Book Review: Gettysburg’s Southern Front

Author Hampton Newsome explores a little-known campaign and its various missed opportunities in his latest book. As General Robert E. Lee took the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania in June, 1863, Union troops garrisoning the Peninsula had the unique opportunity to strike against a lightly-defended Confederate capital. Newsome examines the events from all angles: Jefferson Davis and Confederate leadership who struggled to shuffle troops to Richmond while still sending every available man to Lee; General Henry Halleck who hoped to hold off Lee but still urged action in Virginia; and General John Dix who headed up the campaign against Richmond.

After General George McClellan’s failed Peninsula campaign in 1862, Union forces maintained garrisons in Yorktown, Williamsburg, Suffolk, and Norfolk. Richmond was not that far from the closest Union troops. Henry Halleck ordered General Dix to gather these scattered forces, the equivalent of two corps, for a strike on Richmond and its railroad lines. This would threaten Lee’s supply and communication lines, and perhaps lead to the capture of the enemy capital.

As his narrative unfolds, Newsome provides a biography of each key player and how their tendencies and personalities played into their decision making. He also analyzes logistics, especially railroads, and why the rail lines north of Richmond were such tempting targets for the Federals on the Peninsula.

The heart of the issue is whether Union forces could manage to engage Lee in Pennsylvania and take advantage of Richmond’s light defenses to capture it. The author provides a good analysis of decision making and consequences as first one, then a second, and finally a third and large Union force set out to target Richmond and the vicinity.

The campaign was intertwined with military and political goals. At the same time Lee was invading Pennsylvania and Dix was approaching Richmond, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens was preparing a peace overture to Lincoln. The effort went nowhere when Lincoln and his cabinet refused to allow Stephens passage to Washington, but it reveals how the Confederates were employing diplomatic means while military efforts were underway.

Newsome details a series of small and one large Union raid towards Richmond and its railroads. African Americans take center stage as they provide intelligence to Federal forces and seek freedom when they depart. Rather than being minor players, Newsome illustrates how they impacted the campaign and played crucial roles in every Union thrust. This in turn created humanitarian challenges that Union authorities had to meet, caused social upheaval among southern civilians, and illustrates the changing nature of the war.

The Confederates managed to shuffle troops from North Carolina and central Virginia to defend Richmond and the railroad bridges. Dix and his subordinates were cautious and diluted their numerical superiority. Unclear orders about the priorities of taking Richmond or damaging its railroads also hampered Union efforts.

The book includes good maps, both of the larger troop movements and of lesser-known engagements.

Readers will gain an understanding of the complexity of troop movements, decision making, campaign planning, and the intersection of politics and policy in wartime. Newsome analyzes events with clarity and insightfulness.

Finally, Newsome discusses the raid’s effectiveness and its legacy. What was accomplished, who failed, and why? He also reviews how participants saw the events and reviews the historiography of the raid. This ties back to the author’s magnificent effort to weave together the events in Pennsylvania, Union raids in western Virginia and North Carolina, and decisions made in Richmond and Washington. Gettysburg’s Southern Front is thoroughly researched, well written, and a pleasure to read.

Gettysburg’s Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond

Hampton Newsome

University Press of Kansas, 2022


Reviewed by Bert Dunkerly

4 Responses to Book Review: Gettysburg’s Southern Front

  1. I, too, thoroughly enjoyed this book. This is excellent original research and sets a high standard for how a campaign study can explore more than just tactics and strategy. If you’ve not read Newsome’s other books, get them along with this one.

  2. I just finished it, and it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently. Such a great deep dive into a little-studied campaign.

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