The Dark Close Wood: The Wilderness, Ellwood and the Battle that Redefined Both
By Chris Mackowski
(September 2010 Civil War News )
Illustrated, photographs, maps, 120 pp., 2010, Thomas Publications, www.thomaspublications.com, $8.95, softcover.
This slim volume, a publication sponsored jointly by the National Park Service and the Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, is authored by Chris Mackowski, an associate professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University and a historical interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Mackowski previously wrote a book on the last days of Stonewall Jackson as well as one on the Chancellorsville Battlefield.
The Dark Close Wood weaves together the story of the May 5-6, 1864, Battle of the Wilderness with the history of the J. Horace Lacy home — Ellwood. Starting in the 1790s Lacy family members were prominent landowners in the region and constructed the substantial home in one of the few clearings in the tangled forest that comprises the Wilderness.
Located at the crucial intersection of the Orange Turnpike and Parker’s Store Road, Ellwood served as a hospital site in the 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign and played a pivotal role in the next year’s Wilderness fight between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.
Located near the edge of Saunders’ Field, Ellwood quickly became a platform for Union artillery and the headquarters of the Fifth Corps. Grant and George G. Meade visited Ellwood to confer with Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren and observe nearby fighting.
The joy of this little book is its narrative of the fighting in the Wilderness. This is by far the best short history of the battle I have read.
The Wilderness is one of the most complicated and confusing actions in the Civil War, and it requires skill to deliver a concise, lucid account. There is no bibliography or index in the book, but the author notes he relied heavily on the magisterial work of Gordon Rhea on the subject.
Mackowski’s book also contains numerous sidebars on the major commanders, the Wilderness topography, the death of Aleck Hays and the wounding of James Longstreet. There is also an afterword on the fate of Ellwood after the battle and the war, and its resurrection by the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield into an interpretive center.
The author has done a superb job relating this major battle in a clear narrative that can be read in one or two sittings. He has interspersed period and modern photographs as well as five very serviceable maps throughout the text.
The standard for scholarship on the Wilderness remains Rhea’s volume in his Overland Campaign Series. But for a short readable history at a very affordable price, you cannot go wrong with The Dark Close Wood.
Reviewer: Kenneth D. Williams
Kenneth D. Williams is writing a book on the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteers and is doing doctoral level work in American history. He has worked as a park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site.