Monday, August 3, 2015

Robertson: "THE FIRST BATTLE FOR PETERSBURG: The Attack and Defense of the Cockade City, June 9, 1864"

[The First Battle for Petersburg: The Attack and Defense of the Cockade City, June 9, 1864 by William Glenn Robertson (Savas Beatie, 2015). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:157/192. ISBN:978-1-61121-214-3 $27.95]

William Glenn Robertson is an acknowledged expert on Union Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James, his Back Door to Richmond (1987) one of two well regarded histories of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign conducted during the spring of 1864. As part of the H.E. Howard Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series, Robertson also authored a fine treatment of the first serious Union attack on the Cockade City titled The Petersburg Campaign: The Battle of Old Men and Young Boys, June 9, 1864 (1989). The book has now been reissued by publisher Savas Beatie in a revised and expanded 130th Anniversary Edition* under the new title The First Battle for Petersburg: The Attack and Defense of the Cockade City, June 9, 1864.

The book is a very good operational and tactical account of Butler's brainchild, a promising plan to enter Petersburg using 5,000 infantry and cavalry and destroy the Appomattox bridges critical to keeping Richmond and Lee's army supplied. Coordinating three columns for an attack on a fortified city was risky but the Petersburg garrison was known to be weak. At the last moment, corps commander Quincy Gillmore pulled rank and successfully petitioned Butler for command of the expedition, which consisted of two infantry brigades under Joseph Hawley and Edward Hinks and August Kautz's much reduced cavalry division.

The approach march to Petersburg was botched, and Hawley and Hinks would be hours behind schedule before they deployed opposite the east face of Petersburg's Dimmock Line (astride the City Point and Jordan Point roads, respectively). Intimidated by the earthwork defenses and not realizing the true weakness of the Confederates (around 1,300 militia, reserves, and regular troops under the command of General Henry Wise), both Hawley and Hinks declined to attack, their cautious concerns shared by Gillmore. While Gillmore began withdrawing in unseemly haste, Kautz and his cavalry were approaching the Dimmock Line from the south after a longer than expected ride. There, the 130 armed civilian defenders, untrained older men and younger boys not eligible for conscription, put up a spirited fight at Rives's Farm before being outflanked and routed. Confederate reinforcements arrived just in time and halted the Union cavalry's advance at the outskirts of town, finally convincing Kautz to withdraw.

Robertson's battle narrative is skillfully crafted. Although the relatively small number of units involved made the job less complicated, creating a comprehensive company-level tactical study that's easy to follow is no simple task, and the author succeeds admirably. The terrain, along with the Confederate works sited to exploit the natural defensive benefits, had a major effect on the course of the battle (especially in convincing Hawley and Hinks to abort their attacks) and Robertson very effectively conveys to the reader his expert knowledge of the ground.

Greatly assisting understanding are the book's fine maps. In providing a wider strategic view of the Bermuda Hundred-Petersburg front, a tracing of the road network and approach march of Gillmore's command, and detailed tactical views of the four main seats of action [City Point Road (Hawley), Jordan Point Road (Hinks), Rives's Farm (Kautz), and the Reservoir/Blandford Church line (Kautz)], the maps closely connect the reader to the text descriptions of the marching and fighting.

The gallant stand of Archer's Battalion of militia and reserves at the Rives's Farm, which cost the novice warriors nearly 60% casualties, was a remarkable feat given the almost uniformly dismal Civil War performances of auxiliary formations of this type. The time Archer bought for the arrival of reinforcements was a critical factor in keeping Kautz out of the city and away from the bridges. This local participation being a major part of the battle, Robertson's work also includes a great deal of background information about the individuals that served in Archer's command, their commercial and family connections with the city, and their specific roles in the June 9 fighting. Appendix 3 also offers a detailed casualty list for the Rives's Farm defenders.

The story of the June 9 attack and defense of Petersburg reminds us why nothing is a sure thing in war. On the Confederate side, Henry Wise had one of his best moments of the war while the last second insertion of incompetent field commander Gillmore into the leadership structure of the Union expedition almost ensured a slow advance and timid attack posture. On paper the operation should have been a walkover, for the qualitative and quantitative advantages possessed by the federals appear insurmountable, but friction and fog of war are part and parcel of all military operations.

But the importance of June 9 went beyond a single unfortunate Union defeat and surprising Confederate victory. In Robertson's view, the failed operation also had significant long term consequences, drawing immediate Confederate attention to the need for reinforcement and improvement of the Petersburg defenses. These enhancements, small as they might have been, would be key factors in yet another highly improbable Confederate success against long odds on June 15-18, one that would consign both sides to an almost ten-month stalemate. The First Battle for Petersburg is a highly recommended addition to the library of anyone studying the 1864-65 Richmond-Petersburg Campaign.

* - I haven't read the original edition so I can't comment on the specific nature of the revision work for the Sesquicentennial edition. The maps are new and presumably there is fresh information based on updated research integrated throughout the book. Owners of the first edition who remain interested in the subject will surely want to pick up a copy of this enhanced replacement.


  1. Thanks for this review, Drew. We are really proud of this expanded reprint. The original was one of my favorites of all the Howard series books, so I was pleased to be able to get it back into print in this special edition.

    1. The Rives Farm was owned by Timothy Rives (1807-1865) and my cousin whom we share a common great grandfather, Timothy Rives, (1625-1692), the first Ryves-Rives to reach America from Oxford, England. Timothy settled in Blandford, Virginia and that settlement may have been inherited by his great grandson, my cousin. Does this book include photos of the Rives farm, farmhouse and Timothy Rives and family?


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