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Monday, June 29, 2015

Review: A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 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.]
               Recently, in a series of entries in my blog, petersburgcampaign.blogspot.com, I suggested a number of strategies for we amateur historians to employ to add value to our work.  One strategy I suggested was narrowing the focus of a book to the point where its author could more easily research his topic as exhaustively as the standard setter for research, Dr. Richard Sommers, researched his masterwork, Richmond Redeemed An example of this strategy I gave was A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad:  The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864, by David Faris Cross. 
                When Dr. Cross’s book was published in 2003, the dust jacket contained a blurb from me:  “…the definitive account of the Vermont Brigade’s disaster on June 23, 1864…will provide a solid foundation for more general historians.  The story of the vicissitudes of the Vermonters in Confederate captivity is particularly enlightening.” 
                I can still say the same.  Dr. Cross’s book recounts the disaster that befell the Vermont Brigade of the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps on June 23, 1864, at the hands of Maj. Gen. William Mahone’s division of the Army of Northern Virginia.  The book contains helpful maps of the action involved, some sketches by participants, and a frontispiece based on a U.S. Geological survey map of the contested ground.  There are numerous pictures of individual soldiers, as one would expect in a history focused on a portion of a single brigade. 
Dr. Cross methodically depicts the malaise that afflicted the Union command structure that day, one day after the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps had met with a catastrophe several times bigger at Mahone’s hands.  The book moves from strength to strength.  After recounting the fiasco, Dr. Cross follows Mahone’s victims as they made their way to Andersonville, where an unusually high proportion perished.  A physician, Dr. Cross examines the mixture of medical incompetence, official indifference and public hostility that led to the deaths of so many prisoners.  He analyzes the humbug put forth by the official historian of Vermont’s soldiers to make it possible for one of the officers most responsible for the disaster to be elected governor of Vermont many years after the war.  Then Dr. Cross goes on to allocate blame. 
                I do not agree with all of Dr. Cross’s conclusions.  He thinks the Federals ought to have defeated the heavily outnumbered Mahone on June 23, 1864.  I think that conclusion excessively optimistic.  In the first place, the commander of VI Corps did not know that he faced a single division rather than an entire corps.  Secondly, a Confederate flanking maneuver had routed II Corps the day before.  This made the VI Corps commander very uneasy about his flanks.  Expecting VI Corps to have defeated Mahone that day strikes me as similar to expecting a swimmer to defeat a shark.  Mahone, a former railroad engineer, knew the ground around Petersburg as well as any man alive.  The Federals scarcely knew that ground at all.  This is not to say that Mahone could not have been defeated.  He was not invincible.  He met with defeat at Globe Tavern on August 21, 1864, as the result of inadequate reconnaissance.  Hie was roughly handled at Burgess Mill on October 27, 1864, when he charged into themidst of II Corps, which was well positioned to counterattack, and did so very effectively.  About the most that could be expected on June 23, 1864, would have been for VI Corps to support its pickets and possibly inflict a minor defeat on Mahone as he attempted to encircle them.
                Dr. Cross also thinks that Mahone did not perform well that day in comparison with the Federals, given the higher percentage of his casualties compared with theirs.  I think that Dr. Cross has not looked at this from the proper perspective.  When about 6,000 soldiers with the disadvantage of fighting on the offensive inflict 588 casualties on around 12,000 opponents (counting only the two divisions of VI Corps involved—Dr. Cross uses all three divisions of VI Corps and about 18,000 opponents which only makes the matter worse) at a cost of 152 to themselves, they have achieved a very troubling superiority in combat efficiency of about eight to one (twelve to one if there were 18,000 opponents) without even adjusting by a factor of 1.4 for the hasty defensive advantage of their opponents.  The adjustment gives a combat efficiency of about eleven to one (seventeen to one if there were 18,000 opponents).  This is a differential in combat efficiency that the statistical work of T. N. Dupuy in A Genius for War finds only on World War I’s Eastern Front.  Confederates hardly ever attained such an advantage over their foes.  Its significance here is that Grant’s army, at this point, was completely used up.  Almost four weeks passed before he launched his next offensive of the campaign.
                Disagreeing with a couple of Dr. Cross’s conclusions, however, does not mean that he has produced any less of a definitive account of the Vermont Brigade’s horrific experience.  He has done an excellent job of laying the facts out for the reader to draw his own conclusions.  This book is not just a good book.  It is an exemplary book.  It belongs on the shelf of every student of the Petersburg Campaign.

 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Book Review: 'Destroy The Junction' by Captain Greg Eanes, USAFR


[As I prepare to rewrite The Petersburg Campaign, I will review the books I must read or re-read to do the job right.]
                One of Grant’s great strengths lay in that whenever he found himself flat on his face, he picked himself up and got back in the race.  He made about ten thrusts at Vicksburg before he captured that city.  It took him nine offensives at Petersburg to pry the Cockade City out of Lee’s hands.  Grant launched his second offensive at Petersburg a few days after the failure of his first, the initial assaults on the Cockade City.  The Federal general-in-chief planned to invest Petersburg from the Appomattox River below the Cockade City to the Appomattox River above, using two corps of infantry.  He also sent two divisions of cavalry to destroy Burkeville, where the only railroad that would still link Richmond with the Deep South crossed a railroad that ran from eastern Tennessee to Petersburg.  The exploits of Grant’s cavalry during his second offensive became known as the Wilson-Kautz Raid after the leader of the raid, Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, and his second-in-command, Brig. Gen. August Kautz.

                Captain Greg Eanes, USAFR, has written a history of the Wilson-Kautz Raid:  ‘Destroy The Junction’—The Wilson-Kautz Raid & The Battle for the Staunton River Bridge, June 21, 1864 to July 1, 1864.  He has used an eyewitness format with relatively little exposition linking and explaining matters.  His four maps help the reader visualize the raid and three of its four principal fights—Nottoway Court House, Staunton River Bridge, and First Reams Station.  The book contains an impressive amount of original research, and makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the raid.  Captain Eanes delves into the corporate reports of the railroads involved to demonstrate that it took the Confederates only about three weeks to put the railroads back in action, not the nine weeks Wilson claimed was reported to him after the war.  Captain Eanes puts his analysis of the raid in an appendix.  He brings an intelligence officer’s perspective to the raid.
                The eyewitness method employed has its drawbacks though.  The witnesses repeat themselves considerably as they view the same actions from their different perspectives.  In any new edition of the book, Captain Eanes may want to eliminate less vivid accounts.  He will also certainly take a page or two to put the raid in context at the beginning of the book, because his failure to do so leaves all but Petersburg aficionados in the dark about the raid’s place in the second offensive.   He may also want to include the map of the vicinity of Sappony Church from Official Reports, Part 1, page 632. 

                I disagree with Eanes about the purpose of the raid.  He thinks Grant launched it to damage the railroads to the point of forcing Lee to abandon Petersburg and Richmond.  I think the raid reflects Grant’s preoccupation with Chickamauga.  Just the previous autumn the Confederates had shifted troops from Virginia to Georgia to inflict a major defeat on Union forces there.  Grant must have considered that the Secessionists might shift men from Georgia to Virginia if he extended his investment of the Cockade City from the lower to the upper Appomattox, cutting the Weldon and South Side Railroads in the process.  Such Southern reinforcements would have threatened the flank and rear of Grant’s forces investing Petersburg Destroying the junction at Burkeville would slow the arrival of any reinforcements from Georgia. 

                Chickamauga also provides the key to understanding something that puzzles Captain Eanes—why the Federal cavalry raiders focused on destroying the track between Burkeville and Staunton River rather than heading straight for High Bridge on the South Side Railroad and Staunton River bridge on the Richmond & Danville.  High Bridge did not matter—Secessionist reinforcements from Georgia would not take that route to Virginia.  Destruction of Staunton River bridge, which would have taken longer than track to repair, would not have slowed the arrival of reinforcements as much as the destruction of track—ferries could transport reinforcements quickly past the broken bridge to resume their journey by rail on the other side of the river if the raiders had destroyed the bridge and not the track, but reinforcements would have had to march rather than ride over the miles where the raiders had wrecked the track.   
               Despite its minor, easily remedied flaws, though, ‘Destroy The Junction’ makes important contributions to the understanding of the Petersburg Campaign and helps fill a gap in its history.  This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who aspires to a fuller comprehension of the Siege of Petersburg.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

My Answers to an Author Library Questionnaire


Q: Roughly how many books do you have in your collection?

A: Our library contains a couple thousand books.  It includes volumes on the warfare of all eras.  I have fewer than a hundred books on the Civil War.

Q: When did you start your collection?

A:  I began to contribute to my family’s collection while I was in grammar school.  My father had begun his collection, judging from the inscriptions in his books, in the Fifties after he married my mother.  I inherited his collection in the Nineties.

Q: What does your wife think of your library?

A:  Part of my family’s collection belongs to my wife, who is also my law partner.  She comes from Richmond, Virginia.  She is connected with how I began to write about the Civil War.  Her grandmother asked me to trace their family back as far as I could.  In doing so, I found soldiers from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.  I became interested in Colonial Virginia first and collected books on that.  I also acquired volumes on Petersburg, Dinwiddie County, and Brunswick  County, where her ancestors had settled, and she approved of those.  Only when I began writing books about the Civil War in the late Eighties did I begin to collect books about it.

Q: How many times have you had to move with the library?

A:  My family moved as I entered eighth grade and again while I was away at law school in New York.  Some volumes disappeared in these moves, including Three Lights from a Match, an unforgettable group of stories about World War I by Leonard H. Nason.  The first move was in 1984, to cart my collection about five miles across town from my parents’ house to the house my wife and I had bought.  Shortly afterward, my wife and I moved her collection about twenty-five miles from downtown Chicago to our house.  The biggest move was in 1995 to transport my father’s collection across town to my house after he and my mother had died.  The moves across town were easy.  Moving my wife out from Chicago was difficult.  We moved her out on the coldest night in Chicago history, twenty-six below.  The moving van broke down on the Dan Ryan Expressway.  The movers got drunk.  The van had to be towed out to our house.  Her plants died and it seemed to take weeks for the house to warm up, but her books survived.

Q: What's your most prized book?

A: Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg.  It contains the following inscription by Dr. Sommers, whom I regard as the standard setter for research in the field:

To John Horn

The road to New Market Heights runs from Deep Bottom; the road to Peebles Farm runs from Globe Tavern; before Richmond could be redeemed, the Weldon Railroad had to be destroyed.

Richard J. Sommers

June 3, 1995

(The title of the first edition (1991) of The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864 was The Destruction of the Weldon Railroad.)

Dr. Sommers and the Harrisburg Civil War Round Table were kind enough to have me out to talk with them in the Nineties to talk about the August 1864 fighting around Petersburg and then help lead a tour of the August 1864 battlefields I had written about in the first edition of The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864.

Q: Are your books in one room or spread out through the house?

A: Our collection is scattered throughout our house and law office.

Q: How are the titles organized?

A: A bookcase in our living room contains our books on Colonial Virginia as well as the books I’ve written.  Volumes on mountaineering occupy a table in what used to be our elder daughter’s room—she’s now a lawyer in Atlanta.  I am putting my books on the Siege of Petersburg on a shelf in my law office to prepare for a revision of The Petersburg Campaign which will have footnotes, an index and more maps.  Our travel books, mostly Michelin guides, some from my wife’s first trips to France in the Seventies, are collected in our dining room and in a bookcase on our upstairs landing.  Otherwise there is chaos.

Q: What's next on the "To Buy" list?

A: Next on my “To Buy” list is Dawn of Victory, by Edward Alexander, a new book about the closing battles of the Petersburg Campaign.

Q: Do you spend a lot of time in your library?

9) Since almost every room in our house and law office contains books, I’m very often in my library.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts?

10) A book has to be mighty tough for me to put it down.  I’d read a train schedule.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Bryce A. Suderow, Outstanding Civil War Scholar

               Bryce A. Suderow stands high among students of the Petersburg Campaign.  Few know more about his intricacies than he.  Probably nobody knows more about First and Second Deep Bottom.  He has studied those battles for well over a quarter century.  Bryce shares his knowledge of the campaign generously.  He shared his research with me when I wrote the first edition of my book, and he shared his updated research as well as his manuscript on the subject when I wrote the second edition.  He also put me in touch with others knowledgeable about Second Deep Bottom.  Without his help I doubt that I could have understood Second Deep Bottom to the extent I did in the first edition, and to the greater extent that I did in the second.  It is a very difficult battle to grasp, primarily because the accounts of Union corps commander David Bell Birney, Union division commanders Alfred H. Terry and William Birney, and Confederate brigadiers George T. Anderson and John C. C. Sanders either never existed or remain unavailable.  These soldiers occupied decisive points on the critical days of the battle. 

                Bryce did not stop there, though.  Once you get to know him, he drops research on you on topics he knows interest you—without your even having to ask him.  He occupies a central position in scholarship on the Petersburg Campaign.
               Over the years I have employed Bryce as a researcher on other projects, with happy results.  No one was more pleased than I to see him receive the Douglas Southall Freeman  History Award last year.  Few share his passion for Civil War history.  I could not have written a history of the August 1864 fighting around Petersburg without him.  His phone number is 202-556-8483, and his email is streetstories@juno.com.