Dr. Richard Sommers, In Memoriam: “America has lost a great historian”

Dick Sommers and Steve Phan
Dick Sommers (left) and Steve Phan

Word spread through the Civil War community yesterday of the death of Dr. Richard Sommers, senior historian at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, PA. ECW welcomes back guest author Steve Phan, who shares this remembrance.

Dr. Richard J. Sommers, “one of the leading deans of the Civil War, passed away quietly at his home this morning,” reported the Hershey Civil War Round Table and other outlets. Word spread quickly of Dr. Sommers’ passing; many of his close associates and colleagues shared heartfelt reminisces and dedications on social media. Due to work projects, I did not hear about his death until late in the afternoon on April 14, 2019. Ted Alexander, former historian at Antietam National Battlefield and “a friend of Dr. Sommers for four decades,” shared the somber news, remarking that he owed any of his success to his friend and mentor, and that “America has lost a great historian.” Mr. Alexander’s thoughtful tribute inspired my own personal reflection of Dr. Sommers.

The scene was set at a fitting location: Petersburg, Virginia. It was summer 2013. I was interning for the National Park Service at Richmond National Battlefield Park, and due to a shortage of housing, I was roomed at Petersburg National Battlefield. The travel and housing difficulties proved to be a blessing. Each evening, as the sun began to set across the battlefield, my colleagues and I adventured along the Western Front. These excursions, through sod-covered earthworks and the seemingly endless expanses of no-man’s land, inspired an insatiable appetite for published works covering the 10-month campaigns around Petersburg.

A park ranger, understanding my deep interest in tactical studies, suggested I embark on the long but fruitful journey: reading Dr. Sommers’ Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg, The Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff and Poplar Spring Church, September 29 – October 2, 1864. First published in 1981, Sommers’ magnum opus, some 670 pages, covers General Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifth Offensive to capture the critical city and railroad center connecting Richmond to the southern Confederacy. I was warned that it was not light reading.

By happenstance, I came across a used copy of work at a bookstore in Gettysburg. From there, I began reading a page here and there during the remainder of my internship. It was not until I returned home to Colorado that I dedicated the time and focus necessary to fully comprehend the study. It became a mesmerizing experience. Dr. Sommers’ attention to detail is unrivaled, but it is his assessments of the tactical and strategic issues pressing the commanders that are most insightful aspect of the work. One reviewer noted that he “could not stop reading this book.” Make that two of us. After completing the book, I realized that this is the type of military history and historian worthy of emulation.

It was an unexpected surprise. I will freely admit that I was star-struck. In September 2019, I was invited to speak on the Civil War Defenses of Washington at the Harrisburg Civil War Round Table in Pennsylvania. After preparing my notes and PowerPoint, I was introduced to the group’s members around the banquet hall—and there he was. Dr. Richard J. Sommers, resplendent in Civil War tie, graciously introduced himself and his wife Tracy. It was an unforgettable moment. We had dinner before the presentation where we discussed the capital defenses, the new edition of Richmond Redeemed, and his 43-year career as the senior historian at the U.S. Army Military History Institute/U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. After the lecture, Dr. Sommers joined several of us during the round table’s post-session discussion. I recall his knowledge on the Defenses of Washington, particularly their connection to the field armies, during the chat. He was affable and warm throughout. It elevated a memorial experience to one I shall never forget.

I last saw Dr. Sommers and Mrs. Sommers this past November in Gettysburg during Remembrance Day at a book signing. I was honored that he even remembered my name as we chatted—I happened to be fully kit in my 5th New York Infantry “Duryee’s Zouaves” uniform—and he remarked how grand a target I would make in the field. It was a good chuckle for both of us. He signed my copy of Challenges of Command in the Civil War: Generalship, Leadership, and Strategy at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Beyond, Volume I: Generals and Generalship, (2018). From there, we joked about his ever-expanding collection of Civil War ties—he happened to own every tie sold in the store—his fragile health, work-related projects, and the next time we would meet. He was unsure but suggested that we meet at the Army Heritage Center in the future.

News of his death make this reflection quite somber. Dr. Richard J. Somers was an inspiration for multiple generations of historians, research, students, and many others. I have no doubt that I speak for many who are honored to have cross paths with him. My interactions with Dr. Sommers occurred just twice, over the span of 8-months, but were special. These moments will be indelible marked. I believe he will look done and see the Civil War tee worn at the next lecture in his honor.

I extend my sincerest condolences to his wife Tracy and their families.

Rest easy, Dr. Sommers.

11 Responses to Dr. Richard Sommers, In Memoriam: “America has lost a great historian”

  1. How sad to learn of the passing of Dr. Sommers…
    For those not aware, Dr. Richard Sommers engaged in many excellent discussions regarding U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Gettysburg… and these can be found on YouTube by searching for “Richard Sommers Civil War.”
    Thank you for the fitting tribute to this remarkable man.

    1. One of his talks that aired on C-SPAN is a must-watch for anyone who gives programs on the Civil War – https://www.c-span.org/video/?322035-1/discussion-siege-petersburg. He takes a very complicated issue and does a fantastic job whittling it down in a presentation of just over thirty minutes. Note how there’s just as much Q&A time as lecture. It’s not a good sign if you wrap up a talk and no one has any questions. Doesn’t mean you covered everything, but that you burned people out on the topic. His Petersburg leadership talk is one of the best I’ve heard.

  2. Outstanding tribute, Steve. You speak for many – myself included.

    I’d only add two things. First was his encyclopedic knowledge of US military history, gained over a lifetime of study and service to the nation at Carlisle. The second is his complete willingness to share any and all of this knowledge to all comers. He was a public historian in the complete sense of the word. And a true gentleman to boot.

    I shall miss him.

  3. His book started me back into reading more complex microhistories of the Civil War Era. It was also the first time I had ever read anything positive about Ben Butler. Godspeed!

  4. He was one of the finest men I have met. I had written a book on Fort Harrison, of which he was the expert. He came to me, bought a copy, and asked me to sign it. So gracious… what a gentleman! I have never forgotten his act of kindness.

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