How the Wilderness Became the Wilderness

By Don Shockey

Early May 1864 witnessed the first time that Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant – the two giants of the Civil War – met in battle in an area known then and forever more as the Wilderness.  The area had been known as the Wilderness for more than one hundred years before the Civil War but it was this bloody battle that would put the Wilderness on the map and in the history books forever.  What made these seventy some square miles different from the rest of early Virginia?  How did the Wilderness become the Wilderness?  To answer that question, we must go back to the early 1700’s when Virginia was still a British colony and Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood envisioned starting an iron smelting industry in this area.

Spotswood arrived in Hampton Roads in June, 1710, after being appointed Lieutenant Governor of the Virginia Colony.  Iron ore was known to exist in the area that would become the Wilderness even before Spotswood arrived in Virginia.  The British Government at that time restricted manufacturing to the home islands and looked to the colonies to produce and export raw materials back to England while importing finished goods manufactured from those raw materials.  Despite the lack of permission from the British Government to smelt iron in the colonies, Spotswood initiated the iron smelting operation in Virginia anyway.    His initiative was in fact the first attempt at moving away from an agricultural to an industrial based economy in Virginia and actually in any of the colonies.

There are three elements in that land that are critical to the smelting of iron ore:  the ground must contain iron ore; there must be large forests for fuel, and water for power must be available.  All of these features were abundant in what was to become the Wilderness and Spotswood began acquiring land in this area shortly after his arrival in Virginia. Within just a couple years he controlled over 80,000 acres in present day Orange and Spotsylvania Counties.  But there was still one feature missing before Spotswood could turn his dream into reality and that was the presence of experienced manpower that could conduct the smelting operations.  So he arranged for the emigration of German iron workers to Virginia; the first emigrants began arriving here in April, 1713.  They were the original settlers of the Germanna community, located on the south bank of the Rapidan River near today’s State Route 3 and Germanna Community College.  By 1715 Spotswood had established the Tubal Furnace below the confluence of the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers and was smelting iron.  By 1750 there would be at least six blast furnaces smelting the area’s iron ore.

The smelting process required a fire hot enough to reach the iron ore’s melting point, 2,190 to 2,810 degrees Fahrenheit, and it had to be burning continuously for weeks at a time.  The amount of fuel for smelting the iron was enormous – nearly two acres of hardwood per ton of smelted iron – and some furnaces could burn as much as seven hundred acres of timber per year.  To obtain the fuel required clear cutting vast segments of the virgin forest in the area.  The second growth forest that sprang up afterward consisted of smaller, scrubbier trees which allowed the growth of ground covering vegetation.  The vines, briars, honeysuckle, poison ivy and other lower growing vegetation created an almost impenetrable wall of vegetation and resulted in the area, by at least 1750, becoming known as “The Wilderness.”

It was this second growth forest that was in place during the Civil War.  Although the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville was fought in and around the Wilderness, it was really the first encounter of Lee and Grant in May, 1864, right in our backyard that the iconic name of “The Wilderness” became forever etched in Civil War and American history.

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