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  • On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4–15, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea
  • Tim Talbott
On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4–15, 1864. By Gordon C. Rhea. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017. Pp. xi, 427.)

The culmination of Grant and Lee's southward side-stepping struggle in the spring and summer of 1864—known since as the Overland Campaign—ended much like it began, with yet another flank maneuver on the part of Grant, leaving Lee to wonder what to do. Gordon Rhea's On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4–15, 1864, details this movement in what is the author's book five finale of his Overland Campaign series.

Picking up where he left off with Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26–June 3, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), Rhea deftly explains Grant's decision to disengage from the Army of Northern Virginia and focus on relocating the Army of the Potomac to the south side of the James River for an attack on the communications center of Petersburg. The Union chief believed that if Petersburg capitulated, Richmond, deprived of its vital rail link to the south, could not survive.

Before tracking Grant's movement to cross the James, Rhea focuses on the key days following the main fighting at Cold Harbor. In doing so, he examines the intriguing interplay of truce between the two opposing commanders. The bloodletting Union attacks on June 1 and June 3 left tremendous numbers of killed and wounded in the narrow "no man's land" between the lines. The tit for tat between Grant and Lee in negotiating a term of truce to remove the killed and wounded seems petty in retrospect, but it also shows each man's determination to not display weakness in the face of the enemy. Rhea's inclusion of accounts between Union and Confederate soldiers during the truce also reminds readers that the fighting men had not totally lost their humanity during the almost constant brutal combat from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor. [End Page 135]

The many moving pieces that are involved in Grant's transfer to south of the James River can be confusing, but Rhea clearly explains each part and offers critical analysis on the actions and decisions of the commanders. For example, Rhea sympathies with Lee's limitations in available manpower and solid information in his seemingly slow decision-making and reaction after the Army of the Potomac's withdrawal from the Cold Harbor battlefield. Likewise, the author praises Grant for his stealthy withdrawal. But the Union commander comes under criticism for his lack of clearly stating his objectives to his Corps commanders in the initial attacks on Petersburg on June 15.

Although On to Petersburg is most useful in understanding Grant's movement toward Petersburg, Rhea does not forget about the common soldiers doing the marching and fighting. Throughout the text the author injects numerous primary sources to give the reader the "private's-eye view" and explain their experiences. This comes through particularly well in Rhea's assessment of the United States Colored Troops in Hinks's Division of the XVIII Corps at Baylor's Farm and the attack and capture of Batteries seven to eleven on Petersburg's Dimmock line. These black soldiers and their officers displayed courage and enthusiasm, which proved successful, yet, as Rhea explains, General William Smith, commander of the XVIII Corps, later viewed that enthusiasm as detrimental to the ultimate objective of capturing Petersburg on June 15.

Although they had become experts spanning expanses earlier in the campaign, the actual crossing of the James River was a logistics challenge for the Army of the Potomac's engineers. Rhea assesses that while the engineers on the scene did an admirable job in erecting the lengthy floating bridge, their superiors, whose responsibly it was to get the materials there for construction, were found wanting, which caused a significant delay in the initial attack on Petersburg, and contributed to its ultimate failure.

Rhea's narrative is thorough; however, it is his analysis that separates his past books, and this particular study, from so many other military histories. On...


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