Edited by Chris Mackowski and Dan Welch. Images, maps, 312 pp., 2022. El Dorado Hills, CA.: Savas Beatie. www.savasbeatie.com. ISBN 978-1-61121-595-3. $29.95.
Reviewed by John D. Fowler
In 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant became General-in-Chief of U.S. armies and sought to bring the American Civil War to an end. While Grant had strategic control over armies in all theaters, he traveled with General George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac as it launched its spring offensive against the Confederacy’s most successful and thus most dangerous force, the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee. Scores of books and articles have been written about the ensuing contest between these two men as the fate of two nations hung in the balance. Is there, then, a reason to produce yet another one? The answer in this case is “yes.”
Grant vs. Lee is an engaging read. It is part of the Emerging Civil War 10th Anniversary Series, that includes elements from the blog, podcast transcripts, the Emerging Civil War series, the annual Civil War symposium, and other original material. For those who are unaware, “Emerging Civil War serves as a public-history-oriented platform for sharing original scholarship related to the American Civil War.” (xvi). Over the decade, the organization has become an important link between historical scholarship and public history. It serves a key role in making history appear interesting, fun, and, most importantly, relevant to a generation that had largely been abandoned by academic historians who chose to focus more on esoteric issues and/or write for themselves and not the general audience.
The volume is essentially set up in the format of a guidebook that covers the struggle between Lee and Grant through the Overland Campaign, the siege of Petersburg, the fall of Petersburg and Richmond, and the final Appomattox Campaign. The first few pages of the book contain maps with points of interest marked. The reader is then invited to explore 45 short essays, each linked to the map as a “point of interest.” Most essays are based on blog posts and are arranged chronologically. In addition to the useful maps, the book also includes period photographs, plus crisp black and white shots by Chris Heisey. Indeed, Heisey contributed to a chapter entitled “Photographing Grant vs. Lee” that showcases some outstanding artistic photographs. The volume is also footnoted where appropriate and ends with a useful index.
Since many essays involve small incidents and particular people, this frames the work as a micro examination of the struggle between Lee and Grant rather than as an overarching macro view of the campaign. While this is not a serious criticism, it is a weakness. The inclusion of even a small overview of the major events would have allowed a reader unfamiliar with these broader events to place the various articles into proper perspective and thus enhance both understanding and appreciation for the essays included. Since the Emerging Civil War has established itself as an excellent resource for those just beginning to explore the Civil War, an overview chapter seems a must. It would have also increased the book’s value as a guide of sorts for the battlefields of the Virginia campaign of 1864-65.
Still, for someone familiar with the larger story, the incidents and personalities covered offer interesting anecdotes. Starting with the beginning of the Overland Campaign in May 1864, the essays explore the savage nature of the nearly continuous contact between both armies as Grant searched for a way to out-maneuver Lee. Small stories relate to other major events such as the Petersburg Campaign, the Crater, the attack of Fort Stedman, the fall of Richmond and Petersburg, and Lee’s ultimate surrender at Appomattox are all also covered well.
Overall, the volume does not break new ground, nor does it contain the overview that would have made it a stronger guidebook and introductory survey of the events covered. However, the collection is engaging, and will no doubt be useful to readers who have a general knowledge of the struggle between two iconic generals of the Civil War.
John D. Fowler, Ph.D., is the author of several books and articles on the Civil War Era. He is the author of Breaking the Heartland: The Civil War in Georgia. He is currently a Professor of History at Dalton State College.
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