This was a pioneering study of an important military operation: in1980 the author’s approach to Civil War history was praised for its originality and value to serious students of the war. Richard Sommers was the first historian to write a tactically detailed narrative of a Civil War battle for the general audience. He was also the first historian to write about the Petersburg Campaign (aside from incidents such as the Battle of the Crater) since Major General Andrew Humphries, a participant in the campaign, wrote his history in 1883. Richmond Redeemed won numerous awards and is still regarded the definitive study of Grant’s Fifth Offensive against Petersburg and Richmond. Richard Sommers has inspired many other historians to write about Civil War battles from the tactical, small-unit, and personal points of view.
As already stated, this book analyzes Grant’s Fifth Offensive (September 29 – October 2, 1864), primarily the Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff (Fort Harrison) and Poplar Spring Church (Peebles’ Farm). The Union attack north of the James River at Chaffin’s Bluff broke through Richmond’s defenses and gave Federals their best opportunity to capture the Confederate capital. Fierce fighting by four United States Colored Troops brigades earned their soldiers thirteen Medals of Honor and marked Chaffin’s Bluff as the biggest, bloodiest battle for African-American units in the whole Civil War. The corresponding fighting outside Petersburg at Poplar Spring Church so threatened Southern supply lines that General Lee considered abandoning his Petersburg rail center six months before actually doing so. Hard fighting and skillful Confederate generalship saved both cities, and Richmond was ‘redeemed’ from capture for another half-year.
In the opening chapter, Sommers gives the reader a good idea of how the war was going for both sides at the time of the campaign, and what the opposing generals were trying to accomplish. He maintains the reader’s suspense by, in his own words “…never get[ting] ahead of myself by tipping off readers to the outcome. Readers step lively with the columns of march, charge with the brigades, man the ramparts with the defenders, plan with the generals, and struggle with those commanders to try to fathom the uncertainty of battle and of war.” He draws heavily on the personal accounts of commanders and private soldiers; using literally thousands of letters, reports, and memoirs drawn from over 100 archives throughout the nation. His maps (and the explanations provided on each map) depict the actions down to regimental level, helping the reader to quickly understand the terrain and the troop movements.
For this Sesquicentennial re-issue of the book Sommers adds several appendixes, including a day-by-day timeline of the offensives and the Senior Officers of the Fifth Offensive, cross-referenced by State, Grade and Command. He has not just re-issued, he has re-written his book, crediting his additions or re-interpretations to over twenty years of “…new research, new writing, and most of all new thinking.” Since 2008, he taught electives and core courses to students at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. War College students are Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels as well as Navy and Coast Guard Captains and Commanders who had demonstrated potentiality to become Generals and Admirals. Sommers presented military history, including the Petersburg Campaign, in their courses. He contributed to the officers development as senior strategic leaders, and gained valuable new insights from them “…through their real-world experience in making military history….” which contributed greatly to his understanding of generalship and high command, adding greatly to the value of his final-chapter’s analysis of the generalship of Generals Robert Lee, Ulysses Grant, A. P. Hill, Gouverneur Warren and the other commanders.
This book is highly recommended to those who want to develop an understanding of “how they fought” during this campaign as well as in the latter part of the war, or who want to understand the very important mid-point of the Petersburg Campaign.
Review by David Lady