By Brian Swartz
Weekly Staff Editor
HOLDEN — The characters and confusion that surrounded Ulysses Simpson Grant in springtime 1864 Virginia come vividly to life in “Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign,” the latest book by noted local Civil War author Diane Monroe Smith.
Author of the Chamberlain biography “Fanny and Joshua,” Smith wrote “Command Conflicts” after researching the role that Joshua Chamberlain played during the siege of Petersburg. She has now written three Civil War-themed books, accomplishments made possible by her lifelong interest in the war.
“When I was a kid, it was the 100-year anniversary of all the battles, and I was an avid history kid,” Smith said. Her Civil War interest later went dormant until her sons, Robert and Alex, joined Co. B, 20th Maine Infantry, as re-enactors while in their teens.
“They did so without encouragement from Ned and me,” Smith recalled. A 14-year-old Alex later appeared as an extra in the Ted Turner “Gettysburg” movie.
The Smiths took Alex to Pennsylvania during the movie’s filming — and “that really got me going again” about the Civil War, Diane said. She volunteered with the Pejepscot Historical Society, which was then restoring the Brunswick home of Joshua and Fanny Chamberlain.
Smith started “researching the Chamberlains … for seven or eight years,” then wove her research into “Fanny and Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.” Published in June 1999 by Thomas Publications of Gettysburg, the book details the relationship between the Chamberlains and “adds considerable illumination to Joshua’s life and character,” according to John Pullen, author of “The Twentieth Maine.”
The book was well-received, except by certain male historians. “I don’t think all military historians are willing to accept works by a woman,” Smith said. She feels that “‘Fanny and Joshua’ was relegated to being a women’s book because I included her (Fanny Chamberlain) in the biography.
“I was really pleased because it went out of print last year,” Smith said. The University Press of New England plans to re-release “Fanny and Joshua” this month.
During her research, Smith contacted an archivist at Duke University, which she had heard still possessed some Joshua Chamberlain letters. Instead the university had an unpublished “Chamberlain manuscript” detailing the history of the Petersburg campaign, during which Chamberlain commanded a brigade in the Fifth Corps, she learned.
Smith “heavily annotated” the manuscript and published the book “Chamberlain at Petersburg.” The book presents “a good, hard look at the Fifth Corps and their experience in Grant’s Overland Campaign,” she said.
“I was fascinated by it, the whole Fifth Corps experience,” Smith recalled. Drawing upon her research, she started investigating Grant and the generals who surrounded him during spring and summer 1864.
Her effort led to the January 2013 publication of “Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign.” Painstakingly researched and highly detailed, the 248-page (bibliography and index included) book follows Grant as he assumes higher command in the Western Theater and ultimately becomes the commander of all Union armies in winter 1864.
Then “Command Conflicts” shifts to the Eastern Theater in spring 1864, when Grant launched the Army of the Potomac on the bloody Overland Campaign. Smith meticulously introduces the many generals who commanded various components of that army and explains how ambition, ego, and personality traits adversely impacted the army’s command structure.
In researching the book, Smith spent considerable time learning about Western Theater battles, including Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, and Perryville. She credits Doug Richardson, a Fort Donelson National Battlefield employee, for providing invaluable information about Grant’s western campaigns.
“I felt it was important how Grant came to power,” Smith said. “I felt I had to know that to have a sense of how the animosity developed between the western generals and the eastern generals” serving Grant in Virginia.
Of all those generals, at least two appear in her book as the less-than heroic giants that American history has made them. Grant brought with him to Virginia Phillip H. Sheridan and James H. Wilson, the latter “a newcomer to Grant’s circle” in January 1863, Smith writes. An infantry officer most of his army career, Sheridan was appointed supreme Union cavalry commander in Virginia in 1864, and Wilson commanded a cavalry division under Sheridan.
In “Command Conflicts,” Smith details how Sheridan and Wilson routinely ignored orders from Gen. George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac and reported directly to Grant. Although he reported directly to Meade, the insubordinate Sheridan often acted as he desired and sometimes bypassed Meade to get cavalry raids approved by Grant.
Smith supports with substantial historical documentation her belief that Grant was too lenient with Sheridan, Wilson, and other Western generals, a habit that possibly extended the war in Virginia an extra nine months. The book lays out substantive evidence that had some of the Western generals not been so contemptuous of their Eastern counterparts and had cooperated more with them during the Overland Campaign, Union troops could have captured the under-defended Petersburg in summer 1864 and forced Confederate troops to abandon Richmond and probably Virginia altogether.
Smith also supports with ample evidence her belief that Grant cared little about his men’s lives. He earned the nickname “Butcher” Grant during the Overland Campaign, during which he repeatedly hurled his men against entrenched Confederates.
“To me, Grant was just a guy who threw men into battle” without personally reconnoitering the terrain, Smith explained.
Well-illustrated with period photographs, “Command Conflicts” includes many maps provided by Ned Smith. The book is a detailed “read;” plan on spending time with each chapter and learning valuable information about the men, campaigns, and battles that took Grant from Belmont in Missouri to the siege of Petersburg in Virginia.
“Command Conflicts” is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online bookstores. E-book versions are available for Kindle and Nook.
Priced at $39.95, the soft-cover “Command Conflicts” was published by McFarland & Company Inc. in Jefferson, N.C.