Thursday, December 8, 2022

Review - "Gettysburg's Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond" by Hampton Newsome

[Gettysburg's Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond by Hampton Newsome (University Press of Kansas, 2022). Hardcover, 16 maps, photos, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,305/418. ISBN:978-0-7006-3347-0. $36.95]

Hampton Newsome's Gettysburg's Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond not only fully documents for the first time a little-known facet of the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign, the scale of which might surprise even well-informed students of that defining moment of the eastern theater's middle year, but it also definitively refutes the common notion that the Virginia Peninsula was a quiet front over the two years between the conclusion of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and the return of Union armies to the outskirts of Richmond in 1864.

With the movement north of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in June 1863 temporarily stripping the Old Dominion of its primary shield and defender, left behind to secure Richmond and its environs were less than a handful of veteran infantry brigades, some cavalry, and a kaleidoscope of static second and third-rate garrison units (with borrowings from North Carolina, perhaps 13,000 men in all by Newsome's estimate). In the Union Department of Virginia under Major General John A. Dix were upwards of 30,000 men in two infantry corps (Fourth and Seventh), those troops clustered in southeastern Virginia around Fort Monroe, Yorktown, and Norfolk/Suffolk. Available to either reinforce Dix or conduct operations of their own were an additional 20,000 Union troops scattered around coastal enclaves in North Carolina. Confederate authorities were well aware of threats lurking just east of the capital and down the railroad into North Carolina, and they were major factors in the Davis administration's rejection of Lee's request that a force be sent north from Richmond to threaten Washington in conjunction with the general's own northern invasion. All of this background information and complex military chessboard setup is thoroughly laid out in the text, clearly and informatively setting the stage for the series of intertwining movements and decision-making that would develop over ensuing weeks. Indeed, the military and political ties between what was happening in Virginia and what was going on north of Potomac between the theater's two principal armies is always part of Newsome's keen analysis and interpretation of events.

The upper reaches of the Virginia Peninsula were no different than other contested spaces between heavily garrisoned cities and military posts when it came to being the target of raids, resource seizures or destruction, and intelligence gathering by both sides. During the first week in June, Fourth Corps commander Erasmus Keyes approved a lightning cavalry raid up the Mattaponi watershed that resulted in the destruction of Aylett's Foundry in King William County. As Newsome recounts in his detailed description of the operation, the harder brand of war the June 5-6 Aylett Raid brought to the region included significant disruption to local control of the slave population. Indeed, the emancipatory effect of Union forces advancing toward Richmond as well as the militarily useful information supplied by black residents eager to help are common features of the author's accounts of Dix's larger-scale operations that closely followed upon this one.

Newsome's exhaustive study of what might be called Dix's Peninsula Campaign, or more colorfully the "Blackberry Raid," usefully reminds us that much-maligned Union general-in-chief Henry Halleck often had good ideas when it came to theater-wide strategy, however we might critique the ways in which he went about managing and supporting the armies and leaders tasked with executing those plans. On June 14, Halleck, seeing opportunity in Lee's departure north, telegrammed the following new orders to Dix: "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. If you cannot accomplish this, you can at least find occupation for a large force of the enemy" (pg. 50). As one can see, Dix was afforded latitude regarding how he might apply his available attacking force, which with reinforcements would be a mobile fist of around 20,000 men.

As expected, Newsome marshals all of his prodigious research abilities and writing talents, along with strong map support, to craft yet another masterful microhistory of a lesser-known military operation. Dix's campaign was conducted in distinct phases, all of which are recounted in detail. On June 25, a mounted raiding force under Colonel Samuel Spear, an officer who would prove to be Dix's most aggressive subordinate, headed out from White House Landing toward the South Anna Bridges, critical spans that carried both the Virginia Central and Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac (RF&P) railroads over the river. Those two indispensable logistical arteries came together to the north at Hanover Junction, so both bridges needed to be destroyed if the connection between Richmond and the junction was to be severed. The following day, in addition to capturing a recuperating General Rooney Lee, Spears's raiders attacked and destroyed the Virginia Central bridge, the stubborn defense of which went some way toward convincing Spears to break off his raid and return home, leaving the RF&P bridge intact.

Upon the return of Spears and after June turned to July, Dix initiated the second phase of his operation. Contemplating doing so but ultimately deciding against a direct assault on Richmond using his entire force, Dix elected instead to divide his infantry force and make the remaining South Anna bridge his primary objective. He sent General George Getty's Seventh Corps back to the South Anna to complete what Spears failed to accomplish, the destruction of the RF&P bridge, while Erasmus Keyes's Fourth Corps would feint toward Bottom's Bridge to draw enemy attention away from Getty. As Newsome reveals, Keyes displayed remarkable timidity against minimal opposition, not even reaching Bottom's Bridge on the Chickahominy River, and the arrival of Confederate reinforcements (aggressively led by General D.H. Hill) rendered Keyes insensible to Dix's entreaties regarding the need to complete the mission.

Getty, a more capable general, would not be at his best during this two-pronged raiding operation, either. Excessive heat attrited his command on its march to the South Anna, but the progressively cautious Getty also voluntarily attrited himself, dropping off huge blocking detachments all along the length of his advance. By the time his vanguard reached the RF&P bridge, Getty seemed more concerned over the security of his corps than he was in completing his mission. His July 4 evening and night attack on the bridge, conducted only by four companies, was a feeble affair that failed miserably. Both Keyes and Getty let Dix down.

To be fair, Confederate opposition played no little role in keeping Union forces from meeting their goals. Newsome recounts at length Confederate dispositions, the state of the Richmond defenses in mid-1863, and Confederate attempts to coordinate an effective response to each component of Dix's raid. Command direction by neither side went smoothly. Dix operated under vague instructions from above, and, as revealed earlier, his subordinates struggled to fulfill their missions (only Spear's efforts in part met expectations). On the other side, the Confederates, having a more divided leadership structure, wrestled with achieving unity of command, with Secretary of War James Seddon, Richmond defenses commander General Arnold Elzey, and newly arrived D.H. Hill often acting at cross purposes. Fortunately for the Confederates, they were able to get their act together in time. Through the heroic efforts of small-unit commanders at the bridges as well as often erratic General Hill rising to the occasion, logistical damage inflicted by the raid was manageable and repaired quickly.

Any promising but ultimately disappointing Civil War operation typically sparked rounds of story changing and fingerpointing among those responsible, and the aftermath of the Blackberry Raid was no different. Newsome persuasively makes clear that Dix, contrary to what the general later maintained in response to harsh criticism of his actions, did indeed consider attacking Richmond, and Halleck just as clearly neither ordered nor urged him to do so (though he later claimed he did). Dix's fibbing was obviously influenced by unfair barbs thrown his way by those misrepresenting the quality and strength of the Richmond garrison. The somewhat sympathetic portrait the author paints in the book of a harried Halleck, hounded by obvious top-tier priorities surrounding Vicksburg and Gettysburg, being unable or unwilling to provide ongoing support and guidance to his earlier planned movements Virginia and North Carolina is persuasively presented in character and tone as one of both understanding and mild censure.

The book also addresses a Confederate political mission, led by Vice President Alexander Stephens, that was contemporaneous to the raid. On the surface, the job of the envoys was to reignite negotiations over the broken-down prisoner exchange system, but Newsome strongly suspects, though he admits that evidence is scant, that proposals regarding wider peace arrangements were also on the table if any advantageous opening could have been found. Like others, Stephens astutely questioned the timing of such proposed meetings, which would have, if they had actually been permitted to happen (Stephens's party was denied passage into or beyond Union lines), occurred with Lee's army on northern soil. But Davis insisted, and the whole failed affair furthered the rift between the two political leaders.

In addition to frequent insights into the hard war aspects of the Union raids of June and July, Newsome's ground-level sources also repeatedly report bushwhacker attacks on federal columns. With events of those kind not regularly tied to Tidewater Virginia through the burgeoning guerrilla warfare literature, Newsome's work seems to suggest that the topic might be worth examining in more depth.

Newsome is one of those rare writers with a natural ability to thoroughly anticipate reader questions, and he's very judicious in weighing the what-ifs and what might have beens of this operation. Predictably, Dix faced criticism from newspaper editors, politicians, and military officials for not capturing Richmond. However, as Newsome makes clear, most critics based that view on the mistaken notion that the enemy capital was defended only by a collective corporal's guard of clerk and government office emergency battalions, home guards, and detached artillery. As referenced earlier, that was simply not the case. Though the two corps Dix had at his disposal were not necessarily considered thorough front-line fighting material on the order of the Army of the Potomac, they were capable enough, and the aggressor would have the added benefit of choosing the point of attack while the defenders had to distribute inferior manpower resources among three extended lines of defense. Even so, as Newsome relates, Dix and his generals could be justifiable concerned that the concentrated force necessary to punch through those defenses would leave flanks and rear vulnerable to bold counterstrokes of the kind Hill might have been capable of undertaking. Thus Dix's weighing of the risks and benefits of directly attacking Richmond led to, in Newsome's informed view, a reasonable decision to concentrate instead upon the remaining South Anna bridge. As the author suggests, perhaps a different crop of seasoned leaders, from Dix on down, might have attempted it, but there's a reason why backwater departments during the Civil War were chiefly filled with exiled generals or those with lesser initiative and abilities.

The author is surely correct that the limited damage done to the Confederate rail network by the raid, to include the destruction of the Virginia Central bridge over the South Anna as well as some additional short sections of track, had little appreciable effect on Lee's army operating far to the north. But what might have happened had both bridges been destroyed? As Kent Masterson Brown, Robert Wynstra, and others have extensively documented in the modern Gettysburg Campaign literature, the Army of Northern Virginia extracted more than enough food and forage during its northern invasion to sustain both man and beast for an extended period of time. Lee's only pressing need from central military depots back in Virginia was for restocks of artillery and small arms ammunition. Newsome documents in some detail Lee's regular receipt of ammunition resupply trains throughout his campaign, a logistical lifeline that would have been affected to some degree by the loss of the South Anna bridges. In Newsome's clear-eyed analysis, the point where Lee's army would have been rendered most vulnerable to ammo resupply schedule interruptions was during the retreat from Gettysburg and initial return to Virginia, and only if Meade had pressed him even harder than he did historically. In that scenario, major engagements with sustained fighting would have rapidly depleted Lee's already diminished ammunition stocks with little hope of short-term replenishment. That's forceful counterfactual analysis that keeps layers of contingency and conjecture to a minimum.

With 2013's Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864, 2019's The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864, and now Gettysburg's Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond, Hampton Newsome has completed a trio of military studies the quality of which would make any Civil War writer envious. Interestingly, evidenced by these three expertly contextualized studies, Newsome seems most closely drawn to lesser-studied Civil War operations with barren or limited results, Union and Confederate offensive operations that nevertheless tantalize Civil War students with what they might have achieved had they been better conducted or otherwise influenced. One wonders what he will come up with next.


  1. Drew: Thanks for another thorough, insightful review. As usual, my own assessment of this book lines up well with yours. You make a significant point about this author - he is a capable researcher, writer, and analyst who makes an important contribution by taking on events that have not gotten as much attention as they warrant.

  2. I have Richmond Must Fall and The Fight for the Old North State. Now it looks like I will be picking this one up as well. Thanks for the detailed review.

  3. Maybe Newsome's next book can focus south of the James River and a little earlier in the year?

    1. I would like to see him take on the 1862 Goldsboro Expedition.

    2. I'd love to see a book by him on the Suffolk campaign!


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