Symposium Spotlight: Grant Crosses the James

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reporting by ECW Correspondent Shannon Nichols

Edward Alexander has made a career focusing on the end of the Petersburg Campaign. He’s a former historian with Pamplin Historical Park, which preserves the spot where Federals finally broke through the Confederate line on April 2. He’s also the author of Dawn of Victory: The Breakthrough at Petersburg, a book in the Emerging Civil War Series.

But lately, Edward has been looking at the other end of the Petersburg campaign—its very earliest days, when Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal forces first arrived at the gates of the Cockade City.

This year at the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, Alexander will talk about a key turning point of the war that, he says, often gets overlooked: “Grant Crosses the James.” 

After his failure to break Confederate lines around Cold Harbor, Grant opted to jump the James River on June 14-16 and strike at the Confederate supply lines flowing into Petersburg, just to the south of Richmond.

Alexander first became interested in the topic when he began working with a fellow historian, Will Greene, who was writing a book for UNC Press about the Petersburg Campaign. Greene asked Alexander if he could make the maps that would be included in the book.

According to Alexander, he began to be “drawn toward that part of the Petersburg Campaign” when his “real, in-depth research” about Grant’s river crossing began.

Before Alexander knew it, he was spending his personal time finding books and reading and reading about these earliest days of the campaign. He was not only trying to make the maps as accurate as they could be, he was also researching simply for the sake of learning more. “I was not just copying what Will had done,” Alexander said. “I was researching for myself, and once that project was finished with, I began researching it more and more.”

History has always captured Alexander’s imagination. “I was able to visit a lot of battlefields with my family when we went on vacations, so that’s what really drove my interest in the subject,” he said. Over the course of his early life, he “knocked off almost all of the major ones [battlefields] from Shiloh to Antietam to Gettysburg, down to Chickamauga.” By the time he had reached his senior year in high school, Alexander had basically been to every battlefield possible. This drove him to want to know more and more. He eventually earned a B.A. in history from the University of Illinois.

After obtaining an umbrella of knowledge about Ulysses S. Grant crossing the James, Alexander had a unique perspective on the event as a turning point of the Civil War. “In hindsight, it was obviously the right decision to make, but it was a controversial decision at the time,” he said. The focus of the war for the Federals—and what many people believed would lead to victory—was capturing Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. “The entire focus throughout the war was Richmond, Richmond, Richmond—how can we capture Richmond?” Alexander said.

Besieging Petersburg, then, seemed like an unnecessary detour to many. But according to Alexander, one of the major reasons for the Union’s victory was “more men, more material, and better logistics.” When Grant made the decision to go around Richmond and strike Petersburg, Alexander said, Grant was really striking at the Confederacy’s dwindling supply of men and material.

Said Alexander, “It took not only courage, but logistics, to make a decision that, in the end, proved to be the best decision for Ulysses S. Grant and the Union.”

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Tickets are still available for the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, Aug. 3-5, 2018. Tickets are $155 for all three days. For more information, or to order tickets, see ECW’s Symposium page.

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2 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: Grant Crosses the James

  1. John Foskett says:

    This sounds very worthwhile. My own interest stems from my ancestor Isaac’s role in helping build the pontoon bridge on June 14 as a member of the US Engineers Battalion. In his diary he mentioned something I haven’t seen elsewhere – that after the work had been completed a steamer ran into the bridge and the Engineers had to come back and perform repairs. Yet another example pf how the best-laid plans ….

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