August 17, 2010

The Battle of the Wilderness

When it was first published in 1910 by Houghton Mifflin, author Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness stood as the first ever book-length study of that engagement, and would remain the only such study for the next fifty years. Schaff (1840-1929) seemed to know of what he wrote. He graduated West Point in 1862 as a second lieutenant of ordinance. In March, 1863 Schaff became a first lieutenant and saw action in the Rappahannock campaign. When the Overland campaign opened in May 1864, Lieutenant Schaff was serving as Aide-de-Camp to Major General Warren, and before the war was over he would serve under Generals Hooker, Meade and Grant. Schaff resigned from the Army on December 31, 1871.

Despite Schaff’s closeness to the action, the book was characterized by one early review as “the poetry and romance” of war. Schaff was obviously a soldier but was also considered by his contemporaries to be a poet and a philosopher, thus the reviewer noted how “the two natures are apparent in his writings. You are astonished and your mind is stimulated by some logical and brilliant discussion with shrewd, thoughtful, discriminating comment or suggestion; you feel that the battle and its tactics are being set forth by a master hand, when suddenly the poet seizes the pen and the war is forgotten.” Less forgivable was a critique still endemic to modern tactical studies: the lack of adequate maps, described as “few and woefully inadequate.” Allen Nevins was as equally ambivalent in his more modern description of the book, noting that even though Schaff was “at times pompous, rambling, and lyrical” The Battle of the Wilderness “remains a work of some merit.” First editions of Schaff’s book can be identified by matching dates on the title and copyright page. The title page must state 1910 at the bottom and the copyright page must state “Published October 1910.” As seen here, fine first editions are not all that common. Expect to pay in the $100 range. Today, the work is more of a curiosity as Gordon Rhea’s 1994 book on the battle is now considered the standard work.

Schaff also authored several other military works during his later life. The best known are The Spirit of Old West Point (1907) and Sunset of the Confederacy (1912).

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