Gordon Rhea’s “To the North Anna River”—History Writing at Its Best

Rhea-North Anna-smI can’t let the sesquicentennial anniversary of North Anna slip away without tossing in a plug for Gordon Rhea’s book To the North Anna River. Rhea’s monumental four-volume study makes him the unquestionable master of Overland Campaign studies, but his third book in the series really stands out for me as the best of the bunch. In fact, it’s one of my very favorite Civil War books, period.

Part of my bias might come from the fact that I actually started reading Rhea’s series with To the North Anna River—and of, course, there’s nothing like your first. However, North Anna has always been one of my favorite actions, mostly because it’s been largely forgotten about. I love a good underdog, and North Anna seemed to fit the bill perfectly compared to such actions at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. Bookended as it is by the bloodbaths at Wilderness, Spotsy, and Cold Harbor, it’s no wonder that North Anna has been an overlooked phase of the campaign.

But To the North Anna not only covers those overlooked days along the river, it covers all the action at Spotsylvania that followed the fight at the Muleshoe on May 12, which are also often overlooked. The Bloody Angle rightly fascinates people so strongly—but that wasn’t the end of the fight at Spotsy. People tend to forget the armies stayed there for eight more days.

In fact, I would argue that the Bloody Angle marked a vital turning point because the campaign stopped being such a slugfest and began to take on more of the feel of a chessmatch. It became as much a psychological game of wits as a battlefield brawl, exacerbated by the mental and emotional toll both commanders were paying for the nonstop physical demands of the action. To the North Anna brilliantly captures the exhausted move-countermove-countermove-countermove nature of the post-Bloody Angle campaign.

It’s not the subject matter alone that makes the book so strong, it’s Rhea’s treatment of that subject matter—but only later, when I read all of Rhea’s books, did I understand why. Like the others, To the North Anna is jam-packed with primary accounts and excellent analysis. The text is imminently readable, and he makes sure the “plot” is easy to follow. The maps are useful (it was only after I did a lot more reading and came to appreciate maps more did I realize how relatively primitive Rhea’s maps are).

All these elements all comes together perfectly in North Anna. With the first two books under his belt by that point, Rhea finally hit his stride. He is at the peak of his powers.

Cold Harbor concludes the series on a strong note, continuing the great story and great storytelling Rhea perfects in North Anna. The weakness of Cold Harbor is in the material: the best-known action took place on June 3, but the action continues until the middle of the month, which adds an extended anticlimax that Rhea has to deal with (which he does well). The action at Spotsy unfolded similarly, but Rhea was able to work around that, from a narrative point of view, by splitting the action at Spotsy into two books. Thus, the second book of the series ends with a powerful climax, and the chessmatch that begins May 13 serves to effectively build narrative suspense throughout the third book. It’s a masterful use of the history to create compelling narrative.

To the North Anna River represents history writing at its best.

8 Responses to Gordon Rhea’s “To the North Anna River”—History Writing at Its Best

  1. Thank you for the kind remarks. Hope to get my fifth volume out in the next few years — its almost done, just need a few clear months to clean it up!

  2. Mr. Rhea’s Overland Seris Books are the first books I read on the civil about 5 years ago. I read all four of them over a weekend and I have not stopped reading about the civil war sense then. I am excited to hear that a fifth book is forth coming.

  3. Mr. Rhea just answered my question. I have been waiting for the end of the campaign to be looked at in your fifth book of the series. Your books were the first campaign studies that I read in depth, and have been the best I have read to date. It piqued my interest in the battles around Spotsylvania Court House, and have led to further study in the movements and stories of the men who fought and died there. Thank you!

  4. I think what makes Rhea’s third volume strong is the amount of detail. His first book on the Wilderness is relatively sparse in this respect. For example, it is always a bluecoat said this or a Confederate said that. Unless they are the senior commanders, he fails to identify the protagonists by name, let alone rank, unless they are from Frank Wilkeson, Theodore Lyman, and William Dame. He leaves out such gallantry as the action for which Leopold Karpeles of the 57th Massachusetts received the Medal of Honor.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like all of Rhea’s books. It is just the author might want to return to _The_ _Battle_ _of_ _the_ _Wilderness_ some day and update it, or in terms of historiography, the book might not withstand the test of time as much as the subsequent works in Rhea’s Overland Campaign series.

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