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  • In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
  • Kati Singel
In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat. By Earl J. Hess. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Pp. 432.)

Beginning on June 15, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac attacked the defenses of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, Virginia. This campaign lasted nine months and concluded with the occupation of the city by Union forces on April 3, 1865. Due to its length and its complexity, it is one of the least studied campaigns of the American Civil War, in spite of its importance in understanding the demise of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Prior to this publication, there have been general studies of this campaign, including Noah Trudeau’s The Last Citadel (1991) and John Horn’s The Petersburg Campaign (1999). There have also been extensive studies of specific phases completed by Richard Sommers and more recently, A. Wilson Greene, author of The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion (2008). In Richmond Redeemed (1981), Sommers [End Page 115] focuses on Grant’s Fifth Offensive in September 1864. This action is only one chapter in Hess’s analysis of the entire series of nine Union offensives, two infantry or cavalry raids to eliminate transportation routes into Petersburg, and three Confederate offensives. This is the only book on Petersburg to focus on the significance of its fortifications. In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat is the third volume in a series by Earl J. Hess that includes Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 and Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign. In this final volume, Hess argues that the development of siege fortifications shaped the outcome of the Petersburg campaign and the outcome of the war.

With a tendency to challenge the prevailing interpretation, Hess confronts the way in which this campaign has been interpreted and the reasons for the evolution of trench warfare between 1861 and 1865. First, he claims that this campaign was not a siege at the operational level. Robert E. Lee and his army did not remain in Petersburg; he signed the surrender in Appomattox. He protected the line of approach, but he left when he could no longer ensure the mobility of the army as he did at Spotsylvania, North Ann, and Cold Harbor. Second, Hess reiterates the argument, first presented in The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat (2007), that the role of the rifled musket in the shift to widespread use of field fortifications has been exaggerated. Hess effectively uses the Petersburg campaign to support the argument first set forth by Paddy Griffith, author of Battle Tactics of the Civil War (1989). He asserts that this campaign was “decided by what the battle line did or failed to do,” rather than the use of the rifled musket (284). It was Grant’s plan of continuous contact rather than continuous combat that forced an increase in the use of field fortifications.

No historian can deny the evolution of field fortifications between 1861 and 1865. Historians like Edward Hagerman have used this progress as a sign of modernity while Hess seems reluctant to put the use of field fortifications during the American Civil War in the larger context of the evolution of warfare. The question that remains is: what can this analysis contribute to the debate as to whether this war was the last Napoleonic war or the first modern war? Despite this observation, this book is a well-documented study of the Petersburg campaign. It concludes a series that expertly charts the significance of field fortifications in the Eastern Theater. [End Page 116]

Kati Singel
West Virginia University