A Numerical Study
This was a much more interesting book than I expected. One thing that you notice when you read much on the Civil War is how the information in the Eastern Theater dries up once Gettysburg is over and Lee is unable to run roughshod over the Union. There are a few mumbles about the Fall ’63 campaigns,. a bit on the Wilderness, some on Spottsylvania, then we mumble about huge Union forces until Appomattox, usually in a chapter or two.
The forces and losses also get the handwaving treatment. The CSA records become scattered, the army stopped even pretending to report ‘slightly wounded’ as casualties. And most historians just want to pass over the last year of the war to the ‘good parts’ of peace and reconciliation.
The author Young has spent years trying to get a better handle on the actual casualties of the ANV in the Overland campaign. He uses a few techniques, like reading the rosters of the regiments for entries of wounded, and finding original period newspapers that reported losses for regiments and integrating them into the complete picture.
He has also sharpened the picture of what units joined the army and participated.
What were the results? In this bloody month, the Union lost around 40 percent. But the Army of Northern Virginia lost more. Longstreet’s Corps lost 45 percent, Hill’s Corps lost 42 percent, while Ewell’s Corps lost 67 percent. If it had not been for the addition of numerous reinforcements and replacements during the struggle, Grant might have won the battle of attrition. The checking of the two thrusts at Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley allowed the transfer of new units that gave the ANV the ability to carry on.
But not to carry on like it was. The army would never be able to act with the freedom it had been and fight in the open field against the Army of the Potomac. Ewell’s Corps was shattered, and soon sent off on another distracting Valley campaign and a thrust at the capital, Washington DC. But in the fall it was cornered and crushed by Sheridan and his forces.
While the ANV could use its fortifications to survive and inflict damage on flanking forces around Petersburg, it could never halt or reverse the creeping advance of the Union position. Once the exhaustion on the Union side from the Overland Campaign had passed, and Grant had rebuilt the armies into the sort of forces he liked, the spring saw the breaking of the Petersburg lines, and the relentless pursuit that led to the defeats at Sayler’s Creek and the final trapping at Appomattox.
The book itself isn’t all tables – but about half the book is tables, maps, notes and index. (normal books at this level are about a quarter to a third note and index), Half of the remainder is an overview of the methods and results, while the rest is a brigade by brigade story of the unit and its losses and the changes found. This section in particular was better written and more interesting than I expected. Each section is like a small unit history for the month.
Is this book for everyone? Possibly not, but it does form a nice corrective to the older works that had to work in the preexisting frame of mind. Now you can appreciate the crisis Lee was under during that time, and understand why he might need to expose himself to hold the line in the ‘Lee to the Rear’ incidents, and why the defeats of Butler and Sigel were so important – if those had not been accomplished, Lee might well have been broken on the North Anna or Cold Harbor fields.