For more information on the Siege of Petersburg, go to Beyond the Crater: The Siege of Petersburg Online.
How can a campaign of almost ten months be covered in only 96 pages? The answer in this case is by summarizing most actions. Petersburg 1864-65: The longest siege is an entry in Osprey’s long running Campaign Series. It is a helpful primer for those readers new to the Siege of Petersburg, but the 96 page format, especially when considering the length of the action covered, is going to in most cases prevent any new interpretations or conclusions.
Petersburg 1964-65 looks at the nearly ten month long Siege of Petersburg in a neatly laid out book. Author Ron Field first provides readers with a look at the key opposing generals. For instance, Confederate division commander William Mahone played a key role in the Siege because he had been a civil engineer on the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad prior to the war. He used his intimate knowledge of the terrain on more than one occasion to wreak havoc on cautiously advancing Union forces that became separated as their lines stretched.
Next, in typical Osprey Campaign fashion, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia are compared and contrasted. Each Army is broken down and the experiences of each corps and its commander(s) are looked at going into the campaign. Both armies had been severely bloodied by the long and continuous fighting of the Virginia Overland Campaign of May and June 1864. Hancock’s Union II Corps, which had been severely drained of manpower, would show the effects of this in reduced battlefield effectiveness in battles at the Jerusalem Plank Road and Reams’ Station.
The Opposing Plans section covers the importance of Petersburg as a rail and therefore a supply hub of the Confederacy. Grant’s plan then was obviously to cut the railroads and roads leading into Petersburg one by one. He gradually accomplished this mission over almost 10 months by gradually extending his siege lines until he stretched the Confederate army to the breaking point in April 1865. Lee had predicted earlier in the war that once his army was forced into a siege the end of the war was only a matter of time.
The meat of the book covers the military actions of the siege. As in many overviews of the Petersburg Campaign, all but the most popular actions such as the Crater and Fort Stedman are briefly looked at. One surprise was the detailed map of the action at the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road on from June 21-23, 1864. I had never seen a good map depicting the fight on June 22 between Confederate forces under William Mahone and several divisions of the Union II Corps prior to seeing this book, so needless to say this was a pleasant surprise. An entire chapter was dedicated to the Battle of the Crater, while actions before and after were only given a concise outline of events.
The end of the book contained an Order of Battle for both sides, but it too suffered from the length of the action covered in the book. Numerous regiments were mustered out or brought into the campaign as it went on. Larger organizations were merged, shuffled, and even ceased to exist. Leaders were killed and wounded frequently in the campaign. The Army of the James even underwent a massive organizational change where the X Corps and XVIII Corps were broken up and reformed as the White XXIV and the Black XXV Corps. The Order of Battle lists all four corps as if they existed at the same time. The United States Colored Troops regiments were mislabeled as US rather than USCT, which is very misleading for someone new to the campaign. All in all, the Order of Battle is not something I would recommend readers to refer to when looking at the Petersburg Campaign.
One repeated issue concerned slight and sometimes not so slight factual errors. On more than one occasion early in the book, events were reported to have happened in July 1864 when the author clearly meant June. On another occasion, the term division was incorrectly substituted for the word corps.
I can definitely recommend Petersburg 1864-65: The longest siege as a good place to start for readers who wish to learn more about the Siege of Petersburg. However, the brevity of the Campaign series format, which works much better when dealing with shorter campaigns such as Waterloo or Antietam, prevents a truly in depth look in this case. Readers interested in the Siege of Petersburg will want this book in their library, especially considering the price. The map of the late June action along the Jerusalem Plank Road alone makes the book worth it, in this reviewer’s opinion. Be aware of the existence of some (obviously unintentional) factual errors and disregard the Order of Battle. Despite those shortcomings, the book provides value for those wishing to begin to learn more about what happened at “the longest siege” of the Civil War.
Osprey’s Campaign series focuses on major battles and campaigns from throughout history. Everything from the Battle of Cannae to the Battle of the Bulge is covered. Most of the books in the series are 96 pages long, though some of the more famous campaigns such as Gettysburg merit a slightly longer look. The Campaign series is geared to readers new to the specific battle or campaign being covered. The books typically contain a look at the strengths, weaknesses, and makeup of opposing armies and commanders prior to settling into a synthesis of the campaign. Some volumes contain a section on wargaming at the back, while others take a look at the battlefield today. Others even have a brief biographical essay. All generally contain a brief bibliography, though these books do not contain notes. Since these are traditional military history studies, an order of battle for each side is also a regular part of the series. A serviceable index rounds out these books.
I would like to thank Kerry Serini at Osprey Publishing.
***Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!
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