Friday, October 14, 2022

Booknotes: Gettysburg's Southern Front

New Arrival:
Gettysburg's Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond by Hampton Newsome (UP of Kansas, 2022).

From Big Bethel through the end of the Seven Days, military action on the Virginia Peninsula featured prominently during the Civil War's first year. However, things quickly quieted down in the area after the Army of the Potomac was recalled to the Washington front after failing to capture Richmond. Though a strategic backwater throughout the war's middle period, strong Union garrisons remained on the lower Peninsula, with additional concentrations located across the James River around Norfolk and Suffolk (the latter the target of a Confederate "siege" in 1863). Directly challenging common assumptions that little happened along the Peninsula after 1862 until the war returned with a vengeance to its upper reaches during the Overland and Richmond/Petersburg campaigns of 1864-65 is Hampton Newsome's Gettysburg's Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond.

From the description: "On June 14, 1863, US Major General John Adams Dix received the following directive from General-in-Chief Henry Halleck: “All your available force should be concentrated to threaten Richmond, by seizing and destroying their railroad bridges over the South and North Anna Rivers, and do them all the damage possible.” With General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia marching toward Gettysburg and only a limited Confederate force guarding Richmond, Halleck sensed a rare opportunity for the Union cause."

Given the real and perceived threats posed by Lee's invading army, it's a bit surprising how many troops the scaredy-cats for the safety of Washington made available to Dix for his limited-goal operation. In advancing up the Peninsula, Dix's "20,000 US troops would threaten the Confederate capital and seek to cut the railroads supplying Lee’s army in Pennsylvania. To some, Dix’s campaign presented a tremendous chance for US forces to strike hard at Richmond while Lee was off in Pennsylvania. To others, it was an unnecessary lark that tied up units deployed more effectively in protecting Washington and confronting Lee's men on Northern soil."

A product of prodigious research in newspapers, archives, and a range of other primary sources and with its text supported by sixteen maps, Gettysburg's Southern Front, "offers an in-depth look into this little-known Federal advance against Richmond during the Gettysburg Campaign. The first full-length examination of Dix’s venture, this volume not only delves into the military operations at the time, but also addresses concurrent issues related to diplomacy, US war policy, and the involvement of enslaved people in the Federal offensive." It "also points to the often-unrecognized value in examining events of the US Civil War beyond the larger famous battles and campaigns."

According to Newsome, Dix's campaign was far from a misguided operation perhaps deservedly consigned to perpetual obscurity. More from the description: "At the time, political and military leaders on both sides carefully weighed Dix’s efforts at Richmond and understood that the offensive had the potential to generate dramatic results. In fact, this piece of the Gettysburg Campaign may rank as one of the Union war effort’s more compelling lost opportunities in the East, one that could have changed the course of the conflict." Cheers to Hampton Newsome for taking on yet another fresh and interesting military history topic. I will be especially looking forward to reading the author's take on the 'lost opportunity' aspects of the operation.

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