Horn, John. The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864. (Savas Beatie: January 2015). 384 pages, 26 images, 22 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-61121-216-7. $32.95 (Cloth)
With The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864, John Horn and Savas Beatie have produced a new and improved “150th Anniversary Edition” of the author’s earlier work on the August 1864 battles at the Siege of Petersburg. Horn covers Grant’s Fourth Offensive against Petersburg, the longest and one of the two bloodiest of the nine attempts against the Cockade City. The new book includes a beefed up section on the Second Battle of Deep Bottom, increased first person accounts from the soldiers who were there, and new and improved maps by Hampton Newsome, among other things. Take it all together, and both those who have the first edition and readers new to these fights will all want to own the new version.
John Horn, a Chicago-based lawyer, has worked on various aspects of the Petersburg Campaign for decades. In addition to his first and second editions of the book on Grant’s Fourth Offensive, also collaborated with Hampton Newsome on what was essentially a second volume of George Bernard’s unpublished “War Talks.” Lastly, Horn produced an overview of the entire Petersburg Campaign for the Great Campaigns series back in the 1990s. He’s also been working in a regimental history whose roots run deep in Petersburg, Virginia. Lastly, Mr. Horn recently started a Siege of Petersburg blog.
By August 1864, Grant’s long and bloody attempt to subdue Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was into its fourth month. The Army of the Potomac, including and especially the Second Corps, had been reduced to a shell of its former self. Abraham Lincoln’s reelection prospects were as low as they would ever get using the inverse ratio of gold prices to perceived Union success. Sherman was seriously threatening Atlanta, Jubal Early was seriously threatening the North via the Shenandoah Valley, and stalemate reigned. Some wanted Grant to withdraw to Washington with much of his force in order to fight Early, but per the author, Grant was worried about Lee’s possible reinforcement of Atlanta if he did so. It seems from the evidence Lee may have had a similarly lofty goal, but in the east. At one point, just as Grant was launching the Fourth Offensive, Lee had orders out to much of First Corps and much of his cavalry to reinforce Early in the Valley. Lee, Horn writes, could reasonably have been expecting to join them, much as he did two years earlier during the Second Bull Run Campaign. Grant’s thrust prevented these reinforcements from arriving, and in some cases, from ever even leaving. Grant’s decision to attack was meant to keep Lee pinned down with a secondary objective of the Weldon Railroad. Lee knew this supply line was too close to the Federals to keep it open indefinitely, but he did hope to keep it operational through the harvest in late September, another six weeks away.
Grant’s Fourth Offensive featured the same plan as his Third Offensive. He would send a strong Federal presence across the James River at Deep Bottom to threaten Richmond, forcing Lee to reinforce his troops on that side of the line. After this portion of the offensive was well underway, Grant would strike south of the Appomattox near Petersburg, hopefully against a much reduced Confederate force. As it had in late July, the plan worked extremely well in mid-August. Winfield Scott Hancock took his Second Corps, the Tenth Corps of the Army of the James, and some of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps north of the James River. Heat factored heavily into the equation during this operation. The Richmond-Virginia area was suffering from a drought as well, causing many thousands of troops to fall out on the march with heat stroke and exhaustion. After initial fighting on August 14, 1864 north and northeast of Deep Bottom, Hancock started moving to the northeast, his right, in an attempt to get around the Confederate left. The result was the August 16, 1864 “Battle of Fussell’s Mill,” in which the Army of the James at first pierced a potentially devastating hole in Charles Field’s division, but were unable to sustain their momentum against furious though piecemeal Confederate counterattacks. The Union results were not great, except in one important respect. On August 18, 1864, as the Federal thrust against the Weldon Railroad was getting underway south of Petersburg, Lee was personally leading a counterattack at Fussell’s Mill against Hancock’s reduced force southeast of Richmond. The Union strategy had worked. As in late July, Lee’s forces south of the Appomattox River near Petersburg would be critically weak and unable to mount decisive counterattacks, this time until it was too late to prevent the occupation of the Weldon Railroad.
Gouverneur Warren was tasked with moving onto the Weldon Railroad, tearing it up while also moving as close to Petersburg as possible. On August 18, 1864 his Fifth Corps did just that near Globe Tavern. While one division began wrecking the railroad others were moved north and west of the tavern to begin feeling out nearby Confederate forces. On August 18, Henry Heth could only muster three brigades for an attack. Despite the paucity of the force, they did outsized damage on this first day of confused fighting in what Horn describes as terrain similar to the famous Wilderness. Worse was yet to come for the Federals. On day 2, August 19, Union officers from Warren down to brigade commander Bragg failed to secure Warren’s right, where skirmishers of the famous Iron Brigade were poorly positioned. As a result, William Mahone delivered a devastating flank attack through the thick woods with only three brigades while Heth kept the Federals busy in front. The results were astonishing, with essentially an entire Union division captured on the field. The Confederates lost nearly nothing. Horn argues that the third day of the battle, August 20, was the decisive day, solely for what the Confederates failed to do. He points out they had the same number of men available that day, 9.5 brigades, as they would in their disastrous attack of August 21. When they failed to attack on August 20, Warren dug in extremely well and was given a reprieve from a possible disaster. Poor Confederate reconnaissance on August 20-21 led to a disastrous frontal assault on August 21, and the Union forces were seated permanently on the Weldon Railroad, never to relinquish it.
After Warren’s success Grant smelled blood and wanted more damage done. He initially pegged the Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James, to go on a railroad wrecking expedition south of Globe Tavern. Grant’s present sickness, Horn argues, allowed Meade to overrule him and send two divisions of the fought out and otherwise fatigued Second Corps instead. The result was a disaster. Hancock’s men and two cavalry divisions went down the Weldon Railroad, wrecking as they went. By the time they reached the vicinity of Ream’s Station aggressive Confederate intentions were made known. A. P. Hill had taken as large a force as possible to intercept the Union raiders. Over the several days preceding the main infantry fight, cavalry skirmishing broke out on the roads west of Ream’s Station. On August 25 at the Second Battle of Ream’s Station, Confederate attacks successfully pushed home by three North Carolina brigades (Lane, MacRae, Cooke) caused a Federal rout. Horn explores the usually cited reasons for the defeat such as poorly constructed earthworks, but adds to the popular explanation with his research and conclusions. Horn’s analysis of how, where, when , and why Meade and Andrew Humphreys sent reinforcements during the Fourth Offensive also merits a positive mention.
At the end of the Fourth Offensive the political situation remained unchanged or worse for Lincoln and the Republican party. Atlanta was still standing, Early was still a threat in the Valley and Grant was not much closer to taking Richmond. The fighting did bear some fruit for the Union however. One of Lee’s supply routes was closed prior to the harvest, causing extra hardship for Confederate forces in the area. Lee was prevented from reinforcing Early in the Shenandoah Valleyand/or Hood in Atlanta, and Grant’s stranglehold was maintained despite political pressure to retire. Grant succeeded simply by not leaving and playing Lee’s game on his terms. Although it may not have looked like it at the time, the Fourth Offensive was one of Grant’s most successful in the long struggle to capture Petersburg and Richmond despite the amazingly large ratio of captured to killed and wounded.
Whenever I have copies of older versions of books, I like to do a quick compare/contrast of the two editions to give interested readers a better idea of what they’re getting with the new version. In this case several things jump out immediately. First, the maps are improved and are more numerous than in the last version, especially for the Second Battle of Deep Bottom. Hampton Newsome, Horn’s co-editor on the George Bernard book, is responsible for producing the fine maps in this new book. They often go down to the regimental level, and things like forests and waterways are well-rendered. The number of maps is 22, up from 13 in the original version. A map or two covering the cavalry actions leading up to Ream’s Station was needed, IMHO. The only major quibble is lack of elevation lines, which played a key role in the Battle of Fussell’s Mill on August 16, 1864. Second, the author notes in the Preface that he chose to do far less detailed footnotes in this version of the book. While I agree this probably does streamline the flow of the text, I for one enjoy extremely detailed notes on the same page as the main subject matter. I would have liked to have seen this stay, but I can’t argue with the results. Horn offers up that the remaining footnotes cover mainly “direct quotes, stats, and controversial assertions”. Third, Horn beefed up the biographical material on many of the key officers and men who played decisive roles in Grant’s Fourth Offensive. It seems Horn has skillfully added to the first edition with this improvement. The brief biographical sketches don’t stand out in a bad way and add valuable information for interested readers. Fourth, the content for the Second Battle of Deep Bottom has been greatly increased, including the aforementioned maps. This battle stands alongside the other two as equal in importance, and Horn shows repeatedly how the consequences of Second Deep Bottom factored heavily into Confederate inability to attack with a large enough force at Globe Tavern, especially when Warren’s Fifth Corps was at its most vulnerable. Fifth, Horn added a ton of first person accounts to this edition of the book, utilizing many sources I was familiar with and many others I have not yet had a chance to explore. Careful readers of the text, footnotes, and bibliography will find a wealth of readily available leads which also happen to be freely available at Google Books and Internet Archive and which cover the Siege of Petersburg from the perspective of those who were there. Take these items and others together and interested readers will find what is essentially a new book to buy on Grant’s Fourth Offensive. If you have the original H. E. Howard series book there is no reason not to buy this new and improved version.
Despite Mr. Horn’s decision to cut down on inline footnotes, there is a wealth of material in his bibliography, rewarding those readers who wish to springboard further into the study of these battles. Horn utilized 24 newspapers, including both of the Petersburg papers and all five of the Richmond dailies. Many of the newspaper articles were casualty lists of various regiments and brigades, allowing Horn (with an assist from Bryce Suderow) to come up with a pretty accurate representation of Confederate casualties during the fighting. This type of analysis has been fairly sparse for the Petersburg Campaign for most of the 150 years since it was fought. Battles in 1864-65 just don’t get the same scrutiny as the earlier major fights as far as casualty and strength figures, but progress has been made in the last two decades (three if you count Richard Sommers’ work on the Fifth Offensive and some of Bryce Suderow’s research). He utilized some of the best research being done on the Siege of Petersburg including much material by Bryce Suderow and Henry Persons’ unpublished but upcoming book on Anderson’s Georgia Brigade. Horn was also good about expanding his research for those Army of the James units which fought at Second Deep Bottom. The usual suspects including the omnipresent Official Records are also present.
One other aspect of this book needs to be noted. Horn utilized methodology from Trevor N. Dupuy’s book A Genius for War to assign combat effectiveness “scores” to Union and Confederate forces in the various fights of Grant’s Fourth Offensive. Dupuy wrote the book after working on a World War II wargame where he needed to create a mathematical model for combat effectiveness. Horn concludes that Grant’s troops were at their low point in combat effectiveness in August 1864, and Lee’s were at their apex, at least for the Petersburg Campaign. Horn walks readers through the combat effectiveness of various divisions and the overall forces for the three major battles of the offensive. You might be surprised which Union division comes out on top, and this analysis certainly helps to better explain the results of the Fourth Offensive, especially at Globe Tavern on August 19 and Ream’s Station on August 25. Horn also does something too few Civil War authors attempt. A major, and legitimate complaint of non-Americans is that we Americans tend to view the Civil War in a silo. Horn compares the combat effectiveness of these Union and Confederate troops with those of other, non-American combat, specifically forces fighting later in World Wars 1 and 2.
John Horn’s claim that his second edition work on Grant’s Fourth Offensive is “new and improved” appears to be fully backed up and then some. Readers will find more and better maps, a beefed up section on the Second Battle of Deep Bottom, and more analysis of the leadership at all levels. Horn’s masterful understanding of the Fourth Offensive allowed the author to provide convincing new conclusions about Second Ream’s Station, and his analysis of the three (non-consecutive) days of battle at Globe Tavern deserves notice here. I won’t give it away here, but his conclusions about Warren and Hancock in this edition, including their roles in the fighting and their evaluation by Grant and Meade may raise some eyebrows but seem to be well-backed by the evidence. His conclusions about the respective fighting qualities of the two sides were also extremely interesting and helped explain the results of these three battles. Students of the Civil War, especially those interested in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, should absolutely buy this new book. Horn’s volume on the Fourth Offensive confidently stands alongside Sommers on the Fifth, Newsome on the Sixth, and Greene on the Ninth.
Note: This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.
***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.