Historic America Reviews

Richmond Redeemed by Richard J. Sommers


In Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg, Richard J. Sommers meticulously recounts Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifth Offensive (September 29 – October 2, 1864), primarily the Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff (Fort Harrison) and Poplar Spring Church (Peebles’ Farm), against the Confederate defenses around Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Originally published in 1981, the sesquicentennial edition contains new research, new writing, and new thinking with perspectives and insights gathered from the author’s 33 years of teaching at the Army War College and conversations with fellow Civil War scholars and enthusiasts.

The Union attack north of the James River at Chaffin’s Bluff in the fall of 1864 broke through Richmond’s defenses and gave Federals their greatest opportunity to capture the Confederate capital. Meanwhile, fighting outside Petersburg at Poplar Spring Church so threatened Southern supply lines that Confederate General Robert E. Lee considered abandoning his Petersburg rail center six months before actually doing so. Yet hard fighting and skillful generalship saved both cities. Sommers painstakingly reconstructs these events with unrivaled detail.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to read Richmond Redeemed without a general understanding of the Siege of Petersburg or the military situation around Richmond in late 1864. Sommers quickly summarizes these events in the Eastern Theater before diving right into the minutia of Grant’s Fifth Offensive. A reader unfamiliar with Grant’s previous offensives around Petersburg is left scratching his or her head. It is difficult to fully grasp the details of these events without making the larger context perfectly clear. Complicating matters, Sommers switches back and forth between the attack against Richmond and the attacks southwest of Petersburg.

Sommers‘ thesis is that these separate attacks should be considered part of the same offensive, and part of a pattern in which Grant struck simultaneously at Lee’s southwestern supply lines and the defenses around Richmond. In theory, this would force Lee to commit valuable reserves to the defense of one or the other. He could afford to save one, but not both. If Sommers would have divided the attacks into two separate parts, it would have gone a long way toward reducing confusion without taking away from his overall thesis.

That aside, Richmond Redeemed is an unrivaled account of this often overlooked chapter of the Civil War. When people describe something as a “definitive account,” this is what they have in mind. One appendix lists senior officers who participated in the Fifth Offensive by state, grade (rank), and command. Another breaks down casualties by regiment. Sommers gives blow-by-blow accounts of maneuvers and engagements from perspectives ranging from the lowliest private to commanding generals, and his background gives him a unique grasp of tactics. It is truly comprehensive.

Richard J. Sommers, born in Hammond, Indiana, has a B.A. in History from Carleton College and a PhD from Rice University in Houston, Texas. He was the Senior Historian of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center and a professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He wrote his PhD dissertation on General Grant’s Fifth Offensive against Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia during the American Civil War, which he later expanded into his first and only book.

Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg by Richard J. Sommers revised sesquicentennial edition was published by Savas Beatie (El Dorado Hills, California) in 2014. The hardcover edition is 696 pages and retails for $37.95. The Kindle edition sells for $9.99.

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