Book Review by Keith Steiner March 2023
One damp Friday in September, 2018, I found myself on the Spotsylvania battlefield, having taken a diversion on my drive from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg.
The day was desultory, the battlefield silent and my only companions were a few distant and wary deer. If I had been better prepared, I would have found the site less intimidating and less disorientating. In that latter respect, I at least shared one aspect with the men who, there, struggled and died.
The book, The Spotsylvania Campaign, as edited by Gary W. Gallagher, would have been a more apposite orientation for my visit. It is a collection of essays by eminent academics and historians focusing the nature of the battle and the historic context in which it sits. Although edited by an academic, this book is anchored in profound historic research and grounded in the first-hand accounts of those who were there in May 1864. It does not pull its punches.
The narrative travels from the competence and capacity of the military leadership to the harrowing experience of the soldiers who lived for days in the gore and blood of dead companions. Although the nature and format of this publication is academic, its message is delivered in cold blood.
The book could be scribed in the notion that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy and that, thereafter, all is intimate with blood, human frailty, courage and primal terror. The book is replete with what happens to men at the point of a bayonet or when faced with a musket re-purposed to a club. In its astonishing accounts of what happens to men tested beyond the point of endurance, the book strikes down martial glory – poetic conceptions of hallowed ground are ground to atoms amid a sea of red. The Ulysses S. Grant of Appomattox is instead depicted as seen through the eyes of those under his command, as untested in the cohesion of Corps commanders and in his tactics for the defeat of a formidable opponent.
Such was the speed of Grant’s manoeuvre after the battle, that Union soldiers had no overall opportunity to respect and bury their fallen comrades. Given the profound unease and resentment this occasioned, one wonders at the reaction of troops should they have been aware of what awaited them at Cold Harbor and Petersburg.
It is a small mercy that the book concludes with the post-war efforts of Confederate and Union veterans to commemorate the valour, suffering and sacrifice of their fallen comrades. These efforts came to focus early in the new century at the dawn of the Great War. The accounts of later reconciliations between former enemies on the site of their former mortal struggle are heart-warming, endearing and a merciful postscript.
The Spotsylvania Campaign is a book that succeeds in anchoring its narrative in the carnal, bestial reality of primal conflict. Like its entrenched combatants it does not deviate from this purpose. It allows no escape to more peaceful pastures of the Overland Campaign. It is not a book for the faint of heart.