Book Review: “On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864”
I’m not a fan of writing traditional book reviews. I suppose it reminds me too much of my standard weekly assignments during all four undergrad years as a history major at the University of Illinois. Gordon Rhea’s latest publication, On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864 (LSU Press, 2017) nevertheless demands a reaction piece here on the Emerging Civil War blog, so we’re going to tackle the last phase of the Overland campaign with good old bullet points.
- Which is it, Overland or Petersburg? The Petersburg campaign unfairly has a hard enough time standing out in its own right despite its tremendous importance. We already have to worry about the Appomattox campaign trying to lop off the final offensive against the Cockade City for itself. Indeed the way the Official Records are designated, everything around Petersburg from March 29-April 2, 1865, Lewis Farm through Fort Gregg, is listed as part of the Appomattox campaign. And here comes Rhea trying to steal Petersburg’s first day for the Overland campaign!
- All kidding aside, I do agree that the crossing of the James and the initial attack on the city are a continuation of the strategy that Grant employed with the Union army since the Wilderness. You could even argue that the first four days of combat around Petersburg, June 15-18, are part of that campaign. It is not until George Meade is advocating for siege tactics with saps, rollers, and parallels, Union columns are marching to cut the Jerusalem Plank Road and Petersburg & Weldon Railroad, and some Pennsylvania coal miners are realizing they have a better way of breaching Rebel fortifications than charging into their teeth that the Petersburg campaign distances itself from the preceding carnage of Grant’s first tangle with Lee.
- As always, to curb outcries about biased research, campaign narratives like this one have to include in their preface a disclaimer that the author is not trying to favor the blue over the gray. There is just more written and manuscript material available on the Yanks. It’s easy to understand why abundant primary source material (letters, diaries, newspaper correspondence) favors the north, but while Union veterans were writing regimental histories and battle recollections after the war, their southern rivals battling with the pen now instead of the sword focused more on Lost Cause glorification, justifying secession, exalting their leaders, and explaining their defeats as simple resource inequalities. Some states like North Carolina at least compiled essay length sketches for each regiment, but entire Confederate units are completely lacking in material. You can’t provide an equal southern voice if they themselves did not provide the resources to do so. This is particularly true during the last year of the war.
- First chapter catches us up to speed with the Overland campaign. With the plan to continue the five-volume series to Petersburg, it was wise to end the Cold Harbor book with the failed assaults on June 3 and include the second week of Cold Harbor with the crossing of the James and first attack against the Dimmock Line. This is finally the first real study of the stretch between June 4-12 that constitutes twenty percent of the Overland campaign. Between this book and the campaign by the Civil War Trust to purchase the Fletcher’s Redoubt property and bequeath it to Richmond National Battlefield Park, this part of the Cold Harbor story is finally having some light shed on it. While members of those Union brigades whose generals actually committed to the attacks on the morning of the 3rd have every reason to see that hour as the worst that the campaign had to offer, many soldiers viewed the week afterward as the true horror of Cold Harbor.
- Maneuver trumps assault during this phase of the campaign. Grant’s decision to transfer his army to the James River and then cross that tidal waterway to march on Petersburg eludes Confederate detection long enough to stand a chance at capturing the city on the 15th while it is only held by 2,200-5,00 defenders. Grant’s ability to maintain the initiative after Cold Harbor despite stalemate and seemingly outright defeat, coupled with his placing the armies of the Potomac and James in positions where they are far better supplied and entrenched than their beleaguered opponents, marks the crossing of the James as one of the decisive moments of the war. Though the city will not fall for another 292 days, time proves to be on the Union side. The bottled Army of Northern Virginia is unable to transfer adequate strength to elsewhere protect their resources and demonstrate enough to the southern population to maintain their willingness to fight.
- The book spends a long time chronicling the conditions in the trenches and the attitudes of the soldiers at Cold Harbor. Leadership decisions play the important role in the narrative, but the pages spent on troop movements and combat descriptions are necessarily fewer than earlier titles in the series.
- Most readers looking for a battle narrative, however, will still receive their first introduction to the half-hearted Confederate attacks against the IX Corps on June 6 and 7, a brief description of Butler’s foray against Petersburg on June 9 resulting in the “Battle of Old Men and Young Boys,” the Confederate cavalry probe toward Old Church on June 10, the combat at Glendale on June 13 as the V Corps screened the Army of the Potomac’s movement to the river, James Wilson’s active cavalry work the next two days to keep Lee blind to Grant’s intentions, the USCT’s attack at the Baylor Farm that is considered the first shots of the 292-day Petersburg campaign, and Smith’s delayed capture of the Dimmock Line on the evening of the 15th.
- Having that many small engagements requires good and plentiful maps to help readers follow the action. George Skoch provides nineteen maps covering army strategy in Virginia strategy, corps and division maneuvering, and brigade and regimental level tactics during the various battles. Skirmishes like those on the 6th and 7th, Glendale, and Old Church are depicted for the first time. Some of the Petersburg combat on the 15th has been previously mapped, most recently by Hal Jespersen for Sean Chick’s The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864 (Potomac Books, 2015). Hal used his accustomed fantastic employment of modern shaded relief maps to depict the terrain. George’s maps rely instead on the Nathaniel Michler compiled maps drawn by Union engineers during and after the war. While this method offers a good portrayal of the foliage, trenches, and historic roads, the Michler maps are not exactly to scale, which can frustrate efforts to use them for touring purposes. Regardless, the illustrative quality of the maps in On to Petersburg far exceeds that of the previous four books in the series. Outstanding mapping efforts by George and Hal will help the lengthy Petersburg campaign become more digestible.
- One of the biggest controversies covered by Rhea is the delayed flag of truce at Cold Harbor. When Grant learned about the need to solicit a temporary ceasefire from the Confederates to allow for the evacuation of casualties from the June 3rd attacks, he immediately wrote a request to Lee. The Confederate commander replied that a formal flag of truce needed to be presented by the Federals. Grant assumed Lee meant that officers along individual sections of the expansive battlefield could propose a temporary cessation of hostility but Lee then clarified that it had to be across the entire front. By the time these messages could pass between the lines and army commanders could be tracked down, delay had proved fatal to those in need of rescue. Lee continually insisted that the process should follow the “usual way,” but Rhea states that no agreed upon protocol had been developed by this point in the war. Rhea concludes, “Two days of negotiations, marred by miscommunications and delayed transmissions, had finally yielded a procedure for a truce and workable timeframe.” Grant is skewered for the delay, however, though Rhea writes, “Of all generals involved in the affair, Grant looks best.” Propagandists immediately latch on to the delay as further proof of the “butcher” not caring about his soldiers, regardless of the truth of the matter.
- Historians tend to be almost entirely respectful of one another’s work but sometimes bad history needs to be called out, particularly when it reinforces myths and misconceptions about the war. Rhea does not pull his punches when discussing the flag of truce. From southern newspapers through the modern day, people still pin the entirety of the blame on Grant. Rhea specifically calls out Shelby Foote, the “novelist” who further promoted this inaccurate portrayal of Grant in his seminal The Civil War—A Narrative (Random House, 1958-1974).
- Rhea does criticize Grant where necessary. The Union general’s seemingly disinterested management of the movements on June 15th is absolutely worthy of as scathing criticism as can be leveled. After brilliantly planning and managing the transfer to the James River, Grant does not see the project through to the end.
- The previous four books in the series promised that rather than reviewing each phase at the end of its respective volume, the last volume would contain the author’s final judgment of the leadership and combat of the entire campaign as a whole. Rhea does conclude On to Petersburg with a sixteen page epilogue reviewing the Overland campaign. Having followed the author onward from the Wilderness since 1994, readers will undoubtedly be left wanting more analysis here at the end. One small chapter only provides space enough for just a couple pages apiece for each battle and major leader.
- No other author, however, without Rhea’s established authority as Overland campaign expert could successfully pitch and then write a full-length narrative that–with a timeframe beginning after the famous June 3rd assaults and ending after only one day at Petersburg–focuses more on maneuver and decision-making than combat. We are fortunate to have this bridge between the two campaigns. The UNC Press “Military Campaigns of the Civil War” series lumped everything from the titular Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign (UNC Press, 2015) into one essay book. Even more disappointing is recent indication that their next in the series will somehow cover everything in Petersburg, Richmond, and Appomattox from August 1864 through April 1865 in the nine essays of Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia (UNC Press, scheduled for April 2018 release).
- While this book cements Rhea’s legacy in the pantheon of Civil War authors, the Overland campaign is not necessarily shut off for future publication. Not only could individual full-length studies be written for specific actions like Longstreet’s flank attack, the Bloody Angle, and both the June 1st and 3rd attack at Cold Harbor, for example, but Alfred C. Young’s Lee’s Army during the Overland Campaign (LSU Press, 2013) demonstrates that some of our fundamental understandings (or misunderstandings) of those forty days can be even further scrutinized.
- So is Gordon Rhea also “On to Petersburg” as well? Can we expect him to continue through the Crater, the attempts to cut the city’s supply lines off that summer and fall, the simultaneous threats to Richmond, the winter encampment, the cavalry raids, the desperate gamble at Fort Stedman, the maneuvers in late March, the final breakthrough on April 2nd, and the hasty evacuation that night? Probably not. But readers who look to continue where Rhea is concluding will be glad to know that UNC Press is planning to release the first of Will Greene’s highly anticipated three-volume Petersburg series next year. Be on the lookout for A Campaign of Giants: The Battle of Petersburg, Volume 1, From the Crossing of the James to the Crater in June of 2018.
Gordon C. Rhea, On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864.
LSU Press, 2017.
453 pages, 11 halftones, 19 maps, order of battle, endnotes, bibliography, index.
17 Responses to Book Review: “On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864”
An excellent “review.” Thanks Ed.
All kinds of good stuff here.
Its on my bookshelf…getting ready to dive in later this month…prepping for the Pamplin Park seminar.
And I got to say, the news about Will Greene’s book is fantastic!!!
Thank-you very much I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. I try to keep learning something everyday, I feel as long as I do i’ll keep moving forword
Great review and really enjoyed the “bulletpoints” style. As a amature with only a relavent bach. degree I like to compare my conclusions with those more educated. I found the book and review excellent. In the end the review makes reference to “half-tones”, could someone please educate me to what that refers please?
Thanks for commenting. I pulled the details at the bottom of my review from the LSU Press website. Halftones appears to describe their photo reproduction technique to produce black or gray colors that blend together through a series of closely arranged dots, rather than having continuous color throughout. I believe it’s a way to save significantly on printing costs. Essentially it’s their way to say there are 11 historic photos and sketches.
But it’s academia so the press basically wants to use a different word than admit there are pictures in a book.
Thank-you very much I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. I try to keep learning something everyday, I feel as long as I do i’ll keep moving forword
Couldn’t be happier about Will Greene’s multi-volume Petersburg battles in 2018!!!
Nice job of looking at this from a different angle than most reviews. And I like Rhea’s description of Foote as the author of a “historical novel”.
Mr. Foskett I couldn’t agree more about Foote’s “historical novel”, after Burns based most of his documentary of Foote’s book his head became so full of himself watching his lectures is like watching a child’s report based on emotion, opinion, and anything but fact.
“Calling out” Shelby Foote is ludicrous. His trilogy on the war has stood the test of time and would not be classified as “bad history.” Revisionism apparently is on the ascendant.
Mr. De Calvert you misunderstand me. The first Civil War books I read that started my addiction were mr. Footes. I would reccommend them to anyone looking to get started in the Civil War. My problem is after ken burns based most of his PBS documentary off them and became a success Mr. Foote’s head never stopped swelling from that pointe on, He was constantly invited as a speaker at colleges ect. and every other author no matter how respected they were if Mr. Foote disagreed with them he would verbally hammer them and not having documentaries of there own they had no platform to fight back. His trilogy is a GREAT starter though
Ed, thank you for your thoughtful review. I have read the manuscript for Will Greene’s upcoming first volume on Petersburg and it is, as you might expect, excellent. I have several new writing projects in mind but need a month or two to catch my breath.
I found your take on Confederate postwar writing interesting. The key is the only people with time and money to write were generals and politicians. Their memoirs are very much like their counterparts in the North in terms of style and general concerns. Both exalt leaders and cause, blame others for defeats, and usually try to take as much credit as possible. Both were creating competing visions and mythologies about the war’s cause and meaning.
The regimental histories had to be crafted by common soldiers and junior officers, and postwar poverty made it very difficult. Even those produced tended to be shorter than the Union accounts. North Carolina, and to a lesser degree Tennessee, were able to craft essays about the regiments and it is not surprising. Both were economically sound after the war, at least in comparison. Mississippi was not.
When the Confederates did manage to craft a long regimental histories, such as the one of the 3rd Louisiana, they were very much like their Northern counterparts in style and content. It is a tragedy we did not get more like those. To be fair, most Union regiments did not have full scale accounts of their military record either.