Book Review: Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign



in Civil War Books

SOPO Editor’s Note: This Civil War book review first appeared at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog and has been cross-posted here.


ColdHarborToCraterGallagherJanneyUNC2015Gallagher, Gary W. (ed.) & Janney, Caroline E. (ed.). Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign. (University of North Carolina Press: September 2015). 360 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 31 halftones, 5 maps, notes, bibliography, index.  ISBN: 978-1-4696-2533-1. $35.00 (Hardcover)

Gary Gallagher and the University of North Carolina Press return to the “Military Campaigns of the Civil War” series after a lengthy hiatus with Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign. This tenth book in the series covers, in varying degrees and via ten essays and a bibliographic essay, the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant’s Crossing of the James, the Second Battle of Petersburg, and the Battle of the Crater.  Taken together as a whole, this long awaited volume is another fine collection of essays looking through many different lenses to produce a nuanced and fascinating view of these particular military campaigns.

Gary Gallagher needs no introduction to students of the Civil War.  He is currently a Civil War history professor at the University of Virginia and a former President of the Society of Civil War Historians.  He has written and edited many books on the conflict, including all of the previous volumes in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series.  His “essay books” consist of focused articles by various experts on a campaign, with more social history essays in versus military history essays as time has gone on.  This appears to be attributable to the increased focus on race, class, and gender studies in academia.  Several of these books have appeared in TOCWOC’s “best of” series focusing on the best books on a given battle.    All of them are well worth purchase and reading if you are interested in the campaign on which each focuses.

Caroline E. Janney, Gallagher’s new co-editor on this volume, is like Gallagher a professional historian.  She is a History Professor at Purdue University and the current President of the Society of Civil War Historians. Janney has several other Civil War books to her credit already, both as author and editor, including Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause and Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.

Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign contains ten main essays, not including the bibliographic essay, which focus on different specific aspects of this “campaign.”  We will get to the odd decision to lump the Crater into the Overland Campaign later in this review.  But first, let’s cover at a high level what this book contains.  The ten main articles, encompassing a time frame of roughly June 1, 1864 at Cold Harbor to August 1, 1864 just after the Battle of the Crater, break down as follows:

  • 4 Petersburg essays
  • 2 Cold Harbor essays, one on the exit from Cold Harbor and Crossing the James
  • Francis C. Barlow
  • Confederate Engineering and Field Fortifications
  • New Troops in ANV May-June 1864
  • Perceptions of Lee and Grant Summer 1864
  • Nothing on First Petersburg and Jerusalem Plank Road

As you can see, several of the main battles during the Petersburg Campaign are more or less skipped over entirely.  While somewhat disappointing, it is understandable to focus on the two much more famous battles which appear in the title of the book.  That said, it is a but if a surprise to see more on the Crater than Cold Harbor, a relatively more famous battle.  Articles are plentiful in this particular volume, a welcome surprise given how much has changed in the short time since the last volume came out.  Of note is an article by Gordon Rhea looking at “Grant’s Disengagement from Cold Harbor” on June 12-13, 1864.  This article seems to be a preview of sorts for the upcoming fifth (and final?) volume of his Overland Campaign series, which ends at the Battle of Petersburg on June 15, 1864. Co-editor Gary Gallagher covers the competing perceptions of Grant and Lee as they battled each other in the summer of 1864.  Army of Northern Virginia expert Bobby Krick examines new soldiers to Lee’s famous army in May and June 1864. How soldiers endured the non-combat phases at Cold Harbor, a different kind of hell, is the topic of Kathryn Shively Meier’s essay.  Keith S. Bohannon probes deeply into the primary sources in order to tell the tale of Confederate engineers and the earthworks they helped to build in the summer of ’64.  Joan Waugh pens a biography of Union Second Corps division commander Francis Channing Barlow.  M. Keith Harris pores over Confederate letters and diary entries written during the early summer of 1864, perhaps surprising readers familiar with the “it was all downhill after Gettysburg” train of thought with the level of resolve shown a full year later.  Co-editor Caroline E. Janney discusses the resolve and experiences of Petersburg residents who endured a constant enemy presence at their gates for almost a full year.  Kevin Levin examines the perceptions of White soldiers before and after the first major fight for Black troops in the Army of the Potomac at the Crater.  In the last of the ten main essays, Stephen Cushman examines two novels and a movie which represent the Battle of the Crater and its aftermath in different ways.  A bibliographic essay, common to this series, gives interested readers numerous books to read in order to further pursue study of these operations.

Quotation marks are used earlier around “campaign” because the editors make what this reviewer considers to be an extremely odd decision to lump the Petersburg operations up to the Battle of the Crater into the greater Overland Campaign.  If this decision is carried to its logical conclusion, all of the operations in 1864-65 between Lee and Grant all the way through Appomattox should be lumped into a giant “Overland Campaign.”  Instead, one should separate the May-June 1864 operations against Richmond and Lee’s army from the June 1864 to April 1865 operations against mainly Petersburg and Lee’s army.  In addition, again in this reviewer’s opinion, one cannot make any clear separation between the operations which led up the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, and those which led into the Battle of Globe Tavern in August 1864.  The logical separation point, both logically and geographically, is Grant’s Crossing of the James River in mid-June 1864.

As often proves to be true in this series, the notes at the end of each essay will reward the careful reader with even more opportunities to study sources on these battles.  Regimental histories produced in the late 19th Century by men who were there often give a surprising amount of detail found in few other places.  Likewise, postwar newspaper articles, though one needs to read them with a healthy dose of who was writing, when, and for what audience, are often good sources as well.  Lastly, in the internet age, archival materials are easier than ever to obtain, often for free online.  Paying attention to the notes in this book, and the series as a whole, will yield a variety of such sources and more.

Disagreements over where one campaign begins and another ends aside, Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign is another fantastic addition to the “Military Campaigns of the Civil War” series.  Coverage of the battles listed varies, with the Crater receiving the most attention, but this is a great jumping off point to further study these campaigns.  Gallagher’s essay series finally makes its way to the Petersburg Campaign, with another volume scheduled for the future.  It was a long wait, but the wait seems to have been worth it in this case.  Anyone familiar with the earlier books in this series will want to add this tenth volume to their collection as well.



What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John Horn January 23, 2016 at 11:46 pm

Was there anything on the Wilson-Kautz Raid (June 22-July 1, 1864? (Or do you consider that part of Jerusalem Plank Road?) Was there anything on the abortive attack by Hoke’s and Field’s Division June 24, 1864?

Brett Schulte January 24, 2016 at 10:27 am


There was nothing on the Wilson-Kautz Road (although they were inextricably linked, I don’t usually lump the raid and Jerusalem Plank Road together except as part of the Second Offensive). There was also nothing on Hare’s Hill June 24, or anything really on the twin Union disasters at Jerusalem Plank Road on back to back days.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: