[The Quest for Annihilation: The Role & Mechanics of Battle in the American Civil War by Christopher Perello (Strategy & Tactics Press, 2009). Hardcover, photos, 220 maps, diagrams, tables, OBs, source notes, index. 320 pages. ISBN:978-0-9823343-0-0 $35 ]
Theories abound in books and articles seeking to explain the reason(s) behind the failure of Civil War armies to achieve decisive tactical victory. Taking this prior literature into account, the arguments presented in Christopher Perello's The Quest for Annihilation are pretty standard fare. What sets it apart from earlier works is the depth of its tactical and operational vignettes. These are chapter length examinations of a variety of significant topics relevant to the book's subtitle, The Role & Mechanics of Battle in the American Civil War.
The case study format of the chapters works well, immersing the reader in a detailed example of the theme at hand. As an added bonus for the more widely read student, these studies within a study are often drawn from the more underappreciated campaigns and battles. The first such chapter, dealing with how the armies fought on the battlefield, takes the Battle of Pea Ridge as its laboratory. The Seven Days provides a very well chosen context for Perello's discussion of operational planning, and how it often miscarried on the Civil War stage due to incompetent or inadequate staff work (in this case Lee's). Following that is an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, equipment, and tactical use of artillery on the battlefield (of Murfreesboro), the emphasis being on the long arm's ability to be locally decisive while at the same time remaining, at best, a support arm. One of the book's best chapters examines the elements of Civil War siege warfare, using the 1863 Port Hudson Campaign as the backdrop. The (often failed) offensive strategies employed to overcome earthwork defenses and obstructions are well presented. The internal and external constraints imposed on active campaigning are outlined using the Fall 1863 campaign in central Virginia (Bristoe Station and Mine Run) as a model for discussion. Another chapter looks at the Atlanta Campaign and the expanding role of earthworks in slowing the operational offensive. The cavalry chapter takes the 1864 Tennessee Campaign and views the mounted arm's offensive role in it from both sides, with particular attention paid to the Union cavalry's attack on the Confederate left at Nashville, and the conduct of the subsequent pursuit. Finally, the book's Appomattox Campaign chapter reveals the elements of a skillfully coordinated operational pursuit and capture of an enemy army.
Readers familiar with Strategy & Tactics magazine will recognize a similar style and presentation with Perello's study, namely straightforward, unadorned text and abundant sidebars, cartography, and illustrations. In fact, with its excess of 220 maps and 100 charts, tables, and diagrams, this book must set some kind of record for a non-atlas military study. The maps span all categories of scale (tactical, operational, and strategic) and, overall, given their necessarily small size are quite good in their depiction of terrain and troop positions and movements.
Where the book falters is in its documentation. Neither the text nor the data tables and illustrations are directly sourced. There is no bibliography, but a source essay, divided by chapter, is included at the end of the book. However, the material discussed there is very general in nature. The significant space devoted in the essay to cinematic examples of the events described in the text might have been better spent listing the best sources available from the literature.
The Quest for Annihilation is the first volume published by Strategy & Tactics Press and is a worthwhile addition to the libraries of both new Civil War students and old hands. While many readers will find the thrust of much of book's content familiar, its lavish visuals, in-depth presentation, and emphasis on lesser known campaigns and engagements gives it a fresh appeal nonetheless. Recommended.