Emerging Civil War Speaker Explores Campaign of Petersburg, Va.

Emerging historian Edward S. Alexander of Richmond, Va., offered a Wheeling audience a detailed account of the Civil War campaign waged by Union forces at Petersburg, Va., from June to August of 1864.

Alexander, a 2009 graduate of the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in history, spoke at Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library Tuesday, June 17.

He has worked since 2011 at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg. Previously, he worked with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Alexander is a member of the Emerging Civil War Speakers Bureau. The aim of the group is “giving a voice to the next generation of Civil War historians.”

Reciting the Union cry of “On to Richmond, on to Richmond, on to victory,” he said the North regarded the capture of the Confederate capital as a “symbolic signal that secession had failed.” However, he noted that capturing an opponent’s capital “does not necessarily mean immediate victory.”

Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant adopted a five-pronged strategy in 1864. Moving through the Wilderness, he wanted the army to go around Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s flank at Spotsylvania Courthouse, but Lee won the race and set up defenses, Alexander said. Grant went around, but Lee won the race again and set a trap for the Union army at North Anna River. However, Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill failed to spring the trap, and Grant moved south, around Lee’s flank, closer to Richmond.

In early June, Grant tried to slow Lee’s defenses at Cold Harbor Crossroads, but that “probably was the most foolhardy decision a Union general made during the Civil War,” Alexander commented.

Grant turned toward the James River and Petersburg, where four railroads from the South linked, making the city “the crucible of this crisis,” the speaker said. At the start of the war, Petersburg had been the second city in Virginia, but it “never recovered from the Civil War,” he said.

While the conflict at Petersburg is often regarded by historians as a lengthy siege, Alexander disputes that characterization, contending the situation did not constitute the classic definition of a siege, in which an enemy is surrounded.

At Petersburg, Union soldiers made a foolish move of going over the top of earthwork fortifications, resulting in thousands of casualties, he said. Petersburg was defended by only 2,000 Confederate soldiers, and Grant saw its vulnerability.

On June 12, Union forces began moving south from Cold Harbor. On June 14, the Union army used a pontoon bridge to cross the James River, a move that Alexander called a “brilliant” strategy of Grant. The Union army assaulted Petersburg in force. Three days of fighting from June 15-18 resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.

In late July, Union Gen. Henry Pleasants had an “ingenious” idea to pack a mine with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder, Alexander said. However, the first fuse failed to light; when a fuse was lit eventually, the soldiers were trapped in the tunnel.

In the battle of Reams Station, Va., on Aug. 25, about 2,000 Union soldiers were captured, yet the South was never able to destroy the Union army, Alexander said. In all, 80,000 Americans fell during this campaign, he said.