Civil War Book Review: Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign

by Brett Schulte on January 18, 2016 · 12 comments

Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War) edited by Gary Gallagher and Caroline JanneyGallagher, Gary W. (ed.) & Janney, Caroline E. (ed.). Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign. (University of North Carolina Press: September 2015). 360 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 31 halftones, 5 maps, notes, bibliography, index.  ISBN: 978-1-4696-2533-1. $35.00 (Hardcover)

Gary Gallagher and the University of North Carolina Press return to the “Military Campaigns of the Civil War” series after a lengthy hiatus with Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign. This tenth book in the series covers, in varying degrees and via ten essays and a bibliographic essay, the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant’s Crossing of the James, the Second Battle of Petersburg, and the Battle of the Crater.  Taken together as a whole, this long awaited volume is another fine collection of essays looking through many different lenses to produce a nuanced and fascinating view of these particular military campaigns.

Gary Gallagher needs no introduction to students of the Civil War.  He is currently a Civil War history professor at the University of Virginia and a former President of the Society of Civil War Historians.  He has written and edited many books on the conflict, including all of the previous volumes in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series.  His “essay books” consist of focused articles by various experts on a campaign, with more social history essays in versus military history essays as time has gone on.  This appears to be attributable to the increased focus on race, class, and gender studies in academia.  Several of these books have appeared in TOCWOC’s “best of” series focusing on the best books on a given battle.    All of them are well worth purchase and reading if you are interested in the campaign on which each focuses.

Caroline E. Janney, Gallagher’s new co-editor on this volume, is like Gallagher a professional historian.  She is a History Professor at Purdue University and the current President of the Society of Civil War Historians. Janney has several other Civil War books to her credit already, both as author and editor, including Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause and Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.

Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign contains ten main essays, not including the bibliographic essay, which focus on different specific aspects of this “campaign.”  We will get to the odd decision to lump the Crater into the Overland Campaign later in this review.  But first, let’s cover at a high level what this book contains.  The ten main articles, encompassing a time frame of roughly June 1, 1864 at Cold Harbor to August 1, 1864 just after the Battle of the Crater, break down as follows:

  • 4 Petersburg essays
  • 2 Cold Harbor essays, one on the exit from Cold Harbor and Crossing the James
  • Francis C. Barlow
  • Confederate Engineering and Field Fortifications
  • New Troops in ANV May-June 1864
  • Perceptions of Lee and Grant Summer 1864
  • Nothing on First Petersburg and Jerusalem Plank Road

As you can see, several of the main battles during the Petersburg Campaign are more or less skipped over entirely.  While somewhat disappointing, it is understandable to focus on the two much more famous battles which appear in the title of the book.  That said, it is a but if a surprise to see more on the Crater than Cold Harbor, a relatively more famous battle.  Articles are plentiful in this particular volume, a welcome surprise given how much has changed in the short time since the last volume came out.  Of note is an article by Gordon Rhea looking at “Grant’s Disengagement from Cold Harbor” on June 12-13, 1864.  This article seems to be a preview of sorts for the upcoming fifth (and final?) volume of his Overland Campaign series, which ends at the Battle of Petersburg on June 15, 1864. Co-editor Gary Gallagher covers the competing perceptions of Grant and Lee as they battled each other in the summer of 1864.  Army of Northern Virginia expert Bobby Krick examines new soldiers to Lee’s famous army in May and June 1864. How soldiers endured the non-combat phases at Cold Harbor, a different kind of hell, is the topic of Kathryn Shively Meier’s essay.  Keith S. Bohannon probes deeply into the primary sources in order to tell the tale of Confederate engineers and the earthworks they helped to build in the summer of ’64.  Joan Waugh pens a biography of Union Second Corps division commander Francis Channing Barlow.  M. Keith Harris pores over Confederate letters and diary entries written during the early summer of 1864, perhaps surprising readers familiar with the “it was all downhill after Gettysburg” train of thought with the level of resolve shown a full year later.  Co-editor Caroline E. Janney discusses the resolve and experiences of Petersburg residents who endured a constant enemy presence at their gates for almost a full year.  Kevin Levin examines the perceptions of White soldiers before and after the first major fight for Black troops in the Army of the Potomac at the Crater.  In the last of the ten main essays, Stephen Cushman examines two novels and a movie which represent the Battle of the Crater and its aftermath in different ways.  A bibliographic essay, common to this series, gives interested readers numerous books to read in order to further pursue study of these operations.

Quotation marks are used earlier around “campaign” because the editors make what this reviewer considers to be an extremely odd decision to lump the Petersburg operations up to the Battle of the Crater into the greater Overland Campaign.  If this decision is carried to its logical conclusion, all of the operations in 1864-65 between Lee and Grant all the way through Appomattox should be lumped into a giant “Overland Campaign.”  Instead, one should separate the May-June 1864 operations against Richmond and Lee’s army from the June 1864 to April 1865 operations against mainly Petersburg and Lee’s army.  In addition, again in this reviewer’s opinion, one cannot make any clear separation between the operations which led up the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, and those which led into the Battle of Globe Tavern in August 1864.  The logical separation point, both logically and geographically, is Grant’s Crossing of the James River in mid-June 1864.

As often proves to be true in this series, the notes at the end of each essay will reward the careful reader with even more opportunities to study sources on these battles.  Regimental histories produced in the late 19th Century by men who were there often give a surprising amount of detail found in few other places.  Likewise, postwar newspaper articles, though one needs to read them with a healthy dose of who was writing, when, and for what audience, are often good sources as well.  Lastly, in the internet age, archival materials are easier than ever to obtain, often for free online.  Paying attention to the notes in this book, and the series as a whole, will yield a variety of such sources and more.

Disagreements over where one campaign begins and another ends aside, Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign is another fantastic addition to the “Military Campaigns of the Civil War” series.  Coverage of the battles listed varies, with the Crater receiving the most attention, but this is a great jumping off point to further study these campaigns.  Gallagher’s essay series finally makes its way to the Petersburg Campaign, with another volume scheduled for the future.  It was a long wait, but the wait seems to have been worth it in this case.  Anyone familiar with the earlier books in this series will want to add this tenth volume to their collection as well.

NOTE: THIS BOOK WAS PROVIDED GRATIS FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS REVIEW.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

John Horn January 18, 2016 at 12:08 pm

I just did a blog entry on logical cutoff points (“The Petersburg Campaign or The Siege of Petersburg?”). Dividing the Overland Campaign at Cold Harbor from the Siege of Petersburg has been customary, but I think far more important is to focus on the Campaign of 1864 versus the Campaign of 1865. One might well consider all the fighting from the Wilderness to Burgess Mill/Williamsburg Road (Octonber 27, 1864) a single campaign–the Virginia Campaign of 1864 (and I’m including the fighting in the Shenandoah). Its focus was on the election of 1864, and General Lee defeated General Grant (despite General Sheridan’s success in the Shenandoah) by denying Grant Richmond. General Humphreys has confused matters for more than 100 years by writing of “The Virginia Campaign of 1864 and ’65,” which made it possible for him to gloss over the Federal defeat in the Virginia Campaign of 1864. As for the Siege of Petersburg, it lasted through two campaigns–1864 and 1865. Anybody extending the Overland Campaign to The Crater has not thought matters through.

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John Horn January 18, 2016 at 1:04 pm

The blog entry I referred to above is at http://www.petersburgcampaign@blogspot.com.

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Brett Schulte January 18, 2016 at 3:43 pm

John,

Thanks for your input. I can definitely agree that splitting things up into 1864 and 1865 campaigns makes more sense than taking the Overland Campaign to the Crater.

Brett

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James F. Epperson January 19, 2016 at 10:38 am

Can someone suggest that this is being “over-thought”? I suspect the editors asked folks for contributions, and then titled the volume based on what they got.

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Brett Schulte January 19, 2016 at 10:54 am

Jim,

You are spot on. I had an email conversation about this yesterday after the review went live. I suspect, just as you do,and given the amount of time since the last volume, that the essays for this period just weren’t happening in a way to make this book just about Cold Harbor and the crossing of the James.

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John Foskett January 21, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Brett: I’d add that it might be difficult to get enough material/breadth if the volume were limited to the first two weeks of June. I also can see a logical end point at the Crater and leaving most of the Union “offensives” out. You can only publish it if they write it.

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John Horn January 21, 2016 at 3:50 pm

“Cold Harbor to the Crater” is a perfectly descriptive title. The subtitle, “The End of the Overland Campaign,” is where the editor went wrong. Nobody thinks the Overland Campaign went on till the Crater. An editor who knew the writers and literature in this area could have found the people to write the articles needed to fill in the gaps in the coverage. The editor exceeded his level of competence.

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James F. Epperson January 21, 2016 at 4:06 pm

“The editor exceeded his level of competence.”

Not the first time that has happened 🙁 (Bear in mind I am a professional editor.)

“The End of the Overland Campaign and the beginning of the Siege of Petersburg” would have been long, but otherwise perfect.

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Bryce A. Suderow January 21, 2016 at 11:00 pm

Gallagher first asked Gordon Rhea to contribute to this book three years ago. It always was supposed to end at the crater.

bryce

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John Horn January 22, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Was it always supposed to skip First Petersburg (June 9, 1864), Jerusalem Plank Road, etc.?

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Bryce A. Suderow January 21, 2016 at 11:10 pm

and begin with the march from the Chickahominy to the James, which was Gordon’s contribution.

bryce

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Bryce A. Suderow January 22, 2016 at 2:06 pm

I only know for sure what the first and last battles were supposed to be in that book. Knowing Gallagher, I s he always planned to skip the offensive of Juine 21-July 2nd – Jerusalem Plank Road and the Wilson Kautz raid.

bryce

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