Monday, May 12, 2014

Bearss, Suderow (ed.): "THE PETERSBURG CAMPAIGN, VOL. 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864 - April 1865"

[The Petersburg Campaign, Vol. 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864 - April 1865 by Edwin C. Bearss, edited by Bryce A. Suderow (Savas Beatie, 2014). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pp. 600. ISBN:978-1-61121-104-7 $34.95]

As part of Mission 66, the National Park Service's ten-year infrastructure development plan of the period, Ed Bearss was tasked with mapping and documenting the various Petersburg Campaign battles. After decades of obscurity, these Bearss essays were rediscovered by Bryce Suderow, who then spearheaded the effort to get them published. Two volumes were decided upon, the first The Petersburg Campaign, Vol. 1: The Eastern Front Battles, June - August 1864 was released in 2012, and now 2014's The Petersburg Campaign, Vol. 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864 - April 1865 completes the set.

Calling the manuscripts essays is selling them a bit short. They're really closer to book length tactical-scale histories of Peebles's Farm, Burgess Mill, Hatcher's Run, Five Forks [in three parts: (1) Lewis Farm (2) Dinwiddie Court House & White Oak Road (3) the Five Forks battle itself], and the VI Corps "Final Breakthrough". Detailed and straightforward, the text is classic Bearss that anyone familiar with his numerous battle books and articles will recognize. The bibliography is limited to primarily the Official Records and a smattering of other published sources, but readers should realize that these histories were written over 50 years ago as internal park service documents with the very specific purpose of supporting the 60 troop movement maps Bearss developed, and were probably never conceived as subjects for eventual publication.

Suderow's editorial hand is displayed throughout.  In addition to standardizing the notes, he also created an introduction and postscript to each chapter.  These transitions are important background elements of the book, as they successfully bridge essentially independent manuscripts not intended to be read as a continuous narrative.  They inform the reader of what was going on at the same time in the eastern theater both near and far (e.x. the Richmond and the Shenandoah sub-theaters), and also consistently remind the reader of the two-front strategy employed by Grant for nearly every major offensive effort, one that was characterized by a complex operational dance performed at each end of the Richmond-Petersburg axis with the purpose of creating windows of opportunity where local superiority could be exploited to either outflank or smash through Confederate defenses.  Suderow also commissioned essays to fill gaps in Bearss's writings [William Wyrick for Ft. Stedman and Chris Calkins for the retreat to Appomattox]. Wyrick's contribution is a fine piece based on his previous work for Blue & Gray magazine and Calkins's brief chapter comprises a fitting epilogue to the book. The volume's maps by George Skoch are original creations, satisfactory in both numbers and informational depth.

Sure, one can probably take the source material uncovered during the past 50+ years and quibble with some of Bearss's content and interpretation, but, even so, these two volumes together comprise the best and most detailed military summary of the Petersburg Campaign  yet produced.


  1. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the review. I've been waiting on this. I can't remember where I read it, but I'd heard that UNC press was planning to publish a new multi-volume work on Petersburg?

    Don H.

    1. Don,
      That doesn't ring a bell. I keep resolving to keep a list of rumored and far off projects but never get around to actually doing it.

    2. Will Greene from Pamplin Park is working on a multi-volume study of the Petersburg Campaign.

  2. Hi Drew, Many thanks for your review of this title. We appreciate it. It was a lot of fun to put together and Ed is so thankful--especially since he never imagined they would ever see the light of day. Keep up the good work.

    Ted Savas


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