- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004


By Gordon C. Rhea, Basic Books. 278 pages. $26.

Few historians can rival Gordon C. Rhea as master of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee’s deadly duet in Virginia in 1864. His books have dealt with all the key battles in grisly detail: the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and North Anna, and Cold Harbor.

His new book is a ministudy, an aside on the great tragedy of the 1864 Overland campaign. After one of his lectures, Mr. Rhea was given a stack of papers, including some letters written by a Confederate private, one Charles Whilden. It launched him on a search for more — for memoirs, letters to Whilden, any documentation related to his life.

From all this he has constructed a quirky and ironic tale of how Whilden, a failure at everything he tried, became, at age 40, an unlikely hero at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Mr. Rhea doesn’t quite make Whilden sympathetic, but he does keep his tale interesting.

Whilden was born in 1824 to a wealthy and educated family in Charleston, S.C. He also was well-schooled and earned a law degree but failed to make his law practice successful. He then traveled to Detroit and later New Mexico, trying farming, real estate and copper mining. While traveling by sea from the Southwest to South Carolina, he developed epilepsy.

Back in Charleston, he could not get into the army because of his condition. By early 1864, the South had to relax its enlistment standards because of its dire manpower needs. Finally in the army, Whilden served in the famed but decimated 1st South Carolina.

Though a private, he was able, through class associations and conversation, to befriend some officers. His baptism of fire came in the Wilderness, when, in the chaos of battle in the burning, tangled underbrush, the regiment broke and ran. Lee won the battle, with 10,000 casualties to Grant’s 17,000.

The fighting was near Chancellorsville, where the Confederates had won their most dazzling victory the year before. This time the Northern Army did not retreat, but headed south, and Lee had to race east to catch them at Spotsylvania Court House, blocking the road to Richmond. Here, the two armies clashed at what came to be called the Mule Shoe — the apex of which was called the Bloody Angle.

It is a familiar story, but Mr. Rhea recounts it well, always with an eye toward the memorable detail: One soldier uses the leg of a dead colleague as a pillow; amid a pile of bodies, a leg suddenly shoots out from a man not quite dead; someone is talking, and the top of his head is blown off.

Spotsylvania, the author points out, was noteworthy for the wisdom shown by one Northern soldier, Col. Emory Upton, who persuaded Grant to let him use the novel tactic of rapid attack by specially trained regiments. Upton was tired of mass frontal assaults and wanted to try a more sharply focused attack. His goal was not to break the enemy’s line as a whole but poke a hole in it, then pour reinforcements through.

Upton succeeded in breaking the Rebel line on May 8, but reinforcements failed to show up, and Upton’s troops had to retreat. “A brigade today,” Grant said. “We’ll try a corps tomorrow.” Upton was made a brigadier general on the field.

The next attack gave Whilden his chance for a surprising act of heroism. Again, Federal troops, now under Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, broke through the outermost Rebel trenches. Then both armies got locked in an extended death-match with combatants often just yards apart. Near the end of the slaughter, Whilden’s 1st Carolina was called to reinforce the Bloody Angle, which was in danger of breaking and letting Grant carve Lee’s army in half.

When all the other flag-bearers went down, Whilden grabbed the regimental flag to rally troops back to a key point in the line just as it was about to split. When the flag was shot off its pole, he wrapped the flag around his body and led a charge that won back critical ground. Somehow — such are the chances of battle, Mr. Rhea observes — Whilden’s clothing was pierced with bullets, but he was unhurt. That night, though, he thought it best to write his first will.

There is one disappointment in Mr. Rhea’s sources: While Whilden’s comrades and superiors who survived the war, some into the 1920s, later commented on his act, there is no commentary from Whilden himself on his sudden bravery. His voice is missing on the key act of his life. Maybe the will is the best evidence for what he was feeling afterward. But what about during?

The opening of the book concentrates not on Whilden, but the times. The causes of the Civil War have been debated widely. Few doubt there were causes other than slavery. Mr. Rhea’s portrait of Whilden’s antebellum Charleston also leaves little room for doubt that preservation of slavery against the perceived threat of abolition was among the primary motives for secession.

Mr. Rhea notes that the Confederate constitution duplicated the U.S. Constitution except for a provision barring interference in the ownership of slaves. He also traces South Carolinians’ fear of change to the 1830s, when a slave rebellion was nipped in the bud.

One last irony in this offbeat tale is Whilden’s fate. Whilden was never recognized for his bravery at Spotsylvania. In 1866, he suffered a seizure, fell into a puddle and drowned. His colleagues remembered his heroism afterward and couldn’t agree on who should own and preserve the flag he had worn that day in battle.

One of the veteran officers claimed to have it and fought off lawsuits by Whilden’s brother, who wanted it. When the officer died in the 1920s, the flag was not found among his estate. It has never resurfaced.

There are no statues for Whilden at Spotsylvania, nor of Upton or any heroes. “In later years,” Mr. Rhea observes, “veterans festooned battlefields such as Sharpsburg and Gettysburg with monuments and memorials to their valor. Few had any desire to return to Spotsylvania, much less to the place they called the Bloody Angle.”

Tom O’Brien is a Washington writer.

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