Destruction › The Long Shadow of Petersburg
Intro .

I can recall the scene in fine detail. It was my spring break, seventh grade, April 1983: I am standing in front of the “Copse of Trees,” the natural landmark along the sloping length of Cemetery Ridge that on July 3, 1863, had been the target of Pickett’s Charge. Dad and I would take some memorable road trips. This one set a high bar. Stop 1 had pulled into Cooperstown, New York, and The Baseball Hall of Fame. Stop 2 was the Gettysburg National Military Park. The highlights from that trip run on a slide carousel through my head. But the one scene stands out. I can still picture it clearly. My view at that moment took in the entirety of the plot of earth where the high-tide of the Confederacy crested and broke at The Battle of Gettysburg. All considered, there may not be a parcel of land more important to the timeline of America. But as searing an impression as just standing there left on my thirteen-year old brain, there was something else about that scene, that moment. It was the first time I sensed it, “it” being something of a low hum that hovered over the landscape. It was not visible or audible. I did not see anything peculiar, or hear anything out of the ordinary. But I sensed an energy. It was tangible, as if the air itself was an electric field.

I can recall a later scene in even finer detail. This was on a return visit to Gettysburg in 1993, my first solo Civil War battlefield tour. My knowledge and sensitivity towards the place and life in general was expanding rapidly and I distinctly recall how that energy—that charge in the air—seemed stronger, more visceral. I also realized that there was something else going on. I was more conscious of the tragedy embedded in the land, far more aware of what that all meant. And that heightened sense or phenomenon or whatever it was I was processing rose up from the ground to trigger a mood I can only describe as an anxiety laced with anguish, what in the 1860s could have been tagged “melancholia.” I was not then, or now, prone to depression outside the occasional blue day—which made this all the more puzzling. It was heavy and riven and I could not put my finger on it. But I knew the land itself was stoking the mood, that one was channeling the other.

It would take twenty more years and dozens of battlefields inciting similar floods of feeling before I came to understand what was going on in those moments. I was asking a question of no one person in particular, but of all humankind. Arms spread and incredulous, I was asking, pleading:

“Why war?”

Ghost On The Hill: Petersburg NB / Fort Gregg
A Sample .
The story of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was not new to me. But it was not until a deep research dive in early 2002 that I fully absorbed the depth of their tragic moment. My immersion was in preparation for a tour already set for that Spring. It would be the second of five Civil War “rambles” that Dad and I would take from 2001-2006. The idea was a last minute Christmas gift. Percolating up through the distracted thrum of the tail end of my 2000 (a new small business, a new mortgage, a new engagement), were memories of a great one-off tour that Dad and I had taken of Civil War Charleston back in 1995. It had become a one-off despite us having repeatedly said: “That was a pretty great trip; we need to do that again,” and then, not. But in the Spring of 2001 we were going to break the cycle of saying / not doing, talking / not walking. That trip-tour would prove such a hit that it was promoted to a yearly venture. It now stands as one of the great things I have done, for I had no idea in 2001 that Dad had only six years left. None of us figured he would only have 68.75 years on this Earth, but that was it. And though we were not able to make it to Antietam in May 2007, what would have been ramble No. 6, we did manage to see a lot on rambles 1-5. Vicksburg in April 2001 had been No. 1. No. 2 would trace the last gasp of the Confederacy: “Lee’s Retreat” across southern Virginia to Appomattox. We would start at Petersburg.

Petersburg, we can now see, was the beginning of the end of the American Civil War. Not so much a battle as a stationary campaign, it was to be a struggle of endurance that would push both sides to the limit. Dragging across nine long months, it consisted of numerous moves and countermoves, battles large-and-small, and all while wrapped inside a larger siege encompassing every scrap of land to the east and south of the vital railroad hub of Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond 25 miles to its north. The operations in and around these two cities would prove so total and voracious in appetite that it would spur the overnight transformation of the peninsula tip hamlet of City Point on The James River into one of the busiest sea ports in the world. Hundreds of tons of supplies poured onto makeshift docks round-the-clock to feed the leviathan Union war machine, the goal simple: supply one army with all the ammunition and sustenance it could possibly need to starve out another. For above everything, this was a siege, a siege updated and set to the (then) modern script. In time, its vast operational scope would generate enough centrifugal force to spin off sub-campaigns that ventured far beyond southeast Virginia throughout the Summer and Fall of 1864, the sole intent of each to put the screws to the enemy’s will. But in the end, despite all of the secondary actions and reactions—the Union navy driving into Mobile Bay and the juggernaut of other Union armies driving on and beyond Atlanta far to the south—the war’s outcome, we can now see, would come down to Petersburg. And it would begin as they all did, with a tragic scene of human destruction.

The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery had begun its existence as the 18th Maine, the eighteenth regiment (a military organization at that time in the area of 10 companies of 100 men each) having been formed within the country’s then most northern state. A group of young men hailing from coastal fishing villages and the timberlands of the Penobscot River Valley, they had come together during the last widespread wave of volunteering in 1862 and marched off to fight the war then raging to the south. But instead of front-line distinction, chance remanded them to a dull often listless garrison duty outside Washington, D.C. It was only after two uneventful years manning a link in the ring of defenses (surrounding what was then the most heavily fortressed city on the planet) that they were shipped off to the front lines. Recast, they were one of a dozen regiments having served as an artillery unit in garrison that were given rifles and sent off to fight in the field.

All of these heavy artillery regiments were sent south to replenish the battered and depleted U.S. Army of the Potomac, a force that had been engaged in near constant combat operations for a month-and-a-half and had just fought the most brutal land campaign in a war full of them. It was an army that was understandably spent. The physical and emotional toll was apparent from the generals on down to the privates, all those who had somehow managed to “come through” some of the most savage fighting of the war. Corporal Frederick Pettit of the 100th Pennsylvania, a veteran unit that unlike the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery had seen their share of front-line duty—their numbers having been decidedly thinned since their own inductions—summed up the destructive brutality of that campaign in a spare manner typical of soldiers’ letters to home during the Civil War. He wrote that it was “such as I supposed it impossible for any set of men to endure. Any person not with the army can form no idea of its hardships.”

Into the thick of this brutality were thrown the 1st Maine Heavies, who during the middle week of June 1864 were being rushed towards the ridges on the outskirts of Petersburg and an opportunity that surpassed any other the eastern theatre had yet presented: to break through a weak defensive line and cut the final supply routes for Confederates still holding Richmond. If it could be done, the war was over. And yet despite success during the initial assaults of June 15th, poor execution by Union generals and the piecemeal attacks that had resulted in the three days since saw this signal opportunity evaporate. Robert Carter of the veteran 22nd Massachusetts clearly saw the scene for what it was in the moment, writing: “There seemed to be no concerted movement at all.”

What should have been a general assault all along the line south of the Confederate capital and Appomattox River (which separated the two cities before emptying into The James) never materialized. By June 18th a decisive offensive opportunity for the Union army of any sort had been lost, all of the earlier advantages having disappeared. Confederate (C.S.) entrenchments in their front were now improved, fully-manned with veteran units and bristling. Nonetheless, Union commanders ordered that the attacks continue. And so, this regiment from Maine dressed ranks and went forward that afternoon, doing so against the pleading of veterans from two other regiments who had been ordered forward ahead of them but had refused—the execution exacted on them in storming a similar line of entrenchments at Cold Harbor east of Richmond only two weeks past. . . .

This combat-green unit from Maine, having been engaged in a single fight to date and counting near full rolls when compared to the skeletal veteran regiments then pleading for them to take cover, went forward and was blown away. Better than two-thirds of its ranks were killed or wounded in about ten minutes: 632 men, a rate of loss equivalent to a man per second. Theirs would be the highest numerical loss of any regiment in a single action during the entire war.

The nineteenth-century writer Herman Melville is popularly known for a single work as arcane-seeming as the occupation of whaling itself. But he dilated a keen eye that took in the totality of this war. Having traveled to several eastern battlefields, freshly hallowed, and interviewing many (not the least of which was Ulysses S. Grant), Melville’s war poetry left a stark accounting of such tragedies as that which consumed the Heavies. Despite his regular hitting of celebratory and triumphalist notes (a fervent Union man, the style itself very much a nineteenth-century product), the aim of Melville’s tenor sought to keep the focus on the unvarnished grit and toil, a “Hail to victory without the gaud.” Paraphrasing Armies of the Wilderness, Drew Gilpin Faust illustrated Melville’s more salient point: “Glory, plumes, sashes, banners have become irrelevant; men are but operatives, cogs in a machinery of destruction.”

The Union’s push in mid-June 1864 to outmarch, outflank and cut off Confederate defenders, and their few final supply routes in and around Richmond, had failed. In a masterstroke of deception, logistics and engineering (which included laying the longest pontoon bridge of the war, and that across a tidal river), The Army of the Potomac had achieved the outmarching and outflanking part, but could not finish the job; and this, due in large part to the just-in-time rush-in of the mentioned C.S. veterans from the main eastern army of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. A tried, tested and well-led force who was not on hand for the initial assaults of June 15th, was in place on the outskirts of Petersburg to receive and destroy the final Union assaults of June 18th—including that last one, the young patriots from Maine in the van.

And with this, conditions on the ground evolved into the Petersburg that has come down through popular histories of the Civil War: a trench warfare full of sparring and jabs and a few full-scale attacks set against the continual if slow-burrowing stretch of lines westward. Both sides, worn, weary, depleted, dug in, shook out their sharpshooters and kept their heads down. . . .

This is the Petersburg that would come to serve as the prototypical historical template for a future conflict that would shock humankind in its time in the way that the American Civil War had shocked humankind in the 1860s. As an historical parallel, it is depressing enough that the destruction of these wars would prove so devastating as to quickly drown whatever naive optimistic expectations—most animated by a predictably crude tribalism—that might have been popularly held at the start of both. Of course, that future conflict was The First World War. And though much has been written on the military parallels between Petersburg and the infamous World War I killing zones along its western front—the trench-warfare, the constant of artillery and indifference of the sharpshooters, the no man’s lands—we find very little on the following: that the cost of Petersburg and the American Civil War would register in no measurable way to halt or even slow the sprint of offensive war, still a fully “legal,” if not the preferred method for nation-states to acquire territory and resources, cure wrongs real or perceived. And all this while the technology of conflict sprinted ahead without pause.

It is an oversight so glaring as to blind. And the more I dug in to the history of both wars the more I began to make connections that seemed overt, grim and, worst of all, obvious. In coming to know the tragic charge of the 1st Maine Heavies, I could not help but see a direct-line from it to a much larger mistake to be committed 52 years later. . . . I realize that comparing the final Union charge of June 18, 1864, to the epic assault of the British Fourth Army at the Somme on the first day of July 1916 is not a clean parallel; but that the latter follows the former as an obvious historical template for its tragedy alone; and that this—in and of itself—fails to get anything close to the scrutiny it should in aligning such historical parallels, generally, and fixing Petersburg in the historical record as the destructive foreshadowing event that it was.

As was true of the young men from Maine, The British Fourth was also a force comprised largely of green citizen soldiers having answered the call. After a week-long bombardment, during which some one million shells were expended (what was, amazingly, not an uncommon total for a bombardment during the war), they were sent forth across hundreds of yards of open and fully reconnoitered no man’s land to storm strong entrenchments that had not been reduced by the lengthy bombardment, as hoped. Predictably, they were annihilated by the tens-of-thousands. And despite the vast difference in scope and combatants there is this stark through-line between the experience of the British Fourth Army and 1st Maine Heavy Artillery a half-century earlier: Both were scenes of mass state-sanctioned murder on orders of cold military calculation in which the destruction of human beings was carried out with clipped industrial efficiency. The battles fought in 1864 were but a preface to an even more horrific brand of human destruction that had been fully realized by 1916.

The killing power that turned the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery’s assault into a suicidal death march was just one of the American Civil War’s hundreds of examples of technological advancement supporting a type of conflict that had outpaced the capacity of the best minds of the time to mitigate. It remains far and away the most destructive war in American history. For over a century, the popularly agreed on total of war deaths was in the area of 620,000; though that tally had long been considered off due to the well-known difficulty of piecing together incomplete or missing field reports and muster rolls, government and war pension documents, and census records. In 2011, J. David Hacker revealed a new take that more diligently dug through the probabilities of population growth using the same 19th century census data. He arrived at the more plausible number of 750,000 deaths directly attributable to the war; and this was a conservative take on the research, the number quite possibly higher. Michael C. C. Adams summarizes the comparative impact in his book, Living Hell: “The statistics jar us even more if we consider losses as a percentage of population. A reliable estimate holds that at least 2 percent of Americans alive in 1860 died in uniform.”

Such war loss is unfathomable to modern America. Just the notion of such loss owns my thoughts on every Civil War tour I take. To consider that 2 of every 100 fellow citizens you cross paths with at the store, on the road, at work, on a walk around town, killed in a war—any war. And as the vast trove of personal letters and recollections show, these staggering losses were unimaginable even as they were piling up between 1861-1865. A man who would know all about it was William Fox. A Union veteran, he was one of several individuals who would attempt to fully account for the war’s staggering toll, compiling and publishing a mountain of research in his Regimental Losses in the American Civil War. Faust writes of how Fox “worried that the sheer magnitude of the war’s death toll rendered it incomprehensible.” And to think that William Fox thought this in hindsight, long after all the burial details had concluded their work and even after the mass decades-long efforts, North and South, to dig up Civil War dead on distant battlefields, identify them if possible (which was often not) and relocate them to burial grounds closer to home. Just the statistical tally itself—numbers on a page—was incomprehensible, let alone the piles of corpses. The modern take would have this as “impossible to wrap your head around.” In step, it is clear that few leaders during the war, political or military, could wrap their heads around the type of war they were fighting; a conflict contemporary (c. 1860s) in its destructive capability and tactical demands, yet one still wrapped in the arcane legitimacies of war dominant at the time.

Of course, none of this was aided by the prevailing attitudes of chivalry either; a dead-letter from a pre-rifled past that did nothing more than fill cemeteries to overflowing. The caustic Civil War veteran turned popular author, Ambrose Bierce, infused both the trait and the incomprehension of it being a real thing (so very odd to us in our “advanced” present and quite possibly the highest “they did what?” hurdle for a modern audience to overcome) in the lead character of his short story, A Son Of The Gods:

Galloping rapidly along in the edge of the open ground comes a young officer on a Snow White horse. His saddle blanket is scarlet. What a fool! No one who has ever been in action but remembers how naturally every rifle turns toward the man on a white horse; no one but has observed how a bit of red enrages the bull of battle. That such colors are fashionable in military life must be accepted as the most astonishing of all the phenomena of human vanity. They would seem to have been devised to increase the death-rate.

The scope of destruction stitched into Civil War history, due in no small part to chivalric vanity imported from a more ignorant past, would provide the world a harrowing (if small-bore) prelude to industrial warfare. Tragically, the history of World War I shows that humanity had learned little, if anything, when, fifty years on, industrialized and an increasingly mechanized warfare (given the advent of the combustion engine) continued to outpace celebrated strategic minds still palsied inside a belief that concentrated massed manpower could carry an assault and win the day, if through grit and aplomb alone. The run of blood-drenched names that spill from a history of WWI’s western front provides ample evidence: Ypres, the Marne, the Somme, Verdun, Arras and Vimy Ridge, Ypres again at Passchendaele, Amiens, Belleau Wood—a list that scrolls on indefinitely if we include the war’s eastern, Italian, Balkan, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fronts. And yet it is the template of military and tactical parallels that history has chosen to popularize in connecting Petersburg to the Somme and Verdun and other such tragic WWI place names. We find so much less on the sheer individual cost—the human destruction.

Perhaps it is so obvious that few have felt the need to say it. Still, the thought renders all of the suffering induced on either side of the Atlantic during these two wars a darker shade. For it is hard to accept that the prelude of Americans slaughtering each other with such cold mechanical efficiency sets up as an historical blip by the time Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo thereby unleashing the byzantine threads of alliance clauses that drove the Old World into the oblivion of WWI. And though the sacrifice incurred during the Civil War did deliver the long-run benefit of reorienting America’s national construct and social compact towards a more just—if slow-moving—democratic future, the fact that its raw cost, or even the idea of it prodding introspection into whether such cost is redeemable within societies that claim civility, seems lost in all of what was to come. It is a confounding mystery.

All the foreshadowing of Civil War combat made it plain that a much more destructive war was to come. The deadlier range of the 1860 era Springfield and British-made Enfield rifled-muskets were fast succeeded by rapid-fire long-range rifles and the grim lethality of the machine gun; the brass cannon that a proficient Union or Confederate crew could fire at its enemy twice-per-minute having been replaced by miles-long lines of breach-loading artillery batteries that by the WWI era could throw a day-long barrage of shells a dozen miles or more, all of it guided by air reconnaissance. . . . It is all the worse for the world having witnessed this preview of things to come in the bloodspray of the Civil War and more specifically in the westward-inching trench warfare that would come to envelop Petersburg, only to absorb all of that in the interim between these wars as little more than an evolutionary step in as old and incurable a human instinct as there is: the constant of killing and war. It begs the obvious question: Why?

To-day we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities. We are no longer untroubled—we are indifferent.

Paul Bäumer

Erich Maria Remarque ~ All Quiet on the Western Front