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Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review: "The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor, June 15-18, 1864"

[As I prepare to rewrite The Petersburg Campaign, I will review the books I must read or re-read to do the job right.]

Thomas J. Howe’s Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor, June 15-18, 1864 invites comparison with its subject, Grant’s crossing of James River and his initial assaults on Petersburg.  Comparison favors the book.

                Howe succinctly deals with the Overland Campaign of 1864, its climax at Cold Harbor and the crossing of James River. This lays the foundation for what comes next, a detailed description of the initial assaults on Petersburg by Grant’s army group.  Howe gives us a helping of the facts complete enough for us to draw our own conclusions about why the Cockade City eluded Grant’s grasp.  In passing, Howe touches upon many of the reasons for the failure of Grant’s initial assaults—Baldy Smith’s delays in attacking the nearly undefended city, the failure to feed Winfield Scott Hancock’s corps or inform Hancock in a timely way of his role, the failure of most of Hancock’s corps to advance early on June 16, Butler’s failure to exploit the abandonment of the Howlett Line on Bermuda Hundred, the failure of IX and XVIII to provide substantial support for Hancock’s evening assault, a staff officer’s success in persuading Grant to bring in V Corps on the line of the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad rather than on the Jerusalem Plank Road as Grant initially intended, the dispersal of VI Corps and failure to employ its troops except to support Butler, the failure to use Kautz’s cavalry division to reconnoiter, and the piecemeal attacks of IX Corps and the failure of V Corps to support the successes of IX Corps on June 17.  Howe also gives credit to Beauregard for his brilliant defense of the city, particularly the decision to abandon the Howlett Line and focus on the defense of Petersburg.  By June 18, as the Army of Northern Virginia began to arrive, all realistic hope of success had vanished but the Federals kept up their assaults until near evening some members of Hancock’s corps refused to advance.
                The concluding chapter would have done well to discuss in detail the aforesaid problems, but it focuses almost entirely on debunking the “Cold Harbor Syndrome,” which held that the Federals failed at Petersburg because of the distaste for attacking fortifications acquired at Cold Harbor.  In doing so, the book compares favorably with Grant’s initial movement toward the Cockade City, because that movement did not focus at all for several days after the crossing of James River.  The principle reason for the failure of the Federals to capture Petersburg lay in that the crossing of James River exhausted Grant and his staff.  They devoted almost no planning at all to what would happen after the crossing.  They seemed to have expected Baldy Smith and his corps just to walk into Petersburg.  Everything else represented one improvisation or another.  The orders sending Hancock to the Cockade City appear an afterthought, for example, as do Grant’s orders putting Meade in charge of the assaults on the city on the afternoon of June 16, after the best chance for success had passed.  The book devotes little attention to the Federal failure to outflank the heavily outnumbered Confederates instead of launching an almost interminable series of frontal assaults. 
                Thirteen maps help the reader understand the action.  The book contains numerous illustrations.  Despite the limits of Howe’s concluding chapter, he does effectively demolish the “Cold Harbor Syndrome” and gives the valor of the attacking, as well as defending, troops their due.  Likewise, it gives the reader the facts necessary to form his own conclusions.  The book forms part of the Cockade City Canon.  Howe furnishes solid shoulders for others to stand upon.