New books tackle the 1864 Virginia bloodletting, Walt Whitman and campaigns in the Confederate heartland.
By Donald C. Pfanz
On May 4, 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River in northern Virginia, inaugurating what may have been the most important campaign of the Civil War. Over the next six weeks the army relentlessly battled the Confederates in the burning woods of the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle and along the banks of the North Anna River, slowly driving them back to their defenses near Richmond.
The campaign was a titanic struggle between the two greatest generals of the war, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. They did not disappoint. In what was as much a battle of wits as of rifles, the two generals sparred, maneuvered, punched and counterpunched, testing each other’s mettle. The fighting was as brutal and desperate as at any other period in American military history. By the time Grant reached Petersburg, he had lost upward of 60,000 men and Lee about half that number. It remains the bloodiest campaign in American military history–and one of the most interesting.
In the 135 years since it was fought, no one has attempted to write a detailed yet comprehensive history of the Overland campaign until now. In a wonderful series, now numbering three volumes, Gordon C. Rhea successfully unravels the lengthy and complex campaign. His first two books, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, and The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864, established Rhea as one of America’s leading Civil War historians. His most recent endeavor, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee: May 13-25, 1864 (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2000, $34.95) will only solidify that standing.
To the North Anna River picks up the Overland campaign on May 13, in the wake of the savage fighting at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle. It concludes two weeks later, on May 26, with the Army of the Potomac’s withdrawal from the North Anna River line. In between, the opposing armies battled one another at Myers Hill, Harris Farm, Milford Station, Jericho Mills and Ox Ford. Closer to Richmond, Union and Confederate cavalry sparred at Meadow’s Bridge and Wilson’s Wharf. Rhea writes of these nearly forgotten engagements with a crispness and vigor often lacking in campaign histories.
The author’s research is impeccable. To the North Anna River uses an impressive array of primary material, including approximately 150 manuscript collections, 55 contemporary newspapers and some 500 published histories. Twenty-nine maps, ably drawn by George Skoch, help the reader follow the complex maneuvering of the armies. Skoch’s small-scale tactical maps are particularly good, though Civil War buffs might wish for more detail regarding troops in the general campaign maps, which in most cases do not go below corps designation.
To the North Anna River devotes more pages to the Army of the Potomac and Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s independent IX Corps than it does to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. That is reasonable given the greater number of Northern sources and the fact that the Union army held the initiative throughout the campaign. The author focuses heavily on Grant, and although many books characterize the Union commander as a butcher who launched costly frontal assaults against impenetrable Confederate works, Rhea rejects that notion. Instead, he portrays the Midwesterner as a tenacious but flexible fighter, who readily switched to maneuver when the bludgeoning tactics he had employed prior to May 13 failed.
Rhea admires Grant, but he does not hesitate to point out the general’s shortcomings, which, in this campaign at least, were legion. Hardly a day of the campaign passed when the Union commander did not make at least one mistake. From his misguided decision to attack at Spotsylvania on May 18, to his careless disposition of troops that nearly enabled the Confederates to seize the Fredericksburg Road on May 19, to the mismanaged march to the North Anna River on May 21-22, to his blindly stepping into Lee’s well-formed trap on May 24, Grant blundered his way across the Virginia countryside. As one studies his generalship in May 1864, it becomes clear why Union casualties were so high. Grant’s strength was not his tactical genius but his far-sighted vision, which permitted him to see beyond setbacks in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania and on the North Anna River to the final destruction of Lee’s army.
Rhea also admires Lee, whom he recognizes as a skillful defensive fighter with a good eye for terrain. He questions Lee’s oft-stated ability to divine his opponent’s intentions, citing several instances in which the Confederate commander misread Grant, thereby placing the Confederate army in jeopardy. In each crisis, however, Lee reacted swiftly and decisively, turning misfortunes to his advantage.
If Grant and Lee are the main actors in Rhea’s book, the average soldiers who served under them are the true heroes. To the North Anna River follows the soldiers step by step through the campaign. We experience their discomfort as they lie huddled in the rain-soaked trenches of Spotsylvania. We feel their exhaustion and exasperation as they slog through knee-deep mud from one miserable bivouac to another. We share in their relief as they leave behind the wet fields and forests of Spotsylvania and enter Caroline County, whose fresh, sun-drenched fields were as yet untouched by war.
Along the way, Rhea introduces us to individuals such as Bill West of the 16th Mississippi, who had escaped the Bloody Angle’s carnage despite having his hat, blanket roll, trousers and ear lobe creased by enemy bullets; Private Frank Wilkeson of the 11th New York Light Artillery, who took time out of the campaign to flirt with girls in Bowling Green; and Brig. Gen. James Ledlie, whose alcohol-inspired attacks against Lee’s North Anna line led to many needless deaths. Rhea brings these and other forgotten soldiers to life by the skillful use of quotes, which he effortlessly weaves into his own narrative. He lets the soldiers tell their own story, and they tell it well.
Civilians, too, find a place in Rhea’s story. We meet Katharine Couse, a Unionist who saw her small farm become a very large Union hospital; George Motley, who took Grant to task for nearly setting fire to his porch with his cigar; and Mrs. Tyler, a quick-witted secessionist whose verbal sorties at Burnside’s expense made even the taciturn Grant chuckle. Their stories–some humorous, some sad–are found throughout Rhea’s narrative, giving it a humor and vitality that many campaign histories lack.
Well-written, thoroughly researched and thoughtfully analyzed, To the North Anna River is military history at its best. Readers who want to know the details of Grant’s and Lee’s forces as they fought their way south through Virginia that bloody May will find Rhea’s book a rare treat.