Monday, August 27, 2007

Hurst: "Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War"

[Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War by Jack Hurst (Basic Books, 2007) Hardcover, 11 maps, photos, notes, bibliography. Page main/total= 412/461 ISBN=978-0-465-03184-9 $27.95]

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While two book length, scholarly studies of the Forts Henry and Donelson campaign exist [B.F. Cooling and Kendall Gott], Jack Hurst's new account, Men of Fire, is a popular style traditional narrative history of this important series of events. It's a character driven story, centering on U.S. Grant and to a lesser extent Nathan Bedford Forrest. While light and engaging, the flaws of the narrative style become apparent, with the well developed protagonists set upon by the one dimensional supporting characters (e.g. Grant vs. Halleck, Buell, Kountz, McClernand, and McClellan) that seem to exist only to thwart them. Much of Grant's aggressiveness (and even recklessness) is attributed by Hurst to the general's constant fear of being replaced by distrustful, vindictive superiors and/or rivals with powerful political connections. Forrest is not as essential to the story. Readers unaware that the author is a Forrest biographer might well be baffled by Hurst's co-emphasis on the talented but still relatively obscure Lt. Colonel of cavalry.

The bibliography is limited, with only a handful of unpublished materials consulted. A notable omission among the secondary sources is Gott's Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862. This is strange as Hurst shares much the same view of the decisiveness of the campaign and his treatment of Simon B. Buckner is quite similar to Gott's.

The decision to include reproductions of the Bearss-Cooling map study in Men of Fire is welcome. I was unaware of their existence and was pleasantly surprised to see these wonderful hand-drawn maps. At regimental scale with rich depiction of the terrain, they detail the decisive day of the campaign (Feb. 15) in one hour intervals.

What should we make of this study in the end? It is not as comprehensive as Cooling's study and cannot match its depth of research. In analysis, Gott remains superior and more original. However, Men of Fire is not without its charms. The maps alone make it worthy of consideration for deeper students of the campaign and it does illuminate some obscure events (such as the Kountz charges against Grant).

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