The author of Terrible Swift Sword: The Life of Philip H. Sheridan (2012) and other works about the Civil War returns with a tactic-by-tactic, blow-by-blow account of the sanguinary actions between the forces of Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee near the end of the war.
Wheelan begins in March 1864 and ends in mid-June. In between are grim images, insights into the characters of Lee, Grant (24 cigars per day!), Abraham Lincoln and others, as well as some second-guessing and deeply informed reasoning about why the North ultimately prevailed. By 1864, the Union Army was considerably larger and better equipped than the Confederates, as Wheelan continually reminds us. However, Lee—whose abilities the author patently admires—was tactically superior to most of the commanders he faced and had kept victory within the South’s reach. But Grant was a different animal. As Wheelan shows us repeatedly, he simply sent waves of soldiers into battle. Although he sustained substantial losses, he also inflicted the same, and the South simply could not win a war of attrition. So the battles at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor—though not really “victories” for the North—were nonetheless successful due to their devastating effects on Confederate troop strength and supplies. Wheelan also provides interesting side stories—e.g., the career of Gen. George Meade, the flamboyant brilliance of George Armstrong Custer and the untimely death of Jeb Stuart. Some of the horrors are hard to read—not just the mere numbers of casualties, but the details about rotting piles and parts of dead human beings. The author also distributes helpful maps throughout, but he does not comment on the justness or causes or necessity of the war.
Well-researched and –argued—a text that Civil War scholars and buffs will consume with glee.