- The Battle of Petersburg, June 15–18, 1864 by Sean Michael Chick
Given the complexity of the Civil War, it is unsurprising that certain aspects of the conflict remain underexplored. What is surprising is that this truth extends to the battlefields of the Civil War. As Sean Michael Chick persuasively shows, the story of the 1864 Union assault on Petersburg, Virginia—one of the biggest and certainly most important battles of the Civil War—deserves fresh analysis. There is more here than just an old tale. This quietly ambitious book mostly succeeds in claiming Petersburg’s central place in historians’ understanding of the Civil War.
For those historians drawn to military narrative, The Battle of Petersburg, June 15–18, 1864 is compelling. Demonstrating a consistent talent for detail, Chick traces the context leading up to Petersburg with flair. Although his primary focus is on the Army of the Potomac’s organizational struggles during the summer of 1864, he also does justice to Confederate counterefforts. The heart of the book is devoted to the four days of battle at Petersburg from June 15 to June 18. Reading these chapters is an immersive experience, as Chick faithfully and colorfully recreates the brutal struggle that preceded the ten-month siege of the critically strategic city. Chick’s core argument is not seemingly revelatory (nor does he claim it to be). He posits that a reexamination of Petersburg offers one of the best windows on what the war had transformed into by 1864—an exhausting and inhumane mutual destruction.
Although not groundbreaking, Chick’s thesis is employed with such precision that it offers key insights into the events of Petersburg. By consistently contrasting the human stories of both armies with the callous tactics of the Union high command, Chick makes a strong case that the slaughter of the Overland campaign eroded the ability of Ulysses S. Grant’s army to function with cohesion. The Union army wasted numerous opportunities at the gates of Petersburg that could have hastened the end of the war. And even though Petersburg represented a crucial moment in the face-off between Grant and Robert E. Lee, the poor leadership displayed by both generals also contributed to the ongoing relative obscurity of this major battle. Ultimately, Chick believes that the sheer waste of Petersburg is why the battle remains largely ignored. Unlike the heroism of Gettysburg, or the strategy of Chancellorsville, what happened at Petersburg is not the story that most Americans want to consume about the Civil War, which makes this attempt to call new attention to the battle all the more important.
While an enjoyable and significant book, Chick’s work is also somewhat uneven. At times his gift for flowery prose leads to awkward embellishments, such as “for all its virtues, the Confederacy failed” (p. 339). It is also odd that, after several chapters devoted to the battle itself, only one chapter is used to outline the long siege that followed, which also does not fit the [End Page 686] traditional narrative of the war. More frustrating is the relatively brief treatment of the memory of the battle, which looks primarily at the postwar reputations of Grant and Lee. This focus on generals is characteristic of the entire work. However, these minor flaws should not discourage interest in the book. Chick has provided a needed, but not definitive, correction to the perception of Petersburg’s importance. Any reader seeking to honestly confront what the Civil War had become by 1864—and why Americans often avoid the hard truths about the war—would do well to consult this book.