Civil War Book Review: The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2: The Western Front Battles September 1864-April 1865

Bearss, Ed. and Suderow, Bryce. The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864-April 1865. (Savas Beatie: March 2014). 600 pages, illustrations, 25 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-7006-1959-7 $39.95 (Cloth).

PetersburgCampaignVolume2Bearss2014Picking up where Volume 1 left off, the award-winning The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864-April 1865 dusts off Ed Bearss’ Petersburg Campaign manuscripts from the shelves of the Petersburg National Battlefield archives and makes them readily and affordably available to anyone interested in learning more about the Siege of Petersburg.  The book covers Grant’s Fifth through Ninth Offensives, only omitting the action north of the James River. Enthusiasts of the Siege of Petersburg would do well to purchase both volumes in this series.

Ed Bearss, the legendary Civil War historian and tour guide, prepared manuscripts for Petersburg National Battlefield in 1958 to tie in with “more than 60” troop movement maps which had been commissioned by the National Park Service.  The maps and manuscripts were all compete by 1964.  Only extreme students of the campaign could access those manuscripts at Petersburg National Battlefield

… until this two volume series by Savas Beatie came about due to the efforts of Petersburg Campaign researcher Bryce Suderow. Suderow took the unpublished Bearss manuscripts, found transcribers, and weaved these documents into a cohesive whole, adding bridging material and finding Pat Brennan and William Wyrick to “guest star” for the Crater and Fort Stedman chapters, respectively.

Bearss notes in the foreword of the book that he only covers operations on the south side of the Appomattox River, in areas under the jurisdiction of Petersburg National Battlefield.  Operations such as Second Deep Bottom, the battles along Darbytown Road, and the Battle of Fort Harrison are not covered here. This was a result of what he was originally asked to do over 60 years ago and the way the Richmond and Petersburg battlefields are divided into two parks, not any intentional oversight by the publisher or editor.

The first volume in this series, The Petersburg Campaign Volume 1: The Eastern Front Battles June-August 1864, debuted in September 2012, and contained the Bearss manuscripts for Butler’s Petersburg Offensive on June 9, 1864 as well as Grant’s first four offensives against the city. Pat Brennan “guest starred” by penning the Crater chapter. Volume 1 ended with the Fourth Offensive, including Globe Tavern and Reams’ Station.

The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2 starts up where volume 1 left off.  Volume 2 covers the Fifth through Ninth offensives, omitting the battles north of the James as well as Warren’s Stony Creek Raid and Wade Hampton Beefsteak Raid, as follows:

  • Peebles Farm (September 29 – October 1, 1864)
  • Burgess Mills, or First Boydton Plank Road (October 27, 1864)
  • Hatcher’s Run, or Second Boydton Plank Road (February 5 – 7, 1865)
  • Fort Stedman (March 25, 1865)
  • Five Forks Campaign, including Lewis Farm or Quaker Road, Dinwiddie Courthouse, and Five Forks (March 29 – April 1, 1865)
  • The Sixth Corps Breaks Lee’s Petersburg Lines (April 2, 1865)

I’ve always thought the “Western Front” name in the title was a bit of a misnomer give the presence of Fort Stedman in the mix.  The books are really just divided chronologically between the Fourth and Fifth Offensives, if you’re curious.  The subtitles were more than likely chosen to align to the classification system in use at Petersburg National Battlefield.

I do have several other observations about the text.  I noted the omission of the strength and casualty tables in the back of the book which had been included in Volume 1.   These tables originally appeared in John Horn’s book The Petersburg Campaign from the Great Campaigns series, and it was a curious if trivial omission given their appearance in the first volume. Second, I noticed a possible issue between portions of the text written by Bearss and Suderow in the Burgess Mill/Boydton Plank Road chapter when I was comparing that chapter with Hampton Newsome’s book Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864.  The Bearss text in Volume 2 mentions, incorrectly, that Harris’ Mississippi Brigade joined Mahone’s attack south of Hatcher’s Run when they were really present with Heth’s Division north of Hatcher’s Run.  Suderow’s text, matching Newsome’s book, correctly places Harris’ brigade with Heth north of Hatcher’s Run, and lists King’s Brigade as the one joining Mahone’s attack.

George Skoch again does the maps, and they are amazing.  I’m a broken record when it comes to reviewing the maps of Savas Beatie books, but the message is absolutely true.  A book on just half of the Petersburg Campaign, and just the action south of the James at that, contains 25 detailed maps.  Check out the map of the Petersburg Breakthrough in the publisher’s sample chapter of the book if you don’t want to take my word for it.  The main gripe is that elevation is mostly missing from the maps.

Ed Bearss relied heavily on the Official Records, published regimental histories, and first person accounts from archival sources for his manuscripts.  Suderow didn’t change any of this, which is fine, but it might have been an interesting exercise to add to and otherwise tweak the original manuscripts with sources and new interpretations which have become available since 1958. This two volume effort, though, continues a recent welcome trend in which publishers rescue important unpublished accounts and make them available in affordable and readable volumes, including D. W. Reed’s The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged and Savas Beatie’s rehabilitation of Edward Cunningham’s Shiloh manuscript.

The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864-April 1865 concludes the two volume resuscitation of Ed Bearss’ Petersburg Campaign manuscripts, which had been lying unpublished in the files of Petersburg National Battlefield for over 50 years. Savas Beatie and Bryce Sudeow are to be congratulated on bringing these important documents to a wide audience and combining them with the excellent and numerous maps of George Skoch. With the exceptions of Fort Stedman and Five Forks, the battles covered here are all but unknown even to many students of the Civil War.  This book comes out just in time for the 150th anniversary events of the battles described therein.  If you’re tired of the same old rehashing of Gettysburg, I encourage you to expand your knowledge of the Civil War to the events of late 1864 and early 1865 between Lee and Grant. This book is a must have for those interested in learning more about the Siege of Petersburg.  Make sure you pick up both volumes in this series to do so.

The paperback version of this book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.


2 responses to “Civil War Book Review: The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2: The Western Front Battles September 1864-April 1865

  1. Theodore P. Savas Avatar

    Brett, We deeply appreciate your taking the time and trouble to read this book and write such a thoughtful and honest review. On behalf of Ed and Bryce, I thank you for doing so.

    And yes, it is award-winning and thanks for noting that. Ed was awarded the Douglas Southall Freeman award for this. He is more than pleased, as he told me on the phone.

    I know you love studying Petersburg, and we have many more Petersburg-related titles coming out in the near future. Stay tuned.

    Thanks again.

    1. Brett Schulte Avatar

      You’re welcome Ted, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to review this one. I’m definitely looking forward to Sommers’ rewrite of Richmond Redeemed, John Horn’s 2nd edition of the Battles for the Weldon Railroad, and the 2nd edition of the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys. I’m especially looking forward to all of these with the Savas Beatie map touch added.


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