Gettysburg’s Southern Front

Hampton Newsome has a knack for finding parts of the Civil War that have been either ignored or undercovered and then doing a great job of researching and writing compelling narratives about those parts. This wonderful book is no exception. In these pages he discusses actions other authors glossed over when discussing the Gettysburg campaign and discusses fights others have ignored, giving us the stories of officers and men most of us have never encountered before. “While Lee’s columns tramped north,” during the Gettysburg campaign, he tells us, “the Federal boats at White House Landing unloaded a thousand cavalrymen and horses a mere 20 miles east of Richmond. Soon after, thousands of additional Federal troops would arrive. The date was Thursday, June 25, 1863, and another offensive against the rebel capital had begun. The ensuing campaign, sometimes called the ‘Blackberry Raid’ or ‘Dix’s Peninsula Campaign,’ would provide a clear window into Union military performance in the eastern theater during the war’s first years. Over the course of the operation, a force of 20,000 US soldiers, a collection of mostly inexperienced units from the Fourth and Seventh Corps led by Major General John A. Dix, would launch a series of strikes against Richmond’s defenses and it supply lines from its temporary base at White House on the Pamunkey. To meet the Federal threat, a threadbare rebel force struggled to guard the city’s multiple approaches. Over the course of a few weeks, the Federal operations ignited several engagements in the fields east of Richmond and at the vital railroad bridges on the South Anna River to the north.” [pp. 1-2]

The book has many things in it we can justly describe as “eye-opening.” One early part many will find eye-opening is the role Major General Henry W. Halleck played, recognizing an opportunity and acting proactively to exploit it with a complex set of operations. “In addition to Dix’s move against Richmond, there were Federal efforts elsewhere. In fact, Dix’s effort formed but one component of a loosely developed plan devised by Henry Halleck to threaten Robert E. Lee’s communications as the Army of Northern Virginia streamed north. Knowing the Confederates had depleted their defensive strength to fuel the offensive into Pennsylvania, Halleck sought to gain advantage during Lee’s absence from Virginia. After sending Dix to Richmond, he added to the program by ordering raids into North Carolina and southwestern Virginia to damage the rail lines feeding the Confederate capital. These three operations together formed a little-noticed Federal attempt to land a counterpunch on rebel supply lines as Lee advanced into Pennsylvania.” [p. 3]

The US effort wasn’t the only aspect of this time most historians just gloss over. “As these military developments unfolded, the Confederates also looked to advance their cause through diplomacy. Vice President Alexander Stephens traveled to Richmond in late June from his Georgia home to propose a mission to Washington. He hoped to meet with US officials and discuss prisoner exchange policies and perhaps an end to the conflict. President Davis and his cabinet embraced the mission, expecting that positive results from Lee’s offensive would generate decisive leverage at the bargaining table. As the fighting began at Gettysburg and outside Richmond, Stephens would head or the Federal base at Fort Monroe seeking to confer with Lincoln administration officials.” [p. 3]

All of this took place after the Emancipation Proclamation, after it became clear to the United States high command that conciliation had failed and a hard war policy came to the fore. Dix, however, was behind the times. “Dix advocated a moderate, conciliatory approach to the conflict, one that focused on coaxing equivocal white Southerners back into the fold and shielding civilians from the war’s impacts. Again and again, Dix’s orders to his subordinates revealed an overarching concern about avoiding damage to civilian property. He frequently admonished his troops to refrain from destroying anything not directly useful to the Confederate military. However, the events in June and July would demonstrate that not all of his officers and men shared his caution but instead were ready to embrace a more aggressive approach.” [p. 4]

As happened time and time again during the Civil War, African Americans provided valuable assistance to United States forces. “The campaign against Richmond in the summer of 1863 also highlighted the key role African Americans played in Federal efforts in Virginia, even before Black men formally joined the army ranks. From the war’s first days, Black civilians had pursued their freedom and contributed to the fight against their former enslavers. During McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in 1862, African Americans in eastern Virginia, both free and enslaved, helped shape the US military effort by scouting, gathering intelligence, and applying their labor to the cause. The story of US operations outside Richmond during the Gettysburg campaign is no different. Even though no Black regiments served in Dix’s Department of Virginia at the time, Black civilians repeatedly stepped forward to aid his operations outside of Richmond. Throughout the offensive, the impact of African Americans was manifest, underscoring the fact that, even in the war’s first years, Black men and women made substantial contributions.” [p. 4]

The book has outstanding maps and is well grounded in primary sources. Mr. Newsome did a great deal of research for this book, and it shows. He situates each chapter within the context of the campaign as a whole, telling us what Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were doing either on the march or during the battle of Gettysburg, and for several of the actors he gives thumbnail biographies.

I only have two very small quibbles, none of which affect the overall accuracy of the book or enjoyment of the book. On page 17 he identifies Joseph Hooker, who was a lifelong Democrat, as a Republican. It’s true Hooker was a favorite of the Radical Republicans in Congress, but that had more to do with his criticisms of other generals, particularly McClellan, and his boastful assertions of taking the war to the confederates. A highly ambitious man, he curried political favor, another reason the politicians took to him. Secondly, while it’s technically not incorrect to refer to the US Army as the “Union Army,” I personally would like historians to ditch the term “Union Army,” as there was no such official designation, and call it what it was, the United States Army. It highlights the fact that confederates were the enemies of the United States.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I appreciated the deep research, the compelling writing, the excellent maps, the cogent descriptions of action, and the bringing to light people and events normally ignored. I can highly recommend this book for students of the war. You won’t be disappointed.


  1. hankc9174 · · Reply

    most talks rehash old thoughts and ideas ; good ones unveil a new item .

    this one , , reveals 3 or 4 new and interesting concepts .

    1. Yes, Hank. I highlighted that interview in this post.

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