The Petersburg Campaign, volume II: The Western Front Battles (September 1864-April 1865)
Authors, Edwin C. Bears and William Wyrick. Editor Bryce A. Suderow
Book Review by David Lady
I’ve been waiting over a year for this second volume to be released by Savas Beatie Press, and am glad to report that this book is worth the wait! Author and researcher Bryce Suderow has completed one of Ed Bearss’ most important projects, completing histories of every major battle of the nine-month long Petersburg Campaign.
Ed Bearss, the senior National Park Service historian, originally prepared a series of documented narratives with supporting Troop Movement Maps, as part of his service as the Richmond Regional Research Historian during the nineteen-sixties. Starting with the Battle of Five Forks, Ed created a series of comprehensive narratives for almost all of the main battles associated with the nine and one-half month siege of Petersburg. Over the past several years Bryce Suderow convinced Ed to permit publishing these accounts for the larger audience, and then edited, updated, and placed the twelve articles into chronological order. He also wrote introductions for each battle, tying them all into a more unified campaign history. Where Bearss had not written a complete battle narrative, Suderow brought in another expert to fill in the gaps.
In the case of this second volume, Suderow invited William Wyrick to expand his own published study of the entire Five Forks Campaign; three battles taking place south west of Petersburg between 29 March and 1 April 1865. These three closely-connected chapters are a great improvement on Bearss’ original study, and present a comprehensive review of the Federal offensive to cut the Confederacy’s last railroad supplying Petersburg and Richmond while destroying General Lee’s remaining mobile field force.
In all, five Federal offensives are covered, as well as the Army of Northern Virginia’s last offensive against the besieging Federal forces at Fort Stedman. The Federal offensives took place between October 1864 and 2 April 1865, concluding with the final, successful assault of the Petersburg fortifications.
Two significant themes appeared to me as I read through the book’s nine chapters. The first is how the Army of the Potomac recovered its confidence and offensive spirit during the last autumn and winter of the war. Federal victories in the east and the west, including the Army of the Potomac’s own victories in the Shenandoah Valley, had inspired the President Lincoln’s re-election, stimulated a rush of new enlistments and bank loans to resource the war, and lifted the morale of enough old soldiers to reenergize the Federal armies. Additionally, after nearly a year of weeding out his uncooperative, incompetent and worn out leaders, U. S. Grant had formed a confident team of leaders ruthless enough to press the Confederates past the breaking point.
The second theme is the Army of Northern Virginia’s loss of aggressiveness and efficiency by 1865. A succession of Confederate defeats, the winter’s short supplies, the news of General Sherman’s Army marching north from Savannah, finally eroded the morale of a majority of “Lee’s Miserables.” Confederate attempts to blunt these later Federal offensives never succeeded in routing the attacfkers, and Lee’s last offensive to seize Fort Stedman ended in disaster for the remnants of Stonewall’s Second Corps. Despite some inspired fighting by a few leaders and organizations, the last battles of Five Forks and Third Petersburg ended in the complete defeat of the Confederate defenders.
I recommend this book to you all as the better of the two volumes. Both Ed Bearss and Bryce Suderow have written excellent introductions to this book, analyzing the circumstances and reasons that caused Generals Grant and Lee send their armies into vicious combat time and time again. Mr. Wyrick’s account of Five Forks is excellent, and each of the Bearss/Suderow rewrites maintains the high standard of the first volume. Reading this book will reward those readers who already possess a good general knowledge of the Petersburg Campaign and an appetite for further tactical detail. Other readers should read a book covering the entire Petersburg Campaign and then enjoy Bearss, Suderow, and Wyrick’s coverage of the individual battles.
David Lady is a native of Washington, D. C., and grew-up in northern Virginia during the Civil War Centennial. His branch of the Lady family lived in eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia during the Civil War and his forebears served on both sides of this war. David graduated from Wittenberg University in Springfield OH with a degree in History. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1974, and during his thirty-three year military career served as an Armor and Cavalry soldier and later as the Command Sergeant Major (CSM) of the U. S. Army Armor Center, the U. S. Army Europe, and the U. S. Army Strategic Command. He and his wife Ellen reside in Huntsville, and he is employed on Redstone Arsenal with the U. S. Army Strategic Command. He serves on our Board of Directors as membership chairman, and is an enthusiastic participant in the Little Round Table and the Round Table Brigade.