Review: “The First Battle for Petersburg: The Attack and Defense of the Cockade City, June 9, 1864”

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CoverThe First Battle for Petersburg: The Attack and Defense of the Cockade City, June 9, 1864, by William Glenn Robertson. (Savas Beatie: 2015). 3 pages preface, 147 pages main text, Appendix 1: Federal Order of Battle, Appendix 2: Confederate Order of Battle, Appendix 3: Confederate Casualties, Appendix 4: Interview with the Author. Footnotes, Bibliography, Index.

When one thinks of the city of Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1864, they think of the ten-month siege of the Cockade City; of exploding mines and sniping in the long trench lines. But for one small battle, this would not have been.

On June 9, when the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were still grappling near Cold Harbor, another Federal force moved against the barely-held Petersburg. As Virginia’s second largest city and a major railroad hub, it was vital to the Confederate forces that they retain command of Petersburg, and its understrength defenders mobilized to defend its streets. Included in the pitifully small order of battle were some of Petersburg’s own citizens, armed with obsolete weapons and a grim determination to defend their homes.

The ensuing clash in the trenches and redoubts outside of Petersburg between the Confederates and Federals became known as the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys, a battle that saw the Confederates barely trump their Federal counterparts. But that victory made all the difference and paved the way for the grueling siege through the rest of 1864 and into early 1865.

Republished for the 150th Anniversary of the Battle, William Glenn Robertson’s The First Battle for Petersburg: The Attack and Defense of the Cockade City, June 9, 1864 was originally part of the lineup from H.E. Howard’s “The Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders” series. Even students of the Civil War who own the original edition should look to getting this new and revised copy of Robertson’s book.

Robertson’s book is fast-paced, quickly laying out the situation in the spring of 1864, beginning with Benjamin Butler and the Army of the James’ Bermuda Hundred Campaign. As it was Army of the James units operating against Petersburg on June 9, this context is especially important.  Quickly leading into the battle itself, Robertson recounts the details of the action in a way that is easy to understand and contextualize.

Five maps help with this understanding, all done by Hal Jesperson for the new edition. These five maps break the action down to regiments, and, in some cases, to individual companies, and all serve their function well. With the book’s relatively-short length, these five maps are the perfect amount for the page count.

Throughout the book, it becomes apparent that Robertson blames Quincy Gillmore for the Federals’ inability to capture Petersburg. Given command of the expeditionary force of some 5,000 infantry and cavalry, Gillmore failed to break through the threadbare defenses around Petersburg. In one particularly scathing sentence, Robertson writes, “Supposedly an officer competent to hold the rank of major general and command an army corps, Gillmore had from the beginning of the Bermuda Hundred campaign shown that he was not capable of forcefully leading troops in the field” (75). Elsewhere, Robertson reiterates that with Gillmore in command, the attack was “doomed to failure” (162).

The most-extensive additions to this new edition are in the appendices, particularly concerning the casualties among Petersburg’s “Old Men and Young Boys.” Instead of just tallies on a butcher’s bill, the casualties sustained by Petersburg’s militia are presented in a lens of humanity that sometimes is unfortunately left behind in micro-tactical military history.

Overall, Robertson’s revised book is worthy of a place on all Civil War students’ shelves. It serves as a compact introduction to the first battle for Petersburg, and as one reads its’ pages, they cannot help but reflect on the lost opportunities that would condemn thousands more to their deaths in the trenches around Petersburg.

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