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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."