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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Petersburg Canon, Part VIII: Grant's Sixth Offensive, October 1864

The third of the three consecutive books on the Siege of Petersburg that each cover one of Grant’s offensives is Richmond Must Fall, by Hampton Newsome.  This book covers Grant’s sixth offensive at Petersburg, and indeed a little more—some of the aftermath of Grant’s fifth offensive.  Hampton captures unforgettably the dismal atmosphere of late October 1864.  He provides us with detailed accounts of the fighting on October 7, October 13, and—most importantly—October 27, 1864, Grant’s last grasp at Richmond before the November election.  The maps he has drawn are excellent.  His opinions are judicious.  Richmond Must Fall belongs on the shelf of every student of the Siege of Petersburg.  I only wish he had allowed me to be of more help to him, though I doubt I could have been as much help to him as he has been to me.  Hampton drew the maps for my book The Siege of Petersburg:  The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864.  He has drawn the maps and diagrams for my next book, on the 12th Virginia Infantry, which fought at Burgess Mill south of the Appomattox on October 27.  He read the manuscripts of both these books and provided very sensible editorial advice—he’s an outstanding editor as well as a masterful writer.  I hope I have not diverted him too much from his own work—his next project is a book about the Confederate counteroffensive on the North Carolina coast in the spring of 1864.  He really knows his stuff about the Siege of Petersburg, because he took the lead in editing (with John Selby and myself) Civil War Talks:  Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans (2012), possibly the most important book on the siege since Bernard’s War Talks of Confederate Veterans (1892).  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Tip on Illustrations

An observation.  I'm working on the illustrations for my history of the 12th Virginia.  I have come across enough portraits of soldiers (of which I was unaware) while looking for other things that I may have to google every soldier in the roster--all 1532 of them.  If you are writing a biography or a history of an action or a campaign, you may want to google every soldier you mention in your text.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Petersburg Canon, Part VII: Grant's Fifth Offensive, September 1864


                A single book covers the next of Grant’s offensives at Petersburg, his fifth.  This book is Richard Sommers’ Richmond Redeemed.  It still sets the standard for scholarship among books on the Siege.  Dr. Sommers looked up practically every source, published and unpublished, in his research for this book.  He did it the old fashioned way, by writing to or visiting many, many repositories.  He did not have the benefit of the extensive digitalization of sources in the past few years.  Hats off to Dr. Sommers!  I have thought long and hard about how an amateur historian can attain the standard Dr. Sommers has set, and the only path that seems practical to me is to narrow the scope of the project to the point where the research can encompass all available sources.  That means focusing on a brief, limited action or on a small unit.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Petersburg Campaign, Part VI: Grant's Fourth Offensive--the Weldon Railroad, August 1864

After the four books on the Crater come three books, each on one of the following three offensives.  I wrote the book for August, which follows next.

I can criticize my own book easier than anyone else's.  My goal was to make people feel the heat and humidity at Second Deep Bottom, the chaos of Globe Tavern, the desperation of Second Reams Station.

As I work on other projects and improve as an historian, I see more things I could have done.  If I had it to do over again, I'd start by describing the failed Confederate attempt at destroying the Deep Bottom bridgehead.  ;This would involve the navies.  Cornell has a handy website.

I've described my errors.  Pond's brigade charged five deep, not eleven deep, at Fussell's Mill on August 16, 1864.  The Wilson-Kautz Raid affected Confederate rail transportation until mid-July 1864, not September 1864.

I'd also draw more upon newspaper accounts and manuscript sources available online.  Hampton Newsome, an outstanding editor, encourage me to look at newspapers more than I already had in regard to the book I'm completing on the Petersburg Regiment, the 12th Virginia Infantry in Weisiger's Brigade of Mahone's Division.  Here's an example of what I would have found:

Privates George William May of the Petersburg City Guard and Alexander M. Miles of the Petersburg Old Grays, in Petersburg that day, learned that the regiment was going out to fight.  They grabbed their Enfields and hotfooted it out of town together to join the 12th.  Rushing into the belt of woods north of the Globe Tavern clearing swept by Colquitt’s and Clingman’s brigades, they joined the pandemonium prevailing there as small bands of soldiers of both sides rushed this way and that, capturing, escaping and recapturing one another.  In the thicket, May and Miles saw a party of Federals advancing towards them.  Thinking that retreat would lead to death while standing and fighting would result in captivity, the two Virginians ducked behind some trees and conferred.  They resolved on bluffing the bluecoats.
When the Unionists arrived within hearing, May stepped forward and demanded their surrender.  He told the Yanks that he had a regiment behind him while another was bearing down on their flank.  Some of the Unionists threw down their arms immediately, but the officer leading them hesitated.  Hidden in the underbrush, Miles made enough noise to suggest a lot of Confederates advancing.  The threat of overpowering numbers silenced the officer.  The whole party lay down their arms and marched in double file to where May stood.  May placed himself at the head of the column.  Miles came out of the timber and posted himself at the column’s rear.  The two Virginians led the Northerners within Confederate lines.  They had taken prisoner a captain, a lieutenant and twenty-five privates whose chagrin knew no bounds when they discovered the deception.[1]

I'd also ask Hampton for more of his excellent maps.






[1] The Daily Confederate (Raleigh, N.C.), August 26, 1864; The Chattanooga Rebel (Griffin, Ga.), September 3, 1864.  Both versions mistakenly name George Henry May instead of George William May, both of whom belonged to the Petersburg City Guard, but George Henry May had died on May 22, 1863 from his Second Manassas wound.  Henderson, 12th Virginia Infantry, 140.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Thanks, Greater Orlando Civil War Round Table!

Thanks, Greater Orlando Civil War Round Table, for the pleasant reception you gave my wife and me Thursday night, March 23.  My talk was on the 12th Virginia Infantry, the Petersburg Regiment, on August 19, 1864, during the battle of Globe Tavern.  Mahone's brigade, of which the 12th was a part, squared off against White's (formerly Ledlie's) division of IX Corps in a very intense fight east of the main struggle.

We had arrived the day before at Winter Park, just north of Orlando, after stays at Jekyll and Little St. Simon's Islands.  Winter Park is a very pleasant town that has a museum which includes the largest existing collection of the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, who made the stained glass windows that commemorate the Confederate dead in Petersburg's Blandford Church--the brick church on Crater Road (formerly Jerusalem Plank Road).  One of my wife's ancestors contested title to some of the church's property prior to the Revolutionary War, but lost.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Petersburg Canon, Part V: Grant's Third Offensive at Petersburg

There are four main books on The Crater, the culmination of Grant’s third offensive at Petersburg.  They all cover, in varying degrees of detail, Hancock’s thrust north of James River to threaten Richmond and draw Confederates away from the Cockade City, maximizing the chances for success when the mine was exploded.

The first is “The Horrid Pit,” by Michael Kavanaugh and William Marvel.  This book was written before the internet brought so many original and published regimental sources so accessible but it is still an excellent introduction to the subject.

I thought Richard Slotkin’s “No Quarter” was particularly disappointing for its many errors, given that it came from a major publishing house.  It brings little to the party.

John Schmutz’ “The Battle of the Crater” brings to light some new unpublished material, but it still needs significant editing.

If I were limited to reading one book about The Crater, it would be Earl Hess’ “Into the Crater,” which has particularly good maps and brings new unpublished material to light. 

There is still plenty of unpublished material on The Crater that has not been integrated into a major book on the subject.  A systematic search of newspapers probably would bring more to light.  A definitive book on this terrible struggle has therefore not yet been written.

My take on The Crater is that the layout of the June 18 Confederate line affected the battle significantly.  Meade was right that Pegram’s Salient was a poor location for the mine because the salient stood between two higher points.  Grant appears to have failed to convey to Burnside the experience gained from mines exploded at Vicksburg.  Meade’s interference with Burnside’s plan and Grant’s support of Meade after letting Burnside go so far violated fundamental principles of management.

Next—beyond the Crater.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Petersburg Canon, Part IV: Grant's Second Offensive at Petersburg

Grant's second offensive, which involved the most ambitious movement of the entire siege, lacks its own book.  Despite that, two books cover actions that form part of Grant's second offensive.  I found them compelling enough that I set out to write a book on the same scale.

The books I speak of are Dr. David F. Cross' A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 2864 (Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane Publishing Co., Inc., 2003), and Capt. Greg Eanes' 'Destroy The Junction,' The Wilson-Kautz Raid & The Battle for the Staunton River Bridge:  June 21, 1864 to July 1, 1864 (Lynchburg, Va.:  H. E. Howard, Inc., 1999.    

Dr. Cross' book adopts the strategy of focusing very narrowly to master the material.  I think it succeeds.  The book focuses on the ordeal of the Vermont Brigade of VI Corps on June 23, 1864, and thereafter in Southern prison camps.  I find the book, its sources and its maps very helpful.  

Captain Eanes' book reads as an eyewitness history.  It seems repetitive at times but grows on you.  The maps could be better, but the sources are most helpful.  Eanes corrects the story that the Wilson-Kautz interrupted rail traffic to Richmond for months; instead, trains to the Confederate capital resumed within about three weeks.  

Two or three books on a similar scale remain to be written.  The first one or two would be on the fighting west of the Jerusalem Plank Road on June 21 between II Corps and the Confederate cavalry and on June 22 between II Corps and Mahone's Division.  II Corps performed as poorly as it did in August, which is very poorly indeed.

The other book, if a book indeed is merited rather than just an article, would be on the abortive Confederate attack of June 24, 1864, near where another Confederate attack took place on March 25, 1865.  

The Cross book and the Eanes book were written before internet research sites truly blossomed.  Anyone writing about June 21, June 22 or June 24 should look closely at the many public domain memoirs and unit histories as well as invaluable newspaper sites such as newspapers.com and chroniclingamerica.com.