For some reason I always feel like I’m being watched in The Wilderness. I visit a lot of battlefields for work and research, and almost always have a good and safe trip without feeling uncomfortable. But for some reason, The Wilderness battlefield bothers me.
I don’t worry about ghosts or stuff like that. I think it’s the real stories that bother a subconscious part of my mind. I remember two particular things from the first time I really learned about this 1864 battle when I was about thirteen: 1) the road network is confusing 2) the woods caught fire and soldiers died exceptionally horrible deaths in the flames. I’ve since learned more about the roads and it’s really not *that* confusing with a good map, but my horror of the deaths in The Wilderness has not diminished through reading more accounts and sources. Even though the same thing happened at Chancellorsville, Po River, and other battlefields, there’s just something about the burning woods and charred bodies that my mind instantly associates with The Wilderness.
It’s just a walk, I told myself. You enjoy this trail. It’s a nice day. You need to get photos of the signs to finish your project. The leaves are green, but it’s still too chilly for snakes.
I had parked the car at the trailhead, notified my buddy system of my plans, grabbed my walking stick and headed out on the Gordon Flank Attack Trail. It’s a two mile loop through part of the battlefield preserved by the National Park Service with just enough topography changes to be interesting to hike through the historic landscape still scarred with earthwork lines.
About three-quarters of a mile down the trail, I was on edge. (No ghosts, sorry!) It was a windy day. A lot windier than I had realized. Trees were rattling and creaking. Leaves and small branches were getting blown down. The sounds made me nervous. I tried to rationalize to myself that the changes of a tree falling —and falling on me—were slim. It wasn’t a storm and nothing too big was threatening to tumble.
Still, I remembered a joke I had blithely made to a colleague at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center a few days earlier. It had been another exceptionally breezy day, and I had said, “I’ll hike the woods and not get blown away in the fields.” To which he had promptly responded, “Right. You won’t get blown away, but a tree might crash on your head.” And on that previous adventure I had seen quite a few huge, newly fallen trees (the product of a rough storm).
Now, all of that came back to “haunt” me. Would I get crushed to death or be trapped under a falling tree in The Wilderness? The wild wind in the treetops, the rattling rumblings, the unknown tappings and rustlings of unseen animals… I think that was the fastest I’ve ever hiked Gordon’s Trail (and I did remember to get the photos I needed).
Breathing a sigh of relief as I burst back into the clearing of Saunders’ Field, I could feel myself relax again and my heart rate slow. Yes, of course, I laughed at myself and my fears which were undoubtedly exaggerated.
But…driving away from the trail, I started thinking about the experience. Many of the soldiers who battle in The Wilderness on May 5-6, 1864 had memories of dense woods, smoke and flame, and confused battle. After-all, the Battle of Chancellorsville had been fought in part of The Wilderness in 1863. I thought about the accounts of the soldiers coming back through the scenes of their previous fight and the sights they saw. It was many times worse than my “scare myself” experience, but just like the memory of my friend’s warning came back forcefully to mind on the windy trail, the memory of previous battle or the stories from comrades had an effect on the soldiers’ minds.
They remembered being so glad to leave The Wilderness, even though they knew more hard fighting lay ahead. But at least it would be fighting somewhere they had not fought before. Somewhere where the ghosts of memory did not prey upon their minds.
I’m not sure if this rambling makes complete sense. I’m not sure I’ve made complete sense of it in my own brain. But I wanted to journal it into some form of writing so I wouldn’t forget the experience that happened during part of The Wilderness battle anniversary this year.
P.S. If you’re curious about the trail and wish to see it virtually, here’s the post (with the photos from the “scary day” hike) that I added to Emerging Civil War: Gordon Flank Attack Trail