Dating back to the late 1990s, Robert M. Dunkerly has been infatuated with writing history.
The historian began his career with a few history articles and then full-length books, but Dunkerly is not just a writer. He doubles as a park ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park and is the president of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable. While writing provides a megaphone for historical analysis, his other two positions keep him updated on all things related to American history.
“I deal with history everyday,” Dunkerly said. “And I deal with various aspects of history. I deal with not only the events that happened, and researching what happened 150 years ago, but at a historic site, you deal with the history how it’s remembered.”
Dunkerly has been involved with planning a number of events related to the Sesquicentennial. That, too, has required an eye for history. “Often we have to look at past commemorations, how things were done for the 100 anniversary,” he explained.
“We also look at how the sites are preserved,” Dunkerly added. “Where do we have walking trails or markers? And how is the site presented to the visitors? Is there a better way to do that? We analyze how the site is set up and look for better ways to do things.”
Dunkerly’s lasted book, the Emerging Civil War Series’s No Turning Back: A Guide to the 1864 Overland Campaign, co-authored by Donald C. Pfanz and David R. Ruth, recalls the battles fought in Virginia in May and June of 1864 in which Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant maneuvered the Army of the Potomac around the Confederate Army led by Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“[T]here will be no turning back,” Grant said as he was about to lead his army into what became one of the final stages of the war.
Over the next eleven months, Grant would prove to be a strategic leader, and he left Virginia victorious. When studying the vital Union win, Dunkerly was intrigue by the ramifications the battle left on the South.
“Both sides had high hopes,” Dunkerly said. “Both sides were getting weary of war. There was a growing dissatisfaction on the home fronts and in the military on both sides. They really redoubled their efforts and you have these massive campaigns all across the country. But the eyes of the world were really on the Overland in Virginia, so the expectations were pretty high and the stakes were pretty high. It was a grueling campaign. “
While the Union army outnumbered the Confederates, the South had the benefit of home-field advantage.
“Being on the defensive, by its very nature, is an advantage,” Dunkerly said. “The terrain favors the defenders in that part of Virginia. If you’re the defender, you usually choose the ground. You can dig in and defend yourself and the enemy has to come to you. Especially if you’re behind earthworks or defenses, the attacker has to expose themself to come to you. The defender can react to what the attacker does. The attacker has to move their people and get them in the right position and that takes time.”
While Dunkerly has studied that phase of the Civil War for a long time, he stated that his two co-authors were both vital parts in the writing process.
“They’re both very knowledgeable—more than me honestly,” Dunkerly said. “Don’s been studying this for many years and they both have a lot of experience. They both knew the areas very well. They had local contacts, they knew about out-of-the-way places that most people wouldn’t know about.”
As the case in many historical works, the three writers split up the areas of study. Pfanz specialized in the Wilderness in Spotsylvania while Ruth covered the North Anna and Totopotomoy Creek. Dunkerly then took over with Cold Harbor and the movement toward the James River.
But even with three writers working together, Dunkerly stated that it was difficult to condense the material into a 192-page book.
“That really was a challenge,” Dunkerly said. “And it’s not just covering history, it’s a guide book, so we have to have room for directions and maps to guide people. But you also have three different people who have three different writing styles and we somehow had to blend that to make the book look seamless. And I think we did, but at first, that was a real obstacle.”
Dunkerly’s latest book picks up as Grant is finishing his work in Virginia. To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place, and the Surrenders of the Confederacy follows Grant’s final victory over Lee and then casts a wide view across the South in the war’s last days.
“Appomattox was important since it was the first surrender, involved the two principle armies and the two most prominent generals,” Dunkerly said. “When the Confederacy’s most successful army gave up, it was really over, even though it took time for the others to also surrender. I’ve seen it time and time again. . . . Union and Confederate soldiers assumed that this was the end of the war, even though it wasn’t. It was in effect, and that’s all that counted.”
The Southern surrender was inevitable not only in Appomattox, but throughout the Confederacy.
“By 1865, it was a mere matter of time, and people on both sides knew it,” Dunkerly said. “When the end came, it came fast. Those weeks in April and May were like a domino effect; a successful Union attack at Five Forks doomed Petersburg. When Petersburg fell, so too did Richmond. Now the Confederate Government was on the run. Lee got trapped and surrendered at Appomattox. When this happened the next army, the Army of Tennessee, had no choice and also surrendered. This news then reached the troops further west, and so on.”
While Appomattox remains a key event in American history, Dunkerly stated that there have been few studies on the series of surrenders—a reason for him to research the battle himself.
“The biggest challenge was that this topic had never been researched like this before, so far as I could tell,” Dunkerly said. “No one had ever tracked down the site of each surrender, what was said, and what is there today. I wanted to give each event equal coverage, since Appomattox usually overshadows the rest. There are a lot of second hand accounts, but I wanted to track down the primary sources, as much as I could. It was real detective work, and I had to find local contacts at each location to help. ”