ALEXANDER: Dawn of Victory (2015)
Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865 by Edward S. Alexander. Savas Beatie, 2015. Paper, ISBN 978-1611212808. $12.95.
There have been generations of attempts to pinpoint when Union victory became inevitable. According to Edward Alexander, that moment came with the Union breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2, 1865. In Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865, Alexander focuses on the week of the breakthrough and demonstrates its centrality to the ultimate success of Grant’s forces over the Army of Northern Virginia. Alexander argues that the decisiveness of the Union breakthrough at Petersburg gave the Yankees the initiative and firmly placed Ulysses S. Grant in control throughout the final campaign (129).
While Petersburg is usually studied as a siege, Alexander observes that despite the extensive nature of the fortifications, the fighting around the city actually relied on maneuver to a great extent (9). After a brief overview of the struggle for Richmond and the previous eleven months of fighting around Petersburg, Dawn of Victory’s focus begins at the end of March 1865, when Grant planned his strategy to break through the Confederate lines. While Dinwiddie County’s geography had aided the Confederates for months in defending the city, the arrival of Philip Sheridan’s cavalry and reinforcements from Edward Ord’s Army of the James enabled Grant to attack the Confederates outside the fortifications. The engagements that preceded the the Union breakthrough on April 2 exhibited the delicate and shifting balance of fortunes prior to the Union’s victorious breakthrough. Adding greater urgency to the struggle, Lee coped with an increasingly weak army and worried about an eventual Union of Grant and Sherman (23).
The balance shifted in favor of Grant’s forces as the week progressed. Union forces recaptured Fort Stedman from John B. Gordon’s Confederate troops and, aided by George Pickett’s lackluster leadership, won the fight at Five Forks. Colonel Porter of Grant’s staff labeled the latter event “the beginning of the end” (55). The week culminated in the attack led by Horatio Wright’s VI corps on April 2. Prior to the charge, Wright expressed his confidence that his corps would “go in solid, and . . . will make the fur fly” (62). Wright’s prediction proved correct. On top of the breakthrough, the Confederates furthered suffered a blow to their high command with the death of A.P. Hill. As a Vermonter in Wright’s Corps wrote to his father after the attack, “This has been one of the greatest days in American History” (129). Indeed, news of Richmond’s fall quickly succeeded the breakthrough and, merely a week later, Robert E. Lee’s forces surrendered. Although armies remained in the field, this event truly marked the beginning of the end.
Dawn of Victory utilizes personal accounts to bring to life a week that accelerated the Confederacy’s demise. With an extensive array of letters, diaries, and memoirs from Union and Confederate soldiers at all ranks, Alexander creates a vivid and engrossing picture of the week’s events. These personal accounts are ably assembled to form a clear and cohesive narrative. In addition to the reliance on personal accounts to tell the campaign’s story, the chapters are visually appealing. The personal nature of the text is reinforced with photographs of many of the accounts’ authors, contemporary and modern photographs of locations on the battlefield and around Petersburg, and maps that are both clear and detailed. Alexander thus accomplishes that with which many studies struggle: maintaining visual appeal and accessibility while preserving the integrity of his sources.
Dawn of Victory serves as an excellent introduction to this final week of fighting at Petersburg. The book itself does not include footnotes, but a URL is provided through which readers can access footnotes. Alexander includes a list of suggested reading and an appendix of terms that explains battlefield structures, making the book friendly to a general audience as well as clarifying terminology that those not well versed in military history may find confusing. Perhaps the book’s greatest attribute, many chapters conclude with information for modern-day battlefield visitors, including modern photographs of the battlefield and suggestions that will help readers make the most of their visit. The volume’s small size easily lends itself to being highly transportable and quite functional as a battlefield companion.
Overall, Dawn of Victory provides an engaging look at the Union breakthrough at Petersburg that casual buffs and more serious readers alike can enjoy. Alexander’s commitment to soldiers’ accounts creates an enjoyable read that also functions in a practical capacity for battlefield visitors.
Kelly Mielke holds an MA in History from the joint program between the College of Charleston and the Citadel.