Monday, June 4, 2018

At Long Last, The Petersburg Campaign is Getting Its Due

This is slightly depressing to admit, but it was twenty years ago this month that I started my first job in public history. A faintly emaciated college freshman, my initial foray into educating the wider public about the American Civil War was launched at Stop 3 of Petersburg National Battlefield, better known as the “Union camp” because I was part of a group of about ten other seasonal Park Rangers that portrayed Federal soldiers.


Stop 3 as it appears today.
It was a wonderful summer filled with teenaged antics, burning more black powder than most re-enactors fire in their entire lifetimes, and chatting with hundreds of visitors about the Petersburg Campaign.

One thing that stood out to me as a 19 year old know-it-all was the paucity of good books and public awareness about the campaign that was much more commonly referred to as the “Siege of Petersburg” than the more popular (and accurate) “Richmond-Petersburg Campaign” used today. I remember devouring Andy Trudeau’s The Last Citadel and a few books by Chris Calkins (who worked at the park at that time), but that was about it.


It seemed that the standard narrative about the campaign two decades ago went something like this:

The campaign started in June of 1864, when Satan incarnate (Benjamin Butler) brought his ravenous hordes to violate the sacred soil of Virginia’s Cockade City. God smote his blue clads in their unrighteous attempt and something, something, something…THE CRATER! The Horrid Pit! Now the smelly Yankees turned to some witless coal miners to blow up the flower of Southron youth and then use (gasp!) “Negro” troops in the attack (which, of course, failed.) Something something something, a vague reference to how the trenches at Petersburg foreshadowed the stalemate of World War One and BAM! Appomattox, the end.
OK, I may have over-exaggerated a smidge, but you get the idea – there wasn’t a whole lot on the campaign and not too many people seemed to think that was much of a problem.

Things slowly began to shift as we neared the sesquicentennial, especially in 2009 when Earl J. Hess published In the Trenches at Petersburg. Once the commemoration got underway, the floodgates opened with new studies such as Sean Chick’s The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Hampton Newsome’s Richmond Must Fall, and my books on New Market Heights and Deep Bottom. Additionally, updates of older works like John Horn’s The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864 and Dick Sommers’ magisterial (and yes, I HAVE to use the word “magisterial” every time I refer to this book) Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg.

On the heels of the Sesquicentennial we saw the founding of the Petersburg Battlefields Foundation, whose stated mission is to “lead a regional initiative to preserve, interpret, and promote the diverse cultural, natural, and historic resources of the Petersburg Campaign of the Civil War” in 2016.

Lastly, I’ve been devouring two excellent new works on the campaign, Gordon Rhea’s On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864 and A Campaign of Giants - The Battle for Petersburg; Volume 1: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater, by A. Wilson Greene. 

As my pal Hampton Newsome recently pointed out on his blog, there are several more books slated for release soon that have a direct tie-in with the campaign. As Edward Alexander recently stated, “we can finally put to bed the long-held excuse that a lack of material is preventing (potential) visitors from taking interest in the campaign.”

In closing, I should also not how Hampton Newsome lamented the fact that February 5-7, 1865 fighting at Hatcher’s Run during the Eighth Offensive (seventh if you follow Hess’ model) lacks a book-length treatment.

Well fear no more, gentle readers, as I am in the research phase of such a book. Look to this page for updates as my third book on the campaign progresses!

Yes, it look like the Petersburg Campaign is finally getting its due.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Trump Administration & Camp Nelson

I’d like to draw your attention to an article that was published this morning over at The Guardian regarding the preservation efforts under way at a place that is essential to our understanding of the history of United States Colored Troops.

Image: Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park
Camp Nelson, Kentucky was originally constructed in 1863 as a supply depot for the Federal Army of the Ohio. Shortly after it was built, an influx of newly-freed slaves descended upon the camp and were quickly put to work on construction projects such as building railroads. In October of 1863, many of these ex-slaves began to enlist in the United States Colored Troops. All told, over 10,000 African Americans joined the Union army at Camp Nelson, and the camp quickly became a place of refuge for the families of these newly-minted soldiers. Like all contraband and refugee camps, volunteers from the American Missionary Association and workers with the US Sanitary Commission descended upon the camp to educate and assist the freedmen.

Image: Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park
The site of Camp Nelson is now home to Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, but now the Trump Administration is looking at turning the site into a national monument. To quote the article:
With monument status… [the park] could also hire a superintendent and employees. “It will give us more recognition and get our story out to more people,” [park archaeologist Stephen McBride] said.
It’s sometimes easy to fall into the trap of equating the size and scale of a park with the importance of what actually happened there. I ran into this all the time when I served as the Site Manager of the Bristoe Station battlefield – the mindset is that if a place doesn’t have all the glitz and glamor of a Gettysburg, then nothing important must have happened there.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To give a site as important as Camp Nelson the status of a national monument would do much to ensure that future generations are able to explore the rich history associated with this hallowed ground. I’ve been captivated by the story of a site similar to Camp Nelson – Arlington’s Freedman’s Village – for many years now, but that site is long gone, as are many similar sites in the Washington DC area.

The Guardian article concludes with information regarding the administration’s efforts to convey monument status to the home of Civil Rights hero Medgar Evers. While the article also states that some question the motives of the Trump administration for taking these measures, but I’ll leave such speculation to the activist bloggers – as far as I’m concerned, preservation of these critical sites trumps petty politics.

I’ll be sure to keep a tab on these preservation efforts and will update this story as needed over the coming months. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Post-Sesquicentennial Homesick Blues

Greetings and salutations to the three of you who still remember that this blog exists! Well, it’s 2018 and three years have passed since any substantive content has been posted on this site…three years since the 150th anniversary commemorations of the American Civil War came to a close.

My sesquicentennial was a madcap whirlwind of activity that saw the publication of two books, researching and leading anniversary tours of Bristoe Station, Yellow Tavern, and (of course) New Market Heights, and the most consistent output of blog posts that Freedom by the Sword has ever enjoyed.

For many in public history, the sesquicentennial was a harsh taskmaster that never relented in its unceasing demand for more never-before-published information, more real-time tours that allowed you to bask in the sacred aura of the individual or unit of your choice on the EXACT ground at the EXACT moment 150 years later (adjusting for daylight savings time, of course), and more special pleading for new and improved “turning points of the war” that set the record straight from those pesky “centennialist” interpretations.

While the commemoration was an undoubted success, I found myself quite tuckered out by the summer of 2015 and ready for a mental break. I was able to keep busy working on the National Museum of the United States Army project, and I refocused my research and writing on the First World War over at my other blog, where I’ve been profiling Virginians who fought in the Great War (including two brothers who were directly related to none other than JEB Stuart.) I contributed an essay to A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign and survived my first experience with peer review with an article I wrote for the International Encyclopedia of the First World War.

I was even crazy enough to try my hand at teaching and spent most of the 2017-2018 school year in the classroom with 160 high school students who were subjected to many extraneous Civil War stories whether they had to do with that day’s lesson or not. 

So what about now? Am I done with the American Civil War?

Not by a long shot.

I know that this blog has been silent for far too long (especially in light of recent events) but I refuse to write salacious click-bait disguised as scholarly commentary. So if I don’t have time to write a post about a recent event related to the Civil War, I just have to let it go.

That said, I am currently working on an overview of Sheridan’s Richmond Raid for Virginia Tech’s Essential Civil War Curriculum. And while I don’t have any book plans for the moment, I’m hoping to revive some earlier ideas I had had for ACW-related books and get some words on paper.


I was recently gratified to see that Will Greene cited my book on the Battle of First Deep Bottom (which, shockingly, did not make the New York Times bestseller list and might not even be in print anymore) over 16 times in his brand-new A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg, Volume 1. It’s always nice to be noticed!

Also, I had a great time this past February speaking to the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County about the Battle of New Market Heights. It was nice to be treated to a little southern hospitality and engage with an audience over the age of 15 for a change!


As always, my main interest remains the saga of the United States Colored Troops, especially those who fought in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. With the pressure of the sesquicentennial out of the way, I look forward to delving back into primary sources and sharing the results with you!

So stay tuned – more to follow!