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Book Review - Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion - The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign, by A. Wilson Greene

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 7

A. Wilson Greene is none other than the Smithsonian's own Will Greene, the incomparable historian, frequent Smithsonian lecturer, and Civil War tour guide extraordinaire. His credentials include a stint with the National Park Service and as the first president of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites. He currently is the Executive Director of Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, located in Petersburg, Virginia. He lives near the grounds where the action of this well-researched book takes place. At the time, Petersburg was thought of as the backdoor to Richmond, situated at the crossing of five railroad lines and wagon routes, and at the mouth of the Appomattox River.

The book opens with a quote from Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, "One good battle and the back of the rebellion is broken." Even though Meigs said this at the start of the war, it wasn't until April 2, 1865 that the backbreaking battle occurred. And it is this turning point to which Will devotes 490 pages, providing the prelude, the planning, the battle, and detailing the context of this battle "without a name."

We learn about the overarching importance of this single day. Will poses that it is only because of this breakthrough by the Union's VI Corps led by Major General Horatio Wright against the Confederates' Lieutenant General A. P. Hill, that Lee was forced to evacuate Petersburg, leaving it defenseless for the first time in four years. By understanding the fall of Petersburg, we can understand the aftermath-Lee's retreat to the west with hopes to re-supply and regroup, and the final battles of Sayler's Creek and Five Forks-culminating in the surrender at Appomattox.

The book is rich in detail and new information. We are introduced to the lesser-known players not written about in other treatments of Petersburg. We also are reacquainted with some of our favorite Civil War characters, including Phil Sheridan, George Pickett, Gouverneur Warren, J. L. Chamberlain, and Elisha Hunt Rhodes. Rhodes was at the battle and Will's use of his diary provides color and feel to these momentous events. Some may remember hearing Rhodes quoted on the Ken Burn's Civil War PBS series.

After reading the book, we plainly see the significance of the Union breakthrough at Petersburg, the importance of which has been overlooked, until now, by historians who rush past the final Petersburg battles in order to cover the more exciting surrender scenarios. Even though General Grant described the engagement as, "one of the greatest victories of the war," this battle doesn't even have a name.

Will Greene chose this phrase, "breaking the backbone of the rebellion," to describe the fighting of April 2, 1865. Due to Will's efforts, this battle has a name, these events have a context, and the men who fought there will have another chance to be remembered.