Book Review: Gettysburg's Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond


by Hampton Newsome

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2022. Pp. viii, 411. Illus., maps, diagr., appends, notes, biblio., index. $36.95. ISBN: 0700633472

The Union's "End Run" Against Richmond

In Gettysburg’s Southern Front, Newsome, the author of Richmond Must Fall and other notable works, give us the first book length look at a very neglected Union operation conducted by Maj. Gen. John A. Dix against Richmond while the Gettysburg campaign folded further north. Often dismissed as "raid", some 20,000 soldiers and sailors advanced up the Virginia Peninsula from Fort Monroe to White House Landing, some 30 miles from Richmond, posing a serious threat to the Confederate capital.

Newsome gives us a brief biography of the elderly Dix (b. 1798), a veteran of the War of 1812, had served in the Senate, and been Secretary of the Treasury under Buchanan, returning to military service in 1861. By mid-1863 he commanded the Department of Virginia based at Ft. Monroe, and was certainly not thought of as an aggressive leader, but on this occasion did a credible job, which spread panic and disruption in and around the Confederate capitol.

Dix had been ordered "to threaten Richmond, by seizing and destroying their railroad bridges over the South and North Anna Rivers, and do them all the damage possible”, from General-in-Chief Halleck, which Newsome argues, was vague and confusing, Halleck failing to explain the "Big Picture", that Lee was moving north.

Newsome covers Dix's plans and movements, and describes the several engagements that occurred during the operation in some detailed chapters, which make for an interesting and fast moving read. He also gives profiles of Dix's principal subordinates, notably the unreliable Erasmus Keyes, and covers military operations, but also addresses how Dix's movements affected the local people, largely hostile save for those enslaved, who often provided valuable intelligence to the troops, and even how the campaign affected Union war making policy and foreign relations.

Nor does Newsome neglect the other side. CSA President Davis had pushed to secure Richmond with several layers of strong fortifications and artillery, but the garrison was modest. As Dix's troops approached, emergency home defense units were formed from factory and office workers, commanded by Lee’s son Custis. Newsome finds that there was a great concern as to whether Richmond could defend itself. As a result, troops were recalled to Richmond from the Army of Northern Virginia, to strengthen the defense. While Dix's forces outnumbered the defenders, and did well in several small engagements, Richmond was not attacked. Newsome is clear that this decision negated the success of the campaign. He points out that it was not just Dix’s mistake but Washington’s as well; Lincoln's cabinet dithered over sending reinforcements, and even discussed command changes – in the middle of the operations -- and thus undermined Dix’s efforts.

Newsome also gives us an interesting chapter on the simultaneous "diplomatic offensive" by Confederate Vice President Stephens, who tried to open negotiations to restore prisoner-of-war exchanges, as a way of pushing for negotiations to settle the war on Confederacy's terms, which came to nought in the aftermath of the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

Altogether, Gettysburg’s Southern Front, a volume in the UP Kansas series "Modern War Studies," is well written, deeply researched, and provides excellent analysis, breaking new ground in the literature of the war, with its look at what was potentially a decisive moment in the war.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His most recent previous reviews here include Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, Benjamin Franklin Butler, Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard, Bonds of War, Early Struggles for Vicksburg, True Blue, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books, Love and Duty, When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, Cedar Mountain to Antietam, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Count the Dead, All Roads Led To Gettysburg, Unhappy Catastrophes, The Heart of Hell, and The Whartons' War.




Note: Gettysburg’s Southern Front is also available in e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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