Monday, March 24, 2008

Greene: "The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign"

[The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion by A. Wilson Greene (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2nd Ed., 2008). Cloth, 32 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, appendices. Pages main/total: 389/592 ISBN: 978-1-57233-610-2 $49.95 ]

Considering its extended duration and multi-faceted significance, the 1864-65 Petersburg Campaign continues to be short shrifted in the Civil War literature. One fine popular overview exists, along with a number of H.E. Howard series volumes and Richard Sommers's massive history of Grant's Fifth Offensive1. Covering the period March 25 - April 2, 1865 in vast military detail, A. Wilson Greene's Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion is very much in the tradition of Sommers. First published in 2000 to high regard, Greene's study has now been reprinted by University of Tennessee Press [note: the title & subtitle have been reversed between editions].

Greene's overview of the Petersburg Campaign leading up to its final decisive week includes an intimate portrait of the officers and men of Union General Horatio Wright's VI Corps, and also of their primary opposition, the Confederate divisions of Generals Cadmus Wilcox and Henry Heth (III Corps). The author's research into Confederate subsistence during the 1864-65 winter months led to the interesting conclusion that the extreme privation so often repeated in later histories was by no means universal in the southern camps. The issue of increasingly rampant desertion from Army of Northern Virginia during this period is also examined.

A number of battles [Ft. Stedman, Jones's Farm, McIlwaine's Hill, Lewis's Farm, White Oak Road, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks2] contributed to overall Union victory during the decisive week preceding Petersburg's fall, but Greene concentrates his attention on Wright's breakthrough on April 2nd. While preceding battles defeated and isolated a large proportion of Lee's army west of the city (and forced the Confederates in the trenches to thin their lines to one man every five to six feet to make up for the loss in strength), the author makes the argument that the VI Corps attack was most immediately decisive, "breaking the backbone" of the Petersburg defenses and leading to their evacuation that very night. The specific point is arguable, and perhaps the distinction is ultimately irrelevant, but Greene abundantly supports his contention3. In terms of the results of the April 2 fighting, the author, citing the arrival of fresh Confederate brigades and the disorganization and exhaustion of the Union attackers, is not highly critical of Grant's decision to suspend the attack late in the day.

Utilizing a truly monumental collection of source materials, Greene's masterful reconstruction of the fighting on April 2nd -- the dramatic and thematic centerpiece of his study -- is written from a variety of viewpoints ranging from privates to generals. The depth of detail within the narrative is marvelous to behold (almost overwhelming, really), but the transitions were quite easy to follow throughout. Clarity is greatly aided by the high number and quality of the cartography [by George Skoch]. Maps depicting the movements and fighting on the 2nd are often at regimental scale, and include appropriate terrain and battlefield landmarks. Brigade and division-scale maps of the battles fought prior to 'The Breakthrough' provide equally useful visual overviews.

A large portion of the text (120 pages) is devoted to Greene's insightful explanatory notes. Appendices include orders of battle and a brief discussion of the current state of the various battlefields covered in the text. An extensive bibliography and detailed index complete the volume.

Exhaustively researched and composed, A. Wilson Greene's4 The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign is a military study almost epic in scope and an essential addition to the campaign literature. Readers overwhelmed by Richard Sommers's magisterial Petersburg work Richmond Redeemed may find Greene's manuscript similarly daunting, but dedicated students will revel in its depth and richness of detail. Very highly recommended.

1 - Noah Andre Trudeau, The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865. Other short overviews exist as well, of course, along with works dealing with various aspects of the Crater battle. I haven't read any of the Petersburg-related volumes from the H.E. Howard series, but if the normal pattern recurs, quality is likely to be a mixed bag. Richard J. Sommers, Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg.
2 - While not recounted at the micro level accorded the actions on April 2, detailed overviews of all of these battles are provided in the text (supported by numerous maps) along with contextual analysis.
3 - The VI Corps attack on April 2nd has no formal name, but Greene proposes the proper noun "The Breakthrough".
4 - For a broadly inclusive view of Petersburg's wartime experience, see Greene's later work Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War

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