Noma Petroff calls it Bowdoin’s “Civil War panorama.” Looking through the windows on the top floor of Memorial Hall, Petroff pointed out the two Brunswick landmarks that she says signify the beginning and the end of America’s bloodiest conflict.
To the right is the First Parish Church on the edge of campus where Harriet Beecher Stowe had the vision that inspired Uncle Tom’s Cabin–a book that ignited abolitionist fervor and what many regard as a key factor in bringing about the war.
And, just a few yards from the church, across Maine Street is the house of Joshua Chamberlain, Bowdoin president and hero of Gettysburg who accepted the formal Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.
Petroff is a Civil War buff and an amateur historian. Her day job is being academic coordinator for the Department of Theater and Dance, in Memorial Hall, home to Pickard and Wish theaters. It’s also home to numerous plaques commemorating Bowdoin’s connection to the Civil War.
“I haven’t always been interested in the Civil War,” she said. “I was drawn to it by the memorabilia on display at the building where I work. Coming here day in day out, I grew curious about those who had fought in the Civil War, about Bowdoin’s connection to it on many levels, and about one character in particular.”
This self-described “unknown grandmother from Topsham, Maine” has over the last few years nurtured an absorbing interest in one of America’s best-known military commanders, Ulysses S. Grant, the Lieutenant General of the Union army, and the eighteenth President of the United States.
“I had breast cancer in 2010, and between treatments I had a lot of time to read.” She read a lot about the Civil War, including many biographies of Ulysses Grant, who himself was awarded an honorary degree by Bowdoin in August 1865, four months after leading the Union army to victory over the Confederacy.
“I became convinced that he was greatly underestimated and misunderstood, so I eventually decided to try to write my own book.” Petroff is currently working on a 40-chapter book called Understanding Ulysses S. Grant: Essays and Stories. She describes it as a “character study rather than a biography, highlighting different aspects of Grant’s personality and the people he worked closely with.”
One of the chapters of the book was the subject of a community lecture delivered at the Curtis Memorial Library by Petroff on March 10, titled “The Biggest Secret of the Civil War.”
“I think it’s the biggest secret of the Civil War because even Civil War buffs don’t know too much about it.”
Petroff is talking about Grant’s crossing of the James River in June 1864: how he took 115,000 Union troops from Cold Harbor in Virginia and moved them 40 miles south, crossing the river, disappearing for four days, without Confederate General Robert E. Lee finding out.
To put this in context, she explained, Grant had just fought the so-called Overland Campaign, a series of bloody engagements, culminating in the disastrous battle of Cold Harbor, where 18,000 troops were killed on both sides.
Grant’s Army of the Potomac was lined up facing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia along a seven mile front, just six miles east of Richmond, the Confederate capital. The two armies were in places less than half a mile from each other, said Petroff.
“From where we are on the Bowdoin campus, if we go down the street to the 7-Eleven, they were that close!” Lee fully expected the Union army to make a frontal assault on Richmond, and Grant wanted him to keep thinking that because, Grant had decided to withdraw his forces, head south and march on Petersburg, instead.
“To pull his soldiers out of the line, right under Lee’s nose, required masterful planning by Grant and his staff,” said Petroff. “Despite his professed hatred of music–especially military bands–Grant ordered the Union bands to strike up all along the line, to cover the sound of his troop withdrawal.” He also ordered a number of diversionary attacks to keep the Confederate forces occupied.
“As result,” explained Petroff, “when Grant pulled out his troops, at midnight on June 12, his opponent was completely unaware. Under Robert E. Lee’s nose, Grant moved his troops forty miles to the south, built a half-mile long pontoon bridge–the biggest since ancient Greek times–and crossed the James River with the intention of seizing Petersburg and disrupting the Confederates’ supply lines.
The river crossing has been described as the most difficult and dangerous feat attempted by Grant during the war. “But,” said Petroff, “the operation was not a complete success, because although Grant succeeded in getting his troops to the south side of the James River, he failed in his second objective, which was the quick conquest of Petersburg, because his army became confused and effectively lost momentum, pushed beyond the limits of endurance.”
Thus, Union forces laid siege to Petersburg for another 10 months before the war ended. “Nevertheless,” said Petroff, “it could have gone on even longer if Grant hadn’t made the audacious move of crossing the James and putting his forces on the right side of the river to defeat Lee.” She believes this brief chapter of Civil War history deserves more attention.
Petroff drew on much of the expertise here at Bowdoin to help her research of the period: “I was fortunate last year to audit a course on Reconstruction, taught by Bowdoin’s best authorities on the Civil War: Patrick Rael and Tess Chakkalakal.” Petroff said she was also helped by art historian Dana Byrd and museum co-director Frank Goodyear, who specializes in Civil War photography. “Beyond the classroom, they have encouraged me, and helped me in my research.”
Noma Petroff is leaving Bowdoin College in April, 42 years after she first came to work here, to concentrate on finishing her book. She reckons that will take another two years, bringing more new discoveries.