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CWT Book Review: In the Trenches at Petersburg

By Ethan S. Rafuse
1/2/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat

 by Earl J. Hess, University of North Carolina Press

The final volume in an extraordinary trilogy on field fortifications in the Eastern theater, In the Trenches at Petersburg is also the best modern study of the Union operations against Richmond and Petersburg from June 1864 to April 1865.

Earl Hess begins his in-depth analysis just after Cold Harbor, when Ulysses Grant moved the Army of the Potomac across the James River to the gates of Petersburg. Besides examining the role field fortifications played during the struggle to secure the Cockade City, Hess looks at factors that shaped the campaign, both for the generals who led the action and for the men in the trenches.

In this book—and in his field fortification trilogy overall—Hess challenges the notion that the widespread adoption of the rifled musket was the catalyst for a revolution in Civil War tactics. Rather, he argues that the high casualties and unprecedented use of field fortifications in the campaigns of 1864-65 occurred because Grant refused to back away following major engagements, unlike his predecessors, choosing instead to remain in continuous contact with the enemy.

It is difficult to follow the great battles and campaigns that shaped the war without viewing the ground where they took place. Petersburg and Richmond pose a particular challenge in this regard, because so much of the terrain scarred in those campaigns has since been developed. Fortunately, Hess is adept at setting the scene across the years. That he has put in more than his fair share of time in the field is especially clear considering his invaluable appendix describing the remaining works around Richmond and Petersburg, as well as in the numerous maps that complement his text.

In the Trenches at Petersburg surely won’t mark the last word on what proved to be the longest and most complex campaign of the war. We still await a scholar who can do for Petersburg what Gordon Rhea did for the Overland Campaign, Albert Castel did for Atlanta and Hess himself (in collaboration with William Shea) did for Pea Ridge. But readers will finish Hess’ latest book with a better understanding of field fortifications overall, as well as the combatants.

 

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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