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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864

           Sean Michael Chick has stood upon Thomas J. Howe’s shoulders and written a new history of the initial Union assaults on Petersburg.  In The Battle of Petersburg; June 15-18, 1864, Chick has written more of a page-turner than Howe’s Wasted Valor.  Chick delights in his subject and the Cockade City.

            After a lengthy introduction insightful into the characters of Grant and Lee, Chick recounts Grant’s crossing of the James and initial offensive against Petersburg more vividly than Howe.  Like Howe, Chick mentions in passing the Federal errors that permitted the outmaneuvered, heavily outnumbered Confederates to work a minor miracle and defend the Cockade City successfully.  Given that Chick mentions Albert D. Castel (Decision in the West) at the beginning of the book, I was surprised that Chick did not make explicit the possibility of an altogether different approach to Petersburg—a flanking approach a la Sherman rather than a head-butting approach a la Meade (yes, Meade, not Grant).  Chick leaves this flanking idea implicit in his passing criticisms of Smith for shortening his line on the evening of June 15, of Meade for failing to employ Kautz’s cavalry division for reconnaissance after June 15, and of Meade and Warren for failing to support Burnside on June 17.

            Unlike Howe, Chick analyzes only in passing the causes of the Unionist defeat.  Howe, at least, spent a few pages at the end of his book demolishing the theory of the Cold Harbor Syndrome—the idea that the Federal soldiers could not face the prospect of attacking fortifications after the horrific losses of the Overland Campaign.  Instead, Chick spends sixty pages on a comparatively uninspired history of the Civil War after the failure of Grant’s First Offensive at Petersburg.  Only then does Chick get back on track, and it is to explain why this dramatic battle has drawn so little attention over the years—Grant and Lee were at their “absolute worst” and the battle did not provide grist for the mills of any of the partisans of the postwar mythologies of the Lost Cause or the Just Cause.

            Chick must find a friend who will read his next manuscript carefully.  Misspelled words, misused words, and redundancies appeared too frequently.  For example, “hurtled” is used when “hurled” is meant, and “artillery guns” is redundant.  His friend should have editorial talent as well, because this book rambled on at least twenty percent too long.  There should also be footnotes for every quotation and all statistics. 

            At the heart of this tome, though, remains a riveting story, compellingly told and brimming with new insights.  It also has enough maps to help the reader understand the actions described.  I look forward to reading Chick’s next book.  All students of the siege of Petersburg ought to read this volume.  It certainly added to my knowledge of the subject.

John Horn
Author, The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August
_____, The Petersburg Campaign