Savas Beatie has recently published The Petersburg Campaign Volume I: The Eastern Front Battles June-August, 1864, by Edwin C. Bearss with Bryce A. Suderow. Bull Runnings has previously interviewed Mr. Bearss here. You may or may not be familiar with his partner in this effort, Bryce Suderow, but you’ve likely read works which have benefitted from his efforts.
BAS: I was born in Chicago in 1950 and grew up in one of its suburbs, South Holland. I attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois and moved to California in 1973 to attend graduate school at Sonoma State University where I got a Masters in American History. Although my focus was on early American History, my thesis was on a Civil War battle.
My career as a writer began in 1973 when I published an article in the Westport Historical Quarterly. Since that time I have published articles in Civil War Times Illustrated, North and South and other magazines.
My first book was actually my thesis on the Battle of Pilot Knob, Thunder in Arcadia Valley. After that I was co-editor for theSupplement to the Official Records. My third book is Volume 1 of The Petersburg Campaign.
My career as a researcher began in 1991 when Noah A. Trudeau hired me to do some research. I liked the work so much that I decided to switch over to doing research for a living. Over the next twenty years I did research at the Library of Congress and the National Archives for J.D. Petruzzi, Eric Wittenberg, Gordon Rhea and many others. I was among the first researchers to use Civil War era newspapers as sources and now the practice is quite common.
BR: What got you interested in studying the American Civil War?
BAS: When the Civil War Centennial arrived, I was at the very impressionable age of eleven. Chicagoans took the Civil War very seriously. Ralph Newman and some others started the first Civil War Round Table. Newman’s nationally known bookstore attracted Civil War writers and Civil War buffs from all over the country, including Bruce Catton.
Newman was a local legend, so the Chicago Tribune persuaded him to write a weekly column on the Civil War called Ralph Newman’s Scrapbook for their Sunday magazine section. The Trib even published a comic strip series every Sunday called Old Glory at the Crossroads which dealt with the events that had occurred one hundred years ago that week. The Newman Scrapbook and the Old Glory series were among my earliest influences. About the same time I was also influenced by two comic books on the Civil War published by Classics Illustrated and by the multi-part Life Magazine series on the Civil War.
The greatest influence from an individual came from my Social Studies teacher, Ted Gunaka, who was a Civil War buff. He assigned each of his fifth grade students a Civil War battle and required us to write a paper and deliver an oral speech on it. I chose the Battle of the Crater and the Siege of Petersburg. Gunaka thus put me on the path to researching the Civil War.
All this occurred when I was a pre-teen.
As a teenager I read all of Bruce Catton’s Civil War books. His writings thrilled me and instilled in me a deep love of the Civil War. When I was in my twenties I moved to California and majored in History and got my Masters Degree at Sonoma State University. I decided to specialize in the war west of the Mississippi and it was then that I became aware of Edwin C. Bearss and his writings taught me and inspired me. Also important were two other writers, Richard Brownlee and John R. Margreiter, both of whom wrote about the battle of Pilot Knob, Missouri. I wrote my Master’s Thesis on that battle and it was published as a book in 1985 under the title Thunder in Arcadia Valley.
BR: Why Petersburg?
BAS: After years of studying and writing about the war in the Trans-Mississippi, I changed my focus to the Siege of Petersburg because the 1864-65 campaigns in Virginia won the war. I wrote a series of articles on the early battles of the siege for a long-defunct magazine called The Kepi. I also began research on the First Battle of Deep Bottom and even wrote a manuscript on the battle. Unfortunately, though this was 25 years ago, it has not yet been published.
BR: What makes this work on Petersburg stand out from others?
BAS: There are a number of books that deal with particular battles or offensives of the Siege of Petersburg, the Crater being the most popular topic. However, there are only two books that cover the entire Siege of Petersburg. One of them is Noah A. Trudeau’s The Last Citadel. The other is John Horn’s The Petersburg Campaign. Both books have their strengths and weaknesses, but both are far too short to cover the siege in the detail it deserves.
The Bearss book stands out for two reasons. One of the book’s strengths is that deals with the entire siege in-depth. Each chapter is devoted to one battle and each chapter is around 70 pages long. No one has ever done this. For the first time people who want to walk the battlefields will know where to go.
Another strength is Bearss’ writing style. He writes so clearly that any layman can understand him and so dramatically that readers are hooked on the story he tells.
BR: What is your role in The Petersburg Campaign project?
BAS: I had two roles when I worked on Vol. I. First, I was editor of the material that Bearss wrote and second I was co-author since I wrote the introductions and conclusions to each chapter. In Vol. II I am also the editor. My writer role has expanded. In addition to the intros and conclusions, I am adding material to some chapters, material that came to light after Bearss wrote his ms.
At the request of the Federal Government Bearss wrote a series of studies on the Petersburg battles in the mid-1960s. He never intended to publish them. For years the only people who knew about them were the employees at Petersburg battlefield park and scholars of the battle. I obtained copies of some of the studies and was impressed by them.
Five or six years ago I decided they should be published, but first I needed to obtain copies of all the studies. The park employees were kind enough to provide those.
Next I needed volunteers to type the chapters into their computers. On a site called The Civil War Message Board Portal I posted a message calling for volunteers to help publish a book by Edwin C. Bearss. The effect of his name was magical and a surprisingly large number of people volunteered to do the typing. Once the computer version of the book was typed, I called for volunteers to make certain each chapter followed the same format. Again the volunteers came forward. This phase was completed three years ago.
Finally, I approached Ted Savas and told him about the manuscript. He was enthusiastic and immediately agreed. The biggest obstacles to publishing were finding someone to create the maps and finding authors to write about two battles Bearss did not cover, the Battle of the Crater and the Battle of Fort Stedman. This took a couple of years. Finally this year we found two experts who were eager to co-author a book with Edwin C. Bearss. Patrick Brennan wrote the Crater chapter and Bill Wyrick wrote the Stedman chapter. Also this year I chose George Skoch to create the maps. He did a score of superb maps in just a few months.
BR: Can you describe your research and writing process?
BAS: To write the introductions and conclusions in Vol. I I used John Horn’s book, The Petersburg Campaign. For Vol. II I am using that book, plus the Official Records, the Supplement to the Official Records and various published and unpublished accounts.
People who read this book are in for a real treat. Most Civil War enthusiasts have a completely wrong idea about the siege. They think the siege consisted of static warfare and doomed Union attacks against Confederate trenches. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of the ten battles that took place during the siege, only three involved Union attacks on the Confederate lines. There were the initial Union assaults of June 15-18, 1864, the assault at the Crater on July 30, 1864, and the Union attack that led to a breakthrough on April 2, 1865. All the other battles took place in the woods and fields around the city and occurred because Grant was sending portions of his army to seize and/or destroy the Weldon and Southside Railroads.
Each of the battles is interesting because different corps and corps commanders were engaged in the various battles and they commanded their men differently. For example contrast the union generalship in two battles for the Weldon Railroad. On August 18 Warren seizes the railroad and quite prudently wants to fortify his position against the inevitable Confederate attacks. Grant and Meade insist that he press up against the Confederate fortifications which places him in dense woods where he can’t see the Confederates coming. As a result on August 18 and 19 the Confederates attack his flanks, surprise his men and rout them, so he suffers tremendous losses, mostly in prisoners. On August 20 Grant and Meade allow him to do what he asked permission to do. He fortifies and the next day a big Confederate attack is repulsed.
Hancock fights a battle at ream’s station four days later and his style is quite different. He occupies a badly planned and laid out fortification constructed in June by the VI Corps and is seemingly indifferent to improving the strength of his position. Instead he spends his time destroying the railroad. As a result the Confederates attack him while he’s holding this weak position and the II Corps is routed and driven from the field with a large loss in prisoners. The difference between the two generals is clear. Warren was more astute than Hancock so he was acutely aware of the danger Lee’s army posed and Hancock was not. Warren was also aware that fortifications were necessary because the quality of his men had deteriorated because of excessive casualties.
The book is also fascinating because it shows the rise and fall of fortunes of Confederate high commanders at Petersburg. A.P. Hill was so ill that he often turned over command to Henry Heth or William Mahone. Mahone rose to the occasion and became one of the two most outstanding commanders on the Confederate side. The other stellar commander was Wade Hampton. It was he who persuaded Lee to attack the isolated Hancock at Ream’s Station and he played a key role in the victory.
I guarantee that anyone who reads this book will end up fascinated by the Siege of Petersburg.
BR: What’s next for you?
BAS: I hope to co-author a book on Five Forks with Mike McCarthy. Mike wrote a dissertation on the battle and on the Warren Court of Inquiry. I found him a publisher and we’ve become friends. And I want to publish my Deep Bottom manuscript.
Good luck with your future work, Bryce. We’re all looking forward to Volume II of The Petersburg Campaign.