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Edwin C. Bearss is a world-renowned military historian, author, and tour guide known for his work on the American Civil War and World War II. Ed, a former WWII Marine wounded in the Pacific Theater, served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994 and is the author of dozens of books and articles. He discovered and helped raise the Union warship USS Cairo, which is on display at Vicksburg National Military Park. Bryce A. Suderow is a Civil War writer and researcher living in Washington, D.C. He received his B.A. at Knox College and earned a Masters in American History at Sonoma State University. His Master's Thesis, Thunder in Arcadia Valley, was published in 1985 (Univ. of Missouri). Bryce has also published many articles in a number of Civil War periodicals and is recognized as one of the finest archival researchers working today.
The Petersburg Campaign is something of a non-event in Civil War history. You can fill a couple of shelves with books on The Wilderness, Spotsvayana and Cold Harbor. We need a goodly part of another shelf for books on the Approxamttox Campaign. The Battle of the Crater is a popular subject for books, as is the breakthrough battles. Petersburg is a "black box", there but not open to us.
The balance of this campaign seems to be summed up along these lines: "After the punishing Overland Campaign, the Army of the Potomac crossed the James and advanced on the city of Petersburg. Leading elements hesitated outside the city's defensive line, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia time to reach the city. This resulted in months of World War One type trench warfare. Breaking the "siege" hinged on the armies extending the trench line westward. The Army of Northern Virginia was stretched thin as vital communication links were captured. In time, the line broke, Petersburg was abandoned and Richmond captured."
This is the first of two books that illustrates how inadequate this view is. The men at Petersburg saw the campaign as a series of distinct battles some lasting several days. The names of these battles appear on regimental flags and in their histories. They would not understand our "hesitate" and "extend" as encompassing their battles.
In the 1960s, Edwin C. Bearss wrote a series of reports for Petersburg National Military Park. These reports were to be incorporated into tablets and markers in the park. Given Bearss' abilities these reports encompassed a history of the campaign. The reports were "used" and "filed". That is to say, very few people saw them. About 20 years ago, Bryce A.Read more ›
"The Petersburg Campaign" has its origins in a series of internal reports written by Ed Bearss in the 1960s for the Petersburg National Military Park, each report focusing on one limited period of combat at various sites at and near Petersburg. For decades these reports sat in Petersburg NMP files, seen only by the most diligent Civil War researchers. In the early 1990s Bryce Suderow suggested to Bearss that the reports be updated and prepared for general publication. Bearss approved of the project, with the provision that Suderow undertake the primary work himself. The project proved to be unexpectedly lengthy, requiring transcription of the original reports into computer files for editing purpose and supplemented by additional material to fill in some of the gaps left by the reports (the Crater action, for example was not covered in the original reports, and additonal material was needed to provide linkage between the various battles). Even once this work was completed, arranging for actual publication was a multi-year task. At last, we have Volume I of this long-awaited work, with the second and completing volume due for release early in 2013.
It must be emphasized that this book is first and foremost a compelling battle narrative, focusing on troop movements and combat results, most usually at the brigade and division level, supplemented by numerous detailed maps. It is not a comprehensive history of the campaign as a whole (fighting north of the James River is largely passed over, and the interaction with the political situation is beyond the scope of the book). But it far surpasses anything published to date about military operations during the Petersburg "siege" in general.Read more ›
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Q. Thanks for talking with us today, Mr. Bearss. Let me begin by asking you what inspired you to write a book about the Petersburg Campaign?
ECB: Yes, well we will have to go back a few years to understand the background of how all this came about. The text was written almost 50 years ago in 1958 with the approach of the Civil War Centennial, and I was involved in the preparation for its 50th anniversary. The members of the National Park Service had enjoyed considerable development and expansion during the emergency period of 1933-1942. The emergency conservation program, in which the CCC was acquired, was terminated June 30, 1942 because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The National Park Service changed drastically with the crisis of World War II. The Park Service had 160 areas under its control, but little attention was given to the park infrastructure. In 1955, the Park Service succeeded in getting the executive department and President Eisenhower interested in Mission 66, a ten-year program to develop the parks, road networks, visitor centers, and trail systems. The Park Service embarked on Mission 66 and a decision was made by the National Park Service and the Civil War Centennial Commission that the Park Service would be treated as a priority in order to preserve the areas established in connection with the Civil War.
Q. And Petersburg was part of that?
ECB: Yes. The Petersburg National Battlefield would elevate its standing by adding a visitor center, new interpretive road systems, and historical walkers. To achieve the Park Service goal, I was assumed a position of Research Historian.
Q. So part of your responsibility was to write about this Campaign?