If Grant Goes East, I Will Follow…

On November 12, I boarded a plane at 5:30 PM, heading from Kansas City, Missouri to Richmond, Virginia. I did not arrive until 1 AM the following morning. Grant once told Meade, “Wherever Lee goes, you will follow.”[1] Therefore, I intended to follow the research for my dissertation on the Battle of Cold Harbor. Many doctoral students struggle to find valuable resources over their topic, but if they want to be an expert in their field, they need to understand the sacrifice which comes with it. When those sources arise, they should take the opportunity to follow up on that research especially if presented with an opportunity. National Park Historian, Robert E.L. Krick provided me an excellent opportunity to go through the various primary documents. No other historian had been able to visit the Richmond National Battlefield Park archives since March, and I intended to make the most of it. Many doctorate students understand the vast challenges associated with research, but the rewards of it make it worth the sacrifice.        

After five hours of sleep and without dinner or breakfast, I made my way over to the archives. I imagined two floors with nothing but old documents, but rather, it was an office space with a few bookshelves. Nonetheless, I found more than what I could have hoped to find there. Dr. Bud Robertson, a prominent Civil War historian, rightly said that going through the archives is like Christmas each morning, wise words for all working on their dissertation. You never know what you were going to find. Nonetheless, it is significant to find time to rest even if you must set an alarm for it. I did not need an alarm, but my body told me I needed something to eat. After a late lunch and a look around Richmond, I met Dr. Mackowski on the battlefield of North Anna. The battle took place between the two opposing forces of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia between May 23 to May 26, 1864.

Dr. Chris Mackowski and the author at the Fox House

The time went by much too quickly despite being there all afternoon. As we walked along various positions, we discussed differing interpretations of the Overland Campaign and the generals. One position afforded me to view the Fox House. Lee temporarily used the Fox House as his headquarters; it was south of Henagan’s Redoubt and the Chesterfield Bridge. A cannonball almost hit Robert E. Lee at this position. To prevent the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Lee created a trap for the Army of the Potomac. It provided him the opportunity to retake the initiative with a field fortification in the shape of an inverted “V.” Lee stated, “We must strike them a blow.”[2]  The apex of the inverted V was another scenic area as old breastwork remained. Unfortunately, Dr. Mackowski explained that many parts of the battlefield are privately owned and are inaccessible to the public. It made me more pleased with organizations like the American Battlefield Trust, which dedicates their time to preserving battlefields across the US. There is no doubt that all PhD students learn so much from reading so many primary documents, but I would also encourage them to engage with history by visiting historic sites.

Dr. Mackowski offered me the chance to meet with him out at North Anna the following day to participate in a video produced by the National Park Services; it was the most challenging opportunity for me to turn down. I concluded that I need to remain focused on gathering as much research for my dissertation. That meant spending as much time at the archives as time permitted. If Grant could remain solely focused on his objective, then I could remain focused on my dissertation. Graduate students get sidetracked by other work or subconsciously neglect our dissertation in favor of other new interests or projects. However, Dr. Mark Neels, a Civil War historian, explained to me that a good dissertation is a completed dissertation. Doctoral students can work on all those other interests and projects after the main goal of our dissertation is completed.

Breastworks at the apex of the inverted V

The following day I spent most of my time at the archives, and then I traveled around Richmond a bit more before my time was up. I only spent a couple of days in Richmond conducting research but accomplished my objective. The lack of sleep and eating was my own doing. It may sound a bit miserable, but I chose this career and am determined to make the most of it. Most doctorate students would do the same because they are dedicated to their work. Nonetheless, they need to remain focused on their own mental health to prevent burn out and dedicated to their overall objective for success in their program. I could not be more thankful to both Robert E.L. Krick and Dr. Mackowski for providing me with such a marvelous and unforgettable experience. My research is slowly coming along, but I am confident in its ability to add to Civil War historiography in the eastern theatre. I plan on returning soon.

[1] Noah Trudeau, Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May–June 1864, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1989), 29-30.

[2] Gordon C. Rhea, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 344.

7 Responses to If Grant Goes East, I Will Follow…

  1. It’s so exciting to read your progress in this field. And I totally empathize with the no-sleep-no-food part of research. Who can think of sleep where there’s so much to learn and discover! Still, half of progress is self-care, so I guess food is kind of important, haha.
    Keep up the awesome work!

  2. Thanks for the interesting post. I don’t suppose that you learned from Krick the status of his (very) long-awaited book on Gaines’s Mill.

  3. Military history is looked upon with contempt among most of the ivory tower set these days….so good luck and best wishes in pursuit of your goals!

  4. I had the privilege to walk much of the games mill/ cold harbor battlefield with me krick at the 159th. It was awesome

  5. I commend you on your focus and progress in researching for your dissertation. You are correct that visiting the sites and primary sources offer a perspective you cannot get from most books, videos or the Internet alone. As a Grant historian, I wish you luck and look forward to reading your dissertation.

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