Review: On to Petersburg by Gordon Rhea

Rhea - On to PetersburgBack in September, I mentioned how excited I was about the arrival of Gordon Rhea’s book On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864. In October, my colleague Edward Alexander posted his thoughts about the book, situating it the larger historiography of the Overland Campaign. By the time I finished reading the book and prepared to comment on it, Civil War News Book Review Editor (and ECW colleague) Steve Davis asked me to review it for CWN. I’ve deferred commenting here until that review appeared in print—which it finally has! I invite you to check out the May 2018 issue Civil War News for my complete thoughts.

Except that I have more to say . . . !

On to Petersburg serves as a crucial bridge between the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. “[T]he operation of flanking had come to an end, and the choice now lay between a direct attack and a new plan,” Rhea writes.

Confederate earthworks had already demonstrated over and over the costliness of mounting direct attacks against them, so Grant finally switched tacks. If he couldn’t crush Lee’s army in open-field combat, he would strangle Lee’s army by choking off its supplies. To do so, he targeted the rail hub of Petersburg, the second-largest city in Virginia. To get there, Federals first had to cross the swampy Chickahominy and then the wide, tidal James River. “For the gambit to succeed . . . “ Rhea writes, “the Army of the Potomac had to move with clocklike efficiency, a feat that it had rarely achieved.”

The story of the crossing of the James is a story of maneuver, including the logistical preparations and military actions necessary to make the move. Confederate artillerists and later memoirist A.P. Alexander called the move to the James “the most brilliant stroke in all the Federal campaigns of the whole war.” Rhea’s detailed attention to the maneuver reminds us of what a truly stunning military and engineering feat it was, standing among Grant’s most noteworthy achievements of the entire campaign.

From a narrative point of view, we tend to like our stories to build toward a climax. Rhea’s choice of the opening assault against Petersburg fulfills this basic storytelling function, ending the book with an engagement that then sets the table for the siege. Personality conflicts come to a head and new ones emerge, and communication issues continue to blunt Grant’s ambitious plans. “Coordination from the top—Grant’s responsibility—was . . . severely lacking,” Rhea reveals.

“[Grant’s] detachment on June 15, compounded by his failure to designate someone to oversee the offensive on the ground, stands as his most significant lapse during the entire campaign from the Rapidan to Petersburg,” he explains. “And it was a lapse that came at the campaign’s culmination, literally denying Union arms the objective they had fought so mightily to achieve during the previous forty-five days.”

Buffs tend to like to categorize Civil War actions, and a book that blurs the lines between the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg the way this one does can challenge those assumptions. However, if you’ve paid close attention to Rhea’s overall narrative, the Overland Campaign was one of maneuver, innovation, and improvisation, as well as battle. On to Petersburg situates the events of June 4-15 squarely in that context.

As a writer, I love Rhea’s ability to find the perfect phrase, and as a researcher, I love his ability to find surprising details. For instance, “soldiers routinely shot themselves in the second finger of their right hand in the hopes of being sent back to Washington,” Rhea wrote. While doctors customarily used chloroform on patients when tending such wounds, “as a punishment to the cowards the surgeons . . . perform the amputation of wounded fingers without any anesthetic.” Ouch! But those sorts of small episodes and details fill Rhea’s narrative and make it rich.

If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that the cover design doesn’t match up with the first four volumes in the series. That’s minor, of course, and it didn’t stop me from cracking the cover and diving into the book itself.

For more of my thoughts, please check out the most recent Civil War News. Out of respect for the paper and for our readers, I don’t want to repeat myself here. But do pick up On to Petersburg if you haven’t already. It’s a worthy culmination of twenty years of outstandingly thorough research by THE expert on the Overland Campaign.