Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion: The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign – Book Reviews
J. Boone Dr. Bartholomees, Jr.
Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion: The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign. By A. Wilson Greene. Mason City, Iowa: Savas Publishing Company, 2000. 490 pages. $34.95. Reviewed by Dr. J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., Professor of Military History, US Army War College.
Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion continues the recent trend in Civil War historiography of detailed (essentially micro-historical) tactical studies of Civil War battles, and simultaneously contributes to the even more recent phenomenon of interest in the closing days of that war. This is the history of the attack that smashed the Confederate line at Petersburg, forced the evacuation of that city and Richmond, and led ultimately to the surrender at Appomattox. The book necessarily contains several chapters of background information to set the stage, but the meat of the tale is the Union attack on the morning of 2 April 1865–and particularly the lead role played in that attack by the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The subject reflects both the interest and expertise of the author. A. Wilson Greene is a former National Park Service historian and manager, a resident of Petersburg, Virginia, and the Executive Director of the privately owned historical park and museum that now occupies part of the site of the VI Corps breakthrough. Greene has done extensive research that he weaves together using detailed personal knowledge of the terrain and a fine storytelling style to produce an admirable work.
Nevertheless, the book cannot claim all the credit both the author and the dust jacket ascribe to it. This is not the definitive work on breaking the backbone of the Confederacy or even on breaking the Petersburg line. Strategically, the backbone of the Confederacy snapped at Appomattox, not Petersburg. It was Lee’s surrender, not the loss of Richmond or Petersburg, that ended the rebellion. Tactically and operationally, the attack on 2 April 1865 was simply the last act of the Petersburg campaign.
Breaking the Petersburg line was a complex task. It resulted from the cumulative effect of several actions, including at least the battles of Fort Stedman (25 March 1865), Five Forks (30 March to 1 April 1865), and the actual breakthrough (which does not have a formal name). Green describes each of those; however, he does so with significantly different degrees of fidelity. The reason is that Greene consciously focuses on the VI Corps and its breakthrough attack and the corresponding Confederate defense. Descriptions of non-VI Corps actions are significantly less detailed. Thus, John B. Gordon’s Confederate attack on Fort Stedman and the IX Corps defense of that point is described in very broad strokes, while the march of Brigadier General Frank Wheaton’s VI Corps division to reinforce the threatened point–which was unnecessary, terminated before the unit reached Fort Stedman, and failed to result in any combat–is described in detail. Greene continues by describing the Battle of Jones’s Farm in great detail . This reader was unfamiliar with the Battle of Jones’s Farm, as I suspect is common (when discussed at all it is usually considered part of the Fort Stedman action, without a separate name). Jones’s Farm was the result of a belated and only partially successful attempt by VI Corps to occupy the Confederate skirmish line on its front. The neighboring II Corps launched an earlier and more successful attack for the same purpose that the author gives scant attention. Similarly, the critical Battle of Five Forks, with no VI Corps participation, receives only brief mention. There is nothing wrong with this–the author specifically states that his intent is to focus on the VI Corps. He actually and necessarily expands beyond that focus to do justice to the final attack on 2 April. That was a multi-corps and multi-army assault in which the VI Corps attack was both critical and unexpectedly successful but by no means unique. Nevertheless, by limiting detailed coverage of the precursor battles to the VI Corps’ partici pation, Greene relinquishes any claim for his book being the definitive work on the breakthrough.
I do not want to convey the false impression that this book is unworthy–it just claims a little more scope than it delivers. In fact, Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion is the definitive book on the final assault on Petersburg. Greene’s exhaustive research presents an insider’s view of the VI Corps from points of view ranging from the private soldier to the commanding general. He discusses both sides of every phase of the final assault in detail and presents a balanced and reasonable interpretation of the action. Unlike many modern critics, Greene does not demand too much of the troops. For example, he would like to have seen better employment of some Federal units that might have made the victory more complete, but does not insist that had they just been pushed a little harder the exhausted Union troops could have ended the war on the night of April 2d. Conversely, Greene does not try to glorify the confused and only partially effective Confederate defense (although he gives due credit to the courage of individuals and units). Thus, the reader clearly sees Lee struggling to hold on until dark so he can commence an ultimately fatal retreat. Excellent maps–important components of military texts, particularly tactical texts, that frequently fall victim to the economics of publishing–support each phase of the narrative, allowing the reader to visualize the action. The story is engaging; the book is an easy read. I recommend it to the Civil War enthusiast.
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