In the early summer of 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee squared off in some of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War.
But their conflict was as much a psychological chess match as a battlefield brawl, made all the more challenging by the physical exhaustion both men — and both armies — suffered.
Chris Mackowski, Ph.D., a professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University, has written a new book that covers this vital but overlooked aspect of that 1864 Overland Campaign.
“Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna,” published by Savas Beatie LLC, is Mackowski’s sixth entry in the Emerging Civil War Series and his first as sole author.
“This has been a phase of the war I have wanted to write about for a decade,” Mackowski explained. “So this is really a passion project. Because it’s so compelling, I approached it as much as a creative writing project as a traditional history book, which will make it accessible to a wide audience, not just Civil War buffs.”
The book zeros in on events between May 20 and May 26, 1864, which is generally recognized by historians as the third phase of the campaign. During that phase, the armies maneuvered through central Virginia until they wound up on the banks of the North Anna River, some 20 miles north of Richmond.
At North Anna, Lee set “a perfect trap” for Grant, Mackowski said, and Grant stumbled right into it. However, Lee was too physically ill to command on the battlefield and could not spring the trap.
“Both commanders were physically and mentally exhausted during this phase of the campaign in a way neither had ever experienced before,” Mackowski said. “As a result, they both make a lot of serious mistakes. Both are highly confident men, too, but they both start second-guessing themselves. Missed opportunity after missed opportunity slips by for both of them.”
Mackowski characterizes events along the North Anna as “the Civil War’s biggest battle that never happens.” Grant is able to protect himself from Lee’s trap before it’s too late.
“Because North Anna, in a sense, fizzles, it gets overlooked in the campaign, especially because it’s bookended by the bloodbaths in the Wilderness and Spotsylvania beforehand and the horrific charges of Cold Harbor afterward,” Mackowski said,
The foreword for “Strike Them a Blow” was written by Gordon C. Rhea, an award-winning historian whose detailed four-volume study of the Overland Campaign is widely acknowledged as the definitive account.
“Chris Mackowski’s ‘Strike Them a Blow’ is an absorbing, fast-paced exposition of this astounding campaign,” Rhea wrote. “His highly readable book gives us an exemplary roadmap to this neglected slice of American history.”
The book contains 11 new maps and more than 150 historical and modern photographs.
“The text is very reader friendly,” Mackowski added. “I like my stories to be as accessible to wide audiences as possible.”
Mackowski has taught at St. Bonaventure University since the fall of 2000. In 2013, he received the University’s Faculty Excellence Award for Research and Publication. He has authored or co-authored a dozen books on the American Civil War and serves as editor in chief of Emerging Civil War.
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