Mackowski’s New “Strike Them a Blow” Looks at the Overlooked Phase of the Overland Campaign
by ECW Correspondent Pat Tintle
The Emerging Civil War Series has covered well-known events such as Gettysburg and Appomattox, but for the latest volume, author Chris Mackowski has turned the series’ focus toward a battle not found in all U.S. History textbooks.
Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna River details the encounter between Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Fought on May 23-26, 1864, along the banks of the North Anna River in central Virginia, the battle has not been properly recognized by many Civil War Historians, according to Mackowski.
“(The battle is) pretty overlooked,” Mackowski said. “Because it happens right after Spotsylvania Courthouse—which gets a lot of attention—and it happens just before Cold Harbor—which gets a lot of attention—it kind of gets overshadowed.”
The two notorious battles that proceeded the battle of North Anna—the Wilderness and Spotsylvania—limited both the Union and Confederate armies’ ability to properly recover from their experiences.
“Typically, the armies before this point would fight and then withdraw,” Mackowski said. “It could be two months before they could fight again, so they could reinforce and reequip. But when Grant starts the campaign, he intends to ‘fight it out along this line if it takes all summer.’ And rather than fight and withdraw, he just wants to wear the Confederates down by attrition.”
Attrition was the theme of Grant’s campaign, and of North Anna, as the Union began to pound away at Confederate forces.
North Anna may not have the reputation of a bloody battle with a high death toll, but the fight was a testament to both Grant’s and Lee’s abilities as wartime leaders.
“North Anna is about maneuvering,” Mackowski said. “Both commanders are punch-drunk exhausted—both make mistakes. So it’s like a big battle that doesn’t happen because both commanders stumble through it, so it tends to get forgotten about in the context of those other battles in the campaign.”
Mackowski’s interest in the battle of North Anna dates back to his earliest days as a Civil War historian.
“Back when I first started getting interested in Civil War stuff, there was something about this battle that attracted my attention,” Mackowski said. “Because everyone else seemed to overlook it, I was curious as to why. So, I’ve really been in love with this battle, and to finally have a chance to write about it is a huge thrill for me.”
Mackowski is not just in love with the battle but also the battlefield.
“The Overland Campaign is really the first time that defensive warfare really played out in the East,” Mackowski said. “In the Wilderness there are trenches, and by the time Spotsylvania comes around, the trenches are more expensive and better built. So when they get to North Anna, they learned from the previous three weeks and the trenches are even bigger and better. At North Anna, they are particularly impressive because they are well preserved and are extremely innovative.”
Strike Them a Blow represents a bit of an innovation, too, compared to other Emerging Civil War books, integrating literary aspects, according to Mackowski.
“Instead of just recounting events, I’m trying to do more showing rather than telling,” Mackowski said. “There’s a real emphasis on narrative storytelling rather than just relaying factual information. When I was working (on the book), it felt a little like a creative writing project to me as opposed to just a history writing project.”
Strike Them a Blow, he says, “is the Civil War book I’ve always wanted to write.”
The foreword for Strike Them a Blow was written by Gordon C. Rhea, the award-winning historian whose detailed four-volume study of the Overland Campaign is widely acknowledged as THE definitive account. “Chris Mackowski’s Strike Them a Blow is an absorbing, fast-paced exposition of this astounding campaign,” Rhea wrote. “His highly readable book gives us an exemplary roadmap to this neglected slice of American history.”
Rhea’s contribution was a particular thrill for Mackowski. “Gordon’s book on North Anna was the first in-depth, microtactical study I ever read,” he explained. “It’s everything good history writing should be: well-researched, interesting, clear to follow, and engaging to read. It set a very high bar for me to try and emulate, and I’ve been shooting for that bar ever since. So to have him write the foreword for my North Anna book was a huge thrill for me—a huge thrill and a huge honor.”
Mackowski calls Rhea’s book a “must-read.” “Strike Them a Blow is the intro-level version of the story that will, I hope, hook readers; Gordon’s book is the master class.”
Strike Them a Blow contains eleven new maps and more than 150 historical and modern photographs. It is the thirteenth full-length book in the Emerging Civil War Series, published by Savas Beatie, LLC, and can be found on shelves today.