Sean Chick, author of The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, recently agreed to answer some questions about the new book. Sean’s book is only the second modern monograph on this battle, with Thomas Howe’s H. E. Howard volume the other. Chick was quite gracious in complimenting his predecessor’s work in the foreword of his own book. Combine Chick’s text and Hal Jespersen’s maps, and you have an important new book on Grant’s First Offensive.
Battle of Petersburg Interview with Sean Chick
1. Sean, thanks for agreeing to do this interview on your new book, The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864. Tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you become interested in the Civil War?
I saw the movie Glory in 1990 on HBO with my grandfather and brother. I was caught up in the whole story and then I felt a wave of excitement when grandfather said it was real. That it did happen. I grew up on a steady diet of movies like Jaws and The Monster Squad and Robocop. I knew those were fiction. This was different.
Then I told my father about it and he gave me his take on the war as we skimmed through Robert Paul Jordan’s The Civil War. The pictures were lovely and dramatic. I fell in love. Bad thing was my father was really into the Lost Cause. His view of the war was reactionary, racist, and filled with hatred for the North. I mean deep and bitter hatred; he still thinks New England is God’s scourge on America. I believed him then. It took me many long years to snap out of that view of the war. One important step was going to Vicksburg and seeing the Union graves. Watching Gettysburg helped too, because I was really taken with Buford and Chamberlain in the film. Then there was reading about Sherman. Even in my Lost Cause phase I had an odd fascination for the man. His grisly visage scared me as a child and I loved horror movies. Reading the works by Bruce Catton and David Blight completed my rejection of the Lost Cause.
Yet, my father exuded a demented pain over the war, the feeling that something grand had been lost. I knew then that the past hurt, even the distant past of which we have no memory. My father still reminds me of Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise when he says he was for all the lost causes of history: Bonnie Prince Charlie, Hannibal, the Southern Confederacy. I suffer the same affliction to a degree. I can’t bring myself to play the Roundheads in any wargame nor play against the Jacobites even though my politics is firmly on the left.
2. My second question is a simple one: Why write a book about the Second Battle of Petersburg?
I was writing a master’s thesis on Kemble Warren, trying to argue that Grant’s Overland Campaign was a mistake. I read about this large battle at Petersburg where he bungled. Thing was I knew nothing of the battle and could find little. That is how I work as a historian. My future topics include such forgotten things as Mine Run and Tullahoma.
3. Prior to your book’s appearance, I count only one modern battle study of this fight, an H. E. Howard Battles and Leaders series book by Thomas Howe. Why do you think the battle has waited so long to see dedicated studies given its potential as a possible war winner for Grant?
A lot of reasons. One is a lack of records. By this point both sides were exhausted and few reports were written. So you have some actions that are completely lacking in detail. My own situation made it to where I could not be an archive rat like my mentor, Mark Summers. I am sure another historian will follow me up and fill in some of the details. Mostly though it was because both sides were embarrassed. Grant looked pretty bad in this battle; he vacillated and did little. Lee was confused. After the war both sections wanted to make heroes of these men and Petersburg did not aid such mythologizing. The exception was Beauregard. He wrote a lot about the battle after the war. No other Southerner did. It made Lee look bad and Beauregard’s subordinates were men like Hoke and Bushrod Johnson. Neither man was a glory hound. If Gordon, Early, or Longstreet had been there we would have heard of the battle in greater detail.
4. Let’s talk about each day and the measures and countermeasures which ensued. Day 1 is June 15, 1864. Grant’s army is crossing the James and heading southwest towards Petersburg. Baldy Smith’s XVIII Corps, Army of the James is in the lead. The Confederates have a minor force in Petersburg, Wise’s Virginia Brigade, some reserves and some artillery. Can you briefly take us through why Baldy Smith failed to take the City?
Smith was exhausted and sick. The heat was unbearable by all accounts. He was by nature cautious and the experience at Cold Harbor rattled him; he was bitter about the battle until his dying day. This is hardly the man to drive hard and fast. That being said, he did some things right. His attack plan on June 15 was very good. Having just read about his actions at Drewry’s Bluff and comparing them to Petersburg, it seems to me he was getting better at high command. Grant was also pleased with his part in the battle. All around he failed on June 15, but his failure was out done by those who followed.
5. The second day, June 16, 1864, sees reinforcements arrive on both sides. Hancock’s Second Corps is already on the field on the night of the 15th, and Burnside’s Ninth Corps arrives late on the morning of the 16th. Hoke’s Division, and then Johnson’s Division, both of Beauregard’s Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, help bolster the Confederate defense. Walk us through the action as the battle grows larger.
Meade rushed over and prepared to attack. Trouble was he lacked cavalry. Only Kautz was on hand and he was not a good commander. So Meade did not know the Rebel right flank was open. So he makes a concentrated push that is as bad for II Corps as the June 3 attack at Cold Harbor. They lost four brigade commanders this day, three in the main attack. Petersburg was one of the most costly battles of the war in terms of brigade commanders. 11 were killed or wounded. Christ’s brigade in IX Corps went through 3 commanders in about 24 hours.
6. The third day, June 17, 1864, saw even more reinforcements, with Warren’s Fifth Corps coming into the fold on the Northern side. Lee, still unsure this was the main Union effort, could not be convinced by Beauregard to send a large force to his support. It would seem the Federals had a significant advantage on this day. Take us through the events of this day.
This is really the day the Union lost the battle. Meade succumbed to exhaustion. He was probably despondent after the June 16 attacks failed. So he does nothing. Burnside makes three attacks on the right flank. He fails to coordinate, but his commanders show some skill. Potter’s morning assault was a smashing success, an example of what might have been if Union commanders had paid more attention to proper assault tactics. I am firmly in the Paddy Griffith camp that says the war tactically speaking was more Napoleonic than modern. Potter’s assault is one example of this.
The most dramatic moment was Gould’s Charge. This was one of the longest and most bitter fights of the war and extremely confusing. Piecing together this failed attack was a research nightmare. I am still not sure exactly what happened, but the same is true of the participants.
If Meade had hurled his army forward on June 17 or if Warren had attacked boldly, the battle would have been won.
7. The last day, June 18, 1865, finally saw the arrival of most of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Union Sixth Corps had been sent to Bermuda Hundred rather than to Petersburg, so they did not factor into this battle. Take us through the final actions prior to this becoming a siege.
The battle was all but lost on June 18. Beauregard withdrew to a rear line that he had set up on June 17. The only hope was if V Corps had pressed forward quickly or used a bit of maneuver. Once again, the lack of cavalry played a part; a hard driving battle cavalry would have exposed the weak Rebel right. The attacks that came after 10am were a waste of lives, but Meade was not so sure. So he pressed on a series of attacks took place, every bit as bloody as Cold Harbor. Whether we blame Meade for that or the fog of war is a worthy debate. I want to be careful here. I do not want to be one of Richard Taylor’s “heaven-born, who from their closets scan with eagle glance fields of battle, whose mighty pens slay their thousands and their tens of thousands, and in whose Serbonian inkstands armies whole disappear.” Meade was not sure all was lost until he heard of the destruction of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery.
8. Your maps were created by Hal Jespersen, who routinely does great work. I noted at the time and now that the book is out that you used Kickstarter to help pay for the maps. Tell us about that experience. How did it work out for you?
Just fine actually. I was a bit embarrassed to seek money but I simply did not have the funds at the time. Raising the money was a wonderful experience. I have a good support network for my work.
9. Speaking of maps, I’ve noticed that this battle suffers from a lack of good maps, especially for the days following June 15. Even Ed Bearss’ extensive Petersburg map series for the National Park Service doesn’t cover the events of this day. What are your thoughts on why this happened? Are the reasons similar to the lack of modern studies up until your book and Thomas Howe’s book?
My theory is Bearss was discussing what the Petersburg battlefield covered. There are markers and monuments for the events of June 15 and 18. Not so much for the 16 and 17. Then there are the lack of records. I love Howe’s book on the battle, but even he had few Rebel sources. I had to really scrap the bottom of the barrel on the Internet to get the Confederate perspective.
10. If you had to pick just one person on each side who was most responsible for the battle’s eventual outcome, who would you pick? Why?
In battle the most important single man is almost always the army commander. So for the South it is Beauregard, for standing firm and creating the second line of defense. For the North it is Meade for making a bad attack plan on June 16, not attacking on June 17 (Burnside took the initiative here), and then for attacking on June 18 when all was lost. Beyond these two I will go with Warren and Wise. Warren had a golden chance to win on June 17. On June 18 he was the only man capable of possibly gaining a victory. He failed on both counts. Indeed, his inactivity on June 17 is among the worst blunders of the war. I go with Wise for the Rebels because held firm on June 15. On June 17 he failed to cover a gap that allowed Potter to destroy Fulton’s brigade, so he nearly lost the battle. His men though made a counterattack that helped stem Gould’s Charge. Wise was neither a good man nor a good general, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. Petersburg, June 9 and 15, was his finest hour.
11. What were the three most important turning points? How did they shape the way the battle turned out?
The first is Smith’s pause at noon on June 15. His night time pause was understandable, but this one was less so. He spent too much time scouting and planning. If he had attacked earlier he would have had enough daylight to take the city. Second would be Warren’s pause on June 17 although his roughly 15,000 troops confronted no more than 2,000. Lastly is Beauregard’s decision to create a third defensive line on June 16. His withdrawal to this line was masterful, and given Lee’s tardiness, a bold move. After all, he risked having his whole command destroyed on June 17 by standing firm to give the slaves and militia time to construct the final line.
12. We’ve covered some of the reasons why this battle was less well remembered after the war due to the way postwar politics played out. Tell us a little more about how Civil War memory shaped how we view the Second Battle of Petersburg today.
Partisans on each side tout Lee or Grant as the military hero of their respective side. Both men look quite bad here. Lee was very slow to react. In fact, this might have been his gravest operational blunder of the war. Grant though did nothing to press his attacks. By sending VI Corps to Butler, then swapping VI Corps out for XVIII Corps he wasted time and took troops away from the decisive point of action. Petersburg dispels the myth of Lee the prescient and Grant the hard-driver. It at least shows a glaring exception to those rules.
13. I loved the way you utilized excerpts from Civil War veteran and noted author Ambrose Bierce’s book The Devil’s Dictionary. Can you tell us a little about why you chose to do this?
I like tying things to other aspects of life. A lot of Civil War books are not informed by art or even warfare outside of America. We need more books that examine the Civil War as compared to the battles of men like Marlborough and Maurice de Saxe.
Civil War books in the classic vein are valuable for the information they contain. Yet they remind me of the Pink Floyd song “Us and Them,” and the lyrics “Forward he cried from the rear/ and the front rank died/ And the general sat and the lines on the map/moved from side to side/Black and blue/And who knows which is which and who is who.” I did not wholly avoid this. It might be just too ingrained in the DNA of battlefield histories. But I wanted the book to be different. Ambrose Bierce seemed like a good man to invoke the cynicism and tragedy of the whole thing. The battles he fought in reads like a greatest hit list from the Army of the Cumberland: Shiloh, Corinth, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Pickett’s Mill, Kennesaw Mountain, and Franklin. He seemed appropriate and irreproachable due to his record.
This by the way was the only part of Blight’s Race and Reunion I thought was wrong. Blight saw in Bierce the embodiment of the war’s meaning growing hollow in the North. This misreads the North, who celebrated their victory with gusto. Blight’s contention is that blacks were excluded from that celebration which is true. But it was always a war for union first and foremost. Slavery was the rock that shattered the union which is why even hardcore racists in Pennsylvania backed emancipation but would not go farther. I mention this because Union war memory, which I call The Just Cause, should be dealt with by historians and understood on its terms. I still toy with writing such an account, but I feel it is better left to more scholastic hands than mine.
Bierce was a cynic before the war; he was the kid who asked for a pet snake instead of a dog. There is a reason he wrote mostly short stories of war and horror. He seemed the perfect man to invoke the tragedy of lives wasted in a battle the North should have won.
14. Thanks for your time, and best wishes on the success of The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864. Do you have any plans to write about other Siege of Petersburg topics in the future?
I have started work on the Bermuda Hundred campaign, partially to address the paucity of information on Butler’s actions in conjunction with Petersburg. I have some new information and hope to include it, making the book a kind of prequel and supplement to The Battle of Petersburg. After that I will go west, the part of the war I have more interest in actually. If I do another Virginia book it will be on Meade and Lee in fall 1863.