Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Ray, ed.: "SHARPSHOOTER: The Selected Letters and Papers of Maj. Eugene Blackford, C.S.A. - Volume 1"

[Sharpshooter: The Selected Letters and Papers of Maj. Eugene Blackford, C.S.A. - Volume 1 edited by Fred L. Ray (CFS Press, 2016). Hardcover, 10 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 250 pp. ISBN:978-0-9882435-1-4. $39.95]

The Blackford clan out of Fredericksburg and Lynchburg, Virginia was a prominent, if not terribly wealthy, family that contributed five brothers to the Confederate cause. Historian Robert K. Krick's introduction outlines the many literary contributions of the soldier Blackfords and makes a strong case for their distinction as one of the first families of Confederate letters. W.W. Blackford's memoir War Years with Jeb Stuart (published in 1945) is an enduring classic and brother C.M. Blackford's Letters from Lee's Army is similarly useful to those researching the men and battles of the Army of Northern Virginia. Three other brothers, artillerist L.M Blackford, engineer B.L. Blackford, and 5th Alabama infantry officer Major Eugene Blackford also made significant contributions in their own right to Civil War historiography. It is the collected writings of the last that comprise Sharpshooter: The Selected Letters and Papers of Maj. Eugene Blackford, C.S.A. - Volume 1, edited by Fred L. Ray. Readers may recall this particular Blackford as an important figure in Ray's pioneering study of the sharpshooter battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia, Shock Troops of the Confederacy (2006). In that earlier book, Ray leaned heavily on Blackford's large body of surviving papers, and the author has now embarked on a three-volume project to bring these valuable primary source materials to print.

Volume I begins in January 1861, when Blackford found himself teaching in Alabama. Expressing political beliefs typical of Upper South conditional Unionists, Blackford was dismayed by the rabid secessionist spirit celebrated in Alabama (and more than a bit angered at the Deep South's smug confidence that Virginians would be dragged into the Confederacy whether they wanted to or not). He rigidly believed that any attempt by the federal government to return the seceded states to the Union fold by military force, a situation that would undoubtedly turn his home state into a "perfect Flanders," was unacceptable and would sever Virginia from the old Union. Prior to Sumter, Blackford remarks over and over in his letters how residing in Alabama felt like living in a foreign country and how little brotherhood he felt with the Cotton States. To what degree this oft expressed disdain toward the Deep South and its people resulted from stereotypical Virginia pride is impossible to know, but it clearly wasn't enough for Blackford to abandon his new home. While some of the prominent people in his town exhibited the same degree of mistrust toward him, Blackford was eventually convinced to lead a company of Alabama volunteers. After Fort Sumter was captured, the unit entrained for Richmond and was assigned to the 5th Alabama of Robert Rodes's brigade.

In his letters, Blackford describes the retreat to the Virginia Peninsula and the fighting along the Yorktown line in some detail. His regiment was not engaged at the Battle of Williamsburg. During the great army reorganization of Spring 1862, Blackford was outmaneuvered for higher office. His description of the new regimental elections, which saw all of the other experienced captains replaced and the new lieutenants equally green to their duties, makes one wonder how much better the Army of Northern Virginia might have performed during the Seven Days had this democratic policy not been enacted. On the other hand, the failure to crush the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula was much less about the fighting skill of the regiments and more about upper level command and staff breakdowns.

Several letters describe Blackford's experiences of Seven Pines, Gaines's Mill, and Malvern Hill. The level of destruction in his home state depressed him. The human carnage of the Seven Days also deeply affected the young man, as Blackford often remarks to his family how painful it was to relate many details of the fighting.

After Malvern Hill, Blackford was promoted to major but he also contracted typhoid fever, which incapacitated him for an extended period of time. During his convalescence, he additionally suffered from persistent swelling in one leg, which required him to use crutches (and miss the Maryland Campaign). Against medical advice, he rejoined the army at Fredericksburg. Chapter 7 includes a wonderful letter, perhaps the longest in the entire collection, recounting what Blackford and his regiment experienced at Fredericksburg. Though in reserve during most of December 13, his division (D.H. Hill's) relieved the front line after the fighting. Blackford details the action along the picket line (including truce negotiations) and also his inspection of the property damage inflicted by the battle, the latter especially affecting given his family connections to the town.

It is in a January 1863 letter home while in winter camp near Fredericksburg that Blackford first mentions being placed in charge of a five-company battalion of sharpshooters made up of select volunteers from Rodes's brigade. While not especially detailed, the letter does provide some insight into specialized drill. The men of the battalion generally practiced deploying in open order on a half-mile front, with all orders transmitted by bugle.

Blackford's Chancellorsville letters offer a fairly substantial account of the battalion's actions during that battle. His sharpshooters screened the flanking march of Jackson's corps and were positioned on the right of the brigade during the famous May 2 attack that crushed the Union right flank. The battalion also reconnoitered the Union breastworks located along Rodes's divisional front just prior to the Army of the Potomac's escape across the river. Curiously, Blackford only mentions Jackson's death in passing and doesn't express any particular regret over the loss beyond conjecturing that Jackson would have performed better than replacement J.E.B. Stuart did on May 3.  The volume ends with the army preparing to march north.

In his editorial capacity, Ray pens an introduction and epilogue for each of the book's ten chapters, as well as many brief transitional pieces within. A number of maps (including some interesting period sketches), photos, and drawings are also present. A fine essay in its own right, Krick's introduction convinces readers of the outsized historiographical impact of the Blackford family. Ray's chapter notes clarify persons, places and events mentioned in Blackford's letters. In terms of number and expansiveness, the notes occupy a solid middle ground between minimalist and delightfully obsessive.

It should be mentioned that there is some degree of selective bias involved in the material collection, with an editorial preference for Blackford letters clustered around major battles and events. Given that Ray already committed himself to a large scale multi-volume publishing venture, one might reasonably question why the editorial decision was made to not include all the letters from 1861-62. With Blackford's writing totaling 300,000 words, this decision appears to have come down to economy and balance (the 1861-62 letters being by far the most numerous).

The value of a particular set of Civil War letters is often exaggerated by reviewers, but Eugene Blackford's voluminous missives are far more articulate and informative than those typically found among the Civil War literature's large yearly output of published correspondence. These are rendered even more valuable given their author's key role in the development of a Confederate tactical innovation that has only recently been appreciated. Sharpshooter (Volume 1) is highly recommended, but it is only the beginning. The Confederate sharpshooter battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia would come into their own later in the war, and there is little doubt that the final two volumes will explore the organization and service of Eugene Blackford's battalion in even more depth. 

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousJune 14, 2016

    Thanks for the review!

    Just a quick comment on the missing 61-62 letters. Most of the 1861 letters have been included. There is a big gap between late April when Blackford disbanded his company til late June, when they went to Richmond. There are some letters but they are just scribbled notes of no significance. The info of where he was & what he was doing comes from his own and his father's diary. It seemed best just to summarize, altho his memoir will be in Vol. III.

    Most of the missing letters are from the winter of '61-62. EB had a lot of time on his hands and wrote a lot of letters, but not much was going on, so they tend to be somewhat repetitive and often are mainly about camp and family matters. Given the volume and space limitations, I thought it better to go with a sample of them. I was also concerned that the sheer number would overwhelm the later war ones.

    Fred Ray

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