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.
Petersburg’s Emergence from the Shadows
In 1973 I started my first history job as a seasonal park ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. I had finished my degree a year earlier, haven taken every course that pertained to the Civil War era. I was about to enter graduate school to study further under the renowned T. Harry Williams at LSU, and was proud of owning a substantial and growing library of campaign histories and military biographies. But I arrived at Petersburg almost as ignorant of the campaign as the thousands of visitors to whom I was to speak that summer.
The explanation was simple. In 1973 there were almost no readily accessible popular treatments of the Petersburg story beyond the overviews provided in general histories by authors such as Bruce Catton, Douglas Southall Freeman, and Allan Nevins. I wondered about this curious void in the literature, while I devoured the National Park Service’s little official handbook and the special issue on Petersburg from Civil War Times Illustrated during the few days I had to prepare to meet the public.
The campaign for Petersburg had indisputably failed to capture the imagination of Americans to the degree enjoyed by Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, or half-a-dozen other major Civil War battlegrounds. Perhaps this was because the story is so complex, covering 292 days and 576 square miles of Virginia soil spanning both the James and Appomattox Rivers. Or maybe, back in 1973, Petersburg National Battlefield was a relatively small and neglected unit of the National Park system, protecting and interpreting only a fraction of the historic landscape. Finally, there existed a pervasive perception that the Petersburg “siege” was devoid of contingency, marked by endless days of stagnant, uninteresting trench warfare at the end of which the demise of the Army of Northern Virginia would be inevitable.
So much has changed in the last 45 years. In 1991 Noah Andre Trudeau published The Last Citadel, a brilliant one-volume look at Petersburg, so enduring that it has been recently updated and reprinted. Trudeau’s work helped place into context Richard J. Sommers’s history of the Fifth Petersburg Offensive, Richmond Redeemed—one of the best campaign histories ever written. Since then, outstanding monographs have appeared on many aspects of the battle for Petersburg. Of particular value are books by Thomas J. Howe, Greg Eanes, David Faris Cross, Earl J. Hess, John Horn, Hampton Newsome, Michael J. McCarthy, and John J. Fox. My book, Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion, covers the final week of the campaign with emphasis on the decisive combat on April 2, 1865. Hess’s In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications & Confederate Defeat (UNC Press, 2009) has joined Trudeau as the best one-volume treatments of Petersburg. Most recently, Gordon C. Rhea’s On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee June 4-15, 1864 provides a masterful look at the transition between the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns, including the opening engagement of the First Petersburg Offensive.
Thanks to the efforts of preservation organizations, particularly the Civil War Trust, thousands of acres of the Petersburg story have been protected and made accessible since those gloomy days of the early 70s. A recent boundary expansion promises to make Petersburg National Battlefield the largest Civil War park in the country. Pamplin Historical Park, a privately run historic site, has rescued the dramatic saga of the Sixth Corps Breakthrough from oblivion. A thorough visit to preserved and interpreted Petersburg destinations now requires three full days, whereas an afternoon would have sufficed when I first worked at the National Battlefield.
My current project seeks to fill the niche between the fine one-volume scholarship of Trudeau and Hess and the closely focused work of Sommers, Newsome, Rhea, and others. My hope is that in three volumes I will be able to provide a cogent and analytical narrative operational history of the campaign for Petersburg and in doing so suggest additional avenues of inquiry that will sustain the happy momentum that has allowed Petersburg to emerge from the shadows of Civil War history.
A. Wilson Greene is the former president of the Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. You can read his earlier UNC Press Blog post here.