Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review of Rhea - "ON TO PETERSBURG: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864"

[On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea (Louisiana State University Press, 2017). Cloth, 19 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:345/464. ISBN:978-0-8071-6747-2. $45]

Gordon Rhea's Overland Campaign series has rightfully earned the praise of professional historians and Civil War enthusiasts alike. It is by far the fullest military treatment of the brutal six-week showdown in Virginia between Union and Confederate heavyweights U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee during spring 1864. Between 1994 and 2002, four series volumes were published by LSU Press—The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864; The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864; To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864; and Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864. All exhibited in abundance the qualities of deep research, meticulous attention to detail, sound analysis, and engaging narrative that quickly made the series a favorite among a wide range of Civil War readers. But, for a long time, one piece was missing—the fifth and final volume. Fifteen years have passed since the release of Cold Harbor, but On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864 was finally published this summer. Those readers long wondering if or when they were ever going to see the series finished will be gratified to find it quite apparent that the extended delay did not entail any kind of faltering effort level on the part of the author. On to Petersburg is every bit as good as what came before it.

After Union assaults at Cold Harbor during the first days of June ended in bloody defeat, General Grant ordered a brief operational pause to ponder his options. In the meantime, never one to let his men be completely idle, Grant directed that the army continue to press forward against Lee's fortified lines by regular approaches. According to Rhea, execution was haphazard and largely ineffective. Left to the enterprise of local commanders, and results were decidedly mixed, with some officers achieving parallel trenches as close as forty yards from Confederate lines while many others made no progress at all. While this was disappointing, the Overland Campaign as a whole undoubtedly served the Army of the Potomac well as a laboratory for developing the tools of siegecraft that would be put to good use in coming months.

Once Grant decided to resume his then quite familiar Overland Campaign maneuver of sliding the Army of the Potomac south and around the Army of Northern Virginia's right flank, he drew in his own right by stages and extended the federal left to the Chickahominy River. Seeking targets of opportunity, Lee's army dutifully conformed to these movements. Rhea's narrative recounts these preparatory arrangements, along with several reconnaissance in force missions and other skirmishes fought between the lines, in some detail.

In setting the Army of the Potomac in motion toward the Chickahominy crossings, Grant had once again seized the initiative. Furthermore, his continued strategy of applying simultaneous multi-directional threats to Confederate resources and lines of communications in the theater would also bear significant fruit in coming days and weeks. As Rhea shows, Lee, in response to both the alarming military situation in the Shenandoah Valley and General Sheridan's cavalry raids on the central Virginia railroads, was forced to first detach Breckinridge's infantry division then the entire 2nd Corps along with two of his three cavalry divisions to address these threats. This left Lee's much diminished command (already badly outnumbered beforehand) with no realistic options beyond shadowing Grant's movements. The stage was now set for one of the war's most celebrated operational maneuvers.

The book's discussion of the planning and execution of Grant's famous change of base to the south side of the James River and the initial assault on Petersburg is more than satisfactorily detailed. In Rhea's analysis of these events, evenly measured criticism and praise are applied to Grant's actions and Lee's reactions.

Disengaging an entire army from the front in a safe and orderly manner is a difficult undertaking, especially when opposing trench lines are as close as they were at Cold Harbor, and Rhea justifiably praises the well-honed professional skill displayed by Grant and his subordinates in this regard. Rhea also admires the smooth operational coordination that went into the Union army's mass movement to the James, which consisted of four corps and their logistical apparatus traveling by parallel roads, a single corps (the 18th) transported by water to Bermuda Hundred, and the remaining cavalry all the while aggressively screening the army's strung out columns and keeping Lee in the dark as to Grant's intentions. However, the author also notes that the movement's implementation was not perfect, and the consequences were significant. The army trains were unduly delayed at the Chickahominy, but it was the poor management of the bridging of the James (ironically the most celebrated event of the entire operation) that disrupted Grant's timetable most. The construction engineers did well, but the fumbled assembling of bridging materials from above led to a critical delay of as much as eight hours, and that lost time contributed to the failure to capture Petersburg by coup de main.

Robert E. Lee has been heavily criticized for his alleged slow response to Grant's crossing of the James. However, Rhea correctly observes that Lee's small army had to remain at all times between Grant's army and Richmond. With the Army of Northern Virginia critically weakened by detachments and the bulk of its eyes and ears away contending with Sheridan's raiders, Lee could not afford, with the limited information available to him at the time, to uncover the direct approach to the Confederate capital by passing heavy reinforcements south. Even after concrete news reached him of the Union crossing of the James, Lee had no way of knowing if Grant was throwing his entire army or only a small part of it across to the south bank.

On the other side, Rhea properly chides Grant for failing to impart to his subordinates their assigned roles in the upcoming Petersburg operation. Before leaving White House Landing or at any time during the water journey to Bermuda Hundred, the commander of 18th Corps, William F. "Baldy" Smith, was not informed by Grant or anyone else that he was to spearhead the June 15 attack on Petersburg. It wasn't until he had already arrived at Bermuda Hundred and dispersed his men to their camps that he received his orders to cross the James early the next day and attack the Cockade City. This absolves Smith for his late start on the 15th, but Rhea is especially generous in giving Smith the benefit of the doubt when it came to delaying the assault on Petersburg's Dimmock Line until late in the day, and only after Smith was informed for the first time that afternoon that Winfield Scott Hancock's 2nd Corps would be available for support. Apparently, Smith found the outer defense line stronger and better manned than he was led to believe (even though he put enemy numbers at only 3,000 after his personal afternoon reconnaissance mission), and Rhea feels that Smith's hesitancy was a reasonable reaction to finding enemy trenches bristling with cannon and supported by a thin yet active infantry line. The author was rather impressed with Smith's dispositions when he did finally attack late in the day. Deployed in a heavy skirmish formation well suited to attacking an enemy defense line heavy on artillery but light on infantry, the Union attackers rolled over the defenders before darkness and confusion ended their advance. While certainly not decisive in action, the Smith of Rhea's study is also not the overcautious blunderer found in much of the literature.

Rhea's treatment of the much-maligned Hancock of June 15 is similarly sympathetic. The long bridge delays on the James were not Hancock's fault, and he was not even told 2nd Corps was meant to participate in the actual attack on Petersburg until late in the day. When Hancock's men did finally join Smith, a successful night attack on Petersburg was not predestined. Confederate reinforcements had arrived by then, and there was the added obstacle of city streets and buildings to navigate. Perhaps in the end Rhea is too easy on the duo (especially in his rescuing of Smith), but his views do serve as a signal reminder that nothing is easy in war, and, when it comes to victory on the battlefield, there's no such thing as a sure thing.

Instead of the Petersburg operation's traditional villains, Smith and Hancock, Rhea is hardest on Grant and his failure to coordinate the attack. With corps from both the James and Potomac armies involved, Grant himself was the natural choice to make certain from the beginning that Smith and Hancock knew their roles individually and also what to expect from each other, and he completely dropped the ball on both counts. Rhea's opinion that Grant's management of the campaign between June 4 and June 15 was brilliant only to fall apart catastrophically at the end is difficult to refute.

Indeed, likelihood was high that the unusual command arrangement in the eastern theater was in some measure responsible for the clumsy end to the Overland Campaign. Having Grant direct events personally in the field while retaining Meade as head of the Army of the Potomac has been a frequent source of criticism, then and now. The Grant-Meade command relationship added an extra layer of unwieldy military bureaucracy that increased the probability of high command confusion, delay, and friction, and it expressed itself in negative ways throughout the Overland Campaign. On the other hand, Grant supported the arrangement as it freed him from the time sink and mental stresses of day-to-day operation of the Army of the Potomac and allowed him more time to devote to strategy. Grant obviously felt that the positives outweighed the negatives, but Rhea seems to agree with the opinion of most observers that the command arrangement was a poor one overall, and possibly June 15 provided no better illustration of this.

The individual involved in the June 15 battle who perhaps has not received the just praise of history, either in this book or generally, is Henry Wise. The oft-ridiculed Confederate political general put in his best performances of the war at Petersburg, when twice (first on June 9 and again on June 15) he held Petersburg against great odds. On June 15, one might argue that his active defense of the city played no small role in convincing Baldy Smith that the Confederate defenses were stronger than they really were.

In Rhea's final estimation, both commanding generals had mixed levels of success during the Overland Campaign but nevertheless performed well overall. Rhea repeatedly lauds Lee's defensive fighting skills, and the author also obviously admires Grant's innate resiliency and determination along with the general's operational creativity and flexibility. If anyone can be judged the "winner" of the Overland Campaign, Rhea gives the slight edge to Grant while at the same time conceding that the answer largely depends on how one defines winning and losing. In Rhea's view, Grant, by immobilizing Lee's army in trench works and permanently seizing the initiative, "came closest to realizing his overall strategic goal." It's a reasonable conclusion. Other interpretations are certainly possible, and the fact that the Overland Campaign was immediately followed by ten months of siege warfare, a development desired by neither general, clearly complicates how one views the results of May and June in terms of winners and losers.

As stated before, in On to Petersburg, Gordon Rhea's research and battle narrative skills are as impressive in their display as they've ever been. In this era of ever-dwindling map budgets, the volume also manages to retain the series's commitment to the essential truth that strong cartography is a vital element of all serious military history publications. In every way, On to Petersburg has been well worth the long wait and is a fitting end to a series destined to become an all-time classic.


  1. Nice review! I'm looking forward to finally reading this.

  2. Thanks for this thorough and (as usual) insightful review. I've only skimmed it but the one place that I thought the author could have provided more analysis involves Butler's failed June 9 frolic with Gilmore and Kautz. Although two members of Grant's staff had arrived at Butler's HQ the latter part of June 8, I am convinced that Grant knew nothing of this effort until sometime on June 10 or later. Based on my skim, Rhea suggests that it had implications for strengthening the CSA defenses, but I've seen nothing from anybody - Rhea or Robertson, at least - which discusses how or whether Grant reacted to learning of Butler's failure. Everyone seems to agree, to one extent or another, that it was undertaken for purposes beyond the purely military.

    1. John, my dim memory is that there is a note from USG to Butler telling him to not do anything like that (June 9) again. The sad thing is, Butler's plan on the 9th should have worked, and if anyone other than Gilmore had been in command, it might have.

    2. Because Robertson wrote an entire book about it, I don't mind that Rhea's account glides over the June 9 attack only lightly. Both authors agree that the operation was an unnecessary reminder to the Confederates about how weak the Petersburg defenses were.

    3. Drew: Your point is well-taken. I should have stated mine more clearly. Robertson says nothing about Grant, Grant's reaction, etc. because that's not his focus. Rhea, on the other hand, focuses on Grant's plans, etc. Butler's attack was done, so far as appears, without Grant's knowledge in the very sector which Grant intended to attack within a week. Grant took extensive measures to deceive Lee about his change in strategy and yet we have Butler blundering around and (as we know) alerting the Confederates to the weakness in their Dimmock defenses. It strikes me as interesting and relevant to know Grant's reaction, because to some extent Butler "blew Grant's cover" primarily motivated by his knowledge that his operational independence was about to end. Obviously this doesn't go to the overall quality of Rhea's analysis - I just think that it overlooks an interesting subtext. One little anecdote regarding the construction of the pontoon bridge on June 14 by the US Engineers and the inefficient process which Rhea nicely describes - according to the diary of my ancestor Isaac, who was involved in building the bridge, after they had finished on June 14 a "steamer" drifted into the bridge and his company had to go back down to the river and repair it. Just another example of the accumulation of fits and starts which plagued this operation.

  3. "a signal reminder that nothing is easy in war, and, when it comes to victory on the battlefield, there's no such thing as a sure thing."

    "In war everything is simple, but even the simplest thing is difficult."

    Karl von Clauswitz

    1. Great German minds think alike. Though it gets them in trouble sometimes.


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