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Saturday, September 2, 2017

"On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15," 1864, by Gordon Rhea

Gordon Rhea’s multi-volume history of the Overland Campaign is the first place to look if you want to know something about that campaign.  The volumes are well researched and give the reader plenty of individual perspectives on the battles they describe.  I read and enjoyed most of the fifth and final volume, On to Petersburg, in manuscript and the final chapter in a pre-publication copy.  My principal regret is that it is said to be the final volume.  It stops on June 15, 1864.  Maybe we can persuade Mr. Rhea to produce a sixth volume on the next three days of assaults on Petersburg.  Technically, the Siege of Petersburg did not begin until the evening of June 18.  I’d love to see the initial assaults depicted with this degree of research into original manuscripts.  That was one of the things I thought lacking in the most recent history of the assaults on Petersburg, Sean Chick’s The Battle of Petersburg.

On to Petersburg describes what may have been Ulysses S. Grant’s most brilliant achievement, his crossing of James River, as well as one of his worst lapses, his failure to coordinate the June 15 attack on Petersburg.  Rhea correctly gives Grant the credit due for the former and the blame due for the latter.

I differ with some of the judgments in the book’s Epilogue.  Rhea does not defend Grant adequately on the charges of butchery for the Overland Campaign.  Grant did not want to conduct an overland campaign--or a siege of Petersburg, for that matter.  Those who complained that he might have gotten his men to James River without any losses were unaware that he originally intended to do precisely that—his initial plan was to move his army by sea to Suffolk and march into North Carolina.  (Horn, The Petersburg Campaign, June 1864-April 1865, 14.)  For Grant to move to James River by sea was politically impossible for the Lincoln administration because it amounted to an admission that McClellan, Lincoln’s likely opponent in the November election, had been right in moving the Army of the Potomac by sea in 1862.  Lincoln bears responsibility for the bloodshed of the Overland Campaign as he did for the relatively slow start of the Atlanta Campaign—thousands of men Sherman expected to have at the start of the Atlanta Campaign were diverted and almost lost in April’s Red River Campaign, chasing hot cotton.  It speaks volumes for Grant’s loyalty to Lincoln that the general never said or wrote a word attempting to shift responsibility for the bloodshed of 1864 to where it belonged.

Nashville, Tenn., January 19, 1864.
Major General H. W. HALLECK,
General-in-Chief of the Army, Washington, D. C.:
GENERAL: I would respectfully suggest whether an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond is not advisable, and in lieu of these one be taken farther south. I would suggest Raleigh, N. C., as the objective point and Suffolk as the starting point. Raleigh once secured, I would make New Berne the base of supplies until Wilmington is secured.
A moving force of 60,000 men would probably be required to start on such an expedition. This force would not have to be increased unless Lee should withdraw from his present position. In that case the necessity for so large a force on the Potomac would not exist. A force moving from Suffolk would destroy first all the roads about Weldon, or even as far north as Hicksford. From Weldon to Raleigh they would scarcely meet with serious opposition. Once there, the most interior line of railway still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would then have, would be so threatened as to force him to use a large portion of his army in guarding it. This would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee. It would throw our armies into new fields, where they could partially live upon the country and would reduce the stores of the enemy. It would cause thousands of the North Carolina troops to desert and return to their homes. It would give us possession of many negroes who are now indirectly aiding the rebellion. It would draw the enemy from campaigns of their own choosing, and for which they are prepared, to new lines of operations never expected to become necessary. It would effectually blockade Wilmington, the port now of more value to the enemy than all the balance of their sea-coast. It would enable operations to commence at once by removing the war to a more southern climate, instead of months of inactivity in winter quarters. Other advantages might be cited which would be likely to grow out of this plan, but these are enough. From your better opportunities of studying he country and the armies that would be involved in this plan, you will be better able to judge of the practicability of it than I possibly can. I have written this in accordance with what I understand to be an invitation from you to express my views about military operations, and not to insist that any plan of mine should be carried out. Whatever course is agreed upon, I shall always believe is at least intended for the best, and until fully tested will hope to have it prove so.
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

OR, Series I, Vol. 33, 394-395.
When it comes to analyzing who won and who lost the Overland Campaign, I think it would be better not to analyze the Overland Campaign alone but to step back and look at the Virginia Campaign of 1864 and the national campaign of 1864.  Grant lost and Lee won the former because he neither destroyed Lee’s army nor captured Richmond.  Grant won and Davis lost the latter because Grant’s subordinate Sherman captured Atlanta.

But judgments are easy to make.  Facts are tough to ascertain.  Rhea has done most of the heavy lifting in determining the facts about this famous campaign.