The Petersburg Campaign Volume I – Edwin Bearss

The Eastern Front Battles, June-August 1864

When you have a big pile of Civil War books like I do, you start to notice that some subjects are less favored than others.  For every three or four Gettysburg books, there may be only one or two on some lesser battles in the West.  But in the normally favored Virginia region, with Robert E. Lee, there is a huge gap in the historiography from June 1864 to March 1865.  Then things pick up for the final campaign to Appomattox.

Why is this?  Well you might think that nothing happened, or the battles were unbalanced.  But there are plenty of books on Fredericksburg and the Mud March, which didn’t even result in a battle.  I even have a book on the Mine Run campaign in 1863, which didn’t even result in any battle at all.

So why the neglect?  Partisans of both sides have much to want to avoid discussing.  For the Northerner, the campaign is disappointing because despite gaining the whip hand at the start during the crossing of the James and being able to keep the pressure on by attempting to cut the railroads several times, the tactical engagements were disastrously costly.  This is because the Army of the Potomac, always a hard-luck outfit, had been so worn down by the Overland campaign that both officers and men were doing very poorly indeed.

Normally, this would be a recipe for Rebel joy, but the fact that Lee came within an ace of losing the war on the first movement and remained pinned to the lines for the duration leaves a bad taste in the mouth for them as well.  So both sides just skip the period and move on.

By the next spring, Grant had reshaped the character of the Army of the Potomac and James into the kind of army that he had used in the west to defeat the Confederates.  And in the first movement of the spring, the CSA finally was not able to crush the flanking force, but instead were crushed themselves and both Petersburg and Richmond fell.  And the army was skilled enough to keep up the pursuit, inflicting other defeats until Lee was trapped and had to surrender.

The Initial Strike

The book itself is a compilation of Bearss’ notes over his career with some additional chapters and comments added by Bryce A. Suderow.  This makes the text a bit more episodic than a standard history, but only detracts a little from the book.

It begins with the first days after the crossing of the James, where Grant totally fooled Lee and as a result ‘should’ have wrapped up the war then and there.  At one point the bulk of the Army of the Potomac, some 90000 men was facing a scratch force under Beauregard, some 10-15000.  But the previous month of savage fighting had made the  officers and men too cautious, and the delays meant that only a small bit of trenches would be taken per day.  Eventually, Lee managed to wake up and redeploy enough troops south to secure the city.

Keeping up the Pressure

The pattern then was for Grant to try and move forces left to cut the rail lines and roads from the South that supported the city and the Rebel army.  The pattern was that the initial force would establish a position, get punished by a counterforce, and then retire somewhat and entrench a permanent position further back.  So each time, the Union forces were closer to the key rail lines and roads.

An exception to this rule was the Battle of the Crater.  Again, the results were of a nice opportunity wasted by bad leadership.  Even the southern partisans don’t really enjoy discussing being blown up by explosives and then the subsequent shooting down of the USCT troops.

The END Situation

Despite the losses, by September Grant had been able to cut all the rail lines but one.  A second rail line was usable to close to the city and then wagons could be used around the Union positions.

 

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