Monday, February 4, 2013

Bearss & Suderow (ed.): "THE PETERSBURG CAMPAIGN - Volume I: The Eastern Front Battles, June - August 1864"

[The Petersburg Campaign - Volume I: The Eastern Front Battles, June - August 1864 by Edwin C. Bearss with Bryce Suderow (Savas Beatie, 2012). Hardcover, 23 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 450 pp. ISBN:978-1-61121-090-3 $34.95]

Readers familiar with the Centennial-era works of legendary NPS historian and battlefield guide Ed Bearss will find instant comfort in the content and style of the chapters contained in The Petersburg Campaign - Volume I: The Eastern Front Battles, June - August 1864. During that immensely productive period, Bearss authored a flood of journal articles, books, and internal documents like those now available in this study. In the 1950s and 60s, Bearss was tasked with the creation of Historical Base Maps, Troop Movement Maps, and interpretive aids for many battlefields stretching across all three major theaters of war. Some of these, like the wonderful Wilson's Creek and Five Forks (with Chris Calkins) manuscripts, were published, but others, including the Petersburg documents, remained in park files. This is where Civil War researcher and author Bryce Suderow and publisher Savas Beatie enter the picture, editing and updating the original writings and packaging them in a useful volume crammed with photos and maps.

The content of this first of a two book set begins with the failed attack (Quincy Gillmore's) on the Petersburg defenses on June 9, 1864. Succeeding chapters cover the June 15 - 18 assaults, Jerusalem Plank Road (June 21 - 24), the July 30 Battle of the Crater*, the Weldon Railroad (August 18 - 21), and the August 25 Battle of 2nd Ream's Station.  The writing itself is classic Bearss, clear and straightforward tactical narrative at the regimental and brigade levels. Terrain discussion is brief, but detailed enough to provide readers with a solid sense of how the natural and man-made landscapes affected decision making and conduct of the battle. First person accounts are woven into the text, but layered analysis and extensive background information are eschewed in favor of a more minimalist descriptive approach in keeping with the original assigned task.

In guiding this project along toward publication, Suderow has done more than the typical manuscript editor's job. In addition to transcribing and arranging the text, he applied his own introduction and conclusion to each section and standardized the footnotes. Suderow also bridges gaps in Bearss's coverage of events. For example, the text accompanying June 16 and 17 actions in the "Second Assault on Petersburg" chapter is authored by the editor and effectively serves as both gap filling content and effective transition between Bearss pieces. Complaints include a number of typographical errors and basic math mistakes in the loss tables located in the Afterword. Sequential orders of battle, something similar to what Bearss did throughout his Vicksburg Campaign trilogy, are unfortunately absent here, where they would have been similarly useful.

The 23 maps by noted cartographer George Skoch are one of the brightest features of the book. Together, they comprise a nice map study of the most important events. Relevant terrain features of the Petersburg battlefield(s) are satisfactorily presented in the drawings, as are troop positions and maneuvers (mostly at brigade level).

With much of Bearss's early career material remaining unsurpassed by present scholarship, it is gratifying to see a part of his unpublished work exposed to the public readership for the first time. It's also packaged in a manner worthy of the cause. The publication of this volume is a very noteworthy event for Petersburg students, and the release of the second book later in 2013 is much anticipated.

* - Bearss did not do a Crater history for the NPS, so Patrick Brennan was commissioned to fill this particular gap in the book's coverage.


  1. Thanks for this review, Drew. Such an exciting set for us to organize and publish. It could be Bearss' last original work that will be appear in book form.

    We have other Petersburg-related topics coming, including a complete reformatting/revision of these limited releases in the Howard B&L series: John Horn's Weldon Railroad, Glenn Robertson's early Petersburg attack, and Chris Calkins' pair of books on the Appomattox Campaign.

    Keep up the good work.

    Theodore P. Savas
    Managing Director, Savas Beatie LLC

    1. Thanks for the news, Ted. I would love to see more of the HE Howard books, the good ones that go for top dollar, get reprinted. The pair that comes to mind for me are Bearss's "River of Lost Opportunities" and the book on Cloyd's Mountain.


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