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Friday, August 7, 2015

Review: Back Door to Richmond and The Bermuda Hundred Campaign

            Two good books came out on the Bermuda Hundred Campaign in 1987 and 1988, respectively Dr. William G. Robertson’s Back Door to Richmond and Dr. Herbert Schiller’s The Bermuda Hundred Campaign. 

            Dr. Robertson provides us with a better summary of the political and military considerations that led to the campaign.  (Grant actually wanted to proceed by sea toward the Confederate communications south of Richmond, but Lincoln and Halleck persuaded Grant that it was politically impossible to leave Washington open to attack.)  Neither provides us with perspective on the recklessness that allowed an amateur to command an army (Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler) at the very time when another amateur (Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks) was nearly losing an army on Arkansas’ Red River   One can only marvel, with Bismarck, that there is a special providence that looks out for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.

            Dr. Robertson gives us wonderful maps, maybe the best I have ever seen.  Dr. Schiller’s maps are curious, leaving out troops we know are present to focus on the troops performing the actions under consideration. 

            On the other hand, Dr. Robertson remains on a mainly abstract plain while Dr. Schiller gives us an abundance, perhaps an excess, of detail.  The 39th Illinois (this is why one should know about at least one regiment—the 39th came from my neighborhood) is an example.  In Dr. Robertson’s book, the 39th (the Yates Phalanx, a fighting 300 regiment) pops up unexplained and detached from its brigage—The Western Brigade of Terry’s division—on the left of Butler’s army on May 16, 1864, and the Confederate maul the regiment.  Dr. Schiller explains mainly in a footnote how the 39th (part of the Western Brigade of Terry’s division) got to the Federal left when the rest of its brigade remained in the Bermuda Hundred earthworks.  I think Dr. Schiller ought to have put this into the text, but nonetheless we know how the 39th got to the Federal left on May 16 and Dr. Schiller has provided a better explanation than Dr. Robertson. 

            Dr. Robertson’s text has very few errors.  There is one misspelling, one use of the wrong number in a verb, one excessively Latinate text, and one redundant text.  I think he should have used smaller words.  Dr. Schiller has practically no errors except for a disconcerting habit of writing in one sentence ‘X’s brigade’ and then in the next referring to the brigade as ‘They.’ 

            Substantially, Dr. Roberson believes that there were an outer, intermediate, and inner line of fortifications around Drewry’s Bluff.  Dr. Schiller, who stood on Dr. Robertson’s shoulders, indicates there were only an outer and inner line.  I suspect Dr. Schiller has the better of the argument here.  More importantly, Dr. Roberson takes the wrong position that Butler was not in a bottle tightly corked because he could have exited the Bermuda Hundred position by multiple alternative routes.  .Dr. Schiller explains correctly that for the purposes intended by Grant at the beginning of the campaign—investing Richmond from the south—Butler was indeed in a bottle tightly corked. 

            Another difference: Dr. Robertson explains much better the end of the Bermuda Campaign than does Dr. Schiller, who cuts it too short.  Butler’s raid on Petersburg June 9, 1864, fatally hindered the attack on the Cockade City June 15, 1864.

            The bottom line: we have two fine books about the Bermuda Hundred campaign, and any student of the campaign of 1864 must read both.

John Horn

Author, The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864

_____, The Petersburg Campaign, May 1864-April 1865

Co.ed, Civil War Talks: The Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans