The Damned of Petersburg: A Novel

The Damned of Petersburg: A Novel

by Ralph Peters


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New York Times bestselling author Ralph Peters returns with the fourth installment in his Boyd Award-winning series on the Civil War, The Damned of Petersburg.

Glory turned grim, and warfare changed forever. From the butchery of The Crater, where stunning success collapsed into a massacre, through near-constant battles fought by heat-stricken soldiers, to the crucial election of 1864, The Damned of Petersburg resurrects the American Civil War's hard reality, as plumes and sabers gave way to miles of trenches.

Amid the slaughter of those fateful months, fabled leaders—Grant and Lee, Winfield Scott Hancock and A. P. Hill—turned for help to rising heroes, Confederates "Little Billy" Mahone and Wade Hampton, last of the cavaliers, or Union warriors such as tragedy-stricken Francis Channing Barlow and the fearless Nelson Miles, a general at twenty-four.

Nor does Ralph Peters forget the men in the ranks, the common soldiers who paid the price for the blunders of commanders who'd never know their names. In desperate battles now forgotten, such as Deep Bottom, Globe Tavern, and Reams Station, soldiers on both sides were pushed to the last human limits—but fought on as their superiors struggled to master a terrible new age of warfare.

The Damned of Petersburg revives heroes aplenty—enriching readers' knowledge of America's most terrible war—but above all, this novel is a tribute to the endurance and courage of the American soldier, North or South.

Battle Hymn Cycle

Cain at Gettysburg

Hell or Richmond

Valley of the Shadow

The Damned of Petersburg

Judgment at Appomattox

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765374066
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Series: Battle Hymn Cycle Series , #4
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 1,142,476
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Ralph Peters is an award-winning, bestselling novelist; a retired U.S. Army officer and former enlisted man; the author of numerous works on strategy; and a popular media commentator. In uniform and as a researcher and journalist, he has covered numerous conflicts and trouble spots, from Africa to the Caucasus, from Iraq to Pakistan.

Renowned for accuracy and authenticity, his Civil War writing, under his own name and as Owen Parry, has won numerous prizes, including the American Library Association’s Boyd Award (twice), the Hammett Prize, the Herodotus Award, and the Meade Society’s Order of Merit. In 2015, he received the Andrew J. Goodpaster Prize as an outstanding American soldier-scholar.

Read an Excerpt

The Damned of Petersburg

By Ralph Peters

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2016 Ralph Peters
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7406-6


Early evening, July 28, 1864 Deep Bottom, Virginia

In heat as thick as syrup, skirmishers pecked. The crack of the rifles seemed dulled, the sparse commands reluctant. And the usual catcalls were missing, the hard teasing. Too hot even for insult. Suffocating.

Between the shots, flies hummed. Vermin, at least, could be relied upon. Loyal to the army to the end.

Dust marred the light. The stench of men and stink of powder had weight. Scorched air scraped lungs. Bewildered, random casualties drifted rearward. Others, shattered, rode litters toward their pain.

The romance of war, Barlow mused.

Flies surrounded him. Unable to figure out how to reach the shit encrusting his drawers. Just as Grant and Meade couldn't get at Lee, stymied by the forts and trenches at Petersburg. Or here, in front of Richmond. The black flies and the brown couldn't pierce his sweat-hardened shirt or fouled britches, and the behemoth Union Army of the Potomac, augmented by Butler's Army of the James, could not penetrate the Confederate lines. It was all of a piece, one grand incapability.

A rush of the dizzies unsettled him. His horse snorted and stepped. The day would never end.

"You all right, Frank?" Nellie asked, not lightly. Nelson Miles had not shone, but he'd still performed better than Barlow's other subordinates. As usual. A clerk before the war and newly a brigadier general, at his best Miles fought with spectacular savagery. But no man had been at his best the past few days.

"Hardly matters, does it?" Barlow soothed his fly-pricked horse. "Another grand absurdity. Poor plan, badly carried. Hancock doesn't know what to do, what with Grant and Meade and Humphreys dispensing 'advice.'" He looked away, unready to bear the features of any man, even one who almost passed as a friend. "We should've tried again today, at least properly tried. Now Lee knows the whole farrago's a bluff."

"The men are blown," Miles said. "I lost more to heatstroke on the march than I did to the Johnnies."

Barlow's eyebrows tightened. "Not sure that's an achievement to be proud of. Anyway, they're shirkers and slackers, the half of them. Bounty-jumpers. Dregs of the draft, what have you. You need to drive them hard."

"Frank, I think I know how to 'drive' men. They were falling in bunches before we crossed the James. Why anyone thought, in this weather ..."

Barlow laughed. One low, unattractive syllable. "We're a diversion, you understand that? That's what galls me, Nellie. Winning wasn't ever in the cards." He lifted a hand. "I believe all this was only meant to draw off troops from Petersburg. In service to the great mine, the secret that's no secret." He laughed that lonely syllable again. "With Burnside behind it, that ass...."

Miles' horse quivered in the heat. Barlow's gelding copied him.

"Frank" — Miles tried again — "you look seriously ill."

This time, Barlow's laugh was genuine. "Of course I'm ill. Everyone's ill. Virginia bears more plagues than Pharaoh's Egypt."

Shitting blood for a month. Feet worse than ever, itching infernally. Hard not to scratch the flesh right down to the bone. And the toothache back. Along with the stab of old wounds. A fine specimen of humanity he was, at the venerable age of twenty-nine.

Long way from Harvard Yard. Or Brook Farm. Or his Manhattan law office.

And Hancock, the sorry bugger, had it worse. It was obvious that he lived with constant pain from the Gettysburg wound. There had been stretches earlier in July when Hancock could not get up from his cot. And conditions behind the ever-expanding trenches had grown so grim, so torrid and filthy, that even Hancock's English valet — a distinctly unsavory character — couldn't keep the corps commander in clean collars.

A pair of litter bearers passed, lugging a panting boy with his eyes rolled back. Barlow couldn't see blood and it got his temper up: If he could face the heat, so could the men.

Behind the scrap of shade that Barlow and Miles had commandeered, and beyond the herd of staff men keeping their distance, distempered ranks of troops waited in a tree line, allowed to kneel or lie down to wait, all of them measuring shadows that grew too slowly, hoping that no order would come to advance. It was far from the splendid division Barlow had led just three months earlier, before they plunged across the Rapidan. That division had been squandered in mindless fights for worthless plots of land, in grinding slaughters. By the time they'd reached Cold Harbor, Barlow had almost sympathized with the shirkers. The best men had fallen at the forefront of repeated attacks, leaving the cautious and cowardly to crawl back. His ruined division had been replenished with scum.

The sole hint of grace in all of it, in the long, blood-sodden summer, in the murderous heat and lung-tormenting dust, had been his Belle. When she took sick, he had been shocked at the depth of his emotion, finding himself less the stoic than he'd believed. She'd been stricken with typhus, caught from a soldier nursed at the City Point hospital, infected because she had given herself to the horror of wards and surgeries to remain near to her husband.

They had married at the outbreak of the war, their affinity more one of minds than of crude passions, a match of congenial spirits. Arabella stood ten years his senior, which philistines found odd, but the marriage had been logical enough. She was the cleverest woman he'd ever known: well-read, of strong opinion, unafraid. It had seemed quite a good arrangement, and so it proved.

When he'd thought her lost, he'd been astonished at his desolation. Alone in his tent, he had wept.

Now she was mending, under good care in Washington. Magnificent, marvelous Belle.

When the war ended, he'd keep his promise immediately. He'd take her to Europe, to Rome. She wished to sit where Gibbon had paused in the Forum. His Arabella. The flesh of his lip brushed a crooked tooth and approximated a smile. His Belle. A woman more excited about the history of Rome than the latest Paris fashions, a serious woman.

His mother, whom Barlow adored, always took pains with her toilette, had even done so when they'd lived on pennies, blue-blooded beggars. Of course, she had rather disliked Arabella at first. That was in the natural order of things. But Barlow felt the breach had been repaired.

Yet, he remembered: his mother, at her most regal, saying, "Francis, she never laughs." And then, with a moment's reflection, adding, "But neither do you...."

Unfair and untrue. He still felt the slap of her words.

To Europe, though. To Rome. Perhaps some foreign doctor could heal his feet.

"What's that?" Barlow demanded.

An assault? By Gibbon's men?

"Cavalry at it again," Miles responded. "Not much to it, but they do go on." He patted his mount. "Hard on the horses."

Of course. The firing was well to the north. Where Sheridan, fierce and foul, was back in action. If "action" described the feckless cavalry fighting.

It troubled him that he hadn't placed things properly.

Dizziness. Flies. Heat. His own stink engulfed him. Suspenders off his shoulders and dropped to his flanks, checkered shirt clinging, saber a dead weight, Barlow felt hollow and top-heavy. Was he, in fact, capable?

Capable or not, he would not give up his command until they carried him off. The man who quit in war was no man at all.

"Nellie, I don't mind a fight ...," Barlow began.

It was Miles' turn to laugh.

"I don't mind a fight," Barlow repeated. "But the pointlessness, the blundering ..." He straightened in the saddle and the flies tracked his change of posture. "I'd like, just once, to see a plan of quality, a scheme with some least forethought. Something beyond 'Go out there, bleed, and come back.' I have no more confidence in Grant — or Meade — than I would in a howling madman."

His father. Gone mad, God-infected. Lost. A man of the cloth who had torn the cloth asunder, deserting kith and kin, driven by demons. Barlow had not seen his face since childhood. And he did not wish to see it now.

Yet, at times, he wondered what had become of that fallen star.

Shooing off his personal escort of flies, Miles said, "I don't know. Wastage aplenty, I give you. But Grant did fight Lee all the way to Richmond. And over the James."

"And now we're stuck. Butler was stuck, now we're all stuck. Wait and see, Nellie. Burnside's affair will be another cock-up. Everyone's out of ideas." His guts churned. "If ever any man in this army had one."

"Lee's stuck, too," Miles said.

"And it just goes on."

Miles declined to argue the point further. Too hot for speech. Out of sight, on the edge of the skirmish line, the firing quickened. Only to swoon again.

Sweat burned Barlow's eyes.

This, he told himself, is life's reality. Immeasurably removed from the Harvard classrooms where, as an undergraduate, he had played at thought and preened. The experiments of the great Professor Agassiz on viscosity couldn't begin to measure this fetid air, nor had the lectures on aesthetics foreseen this blighted landscape. Except for Arabella, all of the things he had valued seemed a fraud now, as empty as the boasts of an Irish drunkard.

Harvard valedictorian? What had come of that? The truth was that he had not cared for the honor, had striven to come in first only to deny the place to Teddy Lyman, who had wanted it so much. He had scored a hollow triumph out of meanness — was that the quality, above all others, that equipped Francis Channing Barlow to be a general? Smirking again, he recalled those awful hours of German philosophy, the imagined importance of the "latest ideas" to cross the Atlantic. What had they amounted to? Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung? Will certainly mattered, but reality was more than the mind's concoction. The world wasn't some figment. It was blood and shit and bone. And a witless sky.

Poor Teddy Lyman. A good chum, despite all. Forgiving. Volunteer aide to that old crab Meade and always good for the latest gossip from Boston.

Barlow gulped bitter water from his canteen, wondering if he should try to eat a cracker to calm his insides. The skirmishers, his recalcitrants and the Johnnies, had fallen silent, too drained to do more.

"Might want to stir things up a bit," he told Miles. "At least, make sure those scoundrels of yours are awake."

With his sunburned, freckled face revealing annoyance, Miles nodded. No man, colonel or corporal, wanted to move, to do anything. The heat was an animal pinning you down and slobbering all over you.

Before Miles nudged his horse into motion, Charlie Morgan appeared. Back where a primitive road parted the trees. Hancock's chief of staff rode at a pace that defied the heat, kicking up dust and drawing curses from soldiers.

"Oh, Christ," Miles said. "We're going back in after all."

Barlow shook his head. Warily. "Doesn't make sense, at this point."

They waited for Morgan to close the distance. Barlow's feet itched monstrously.

Hancock's chief of staff reined up. Dust swelled and Barlow snapped, "I doubt you bear glad tidings, Charlie. Shall I take a guess?"

A noted cynic and famously profane, Morgan looked oddly somber. He was so discolored by dust that a skirmisher might have taken him for a Johnny.

Uncharacteristically, Morgan paused before speaking. As if he brought orders for a suicide charge.

"General Barlow ...," Morgan began. Then he stopped.

What the devil? Barlow wondered. A shiver went through him. Good God. He wasn't being relieved, was he? For what cause? He'd followed his worthless orders as best he could. They couldn't have marched any faster, there was no reason —

"General Barlow" — Morgan tried again — "Frank ... perhaps you'd like to dismount?"

"For God's sake, Charlie. I'm glued to the saddle with shit."

"If you'd dismount, though ..."

"Oh, bugger it. Fine." He swung out of the saddle, long-legged, fanning his own fumes, smelling his reek. Aware of slime, grit, itch.

He stood on firm ground, but was hardly firm himself.

Miles, too, had dismounted. Morgan eyed him, as if weighing whether or not to ask for privacy.

"Whatever you've got to say, Nellie can hear it," Barlow told him. "Nothing in this army stays a secret."

"General Barlow, I regret —"

"You've conveyed your demure reluctance. Just get on with it."

It struck Barlow that Morgan had yet to utter a single obscenity. That was queer, indeed.

Surely, Hancock wouldn't let Meade or Grant relieve him? They'd had their disagreements, but Win had seemed to be grooming him. To take over the corps, should Hancock's wound continue to suppurate.

Morgan stepped closer, immune to the scents of humankind. His whore-weathered, war-hardened face, so fierce, all but trembled.

"General Barlow ... we've just gotten word. Frank, your wife is dead."

Barlow stared through the man.

"I'm sorry," Morgan went on. "You have my condolences. Hancock's, of course...."


"Yesterday. We just got the news. From Teddy Lyman, the message went through Meade's headquarters."

Barlow nodded.

"Hancock's ordered a tug up to the landing. To take you to City Point, to the steamers. We're just waiting for Meade's authorization. For your leave. There's the usual nonsense. Miles will take the division while you're away."


"I'm so sorry, Frank," Miles put in.

"It doesn't matter," Barlow said. He placed a hand atop his saddle to steady himself. Feeling his bowels about to betray him again. One more death. Why should it matter? Amid all this? Why should it matter? Why should it matter at all?

Tears raced from his eyes, a humiliation.

"Did you say something, Frank?" Morgan asked. "Are you all right?"

Afternoon, July 29
Camp Holly, eastern defenses of Richmond

Watermelons. Two wagonloads. The boys did spark when the drivers turned into camp. Oates was glad he had done it, gone into Richmond and dug into his own pockets. Which were hardly deep.

No time at all and his men — these men who were his consolation after the great wrong done him — were at the melons with buck knives and bayonets, or just busting them open on the ground, revealing and reveling in that woman-pink fruit, wet pulp, eager as children, made children again by war. His boys, his men. The 48th Alabama, "Fortykins" to their brethren, since so many of these hill men had blood relations in the regiment, usually in the same company. Strong, willing, able men, if rubbed thin by poor rations and hard marching. Men as good as a cheated colonel could ask.

Just weren't his old 15th. The regiment he had led up that hill at Gettysburg, a hill nameless then, where he left his brother John dying, left him to the Yankees, because he had his duty, and later he learned that the hill was called "Little Round Top," though it had been plenty big enough for a slaughter. He had led that regiment, his 15th, that many-footed, many-headed beast he had loved more than any woman he recollected. His men. He had led them until he was wounded in the autumn and then he had come back to lead them again, limping, hip grinding bone on bone, pestle and mortar. He'd led their falling numbers through the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, each killing ground worse than the last, and then through the one-sided butchery at Cold Harbor, that day no more than a massacre, the killing so easy and terrible that his own men, unscathed, had vomited.

The 15th had been his, his, his, until Major Lowther, a shirker in a fight, had come back from Richmond with the rank of colonel, granted by the Senate of the Confederacy, and bearing along with his undeserved patent the news that Oates wasn't really a colonel after all, his commission had never been signed, and maybe he wasn't a lieutenant colonel, either. Gloating, Lowther had offered to let Oates stay on as the regiment's major.

He would not, did not.

He had gone to Lee himself to plead his case, and Lee had passed him along to Jefferson Davis, both men full of useless sympathy, unwilling to fuss with legislators. Davis had acknowledged his right to his colonelcy, though, and given him the 48th to salve the wound, since Oates already knew the regiment, had led it along with his own back in the bloody, bloody, bloody days of May, when it had not had one field officer left standing. Even now, it wasn't truly a regiment, but a remnant.

He had clutched the command, gnawed by the injustice done him, reminded of it each day because Law's Brigade was held in reserve and his 48th tented right beside the dastardly Lowther and his 15th Alabama. His days were as bitter as wormwood.

His mother did love that expression: "My days are as bitter as wormwood." She would shake her head and speak in the glory voice, though not at the volume, of a circuit preacher, the sort who rode a mule, not a horse, and had mastered the cadence of the Holy Bible, of speech impregnable. His mother and her chore-burnished faith in the Lord. On a swept-clean porch, she would mouth those words with a lean sort of affection, as if complaint were a thing to be nursed and cherished.


Excerpted from The Damned of Petersburg by Ralph Peters. Copyright © 2016 Ralph Peters. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part I: The Mine,
Part II: The Roads,
Part III: The Railroad,
Part IV: The Station,
Part V: The Mill,
Author's Note,
Also by Ralph Peters,
About the Author,

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The Damned of Petersburg 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another outstanding read by Ralph..