Book Reviews

MACKOWSKI: Hell Itself (2016)

Posted 6/28/2017 Reviewed By Michael Burns

Hell Itself: The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–7, 1864 by Chris Mackowski. Savas Beatie, 2016. Paper, ISBN: 978-1611213157.  $14.95.

Only months after receiving command of all Union forces, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant made the decision to ride with the hard luck Union Army of the Potomac as they went on the offensive against Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Hoping to trap the larger Army of the Potomac in northern Virginia near the Rappahannock River, Lee employed the tangled mess of woodland ominously known as the Wilderness. For two days, May 5 and 6, 1864, the armies bloodied each other in chaotic fighting that led to some of the heaviest casualties of the American Civil War.

In Hell Itself, Chris Mackowski, editor-in-chief of Emerging Civil War and a writing professor at St. Bonaventure University, chronicles this epic fight between the two most famous commanders of the American Civil War. He uses his experience as a guide at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, the National Park Service site that preserves the Wilderness battlefield, to create a compelling narrative that takes the reader through the battle in as clear a manner as possible. Mackowski lays out the two days of fighting and promotes the importance of the battle within the larger narrative of the Civil War. At the same time, he creates a useful battlefield guide for readers. 

Mackowski takes a chronological approach to the narrative, while also illustrating the best route for visitors interested in the battlefield’s important landmarks, such as Ellwood, the local manor near Grant’s headquarters, and Saunders Field, the site of the initial contact between the two armies. Since the narrative bounces between different times and areas of fighting, the reader can get lost if they are unfamiliar with the overall progress of the battle. This weakness, however, is not necessarily Mackowski’s fault, but one telling consequence of the confused and broken flow of the fighting on May 5 and 6, 1864. Since the armies came into contact at different times in different areas of the battlefield, it seems almost impossible for any author to unravel the story in a way that would avoid confusion in a short book. At the same time, the book’s organization places the reader in the midst of the battle’s chaos. The fighting over those two days was ripe with miscommunication, and the dense thickets of the Wilderness threw any type of planning into turmoil. As the reader goes through the chronology, they fall more and more into the bedlam and confusion that ruled the battle.

Additionally, the reader truly gets a sense of the horror that resulted from fighting in such close confines. With the knotted Virginia woods disrupting the two armies’ movements, hand-to-hand combat and blind firing became the norm. When the fighting would start to slow as the forces regrouped, forest fires threatened the lives of the wounded; many thousands died in the fires while trapped in the thickets. The reader also senses the Union soldiers’ excitement on May 7, 1864, when Grant ordered the army south, rather than retreating back across the Rappahannock.

In addition to his narrative of the battle, Mackowski uses the book to enlighten readers about the history of the region and the National Park Service’s work in preserving the battlefield. This brings all aspects of the site together. Readers learn about significant properties on the battlefield and the families who owned them, while also learning about the modern developments that threaten the site. Multiple appendices, written by other current and former Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania historians and employees, enlighten more specific aspects of the region and the battle, such as the local environment and what caused the friendly fire incident that wounded Lt. Gen. James Longstreet on May 6, 1864. Put together, the narrative chapters and appendices provide complete coverage of the Wilderness.

Although the inclusion of some primary source suggested readings might have helped, Hell Itself is a strong battlefield guide for anyone interested in visiting the Wilderness. It also provides some valuable insights on the battle's larger ramifications. In the end, Mackowski successfully puts light on a fairly understudied, but significant battle of the Civil War.

 

Michael Burns is a graduate student in history at Texas Christian University.

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