Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Review - "Grant’s Left Hook: The Bermuda Hundred Campaign, May 5-June 7, 1864" by Sean Chick

[Grant’s Left Hook: The Bermuda Hundred Campaign, May 5-June 7, 1864 by Sean Michael Chick (Savas Beatie, 2021). Softcover, 15 maps, photos, illustrations, driving tour, appendix section, orders of battle, reading list. Pages main/total:xx,115/191. ISBN:978-1-61121-438-3. $14.95]

The 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign is far from neglected in the Civil War literature. Published close together in the late 1980s and complementary in helpful ways, William Glenn Robertson's Backdoor to Richmond and Herbert Schiller's The Bermuda Hundred Campaign both address the entire operation in unsurpassed detail. Additionally, Edward Longacre's treatment of the Union Army of the James and its commanding general Benjamin Butler in his 1997 study Army of Amateurs is well regarded. While that modern foundation established by Robertson, Schiller, and Longacre leaves serious students of the campaign well equipped for the foreseeable future, there is still always room for works of a different scale and purpose. Those seeking a more concise history of the campaign can do no better than Sean Michael Chick's Grant’s Left Hook: The Bermuda Hundred Campaign, May 5-June 7, 1864. This superb installment in the Emerging Civil War series from publisher Savas Beatie offers the best means of introducing new readers to the topic, but it also serves as a top-notch refresher course for those who have let their knowledge of the subject go stale.

The early sections of the book provide strong summaries of opposing strategic challenges and goals. Also discussed are the composition and quality of forces available to General Benjamin Butler's Union Army of the James on one side and General PGT Beauregard's Confederate Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia on the other. Grant's instructions to Butler were to move on Richmond south of the James River. With an army numbering nearly 40,000 men, forcing the evacuation of the enemy capital seemed like an achievable goal. Butler was also to seize and hold City Point with a strong force, establish a fortified base nearby, and eventually link up with the Army of the Potomac. Butler's selection of Bermuda Hundred as that forward point from which to launch his attack toward Richmond fulfilled Grant's instructions, but cutting communications along a narrow front between Richmond and Petersburg involved some risk to both flanks and rear, even with the large force at Butler's disposal. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to have operated against Petersburg rather than Richmond. Shielded by the south bank of the Appomattox, the Army of the James could have advanced with secure flanks, and capturing the Cockade City and all of it rail connections would have served Grant's strategic purposes just the same.

Butler's campaign started out well. A combination of swift movement, strong naval assistance, and effective diversionary operations allowed The Army of the James to land at Bermuda Hundred, secure City Point, and establish a strong forward base without major interference. Unfortunately, Butler's high-energy nature when it came to the law profession and politics did not transfer to military affairs, and the opportunity to sever direct communications between Petersburg and Richmond and place the Confederate capital city in a vise between Butler's own army and the approaching Army of the Potomac was lost over the ensuing days and weeks.

Covering a relatively large military campaign composed of numerous skirmishes and battles in little more than one hundred pages of narrative (while also sharing space with illustrations on every page) is a difficult task, and Chick carries it off with uncommon skill. Though constrained by the demands of brevity, Chick's accounts of maneuver and fighting [at the battles of First (May 6) and Second (May 7) Port Walthall Junction, the Kautz raids (May 5-18) that diverted enemy attention and tied up opposing troops south of Petersburg, Swift Creek (May 9), Chester Station (May 10), the Battle of Drewry's Bluff with the third attack on Port Walthall Junction (May 16), the Battle of Ware Bottom Church (May 20), and the Battle of Wilson's Wharf (May 24)] still offer more than enough detail to convey a complex understanding of those events. Made more vivid by the incorporation of numerous firsthand accounts, each of these descriptions is accompanied by one or more battle maps, all excellent creations from cartographer Hal Jesperson and sourced through a collective effort from a number of informed individuals. This map set is perhaps the most impressive of any ECW title.

Over that two-week period between May 6 and May 20, Butler was never able to achieve more than a temporary break in communications between Richmond and Petersburg. Both commanders were ill served by ranking subordinates at key moments. Though Beauregard's attack at Drewry's Bluff was hindered by fog, division commander Robert Ransom, never highly regarded to begin with, put in a lackluster performance during the main assault while Chase Whiting did essentially nothing to harry Butler's retreat to Bermuda Hundred. Overall, Chick awards Beauregard high marks for his command performance. While little in the way of tactical brilliance was displayed during the campaign's series of battles, the Confederate department commander, who had to deal with Butler's large army, hold Richmond and Petersburg at all costs, and address cavalry raids against his lines of communication, nevertheless kept his head throughout and repulsed the enemy on all fronts while quickly repairing damage to the rail network. On the other side, the Union high command, fearful of threats to flank and rear that might cut them off from Bermuda Hundred, all too often ceded the initiative to the outnumbered enemy and never managed to sustain overwhelming force at a decisive point. At no time during the campaign were Butler and his principal subordinates (generals Quincy Gillmore of Tenth Corps and Baldy Smith of Eighteenth Corps) on the same page.

The May 16 Battle of Drewry's Bluff, the campaign's largest battle, was a tactical draw that nevertheless led to Butler's withdrawal and the temporary end of the Army of the James's threat to Richmond. While that battle is properly credited as the decisive turning point in the campaign, Chick persuasively maintains that the lesser-appreciated follow-up action at Ware Bottom Church had strategic impact of similar significance. Though Drewry's Bluff ended the Union offensive, it was Ware Bottom Church that allowed Beauregard to shorten his lines enough to be able to send critical reinforcements to Lee's army. Chick suggests that without those heavy reinforcements, there was a good chance that Lee's army might not have been able to maintain its position around Cold Harbor and stave off Richmond's fall in June.

Like many other ECW titles, this one features a useful driving tour. Also present is an appendix section containing an interesting collection of diverse essay topics. They include discussions of the Lee-Beauregard command relationship, the successful flight of Jim Pemberton (President Davis's "most trusted" slave) and his wife, details of a "lost opportunity" during later fighting (June 16-17) at Bermuda Hundred, the effort in some quarters to promote Ben Butler as a presidential candidate to replace Lincoln in 1864 (a movement swiftly derailed by Union military victories achieved over the weeks and months preceding the election), Butler's postwar life, and Bermuda Hundred preservation successes.

While the Bermuda Campaign was a resounding strategic success for the Confederates, its results disappointed Beauregard, who hoped to destroy Butler and retain a large, independent field command. Chick rightly disputes Beauregard's claim then and ever after that he would have captured Butler's army had only Whiting done his job on June 16, but his thoughtful and highly favorable assessment of the general's conduct of the campaign overall should add to reader interest in the author's own upcoming reexamination of Beauregard's Civil War career (Dreams of Victory: General P.G.T. Beauregard in the Civil War). Beauregard's star is on a bit of an upswing lately, and a new reevaluation of his life and Civil War generalship is long past due (it's been over 65 years since T. Harry Williams's standard biography was published). On the other side of the equation, besides removing the threat to Richmond for the immediate future, Butler's defeat crushed his highest political aspirations. Similar to what it might do for renewed interest in the Confederate commander, the book's discussion of Butler's political aspirations in both main text and appendix section also should go some way toward whetting reader appetite for the new Butler biography scheduled for publication next year (Elizabeth Leonard's Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life). One of the best books in the ECW series (easily rating among the top handful in this reviewer's estimation), Sean Chick's Grant's Left Hook is highly recommended reading.

4 comments:

  1. Drew: Thanks for this thorough review. The ECW Series is generally excellent for readers looking for concise books on battles/campaigns but I've also recommended several to people who own the more in-depth studies as great supplements to those books at a relatively inexpensive price.

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    1. In this case, the maps alone are worth the price of the book.

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    2. Thank you for the positive review. I do hope with each ECW title I write to always offer a fresh perspective.

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  2. Thanks for the kinds words about the book, Drew. We try our best to provide good overviews while also offering fresh perspectives. We appreciate your support!

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