Thursday, June 3, 2010

Fox: "THE CONFEDERATE ALAMO: Bloodbath at Petersburg's Fort Gregg on April 2, 1865"

[The Confederate Alamo: Bloodbath at Petersburg's Fort Gregg on April 2, 1865 by John J. Fox III (Angle Valley Press, 2010). Hardcover, 7 maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 236/347. ISBN:978-0-9711950-0-4  $34.95]

In his own critically acclaimed book, historian and Petersburg specialist A. Wilson Greene expertly chronicled the final week of the Petersburg Campaign, and meticulously reconstructed the April 2, 1865 day of decision, but John Fox's The Confederate Alamo is the first full length study of the vicious fighting at took place inside and around Forts Gregg and Whitworth, a pair of detached earthworks located just outside of the west-facing stretch of Petersburg's inner line of defenses (the "Dimmock Line"). His book makes a strong argument for the importance of these events, a stand by a small group of Confederates that made it possible for the rest of the Petersburg defenders to escape the rapidly closing federal ring around the city.

The Confederate Alamo begins with the Union 6th Corps's crushing dawn assault on the Outer Line west of the Church Road. The 6th's attack pierced the Confederate trenches occupied by the brigade of James H. Lane, and, in conjunction with the 24th Corps on its left, wheeled to the right and headed toward Petersburg. By midday, only a scratch force of just over 500 Confederates, mostly Mississippians, North Carolinians, and Georgians, stood between the advancing Federals and Petersburg itself. At that time, the western section of the Dimmock Line was essentially undefended, as Charles Field's division would not complete its arrival at the Inner Line until nightfall.

By Fox's best guess, 334 men were available to defend Fort Gregg (with an additional 200 at Fort Whitworth, 700 yards to the north). These men were overwhelmed by three waves of attacks by the Union divisions of Robert S. Foster and John W. Turner. A substantial number of Whitworth defenders were able to escape but Fort Gregg's garrison was surrounded and annihilated, with only 33 unwounded men captured. Near suicidal bravery abounded, with the attackers suffering heavy casualties as well, over 800 killed and wounded. The author reconstructs each of these attacks in detail, supported by regimental scale maps drawn by noted cartographer George Skoch. Utilizing an impressive mass of manuscripts and other primary source material, the author ably incorporated into his narrative the personal experiences of a large number of participants from both sides. As well as later observers, the men at the time realized Gregg's fatal flaw, a north running section of unfinished earthworks beginning at the northwest corner of the fort that created dead space that attackers could (and did) exploit.

In the final estimation, what was the significance of the brave stand at the forts? Fox makes a convincing case the sacrifice was not an empty one, as there is good evidence that a Union attack on the Inner Line at midday could have been disastrous for the Confederates attempting to evacuate Petersburg. As it was, the forts were not secured until 3 p.m., with Generals Grant and Gibbon calling off further attacks until the next morning. In hindsight, the Union leaders made a mistake in halting the attack with three hours of daylight remaining, but they could not have known how lightly defended the Dimmock Line was at the time.

In addition to the maps and photographs, a large amount of supplementary material is located in the appendices. A local driving map and directions are available, as well as detailed orders of battle and casualty counts. The author also attempted to construct an accurate roster of Fort Gregg defenders (labeled k/w/c), taking the step of categorizing the presence of each individual as 'definite', 'probable', and 'possible', with the obvious result that there are more than 334 names included. Some of the controversies surrounding the battle are also discussed, such as the issue of the artillery withdrawn from Fort Whitworth, which unit planted the first flag atop Fort Gregg, and which artillery units helped defend the forts. A list of Fort Gregg Medal of Honor recipients is also provided.

The Confederate Alamo is an impressive demonstration of author John Fox's skill as a researcher and writer of Civil War tactical battle history. Every student captivated by the military historical aspects of the Petersburg Campaign will want a copy of this fine book. It is highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Drew, Thank you again for taking your time to review "The Confederate Alamo." I need to try and figure out who owns the land that Fort Owen sits on and try to see that if it can be preserved. Have a great rest of what's left of the summer!
    John Fox


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