Originally a plentiful source of game for Virginia Indians, the Wilderness was settled in the eighteenth century by German emigrants, who established an iron industry among the pine, cedar, scrub oak, and dogwood, using the forest to feed their furnaces. By the 1840s, the last of the iron works, Catharine Furnace, was shuttered, only to start up again at the beginning of the war. In the meantime, much of the first-growth timber had been replaced by an even denser tangle of long vines, underbrush, and thickets. Despite the romantic renderings of some Civil War–era artists, this was no ordinary woods; in places it was virtually impenetrable. The ground, meanwhile, was uneven—marked by low ridgelines and deep ravines, and dotted with marshes created by the various streams that ran through it, including Wilderness Run, Hunting Run, Mineral Spring Run, Mott’s Run, and Lewis’s Run.
The only way to navigate the seventy-square-mile Wilderness was by means of a close network of roads. The Orange Turnpike, a gravel toll road built around the time of the War of 1812, connected Fredericksburg with Orange Court House and ran east to west through the Wilderness from Tabernacle Church, past Dowdall’s Tavern and Wilderness Church, to Wilderness Tavern. The Orange Plank Road, planked only on the eastbound side, ran much the same route as the turnpike, while various roads bisected these two main thoroughfares. Ely’s Ford Road, for instance, connected the Rapidan River with both the turnpike and the plank road, and Chancellorsville stood in a seventy-acre clearing at this three-way intersection. Not actually a town but merely a tavern and a series of outbuildings, the settlement was built in 1816 by George Chancellor and had been abandoned by the time of the Civil War. Members of the Chancellor family still lived there, however, and their home served as Hooker’s headquarters at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
During battle, the underbrush made it difficult to see the distance of even a few paces and, as a result, firing lines were often uneven, disorganized, and confused, all of which tended to cause panic among the soldiers. “Men who fought in the Wilderness,” the historian Stephen W. Sears has written, “would remember it with fear and hatred—a dark, eerie, impenetrable maze.” The Battle of the Wilderness, in particular, is associated with scenes of fire. “The fires in the woods,” the Harper’s Weekly sketch artist Alfred Waud wrote, “caused by the explosion of shells, and the fires made for cooking, spreading around, caused some terrible suffering. It is not supposed that many lives were lost in this terrible manner; but there were some poor fellows, whose wounds had disabled them, who perished in the dreadful flame.” In her novel Cease Firing (1912), the Virginia-born novelistdescribes the night of May 5–6, 1864: “Night was not so black in all parts of the Wilderness. In parts it was fearfully red. The Wilderness was afire.”
Because of scenes like these, the relatively small tract of land called the Wilderness has tended to loom large in the American imagination. In Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (1999), Stephen Cushman has pointed to the recollections of Morris Schaff, a Union officer who fought at the 1864 battle. Schaff noted that the Wilderness was the site of two important setbacks for the Confederacy—the death of Stonewall Jackson in 1863 and the wounding of James Longstreet a year later. “And was there a Spirit of the Wilderness,” Schaff wondered, “that, as tears gathered in eyes of fathers and mothers over separation from children and home, recorded an oath to avenge the wrong? Else why did the Wilderness strike twice at the Confederacy in its moments of victory? Who knows!”