Author Interview: Richard J. Sommers, Author of Richmond Redeemed

by Brett Schulte on February 2, 2015 · 1 comment

Publisher Savas Beatie (www.savasbeatie.com) originally published this author interview with Richmond Redeemed author Richard J. Sommers.  Savas Beatie recently published an updated Second Edition of this classic look at the Siege of Petersburg’s Fifth Offensive.  For more information on this and many other fine Civil War books, contact Savas Beatie at sales@savasbeatie.com.

An Interview with Richmond Redeemed author Dr. Richard J. Sommers

RichmondRedeemed2ndEd: We are in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, interviewing Dr. Richard J. Sommers, author of Richmond Redeemed: the Siege at Petersburg; The Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff and Poplar Spring Church. That is quite a title for your book.

Sommers: Suitably so, because they were quite some operations. They formed a key part of the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, during the Civil War — almost the decisive part, thanks to Ulysses S. Grant, but not quite the decisive part, thanks to Robert E. Lee.

: Help us, then, understand the context of those operations. What was the Siege of Petersburg?

Sommers: Petersburg was the rail center for the Confederate capital. Through Petersburg ran key railroads that linked Richmond to the rest of the Confederacy. Defending Petersburg was essential to defending Richmond. Capturing Petersburg would pose mortal peril to the capital. Grant initially attacked “the Cockade City” (as Petersburg was nicknamed), June 15-18, 1864, but failed to capture it. He then tried to outflank it southward, only to be defeated again, June 22-23. Thereafter he besieged the city. Over ensuing months, he launched a series of attacks, which I term “Offensives,” against Confederate supply lines south of Petersburg and against Richmond itself. Those strikes both north and south of the James River were not separate operations. Each Offensive was an integral whole, aimed at catching the Graycoats off guard and vulnerable on one sector or both.

: You have written about the Fifth Offensive in late September and early October of 1864. What did it achieve?

Sommers: Almost everything! The Bluecoats bashed so big a breakthrough that they almost captured Richmond itself. They came closer to doing so on September 29, 1864, than on any other day in the entire Civil War until they finally occupied the city without resistance on April 3, 1865. So dire was the danger that Lee was prepared to abandon Petersburg on September 30 if necessary to save his capital.

: Yet Richmond did not fall that day. Petersburg was not abandoned. Why was that?

Sommers: Why indeed! That is the story which unfolds in Richmond Redeemed.It is a story of opportunities won and lost, of battling back against tremendous odds, of not yielding to supposed threats, of incredible heroism on both sides. It is a story of veteran regiments from 28 states, North and South, honed by years of warfare, and of new Union and Confederate units that experienced the shock and horror of combat for the first time. It is a story of the biggest, bloodiest battle by Black brigades in the entire Civil War, where African-American soldiers earned thirteen Medals of Honor. And it is a story of the burdens of senior leadership: generals seeking success in the chaos of battle, in the ambiguity of Offensives, and in the uncertainty of war itself.

: Such momentous battles must have been extensively covered ever since 1864, I should suppose.

Sommers: Actually not. Neither the Fifth Offensive nor the entire Siege of Petersburg had received much attention before I wrote my dissertation in 1970 and before the first edition of Richmond Redeemed came out in 1980-81. Except for a few exotic and atypical incidents, such as the Battle of the Crater on July 30 and the Cattle Raid on September 14-17, most previous writers paid little heed to the siege as a whole and to its characteristic Offensives. Those authors leaped from the first forays on June 15-18 to the final fights on March 25-April 2, then hastened on to Appomattox a week later and were done.

: You mean that the significance of the Fifth Offensive had not been recognized before you wrote?

Sommers: That is exactly what I mean. I myself did not realize the importance of those operations until I began researching my dissertation. Indeed, I was attracted to those battles precisely because they were unknown. I did not want to merely rehash twice told tales for the twentieth time. My goal was to expand the frontiers of knowledge: to open new areas of understanding. In so doing, I uncovered an Offensive that was not only unexplored but also unimaginably significant, almost decisive.

: So Richmond Redeemed was a pioneering publication on Petersburg?

Sommers: Indeed, it was. Not since a participant, Major General Andrew A. Humphreys, wrote a history way back in 1883 had any major work been published on the Siege of Petersburg. Richmond Redeemed was immediately recognized as an important contribution in its own right. Most gratifyingly, it has also stimulated a wealth of other publications on the entire siege and on particular Offensives over the last four decades. Savas-Beatie has published some of those good books by good friends of mine, such as Ed Bearss’ and Bryce Suderow’s two-volume The Petersburg Campaign, Andy Trudeau’s The Last Citadel, and John Horn’s The Battles for the Weldon Railroad.

: You mentioned that Richmond Redeemed first appeared in 1980-81. Is this 2014 work simply a reprint of the original edition?

Sommers: Absolutely not! This 150th anniversary edition contains new research in printed and manuscript sources, new illustrations, new writing, and — most importantly — new thinking. It is, in sum, a new book.

: What is the basis for what you call “new thinking?”

Sommers: Time, events, circumstance, stimulus all contribute to this new thinking. A third of a century has gone by since the book was first published. During those decades, I have thought anew about the subject. Additional research has afforded additional understanding. Conversing with fellow Civil War scholars and military historians has stimulated new thinking. So has engaging with fellow Civil Warriors in Civil War Round Tables and at Civil War seminars and conferences all across the United States. There is nothing like talking with Civil War buffs to prompt perspectives on Petersburg.

: I understand that you have had a special source of strategic stimulus these past seven years.

Sommers: Yes, indeed. Since 2008, I have taught electives and core courses to both resident and distance-education students at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. War College students are Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels as well as Navy and Coast Guard Captains and Commanders who have demonstrated potentiality to become Generals and Admirals. By including military history in their courses, I hope to have contributed to their professional development as senior strategic leaders. Presenting military history in ways that are pertinent to them prompted insights for me. Those students, in turn — through their real-world experience in making military history — have contributed to my understanding of generalship and high command. These new insights and understandings I have interwoven throughout this new 150th anniversary edition of Richmond Redeemed.

: Insights from these present and future Generals can certainly provide perspectives. How else do you try to understand Grant and Lee, their fellow generals, their subordinates, and their soldiers?

Sommers: That is a challenge. Obviously I cannot interview them, so I rely on the next best thing: their writings. Some participants published autobiographies and memoirs. Many Northern veterans wrote histories of their regiments (Confederates were equally proud of their outfits, but the impoverished South during and after Reconstruction could afford far fewer books.). Books, by definition, are intended for public consumption. Still more revealing can be manuscript sources: unpublished family letters, diaries, and personal reminiscences. Even among official battle reports, dispatches, and telegrams, only a fraction has been published; many survive only in manuscript.

: Where did you study all these printed and unprinted accounts?

Sommers: My graduate school, Rice University, has a great Civil War library. The institution to which I devoted my entire professional career, the U.S. Army Military History Institute, has the best collection of Civil War books and Civil War photographs and one of the best collections of Civil War manuscripts in the world. The Chicago Public Library, the New York City Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the University of Texas Library also proved useful for books. On the other hand, manuscripts are unique, by definition. To find them, I travelled to over 100 archives, from Maine to California and from Minnesota to Florida. I must have examined tens of thousands of soldier letters — at least it seems that way. The bibliography of the original edition contains over 1200 sources, representing only accounts actually cited. The current bibliography exceeds 1400 sources.

: After you have grounded yourself in so many sources, how do you present your story?

Sommers: I let the story unfold as the battles and the Offensive themselves unfolded. I maintain the suspense and never get ahead of myself by tipping off readers to the outcome. Readers step lively with the columns of march, charge with the brigades, man the ramparts with the defenders, plan with the generals, and struggle with those commanders to try to fathom the uncertainty of battle and of war. History is exciting — especially military history, which literally deals with issues of life and death where the outcome of battles, even the survival of nations may be at stake. I feel that excitement and that enthusiasm. My challenge as an author is to share that excitement with readers. All the while, I strive to uphold the canons of scholarship and the cogency of analysis but never in a pedantic or boring way. As far as I am concerned, there is no contradiction between good writing and good scholarship; together they make good history.

: Clearly you love military history. How long have you had this interest?

Sommers: For farther back than I can remember. People say that I have a good memory, but even I cannot recall when I first became interested in military history. I have revived recollections from third grade proving that I already had that interest by then. Just when it began I do not know. Back then, let me add, my interest was ancient and medieval military history: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Richard the Lion-Hearted and Robert the Bruce, and so on. But right at the start of eighth grade, I had the great good fortune to read Bruce Catton’s three volumes on the Army of the Potomac. He was such a gifted and graceful writer that he won me over to the Civil War, and I have been there ever since then — for 59 years now.

: Please tell us a little about yourself.

Sommers: I was born in Hammond, Indiana, and grew up in the far southern Illinois suburbs of Chicagoland, almost out in what was then open farmland, right next to the woodlands and prairies of a Cook County Forest Preserve nature park. In 1964, I earned my B.A. from Carleton College, where I made friendships that have lasted a lifetime. My doctoral work was at Rice University, under the mentorship of the great Civil War scholar Dr. Frank E. Vandiver. Fellow graduate students of those years include Thomas L. Connelly, Joseph L. Harsh, Emory Thomas, Jon Wakelyn, and Judy Gentry. Following graduation in 1970, I had a summer job at Rice as research historian with the Jefferson Davis Association, studying newspapers of 1846-47 for accounts of Colonel Davis and his 1st Mississippi Rifle Regiment in the Mexican War. From October of 1970 until retiring from Federal service in January, 2014, I served as the Chief Archivist-Historian, the Assistant Director for Archives, the Assistant Director for Patron Services, the General Harold Keith Johnson Professor of Military History, and the Senior Historian of the directorate of the Army War College successively known as the U.S. Army Military History Research Collection, the U.S. Army Military History Institute, and now the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. Also, throughout my years here in Pennsylvania, I have been active in the Harrisburg Civil War Round Table. I served three years as its President and 32 years as its Program Chairman, retiring from that Chairmanship just in June of 2014. I have many friends in our own Round Table and in other Round Tables around the nation.

: Will you remain in Pennsylvania or return to the Midwest?

Sommers: I shall always be a Midwesterner at heart, but Pennsylvania is home now. After almost 44 years here, my roots are deep, and here we shall stay. Carlisle is a historic, picturesque, small town in a scenic rural setting of the beautiful Cumberland Valley, yet it also hosts three colleges and the greatest Civil War research collection in the world. My wife and I recently tripled the size of our home, which is situated in a nice neighborhood and overlooks Letort Creek. Yes, indeed, this is our home.

: So you are married. Please tell us about your family.

Sommers: Actually, we are newlyweds. Tracy and I met in June of 2010 at a Virginia Tech Civil War conference where I spoke. One year later, we got married. She moved all the way from Orange County, California, to Carlisle so we could wed — or so she could be closer to Gettysburg and Antietam! For me, at the tender young age of 69, it is my first marriage. Tracy is well worth the wait all this while. She is the perfect wife — and the perfect helpmate. I could not have completed Richmond Redeemed so promptly and so well without her invaluable contributions. It is no wonder that I have dedicated this new edition to her.

: And how about your own family?

Sommers: My parents passed away in the early 1990s. I have a younger brother, Walter, who is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities and who is now a bond salesman. He and his family reside in the Chestnut Hill community of Philadelphia. He and I have followed different educational paths and different professions and yet have ended up within 120 miles of each other.

: So he has not yet retired, I gather.

Sommers: That’s right, but then neither have I, really. True, I have recently retired from full-time Federal employment, but I shall never retire from the profession of military historian. I continue to teach in the Army War College. I continue to be available to speak to Civil War groups all across our country. And I continue to write: witness Richmond Redeemed.

: There is that title again, “Richmond Redeemed” — just what does it mean, anyway?

Sommers: It is the title of the book. It is the title of the final, analytical chapter of the book. And it concludes the final sentence of that final chapter. To find out what it means, people will just have to read the book. I hope that they will find reading it a stimulating, exciting, and enjoyable learning experience!

: Thank you, Dr. Sommers. We appreciate your time.

Sommers: You are welcome.

Camp Pope Publishing

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ted Savas February 2, 2015 at 9:51 am

Brett,

Many thanks for posting this interview, and for your steady support for independent Civil War publishing. All involved, from publisher and authors to readers and vendors, appreciate it.

Ted

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