Air Date: 092807
Subject: The 1864 Overland Campaign: Grant vs. Lee
Book: In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee: The Wilderness Through Cold Harbor & The Battle Of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 & The Battles For Spotsylvania Court House And The Road To Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864 & To the North Anna River: Grant And Lee, May 13-25, 1864 & Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864
Guest: Gordon Rhea
Summary: Civil War historian and author of In The Footsteps Of Grant & Lee, discusses the 1864 Overland Campaign and the battles involved, including the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor.
Brett’s Summary: Gordon Rhea’s series of excellent books on the 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia has long been one of my favorites, so I was excited to listen to this episode of Civil War Talk Radio. Rhea started off the hour by discussing his background, including his undergraduate studies in History at Indiana, his graduate studies in History at Harvard, and getting his law degree. Rhea believes training to be a lawyer better prepared him to write well and write objectively on this series of battles, ones which have been prone to Lost Cause myths of “Grant the Butcher” and too few men for the Army of Northern Virginia versus endless hordes from the Army of the Potomac.
Rhea did a ridiculous amount of research for this series. He estimated he has visited around 100 archival collections around the country, and I know he had independent researchers such as Bryce Suderow do a lot of digging as well.
Rhea, a Southerner by birth, noticed that not a lot had been written about the battles of the Overland Campaign and wanted to fill a void in the literature. He also realized that these battles were and are routinely glossed over in most discussions of the war. When he set out to write these books he set out to write as objectively as possible, looking at all manner of primary sources and sifting through the evidence to come up with the most plausible version of events. He indicated, as there always are in events as large as battles, many conflicting accounts of what exactly happened. Rhea also believes his lawyer training helped him to sort through these mounds of evidence to get at what really happened.
Gerry and the author discussed his new book In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee: The Wilderness Through Cold Harbor, a coffee table book summary of the campaign loaded with 60 beautiful photographs. I encourage TOCWOC readers who are unfamiliar with Rhea’s series of books to pick up this one first. It will give you an idea of what happened in the campaign and make reading Rhea’s interesting, groundbreaking series a little easier.
In the last segment of the show, Gerry asked Gordon about some of the myths of the campaign, such as Grant the Butcher, the number of men lost at Cold Harbor by the Federals on June 3, and the anecdote about Union soldiers placing their names on scraps of paper and pinning them to their clothes knowing they were going to be killed. Rhea debunks all of these myths, and having read his books, especially the book on Cold Harbor, I can tell you he bases his answers on a careful reading of the sources involved. It is surprising how many of these myths sprung up in the 1880s and beyond. Rhea says, for instance, that NOT ONE single contemporary primary account (and those prior to Horace Porter’s reminiscences of the campaign) mentions Union soldiers pinning their names to their uniforms at Cold Harbor. He also says a careful perusal of regimental returns for the Cold Harbor time period show that the Union lost at most 3,500 men ALL DAY at Cold Harbor on June 3 rather than numbers ranging as high as 12,000 in the first ten minutes.
All in all this was one of my own most anticipated Civil War Talk Radio episodes, and it did not disappoint. If you want to know about Grant and Lee’s struggles in Virginia in May and June 1864, read Rhea’s series of books. You will not be disappointed. And keep an eye out in the next few years for Rhea’s fifth book covering the crossing of the James River and the Battle of Petersburg from June 15-18, 1864.
Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.
In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.
Check out more summaries of Civil War Talk Radio at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.
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