This is the revised edition of Richard J. Sommers’ classic work on Grant’s Fifth Offensive during the Petersburg Siege, which includes the Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff and Poplar Springs Church along with several lesser known engagements. It’s hard to believe, but this large book covers only four days of fighting, September 29 to October 2, 1864.
This book is a model for military history. It’s deeply researched, copiously documented, and highly detailed. For those who are fans of the first edition, I can say that it appeared to me as though somewhere around 85-95 percent of the first edition was kept intact for this edition. That’s just an impression, as I obviously had not memorized the first edition. As Dr. Sommers explains, “This 150th Anniversary Edition does not simply reprint the original. Nor is it a total rewrite. Rather does it build upon that book: eliminating typos, confirming surmises (how gratifying), and correcting misunderstandings (yes, there were a few). The two fundamental appendices on ‘Order of Battle’ and ‘Casualties’ are retained. A new appendix provides a ‘Timeline’ of significant dates from mid-September through mid-October 1864. Another new appendix provides ‘Cross-References’ for over 200 senior officers by state, grade (or rank), and command. both of those additions should help readers keep track of events and officers of the Fifth Offensive. Although new research is not as exhaustive as for the first edition, some 170 new manuscript and printed sources have been incorporated here. They add to over 1,200 manuscript and printed primary sources in the 1981 work. The earlier research remains the fundamental undergirding for this book.” [p. xv]
Dr. Sommers does a wonderful job in describing the Richmond defenses and in assessing the performances of the main characters in the offensive. In describing how they got to the siege of Petersburg and Richmond, he writes, “Strategically. operationally, and tactically, he [Grant] constantly carried the war to the Army of Northern Virginia, the target of his personal efforts. Undaunted by repeated tactical reverses and staggering casualties, the Federal commander drove the Confederates from central Virginia almost to Richmond in the first month of operations, May 4-June 3. He thereby negated all that his opponent, General Robert E. Lee, had accomplished in two years of campaigning. Grant once more imposed on Lee the constricting imperative of closely and constantly defending his capital.” [p. 1]
The action is superbly illustrated by maps highlighted with commentary throughout the book. We also find photographs of the important players.
In summing up the Fifth Offensive, Dr. Sommers writes, “The Fifth Offensive was one phase of the overall Siege of Petersburg. It came close to being the decisive phase–to costing Lee his rail center, even his capital. His masterful generalship, together with Union failure to recognize and exploit opportunities, averted such calamities and won both cities another half year of life. He thus denied the Yankees great victories, but the offensive did enable them to overrun three forward Confederate lines, to conquer strategic sectors on both sides of the James, and to tighten their grip on both cities.” [p. 405]
The Fifth Offensive took place during the same time frame as action in the Shenandoah Valley, and Dr. Sommers analyzes this as well: “The strategic origin and course of the Fifth Offensive reveal the continuing impact of events in the Shenandoah Valley on operations of the main armies in eastern Virginia. In 1861 and 1862, such events decisively affected major campaigns east of the Blue Ridge. Lee understandably hoped for comparable results in 1864, and Grant vigilantly guarded against them. This time, though, operations in the Valley proved only a distraction, not a fatal blow, to the Federal commander. Their most serious short-range impact was forcing him to divert seven veteran divisions there, four of which were among his best. Consequently, throughout the Fifth Offensive he operated with less strength than desirable. This was particularly true of his cavalry. His original numerical superiority in that branch fell to virtual parity. Then he placed himself at an actual disadvantage, especially on the Southside, by dribbling many of his remaining troopers out among the infantry. T he Yankee horsemen, to be sure, stayed sufficiently strong to hold their own and to cover the infantry. Yet they lacked proper punch to force their way through Hampton’s and Gary’s lines. Not until Sheridan’s two cavalry divisions returned from the Valley in March 1865 would Grant regain enough offensive striking power in his mounted force to deal the enemy heavy blows. Even among the infantry, moreover, diverting the VI Corps and the XIX Corps to the Valley left fewer men to outflank the Confederate lines. His drives for Richmond and the Southside Railroad on September 29-30 might have fared better, had some of those absent troops taken part.
“Yet in the long run, sending strong forces to the Valley served the Union well. They eventually achieved major victories that not only crippled the Confederate army and destroyed valuable Southern supplies and supply lines but also inspired the Northern people. The first two battlefield victories there in late September directly influenced the Fifth Offensive. They initially made Grant consider that the Butternuts might abandon the Shenandoah region and mass against him. But within a few days, they caused him to launch his own attack one week ahead of schedule in order to prevent detaching more Graycoats to the Valley or to take advantage of the absence of any who did go there. Earlier in the war, battles beyond the Blue Ridge forced the main Union army in the East to retreat. Now they prompted the army to attack.” [pp. 405-406]
The Valley action also affected Lee’s response to the Fifth Offensive: “Sending him [Early] additional troops from Petersburg did not lead to success. As late as September 27, on the eve of the Fifth Offensive, the Laurel Brigade rode off to the Shenandoah–to Tom’s Brook and Cedar Creek. Had it remained with Hampton, it might have increased his success on September 29 and diminished his defeat two days later or made it no defeat at all. Far more serious than the troopers’ transfer was the absence of Kershaw. Moving him from the Peninsula to the piedmont in mid-August strengthened the Army of the Valley but did not result in the major victory which Lee sought. The Virginian, therefore, ordered him back to the Tidewater, apparently to participate in an attack directly against Grant. Hardly had the division left Early, before Sheridan capitalized on its absence to win two major battles and overrun much of the Valley. These reverses, in turn, caused Kershaw to be diverted back to the Shenandoah. He thus left the Valley too soon to help Early but went back there too soon to aid Lee. Lee consequently went into the Fifth Offensive desperately short of manpower. Kershaw’s Division could have significantly reduced this handicap. Even had its projected attack against Grant never occurred, its mere presence defending its old sector would have rendered the Northside far less vulnerable on September 29. Starting out with eight brigades there instead of four would have necessitated sending far fewer reinforcements from Petersburg. The supply lines through Dinwiddie County would thus have been much better guarded than they actually were on September 30. By the same token, Kershaw’s absence nearly resulted in disaster on both sides of the James. Only through incredible bravery, bold generalship, skillful tactics, and repeated Yankee failure to capitalize on great opportunities die the Confederates escape such disaster in the Fifth Offensive.” [pp. 406-407]
Dr. Sommers also drives another nail into the coffin of the “Grant the Butcher” myth. “Unlike some Civil War soldiers, he never succumbed to the allure of Napoleonic victory: one battle in one day that destroyed not only the enemy army but also the enemy will to continue the war. He rather sought victory that summer and autumn through a strategy of attrition. That strategy is often misunderstood. He is mistakenly regarded as the modern Xerxes, who unhesitatingly hurled his men to their deaths by the thousands in hopes of killing a few hundred enemy soldiers, confident that he could replace his losses and the enemy could not. This ‘Grant the Butcher’ is a mythical character out of folklore, not history. His conduct of operations from the Wilderness through First Petersburg is not self-evident folly but the comprehensible continuation of his conduct in the West. From Fort Donelson through the second day at Shiloh and on through Vicksburg to Missionary Ridge, he gained great victories and made his reputation by carrying the war to the enemy strategically, operationally, and tactically. Not surprisingly, he kept doing in Virginia what had succeeded so well in the West–what, indeed, had earned him promotion and the opportunity to confront Robert E. Lee. Six weeks of bloody campaigning convinced the lieutenant general that such tactics were not working in this theater. Therefore, once he beleaguered the Cockade City, he abandoned frontal assaults against well prepared and well manned defenses. Indeed, he explicitly prohibited such charges. As early as June 21, he told Meade that ‘my desire is that Petersburg be enveloped as far as possible, without attacking fortifications.’ As late as March 3, the General-in-Chief re-emphasized to his subordinate that ‘the object to be gained by attacking intrenchments is not worth the risk to be run.’ Instead of attacking frontally, Grant favored turning the Secessionists’ flanks or attacking their weak points. The Fifth Offensive burst forth in just such combined turning-attacking operations against vulnerable Confederate sectors on the Northside and at Peebles’s farm. It continued as long as there appeared prospect of fighting the enemy out in the open and then died down, so far as Union commanders were concerned, when there seemed no alternative to charging strong, well-defended fortifications. ‘Grant the Butcher’ was too protective of the lives of his men to throw them away in attacks on such formidable works as loomed across his path by October 1-2. His war of attrition was not waged in the nonexistent tactics of the slaughterpen but in the nonrelaxing tenacity of strategic pressure. He fixed the Southerners in place–not on the battlefield but in the operational and strategic arenas–and then wore them down physically and psychologically. The daily toll from sniping and shelling was part of this process. The intermittent battles, with their resulting losses of Confederate men and territory–far fro representing the totality of attrition–were but another of its weapons. The very loss of strategic mobility resulting from being pinned in place helped cause the decline of the Army of Northern Virginia in combat effectiveness and ultimately in strategic usefulness to the Confederate war effort. Indeed, this war of attrition eventually rose to the level of grand strategy, as Grant fixed the foe in Virginia while other Federal forces devoured the rest of the Confederacy.” [pp. 408-409]
This book is a masterful work of military history and deserves to be on the shelf of every serious student of the war. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It also forced me to learn a new word: voltigeurs.