The Last Citadel

This book by Noah Andre Trudeau is a one-volume account of the Petersburg Campaign.  Taking up where he left off at the end of the Overland Campaign in his book, Bloody Roads South, Trudeau gives us a lucid, readable account of the campaign to defeat Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia defending Petersburg and Richmond.

In setting the stage, he tells us, “In 1862, Captain Charles H. Dimmock came down from Richmond with orders to build an earthen shield for the city [Petersburg]. Slaves labored to carve the sandy gray soil into trench lines and forts, while stands of trees fell before axes to clear fields of fire.  When Captain Dimmock moved on, he left behind him ten miles of fortifications, with positions for fifty-five batteries. … Petersburg’s population was 18,266 at the start of the war.  This included 3,164 free blacks and 5,680 slaves.  Their city featured main streets of cobblestone and granite Belgian block, brick sidewalks illuminated by gas lighting, a municipal water system (which included a reservoir on the town’s eastern side and the waterworks on St. Andrew Street), two daily newspapers, eight banks, a canal system along the Appomattox River rapids, and well-traveled roads radiating out in all directions. Five railroads converged on Petersburg, unerringly pointing out its strategic importance.  To the northeast, southeast, and south, the City Point, Norfolk, and Petersburg and Weldon lines tied the city to river and sea ports.  From the west, the South Side Railroad fed in supplies from the interior.  All of these routes then funneled northward to Richmond on a single line.” [pp. 4-6]

In summarizing the action he tells us, “One of the great myths of the Petersburg siege was that the Confederate army steadily wasted away while the Federal ranks swelled with a constant supply of fresh recruits.  The facts reveal a far different picture.  At the end of August, for instance, the effective strength of the Army of the Potomac (including cavalry and artillery) was 37,827. The Army of the James added just 22,340 men to that, for a grand total of 60,167.  Confederate returns for the same period totaled out at little better than 35,600.  On April 2, 1865, the number of Union troops taking part in the pursuit of Lee’s army was about 112,500, while Lee had 58,400 men.  Lee still faced a disparity of better than 2 to 1, but the odds, while long, were not hopeless.  The quality of recruits was a problem on both sides.  In October, a New Hampshire soldier in the Ninth Corps noted, ‘The regiments in the Second Brigade were being made larger in numbers by the arrival of conscripts and bounty jumpers, but few of whom were of any worth as soldiers.’  After reviewing one set of newcomers, a Virginia cavalryman declared with disgust, ‘They are a sick looking set of fellows.’  ‘These recruits did much to dispirit the veteran Confederates,’ an artilleryman insisted.” [p. 418]

He also tells us, “Another of the great Petersburg myths, propagated in scores of postwar memories and unit histories, was that Lee’s army was starved out of the city.  There is little question that the months of January and February 1865 were especially harsh ones, leading Lee to declare, ‘My army is starving.’  The appointment of General I. M. Saint John as commissary general, on February 16, however, provided almost immediate relief, as Saint John moved quickly to improve and streamline the supply delivery system.  The new Confederate secretary of war was soon able to report that ‘General St. John’s conduct of the department was so satisfactory that a few weeks afterwards I received a letter from General Lee, in which he said his army had not been so well supplied for many months.’ ” [p. 421]

Like his other book, the strength of Trudeau’s account is the excerpts from personal accounts he gives, so we can hear from the soldiers themselves, in their own voices, what they did and saw.  There are two great weaknesses, though.  The first weakness is the terrible maps that are almost useless.  They lack enough detail and they aren’t located near the actions they are supposed to illuminated.  The second weakness is the notes section.  Rather than tell us where he got his information he uses the notes section to talk about different sources for each chapter and tell us what he thinks the best sources to use are.

The book is very useful to provide a framework of the Petersburg operations and to get a glimpse of what the soldiers thought.  I can recommend it.


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