Book Review: The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 and The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864

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by Gordon C. Rhea

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1997. 483 pp.. Illus, maps, notes, bibliog, index. $34.95. ISBN:0-8071-2136-3

Gordon C. Rhea burst upon the community of Civil War historians in 1994 with his very detailed study of the Battle of the Wilderness. He has now followed that work with a treatment of Spotsylvania. Since both books are part of a series on Grant’s "Overland Campaign" of 1864, they are best reviewed together.

Together, the two books present a detailed, day-by-day account of the "Overland Campaign" from May 1, 1864, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the fords over the Rapidan River just west of the old Chancellorsville battlefield, to May 12, when, following the stalemate that developed after the "Mule Shoe" at Spotsylvania was overrun, Grant ordered the army on another wide swing around Lee’s right towards the North Anna River.

Rhea is very good at describing the physical appearance of the battlefield, and it is fairly obvious that he has spent much time walking the fields and researching descriptions of their appearance in 1864. His research on both battles was exhuastive, combing through a wide range of published and unpublished sources. Both books have a number of excellent photographs and maps.

Rhea’s accounts of both battles are very detailed, but he does not allow them to become exercises in trivialities. Interspersed with his descriptions of the action are sections of cogent, closely reasoned analysis. Most interesting, here, is his view of Grant’s generalship. Rhea is very critical of Grant, though he aviods relying on simplistic notions of "Grant the Butcher," that success was merely the triumph of numbers. Rather, Rhea conends that at critical moments in the campaign Grant hamstrung himself with a command structure that was clumsey at best and almost immovable at worst. Once the fighting began in earnest, both Grant and George Gordon Meade, who retained tactical command of the Army of the Potomac, too often distanced themselves from the fighting and thus were unable to intervene in a meaningful way at critical moments during both battles. This distance also caused them to reach erronesous conclusions on several occasions that resulted in highly unrealistic orders being issued to subordinates, who were then blamed for the failures that resulted.

Although Rhea gives somewhat higher marks to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate commander also comes in for some criticism, especially with regard to his failure to realize the critical importance of Spotsylvania Court House as a crucial road junction. Late in realizing the vulnerability of the Mule Shoe, his planned evacuation was poorly handled and marred by bad staff work, which resulted in the withdrawal of the artillery just before the Union attack that overran the outer fortifications and virtually destroyed Edward Johnson’s division. Even more interesting, is Rhea’s account of Yellow Tavern, in which he contends that, though J.E.B. Stuart’s death was a gerat personal loss for Lee, the Confederate cavalry profited in the long run by the appointment of Wade Hampton as Stuart’s successor.

Rhea’s account includes detailed and even handed portraits of several of the most important subordinate commanders on both sides.

Taken together, these works constitute two of the best battle histories to come out of Civil War scholarship in some time. They are well worth the time of anyone with an interst in these campaigns,and this reviewer is looking forward to the next volume in the series, which will deal with operations along the North Anna River.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


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