Richmond Redeemed: The Siege of Petersburg
by Richard J. Sommers
No Civil War campaign is less understood than the Siege of Petersburg. There are many books on the beginning and the end of the campaign, but few have explored the heart of this pivotal operation. The exception is Richard J. Sommers’ Richmond Redeemed: The Siege of Petersburg, which covers Ulysses S. Grant’s fifth offensive in the early fall of 1864. This book overturns the popular perception that the siege was at the most elemental level grinding, monotonous warfare. Sommers recovers the dynamism of siege operations, the fluidity of the military events and the possibilities that existed for both sides to achieve decisive results that could have altered the course of the war.
Some believe that the siege doomed the Army of Northern Virginia, and that Grant’s men simply outlasted Lee’s veterans in a brutal war of attrition. Anyone who reads Richmond Redeemed will discover that the war was still up for grabs. The ferocity of the fighting during the fifth offensive underscores the feeling on both sides that ultimate success was within the realm of possibility. Sommers’ prose enhances the sense of contingency, as his battle descriptions are filled with high drama and are not simply a dry recounting of tactical maneuverings.
On September 29, Grant started his fifth offensive with a surprise Union assault against Forts Harrison and Gilmer, critical Confederate positions that formed part of the outer Richmond defenses north of the James River. (Forts Gilmer and Harrison are part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park and are open to visitors today.) The Northern troops overwhelmed the Southern defenders at Fort Harrison, but Lee, who was concerned about the loss of this pivotal position, personally supervised Confederate counterattacks to retake the fort. Lee failed in his efforts, but so did Grant in his attempt to capture Richmond. Nevertheless, the attack against Fort Harrison dealt a serious blow that threw Lee’s army out of equilibrium. While the Confederate reinforcements rushed to Fort Harrison, further stretching Lee’s paper-thin line, Grant launched a reconnaissance in force to the west, toward the Confederate lines south of Petersburg. The Federal advance was not a complete success, but it did extend the Union army’s reach toward the far Confederate right flank below Petersburg—the precarious right flank that held the key to Lee’s defense of Petersburg and Richmond.
Sommers covers the military operations of the fifth offensive on both sides of the James River in exquisite detail. Unlike with so much of Civil War tactical history that gets lost in minutia, Sommers frames these actions within a broader operational and strategic perspective. His tactical studies thus take on deeper meaning because he locates the larger military situation without sacrificing the human drama and horror of combat. Richmond Redeemed, moreover, stands as a model tactical history in large part because Sommers refuses to play armchair general. Rather than take advantage of hindsight and condemn Civil War officers for being incompetent boobs, as does so much of Civil War military history, Sommers displays the most important gift a historian can possess—empathy. Thus his critical judgments are carefully based upon seeing the complex battlefield situation as the soldiers on both sides perceived it. Richmond Redeemed is an exceptional book and one that deserves republication. The late Frank Vandiver correctly predicted when Richmond Redeemed was released in 1981 that it would be “a study to endure.”
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.