Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Newsome: "RICHMOND MUST FALL: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864"

[Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864 by Hampton Newsome (Kent State University Press, 2013). Hardcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:319/456. ISBN:9781606351321 $65]

With a few notable exceptions (among them Richard Sommers's monumental Richmond Redeemed, A. Wilson Greene's study of the final breakthrough, and John Fox's excellent microhistory of the Confederate last stand at Fort Gregg), published book length histories of the battles and numbered offensives associated with the 1864-65 Petersburg & Richmond campaign have been largely confined to slender overviews from the H.E. Howard Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series. This year, a fresh and original work rivaling the best of these has been added to the list, Hampton Newsome's "Sixth Offensive" study Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864.

Like those that came before it, the Sixth Offensive involved movements on two fronts, Benjamin Butler's Army of the James east of Richmond and George Meade's Army of the Potomac against the Southside Railroad southwest of Petersburg. Richmond Must Fall begins outside the capital, with Robert E. Lee's October 7 attack on Johnson's Farm, a clash in large part stemming from the Confederate commander's dissatisfaction with the recent loss of Fort Harrison. After an initial victory by the infantry divisions of Robert Hoke and Charles Field over the farm's Union defenders, August Kautz's cavalry division, further progress against the Federal far right was sharply defeated by the Tenth Corps at New Market Road.   In the wake of the Confederate failure, Butler launched a reconnaissance effort to feel for the strength and extent of the new Confederate left.  The table was set for the Sixth Offensive.

The role of the Army of the James in the Sixth Offensive later that month was not to directly attack the enemy defenses but rather to pin the Confederates in place and prevent them from reinforcing the Petersburg front. On October 27, with Tenth Corps demonstrating farther south, Godfrey Weitzel's Eighteenth Corps swung to the north, pressing the initially thin Confederate defenses astride the Williamsburg and Nine Mile roads. The attacks, exceeding in vigor the directives of Grant and Butler, resulted in high casualties with no tangible gain.  Newsome is quite critical of Weitzel's aggressive decision making, a supportable opinion given the cautious nature of the general's orders, but one might also argue that Weitzel saw a potentially significant opportunity opposite the weak enemy left and exercised his discretion as a corps commander.  Indeed, Confederate success was a very near run thing.

The main operation, to be conducted by John Parke's Ninth Corps, Gouvernor Warren's Fifth Corps, Winfield Scott Hancock's Second Corps, and David M. Gregg's cavalry division, was also intended not to butt heads directly against Confederate fortifications. Instead, the advance would move around the far right of the Petersburg outer defenses, which was falsely believed to terminate on the north bank of Hatcher's Run, and cut the Southside Railroad. Things did not go as planned. Poor battlefield intelligence missed the fact that the Confederate line extended a far greater distance along the opposite bank of Hatcher's Run, and rapid reaction by the Confederates stymied both the Ninth and Fifth corps. Only Hancock's Second Corps and the cavalry were able to cross Hatcher's Run in force (to be later joined by Samuel Crawford's Fifth Corps division). After capturing the Burgess Farm and a short stretch of the Boydton Plan Road, the Second Corps and Gregg's cavalry found themselves isolated from the rest of the Union army, surrounded on three sides -- on the left and rear by the cavalry divisions of Matthew C. Butler and W.H.F. Lee (under Wade Hampton's direction) and in front by a scratch force assembled at the Burgess Mill by Army of Northern Virginia Third Corps division commander Henry Heth. The Confederates were even able to launch an attack of their own, with three brigades led by William Mahone slipping in behind Hancock and in front of Crawford. Mahone's tiny command briefly split the Second Corps in two before being driven off with heavy loss.  Newsome's exemplary account of Mahone's forlorn hope brings to light one of the most boldly remarkable attacks and oddest military situations of the entire war.  I would differ a bit, though, with the author's conclusion that the battering of Mahone served as a redemptive send off for Hancock, as it was very poor flank security that allowed the Confederates to get behind the Second Corps in the first place.  Others have blamed Crawford for this, but Hancock cannot be absolved.  Nevertheless, with their flanking force's freedom of movement shut down, Grant and Meade called off the offensive altogether, and the Union forces retreated.

Newsome's considerable skill in constructing battle narrative from a wide depth and breadth of sources is on full display in this book. Readers of Civil War military studies vary widely in their demands for detail and Richmond Must Fall will disappoint few of the hardcore types. A question one might reasonably ask is why study what was essentially an aborted mission barren of result. Newsome wants readers to realize that the timing of the operation, with the November elections looming, had the potential for grave political consequences. Observers on both sides questioned the propriety of launching such an ambitious operation during the month of October. That being said, the author duly points out that the favorable military and political situation (from the perspective of the Lincoln administration) in the weeks prior to the offensive rendered these fears overblown, at least in hindsight.

The book also admirably serves as a case study for why the Union's Petersburg-Richmond offensives prior to Five Forks failed to achieve decisive results, and sometimes resulted in mini-disaster. Newsome includes a statement from Confederate artillerist Porter Alexander criticizing Grant's strategy of employing dual offensives at opposite ends of the long Petersburg-Richmond line instead of a single overpowering push through and around one flank or the other. The author might have expanded fruitfully upon this pointed critique, but he does explicitly get at the heart of what could be regarded as the fatal design flaw of so many Petersburg offensives. With so much of a given operation's available manpower devoted to protecting the flanking force's connection with the main Union line, the mobile column again and again found itself too weak for the job assigned or to deal with unforeseen circumstances. The Sixth Offensive highlights this perhaps better than most, with 2/3 of the attackers bogged down in front of Confederate lines a short distance west of their launch point, essentially taking themselves out of the battle. Facing only Hancock, Crawford, and Gregg, two Confederate cavalry divisions and a handful of worn down infantry brigades thus were able to turn back a massive Union force of almost 40,000 men. Only when Grant was willing to sever these unwieldy, strength sapping connections would he be able to truly overstretch the Confederate defenders and force the Cockade City's fall.

Richmond Must Fall is an impressive descriptive and interpretive work spawned from prodigious research. Supporting the text associated with each major event is a large number of maps at a variety of unit scales.  Petersburg Campaign students, used to continual disappointment when the seasonal catalogs come out, will find themselves overjoyed at finally encountering a new work worthy of being placed alongside Richmond Redeemed. Not only does it fill a gap in the military historiography of the campaign but it does so with a contribution of surpassing quality.

More CWBA reviews of KSUP titles:
* A German Hurrah!: Civil War Letters of Friedrich Bertsch and Wilhelm Stängel, 9th Ohio Infantry
* Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer
* August Willich's Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry
* Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations
* Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms


  1. Drew--I completely agree. I just reviewed it for Civil War News (submitted review yesterday). It is masterful; I could barely put it down.

    The only real downside is the price. Why in God's name Kent State would put a $65.00 price tag on this book is beyond me. (I know the internal costs of putting a book or two together.) It is so high that even if the author gets a 50% discount so he can sell it at talks (I know not whether KS allows this), he won't be able to at that exorbitant rate. And that is a shame, because it is a book every battle purist will want to read and shelve.

    Ted Savas

  2. Excellent review.

    Yes, I definitely would like to have it as a sort of sequel to 'Richmond Redeemed' but the price is out of my reach. I really wish it was about half the retail price as it looks great.


  3. Nice review, and I've only skimmed it thus far but the review seems to be on target. As to Ted's point, this type of pricing by Kent State isn't new and the academic presses (aside from UNC and LSU) all seem to be heading to a place where their books can only be bought by institutions.

    1. John,
      With all the online discounts available on different venues, I don't think we're quite there yet, but the trend is troubling with a number of UPs (especially those where you get the impression that the Civil War catalog is inessential to their overall business plan).

  4. @John. Yes, this pricing routine is not new and largely it is because most of these presses do not need to turn a profit in the traditional sense of the word (grants, etc. help fund many of these presses and specific efforts), and they also cater to libraries--an entirely different market and pricing structure.

    I understand why some authors publish with academic presses like this, but so many come to us (and other solid independents thereafter) and do nothing but complain about the lack of marketing, pricing, etc. As it is with any press, there are trade-offs. It is important as an author to know what your objectives are, and then find a press that meets your needs.

    Ted Savas

  5. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the nice review. Regarding some of the follow-up posts, I agree with them. Being an avid collector I find the prices generally very expensive. Most of the university press material I purchase is from UNC and LSU. I've found their prices to be much more reasonable. Tennessee is an interesting example. I purchase books in two of their Civil War series and have found that they are getting quite expensive.

    I'm not as familiar with Kent State, Southern Illinois, Mercer, Alabama and Georgia, but they all appear to be publishing more and more quality Civil War material.

    One thing I try to do to offset my expenses is to get on all their email update lists so I can be notified of any sales. UNC, LSU and Univ. Tenn are fairly reliable about having annual or semi-annual sales. Not really sure of some of the other ones I mentioned do. However, based on the cost of this book, I'm going to find out if Kent State ever has any sales.


    1. Don,
      That's a good point about the regular sales where the discounts can be substantial for patient buyers. I don't know if KSUP does them either.


    2. Don,
      Kent State has a really wonderful Civil War Press. I have got quite a few of their '90s books that have been discounted. They are first rate.


    3. Don: UT was one of the presses I had in mind. Their ACW offerings have become pretty expensive across the board. Alabama and Virginia seem to have had that pricing philosophy for some time. Kansas also seems to be heading in that direction. SIU, on the other hand, still tends top be fairly reasonable in my experience. I know very little about the funding issues Ted alludes to regarding these academic presses, beyond knowing that it differs from press to press. The email sales events are fine but generally you have to be very patient. The History book Club can be another good option.

  6. Drew,
    Thanks for reviewing my book. In light of the discussion above, I'd like to note that KSUP has recently reduced the retail price to $45.



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