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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Was Grant more Intelligent than Lee?

Recently I was reading Wilson' Greene's excellent history of the VI Corps breatkthrough that ended the Siege of Petersburg on April 2, 1865.  Greene does a fine job of summarizing the action on the Petersburg front from the arrival of VI Corps to the breakthrough.  Just before reading his summary, I had finished reading four books on the battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864.  After reading his summary, I wondered, what possessed General Lee to approve Major General John Brown Gordon's proposed attack on Fort Stedman, which ended in disaster March 25, 1865?

General Grant recognized almost immediately after the battle of the Crater that fortifications almost held themselves.  Apparently Lee failed to come to the same conclusion.  Why not?

Was this a matter of his perspective?  That is, was this a matter of how he physically looked on the battle of the Crater, from the Gee house a few hundred yards to the west of the Crater, waiting for reinforcements to come up and seal the breachin his lines?

Or was this related to his general failure to understand the change that the rifled musket had made on the battlefield?  That is, was it related to Lee's failure to grasp that the defense now had a much bigger advantage over the offense than in Napoleonic (musket) times?

I fear it was the latter.  Gordon deserves no blame for his unrealistic plan.  He did not participate in the Siege of Petersburg in 1864.  He was fighting in the open in the Shenandoah Valley.  Lee, on the other hand, had personally observed the fighting at the Crater.  He ought to have known better.

One might say that Grant, despite his knowledge of the power of fortifications, ordered an assault all along his lines on April 2, 1865, but he knew that his enemy did not fully man those lines.  Lee and Gordon could not have labored under the illusion that they faced undermanned IX Corps lines at Fort Stedman.  

Monday, January 25, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Review and comments on "Cold Harbor to the Crater: the End of the Overland Campaign"

A little controversy has developed over a book of essays bizarrely titled Cold Harbor to the Crater: the End of the Overland Campaign.  For a review of the book and the comments thereon, click here.  Most of the comments and part of the review concern the strange title--the Overland Campaign ended at Cold Harbor, not at the Crater.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Video of Virtual Book-Signing Oct. 1, 2015, "The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864"

Clicking on virtual book-signing will take you to a video of the virtual book-signing I had at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago on October 1, 2015.  Caution: the first title to appear will be The Civil War in Chicago, which was discussed at the same book-signing.  

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Petersburg Campaign or The Siege of Petersburg?

At first this question might appear similar to six of one or half a dozen of the other, but it is not.

I have written a book entitled The Petersburg Campaign and I address this blog from

Yet I am starting to think that The Siege of Petersburg better describes the fighting around the Cockade City in 1864 and 1865.

I admit that it is not improper to use the term "campaign" to describe the Siege.  Yet "campaign" has annual and seasonal connotations--the campaign of 1863, the winter campaign of 1675, and so forth.  A siege is never limited by years or seasons, as at Troy (ten years) or Candia (twenty years).

I think I was groping my way toward this when I wrote The Destruction of the Weldon Railroad twenty-five years ago, the earlier edition of The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864.  In my chapter on assessments, I pointed out that General Grant had lost the 1864 portion of the Petersburg Campaign (by not capturing Richmond), lost the 1864 portion of the Virginia Campaign (by not capturing Richmond even though the Federals won the 1864 Valley Campaign), but won the overall campaign of 1864 (by capturing Atlanta through his subordinate, General Sherman).

Then, recently, I began thinking about the redoubtable Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, a national treasure as chief of staff of the Army of the Potomac and a perceptive historian as well.  His book?  The Virginia Campaign of 1864 and '65.

The more I thought about his title, the odder it seemed to me.  There were Virginia campaigns of 1864 and 1865.  There was not a Virginia campaign of 1864 and 1865.  The election of 1864 ended the former.  The fighting died down from October until March except for the Apple Jack Raid in December, the Battle of Trent's Reach and a mystery march by Mahone's Division to Hicksford in January, and the Battle of Hatcher's Run in February.  (Of course the Siege of Petersburg was a continuous action from 1864 into 1865.)

The only way General Humphreys could put a happy face on matters was to conflate the Virginia campaigns of 1864 and 1865 into one campaign, The Virginia Campaign of 1864 and '65.  Because Grant lost the Virginia Campaign of 1864 (by not taking Richmond) and won the Virginia Campaign of 1865 (by taking Richmond).  By putting the Virginia Campaigns of 1864 and 1865 together, Humphreys did not have to admit that his side had lost the Virginia Campaign of 1864, a very unpleasant and inconvenient truth.

So I think I will be altering my vocabulary to speak of the Siege of Petersburg, or at least the Petersburg Campaign of 1864 and the Petersburg Campaign of 1865, as well as the Virginia Campaign of 1864 and the Virginia Campaign of 1865.  I will not be accepting the conflation of 1864 and 1865 campaigns into one.

As Humphreys ultimate boss is reported to have said, "You can't fool all the people all the time."

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg" by Dr. Earl Hess

This book probably constitutes the state of the art on the history of the battle of the Crater, though the Marvel/Cavanaugh effort remains a pleasant introduction to the subject and the Schmutz version provides the most detail.  I think it possible to do better than any of these books, but we may have reached the point of diminishing returns.  I count at least six or seven recent books on the Crater.  The next author to take up the subject might do well to begin with the formation of Pegram's or Elliott's Salient.

Dr. Hess, in his introduction, refers to the "constricted parameters of the H. E. Howard series of books on Virginia battles."  Mr. Howard never constricted my parameters when I wrote for him.  Perhaps Dr. Hess has encountered someone with a different experience.

Dr. Hess admirably looks the facts in the eye on Colonel Pleasants, who engineered the mine.  Pleasants had a terrible temper and a chip on his shoulder.  Without them, relations with the engineering staff of the Army of the Potomac would have gone much more smoothly.  As Dr. Hess points out, some of the engineers on General Meade's staff thought highly of the mine.

I think this book has a superior account of the fighting at First Deep Bottom, which preceded the mine explosion to capture Richmond and wreck the Virginia Central Railroad or at least draw Secessionist forces away from Petersburg.

I must concur in result with Dr. Hess' placing the blame for the disaster mainly on Burnside, though Meade and Grant ought not to have interfered with Burnside's plan.  (See my post on whether Burnside ought to have disregarded their orders not to lead with the Colored Division.)  I see the problem of General Ledlie's misunderstanding of Burnside's orders as the problem of unwritten orders that came up so often during the Civil War--for example, on the Confederate side at Gettysburg.  Burnside ought to have given his division commanders written orders that they could not have misunderstood.  Ledlie's ordering his brigadiers to hold the Confederate line rather than advance to the crest beyond probably doomed the attack.

I disagree with Dr. Hess as to the trees Burnside failed to remove, which Dr. Hess thinks was no problem.  The vision of the Federals was limited and Wright's Battery, which inflicted a devastating fire on the Unionists, was screened.

Curiously, this book fails to mention the disruption of Northern formations by debris from the mine explosion.  Most accounts indicate that enough men bolted for the rear that it took around ten minutes to get the troops organized again to advance.

This book has the most helpful maps of any I have read on the Crater.  They convey more information than any others I have seen.

I agree that the Confederate engineers and artillerists were unsung heroes.  They arranged so formidable a killing ground as to have convinced General Grant that fortifications could practically hold themselves.  The South Carolinians of Elliott's Brigade were also relatively unsung.  It was only natural that the Virginians (primarily Mahone's Brigade) involved, many of whom haled from Petersburg, should sing their own praises at the expense of the others involved in stopping the Federals.  Ironically, the people of Petersburg never regarded the soldiers of Mahone's Brigade as highly as they did the militia who helped foil General Butler's attack on Petersburg on June  9, 1864.

I am not convinced that if Captain Girardey ordered Mahone's Brigade to charge, Colonel Weisiger (the brigade's commander) did not.  Girardey was at the left of the brigade, almost 200 yards from Weisiger at the brigade's right.  Both might well have ordered the charge.

In this day and age, with contemporary software, it's just as easy to do proper footnotes as to lump a lot of sources together in endnotes that the reader must connect to various sentences in the paragraph at the end of which the notes appear.  This is not Dr. Hess' fault, though, but his publisher's.

Dr. Hess on page 161 mixes up Private George S. Bernard of Co. E of the 12th Virginia (also author of War Talks of Confederate Veterans and Civil War Talks) with Private David Meade Bernard of Co. E of the 12th Virginia.  George was at the left of Mahone's Brigade.  Meade, George's half-brother and a member of the brigade's sharpshooter battalion, was at the brigade's extreme right.

Whatever flag hung in the Petersburg Siege Museum while this book was being researched, is not the battleflag of the 12th Virginia.  That flag was torn up at Appomattox.

The indexing of the book was poor.  For example, W.A.S. Taylor and the 61st North Carolina each appear at least twice in the text but only once in the index.

Another task for the future historian of the Crater is to compare it with the mines at Vicksburg and inquire into what, if anything, Grant and his staff conveyed to IX Corps at Petersburg--or indeed, what knowledge of mine warfare did such of IX Corps as was at Vicksburg glean?  I raise this question more than twenty years ago in The Petersburg Campaign but no one has ventured to inquire much further--including Dr. Hess, who does little more than mention mine warfare at Vicksburg and that it represented desperation.

Dr. Hess correctly points out how formidable the complex of cavalier, bombproofs, and traverses was--formidable enough perhaps to have foiled the attack even if everything had gone right and Burnside had been allowed to lead with the Colored Division.  Grant might well have been wrong in believing that the attack would have succeeded with the Colored Division in the lead.

Had the attack succeeded and had the Federals taken Petersburg, I think the consequences would have been more dire for the Confederacy than does Dr. Hess.  Two of the railroads (the Weldon and the South Side) supplying Richmond would have been cut and the Unionists would have had a third within their grasp (the Richmond & Danville) as well as the inside track on any Confederate army attempting to retreat southward from Richmond.

So while this book is not perfect, this story has been told so many times recently and well enough here that I wonder if anyone will care to take up this subject again soon.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

"The Damned of Petersburg" by Ralph Peters

I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of Ralph Peters' new novel, The Damned of Petersburg.  I could scarcely set it down till I finished.  In this excellent historical novel, full of insights and different perspectives, Mr. Peters has brought to life the desperate fighting that flared around Petersburg and Richmond in the summer and autumn of 1864, the crisis of our Civil War.  Fine maps display the overall situation, and gripping prose conveys how the fighting felt.  This page-turner is a must-read for Civil War novice and aficionado alike.  Readers familiar with Hell or Richmond, Mr. Peters' riveting historical novel on the Overland Campaign, will be familiar with some of the characters, particularly General Barlow, Colonel Oates, and Lieutenant Brown.  The Damned of Petersburg is expected to be in bookstores and available online this summer.