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The Petersburg Campaign, Volume II: The Western Front Battles, September 1864– April 1865

Edwin C. Bearss with Bryce A. Suderow, Savas Beatie

Novices and even many buffs think of the struggle for Petersburg as one long siege: nine months of mind-numbing trench warfare interrupted by a massive explosion and bloodbath. The second part of this two-volume study now gives readers the most comprehensive account of the entire campaign,  making it abundantly evident that Petersburg (and Richmond) was never truly besieged because seven of the nine battles along the western front from June 1864 to April 1865 resulted from Union efforts to cut off the flow of supplies to those cities and its defending army.

Edwin Bearss wrote most of the chapters during his tenure with the National Park Service. Contributions by William Wyrick on Fort Stedman and Chris Calkins, with a postscript  covering the retreat to Appomattox Court House, augment the original  essays. Bryce Suderow has done a remarkable job weaving these disjointed pieces into a narrative,  enhanced by detailed maps and photos. Though Richard Sommers’  Richmond Redeemed: The Siege of Petersburg will forever remain the definitive work on Peebles’ Farm,  and A. Wilson Greene’s Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion: The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign gives a more detailed account of the Union VI Corps’ breakthrough attack  on April 2, 1865, neither provides  the breadth of this volume. Bearss’  chapters addressing the battles of Burgess Mill (Boydton Plank Road),  Hatcher’s Run, Lewis Farm (Quaker  Road), Dinwiddie Court House and  White Oak Road are the best starting points for anyone interested in these engagements. The struggle for Five Forks is here, too.

Because the battles primarily deal with Federal offensives, Union commanders tend to dominate this volume more than they actually did on the battlefield. For the Confederates,  Robert E. Lee almost stands alone. To some extent this disparity reflects both the number of engagements in which Rebel leaders participated, and  a lack of Southern source materials— Henry Heth and George E. Pickett deserved more attention, for better  or for worse. This volume, however,  blames Lee and James Longstreet for the fall of Petersburg. On the Union side, Warren receives his just  due, while Grant receives as much  criticism as credit for his performance during the siege.

Anyone seeking a better understanding of the war’s final eight  months in the Eastern Theater should find something valuable in The Petersburg Campaign.


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.