I didn’t plan it, nor did it enter my mind as I was choosing to read the Last Citadel, but I ended up reading about the fall of Petersburg and the Army of Northern Virginia’s retreat and surrender almost 150 years to the days that it happened, which definitely made me think a little bit more about what I was reading.
If you’ve read and enjoyed any of Noah Andre Trudeau’s previous Civil War books, The Last Citadel: Petersburg, June 1864 – April 1865 is a book that you’ll want to add to your reading list. As with Trudeau’s other books, The Last Citadel is a compelling and detailed read, taking from both primary and secondary sources to tell the story of the campaign from the perspective of the combatants and the civilians the battles took place around and among. He also goes beyond a narrative of the battle, getting into the heads of the generals and decision makers to explain why things happened, not just when, where, and how they happened.
In The Last Citadel, Trudeau uses General Grant’s official report on the campaign as a common thread. He begins chapters with excerpts from the report, using them as a framework around which he builds the story of the long month long campaign. The story of the campaign is told chronologically, detailing first the actions of one side and then the other. Detailing is the right word; Trudeau tells what happened from the Corps level right down to the regimental level and below. He doesn’t simply settle for describing what happened; he tells the story from the perspective of the participants – from the generals down to the common soldier. The Petersburg campaign was a siege, so you can’t tell the story without mentioning the townspeople; Trudeau does this the same way, using their remembrances to tell the story from the civilian viewpoint and elaborate on what the townspeople endured.
Some readers may become bored with the details and the length of the book, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Citadel. I found it very readable and compelling, particularly the stories of the common soldier and what they experienced both in the trenches around Petersburg and the more conventional battles that took place and the stories of the civilians about what was happening inside the city as the siege tightened. This book may not be the best read for someone looking for a casual read on the subject, but if you’re a student of military history or the American Civil War I highly recommend it.
Afterthought: The centenary of World War I is another good reason for reading this book. A lot of parallels can be drawn between the beginning of trench warfare in World War I and the Petersburg Campaign. I’ve been reading a lot about World War I lately and the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches around Petersburg sound similar; you can get a feel while reading The Last Citadel of how warfare was developing in 1864 and 1865 into what it would be in 1914-1918.