Considered the foremost authority on the Overland Campaign, historian Gordon C. Rhea has written several books on the subject, including those focusing on the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, as well as the North Anna River Campaign. He has joined the long list of historians that will be advising on the screenplay and production of the To Appomattox miniseries. He is also a full-time lawyer, but graciously took the time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for our blog. Below is that interview.
Steven Hancock: When did you first develop an interest in the American Civil War?
Gordon Rhea: I developed an interest in the Civil War when I was a child. My father was born in 1901, in a small town in southern Tennessee, and the old men sitting around the country store were Confederate veterans. He grew up listening to their stories and passed that interest along to me. When I was growing up, we used to take family trips to places like Gettysburg and Chancellorsville. My father was also an avid reader, and I can recall him reading passages from Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants to me in the evening, before putting me to bed. I majored in history as an undergraduate, and also earned a Master’s Degree in history. When I was working with the United States Attorneys Office in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1970’s, I would often drive down to the Wilderness to take my mind off of my cases. That is when I developed an interest in the initial battles between Grant and Lee. I discovered that very little had been written about those battles — judging from the books I could find, the civil war seemed to have culminated at Gettysburg, then ended in the spring of 1865. What happened in between those events had engaged the attention of very few writers. So that is how I got the idea of writing my first book, on the Battle of the Wilderness.
SH: You are considered by many to be the modern expert on the Overland Campaign. What elements drew you to this part of the Civil War?
GR: The Overland Campaign was the first confrontation between Grant and Lee, whom I consider the premier generals on each side of the conflict. It is a fascinating drama that pits two smart and innovative commanders against one another, and for each of them, it was a high-stakes game, with Lee fighting for the survival of his army and of the Confederacy, and Grant battling to bring the war to an end, or at least to defeat Lee before the presidential election in November. In each of the campaign’s four main battles and maneuvers — the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River operations, and Cold Harbor — Lee won tactical victories against a foe that outnumbered him two-to-one. But by the end of the campaign, Grant had achieved the remarkable goal of nullifying the Army of Norhtern Virginia as an active military force, thereby “winning” the campaign. Military history does not get any more exciting than this.
SH: You’ve recently joined the historical advising team for “To Appomattox.” What will your chief role be as an historical adviser on the series?
GR: My role is to review drafts and help ensure that the final product is true to history.
SH: How important do you feel this series will be in its presentation of the events of the American Civil War in general, and the Overland Campaign in particular?
GR: We will have to see. My hope is that it will cut through many of the myths surrounding the war and create a realistic picture of that cataclysmic event.
SH: Which battlefield do you frequent the most?
GR: The Overland Campaign still has me in its grip. The Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania Military Park, the county park on the North Anna, and the Cold Harbor unit of the Richmond National Military Park remain my favorites.
We are grateful to Mr. Rhea for taking the time to answer a few questions. His passion for the subject is immense, and his knowledge on the Overland Campaign will give the cast and crew of To Appomattox a great wealth of material to create a very accurate look at this important chapter of the American Civil War.