One of the many features of the Missouri Civil War Museum is the gift shop, which has artifacts, souvenirs, refreshments, t-shirts and jackets, and books. Lots of books. Lots of new and used books all about the Civil War. (I wrote about the museum here.)
I found more than a few things of interest, but I didn’t overdo it. I walked away with an old copy of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic book-length poem John Brown’s Body, the novel Shiloh by Shelby Foote, and a few others. One, as it turned out, had a strong St. Louis connection.
Donald Waldemer (1925-2021) was about totally St Louis as you can get. He was born here. He received two degrees from Washington University in St. Louis. He worked for Union Electric (now Ameren, the main electric utility) for 34 years. He and his wife raised a family in Brentwood, a close-in St. Louis suburb, and he’s buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Kirkwood, the suburb where I live.
Waldermer was also an avid student of the Civil War. He published Triumph at the James: The Checkmate of Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1998 and Bear in the Wilderness: The Battle of the Wilderness May 5,6,7 1864 in 2001. It was the book on the Battle of the Wilderness that I found at the Missouri Civil War Museum.
It’s not a battle we heard much about in school, yet, in its own way, it was just as important as Gettysburg or Vicksburg. It was the last battle for which Robert E. Lee went on the offensive. It was the first battle matching lee and Ulysses S. Grant as commanders. And it was the battle in which Grant determined how he was going to defeat the Confederacy – by wearing Lee’s army down, no matter what the cost to the Union side. And the cost here was terrible.
Seven years before Waldemer published his Wilderness book, Gordon Rhea had published The Battle of the Wilderness, which is still considered the definitive account of the battle. Waldemer took a different tack. He used the official letters, orders, and reports and knitted them together with brief contextual information, allowing the official reports to tell the story of the battle.
What results is something lopsided – it’s a story told almost entirely from the Union side. And it was for a very simple reason – there was little to no similar records on the Confederate side. Lee and his generals wrote very little down. It’ also something of a lopsided account because it is a top-down view. If you want to see what Abraham Lincoln, Grant, and Grant’s generals were thinking and planning, this is a solid account. You won’t get much of the perspective of the soldiers doing the actual fighting.
That doesn’t make Bear in the Wilderness unimportant. Waldemer had a gift for context, taking a wide array of texts of all kinds and assembling them in an order that makes sense and helps in understanding how the battle unfolded. If you want to know Grant’s thoughts, fears, strategies, and tactics, and how Lincoln responded with his own, this is an account that’s easy to follow.
Top photograph: A photograph of the Wilderness, showing the kind of terrain where much of the three-day battle was fought. Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Virginia.