Hell or Richmond
Just in time for Memorial Day, Ralph Peters has written another landmark of historical fiction with Hell or Richmond, the second novel in his current Civil War series.
His latest plot centers on the campaign from May to June 1864 when the Union Army under Ulysses S. Grant drove south to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond. Despite advantages in numbers, equipment, and logistics, every Union thrust was parried by Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The closely interwoven battles of that campaign introduced a whole new level of savagery to warfare, both armies suffering 88,000 casualties.
While Civil War storytelling has long challenged historians, military strategists, and novelists, Ralph Peters displays a consistently deft mastery of those disciplines.
His readers see a formidable but surprisingly vulnerable Lee, plagued by dysentery while struggling to rally his troops. The taciturn Grant, appointed to produce the military victory that would reelect Abraham Lincoln, must make his new subordinates fear him more than Lee. What frustrated both generals, as well as their officers, was that the new technologies of destruction (artillery and rifled musketry) now out-stripped the traditional means of command (rigid, top-down control) and communications typically overtaken by events.
Especially when those armies fought one another in places like The Wilderness—a briar-patch of dense woods and bogs—strategy was routinely trumped by circumstance, thousands of men suddenly staring death in the face.
In the first two days of The Wilderness struggle, an astounding 29,000 were killed, captured or wounded. At one point, Lee reversed a nearly fatal rout by deploying his Texas brigade: “Wet eyed, Lee tore off his hat and waved it. ‘Texans have never let me down,’ he shouted. ‘Texans always move them!’”
In real life as well as this novel, Lee could count on born warriors like Colonel William C. Oates, hard-bitten commander of an Alabama regiment and one of the book’s most interesting characters. Commanding his troops, Oates proudly boasts, “they were all right, his boys, all right, just marching forward angry as wild country sonsofbitches cheated at cards in town.”
The author repeatedly uses this character to underline the book’s central lesson: the deadly combination of frontal attacks and blind leadership. “Fifth Corps blue-bellies . . . fools led by idiots, just coming on in more half-assed assaults, straight on . . . the survivors flopped down like lambs under Confederate musketry and artillery so deadly it seemed unfair even to Oates, who never thought killing Yankees a bad idea . . . Didn’t the Yankees have one sane general left?”
One who was not: Union General John Sedgwick. During the battles around Spotsylvania Court House—mid-point of the campaign—he urged his troops forward against enemy sharpshooters with the most famous last words ever uttered in combat. “They can’t hit an elephant at this distance.”
At close range for weeks on end, both sides learned the value of entrenchments, Spotsylvania a dry run of World War I trench warfare.
Constantly repulsed, Grant wheeled his army in a giant sideways dance, ever closer to Richmond. While Lee’s men always traveled light and moved fast, they also proved adept at hasty fortifications.
At Cold Harbor, Grant gave Lee precious time to improve his position—and then ordered a frontal attack, just as Lee had done at Gettysburg the year before. In some parts of the line, Union soldiers pinned their names to the backs of their tunics so that their families could learn they had been killed. “‘Fire!’ Oates shouted and his men let go an organized volley at last. With the mad-dog, determined, crazy-minded, through-the-canister Yankees thirty paces from the trench. And down they went, the blue-bellied sonsofbitches.”
Colonel Peters leaves it to another Confederate hero, General John B. Gordon, to sum up the campaign’s principal lesson. “Had they reached a point, Gordon wondered, at which neither army, could defeat the other decisively on the battlefield? A point at which they could only bleed each other white (while combat-hardened veterans would) simply do what had to be done to restore the equilibrium?”
But with its decisive advantages in numbers and logistics, the Union Army buried its dead and smoothly crossed the James River. Grant would continue to threaten Richmond but now from the south. The book’s last word belongs to General George G. Meade, the often overlooked hero of Gettysburg. “Looking down . . . at the thousands of men ferried to the southern shore, [Meade] saw it all: Grant had no idea how to beat Lee on a battlefield. But Ulysses S. Grant knew how to win the war.”
While it is unclear if the current Ralph Peters literary campaign will end in a trilogy or a Pentateuch, he is the finest Civil War novelist writing today.