An Interview with William Glenn Robertson, author of The First Battle for Petersburg: The Attack and Defense of the Cockade City, June 9, 1864

: How did you become interested in the Petersburg Campaign, and especially the Battle of June 9?

Robertson: I grew up in the western part of Tidewater Virginia, approximately sixty miles southeast of Petersburg. The Siege of Petersburg was my first battlefield to explore, both on the ground and in the books. My first war relics were two bullets purchased by my mother for me at the “Fort Hell” gift shop in the late 1950s, so the Petersburg interest was there from the beginning.

: And this stayed with you into college.

Robertson: Yes. When I was in graduate school at the University of Virginia, I needed a topic for a Master's Thesis that would be large enough to meet the requirements and small enough to be manageable, yet told a complete story. The Battle of June 9 was just the right scale, had some potential war-changing consequences, highlighted controversial senior leaders, and included the timeless theme of citizens defending their homes. So it was the right size and embodied dramatic and emotional events. It fit my needs perfectly at the time.

: What sources were the most useful to you in telling your story?

Robertson: The Official Records provided the most information on the Federal side, especially because the conflict between Benjamin Butler and Quincy Gillmore generated a great deal of additional communications beyond the normal after-action reports. For the Confederates, most of my information came from personal accounts of the citizen soldiers and townspeople of the city of Petersburg. Individual accounts by Raleigh Colston, Fletcher Archer, John Glenn, Anne Banister, and Bessie Callender were especially useful. The 1860 Census and the Compiled Service Records of the reserve and militia formations fleshed out the lives of individual Confederate participants.

: Which Federal leaders performed well?

Robertson: For the Federals, Benjamin Butler had a good plan, based upon extraordinary intelligence, but when seniority issues placed Quincy Gillmore in overall command, the plan was doomed to failure.

: It is interesting to hear that Butler, who is usually never credited with anything positive, had crafted a "good plan." Who on the Federal side performed poorly or at least not as well as hoped or expected?

Robertson: Edward Hinks and August Kautz performed acceptably, but Joseph Hawley allowed the terrain to overawe him completely. Samuel Spear fully lived up to his reputation as a reckless and ignorant cavalryman.

: Interesting. And I know all the details are set forth in your book. How did General Beauregard and others in the Southern high command perform?

Robertson: Senior leaders like P. G. T. Beauregard and Henry Wise had little to do but funnel pitifully small reinforcements to the front, but they did the best they could. The real heroes were Raleigh Colston, Fletcher Archer, and men like William C. Banister in the militia ranks, men who saw their duty clearly and stood up to the challenge, whatever the cost.

: What do you think was the key to Confederate success in this critical battle?

Robertson: If the Federals had been led by a competent and bold field commander, there would have been no Confederate success—the Petersburg bridges would have been destroyed and thus unavailable for Lee's army to use a week later. But Quincy Gillmore was neither competent in field operations nor bold. On the other hand, Petersburg's handful of defenders could not have done more. They stood their ground at all points, masked their utter weakness, and bought enough time to win the day. They paid a heavy price, but saved their town for nine more months.

: And that in and of itself is really extraordinary. What was the impact of the Confederate June 9 victory?

Robertson: Not only did the Confederates preserve the critical bridges over the Appomattox River, but their stand also alerted Beauregard and the Richmond authorities to the weakness of Petersburg's garrison. Although the reinforcements sent to Henry Wise in the week ahead were small, they may have provided the margin of victory on June 15 when William "Baldy" Smith and the XVIII Corps came to town in strength.

: So the fighting demonstrated to the Richmond authorities just how weak it was. You don't think the additional Southern reinforcements would have even been provided but for the June 9 battle?

Robertson: Those Confederate reinforcements were unlikely to have been there if the June 9 battle hadn't occurred.

: What other impacts flowed from this little-known battle?

Robertson: In the postwar period, Petersburg's memorialization of the citizen-soldiers who died in the Battle of June 9 may have had a lasting effect on the nation. Petersburg's may not have been the first Memorial Day, but its connection to the current national commemoration through Mr. and Mrs. John A. Logan and the Grand Army of the Republic is a salient fact.

: That is quite fascinating. Does this study provide any insights for 21st Century readers?

Robertson: I think so. The story of the Battle of June 9 highlights several enduring lessons for us all. First, it represents a case study in how the personalities of senior leaders can interact in significant ways to negate a good plan and make competent troops fail. Second, it indicates what individuals bonded into a true community can accomplish against all odds. Finally, it illuminates the human cost of war to such a community, and how that cost still resonates more than 150 years later. Through their courage and self-sacrifice, William Banister, George Jones, the Crowder boys, Wayles Hurt, and the rest of Petersburg's "old men and young boys" have provided a timeless example of how to act when the odds are long, and the cost is great. May we never face such a horrendous event as they did, but if we do, may we perform as they did on June 9, 1863.

: Thank you for your time, Mr. Robertson.

Robertson: You’re welcome.


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