The Petersburg Campaign vol II: The Western Front Battles September 1864-April 1865, Bryce A. Suderow and Edwin C. Bearss

The Petersburg Campaign vol II: The Western Front Battles September 1864-April 1865, Bryce A. Suderow and Edwin C. Bearss

The sieges of Richmond and Petersburg were the main feature of the fighting in Virginia in the second half of 1864 and early 1865 and saw Grant pin Lee down in an attempt to defend the two cities, while at the same time Lee was able to keep Grant outside the cities and prevent him from cutting the last supply lines into the Confederate capital. As the siege dragged on, Grant kept on making attempts to get around the Confederate right wing, and the front line slow extended to the south and west of Petersburg, as Lee was forced to extend his lines. Eventually the desperate Confederate defensive efforts failed at Five Forks, and the Confederates were finally forced to abandon their capital. Within a week Lee had surrendered, and with the Army of Virginia gone the remnants of the Confederacy folded, ended the civil war. This book thus covers some of the key battles in the final phase of the war. 

I found the first three chapters, looking at the failed Union attacks of 1864 and early 1865 to be rather hard work. They take up quite a large part of the book - 240 from 550 pages of narrative, and ready very much like their First World War equivalents, with a great deal of focus on the details of small scale attacks, almost all of which failed. This section reads more like a reference book than a narrative history.

Things become more interesting with the attack on Fort Stedman of 25 March 1865, a failed Confederate attack that marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. This was then followed by the series of battles at the far western end of the Confederate lines that ended with the decisive Union victory at Five Forks, and the breakthrough on the main front on the following day. By now Lee had decided to retreat and try and join up with the only other sizable Confederate army in the east, a forlorn hope at best (even if the two armies had met up, they would have found themselves between Grant and Sherman, outnumbered and running short of supplies, and the result can surely only have been either a larger surrender or a costly defeat). Instead we follow the two armies as they moved west, with Grant's men pushing hard, and Lee never able to get far enough ahead to make his turn south. 

The author does tend to over-exaggerate the Confederate successes - describing a Confederate battalion as being worth a Union regiment or even on occasion a brigade. If this had been the case, then Grant's men would never have broken through - when Lee left the siege lines he had 58,000 men and was pursued by 76,113 men, nowhere near a big enough Union advantage to compensate for such a level of Confederate superiority. I could also have done without less of the 'blues', 'greys', 'butternuts' and so forth in some of the combat descriptions in the combat narratives, which sometimes make it slightly tricky to follow what's going on if you aren't entirely immersed in the US civil war. However the original battle descriptions were written for the Petersburg National Military Park, which helps explains their tone. It also explains why Bearss didn't cover the key attack on Fort Stedman or the retreat to Appomattox, gaps that have been filled by his co-author here. This half of the book is much more readable, and provides a good account of these crucial battles.

1 - The Battle of Peebles' Farm, September 30-October 2, 1864
2 - The Battle of Burgess Mill, October 27, 1864
3 - The Battle of Hatcher's Run, February 5-7, 1865
4 - The Confederate Attack and Union Defense of Fort Stedman, March 25, 1865
5 - Prelude to the Five Forks Campaign - Battle of Lewis Farm (Quaker Road), March 29-30, 1865
6 - The Five Forks Campaign: The battles of Dinwiddie Court House and White Oak Road, March 30-31, 1865
7 - The Five Forks Campaign: The Battle of Five Forks, April 1, 1865
8 - The VI Corps Scores a Breakthrough, April 2, 1865
Postscript: The Retreat to Appomattox

Author: Bryce A. Suderow and Edwin C. Bearss
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 580
Publisher: Savas Beatie
Year: 2015

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