Pondering Gaps

Eric Wittenberg points out a number of areas in Civil War military history that need to be addressed. He is correct in noting the dearth of studies on the Petersburg campaign of 1864-65; no doubt, we would be well served by a series of books along the lines of Gordon Rhea’s Overland studies. A. Wilson Greene, who is the historian at Pamplin Park, is now in the early stages of just such a series. As many of you know, he is the author of numerous studies of the Petersburg campaign, including Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion: The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign (Savas, 2000). We will have to wait and see what comes of this. There are individual studies of battles, including titles in the H.E Howard Series. However, I tend to stay away from these books unless I am familiar with an author or can get a recommendation from someone I respect. The entire Howard project is a mixed bag.

As to Eric’s question of why historians have neglected this campaign I can offer a few thoughts. Part of the explanation can be traced to the pervasiveness of “Lost Cause” mythology, specifically the belief that the post-Gettysburg period led inevitably to April 1865 and Confederate defeat. Gettysburg, as the argument goes, was the “high water mark” of the Confederacy or Lee’s last chance to win the war. Along with this is the heroic picture of Lee’s army standing in the face of overwhelming numbers and northern industry. Given the acceptance of this picture by the general public and even historians up until recently, there seems little reason to spend time dissecting operations on a strategic or tactical level. In short, if you accept that Confederate defeat was inevitable after Gettysburg than there is little value in studying the final year of the war. All of this is reinforced by the often quoted, but misunderstood remark by Lee (Freeman gives it much weight) that once the Union army arrived at the James River “it will become a siege and a mere question of time.”

The Petersburg campaign specifically has suffered from this perspective, its value deriving from its anticipation of WWI rather than holding anything of interest for Civil War scholars. The push to establish a national park in Petersburg was based in part on the lessons that the Petersburg campaign held for modern warfare. More importantly, individual battles tend to be downplayed within the broader umbrella of the campaign. This is dangerous as it seems to reflect our own biases and ignores the way the soldiers on the ground viewed events. My research on the Crater reveals a very different picture of Lee’s men. They clearly did not see surrender as inevitable; in fact, they were quite optimistic even as late as August 1864. There letters also clearly reflect an emphasis on discreet events; they did not lump everything together. The lesson here is not to read back into history from a perspective where the outcome is known, but to consider more seriously the contingency that pervaded both the men in the ranks and those on the home front. Lee’s men paid careful attention to northern newspapers and hoped for a Democratic victory in November that might end the war. The campaign itself was not a formal siege as Lee was able to order Jubal Early to threaten Washington in June 1864. Again, men on both sides followed their movements closely. Remember, Confederates did not have to win on the battlefield to achieve the desired goal of independence, they only needed to convince a sufficient number of northerners that further prosecution of the war was futile. And on the othe side, Union soldiers did not conclude that victory was inevitable. A thorough synthesis of this campaign is desperately needed.

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