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Book Review: Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865

Alexander, Edward S. Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865. (Savas Beatie: March 2015). 168 pages, 172 illustrations, 7 maps.  ISBN: 978-1-61121-280-8. $12.95 (Paperback)

DawnOfVictoryBreakthroughPetersburgAlexanderSavas2015The Emerging Civil War Series turns its eyes to the final days of the Siege of Petersburg in Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865 by Edward S. Alexander.  This introductory volume neatly serves as short primer on the many small but hotly contested actions around the Cockade City in late March and early April 1865, beginning with the well-known Battle of Fort Stedman and ending with the fall of Richmond and Petersburg.  The book is accompanied by more than 150 illustrations and 7 maps and is an ideal book for a beginner to get a handle on the tail end of a relatively unknown, though lengthy and bloody, campaign.

Fellow University of Illinois alum Edward S. Alexander penned this volume in the Emerging Civil War Series.  Alexander is an especially fitting choice for an author on this topic.  His day job is as a park ranger at Pamplin Historical Park, which is primarily located on the ground where the Union Sixth Corps broke through the Confederate lines on April 2, 1865, finally ending the Siege of Petersburg.  Alexander also previously worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and is a contributing member of the Emerging Civil War blog.

The Emerging Civil War series by Savas Beatie “ offers compelling and easy-to-read overviews of some of the Civil War’s most important battles and issues. Each volume features more than a hundred-and-fifty photos and graphics, plus sharp new maps and visually engaging layouts.” Though the series often focuses on battles great and small, it also branches off and delves into topics such as the writing of Grant’s Memoirs and the burial of Civil War dead.  To date, much of the focus has been on the last several years of the war, an area which has been persistently overlooked in the 150 years since the war. At the time of this review, there are no less than 15 books in the series, with seemingly more on the way every month.  This is a worthy successor to the Combined Books Great Campaigns series in terms of introducing readers to new actions of which they may have little to no previous knowledge.

By late March 1865, the Confederate army’s position around Petersburg and Richmond was precarious.  Confederate commander Robert E. Lee Lee had been forced to continuously extend his lines over the last nine months, reacting to Ulysses S. Grant’s relentless probes of his left and right.  Now, as the spring campaigning season arrived, the Confederates had reached their breaking point.  To make matters worse, Lee had been forced to send off precious men to North Carolina to help retard Sherman’s march north, while Grant received reinforcements in the form of Sheridan’s Cavalry, Sixth Corps, and what became the Independent Division of the Army of the James.

Lee and his Second Corps commander John B. Gordon worked out a last ditch attack plan and scheduled it for March 25, 1865.   The resulting Battle of Fort Stedman was a dismal failure.  Not only did the direct attack fail, costing Lee irreplaceable casualties, but George Meade’s Army of the Potomac sensed an opportunity and seized miles of high ground along the picket lines south and west of Petersburg from the thinned Rebel lines.  These picket lines would serve as jumping off point for the successful April 2 assaults.

Before those final assaults, though, Grant launched an offensive around Lee’s right flank.  He utilized the Second and Fifth Corps from the Army of the Potomac, Sheridan’s reunited Cavalry Corps, composed of three divisions, and an ad hoc force from the Army of the James commanded in person by that army’s commander Edward O. C. Ord.  As Warren’s Fifth Corps probed the end of the Confederate main line and fought several battles at Lewis Farm and White Oak Road, Sheridan moved off to Dinwiddie Court House, well to the southwest of Lee’s right.  Grant intended to launch Sheridan on a raid, or, as events would pass, send him in to attack Lee’s right.

Lee was no fool.  He knew the Union army would attempt to get around his flank, and he detached a combined infantry/cavalry force composed of Pickett’s Division, First Corps and the remaining Confederate cavalry divisions to Five Forks, hoping to counter any move Sheridan might make.  The confederates attacked first, driving Sheridan back almost to Dinwiddie court House on March 31, 1865.  Sheridan turned the tables on April 1 at Five Forks, driving off the mobile Confederate force and opening up the possibility of final assaults on Petersburg from all directions.

Those assaults came on April 2, 1865.  At dawn, the Sixth Corps and Ninth Corps attacked south and southeast of Petersburg, respectively.  The Ninth Corps attack, all but unknown today, stalled at Fort Mahone.  But the Sixth Corps permanently broke through the Confederate entrenchments.  Various actions occurred southwest of Petersburg until the Sixth Corps and Twenty-Fourth Corps assaulted Forts Whitworth and Gregg, whose locations were sited so to buy time for the inner Confederate lines to be filled.  After a heroic defense, those Confederate inner lines had been occupied, ending the suspense and allowing the Confederates to evacuate much less chaotically through the night.  The Appomattox Campaign would be fought over the following week, and ended with Lee’s surrender to Grant.

Author Edward Alexander does a very good job of covering Fort Stedman, the Sixth Corps assaults of April 2, and the Battle of Fort Gregg.  Less time is spent on Sheridan’s and Warren’s actions on the far right in the days leading up to April 2, and no time at all is spent on the Ninth Corps assault on the final morning.  To be fair, the focus is on the battles which directly caused Richmond and Petersburg to fall, and they are also the main topic of the author’s day job.  In addition, the sheer number of fights and the introductory format made this one of the more challenging campaigns to fit into the allotted number of pages.

Three “official appendices” and two more unofficial ones add considerable extra value to the book.  The first appendix covers terms commonly used in siege warfare.  This is especially helpful in an introductory book because most of the words are French in origin and may be unfamiliar even to fairly well-read Civil War buffs.  The second appendix centers on a completely unknown episode of the war. Sheridan’s march from the Shenandoah Valley with his cavalry to the environs of Petersburg and Richmond, destroying Confederate infrastructure as he went, is given a nice overview here.  Sheridan’s move from the Valley is one of those episodes of troops moving from one major theater to another, away from the main spotlight, so it was heartening to see this handled in an appendix.  Sheridan played a key role at Petersburg, so the topic ties in nicely to the main text.  The last official appendix is also a natural fit.  Edward Alexander writes about his employer, Pamplin Historical Park.  The park, run by Petersburg expert Wil Greene, is a gem of a Civil War site, including the presence of the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.  A standard order of battle for the last nine days of the Petersburg Siege is next, followed up with an impressive feature which guides interested readers to other books on this topic.  While some of these books also happen to be Savas Beatie titles, many are not, and most of the key volumes you’d find in my Siege of Petersburg Bibliography for the Ninth Offensive are listed.

The maps by Hal Jespersen and illustrations in this series continue to impress.  Savas Beatie continues to support its authors with the ability to produce a suitable number of maps for battle studies.  In this case, I would’ve liked to have seen even more.  White Oak Road, Lewis Farm, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks are only covered on very high level maps.  That said, one nice map which WAS included involved the Union Sixth Corps’ movement southwest to Hatcher’s Run, something I’ve rarely seen in map form.  The maps often go down to regimental level detail, though the method of indicating elevation is less than ideal.  All of this said, the maps add quite a bit to the story.  The illustrations occur on nearly every page.  Sidebars give glimpses into soldiers, civilians, houses, and other key items on the topic.  This feature more than anything reminds one of the Combined Publishing efforts of the early 1990s.

Taken as a whole, Edward Alexander’s Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865 is a fine addition to the Emerging Civil War Series and to the literature focusing on the Siege of Petersburg.  Veteran readers of the Siege of Petersburg will find little new here, but unless you’re familiar with Wil Greene’s Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion or Andy Trudeau’s The Last Citadel, odds are you’ll find out quite a bit by reading this book.  In fact, Dawn of Victory is a really nice lead-in to Greene’s more detailed effort on the Ninth Offensive.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.
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