BattleOfPetersburgJune1864ChickPotomacSean Chick, author of The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, recently agreed to answer some questions about the new book.  Sean’s book is only the second modern monograph on this battle, with Thomas Howe’s H. E. Howard volume the other.  Chick was quite gracious in complimenting his predecessor’s work in the foreword of his own book.  Combine Chick’s text and Hal Jespersen’s maps, and you have an important new book on Grant’s First Offensive.

Battle of Petersburg Interview with Sean Chick

1. Sean, thanks for agreeing to do this interview on your new book, The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864.  Tell us a little bit about yourself?  How did you become interested in the Civil War?

I saw the movie Glory in 1990 on HBO with my grandfather and brother. I was caught up in the whole story and then I felt a wave of excitement when grandfather said it was real. That it did happen. I grew up on a steady diet of movies like Jaws and The Monster Squad and Robocop. I knew those were fiction. This was different.

Then I told my father about it and he gave me his take on the war as we skimmed through Robert Paul Jordan’s The Civil War. The pictures were lovely and dramatic. I fell in love. Bad thing was my father was really into the Lost Cause. His view of the war was reactionary, racist, and filled with hatred for the North. I mean deep and bitter hatred; he still thinks New England is God’s scourge on America. I believed him then. It took me many long years to snap out of that view of the war. One important step was going to Vicksburg and seeing the Union graves. Watching Gettysburg helped too, because I was really taken with Buford and Chamberlain in the film. Then there was reading about Sherman. Even in my Lost Cause phase I had an odd fascination for the man. His grisly visage scared me as a child and I loved horror movies. Reading the works by Bruce Catton and David Blight completed my rejection of the Lost Cause.

Yet, my father exuded a demented pain over the war, the feeling that something grand had been lost. I knew then that the past hurt, even the distant past of which we have no memory. My father still reminds me of Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise when he says he was for all the lost causes of history: Bonnie Prince Charlie, Hannibal, the Southern Confederacy. I suffer the same affliction to a degree. I can’t bring myself to play the Roundheads in any wargame nor play against the Jacobites even though my politics is firmly on the left.

 

 

2. My second question is a simple one: Why write a book about the Second Battle of Petersburg?

I was writing a master’s thesis on Kemble Warren, trying to argue that Grant’s Overland Campaign was a mistake. I read about this large battle at Petersburg where he bungled. Thing was I knew nothing of the battle and could find little. That is how I work as a historian. My future topics include such forgotten things as Mine Run and Tullahoma.

 

 

3. Prior to your book’s appearance, I count only one modern battle study of this fight, an H. E. Howard Battles and Leaders series book by Thomas Howe.  Why do you think the battle has waited so long to see dedicated studies given its potential as a possible war winner for Grant?

A lot of reasons. One is a lack of records. By this point both sides were exhausted and few reports were written. So you have some actions that are completely lacking in detail. My own situation made it to where I could not be an archive rat like my mentor, Mark Summers. I am sure another historian will follow me up and fill in some of the details. Mostly though it was because both sides were embarrassed. Grant looked pretty bad in this battle; he vacillated and did little. Lee was confused. After the war both sections wanted to make heroes of these men and Petersburg did not aid such mythologizing. The exception was Beauregard. He wrote a lot about the battle after the war. No other Southerner did. It made Lee look bad and Beauregard’s subordinates were men like Hoke and Bushrod Johnson. Neither man was a glory hound. If Gordon, Early, or Longstreet had been there we would have heard of the battle in greater detail.

 

4. Let’s talk about each day and the measures and countermeasures which ensued.  Day 1 is June 15, 1864.  Grant’s army is crossing the James and heading southwest towards Petersburg.  Baldy Smith’s XVIII Corps, Army of the James is in the lead.  The Confederates have a minor force in Petersburg, Wise’s Virginia Brigade, some reserves and some artillery.  Can you briefly take us through why Baldy Smith failed to take the City?

Smith was exhausted and sick. The heat was unbearable by all accounts. He was by nature cautious and the experience at Cold Harbor rattled him; he was bitter about the battle until his dying day. This is hardly the man to drive hard and fast. That being said, he did some things right. His attack plan on June 15 was very good. Having just read about his actions at Drewry’s Bluff and comparing them to Petersburg, it seems to me he was getting better at high command. Grant was also pleased with his part in the battle. All around he failed on June 15, but his failure was out done by those who followed.

 

5. The second day, June 16, 1864, sees reinforcements arrive on both sides.  Hancock’s Second Corps is already on the field on the night of the 15th, and Burnside’s Ninth Corps arrives late on the morning of the 16th.  Hoke’s Division, and then Johnson’s Division, both of Beauregard’s Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, help bolster the Confederate defense. Walk us through the action as the battle grows larger.

Meade rushed over and prepared to attack. Trouble was he lacked cavalry. Only Kautz was on hand and he was not a good commander. So Meade did not know the Rebel right flank was open. So he makes a concentrated push that is as bad for II Corps as the June 3 attack at Cold Harbor. They lost four brigade commanders this day, three in the main attack. Petersburg was one of the most costly battles of the war in terms of brigade commanders. 11 were killed or wounded. Christ’s brigade in IX Corps went through 3 commanders in about 24 hours.

 

6. The third day, June 17, 1864, saw even more reinforcements, with Warren’s Fifth Corps coming into the fold on the Northern side.  Lee, still unsure this was the main Union effort, could not be convinced by Beauregard to send a large force to his support.  It would seem the Federals had a significant advantage on this day.  Take us through the events of this day.

This is really the day the Union lost the battle. Meade succumbed to exhaustion. He was probably despondent after the June 16 attacks failed. So he does nothing. Burnside makes three attacks on the right flank. He fails to coordinate, but his commanders show some skill. Potter’s morning assault was a smashing success, an example of what might have been if Union commanders had paid more attention to proper assault tactics. I am firmly in the Paddy Griffith camp that says the war tactically speaking was more Napoleonic than modern. Potter’s assault is one example of this.

The most dramatic moment was Gould’s Charge. This was one of the longest and most bitter fights of the war and extremely confusing. Piecing together this failed attack was a research nightmare. I am still not sure exactly what happened, but the same is true of the participants.

If Meade had hurled his army forward on June 17 or if Warren had attacked boldly, the battle would have been won.

 

7. The last day, June 18, 1865, finally saw the arrival of most of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Union Sixth Corps had been sent to Bermuda Hundred rather than to Petersburg, so they did not factor into this battle.  Take us through the final actions prior to this becoming a siege.

The battle was all but lost on June 18. Beauregard withdrew to a rear line that he had set up on June 17. The only hope was if V Corps had pressed forward quickly or used a bit of maneuver. Once again, the lack of cavalry played a part; a hard driving battle cavalry would have exposed the weak Rebel right. The attacks that came after 10am were a waste of lives, but Meade was not so sure. So he pressed on a series of attacks took place, every bit as bloody as Cold Harbor. Whether we blame Meade for that or the fog of war is a worthy debate. I want to be careful here. I do not want to be one of Richard Taylor’s “heaven-born, who from their closets scan with eagle glance fields of battle, whose mighty pens slay their thousands and their tens of thousands, and in whose Serbonian inkstands armies whole disappear.” Meade was not sure all was lost until he heard of the destruction of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery.

 

8. Your maps were created by Hal Jespersen, who routinely does great work.  I noted at the time and now that the book is out that you used Kickstarter to help pay for the maps.  Tell us about that experience.  How did it work out for you?

Just fine actually. I was a bit embarrassed to seek money but I simply did not have the funds at the time. Raising the money was a wonderful experience. I have a good support network for my work.

 

9. Speaking of maps, I’ve noticed that this battle suffers from a lack of good maps, especially for the days following June 15.  Even Ed Bearss’ extensive Petersburg map series for the National Park Service doesn’t cover the events of this day.  What are your thoughts on why this happened? Are the reasons similar to the lack of modern studies up until your book and Thomas Howe’s book?

My theory is Bearss was discussing what the Petersburg battlefield covered. There are markers and monuments for the events of June 15 and 18. Not so much for the 16 and 17. Then there are the lack of records. I love Howe’s book on the battle, but even he had few Rebel sources. I had to really scrap the bottom of the barrel on the Internet to get the Confederate perspective.

 

10. If you had to pick just one person on each side who was most responsible for the battle’s eventual outcome, who would you pick?  Why?

In battle the most important single man is almost always the army commander. So for the South it is Beauregard, for standing firm and creating the second line of defense. For the North it is Meade for making a bad attack plan on June 16, not attacking on June 17 (Burnside took the initiative here), and then for attacking on June 18 when all was lost. Beyond these two I will go with Warren and Wise. Warren had a golden chance to win on June 17. On June 18 he was the only man capable of possibly gaining a victory. He failed on both counts. Indeed, his inactivity on June 17 is among the worst blunders of the war. I go with Wise for the Rebels because held firm on June 15. On June 17 he failed to cover a gap that allowed Potter to destroy Fulton’s brigade, so he nearly lost the battle. His men though made a counterattack that helped stem Gould’s Charge. Wise was neither a good man nor a good general, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. Petersburg, June 9 and 15, was his finest hour.

 

11. What were the three most important turning points?  How did they shape the way the battle turned out?

The first is Smith’s pause at noon on June 15. His night time pause was understandable, but this one was less so. He spent too much time scouting and planning. If he had attacked earlier he would have had enough daylight to take the city. Second would be Warren’s pause on June 17 although his roughly 15,000 troops confronted no more than 2,000. Lastly is Beauregard’s decision to create a third defensive line on June 16. His withdrawal to this line was masterful, and given Lee’s tardiness, a bold move. After all, he risked having his whole command destroyed on June 17 by standing firm to give the slaves and militia time to construct the final line.

 

12. We’ve covered some of the reasons why this battle was less well remembered after the war due to the way postwar politics played out.  Tell us a little more about how Civil War memory shaped how we view the Second Battle of Petersburg today.

Partisans on each side tout Lee or Grant as the military hero of their respective side. Both men look quite bad here. Lee was very slow to react. In fact, this might have been his gravest operational blunder of the war. Grant though did nothing to press his attacks. By sending VI Corps to Butler, then swapping VI Corps out for XVIII Corps he wasted time and took troops away from the decisive point of action. Petersburg dispels the myth of Lee the prescient and Grant the hard-driver. It at least shows a glaring exception to those rules.

 

13. I loved the way you utilized excerpts from Civil War veteran and noted author Ambrose Bierce’s book The Devil’s Dictionary.  Can you tell us a little about why you chose to do this?

I like tying things to other aspects of life. A lot of Civil War books are not informed by art or even warfare outside of America. We need more books that examine the Civil War as compared to the battles of men like Marlborough and Maurice de Saxe.

Civil War books in the classic vein are valuable for the information they contain. Yet they remind me of the Pink Floyd song “Us and Them,” and the lyrics “Forward he cried from the rear/ and the front rank died/ And the general sat and the lines on the map/moved from side to side/Black and blue/And who knows which is which and who is who.” I did not wholly avoid this. It might be just too ingrained in the DNA of battlefield histories. But I wanted the book to be different. Ambrose Bierce seemed like a good man to invoke the cynicism and tragedy of the whole thing. The battles he fought in reads like a greatest hit list from the Army of the Cumberland: Shiloh, Corinth, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Pickett’s Mill, Kennesaw Mountain, and Franklin. He seemed appropriate and irreproachable due to his record.

This by the way was the only part of Blight’s Race and Reunion I thought was wrong. Blight saw in Bierce the embodiment of the war’s meaning growing hollow in the North. This misreads the North, who celebrated their victory with gusto. Blight’s contention is that blacks were excluded from that celebration which is true. But it was always a war for union first and foremost. Slavery was the rock that shattered the union which is why even hardcore racists in Pennsylvania backed emancipation but would not go farther. I mention this because Union war memory, which I call The Just Cause, should be dealt with by historians and understood on its terms. I still toy with writing such an account, but I feel it is better left to more scholastic hands than mine.

Bierce was a cynic before the war; he was the kid who asked for a pet snake instead of a dog. There is a reason he wrote mostly short stories of war and horror. He seemed the perfect man to invoke the tragedy of lives wasted in a battle the North should have won.

 

14. Thanks for your time, and best wishes on the success of The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864. Do you have any plans to write about other Siege of Petersburg topics in the future?

I have started work on the Bermuda Hundred campaign, partially to address the paucity of information on Butler’s actions in conjunction with Petersburg. I have some new information and hope to include it, making the book a kind of prequel and supplement to The Battle of Petersburg. After that I will go west, the part of the war I have more interest in actually. If I do another Virginia book it will be on Meade and Lee in fall 1863.

{ 0 comments }


***

Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!

What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.

Want to read some interesting Civil War content from amateurs and pros alike? Check out the Top 10 Civil War Blogs and Top 10 Civil War Blogs: 11-20.

Alexander, Edward S. Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865. (Savas Beatie: March 2015). 168 pages, 172 illustrations, 7 maps.  ISBN: 978-1-61121-280-8. $12.95 (Paperback)

Layout 1The Emerging Civil War Series turns its eyes to the final days of the Siege of Petersburg in Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865 by Edward S. Alexander.  This introductory volume neatly serves as short primer on the many small but hotly contested actions around the Cockade City in late March and early April 1865, beginning with the well-known Battle of Fort Stedman and ending with the fall of Richmond and Petersburg.  The book is accompanied by more than 150 illustrations and 7 maps and is an ideal book for a beginner to get a handle on the tail end of a relatively unknown, though lengthy and bloody, campaign.

Fellow University of Illinois alum Edward S. Alexander penned this volume in the Emerging Civil War Series.  Alexander is an especially fitting choice for an author on this topic.  His day job is as a park ranger at Pamplin Historical Park, which is primarily located on the ground where the Union Sixth Corps broke through the Confederate lines on April 2, 1865, finally ending the Siege of Petersburg.  Alexander also previously worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and is a contributing member of the Emerging Civil War blog.

The Emerging Civil War series by Savas Beatie “ offers compelling and easy-to-read overviews of some of the Civil War’s most important battles and issues. Each volume features more than a hundred-and-fifty photos and graphics, plus sharp new maps and visually engaging layouts.” Though the series often focuses on battles great and small, it also branches off and delves into topics such as the writing of Grant’s Memoirs and the burial of Civil War dead.  To date, much of the focus has been on the last several years of the war, an area which has been persistently overlooked in the 150 years since the war. At the time of this review, there are no less than 15 books in the series, with seemingly more on the way every month.  This is a worthy successor to the Combined Books Great Campaigns series in terms of introducing readers to new actions of which they may have little to no previous knowledge.

By late March 1865, the Confederate army’s position around Petersburg and Richmond was precarious.  Confederate commander Robert E. Lee Lee had been forced to continuously extend his lines over the last nine months, reacting to Ulysses S. Grant’s relentless probes of his left and right.  Now, as the spring campaigning season arrived, the Confederates had reached their breaking point.  To make matters worse, Lee had been forced to send off precious men to North Carolina to help retard Sherman’s march north, while Grant received reinforcements in the form of Sheridan’s Cavalry, Sixth Corps, and what became the Independent Division of the Army of the James.

Lee and his Second Corps commander John B. Gordon worked out a last ditch attack plan and scheduled it for March 25, 1865.   The resulting Battle of Fort Stedman was a dismal failure.  Not only did the direct attack fail, costing Lee irreplaceable casualties, but George Meade’s Army of the Potomac sensed an opportunity and seized miles of high ground along the picket lines south and west of Petersburg from the thinned Rebel lines.  These picket lines would serve as jumping off point for the successful April 2 assaults.

Before those final assaults, though, Grant launched an offensive around Lee’s right flank.  He utilized the Second and Fifth Corps from the Army of the Potomac, Sheridan’s reunited Cavalry Corps, composed of three divisions, and an ad hoc force from the Army of the James commanded in person by that army’s commander Edward O. C. Ord.  As Warren’s Fifth Corps probed the end of the Confederate main line and fought several battles at Lewis Farm and White Oak Road, Sheridan moved off to Dinwiddie Court House, well to the southwest of Lee’s right.  Grant intended to launch Sheridan on a raid, or, as events would pass, send him in to attack Lee’s right.

Lee was no fool.  He knew the Union army would attempt to get around his flank, and he detached a combined infantry/cavalry force composed of Pickett’s Division, First Corps and the remaining Confederate cavalry divisions to Five Forks, hoping to counter any move Sheridan might make.  The confederates attacked first, driving Sheridan back almost to Dinwiddie court House on March 31, 1865.  Sheridan turned the tables on April 1 at Five Forks, driving off the mobile Confederate force and opening up the possibility of final assaults on Petersburg from all directions.

Those assaults came on April 2, 1865.  At dawn, the Sixth Corps and Ninth Corps attacked south and southeast of Petersburg, respectively.  The Ninth Corps attack, all but unknown today, stalled at Fort Mahone.  But the Sixth Corps permanently broke through the Confederate entrenchments.  Various actions occurred southwest of Petersburg until the Sixth Corps and Twenty-Fourth Corps assaulted Forts Whitworth and Gregg, whose locations were sited so to buy time for the inner Confederate lines to be filled.  After a heroic defense, those Confederate inner lines had been occupied, ending the suspense and allowing the Confederates to evacuate much less chaotically through the night.  The Appomattox Campaign would be fought over the following week, and ended with Lee’s surrender to Grant.

Author Edward Alexander does a very good job of covering Fort Stedman, the Sixth Corps assaults of April 2, and the Battle of Fort Gregg.  Less time is spent on Sheridan’s and Warren’s actions on the far right in the days leading up to April 2, and no time at all is spent on the Ninth Corps assault on the final morning.  To be fair, the focus is on the battles which directly caused Richmond and Petersburg to fall, and they are also the main topic of the author’s day job.  In addition, the sheer number of fights and the introductory format made this one of the more challenging campaigns to fit into the allotted number of pages.

Three “official appendices” and two more unofficial ones add considerable extra value to the book.  The first appendix covers terms commonly used in siege warfare.  This is especially helpful in an introductory book because most of the words are French in origin and may be unfamiliar even to fairly well-read Civil War buffs.  The second appendix centers on a completely unknown episode of the war. Sheridan’s march from the Shenandoah Valley with his cavalry to the environs of Petersburg and Richmond, destroying Confederate infrastructure as he went, is given a nice overview here.  Sheridan’s move from the Valley is one of those episodes of troops moving from one major theater to another, away from the main spotlight, so it was heartening to see this handled in an appendix.  Sheridan played a key role at Petersburg, so the topic ties in nicely to the main text.  The last official appendix is also a natural fit.  Edward Alexander writes about his employer, Pamplin Historical Park.  The park, run by Petersburg expert Wil Greene, is a gem of a Civil War site, including the presence of the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.  A standard order of battle for the last nine days of the Petersburg Siege is next, followed up with an impressive feature which guides interested readers to other books on this topic.  While some of these books also happen to be Savas Beatie titles, many are not, and most of the key volumes you’d find in my Siege of Petersburg Bibliography for the Ninth Offensive are listed.

The maps by Hal Jespersen and illustrations in this series continue to impress.  Savas Beatie continues to support its authors with the ability to produce a suitable number of maps for battle studies.  In this case, I would’ve liked to have seen even more.  White Oak Road, Lewis Farm, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks are only covered on very high level maps.  That said, one nice map which WAS included involved the Union Sixth Corps’ movement southwest to Hatcher’s Run, something I’ve rarely seen in map form.  The maps often go down to regimental level detail, though the method of indicating elevation is less than ideal.  All of this said, the maps add quite a bit to the story.  The illustrations occur on nearly every page.  Sidebars give glimpses into soldiers, civilians, houses, and other key items on the topic.  This feature more than anything reminds one of the Combined Publishing efforts of the early 1990s.

Taken as a whole, Edward Alexander’s Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865 is a fine addition to the Emerging Civil War Series and to the literature focusing on the Siege of Petersburg.  Veteran readers of the Siege of Petersburg will find little new here, but unless you’re familiar with Wil Greene’s Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion or Andy Trudeau’s The Last Citadel, odds are you’ll find out quite a bit by reading this book.  In fact, Dawn of Victory is a really nice lead-in to Greene’s more detailed effort on the Ninth Offensive.

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

{ 4 comments }


***

Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!

What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.

Want to read some interesting Civil War content from amateurs and pros alike? Check out the Top 10 Civil War Blogs and Top 10 Civil War Blogs: 11-20.

A Look at Some Period Guns

by Fred Ray June 20, 2015

Just a quick look at some period firearms. Cap and Ball, whom we have met before, shoots an original .58 cal. Springfield rifle-musket. He shows it can shoot quite accurately at a distance, but OTOH he’s an experienced shot and has fiddled with it a bit. Then, a look at the Needham postwar conversion to […]

Read the full article →

Grant & The Red River Campaign, Part 6

by Ned B. June 13, 2015

Continued from Part 5. In previous posts I wrote about Grant’s orders to Banks on March 15 and March 31, 1864.  Grant continued to be anxious about the situation in Louisiana so in mid April he sent another set of orders to Banks.  This time he tasked Gen. Hunter with hand delivering the message and […]

Read the full article →

Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 8

by Brett Schulte June 8, 2015

Editor’s Note: This post was first posted at The Siege of Petersburg Online and has been crossposted here. This series of posts offer a look at Sean Chick’s new book The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864.  The Battle of Petersburg was part of Grant’s First Offensive against Petersburg. Sean Michael Chick is a 33 […]

Read the full article →

Grant & The Red River Campaign, Part 5

by Ned B. June 7, 2015

Continued from Part 4. Grant’s first order to Banks reached him on March 26 at Alexandria, Louisiana, where the forces for the campaign had concentrated. Though delayed by the navy’s effort to get the boats over the rapids, Banks still hoped he could reach Shreveport around April 10 and return Sherman’s troops after that.1   […]

Read the full article →

Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 7

by Brett Schulte June 1, 2015

Editor’s Note: This post was first posted at The Siege of Petersburg Online and has been crossposted here. This series of posts offer a look at Sean Chick’s new book The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864.  The Battle of Petersburg was part of Grant’s First Offensive against Petersburg. Sean Michael Chick is a 33 […]

Read the full article →