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Originally published Saturday, July 26, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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‘Bloody Spring:’ war in the Northern Virginia wilderness

Joseph Wheelan’s “Bloody Spring” chronicles the dismal months of 1864’s Overland Campaign, when Union and Confederate troops in the wilderness of Northern Virginia “slaughtered one another by every possible means.”


Special to The Seattle Times

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“Bloody Spring: Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate”

by Joseph Wheelan

Da Capo Press, 411 pp., $27.50

It was just 150 years ago this spring, the span of a couple of human lifetimes, when the Union Army of the Potomac plunged into the Wilderness of northern Virginia where Robert E. Lee was waiting with his Army of Northern Virginia.

The armies massed against each other in May and June of1864 were familiar foes, but it was the first time Lee was opposed by Ulysses S. Grant, newly appointed commander of all federal armies. “Neither Lee nor Grant had ever faced an opponent as tough-minded and tenacious as each other,” Joseph Wheelan writes in this new account of what has become known as the Overland Campaign.

The battles that began in the brush-choked Wilderness spread south until “the two armies, by now little more than mobs, slaughtered one another by every possible means,” Wheelan writes.

The campaign eventually cost the Union 66,000 casualties and ended with the exhausted Army of the Potomac stuck on the outskirts of Petersburg, still facing a stubborn band of tattered rebels.

The Overland Campaign has been thoroughly vetted in earlier books and Wheelan turns up little new here. But he offers a well-written, diligently researched and highly readable account of the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, North Anna and Cold Harbor.

He adds some fine personal touches: Battle-hardened survivors of a Virginia regiment, nearly annihilated at Spotsylvania, tenderly cared for four abandoned baby rabbits. Union troops near Cold Harbor witnessed the eerie nighttime sight of glowing gas escaping from decomposing corpses of soldiers killed in the earlier battle of Gaines Mill.

Grant’s objective was to destroy Lee’s army. Wheelan blames the Union’s failure on repeated mistakes, poor staff work, an awkward command structure and the congenital inability of the Army of the Potomac to move quickly to seize opportunities. The Civil War would continue another 10 months.



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