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.

No comments:

Post a Comment