Tuesday, January 30, 2018

In black and white, Morris Schaff's Wilderness 'Wonderland'

The Wilderness, near where Confederate General Leroy Stafford was mortally wounded.
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Morris Schaff
Inspired by my friend Noel Harrison's blog post on The Battle of the Wilderness by Civil War veteran Morris Schaff, I recently purchased an original copy of the book on eBay (10 bucks!). The author -- a 23-year-old aide to V Corps commander Gouvernuer K. Warren during the battle -- took an unusual approach in his 345-page work, published in 1910.

"Schaff’s text," Harrison noted, "swerved back and forth from the conventional to the unconventional, from straightforward terrain and tactics analysis to supernatural interventions. In 1911, a reviewer for The Nation spent several column inches trying to finalize his thoughts about Schaff and concluded, 'We applaud the writer who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ ”

Decades after the fighting at the Wilderness, Schaff visited the old battleground, collecting details for his book, the first published solely about the brutal battle fought May 5-6, 1864. Paired with present-day images, here are some of Schaff's vivid, and eloquent, descriptions of that mysterious place -- a battlefield he called a "vast sea ... of dense forest."


   PANORAMA: An undulating battlefield. (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

"Where the battle was fought, which is at about the heart of the Wilderness ... the surface of the ground resembles a choppy sea more than anything else. There, like waves, it will heave, sometime gradually and sometimes briskly, into ridges that all at once will drop and break in several directions. Soon recovering itself, off it will go again, smoothly ascending or descending for a while, then suddenly pile up and repeat what it did before, namely fall into narrow swales and shallow swamps where willows and alders of one kind and another congregate, all tied together irrevocably by a round, bright-green bamboo-like vine."


The Higgerson Farm, one of the few clearings in the Wilderness.
"The clearings throughout the Wilderness ... are few and small. Many of them are deserted, and their old fields preempted by briars, sassafras, dwarf young pines and broom, beneath whose dun, lifeless tops the rabbits, and now and then a flock of quail, make their winter homes. There are several of these little clearings in the battlefield, but the lines so ran in reference to them that they did not allow artillery of either army to play a part. These lonely places are connected with one another and the roads by paths that are very dim and very deceitful to a stranger. Their real destination is known only to the natives, and the lank cattle that roam the woods, getting a blade here and a blade there, oftentimes up to their knees in the swales and swamps for a tuft. The lonely kling-klang-klung of their bells on a May morning is pensively sweet to hear."


Saunders Field, scene of brutal fighting on May 5, 1864.
"The field was known as the Saunders or Palmer field, and was about eight hundred yards long north and south, and four hundred yards wide. It was about the only open, sunshiny spot along the four and a half to seven or eight miles of our battle-line, if we include Hancock's entrenchments down the Brock Road. The last crop of the old field had been corn and among its stubble that day were sown the seeds of glory. The woods were thick all around the field, but the ground east and north of it, in the angle between the Pike and Flat Run Road, was very broken, its low lumpy ridges cradling a network of marshy places, the birthplace of mute lonely branches of Caton's Run, and everywhere crowded with cedars and stunted pines. In truth, I know of no place in the Wilderness where nature seemed more out of humor than right here in the making of it."


PANORAMA: Present-day Wilderness. (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

" ... as I walked through the woods last May, looking for the old lines, more than once I halted with the feeling that some spectral figure, one of those thousands who fell there, would appear suddenly and ask me where he might find his regiment. As a proof of the savage and unexpected encounterings, a line of skeletons was found just after he war, half-covered in the drifting leaves, where some command, Northern or Southern, met with a volley like that of the Forty-fifth North Carolina, from an unseen foe. It is the holding of the secrets of butchering happenings like these, and its air of surprised and wild curiosity in whoever penetrates the solitude and breaks its grim, immeasurable silence, that gives the Wilderness, I think, its deep and evoking interest."


The steps of Ellwood, headquarters for Gouvernuer Warren and where Schaaf served as aide to the general.
"The Lacy farm is a part of a once large domain known as Elkwood [Ellwood], and has what in its day was a stately homestead. Its fields, leaning against a ridge, all face the morning sun. The two runs, Wilderness and Caton's, may well be called Warrior Runs, for at their cradles and along their voiceless banks more men lost their lives, and more blood mingled with the leaves that fall around them, than along any two runs in our country ..."

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  1. Anonymous10:44 PM

    Thank you for sharing these excerpts from Schaff's book. I was unaware that he had written a book on the Wilderness.

  2. Great blog! It strikes me that Schaff's mystical evocation would have even more resonance with the passage of time. That mention of a long-lost line of skeletons was eerie and helps show the horror of that battle. Presumably they were caught unawares and all died instantly, listed as missing in action, never identified. Probably never knew what hit them.

  3. Thank you for sharing! My husband's 2nd great-grandfather, Alfred Burr, died on June 1, 1864 of wounds received during this battle. We are privileged to have one of the letters Alfred Burr wrote to his wife while serving in the (122 Reg Ohio) infantry in January 1864. I will be looking for a copy of Schaff's book. Again, thanks! I have just subscribed to your blog and I am going to share the information with my family.