The “Emerging Civil War Series” Series: Dawn of Victory

The structure for Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg evolved out of the battlefield tours I gave while at Pamplin Historical Park. I believe that frequent retelling of the narrative while working on the book benefitted the overall writing process. However, a particular attachment to that specific interpretation produced a certain myopia. In hindsight I found that I minimized or completely left out elements that did not typically make it into my walking tour. Regardless, I am satisfied that few authors—particularly outside of the ECW community—spent as much time on the physical ground of their battle narrative while carrying out its research and writing. That level of familiarity and engagement has been a hallmark throughout the series.

Lieutenant William H. McLaurin provided one of my favorite quotes in his brief regimental sketch of the 18th North Carolina Infantry—yes, the unfortunate regiment who shot Jackson and who were also on the receiving end of the massive VI Corps Breakthrough assault. His prediction on the Petersburg historiography issued a challenge that historians are still attempting to meet. “The story of Petersburg will never be written; volumes would be required to contain it, and even those who went through the trying ordeal, can not recall a satisfactory outline of the weird and graphic occurrences of that stormy period.”

The pitch for my book initially began as a full telling of just the last of forty-two weeks that Grant and Lee’s armies spent at Petersburg. I quickly found that fitting ample coverage of all the combat from March 25 to April 2, 1865—Fort Stedman, Jones Farm, Lewis Farm, White Oak Road, Dinwiddie Court House, Five Forks, Fort Mahone, The Breakthrough, Fort Gregg, Sutherland Station—would not allow me to commit enough time to the aspects that I found most compelling. A quick, digestible summary giving equal treatment to each engagement would benefit the overall study of Civil War Petersburg, but that was not necessarily the book I wanted to write.

My introduction to public history began at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park in 2010, and I particularly enjoyed researching the various bayonet charges of the Union VI Corps—Second Fredericksburg, Rappahannock Station, and Upton’s Attack. Fortune would have it that the first battlefield where I could gain paid employment happened to be the site of that corps’ greatest attack of the war. Therefore, I shunted to the side some of the other stories of the last days at Petersburg in order to focus on the buildup, execution, and experience of that one assault. The good news for myself or anyone else who wants to write about late-war Petersburg is that I could see at least two more ECWS proposals during just this timeframe alone—one on the IX Corps vs. Gordon at forts Sedgwick and Mahone and another on Sheridan and Warren’s adventures in Dinwiddie County.

The revised outline was no doubt influenced by the comprehensive approach to the war as it is interpreted at Pamplin Park. The park’s primary museum exhibit focuses on the common soldier’s experience. I’d bet I quoted Private William Perry of the 82nd Pennsylvania Infantry more than I did U.S. Grant. That’s not necessarily the best research model, but I wanted to tell the story the same way I did at the park. Either way, numerous readers afterward specifically mentioned that they enjoyed a full chapter on the soldiers’ experience in camp over the winter of 1864-1865. I wanted to introduce their stakes before lining them up for the decisive battle, even if it came at the expense of a more thorough strategic overview. Another full “volume would be required to contain” that alone.

I started compiling accounts of the Breakthrough in 2013 and really hit the archives the following year, taking research trips to the Universities of North Carolina and Virginia, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, and the Library of Congress, among tapping a few smaller collections through mail request. Since completing the book in 2015 I have added a significant number of primary sources from the soldiers who fought in the battle to my collection. I don’t have a page count readily available but the VI Corps at the Breakthrough folder on my computer contains 6 gigabytes spread across 2,320 files. So I’ve learned a few things that have changed my understanding of just that portion of the final battles around Petersburg.

The battlefield itself has changed as well since I submitted the final manuscript. Most books in the Emerging Civil War Series contain a driving tour to direct readers how they can visit the sites. I provided individual points of interest but decided against a stop-by-stop tour due to the uncertain access concerns being resolved at the time of publication by the three organizations who preserve and interpret the battlefield—Pamplin Park, Petersburg National Battlefield, and the American Battlefield Trust. Thankfully visitors do have the ability to explore the entirety of the battlefield. They can do so too with a more appropriate historical landscape thanks to a large-scale restoration project assisted by all three entities, including plenty of chainsaw and tractor time from yours truly.

There are ways that I would revise the book should the occasion ever arise. Perhaps pay a little more attention to big-picture strategy and the other combat happening around the VI Corps, even if they could be their own titles. Work in some of the new research I have gathered. There is, after all, a few more pages available in the ECWS books than I filled, but I should note that we barely made it in time for the Sesquicentennial—I received my case of books on March 26th or 27th. Despite wishing that I had cleaned up some embarrassing typos, finalized a proper tour, and provided a summary conclusion (I’m always bad at those, whether it’s on a tour, giving a presentation, or writing anything), I am proud of the work that went into telling the story of the soldiers who fought in the decisive assault of the war.

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Editor’s Note (from Chris)

The first draft of Edward’s book, to this date, remains the cleanest manuscript anyone has ever submitted. The grammar, punctuation, and mechanics were nearly flawless, so the book needed very little line editing. I still marvel at Edward’s technical proficiency as a writer (and that’s not even mentioning what a damn fine historian he is!).

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3 Responses to The “Emerging Civil War Series” Series: Dawn of Victory

  1. carsonfoardsbcglobalnet says:

    I look forward to Mr. Alexander’s elaboration on the issues he has mentioned.

  2. Dave Bieksza says:

    The first book in the series I ever obtained, and later signed by the author.

  3. grandadpookers says:

    It has been too long since I visited Pamplin. Last summer the ECW You Tube videos of the breakthrough, together with some American Battlefield Trust videos, motivate me to make a return trip. I know I will enjoy a rich, updated and informative experience.

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