Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Gallagher & Janney, eds.: "COLD HARBOR TO THE CRATER: The End of the Overland Campaign"

[Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Caroline E. Janney (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. 356 pp. ISBN:978-1-4696-2533-1. $35]

Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign marks the welcome return of the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series from UNC Press after a nearly ten-year absence. With plans to pick up where this volume ends and continue on through the Appomattox Campaign before backtracking to address previously passed over First and Second Bull Run, co-editors Gary Gallagher and Caroline Janney maintain the series focus on the eastern theater. In addition to Gallagher and Janney, eight other scholars were invited to contribute to this volume: Keith Bohannon, Stephen Cushman, Keith Harris, Robert E.L. Krick, Kevin Levin, Kathryn Shively Meier, Gordon Rhea, and Joan Waugh.

In the first chapter, Gallagher uses evidence from both private correspondence and public debates to contrast the popular standing of Lee and Grant during the period covered in the book. Much of the focus is on the domestic and foreign presses, which generally offered a favorable view of Lee but differed sharply over Grant's conduct of the Overland Campaign. The northern press were grudgingly respectful of Lee's ability, a practice that was not reciprocated by southern newspapers. Gallagher makes a solid point that the North's established two-party system meant that Grant would suffer far more than Lee from barbs hurled by a vigorously partisan adversarial political machine and press. Jefferson Davis certainly had his critics among newspaper editors but the lack of formal opposition meant that Lee would not be targeted in the same politically motivated manner that Grant was forced to endure.

The next chapter by eminent Army of Northern Virginia historian Robert E.L. Krick examines the heavy reinforcements Lee's army received during a brief calm spell prior to the Cold Harbor battle and assesses their performance. Krick meticulously documents the divisions, brigades, regiments, and even companies that arrived on the Richmond front, along the way discovering units not listed in any previous ANV order of battle. Krick offers many examples of these units's introduction to the fighting in Virginia, a brand of continuous and fierce combat that many had not experienced before. Taking into account the variances in leadership, equipment and training typical to any ad hoc arrangement of mass reinforcement, the author finds that the fighting qualities of most new units compared favorably with their veteran ANV comrades (though command inexperience often led to unnecessary casualties).

Kathryn Shively Meier takes the concept of soldier "self-care" that she developed in her prior book about the war on the Virginia Peninsula and applies it to the Overland Campaign. The examples she cites, a range of physical, mental, behavioral and spiritual coping mechanisms, are similar to those raised earlier. Some small differences related to continuous trench warfare are noted but perhaps an even more interesting interpretive slant might have been to compare the evidence from 1862 and 1864 and evaluate what soldiers learned about self-care during the two years of intervening warfare.

Keith Bohannon highlights Lee's search for an army chief engineer for the spring campaign (the competent Martin L. Smith got the job) and the formation of specialized engineer units, organizations previously blocked by the Army of Northern Virginia commander for fear it would take too many fighting men out the ranks. Bohannon uses Cold Harbor as a case study of the work of these engineers, who were effective where used yet too few in number to oversee the entire front. He also shows how the self-preserving tendency of the men to instantly entrench in place sometimes worked to their disadvantage, with works often hastily constructed along unfavorable lines of defense.

Joan Waugh's biographical chapter charts the meteoric rise of Francis Channing Barlow from private to major general as well as the "boy general"'s precipitous fall from grace during the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns. Rather than argue that Barlow's capacity was overrated or he was promoted beyond his ability, Waugh instead blames two nasty wounds, combat stress, chronic illness and the death of his wife for the general's problematic late war performance. Undeveloped is the possibility that his eccentricities, physical brutality directed toward his men, and labile personality together masked a serious psychopathology but Barlow's apparently seamless reintegration into successful family and civilian public life would argue against that.

The Army of the Potomac's tricky disengagement from the Cold Harbor battlefield and crossing of the James River, the famous "stolen march" on Lee, is recounted in detail by Gordon Rhea. While Rhea lauds the planning and execution of the march, he finds that the oft repeated notion that it was a flawless operation to be a significant exaggeration. A snafu at the crossing itself meant that the number of troops available for the initial assault on Petersburg would be limited, although the units that did participate should have been more than enough for the job. Rhea is also justifiably critical of Grant for remaining in the rear supervising the crossing rather than being at the head of the army making sure the initial assault would not suffer from command confusion of the type that actually occurred.

Keith Harris's essay examines the mindset of the men in the ranks during the opening months of the Petersburg siege. Far from feeling depressed and defeated after being driven into the Richmond-Petersburg fortifications, most of the writers in his sample expressed continued confidence in eventual victory (with some dissenting views, of course). That most could remain so in the face of the crippling casualties suffered during the Overland Campaign is remarkable and hearkens back to Gallagher's opening essay that in part discussed expectations of high losses and the degree to which Lee embodied hope for the future. Confederate optimism peaked after the victory at the Crater but it would take many more months before any kind of general hopelessness set in.

The civilian experience of the early months of the Petersburg siege is the subject of Caroline Janney's excellent overview essay.  She documents the general bombardment of the town (an action supported by Union participants at the time but one they sought to distance themselves from in the post-war period) and how it affected the townspeople. Citizen militia participated in some of the early fighting but the war coming to Petersburg had dire consequences from the beginning. There were immediate food shortages, mass evacuations, and commerce outside select war industries and food distribution largely ceased. Overall, Janney finds that Petersburg's civilians, much like Harris's soldiers mentioned above, remained defiant and confident in eventual Confederate victory during summer 1864.

The Crater battle is the focus of the final pair of essays, by Kevin Levin and Stephen Cushman. Levin offers a brief summary of the role of black troops in the summer 1864 fighting in Virginia, noting that while there were some noteworthy achievements with the Army of the James in June the July 30 Crater battle would be their first big test with the Army of the Potomac. Much of the chapter's focus lies in its thoughtful evaluation of the attitudes of white soldiers toward their black comrades, which were largely negative in the immediate aftermath of the defeat (and undoubtedly influenced by rumor reinforcing prejudice). That said, Levin determines the blame placed on the black troops for the disaster to be a temporary phenomenon, with veteran opinions softening over time to those more appreciative of their bravery and fighting qualities. Cushman adopts a different angle from which to view the Crater battle, that of fictionalized history in movies and books (specifically Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain movie adaptation of the Charles Frazier novel and two novels, Richard Slotkin's The Crater and Glory Enough for All by Duane Schultz). Cushman explores a number of compelling art vs. history themes including selectivity of coverage, the decision whether or not to center narrative on a single heroic protagonist, the balance between history and artistic license, and the process of creating fictional speech from historical documents.

Echoing trends in Civil War scholarship that have developed over the decades following the inception of the series, the essays in the tenth volume reach beyond the battlefield to a degree greater than that found in any of the previous nine. That Cold Harbor to the Crater manages to do this while also maintaining a reasonably coherent overview of a critical period in the war reflects credit on the work of general editors Gallagher and Janney. Reinvigorated, and with an expanded variety of themes and sub-topics, the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series appears to have a bright future again.

More CWBA reviews of UNC Press titles:
* The Battle of Ezra Church and the Struggle for Atlanta
* Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South
* A Gunner in Lee's Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter
* Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia
* A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People
* Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign
* With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North
* The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi
* Shifting Loyalties: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina
* West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace
* Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (link to author interview)
* A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (link to author interview)
* In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
* The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
* Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign
* Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
* Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
* Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia
* Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
* Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864


  1. Hi Drew

    I had ordered this a couple of days ago. The book looks like a great addition to a very readable series.


    1. Don,
      You'll like it as long as you don't expect it to be the same as the earlier volumes (i.e. primarily military-focused). It's a reboot in more ways than one.


  2. I love this series. I am finding this one to be a very difficult, uneven, slog.


  3. Agreed. A different focus than earlier volumes. I hope they go back to the old format for the next few. A few of the essays are slow reading


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