A. Wilson Greene: Siege or Campaign? What Should We Call the Battle for Petersburg?
Today, we welcome a guest post from A. Wilson Greene, author of A Campaign of Giants–The Battle for Petersburg: Volume 1: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater, just published by UNC Press.
Grinding, bloody, and ultimately decisive, the Petersburg Campaign was the Civil War’s longest and among its most complex. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee squared off for more than nine months in their struggle for Petersburg, the key to the Confederate capital at Richmond. Here A. Wilson Greene opens his sweeping new three-volume history of the Petersburg Campaign, taking readers from Grant’s crossing of the James in mid-June 1864 to the fateful Battle of the Crater on July 30. With new perspectives on operational and tactical choices by commanders, the experiences of common soldiers and civilians, and the significant role of the United States Colored Troops in the fighting, this book offers essential reading for all those interested in the history of the Civil War.
A Campaign of Giants is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Siege or Campaign? What Should We Call the Battle for Petersburg?
The struggle for control of Petersburg, Virginia lasted 292 days: from June 15, 1864 to the city’s surrender on April 3, 1865. Some might even extend the time to include the failed June 9, 1864 attack. It was the longest continuous military operation of the Civil War.
Many of the soldiers and officers who participated in the action at Petersburg called it a siege. Almost all historians refer to it that way, including Petersburg’s leading authority, Dr. Richard J. Sommers, whose magisterial book, Richmond Redeemed, carries the subtitle, The Siege at Petersburg. The website for Petersburg National Battlefield, the National Park Service area charged with preserving and interpreting Petersburg’s wartime heritage, entitles its home page, “The Siege of Petersburg: The Longest Military Event of the Civil War.” Ask almost any avocational Civil War student to describe what happened at Petersburg and they will call it a siege.
Fair enough. The armies in blue and gray expended considerable energy constructing ever-expanding lines of fortifications and spent days on end occupying them, disturbed only by the incessant fire of sharpshooters. The Army of Northern Virginia and both Federal forces–the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James—engaged in much less mobile warfare than at any other time in their histories—save the stagnant winter encampments of 1862-63 and 1863-64, when the troops passively faced each other from opposite sides of a river. The armies’ goals shared much in common with siege warfare: Robert E. Lee sought to defend Petersburg and Richmond, while Ulysses S. Grant aimed to capture Virginia’s two largest cities.
Lee and Grant contributed to the notion that the Petersburg operations constituted a siege. The Confederate commander allegedly told Jubal Early in early June, “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time,” a prediction many consider quotably prescient. Although the pedigree of this quotation is a bit suspect, Lee repeated similar sentiments to A.P. Hill later in the month. Grant entitled one of the chapters in his memoirs, “The Investment of Petersburg,” and often employed the term “siege” to describe events around the Cockade City that summer and autumn.
I am engaged in writing a three-volume operational history of the Petersburg story. While there are many outstanding books dealing with specific aspects of the Petersburg saga and a pair of excellent one-volume overviews, no one in the 154 years since the armies arrived at Petersburg has attempted such a work. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which, I think, is the perception that events at Petersburg are not worth the effort. After all, who wants to dwell at length on a prolonged static warfare—albeit one punctured by the spectacular explosion of a mine and its infamous aftermath? This professional malaise is reflected in public interest in Petersburg. While crowds throng to battlefields at Gettysburg, Manassas, and around Fredericksburg, there are many a beautiful day when parking lots at Petersburg National Battlefield are empty and the historic landscapes there glanced only fleetingly by exercisers jogging and peddling along the tour road.
I prefer to think of the operations around Petersburg as a campaign, not a siege. A classic siege includes two components: the encirclement of one army by another and the use of saps, approaches, and breaching batteries by the besiegers. Moreover, the popular conception of a siege excludes mobility and relies on the starvation of the besieged to gain a decision. By these standards, Grant’s operations at Vicksburg qualify as a siege, at least beginning after May 22, 1863. For forty-seven days, Union forces encircled the fortress city and prepared more than a dozen zig-zag approaches that ended at the very foot of the Confederate works. John Pemberton’s army, emaciated by a lack of food and fodder and entirely cut-off from succor or escape, surrendered on July 4. No question: Grant knew how to conduct and win a siege.
But is that what happened at Petersburg? The Army of Northern Virginia maintained an outside supply line until the South Side Railroad fell to Union forces on April 2, 1865. Then, Lee evacuated, his forces employing no fewer than four open routes out of Petersburg, Richmond, and the intervening defenses. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, argued in early July to begin formal siege operations. Grant agreed to this tactic—for about 48 hours. Then he resumed his offensives, nine in all, that ultimately led to the capture of Petersburg. My book addresses the first three of these offensives. Subsequent volumes will cover the others.
The popular habit of calling the Petersburg Campaign a “siege” not only distorts the operations as they unfolded, but deprives the Petersburg story of contingency. It is tempting to remember Lee’s supposed prediction and assume that once the armies reached Petersburg, the result was inevitable. That is hardly the case—at least as the soldiers and officers who fought at Petersburg perceived the situation. It seems to me that the relative lack of interest in Petersburg by scholars, buffs, and tourists stems, in large part, from the sense that beginning in mid-June 1864, Lee and Grant were simply playing out the string, locked in fetid trenches where disease and ennui trumped the exhilaration, heroism, glory and uncertainty of previous campaigns—factors that lend the Civil War its enduring and compelling grip on the American imagination.
Civil War military history will all be better served if we approach the Petersburg Campaign with a different frame of reference.
A. Wilson Greene is the former president of the Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.
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