Gillum, Jamie. Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy: The Battle of Spring Hill and Operations on November 29, 1864 Precursor to the Battle of Franklin. (Jamie Gillum, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: 2014). 504 pages, illustrations, 42 maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-4701-0681-2 $34.16 (Paperback).

TwentyFiveHoursToTragedySpringHillGillum Civil War Book Review: <i>Twenty five Hours to Tragedy: The Battle of Spring Hill</i> by Jamie GillumTo understand the disastrous Confederate result at the Battle of Franklin, you need to understand the previous day’s action at Spring Hill, Tennessee, on November 29, 1864.  To understand the action at Spring Hill…good luck!  Or at least that’s the way it has seemed for almost 150 years.  In Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy: The Battle of Spring Hill and Operations on November 29, 1864 Precursor to the Battle of Franklin, author Jamie Gillum provides a plethora of first person accounts from key witnesses along with his own observations.  Gillum describes the action thoroughly, offers his expert opinion on what happened, and ties those first person accounts together into a cohesive whole.  As many readers know, this is difficult enough to do for battles which occurred in daylight.  The problem at Spring Hill was that many of the controversial actions of the day played out after the winter sun set.  So how well did the author do?  Read on to find out.

Author Jamie Gillum, who self-published this second edition of his Spring Hill book, has been collecting primary source material on Spring Hill and studying the Civil War for over 35 years.  That’s as long as I’ve been alive.  He also spent 14 years in the U. S. Marines.  Gillum utilizes more than 150 primary sources to bring the story of Spring Hill alive.  The author made a conscious effort to insert more of his own opinion into this second edition, a welcome and needed addition to the book. He also improved the maps.  My opinion of this operation was significantly altered as a result of reading Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy. I think many readers’ opinions will change in the same way mine did, both about some of the personalities involved and the battle as a whole.

John Bell Hood’s 1864 Tennessee Campaign is widely regarded as a terrible failure, wrecking an army and ending any chance of Confederate success in the West. What many don’t know is how incredibly well the campaign began and how close it came to wildly succeeding.  Hood moved into position opposite Columbia, Tennessee, on the Duck River, in late November 1864. The town was held by John Schofield’s Union army, which was trying to buy time while reinforcements were gathered into a cohesive whole at Nashville to the north.  He left one Corps under Stephen D. Lee at Columbia to pin Schofield’s forces there.  With his other two Corps and Forrest’s cavalry, he launched a bold flanking maneuver, crossing the Duck River to the east of town and marching quickly north cross-country for Spring Hill. Hood’s objective was to cut Schofield off from Franklin and Nashville, along with the Union reinforcements then gathering in latter city.  Though Hood faced significant obstacles (Schofield had the direct route and a good road on which to march) the Confederate general essentially won the race to Spring Hill.  Few Federal troops were there when Forrest’s Cavalry and Frank Cheatham’s Corps approached. If the Confederates could simply beat the Federals to Spring Hill or some point between there and Franklin, Schofield’s army would be in serious trouble, cut off from supplies and friendly forces.

Through a long series of errors by many Confederate generals that afternoon, the road leading from Columbia to Spring Hill…and more importantly, from Spring Hill to Franklin, was never blocked.  The Confederate forces were tantalizingly close to doing so on multiple occasions, but couldn’t close the trap.  It’s the story of Hood’s efforts to get the road to Franklin blocked and trap Schofield’s little army, his army’s failure to do so, and WHY they failed to do so, which comprises this book’s raison d’être. As Confederate commanders desperately tried to make sense of the situation in the darkness, Schofield’s Union army marched past them, succeeding only barely in escaping the trap Hood had so promisingly set earlier in the day. This was one of the most harrowing escapes of the war, an amazing story, and one which ended very poorly for the Confederates. Ultimately, the sun set early on this short winter day, the confusion only grew worse for the Confederates, and Schofield lived to fight another day.

That day was the very next one, at Franklin, where Hood’s army was repulsed in a bloody frontal assault. Gillum argues, successfully, in my opinion, that the failure of the Tennessee Campaign happened on November 29 at Spring Hill, not at Franklin or Nashville.  The failure to block the road led to the absolute necessity of a frontal assault at Franklin, and one which wasn’t predestined to fail.  In fact, several key Union commanders indicated they feared just such a frontal assault in post-war accounts. Indeed, if it weren’t for the insubordination of Colonel Emerson Opdycke, whose brigade was kept by him in a reserve position at exactly the right spot, the Franklin attack may have succeeded just as Hood had planned. Author Jamie Gillum wrote this book, he writes, to show readers why Franklin happened as it did.

Readers of this review are probably wondering who Gillum thinks is responsible for the Confederate failure at Spring Hill.  Was it Hood, as army commander, for failing to make sure his subordinates understood exactly why it was so important to block the road to Franklin?  Was it Hood for failing to personally lead men onto that all-important avenue of Federal escape?  Was it Frank Cheatham, whose Corps was the first Confederate infantry to arrive on the scene? Was it Cheatham’s division commanders, especially Cleburne and Bate, who were at times so near the road they could see and hear Federal troops using it?  Was it famous cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose cavalry attacked the road north of Spring Hill at Thompson’s Station, but who didn’t manage to stay astride it. Was it possibly Corps commander A. P. Stewart, who was supposed to extend Cheatham’s right to the northwest and gain the road north of Spring Hill?  Or was it some combination of the above?  More importantly, WHY did these failures occur?  We’re discussing the meat of Gillum’s book here, and I encourage you to buy the book to find the answers to these questions and more.

The maps are plentiful, though clustered in the center of the book.   This makes it necessary to have a second bookmark for the map section as you move through the text.  Despite this minor annoyance, the maps do a good job of accompanying the text. Gillum provides several public domain maps from participants and authors first before moving into his own.  The maps help follow the constantly evolving action, and the author did a good job of showing the positions of both sides down to regimental and even company level in places. A book of this type needed many maps to help the reader understand why Hood’s army failed to block the all-important road to Franklin, so it’s encouraging to see them included an done well.

The first person accounts which are so important to this book are laid out in a very easy to understand style.  First person accounts are bolded, allowing the reader to easily distinguish between these and Gillum’s accompanying text.  Gillum mined newspapers, organs of veterans such as Confederate Veteran and the Union National Tribune, and many other sources. The editor of Confederate Veteran, Sumner A. Cunningham, was present at Spring Hill in the Confederate ranks, and his magazine included a lot of content about this small but ultimately critical affair. The Official Records, memoirs, and regimental histories are also mined thoroughly. It is clear the author has mined every conceivable place, and his efforts should be commended.

Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy: The Battle of Spring Hill and Operations on November 29, 1864 Precursor to the Battle of Franklin is the best explanation of Spring Hill, and by extension Franklin and Nashville, I have ever read. Gillum sets out to discover who failed and why  at Spring Hill to the extent he can with the accounts available, and his conclusions seem sound based on the presented evidence. This is one of the best self-published books I’ve seen in terms of editing, maps, and the like.  Don’t let the fact that this book is self-published discourage you from buying it. Students of the Civil War in the west, of John Bell Hood, and of close calls will find this book fascinating.  Those with preconceived notions of Hood or what exactly happened at Spring Hill may find those notions changed after a careful reading of the text. Most importantly, Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy will help you better understand the Battle of Franklin, and why Hood had no chance to win the campaign unless he attacked frontally and immediately that day. I can’t recommend this book enough.  It belongs on your shelf alongside Eric Jacobson’s work on the campaign and Stephen Hood’s look at how John Bell Hood has been badly misrepresented over the last century by certain historians.

To understand the disastrous Confederate result at the Battle of Franklin, you need to understand the previous day’s action at Spring Hill, Tennessee, on November 29, 1864.  To understand the action at Spring Hill…buy Jamie Gillum’s book.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

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The Sacking of “Baldy” Smith: July 19, 1864

by Brett Schulte on July 19, 2014 · 4 comments

Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted at The Siege of Petersburg Online and has been cross-posted here for the benefit of TOCWOC readers.

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July 19, 1864:

William F. “Baldy” Smith is Relieved from Command of 18th Corps, AotJ

WilliamFBaldySmith1 The Sacking of Baldy Smith: July 19, 1864Today marks the 150th anniversary of William F. “Baldy” Smith’s removal from command of the Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James. Smith would never return to the Siege of Petersburg, as Edward O. C. Ord took his place, eventually moving up to command the entire Army of the James. The official explanation was that Smith was relieved due to ill health, but as you’ll see, it wasn’t nearly that simple.

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March 1886: A Casual Dismissal and a Response

Smith was compelled to respond to a February 1886 article in the Century Magazine written by Ulysses S. Grant which stated, among other things:

“General W. F. Smith, who had been promoted to the rank of Major-General shortly after the battle of Chattanooga, on my recommendation, had not yet been confirmed. I found a decided prejudice against his confirmation by a majority of the Senate, but I insisted that his services had been such that he should be rewarded. My wishes were now reluctantly complied with, and I assigned him to the command of one of the corps under General Butler. I was not long in finding out that the objections to Smith’s promotion were well founded.

In a letter to the Century published in Volume 32, Number 1, Smith gave a defense of himself and professed ignorance as to the real reasons why Grant relieved him of command. He points out that Grant had stated the following to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on November 12, 1863:

“I would respectfully recommend that Brigadier-General William F. Smith be placed first on the list for promotion to the rank of major-general. He is possessed of one of the clearest military heads in the army is very practical and industrious no man in the service is better qualified than he for our largest commands.”

For those of you saying, so what, a lot could have changed between November 1863 and July 1864, Smith also offers the following statement from Grant to General Henry W. Halleck on July 1, 1864, just short of three weeks from the date Smith was relieved:

“Mr. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, has just returned. He informs me that he called attention to the necessity of sending General Butler to another field of duty. … I have feared that it might become necessary to separate him and General Smith. The latter is really one of the most efficient officers in the service, readiest in expedients, and most skillful in the management of troops in action. I would dislike removing him from his present command unless it was to increase it, but as I say, I may have to do it if General Butler remains. … I would feel strengthened with Smith, Franklin, or J. J. Reynolds commanding the right wing of this army. . . .

Smith goes on to explain that he tried to take a leave of absence due to health which was denied on July 2, and finally granted a week later after his health didn’t improve.  When he returned on July 19, 1864, he found he was relived from command, and claimed ignorance as to the why:

“I returned to the army on the 19th of July, to find myself relieved from my command. During this absence of ten days, nothing connected with my military duties could have occurred to impair the confidence in me expressed in General Grant’s communication of the 9th.

I sought an explanation from him on the day of my return, and he was as reticent in assigning any cause for his action then as he was twenty-one years after, when, in preparing a contribution to the history of the war, he again passed sentence upon me without assigning a reason of any kind for his condemnation. I am to-day as ignorant of the causes for his action as I was then. That they were purely personal, and had not the remotest connection with my conduct as a soldier, I submit is proved by his own testimony, and it is upon this question alone that I care to defend myself.

March 1, 1886.                                William Farrar Smith.”

 

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September 1886: An Unexpected Revelation

Since Grant had passed away in 1885, you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking this story was over, but it had only just begun. Joel Benedict Ehhardt, a Civil War veteran, postwar lawyer, assistant U.S. District Attorney in Brooklyn, and New York Police Commissioner, among other things, wrote to the Century Magazine in September 1886 and produced a July 30, 1864 letter from Baldy Smith to Senator Solomon Foot, who had passed away in 1866.  Remember that Smith had just written in expressing his ignorance of why Grant had relieved him.  The letter from Smith to Foot, however, seemed to indicate this was a fabrication:

“HON. S. FOOT. “DEAR SENATOR: I am extremely anxious that my friends in my native State should not think that the reason of General Grant relieving me from duty was brought about by any misconduct of mine, and therefore I write to put you in possession of such facts in the case as I am aware of, and think will throw light upon the subject. . . . “On my return from a short leave of absence, on the 19th of July, General Grant sent for me to report to him, and then told me that he ‘could not relieve General Butler,’ and that as I had so severely criticised General Meade, he had determined to relieve me from the command of the Eighteenth Corps, and order me to New York City to await orders. The next morning the General gave some other reasons, such as an article in the ‘Tribune’ reflecting on General Hancock, which I had nothing in the world to do with, and two letters which I had written, before the campaign began, to two of General Grant’s most devoted friends, urging upon them to try and prevent him from making the campaign he had just made. . . . Very truly yours, “WILLIAM F. SMITH, Major-General.”

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July 20, 1864: Meade and Lyman on Smith

Let’s now work our way back to 1864, the day after Smith was relieved.

Enter George Meade, who penned his thoughts on the Smith situation in a letter to his wife:

“Much excitement was created to-day by the announcement that General W. F. Smith, who returned last evening from his sick leave, was this morning relieved from his command of the Eighteenth Corps and ordered to New York. It was only the other day he was assigned by the President to this command, ad Butler sent to Fortress Monroe. It appears now the tables are turned—Butler remains and Smith goes.”

If Meade was involved in any way with Smith’s removal because Smith “had so severely criticised General Meade”, he doesn’t let on here.  Of course the letter, published years after the war, may have been edited prior to publication to strip out anything which could have been overly harmful to Meade.

BenjaminFButler1 The Sacking of Baldy Smith: July 19, 1864Let’s also not forget Theodore Lyman, Meade’s colorful aide-de-camp and friend, who had the following comments about Smith in a letter written to his wife that same July 20:

Woe to those who stand up against [Butler] in the way of diplomacy! Let the history of “Baldy” Smith be a warning to all such. It is an instructive one, and according to camp rumor, runs thus. It was said that Smith, relying on his reputation with Grant, had great ideas of shelving Butler, and Fame even reported that he had ideas also of giving Meade a tilt overboard. So what do we see but an order stating that Major-General Smith was to command the “forces of the field” of the Department, while Major-General Butler would continue to command the Department, with his “Headquarters at Fortress Monroe.” Next day everybody says: “So, Butler has gone.” Not exactly. Butler was still there, precisely as before. “As long as I command the Department, I command its troops; therefore, Headquarters where I please. I please here.” Off goes Smith to Washington, mysteriously. Down pounces Butler on City Point. Long confab with General Grant. Back comes Smith comfortably and is confronted by an order to “proceed at once to New York and await further orders!” Thus did Smith the Bald try the Macchiavelli against Butler the cross-eyed, and got floored at the first round! “Why did he do so?” asked Butler, with the easy air of a strong man. “I had no military ambition; he might have had all that. I have more important things in view!”

It would appear from reading these accounts that at least part of the reason Smith was canned was that he had gotten a bit TOO ambitious, and it cost him his job.  Ironically, had he simply stayed put, he might have been in line later that year to command after Butler’s disastrous Fort Fisher expeditions. It’s important to point out that this wasn’t the first time this sort of thing happened to Baldy Smith.  See Eric Wittenberg’s account of Smith’s actions just prior to Hooker being placed in command of the Army of the Potomac in early 1863.  As Eric so eloquently puts it, “Baldy Smith was a West Pointer, and was, by all accounts, a brilliant engineer. He was also a good soldier, but for his penchant for not knowing when to keep his big mouth shut.” I’d say that observation applies here.

Again, you might think this is the end of the story.  But never underestimate Baldy Smith’s desire to get in the last word, no matter how obtuse he has to appear in order to do so…

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November 1886: An Unconvincing Postscript

After presumably reading Erhardt’s letter in the September 1886 issue of The Century, Smith again wrote in to the magazine in November 1886.  His argument isn’t very convincing.  He explains that though he did write the letter to Senator Foot and it is legitimate, he never said those reasons were the REAL reasons why Grant relieved him, and that he was still ignorant in November 1886 as to what those REAL reasons were:

“All those who have heard my statements will, I think, bear me witness that after stating all the reasons General Grant gave at the time for his action, I have invariably said that I was in utter ignorance of the real cause which induced my summary removal from an important military command. When General Grant stated that he removed me because he could not relieve General Butler, I said that could not be the reason because General Butler was relieved by order of the President, and before I had been placed in command, but after I had asked General Grant to let me go to some other field of duty. From that position General Grant himself retreated, and then spoke of an article in the “New York Tribune” which he thought I had written. To that I replied, “You cannot have relieved me because you suspected me of writing such a paper ; and the truth is that I never saw or heard of the article until it was published, and have not the faintest idea of its authorship.” After this statement General Grant brought up two other reasons, equally without foundation, and all these reasons having reference to events which had taken place before my assignment to the command of the Army of the James. The charge that I had months before written two letters to two of General Grant’s most devoted friends to urge him not to carry out a particular campaign when he stood committed to another on the records of the War Department, is hardly worthy a reference.”

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1904: General James H. Wilson Weighs In

In his book Heroes of the Great Conflict: Life and Services of William Farrar Smith, Major General, United States Volunteers in the Civil War, former cavalry commander James Wilson offered the following commentary:

“Meanwhile however valid and important, in either a military or a political sense, the considerations may have been which sent Butelr out in command of an army wit such men as Smith and [Tenth Corps commander Quincy] Gillmore, both professional soldiers of the highest standing, as his subordinates, the arrangement was unfortunate from the beginning to end, and from its very nature it was foredoomed to failure…”

Wilson concludes in an interesting passage that Smith was relieved because, per Grant, either he had to go or Meade, Burnside, and Butler had to go:

“It will be recalled by those who have read “Butler’s Book,” that in addition to a number of trivial derelictions of duty, General Smith was charged with the more serious one of having failed through negligence and an untimely cessation of operations, to capture Petersburg, when it was claimed that all the conditions were favorable to success. It should also be recalled that several weeks after this failure had taken place and all the necessary explanations had been made and considered, the President had, on Grant’s recommendation, relieved Butler from further service in the field and had assigned General Smith to the command of the Eighteenth Corps which was composed of the troops from Butler’s department, serving with the Army of the Potomac. It should be remembered at the same time that before General Smith received this order he had applied for and been granted leave of absence on account of illness, or as he explained,” because of his old trouble with his head,” and that while he was absent, the Lieutenant General was by some means never fully or satisfactorily explained, induced to restore Butler to his former command and to dispense entirely with the services of General Smith. In reply to a letter from Smith, [Grant] authorized Colonel Comstock of his staff to inform [Smith] that he had been relieved “because of the impossibility of his getting along with General Butler,” who was his senior in rank. But General Grant assured me about this time that it was with great regret that he had taken this action; that he had tried in vain to utilize Smith’s great talents; that he had been too free in his criticisms, and that Smith himself had made it necessary that either he should be relieved or that Meade, Burnside and Butler should be deprived of command and sent out of the army. Some conversation followed, in which it was suggested that he should have given the preference to the alternative as a means of simplifying the organization and increasing the efficiency of the army, and it is a singular coincidence at least, that this suggestion was partly carried into effect, with most excellent results, by the relief of both Butler and Burnside, shortly afterwards, from the command of troops in that theatre of operations. It has besides long been a question among military men whether still better results would not have been obtained if Grant had at the same time relieved Meade, who was certainly a most competent and loyal general, from the immediate command of the Army of the Potomac and placed him instead at the head of an army corps.”

So in 1904 when this was published, Wilson was essentially claiming to have told Grant,

  • sack Butler and Bunside
  • keep Smith
  • fold the Army of the James into the Army of the Potomac
  • take command yourself
  • make Meade a corps commander
  • have an army of five infantry corps and two cavalry divisions1.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I admit to not having heard of before. What do you think?  Was Wilson on to something?  Would it have been politically feasible to keep Smith, remove Butler and Burnside, and make Meade a corps commander?  I’m pretty sure all of this could have been accomplished but one, and it only involved the timing…the removal of prominent War Democrat Butler until AFTER the Presidential election.  This made Wilson’s suggestion a moot point.  Meade probably wouldn’t have suffered this slight without resigning, either. If you need more, it had been found earlier that year that five corps had been too unwieldy an organization, leading to the disbanding of the First and Third Corps.  Why would Grant have immediately gone back to a five corps arrangement just a few months later? This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

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Conclusion

So, for whatever reason, perhaps still unknown or perhaps because he couldn’t keep his big mouth shut, Baldy Smith disappeared from the Siege of Petersburg stage, never to return.  He was officially replaced as Eighteenth Corps commander by Edward O. C. Ord several days later.  Smith hadn’t learned his lesson, and it cost him for good the second time.  He couldn’t combat the combined political might of Butler, Burnside, and Meade, and Grant essentially had no choice but to let him go. Nonetheless, as Wilson noted, Burnside was soon out as a result of the Crater fiasco on July 30, and Butler was finally sacked the first time he messed up after Lincoln had been reelected.  Perhaps Smith was mostly right after all…

  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: Remember, the Sixth Corps and two cavalry divisions had been sent to Washington in early July 1864, leaving Grant with five infantry corps (Second, Fifth, Ninth, Tenth, Eighteenth) and two cavalry divisions (Kautz’s plus the remaining Potomac army cavalry division)

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Civil War Book Review: The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2: The Western Front Battles September 1864-April 1865

by Brett Schulte July 18, 2014

Bearss, Ed. and Suderow, Bryce. The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864-April 1865. (Savas Beatie: March 2014). 600 pages, illustrations, 25 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-7006-1959-7 $39.95 (Cloth). Picking up where Volume 1 left off, the award-winning The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864-April 1865 dusts […]

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Civil War Book Review: Guide to the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign

by Brett Schulte July 16, 2014

Bowery, Charles R. Jr. and Rafuse, Ethan S. Guide to the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. (University Press of Kansas: May 2014). 420 pages, 36 illustrations, 47 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-7006-1959-7 $39.95 (Cloth). Charles Bowery and Ethan Rafuse’s Guide to the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign is the next in a long line of U. S. Army War College […]

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D. S. Freeman’s 4 Vol. Robert E. Lee Biography FREE Online

by Brett Schulte July 15, 2014

The internet can be indescribably awesome sometimes.  This is one of those times.  A recent thread posted at the Civil War Talk message board informed readers that Douglas Southall Freeman’s classic four volume biography of Robert E. Lee is online in its entirety, free, indexed, and searchable.  All 4 volumes.  All 2421 pages.  Simply amazing. […]

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Bearss and Suderow Win 2014 D. S. Freeman Award for The Petersburg Campaign, Volume 2

by Brett Schulte July 14, 2014

Savas Beatie released the following press release recently to announce that the Ed Bearss/Bryce Suderow collaboration on the Petersburg Campaign, The Petersburg Campaign, Volume 2, has won the 2014 Douglas Southall Freeman History Award: El Dorado Hills, CA July 1, 2014 - The Petersburg Campaign, Volume II: The Western Front Battles, September 1864 – April 1865, by […]

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The Siege of Petersburg on Bermuda Hundred

by Brett Schulte June 25, 2014

Many people are familiar with the Bermuda Hundred Campaign of May 1864.  What fewer know is that the Bermuda Hundred front was “contested” throughout the entire Siege of Petersburg.  I placed the word contested in quotes because that front was not an area of focus in Grant’s major offensives against Richmond and Petersburg.  It was […]

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