Civil War Book Review: A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg, Volume 1: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater by A. Wilson Greene

by Brett Schulte on October 13, 2018 · 2 comments

CampaignOfGiantsPetersburgVol1Greene2018Greene, A. Wilson. A Campaign of Giants–The Battle for Petersburg, Volume 1: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater. (University of North Carolina Press: June 2018). 728 pages, 34 maps, notes, bibliography, index.  ISBN: 978-1-4696-3857-7. $45.00 (Cloth)

With A Campaign of Giants–The Battle for Petersburg, Volume 1: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater, author and Petersburg expert A. Wilson Greene has started on his Gordon Rhea-like journey to write the definitive account of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, also known as the Siege of Petersburg.  Volume 1 looks at the first three offensives of the campaign, from early June 1864 just after Cold Harbor all the way to the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864.  If this first volume is any indication, Greene’s work will be looked on as a classic in the field for decades to come.  Deftly discussing command decisions and their impact on the fighting, Greene provides readers a nuanced view, never exactly bowing to the commonly held wisdom on the campaign.  The author deals in shades of gray rather than black and white, convincingly painting a picture of what happened, when, why, and how.  There are certain events which have defied even his ability to explain clearly due to conflicting accounts, and he clearly states this the appropriate areas.  Greene ably “fills the niche between the fine one-volume scholarship of Trudeau and Hess and the closely focused work of Sommers, Newsome, Rhea, and others”, creating the first “modern, comprehensive scholarly study” of the Siege of Petersburg. Future authors will have an incredible new jumping off point when writing about the events at Petersburg in June-July 1864.  The wait for Volume 2 will be difficult.

Author and Petersburg expert Wil Greene is a man ideally suited to write the definitive account of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign.  He has walked the ground in a professional role for over 25 years, serving at both Petersburg National Battlefield as well as Pamplin Historical Park and The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.  Greene authored a volume on Grant’s Ninth Offensive against Petersburg entitled The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion.  It provides coverage of the battles in 1865 at Petersburg with a main focus on the fighting at the Breakthrough on April 2, 1865, the last day of the Siege.  He has also written about the city of Petersburg itself during the Civil War, in Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War, a complete war history of the second largest Confederate city.  Taking all of this together, it seems the task and the man are paired exceptionally well.

The University of North Carolina Press is one of the foremost publishers of Civil War books in operation today.  Check out the UNC Press Blog for updates on upcoming and recently released books. Wil Greene has made several appearances recently with ties to his new series, including an answer to the question of whether or not Petersburg was a true Siege and a look at how the study of the Petersburg Campaign has grown since he first arrived at Petersburg National Battlefield in 1973.

The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign was a lengthy one, in fact the longest of the entire Civil War.  Add to this what author Wil Greene calls its “complexity” and you have the recipe for a fascinating story, one which until relatively recently was very sparsely told or even understood.  This first volume of A Campaign of Giants covers the first three of nine offensives which Ulysses S. Grant waged against the Cockade City and the Confederate capital.  The book begins with a sort of introductory explanation of Butler’s Offensive against Petersburg on June 9, 1864, then shifts to Grant’s Crossing of the James (June 12-16, 1864), continues through the early Second Battle of Petersburg (June 15-18, 1864) and Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road (June 21-14, 1864), covers the Wilson-Kautz cavalry raid of late June 1864, looks at the relative lull from late June to late July as everyone settled in to the realities of a partial siege, moves on to the First Battle of Deep Bottom north of the James River (July 27-29, 1864) and ends with the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, arguably the most famous event of the entire campaign.

Camp Pope Publishing

When all is said and done, a notable aspect of this book and presumably the following volumes will be Greene’s ability to provide a nuanced view of events.  After the Army of the Potomac left the trenches around Cold Harbor on June 13, 1864, they marched for the James River, looking to cross to the southern side.  As this was going on, Grant immediately sent Baldy Smith’s Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James by boat to Bermuda Hundred, and then on foot to make the first attempts against Petersburg on June 15, 1864.  Grant had the four corps of the Army of the Potomac moving in Petersbrg’s direction after they each crossed the James River in turn, coming from the northeast to slowly reinforce Smith over the four days from June 15-18, 1864.  Baldy Smith is often made the scapegoat for the failure to capture Petersburg on June 15, 1864, when he and he alone could have tried and failed or tried and succeeded.  Rather than blaming the failure to capture Petersburg on June 15, 1864 on one person, however, Greene assesses what went wrong, when, where, and why.  His handling of the sources and knowledge of the material leads him to parcel out the blame and ultimately also to attribute some of it to dumb luck.  Grant and Lee are not represented as perfect, either.  Lee was “overly conservative” in reacting to the Crossing of the James, but Grant fumbled as he reached the goal line of Petersburg.  Meade was “totally absent” from the decision making on June 14-15, 1864, Butler was conservative, and Grant was relying on Butler, writes Greene.  Take these together with rations arriving late, the exhaustion of Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, the hot and dusty conditions, and Smith’s Artillery Brigade commander deciding to water the horses at an exceptionally bad time, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Not all of the results at the Second Battle of Petersburg were disheartening, however.  Greene covers the first fights of the USCT regiments at Baylor’s Farm and in carrying the outer line of Confederate trenches east of Petersburg.  In these fights, Hinks’ African-American Division had been “in a sense transformed” by the fighting, and proved Black men could fight and fight well.  Ultimately, Greene assigns blame to Grant and Butler for allowing Lee to reach Petersburg without any real concerted effort to interpose between Richmond and the former city.  Without Lee’s veteran divisions serving as reinforcements directly from the direction of Richmond, Petersburg almost certainly would have fallen on June 15-18.  Throughout the Second Battle of Petersburg the behavior of the Union commanders was mostly passive.  Per Greene, Meade struggled to coordinate the assaults, Butler “lacked will,” and Grant never bothered to come up in person.  As others have done, the author gives P. G. T. Beauregard much credit for his multi-day defense of the Cockade City before Lee made up his mind about where the main Union effort would take place.  He believes Lee performed well, if a little cautiously, during these events.  Taken all together, Greene’s assessment of Grant’s First Offensive differs in some respects from other analyses of the campaign, and his assessment is backed by an array of accounts.

Grant’s Second Offensive against Petersburg came mere days after the first, resulting in the June 21-24 Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road or First Battle of the Weldon Railroad.  Grant’s absurdly ambitious (Greene uses the term “geographically ludicrous”) goal was to sidle around the Confederate Dimmock Line until the Federals reached the Appomattox River west of Petersburg, thus completely encircling the town from the east, south, and west.  This would trap the Confederates against the Appomattox and cutting the number of railroads running into Richmond down to just one.  As it happened, this would be the first of many slow, painful efforts to accomplish that goal, and it didn’t get far.  Grant’s men had been digging in east of Petersburg, and the works allowed two Corps, the Union Second and Union Sixth, to move south down the Jerusalem Plank Road, and then attempt to move northwest in a coordinated effort to extend Grant’s siege lines and cut the vital Weldon Railroad, one of Lee’s supply lines into Petersburg.  In the first of many bright performances during this campaign, Confederate division commander William Mahone, a man who knew the ground in this area by heart due to his pre-war occupation as the Chief Engineer on the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad, found a crease between the advancing Second Corps and Sixth Corps.  In the ensuing combat, three small Confederate brigades routed the entire Union Second Corps, driving its men pell mell back to the Jerusalem Plank Road, cannon and many prisoners of war.  On the following day, Mahone captured the picket line of the sixth Corps, manned by men in Grant’s Vermont Brigade, many of whom would die in captivity at the dreaded Confederate POW Camp Andersonville. Greene assigns blame all around.  Birney, in temporary command of Second Corps, did not order his divisions to keep touch with Sixth Corps, but instead to act independently.  Sixth Corps commander Wright was extremely timid throughout the whole affair, his inactivity leading in part to the twin disasters of June 22 and 23, 1864.  Despite the massive success, controversy existed on the Confederate side as well.  Division commander Mahone blamed Division commander Cadmus Wilcox, the next division to his right, for not marching to the sound of the guns and making the victory even more complete.  Greene writes that Lee and Third Corps commander A. P. Hill realized Mahone’s victory did nothing to alter the overall picture, but at least it temporarily boosted Confederate morale.  Greene is higher on Meade in the Second Offensive, appreciating his aggressive nature, but the timidity of Birney and Wright combined with the brilliant performance by Mahone led to a disaster, and Greene calls this the low point of Federal morale for the entire campaign.  These battles led to essentially two brigades of Federals being led off to Confederate prison camps.  Grant finally admitted active campaigning was no longer in order, and gave the necessary orders to turn this campaign into a partial siege of Petersburg.

Two other important events occurred during the Second Offensive.  First, Grant ordered Army of the James commander Benjamin Butler to establish a bridgehead across the James River at Deep Bottom, so called because of the depth of the river at that point.  This bridgehead served as a constant thorn in Lee’s side for the remainder of the Siege, and was in fact expanded in September-October 1864, because at any time Grant could launch an offensive directly against Richmond from this spot.  The end result was that Lee’s lines would be spread thinner. The second event involved a cavalry raid popularly referred to as the Wilson-Kautz Raid.  Wilsons’s Cavalry Division of the Army of the Potomac, accompanied by the sole cavalry division of the Army of the James, were ordered to make a raid on the Confederate railroads coming into Petersburg from the west.  From June 23-29, Wilson and Kautz destroyed track and fought running skirmishes with their Confederate counterparts, nearly facing complete destruction at the First Battle of Ream’s Station on June 29, 1864.  Ultimately, though much equipment and some cannon were lost, most of the cavalrymen made it back to Union lines in early July.  This raid and its aftermath had a polarizing effect on the Union high command, per Greene.  Grant and a minority of others thought the losses worth the cost, while Meade and a majority referred to it as a disaster.  The Confederates were overjoyed at the result, another morale boosting victory.  An interesting point Greene makes concerns part of the reason why Meade thought it a disaster.  He and Cavalry Corps commander Phil Sheridan despised each other, and Meade blamed Sheridan for not properly supporting Wilson and Kautz with his other two divisions as it became clear they needed help.  Ultimately, Greene writes, all of the Union command played a role in the result.  Grant allowed his cavalry to be divided and defeated in detail.  Meade found out just how serious Wilson’s predicament was too late to help in a timely fashion.  Sheridan moved his other two cavalry divisions too slowly to be of service on June 29.  A major point after the raid was Confederate accounts of Yankee depredations on civilians.  Wilson, after being questioned by Grant, of course denied the charges, but there appears to be some merit to them.  Slaves also tried to escape with Wilson, but most were abandoned to their fates and recaptured by Confederates.

Where Greene truly shines is in highlighting the smaller affairs, especially the fighting from late June to mid-July 1864 in between the Second and Third Offensives.  The author notes that Lee’s actions suggested he was NOT resigned to the ultimate capture of the city, despite the well-known tale about Grant reaching the James dooming Richmond and Petersburg to capture.  The fighting at Hare’s Hill on June 24, often lumped in with the Second Offensive, was actually a Confederate “mini counteroffensive” if we are being technically correct.  Greene writes of the another attack near Hare’s Hill, this time by the Union Eighteenth Corps against Bushrod Johnson’s Confederate division, on June 30.  He also covers a planned Confederate attack on July 17-18 which was called off due to deserters giving up the secret.  These are actions and maneuvers which rarely make any books about specific battles or offensives, yet here the author covers them and sets them in the context of the overall campaign.  It truly makes this book and the succeeding volumes unique among the literature of the campaign.  Greene also uses these late middle chapters to discuss how the Siege impacted civilians, how the drought occurring at the time made things miserable for soldiers and civilians alike, and how the Union bombardments of the city destroyed property and lives on an ongoing, sudden basis with little to no warning.

Not many know this, but the Third Offensive against Petersburg, which ultimately resulted in the memorable Battle of the Crater, was originally conceived by Grant to be a grand raid similar to what ultimately happened during Warren’s “Applejack Raid” of December 1864.  Grant then decided he wanted a massive four corps assault on the Confederate lines in mid-July.  He shifted back to a massive cavalry raid on July 14, looking for Sheridan to take his cavalry and tear up the Weldon Railroad for 50 miles, all the way to Weldon, NC.  Both Meade and Sheridan didn’t like this idea, and Meade wanted to send along Second Corps if the attempt were to be made at all.  All of this was discarded for the time being, but it showed that Grant’s mind was always working, always looking for a way to solve the various problems with which he was presented in order to end the siege.  He was the Grant of Vicksburg, working tenaciously to finish an enemy.  Only here he faced a tougher foe than Pemberton.  In late July, his mind still churning, Grant conceived what would ultimately become the First Deep Bottom Campaign, and it came only two days prior to the actual campaign itself.  On July 25, Grant designed a joint infantry-cavalry raid northwest from Deep Bottom to the south Anna River.  The goal was to destroy portions of the Virginia Central Railroad north of Richmond.  Ultimately, the plans made were what Greene says could be charitably called a “fluid” command environment, were turned into the first Deep Bottom Campaign.  Hancock’s Second Corps and two divisions of Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps were to use the Deep Bottom bridgehead to move north of the James and threaten Richmond.  Ultimately, after some inconclusive fighting from July 27-29, Hancock was pulled back across the James in time for the Crater explosion and battle.

Despite postwar writing, Greene maintains Grant’s first priority was this campaign, rather than what turned into the Battle of the Crater.  When Hancock and Sheridan were stopped, however, Grant kept them in place to draw Confederate units north of the James.  He had an ace up his sleeve.  Union Colonel Henry Pleasants, commander of the 48th Pennsylvania, had used his regiment and others to build a tunnel underneath Pegram’s Salient, a key feature of the Confederate lines east of Petersburg. Grant now acceded to a plan to blow up Pegram’s Salient and attempt an assault immediately thereafter.  The story of the crater has been told many times, so this will be a brief recap.  The Union Ninth Corps, consisting of four divisions, was tabbed to make the assault on Pegram’s Salient after the explosion.  One of these divisions, the Ferrero’s Fourth, was composed entirely of African-American men led by White officers.  Postwar controversy sprung up about this division being trained to lead the assault, with Meade pointing out and Grant agreeing that sending these men in first would make it look like the Union didn’t care about them.  Ultimately, the three white division commanders drew straws, and the alcoholic and incompetent one was chosen to lead the assault.  Greene writes in detail about all of this, ultimately concluding with some skepticism about the amount of training done by the USCT regiments in Ferrero’s Division prior to July 30.

Early on the morning of July 30, 1864, the mine was sprung, completely destroying Pegram’s Salient and resulting in a massive Crater where it once had stood.  The Union assault, made in such crazy conditions, in a small area, and with a large number of men, was uncoordinated from the start.  Once men began seeking the shelter of the Crater things went from bad to worse.  Eventually, the Black Division of Ninth Corps was added to the mix as well, and while they did advance a short distance beyond the Crater, seem to have added to the confusion.  Mahone’s Division, as it had done before and would do again, came to the rescue.  Three brigades assaulted in several waves, eventually killing and capturing a good many men who were trapped in the Crater.  Allegations of no quarter and atrocities were made by both sides, and it does appear some Black men were killed rather than taken prisoner as they should have been.  Despite the disaster, Grant was ready to try again the next day, a fact very few have written about in the past.  Greene picks up the slack and then some.  Ultimately, though the flank movement involving two infantry and one cavalry corps was called off, it shows Grant stayed positive even in the worst of circumstances.

The first volume of A Campaign of Giants ends just after the Battle of the Crater.  Ninth Corps commander Ambrose Burnside’s days were numbered.  And despite some small successes, Grant was hardly nearer his ultimate goal than six weeks earlier.  The Confederates had won many tactical victories, but they had likewise not changed the situation to their advantage, and they were in mortal danger.

In preparing to write this three volume history, I am certain Wil Greene ran into a lack of Confederate sources, something every student of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign inevitably encounters.  Where he differentiates himself is through, and I do not use this word loosely, an exhaustive search through official archives and private collections to fill the gaps in the narrative.  The bibliography covers forty-eight pages at the back of the book.  Some of the fighting was initiated by the Confederates, an always anxious Lee doing everything he could to arrest Grant’s initiative.  Greene’s research has better positioned the author to make sense of why things happened the way they did.  Regardless of how you feel about the actual text, the bibliography of this volume and the future volumes are gold mines for researchers and other serious students of the campaign.

Greene mentions in his Preface the conscious decision to tread a middle ground between minute tactical detail and the high level operational decisions which led to the battles and other events of the campaign.  While die hard students of the campaign might always wish for more, this was a logical and ultimately extremely effective choice.  The thing Greene does better than anyone else and in some cases for the first time is to tie together the events of the first three of Grant’s offensives.  Humans tend to categorize things, and the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign has been categorized by battles and offensives.  In this book and the two volumes to follow, you get the sense Greene will make the transition seamless, without using hindsight in an artificial way.  I’ve been struck in studying the events at Petersburg at how often an offensive very quickly came together, and Greene studies the planning of the Union high command in just the right amount of detail to help readers understand WHY certain things came about as they did.

Veteran students of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign might note that this first volume of A Campaign of Giants mirrors exactly the time frame covered by the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume 40.  Both are interested in events from June 13 until July 31, 1864.  You get the sense Volume 2 will cover August 1 to December 31, 1864, just like Volume 42 of the Official Records, and Volume 3 will cover January 1-April 2, 1865, just like Volume 46. This is a logical division, though it would mean Volume 2 would cover Offensives 4-7, with the final volume looking at Offensives 8 and 9.  Whatever the author decides as far as divisions into volumes, they will inevitably follow the excellent standard set in this first volume.

Although the maps do not bear his name, Edward Alexander is the man responsible for the cartography in Volume 1 of A Campaign of Giants. Thirty-four maps cover the major operations of June 13-July 31, 1864.  Key additions to help readers’ understanding of the campaign vary from the more obvious like clear maps for the fighting at the Second Battle of Petersburg to the much more obscure, things like Potter’s “horseshoes” east of Petersburg or the various Cavalry fights on the periphery of the trenches.  The maps often go down to regimental and battery level and contain useful indications of elevation, a must for the fighting which occurred over this time period.

Drawing on an exhaustive array of sources, covering the obscure as well as the well-known, providing a balance between tactical detail and operational decisions while tying all together into a cohesive whole, Wil Greene is off to a promising start with his three volume history of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign.  In A Campaign of Giants–The Battle for Petersburg, Volume 1: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater, the author gives students of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign as close to definitive coverage of the first six weeks of the Siege of Petersburg as we are likely to ever get.  Old controversies are studied, but new conclusions are drawn.  The author doesn’t disappoint in coverage of civilians as well, providing a thorough look into how civilians caught in the grasp of this massive campaign suffered as a result. Pairing the expertly written text with thirty-four maps and other illustrations, this book is a must have not only for students of Petersburg, but for anyone remotely interested in the military campaigns of the American Civil War.

A copy of this book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Theodore Savas October 13, 2018 at 1:23 pm

Thanks for the in-depth review, Brett. I agree completely.

I am rather perplexed (at least as I perceive it) by the rather ho-hum response of readers. As of today, it has only five reviews on Amazon, and it has been out four months. I don’t see or hear the discussion/debate/praise, etc. online or at CWRT meetings I was expecting. It is a big, important, and immensely worthwhile study. And yet…

I was curious what you think in this regard.

Thanks.

Reply

Brett Schulte October 13, 2018 at 2:21 pm

Ted,

Thanks. To be honest I’ve been rather busy the whole summer with family and work obligations. I hadn’t realized there were that few reviews. I hinestly don’t know why it hasn’t received more praise. I suspect the entire set will over time. My disappointment at Gordon Rhea’s series ending was definitely offset somewhat by news of Greene’s series beginning. We shall see.

Brett

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