The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864, by Gordon C. Rhea, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, (504) 388-6666, 483 pages, $34.95.
Gordon Rhea has reached the halfway mark in his ongoing, comprehensive account of 1864’s Overland Campaign. The first installment, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, set a high standard that is sustained by this volume, which chronologically follows those two days of bitter fighting and covers the action through the massive fight for the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania.
Once again Rhea has done a first-rate job of sorting through manuscript collections and has undertaken a comprehensive survey of published sources to provide a rich selection of new voices, Northern and Southern. In addition to the fighting at Spotsylvania, Rhea’s narrative covers Sheridan’s Richmond cavalry raid and the combat at Yellow Tavern, which cost the South its dashing cavalier, Major General J.E.B. Stuart.
Although not advertised as such, this is essentially a military history, with primary emphasis on the tactics employed, the combat experienced, and the decision-making process in the field. In this arena Rhea is superb. His ability to pull together and weigh all the bits of evidence and weave them into a clear narrative is admirable. His judgments of the military leaders involved are refreshingly free of the polemical baggage that the same men’s often self-serving memoirs inflicted on the first writers to tackle this period. Not surprisingly, few of these officers emerge from this rigorous examination with their glory intact, which helps explain why previous historians largely neglected this major campaign.
Paradoxically missing from this otherwise thorough examination are satisfying portrayals of those who carried the guns. I say paradoxically, because each combat action in this book unfolds though the vivid words of men in the ranks, but the presence of those men is fleeting and none emerges with any profile.
A more serious lapse concerns the central figure of Ulysses S. Grant. When it comes to tracking Grant’s presence, presenting his role in the tactical decisions, and evaluating his effectiveness as part of the Union leadership team engaged in these battles, Rhea’s insights are comprehensive and thought-provoking. Yet, unlike Major General George G. Meade, whose sole responsibility was the management of the Army of the Potomac, Grant was running the entire Union military machine from his tent in Virginia. On May 7 (the book’s starting point), Grant was directing the continued southward movement of Meade’s forces while also querying Washington for news of William T. Sherman’s Western campaign and Benjamin Butler’s efforts along the James River. In the period encompassing May 10 and 12 (two days of brutal combat at Spotsylvania), Grant was supervising logistical support for Meade’s army, reviewing extensive field reports from Sherman and Butler, worrying about his wife’s trip to St. Louis, monitoring his nominations of officers for promotion, sweating out the finale of Banks’s disastrous Red River Campaign, personally superintending the IX Corps, and keeping a careful watch on the shrinking balance sheet of available reinforcements. An assessment of how he managed (or didn’t manage) all this, and how it affected the quality of his contributions to Meade’s tactical problems, is important if we are to understand his performance in this critical month of the war. It deserved to be included in Rhea’s analysis.
Also absent is much regarding the impact this major campaign had on the home front and on Abraham Lincoln’s actions. The casualty lists from May 7 through 12 spread waves of shock and personal tragedy throughout the North; an understanding of how the campaign fared among the grief-stricken citizens of the land would have helped paint a small but useful piece of the whole picture. Surely Lincoln’s faith in his hand-picked supreme commander must have been tested as each day brought no decisive victory to offset the growing lists of dead and wounded. Might the need to preserve Lincoln’s support have shaped Grant’s official assessments of his operations? For instance, on May 8 he declares the results of his bloody stalemate in the Wilderness as being “decidedly in our favor”; two days later he expresses his confidence that he can “in the end beat Lee’s army”; and early on May 11 he concludes that the “result to this time is much in our favor.” A deeper exploration of the Grant-Lincoln connection would have enhanced Rhea’s assessments.
Rhea’s book is nevertheless an outstanding achievement of research, writing, and evaluation. George Skoch’s 30 maps are sufficiently detailed (sometimes to the regimental level) to enhance the text. The modest picture section nicely mixes period drawings with photographs taken just after the war. I look forward to volume three, which will complete the Spotsylvania battles and follow the armies to the North Anna.
Noah Andre Trudeau