation, turning the war from a struggle not just to preserve the Union but to make men free.  Thus making of the war not just a political thing but a moral one as well.  This, another turning point.

A third moment: The capture of Vicksburg in 1863 coming, as it did, within a day of Pickett’s Charge and cutting the vast territory of the South in two such that one could no longer support the other.  Victory here denied the eastern theater the vital chain of supplies it needed to wage any sort of offensive war.  This was also a turning point.

There are any number of other turning points that arguments can be made for. They can be collected like baseball cards but, for me, the real Turning Point of the American Civil War occurred on the evening of May 7, 1864 when General Ulysses S. Grant sat his horse at a certain crossroads in the Wilderness.

To set the scene: by May 7 the Battle of the Wilderness was over.  The first clash between the preeminent generals of both sides, R. E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, had acted with his typical audacity and nerve and had held Grant’s entire, lumbering force in the close woods and thickets and second-growth of the Wilderness and had bloodied it badly.  For his part, Grant smoked more cigars—27 by one estimation—during the second day of the battle than he ever had before.  His calfskin gloves were shredded because it was his custom to whittle when nervous and he had unmindfully destroyed any number of sticks.

By the morning of May 7, a lesser general—a lesser man—would have retreated and been grateful to do so.  McClellan would have, as would Burnside or McDowell or Pope and, back in 1863, Hooker did.  All these men had led the army prior to Grant and all had been whipped by Bobby Lee and had slunk back across the river toward home.  But Grant gave the order to go on.

So, that night, with the Wilderness still in flames from the desperate fighting that had gone on there, with whole trees enveloped in fire to stand like the torches of giants and cover the ground in smoke to the height of a horse’s belly, the men of the Army of the Potomac, the common, soldiering men, watched Grant to see what he would do.  The general rode to a crossroads.  Should he turn to the east the men watching knew they were in retreat, that the war would go on and on and the Lincoln administration would likely be defeated in the looming elections.  A turn to the south would mean something new, would mean they were going on, that they weren’t whipped and that, maybe, the war would still go on but the end, no matter how distant, would be in sight.  The Turning Point, here, was an actual turning point upon which everything hinged.

Grant sat his horse.  He probably lit a cigar.  Maybe he’d gotten some fresh gloves.  Then he turned south.


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