The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign, Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion
By A. Wilson Greene
(November 2008 Civil War News)
Illustrated, maps, appendix, order of battle for April 2, 1865, notes, bibliography, index, 573 pp., 2008. The University of Tennessee Press, 110 Conference Center, 600 Henley St., Knoxville, TN 37996-4108, $49.95 plus shipping.
Reviewer: Frank Piatek
Frank Piatek graduated from Geneva College with a B.A. in history. He received his J.D. from Duquesne University in 1972. He is a member of several reenactment groups and past president of the Mahoning Valley Civil War Round Table.
The Petersburg Campaign has never engendered the attention of writers and readers of Civil War literature as much as the battles of Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, to name a few. Some have felt that Robert E. Lee’s fate was already sealed once his army became bogged down in the trenches there, so the battles in the environs of Petersburg were tactically uninteresting by comparison.
Greene’s book changes all that. He covers all the engagements, such as Hatcher’s Run, Fort Stedman and Five Forks, along with the lesser-known episodes at Jones Farm, McIlwaine’s Hill and Lewis Farm, to present a comprehensive account of the intense fighting at this stage of the war in Virginia.
The focus is on the final Federal attack on April 2, 1865, which Greene characterizes as “The Breakthrough” for want of a better term. He argues that before that action the demise of Lee’s army and the Confederacy in general were not so apparent to Federal soldiers in spite of their successes at Dinwiddie Court House and Five Forks.
The reason for this is that while modern readers have the hindsight to make such judgments, the men of Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps preparing for the final attack did not feel that the end was a forgone conclusion. Therefore, one can appreciate their sense of relief and exuberance once the breakthrough occurred, particularly after the vicious hand-to-hand defense made by the Confederates. Then and there, as one Connecticut soldier said, all the men finally saw daylight.
Greene discusses the personalities, the conditions experienced by the armies in the war’s final year and U.S. Grant’s preparations for the spring campaign that serve as a backdrop for the culmination of the war in Virginia and its end at Appomattox just seven days after the breakthrough.
He also provides an analysis of the breakthrough’s significance and a description of the modern-day site where the fighting occurred. The explanatory notes are more than mere references to the sources, containing additional information for readers interested in all the nuances. The narrative is basically from the Federal perspective, which is probably where most of the source material is available.
While this offering is a revised second edition of the original book published in 2000, the revisions are minimal and minor with the exception of the 32 maps, which appear clearer and more detailed to me in this edition. The text updates today’s road network to facilitate the visitor’s travel to the areas. As in the original edition, there are photographs of the major participants in the fighting, but few contemporary ones illustrating the field.
Since many of the illustrious commanders who achieved fame earlier in the war were killed or disabled by April 1865, their successors are comparatively unknown. Also, fewer tourists drive south from the traditional Northern Virginia battlefields to view Petersburg sites. Greene feels these facts contribute to why the story of the final campaign has been largely ignored.
It is only natural that Greene should write the story of this important campaign. As president of Pamplin Historical Park and National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, located near the actual breakthrough point, he is specially qualified by virtue of his experience, proximity to resources there, and personal knowledge of the battlefield, to make this significant contribution to existing Civil War literature.
I do take exception to his modesty in suggesting that a more detailed tactical history of the entire operations has yet to be written. While Greene might be technically correct in that regard, his book is quite inclusive and serves well, especially given the paucity of writing on the topic today.