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Front Royal Courthouse

Warren County Courthouse, Front Royal, Virginia, Warren County, Virginia.

Richmond Redeemed by Richard J. Sommers

richmond-redeemed-the-siege-at-petersburg-by-richard-j-sommersIn 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.

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From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert

from-winchester-to-ceder-creek-the-shenandoah-campaign-of-1864-by-jeffry-d-wertIn From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864, Jeffry D. Wert charts Union General Philip Sheridan’s victory over Confederate General Jubal Early in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley during the closing months of the American Civil War. Sheridan’s campaign ensured Confederate defeat in Virginia and ultimately contributed to President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection. Drawing on manuscript collections and many published sources, Wert offers vivid descriptions of the battles of Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, Tom’s Brook, and Cedar Creek.

First published in 1987, From Winchester to Cedar Creek explores how interplay of the strengths and weaknesses of the Union and Confederate commanders, Sheridan and Early, resulted in victories for Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. It not only documents and dynamically recounts these events, but it also details the political, strategic, and tactical forces that made the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign so important to the outcome of the Civil War.

As Philip Sheridan’s star rose, Jubal Early’s fell. In June 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent Early and approximately 15,000 men up the Shenandoah Valley to clear Union troops from the area and menace Washington, D.C., in an effort to repeat Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s successes in 1862. Early, however, was no Jackson. Despite early success, by August he was on the defensive. General Ulysses S. Grant sent his cavalry commander, Philip Sheridan, to command all Union troops in the Valley and destroy Early. This is where From Winchester to Cedar Creek picks up the story.

Philip Sheridan was one of the few cavalry commanders who successfully transitioned to overall command of an army. His unique experience allowed him to better integrate infantry and cavalry. During the Civil War, it was considered suicidal for mounted cavalry to directly engage infantry, but at the Battle of Third Winchester, September 19, 1864, Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s cavalry division broke Early’s defensive line with a classic Napoleonic cavalry charge.

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The Last Citadel: Petersburg by Noah Andre Trudeau

the-last-citadel-petersburg-june-1864-to-april-1865-by-noah-andre-trudeauIn The Last Citadel: Petersburg, June 1864-April 1865, Noah Andre Trudeau charts Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Petersburg Campaign, from June 9, 1864, when General Benjamin Butler first attacked defenses around the city, to  April 3, 1865, when Federal troops at last captured this vital Virginia railroad hub south of Richmond. The ten-month Siege of Petersburg was the longest and most costly to ever take place on North American soil.

Within this non-traditional history, Trudeau brings to life these dramatic events through the words of men and women who were there, including officers, common soldiers, and the residents of Petersburg. What emerges is an epic account rich in human incident and adventure, told through various chapters covering all aspects of the campaign. This revised Sesquicentennial edition includes updated text, redrawn maps, and new material.

The Last Citadel is divided into six parts, including a prologue and epilogue. The chapters are arranged into a rough chronology, but this is not strictly a chronological account of the siege. Each chapter uses a different subject to frame the narrative, from the effect of artillery bombardment on soldiers and civilians, the role of newspapers and the press, and even fraternization between opposing armies.

This is a unique and interesting way to look at the battle, drawing from a multitude of primary sources including military orders and dispatches, regimental histories, civilian diaries and letters, newspapers, and more. Trudeau organizes his book well, so that various perspectives never become jumbled or distracting. This keeps each chapter fresh and interesting, like reading a collection of articles rather than a weighty historical text.

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Pines over Five Forks

Five Forks, Petersburg National Battlefield, 1539 Hickory Hill Rd. Petersburg, VA 23803. (804) 732-3531.

Henry House Memorial

Henry House Hill, Manassas National Battlefield Park, 6511 Sudley Rd, Manassas, Virginia 20109. (703) 361-1339.

Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears

chancellorsville-by-stephen-w-searsIn Chancellorsville, Stephen W. Sears charts the 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign, beginning with the recovery of the Union Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Fredericksburg and ending with two armies facing each other in much the same way as before the campaign began. In what was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s most stunning victory, he divided his army in the face of a superior enemy, in violation of basic military rules, and sent Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps around the Union Army’s flank. Jackson’s death, accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers, has been recounted numerous places before, but less well-known is how Union General Joseph Hooker managed to lose a battle that looked so much in his favor.

One of the most stunning takeaways from this book was the Army of the Potomac’s condition after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Desertion, low morale, in-fighting among officers, and expired enlistments whittled the army down to an empty husk. On January 31, 1863, the Union Army counted 25,363 deserters (1/4 of the army!). In contrast, Lee had 91,000 men under his command. Why didn’t he move against the disorganized and demoralized Union Army?

One reason was lack of intelligence. Lee couldn’t be certain how many (or how few) enemy soldiers he faced. Another was lack of supply. Lee couldn’t stockpile enough supplies to go on the offensive with the trickle coming from Richmond. He actually sent 20,000 men south to relieve the burden. So his best opportunity to crush the Army of the Potomac slowly slipped away.

Chancellorsville is above all a vindication of Major General Joseph Hooker. Hooker is usually portrayed as the Union general on the losing end of Robert E. Lee’s most stunning victory. But he was a brilliant organizer and military innovator. Unfortunately, “Fighting Joe” didn’t get along well with his peers. He was outspoken, a rough character, and a middle-aged bachelor at a time when that was viewed suspiciously.

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To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears

to-the-gates-of-richmond-the-peninsula-campaign-by-stephen-w-searsIn To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Stephen W. Sears charts the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Union General George McClellan’s grand plan to march up the Virginia Peninsula and capture the Confederate capital. More men and weapons of war were assembled for this campaign than for any other operation of the American Civil War. For three months, McClellan crawled toward Richmond. When Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces, he drove McClellan back to his ships in seven bloody days. How did this happen? Sears examines the men (from lowly privates to generals) and the politics that changed the course of history.

Major General George B. McClellan was a complex figure. He was an outspoken Democrat who expressly fought only to preserve the Union. He was supremely confident in his own abilities and loved the Army of the Potomac. It loved him back. How then, with over 100,000 men under his command, did he not only fail to capture the Confederate capitol, but fail spectacularly?

Sears’ narrative is unparalleled. His writing is clear, concise, and informative. He portrays a McClellan broken by Robert E. Lee’s aggressiveness–his only thought was to preserve his beloved army from what he believed was a vastly superior rebel force. He gave up strategic ground and countless supplies just to escape. The Union Army’s loss of war material in the campaign was “beyond calculation.”

To the Gates of Richmond highlights many surprising details about this early chapter of the war. Not only did the Union Army employ hot air balloons and ironclad ships for the first time, but some soldiers purchased iron plates to use as body armor (soon discarded for being too heavy). The Confederates had tricks up their sleeves as well. General Gabriel J. Rains utilized improvised explosive devices (land “torpedoes”) to harass the advancing Yankees. The Confederate high command frowned on this tactic, however, and transferred him to apply his particular set of skills against enemy ships in the James River.

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