- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

Central Virginia was well-trod ground even by the time the Army of the Potomac traversed it in 1864 in the bloody Overland Campaign. Because of battles then and in the years before, it has become a route well traveled by historians. What, then, could Mark Grimsley of Ohio State have new to say?

There is something, but the book is first noteworthy for flair. The writing is very good; graphically detailed passages on how lice bedeviled infantry reminded me of one of the great war poems, "Break of Day in the Trenches," by Isaac Rosenberg, killed in World War I. Maybe that underscores one of Mr. Grimsley's points: Grant's Overland Campaign became "an American Verdun."

Mr. Grimsley is good at this kind of international connection, often omitted in Civil War writing. His best is a long aside on Tolstoy's "War and Peace," which, he notes, was being written during the war. (It was first published in 1867.)

He takes on Tolstoy for arguing the focus on the "great men" of history (in this case, the generals) should be cashiered for the story of the common man. Tolstoy, sharp though he was, was having a typical tantrum on a point of theory. Today, he is echoed by many historians and among the tenured, where tantrums don't count against you who make a fetish of history written "from below," i.e., not just of common soldiers, but servants, the lower classes, the oppressed. Mr. Grimsley uses memoirs and diaries and everyday soldiers' accounts, but he keeps his balance and paints grand strategy as well.

His big picture of the 1864 Virginia campaign is complex. He places Ulysses S. Grant's use of the Army of the Potomac (George G. Meade was technically commanding it) in the context of the politics of the spring of 1864 (especially the coming fall presidential election), when a second Lincoln term and the continuance of his war policy were very much in doubt. A further complication was the need, as always, for Lincoln and Grant to employ "political" generals such as Benjamin Butler and Franz Sigel, nonprofessionals whose command in the field never equaled their control of large numbers of votes back home.

Mr. Grimsley also places the Army of the Potomac's battles inside a wider military context. Overland was the main part of a three-pronged campaign against Richmond. Butler was to attack from Norfolk and Sigel to raid the Shenandoah, the graveyard of Union strategic plans (until Gen. Philip Sheridan rode to glory late in the year). When Butler and Sigel failed, except to distract Robert E. Lee and divert some troops, Grant was left to go it alone.

Mr. Grimsley favors Grant and stresses an interpretation gaining ground in recent military history. Grant was not keen on this campaign. He wanted the Army of the Potomac to attack where McClellan had tried in 1862, from Butler's Peninsula base, cutting off Richmond from North Carolina. He was eager to avoid Central Virginia, which, with its natural barriers of rivers and thickets running northwest-southeast, made invasion that much more difficult and gave Southern forces the advantage of interior lines. But, as Mr. Grimsley shows, Lincoln and his Army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, talked Grant out of his first plan.

Second, once in Central Virginia, Mr. Grimsley shows, Grant kept trying to catch Lee in the open; he did not seek a war of attrition, but quick victory, as he had in the West. It was Lee who kept Grant in clinches and who measured success in terms of casualty lists and hoped Federal ones would bring Northern exhaustion. (As others have noted, even more than Mr. Grimsley, Lee gambled constantly with tactics, risking high casualties.) Lee hoped attrition would lead to a Republican defeat in November, which seemed likely even in summer 1864, when Grant was called undeservedly in the author's view a "butcher."

As Mr. Grimsley shows, the result of Grant's and Lee's persistence was a campaign unlike any other in our history. As he writes, Overland was not Overlord (the code name for the Normandy invasion in 1944) or a mobile assault, albeit murderous, at Iwo Jima, Belleau Wood or the Choisin Reservoir. It was more like those in France in World War I (before we got there). It did, like Antietam or Gettysburg, take one or three days of savage fighting, after which weary men could rest. In 1864, at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and other lesser battlefields, two major armies fought for two months. They were not just hurt, but wrecked.

Mr. Grimsley's best chapter is a late one, "The Hardest Campaign." Here Mr. Grimsley out-Tolstoys Tolstoy with a survey of grunt life from the ground up: awful food, amputations, stress and smells, ticks and lice, the fate of the unknown dead, and the desperation to survive a tad longer by Federals who had enlisted for three years in July 1861 (similar to many near the end of their tour "in country" in Vietnam). He develops interesting ancillary points, such as the need Overland generated for a new national cemetery (on Arlington land, confiscated from the Lee family) as well as the role of the press (on both sides) in "spinning" good news out of what was, essentially, a stalemate.All his topics move along in a lively way.

Mr. Grimsley also addresses the race issue, especially the summary Southern execution of black Union prisoners and the refusal to exchange those not executed (both the result of officially proclaimed Richmond policy, fully footnoted). The end of prisoner exchanges, Mr. Grimsley points out, led to the horrors of Andersonville and the Federal prison at Point Lookout, Md. He also notes that there were Northern reprisals for Confederate policy, which included summary executions as well.

The most controversial element in this book is Mr. Grimsley's suggestive if not entirely persuasive link between the Overland Campaign and what he calls "the myth of the Lost Cause." "Will we ever shake the grip of this myth? One doubts it. We need it too much. Though perhaps no longer necessary as an explanation of Confederate defeat, it has a more universal resonance. Sooner or later, everyone loses. The dreams of youth are left behind, the promising career falters, the fatal diagnosis is pronounced. The idea of facing inevitable defeat with courage, dignity and humanity as Lee is rightly said to have done therefore has powerful attraction."

The long Southern resistance against heavy odds during 1864 helped foster, he contends, an image powerful enough to rival that of Lee's army of 1862-63. This time, it was seen as not quasi-invincible, but only "worn down" by an inferior but more numerous enemy. Some of this is myth: Lee as much as Grant was responsible for his army's being worn down, and Union troops certainly fought better than credited.

Nevertheless, the Army of Northern Virginia fought well. Mr. Grimsley half shares Grant's summary:No army ever fought so "valiantly" even if their cause was "one of the worst" in history. Perhaps Mr. Grimsley is so moved by this view of the "cause" that he underrates just how well Lee's men battled. The United States never had a tougher enemy.


Tom O'Brien is a Washington writer.


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