The Most Overlooked Phase of the Overland Campaign

Strike Release

I often wonder what motivates people to buy the Civil War books they do. Are they interested in learning something? Being entertained? Both? Do they want to hear their favorite story told one more time, maybe in a new way? Or maybe exactly as they expect it to be told, without anyone monkeying with it at all?

While I have pondered these questions on and off ever since I became an author, a recent experience led me to consider them anew.

After a recent program I offered on Spotsylvania, an audience member came to my book table to see what I had to offer. He saw my book on Spotsylvania, A Season of Slaughter, co-authored with Kris White. “I’ll get that one,” he said. Looking at the other books, he saw Hell Itself, my book on the battle of the Wilderness. “I know that one,” he declared, referring to the battle. “I’ll get that one, too.”

“If you’re following the Overland Campaign,” I suggested, “this book picks up where the Spotsy book leaves off.” I referred him to Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna River, which covers the third phase of the Overland Campaign.

He pursed his lips and thought about it for a hot second then shook his head. “Don’t know that one,” he said. “Anything on Cold Harbor?”

I recommended Hurricane from the Heavens, the ECWS book written by my friends and colleagues Dan Davis and Phill Greenwalt. I don’t carry their books, but I told him he could find it on Amazon or through the publisher. The man thanked me, paid for his two books, and left.

It’s not the first time I’ve had that sort of interaction with someone over Strike Them a Blow. People are not as familiar with that phase of the Overland Campaign, and so they tend to shy away from the book that covers it. Certainly not everyone does, but I am surprised by the number of people who do.

After all, if you don’t know about a particular battle, isn’t that the perfect reason to buy a book about it? Especially a quick, easy to read overview book that doesn’t require a huge financial or time commitment?

In this particular instance, for someone trying to understand the Overland Campaign as a whole, I would think it is particularly useful to fill in the holes for better context.

I could offer many reasons why the North Anna phase of the campaign is particularly deserving of attention despite the fact that the fight there paled in comparison in to everything that came before and after. It perfectly exemplifies the effects of Grant’s war of attrition, and there are significant psychological components. That’s not really my point here at the moment, though.

I realize there has to be a limit on how many books you could ever buy and how far beyond your comfort zone you might ever be willing to go. And if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it fifty times: “If I bring one more book into the house, my wife will shoot me.” I have a wife who’s armed for just that purpose, so I believe folks when they tell me it’s so for them, too.

But in choosing the books they do purchase, I am also surprised by how closely people stick to what they’re familiar with rather than dipping their toes into something new. We all know people, for instance, who will read every single Gettysburg-related book published, but they are apt to balk at something about, say, Petersburg—and heaven forbid they pick up anything that covers the West, even though books on Vicksburg and Tullahoma, for instance, would certainly give anything Gettysburg-related a much fuller context.

Again, I’m generalizing. I know plenty of folks with huge, diverse libraries, and they’re always excited to talk about them. But many others remain narrowly focused in what they’ll look at.

When I sign copies of Strike Them a Blow, I include the following inscription: “Thank you for taking a closer look at this most overlooked phase of the Overland Campaign.”

I urge you, Faithful Reader—not just with North Anna but with the entire war—to take a closer look at the things you tend to overlook. Read the things you love, surely, but consider adding to your library in a way that helps you build context for the things that interest you most deeply. Try something new every once in a while. Peek beyond the military into the political, economic, and (dare I say it…) social.

Take a look at those things you’d otherwise be apt to overlook.

*     *     *

Chris will speak about the Confederate defense along the North Anna River at the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge.

8 Responses to The Most Overlooked Phase of the Overland Campaign

  1. Hi Chris, well said. Last April, Nellie (my faithful battlefielder) and I followed in your footsteps and spent 6 days at Shiloh for the anniversary. We began out trek in January when I consumed every book and map that I could find, followed by several calls to the NPS folks. ECW books fit superbly into my research mosaic, especially as a traveling book in my haversack. By the way, great story in CWT. You know I how much I enjoy your ‘Stonewall’ book and am looking forward to our annual ‘Ridge’ visit. Sue and Nellie send their best wishes.

  2. Just to mention this–my charming husband never says a word about the books except that we should not buy them and then try to put them on the plane. Order them when we return, if possible. This proved excellent advice, although our postal carrier has some doubts.

  3. Great post Chris – it does remind me of conversations that I have regarding regimental histories. I never seem to have written or be interested in the one that the people Imeet are actually looking for.

  4. I consider myself a generalist and am interested in everything related to the Civil War. It is like trying to understand Gettysburg without knowing about Chancellorsville or Vicksburg; it is all intertwined. Or not understanding the politics of the era. As you have stated people ignore the Western theater. As program chairman for our round table I’ve tried to find a balance. Looking forward to meeting you at the seminar.

  5. I think people read to follow up on the places they visit. So, these tent to be the larger battlefield parks.

  6. Chris this was a definite “e-mailed to more then one of my local civil war friends article”, lmao… let me explain, as you know I have only been reading civil war books for 5 years but in that time due to my disability from my last deployment I’ve read 350 I think I told you the story on how I ended up reading Civil War books it’s actually pretty funny but if I didn’t I’ll tell you another time this isn’t the place. Anyway unlike most people since I started out with Shelby foots trilogy and I only really knew Grant and Sherman when it comes to the union side and of course Lee when it comes to the Confederates. Well since all the battles with Grant and Sherman in the first two books where in the West the majority of the first 100 books I bought we’re dealing with battles and campaigns in the West. So when me and my local friends get together even at this point to have a few pops we always end up debating who’s the most underrated Brigade, overrated General, most important battle and other things like that I am amazed at some of them who has been studying the Civil War for 20 years and can tell you every regiment who fought under hooker at Antietam yet have no idea about the backstory of someone is famous is Claiborne because he’s in the West. Although thankfully authors finally started recognizing how important the West is many people still don’t read about it when I tease my friends about it they always reply with comments like the battles out in there didn’t really matter, or the battles in the west are boring, and I have to explain to him as many of you did in the recent Vicksburg Gettysburg debate just how important they really are so I found your article not only really interesting it was forwarded to many of my friends very early in the morning just to wake him up LOL, so thanks for the backup. On a serious note concerning the Vicksburg Gettysburg debate I have been really frustrated the last several years in the fact that all the Vicksburg books are roughly 250 pages when you take out the index and order of battle, with all the things that went on, all the different battles, skirmishes, attempted canals Doug, there’s no way you can cover all of it in so short a book. And well I totally respect and admire Ed bearss, there’s no way I could ever afford his books nor could I probably find all three with the scarcity of them. Also the Civil War writing is a paradox in terms of the farther you get away from the war the more information there is do two more letters, memoirs, or just missed information in the OR coming out. So I was wondering since you’re definitely in the know with all the definitive books being written lately like Hartwig and Azura’s books on Antietam, Powell and chickamagua, Timothy B Smith covering forts Henry and Donelson and Shiloh and Corinth do you know of any Vicksburg books coming down the pipeline? I realize people probably don’t want to take on the project because it’s probably a 10-year project to do proper trilogy in the style of savasbeattie like they did with Powell’s Books where they still had pictures of anybody they talked about and Maps Galore so you could try to understand the fighting but if you know of anybody working on them if you give me to give me a heads up at appreciate it just so I had something to look forward to and also if you could recommend what your favorite Vicksburg books are that would be great because I possibly may have missed one although I think I bought them all being a favorite campaign of mine. But as usual great article Chris I really enjoy your writings I enjoy your books and I don’t know if I told you but it looks like I’m going to get the money to go to the Symposium if there’s still openings which is a huge deal to me because I haven’t been anywhere since I got home return home 6 years ago and I’ve had all the surgeries. But if everything works out and I go I’m going straight to you and Wittenberg to thank you for all the great books and get your signatures. Wittenberg Devil’s to pay is my favorite Gettysburg book of all time but I’m one of those rare people who really love Antietam and I’m happy there’s finally more material out on it. You have a list of so many books I’ve read and enjoyed I couldn’t even begin to know which one to bring to have you sign but the point is if there’s still an opening I’ll be there I am having trouble getting hold of the people I’ve called three times and haven’t got a call back so hopefully I can get in there before it gets filled. But anyway it’s Friday at 11:24 a.m. so I hope your work day Professor is either over or ending soon and enjoy your family and friends this weekend and God bless you and your loved ones and I’ll see you soon take care brother

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