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.

“Whipt ’em Everytime”: The Poorly Titled Diary of Bartlett Yancey Malone

Researching the VI Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac has also made me quite familiar with Richard Hoke’s brigade of North Carolina infantry. These Tarheel regiments–the 6th, 21st, 54th, and 57th–frequently found themselves matched up against those whose blue kepis were adorned with the Greek Cross. At Second Fredericksburg, Rappahannock Station, and throughout the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, the VI Corps soldiers got the best of the North Carolinians. When writing about the first two battles, I can’t help but roll my eyes when I have to cite “Whipt ’em Everytime” while providing the Confederate perspective.

Bartlett Yancey Malone was born in 1838 in Caswell County, North Carolina. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War he joined the Caswell Boys Company, which was soon attached to the 6th North Carolina Infantry. Malone rose to the rank of sergeant and remained on the rolls through March 1865. He kept a diary from 1862 to 1865 that wound up in the special collections at the University of North Carolina.

Bartlett Yancey Malone, 6th North Carolina Infantry (FindaGrave.com)

William Whatley Pierson, Jr. was a fixture at Chapel Hill, as an instructor, professor, and finally a dean of the graduate school. In 1919, Pierson first published Malone’s memoirs in volume 16, number 2 of the North Carolina Historical Society’s James Sprunt Historical Publications. Pierson simply titled his typescript “The Diary of Bartlett Yancey Malone” for the academic journal.

Forty years later, as Civil War publications increased leading up to the centennial, Malone’s journal reached a wider audience. McCowat-Mercer Press (Jackson, TN) published Pierson’s annotated version of the diary in 1960. Needing a catchier name to draw sales, either Pierson or the publisher decided to title the book Whipt ’em Everytime: The Diary of Bartlett Yancey Malone, Co. H, 6th N.C. Regiment. Malone’s diary entry on May 9, 1862 provided the basis for the title. While retreating up the Virginia peninsula from Yorktown to Richmond, Malone wrote:

And the 9 day we rested untell about 12 oclock and then started out on our march again and befour we had gone a mile we hird that our Cavalry was attacked by the Yankees And then we had to stop and wate a while but we whipt them like we aulways do.

However that brief excerpt is not indicative of the style of Malone’s journal. The desire for catchiness unfortunately forced a braggadocious title onto the North Carolinian’s candid diary entries. As Pierson wrote in 1919:

Mr. Malone performed no extraordinary feat of heroism, at least none such was recorded; he participated with individual distinction in no political movement of importance; he played no role which would cause historians to single him out for particular notice. His diary is reproduced here as a document of human interest which reveals, with much quaintness of expression, the thoughts of a simple soldier of the ranks – the thoughts, it is to be presumed, of a mass of men, which have oftentimes been inarticulate.

There is a frankness about this diary that conveys inevitably, I believe, the conviction of sincerity. And there is a lack of emotion – as when in remarking on an event which, we are told, caused the soldiers great grief, the death of Stonewall Jackson, he merely said, “And General Jackson died to-day, which is the 10th day of May” – an absence of bitterness and of complaints which, considering the provocation of circumstances, make the diary of almost as much interest because of these omissions as because of what is included.

My interest in the VI Corps was first piqued while studying what was happening around Fredericksburg at the time of Jackson’s wounding. As an intern in 2010 with Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park I wanted to better understand the successful charge against Marye’s Heights on May 3, 1863, and the fighting that afternoon and the following morning around Salem Church. I soon noticed a trend among the VI Corps battles that defied our conventional understanding of the Civil War. The corps had mastered the frontal assault–the tactic that seemed suicidal to consider.

After successfully breaching the stone wall, whose defense depended more on the memory of the December bloodbath than the two living Mississippi companies who manned the sunken road, the corps slowly pushed west along the Orange Turnpike to Joseph Hooker’s aid at Chancellorsville. Their progress was halted at Salem Church that afternoon, by which time Hooker had entirely given up on the prospects of a successful campaign.

John Sedgwick, commanding the VI Corps, received conflicting orders to both come to Hooker’s assistance by way of the turnpike and by crossing the river and to remain in place. Sedgwick ultimately settled into position with both flanks anchored on the river. In doing so he lost his connection with the two brigades of John Gibbon’s II Corps division who remained in Fredericksburg. Robert E. Lee sought to exploit Sedgwick’s isolation and further divided his own army, sending brigades east from Chancellorsville to try and destroy the VI Corps.

While the VI Corps was storming Marye’s Heights on May 3rd, Hoke’s brigade (with the majority of Jubal Early’s division) remained on the hills stretching southeast toward Hamilton’s Crossing. They retreated south to rally those who escaped Marye’s Heights and found that Sedgwick declined to pursue in that direction. Malone wrote, “for some cause we we all ordered to fall back about a half of a mile to our last breast works.” With the VI Corps’ attention drawn to the presumed attack from the direction of Chancellorsville, Early thus had an ideal position from which to attack the next morning.

The attack along the turnpike never materialized on May 4, causing Early to attack alone. Though he succeeded in regaining Marye’s Heights without contest, the VI Corps stood firm in their U-shaped position, shuffling reinforcements to the threatened sector. The Confederate attack overlapped itself before reaching the target, producing confusion and further dooming any chance of success. Cut off from a direct connection with the rest of the Union army and confused by Hooker’s conflicting orders, Sedgwick pulled the corps back across the Rappahannock at Banks Ford.

The VI Corps brought up the rear of the Union march into Pennsylvania and saw little combat at Gettysburg. Their next notable engagement occurred on November 7, 1863 at Rappahannock Station. After failing to outflank the Army of the Potomac during the offensive that resulted in the October 14th battle of Bristoe Station, Robert E. Lee settled into winter camp below the Rappahannock River. He left a pontoon crossing and bridgehead just upstream from the destroyed Orange & Alexandria Railroad bridge over the Rappahannock.

Lee believed that active campaigning had ended for the year but planned to utilize the Rappahannock Station crossing in case George Meade wanted to continue operations. Lee expected that if Meade did advance, the Union general would maneuver to Kelly’s Ford, downstream from Rappahannock Station. Lee would then cross a portion of his army at Rappahannock Station to attack Meade’s column as it marched. Meade instead divided his army into two and sent it forward on November 7th. The I, II, and III Corps marched for Kelly’s Ford while the V and VI advanced straight toward Rappahannock Station.

Harry Hays’s Louisiana brigade manned the fortified bridgehead. The sudden appearance of the Union forces came as a surprise but the Confederates chose to reinforce rather than withdraw. Three regiments from Hoke’s brigade crossed the pontoon to reinforce Hays. Hoke was absent and the 21st N.C. was back in its native state at the time. Colonel Archibald Godwin assumed command of the 6th, 54th, and 57th, and placed them among Hays’s regiments. Malone wrote:

The 7th about 2 o’clock in the eavning orders came to fall in with armes in a moment that the enemy was atvancen, Then we was doubbelquicked down to the river (which was about 5 miles) and crost and formed a line of battel in our works and the yanks was playing on ous with thir Artillery & thir skirmishers a fyring into ous as we formed fyring was kept up then with the Skirmishers untell dark.

The VI Corps drove Hays’s skirmishers back into the entrenched bridgehead. The Confederates thought that the late hour meant the engagement had ended but Union division commander David Russell sent brigades under Peter Ellmaker and Emory Upton to storm Hays and Godwin’s position.

Ellmaker attacked first, the 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin overrunning the Louisiana Guard Artillery. Godwin shifted his regiments out of the fortifications to counterattack the two Union regiments but Ellmaker brought the 49th and 119th Pennsylvania forward at the same time. While combat continued at close range, Upton’s brigade formed to the northwest. As darkness closed around the still-contested position, Upton sent the 5th Maine and 121st New York forward. They stormed over the works whose numbers had been reduced by Godwin’s counterattack toward Ellmaker. Upton’s two regiments swept the line in both directions while several companies pushed onward to cut the Confederates off from retreating across the pontoon.

Hays managed to escape across the bridge, and some Confederates swam the river to avoid capture, but the battle’s result was among the most lopsided of the war. In a direct attack against two fortified Confederate brigades, six VI Corps regiments successfully stormed the position and captured nearly the entire garrison.

Barlett Malone was among those captured. “About dark the yanks charged on the Louisianna Bregaid which was clost to the Bridg and broke thir lines and got to the Bridge we was then cutoff and had to Surender,” he wrote. Malone was sent to Point Lookout where he remained until paroled in late February 1865.

It thus seems a bit disingenuous to imply that Malone and the 6th North Carolina Infantry indeed “whipt ’em everytime” but I’m not surprised to see it at the centennial of the war. Unfortunately that sentiment continues through this day. Despite evidence to the contrary, many visitors with whom I interact are still convinced that no one in the Union army knew how to fight or were willing to do so. Perhaps if I ever compile the various VI Corps frontal attacks into one book I can borrow a name for the title…

A Peek into the “Critic’s Corner” in Civil War News

SHAG-A-DOO-LA.

Those of us who write about the Civil War for fun (rarely for profit) get our ideas from any number of sources. One never knows when or how some inspiration will occur. Driving to the store recently, I heard Leslie Gore’s great song from 1963, “She’s a Fool,” with that male background chorus chanting, “shag-a-doo-la.”

Hmmmm…wonder how the lyricist or studio producer thought of that? I mused, pulling into my driveway. See how one’s curiosity can be so easily piqued?

This random, most unscientific “process” is how I come up with the monthly bibliographic column I write for Jack and Peggy Melton’s national newspaper, Civil War News

I had been a regular book reviewer for Civil War News since 2010, when Kay Jorgenson owned the paper and Ed Bonekemper served as Book Review Editor. Every now and then I had written a book-related article, such as my piece on recent studies in the western theater (CWN, November 2013). Jack Melton bought the paper from Kay in January 2016. The next month I saw the new proprietor at the Dalton Civil War Show and boldly asked him if he would consider letting me write a monthly column for Civil War News on my favorite Civil War books. He agreed.

So, why bibliography? When I was a student of his at Emory, the late great Bell Wiley taught me an appreciation for Civil War books. Dr. Wiley would give us his typewritten list of favored titles on various subjects, and for years I used it as a guide for what to look for in bookstores as I built my library.

Years later, I still remember the Sunday night when the publisher of Blue & Gray Magazine, Dave Roth, called me to say that his Book Review Editor, Rowena Reed, had left, and would I consider replacing her? Of course I said yes.

Then began two decades of bibliophilia as Dave’s BRE. My stint began with the July 1985 issue of Blue & Gray; over the years I had more than three score reviews published in the magazine.

Back in the ‘80s the local newspaper, the Journal-Constitution, actually had a good Sunday book section; sometimes I got assignments for it. My review of Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy’s Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, printed in January 1989, led me to revisit it in my “Critic’s” page in September 2017.

In 1996, my good friend Bob Maher invited me to speak at his Civil War Education Association seminar in St. Louis. I told him that I’d like to speak about books, and he agreed. I tossed around various titles for my talk: “The Civil War’s Best Books: God Knows What They Are”; “The Kodachrome Bookshelf: Snapshots of Civil War Classics”; and “100 Best Books on the Civil War: Yeah, Sez Who?” I finally settled on “From Cooke’s Books to Krick’s Licks: A Century of Reading on the Army of Northern Virginia.” My choices ranged from John Esten Cooke to Robert K. Krick (Bob was in the audience, and loved it).

Some of the works I mentioned in St. Louis have become “Critic’s Choices,” such as Cooke’s Wearing of the Gray (1867), to which I devoted my very first column in April 2016. I was thrilled when Jack told me that a reader in Alaska so liked my article that she was trying to find a copy of Cooke’s Wearing.

Another of my faves is J. William Jones’ Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee (1875). At St. Louis, my text (this was before everyone used PowerPoint) included the story Jones tells from Lee’s years as president of Washington College. Lee frequently called students into his office for misbehaving, and talked to them so tenderly, in a fatherly way, that the boys almost always ended up crying. One brash young lad, however, bragged to his friends that when he was called in, old man Lee would never get him to show such weakness, saying, “I will talk back at him, and get him to laughing the first thing he knows.” Not long afterward, this young student was indeed summoned to the president’s office, and some of his friends gathered outside to hear what happened. When he came out, sure enough there were traces of tears on his cheeks. They all asked why: “How did you come out?” “Did he scold you severely?” The lad replied, “No, I wish he had. I wish he had whipped me. I could have stood it better. But he talked to me so kindly, and so tenderly, about my mother, and the sacrifices which she, a widow, is making to send me to college, and of how I ought to appreciate her love, and do credit to her, by diligence in my studies, and correct deportment—that the first thing I knew I was blubbering like a baby. I promised him that I would do better hereafter, and I tell you, boys, I mean to do it.” (I wrote on Jones’ Reminiscences in April 2017.)

I like bringing back into currency these old chestnuts. It’s gratifying to learn that our readers like it too. Michael Harrington of Houston sent me an e-mail awhile back. “I’ve thought for years we should review occasionally some select older books as well as new publications,” he wrote; “it is a real service to our readers, not all of whom are deep readers of CW historiography.” More recently, John Sinclair of Baltimore wrote Jack, “Steve Davis’ fascinating essay on Richard Harwell’s In Tall Cotton [about which I wrote last March] breathed life into an overlooked classic that might cause some to give it a second look rather than write it off as ‘outdated.’”

It’s even finer when the author of one of these “overlooked classics” learns of my selection of his work for my page. After I wrote about John Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run (1993) in May 2016, John e-mailed me a word of thanks. “It’s been 23 years since I wrote the thing,” he added, “and yours is probably the first review of it in15 years.”

Breathing youthfulness into old books kind of reminds me of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”: “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

A Postscript to a Conversation with Hallowed Ground‘s Mary Koik

whm-header

(a postscript to a four-part series)

As a follow-up to my interview with Hallowed Ground editor Mary Koik earlier this month, I asked her, “If a young woman wanted to get into Civil War-related publishing, as a writer or author, what advice would you offer? In other words, if she wanted to follow in your footsteps, what should she do?”

Here’s Mary’s answer, applicable for aspiring writers—female and male, alike! 

Mary Koik: The best way to start a journey to being a competent writer and editor in ANY subject area is to become, first and foremost, a reader.

Not just that, be a voracious reader. Consume fiction of all genres and formats, paying attention to the way language can be used to convey tone, convey subtlety, convey gravitas. Read nonfiction on many subjects—and not just because you may not start off working in your dream field. You’ll be amazed at how good writing can be compelling regardless of what it covers. Plus, knowing a little about a lot of things gives you a better sense of what you DON’T know and need to query authors on. And, as a bonus, it makes you very good company at cocktail parties. Read essays and opinion pieces to discover the many ways that an argument can be structured to persuade.

Be a critical reader, as well. See if you can identify and articulate why you like or dislike something. This applies to both the macro and micro levels—how the history is presented and how paragraphs or even sentences are structured. Are you a sucker for a non-linear or chronological presentation? Do you think multiple transitions between areas of focus and perspective should be left to novels? Does it bug you when an author hides behind the use of qualifiers rather than boldly stating a fact? Are you known to soliloquize on your belief that too many historians insist on torturously using the conditional in the belief that it creates suspense, even when we’re talking about Pickett’s Charge and we all know how that ends up? (That one might just be me…)

If that last example left you scratching your head, then heed my next point: Pay attention in English class, because grammar truly does matter. I’m not saying you need to be the Grammar Police at all times, because different venues allow and even require different tones. But you need to know the rules to know when to bend them. Nor am I saying that you should endeavor to be the walking index of a reference book. Heck, for many years, my personal copy of the AP Style Guide naturally fell open to the entry on possessives because I always questioned myself on instances of joint ownership. But you need to know what you’re talking about if you’re going to rewrite someone else’s work, and calling it a tense, when you really mean the mood (conditional versus indicative or subjunctive or imperative) or even the voice (active versus passive) really undermines your authority.

Cultivate an eye for detail: and not just typos. Ensuring parallel structure across all your headings or uniform information in photo captions and credits fall into this category, too. And depending on the product, you may be looking for alignment between columns or color matches. And recognize that different publications have different style guides and consistency is the goal.

Learn to be flexible. Editing isn’t like a math problem where there is only one correct answer. Sure, there are things that are outright wrong, but there are probably multiple way to fix the problem, any of which could work. And just because you have a preferred way of doing something doesn’t mean that it is what will sound most natural among that author’s prose.

Know your strengths. There is a world of difference between substantive editing and copyediting and proofreading. I would never dream of billing myself as the latter—but I’m much more comfortable indicating significant rewrites than my friends that would place themselves in that category.

Strive for excellence but realize perfection is elusive. I hate making mistakes and I can beat myself up over particularly bad ones—I doubt most people have a persona list of their five lifetime-worst typos! But every issue of Hallowed Ground runs close to 25,000 words, and with the staff and resources at my disposal, expecting zero errors in every piece of that length just isn’t reasonable. Frankly, by the end of a production cycle, I’m sure I could make two passes and find one new thing to change each time. But there comes a point when you need to ask yourself—and maybe others—“Is this ‘Stop the presses!’ worthy?” And, more often than not, the answer is no. That said, always triple check your headlines. When you’re using capital letters and fancy fonts, your eye just glosses over problems. The instances I can remember of pulling a page as we approach the very last moment have all been headlines/titles.

Read Along With Me: William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs

A Series by Julie Mujic

Sherman book photo

Last weekend, I went to Half Price Books and came across this Penguin Classics edition of Sherman’s Memoirs for $7.99.

I was especially interested to discover that this version was edited and annotated by the late Michael Fellman, who wrote a book about Sherman, along with several other acclaimed works. Fellman also penned the Introduction for this volume of Sherman’s memoirs; I’ll be interested to read his perspective.

At some point during this journey through time with Sherman, I’ll travel down to Lancaster, Ohio, to visit the Sherman House Museum and check out his statue as well. I’ve heard through the local grapevine (I’m on the Board of Trustees for the Columbus Historical Society) that there were threats to the Sherman statue in Lancaster during last summer’s national controversy over Confederate monuments, so I’ll do a little digging into that situation as well.

I plan to read the Memoirs and write blog posts based on the following schedule:

Post 1: Introduction & Chapters 1-7

Post 2: Chapters 8-12

Post 3: Chapters 13-15

Post 4: Chapters 16-19

Post 5: Chapters 20-23

Post 6: Chapters 24-26

Post 7: Weekender trip to Lancaster

So, grab your copy at a local used book store, from your library, or online today, and read along with me! I’ll try my best to give dates as we go along. Right now, I expect to publish the first post by mid-April. I look forward to your comments, insights, and feedback in the coming weeks.

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Julie Mujic, Ph.D. is a Scholar-in-Residence at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She also owns Paramount Historical Consulting, LLC, and can be reached through www.juliemujic.com.