- On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4–15, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea
On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4–15, 1864 is Gordon C. Rhea's fifth and concluding work on what historians have termed the Overland campaign in the eastern theater of the American Civil War. While the first assault at Cold Harbor is not examined in this endeavor, the days after that bloody struggle, along with Ulysses S. Grant's movement toward and across Chickahominy Creek and the James River and ending with the first assault on Petersburg, Virginia, along the Dimmock Line, are extensively investigated.
Rhea gives a masterful overview of the Overland campaign up to June 4 in the first chapter. This review is extremely helpful for those who may not have read the four previous works or who need a refresher on the campaign. The following chapters explore the lives and hardships of the Union and Confederate personnel, from the officers down to the regimental soldiers, during each day from June 4 to 15. Rhea, as expected, uses contemporary accounts of the extreme misery felt within the Cold Harbor trenches and beyond. Of interest are the semantics displayed and the difficulties that played out concerning when and if a truce could be agreed on to save the wounded and bury the dead that were left between the opposing lines at Cold Harbor, as well as Union generals George C. Meade's and Ambrose E. Burnside's conflicts with the civilian press.
According to Rhea, while the Overland campaign was Grant' s plan to destroy Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in open battle, it was during what historians now call the Petersburg campaign that Grant intended to cut off Lee' s much-needed supplies from that city. Rhea examines Grant' s move toward Petersburg, which caused Lee to lose the initiative and be maneuvered out of strong trench works, and allowed Grant to move his troops across Chickahominy Creek and the James River. Although Union forces were able to steal a march on Lee, problems were compounded when area maps proved to be worthless to Union officers, when supposed missing rations caused delays, and when Union major general William F. Smith learned just hours before the attack on Petersburg that he was to lead the offensive. Still, despite these and other oversights and mistakes, the Union assault was successful against part of the Confederate system of trenches and batteries, known as the Dimmock Line, near Petersburg. However, with darkness quickly approaching and confusion concerning Union movements, Smith settled for what had been gained instead of making a final nighttime assault on Petersburg. This delay had repercussions for the armies and the war, as many have argued that not taking Petersburg at that time only added months and thousands of casualties to the struggle.
It is at this point that Rhea ends the recounting of the Overland campaign and gives a detailed and thoughtful analysis of the decisions and movements made between June 4 and 15, which makes this work a tremendous addition to Civil War literature, not only of the battlefield situations but also of the leadership of Grant and Lee and their subordinates. Rhea uses a plethora of primary sources to solidify his points concerning what the soldiers, in blue and in gray, thought, saw, and felt during those sweltering days in Virginia. His examinations of Grant and Lee are clearly thought through and judicious. Overall, On to [End Page 182] Petersburg is a fascinating and thought-provoking work filled with human drama, tactics, strategy, and analysis, which is what great writing should be. It makes one ponder what Rhea might write concerning the siege of Petersburg.