- Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War
This is a fine addition to the growing scholarship (for example, Vicksburg by Michael H. Ballard, UNC Press, 2004) on Confederate cities other than Richmond. In a clearly written, lively style, Greene's book makes a significant [End Page 1247] contribution to our understanding of a home front—which became a battle front—in the Civil War. As the author notes, much has been published on the Petersburg campaign of June 1864 to April 1865, but the city did not materialize out of thin air when the Army of the Potomac arrived in 1864. Greene does an excellent job of tracing the history of Petersburg, outlining its role in the run-up to secession in 1861, and the reasons why the city was so strategically important. He reminds us that the South was not universally in favor of leaving the Union, and shows that many Petersburg residents were reluctant revolutionaries, supporting the rebellion only after Ft. Sumter and President Lincoln's calling out the militia. His extensive use of primary resources allows us to hear the doubt and anguish in the letters and diaries of Petersburg citizens trying to decide the best course of action in that difficult spring of 1861, and throughout the long, deadly conflict. By cataloguing the reasons why Petersburg was an enormously important strategic location for both armies—the James River, its relatively large population and economy, and most crucially, the confluence of railroads that connected Richmond and Virginia to the rest of the Confederacy—Greene shows that Petersburg was in military terms, if not a political center, more vital than Richmond. While some military leaders recognized this early on in the war, they did not have enough power to effect a change in Confederate policy that sought to focus most resources on the defense of Richmond.
As the war begins, Greene documents the first rush of patriotism, the growing conflict between the military and industry for manpower, and the desire of many Petersburgians to stay out of the army. If there is a criticism of the book, it is that it sometimes becomes bogged down in minutiae, such as which Confederate officer attended which church service, who went to which socialite's party, and which churches remained open during the heavy bombardment of the city by the Union army. Yet, one cannot fault the author too much, because this detail is what supports the insight that life went on in Petersburg during good times and bad, after Confederate victories and defeats, as the Confederate economy began to deteriorate, in spite of food shortages and deprivations, and even during the year-long battle fought on the outskirts of the city itself. From a military history perspective, the greatest contribution of this book is to document in detail the chaotic nature of Confederate strategy in southern Virginia and North Carolina. Some units literally passed through the city dozens of times on their way to and from responding to some real or imagined Yankee threat. Greene makes painfully obvious that the Confederacy was overmatched in all the tools of war in the struggle against the Union, and that it was only through the courage and commitment of her soldiers and citizens that the South was able to last as long as it did. This is a fact often ignored in many military histories: without the efforts of the citizens of Petersburg, and those like them throughout the South, the Confederacy could not have lasted as long as it did.
Madison, New Jersey