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The Battle of the Wilderness, video, Media Magic Productions, Lansing, Mich., $30.
As winter gave way to spring in 1864 and the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac turned their attention to the upcoming campaign, each did so with renewed hope and a certain amount of trepidation. Following the savage bloodletting at Gettysburg in July 1863, both armies had undergone some major changes–and major soul-searching–during the winter.

For the Union, the greatest change was the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief of all the Federal armies. Never comfortable commanding from a desk, Grant made it known early on that he intended to stay in the field, close to Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac, where he could keep a close eye on the greatest threat from the Confederacy, General Robert E. Lee. Eager to test himself against Lee, Grant ordered Meade to begin crossing the Rapidan River on May 4. The new commander would not have long to wait before trying himself against the fabled Virginian.

The very next day the two armies met in the vast, overgrown woodlands known appropriately as the Wilderness. What followed were two days of some of the most confused, nightmarish combat of the entire war. When the battle was over, more than 25,000 troops had fallen in the wild Virginia forest.

Neither side could claim a clear-cut victory, but Grant and Lee had been able to take the measure of each other. Grant found that Lee was as good a general as he had heard, while Lee discovered that Grant, unlike all the other Union generals he had faced in the past two years, would not be put off by profuse bloodshed. When Grant slipped around Lee’s flank and continued resolutely southward, rather than falling back and licking his wounds, Lee understood for the first time that defeat was inevitable.

Now the story of the first meeting between the two men whose names have become inseparable from the Civil War has been capably told on video by Media Magic in their release The Battle of the Wilderness. Using footage from a large-scale Wilderness battle re-enactment as well as dramatic scenes based on letters and diaries of some of the participants in the battle, Executive Producer Marcia Jaffe Cipriaini and Director Brad Graham have delivered an excellent general history of the crucial opening battle in the 1864 Overland Campaign.

Gordon Rhea, who literally wrote the book of the Wilderness (Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864), provides thoughtful, expert commentary, as does historian David Finney. Further commentary, focusing on the general human interest aspect of the battle, is provided by Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., and John Heiser, a National Park Service veteran ranger and expert cartographer. And as for cartography in the video, the computerized animated maps are a special treat.

While overreliance on “talking heads” and excessive license taken with the facts have turned many off to visual representation of history, The Battle of the Wilderness deserves a look. It provides the viewer with a good general overview of this crucial battle, and is well worth spending a couple of hours in front of the television.

B. Keith Toney