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Monday, November 2, 2015

Dr. Earl Hess' Invaluable "In the Trenches at Petersburg"


            Dr. Earl Hess has written a book that better than any other conveys the enormous effort that went into the fortifications and mining around Petersburg and Richmond and the terrible suffering that took place in the trenches and mines.  This book belongs in the library of anyone interested in the fighting around those cities in 1864 and 1865.

            After most of the offensives or counteroffensives during the Petersburg-Richmond campaigns of 1864 and 1865 (yes, there were two campaigns, one for each year, but more on that later), the participants improved or extended their lines until the final Federal breakthrough on April 2, 1865 ended the fighting and compelled the Confederates to evacuate.

            Dr. Hess makes as good a case for the use of Ledlie’s division at the Crater as I have ever seen.  He perceives that digging precluded training, and this worked against General Grant.  In making the lines capable of being held by a minimum of men in order that offensives could be launched on the flanks, he denied the soldiers who participated in those offensives training that they badly needed.

            I disagree with Dr. Hess only on minor points.  The fighting around Petersburg and Richmond in 1864 and 1865 amounted to the longest and bloodiest of the war, but it was not the most important of the war.  That distinction belongs to the Atlanta Campaign, which decided the election of 1864 and hence the Campaign of 1864 and ultimately the war.

            I think Dr. Hess’ breakdown of the offensives mostly acceptable, though for the sake of simplicity I incline to stick with Dr. Richard Sommers’ breakdown.  Dr. Hess enters the realm of the silly when he designates the Unionist attack of April 2, 1865 an offensive of its own when it clearly proceeded from the offensive that General Grant launched on March 29, 1865.  One might as well separate the fighting of August 22-25, 1864, from the preceding fighting of August 14-21. 

             Dr. Hess thinks Baldy Smith’s 14,000 overwhelming against Beauregard’s 4,200 in fortifications.  Given that mere field works often allowed soldiers to hold off twice their numbers, I do not see why troops in fortifications supported by artillery ought not to have held off thrice their numbers or more.  Dr. Hess pays little attention to the failure of Hancock’s Corps to attack early on June 16 or Grant’s hesitation in the face of his opportunity to seize the abandoned Howlett Line opposite Bermuda Hundred on the same day.

            He is perceptive about General Hancock’s failure to improve the works at Second Reams Station, but the shooting of the battery horses there happened after Hancock decided to stay.  General Heth arranged the Confederate artillery, General Wilcox the infantry. 

            Dr. Hess mentions only in passing the Secessionist naval foray aimed at City Point January 23-24, 1865.  He appears unaware of the seemingly connected march of Mahone’s Division toward Hicksford and Weldon.

            Dr. Hess seems to think Petersburg was not besieged because the investment was incomplete, but history’s most famous siege (Troy) did not involve a complete investment.  He wonders why fortifications were not employed more often; the answer is that they tended to arise when a fixed point was threatened or had to be protected—such as Washington, Richmond, Petersburg, or Atlanta.  Where there was room for maneuver, field works tended to be left behind before they were upgraded to fortifications.

            Mistakenly, Dr. Hess thinks Grant’s advances of August and September a winning tactic.  Had there been world enough and time, such a tactic would have been winning.  But there were not world enough and time and therefore it was not a winning tactic.  Grant had only until November 8, 1864, the election, to capture Richmond.  He failed to do this and thus lost the Petersburg Campaign of 1864 and the Virginia Campaign of 1864, though on the national plane he won the Campaign of 1864 because his subordinate, General Sherman, captured Atlanta.

            General Humphreys, whom Dr. Hess disparages as a historian but whom I value very highly, cleverly named his book The Virginia Campaign of ‘64 and ’65.  By doing so, he did not have to admit that the Federals lost the Virginia Campaign of 1864.  It looks like one campaign, but the election formed a hurdle that divided it in two.

            As I said, however, these shortcomings are minor.  This unique book is invaluable.  Nobody treats the fortifications around Petersburg and Richmond so thoroughly.