Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review of Lowry - "THE BATTLE OF CHARLESTON AND THE 1862 KANAWHA VALLEY CAMPAIGN"

[The Battle of Charleston and the 1862 Kanawha Valley Campaign by Terry Lowry (35th Star Publishing, 2016). 8 1/2" x 11" hardcover, 11 maps, 332 photos & illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:416/492. ISBN:9780966453485. $34.95]

Occurring simultaneously with renowned 1862 Confederate grand offensives into Kentucky and Maryland (and dwarfed in size by both), it is no great surprise that the 1862 Kanawha Valley Campaign remains virtually unknown to the general interest Civil War reader. Until now, the operation has lacked a competent standalone campaign history of any length1 and has been only lightly addressed within wider studies. Stepping into this void, and filling it to the brim, is Terry Lowry's The Battle of Charleston and the 1862 Kanawha Valley Campaign, a sweeping and utterly exhaustive examination of the topic. Lowry is one of a very small group of authors specializing in Civil War West(ern) Virginia military history. Among his many works is an excellent study of the Union conquest of the Kanawha Valley in early 18612, making Lowry a natural candidate for examining the next major phase of the Civil War struggle for control of the strategic valley.

To briefly summarize, in early September 1862 the Confederate Army of Southwest Virginia, consisting of roughly 5,000 men (the figure is the subject of some debate3) under General W.W. Loring organized into three and sometimes four brigades, launched an offensive north from the Narrows of New River. The goal was to eject occupying Union forces entirely from the Kanawha River Valley and reestablish Confederate control over the resources and manpower of the area. Loring's Union Army opponent was Colonel Joseph A.J. Lightburn, whose District of the Kanawha troop numbers were similar in size to Loring's own. However, whereas Loring's force was concentrated, the federal troops of the district were scattered all over the valley performing garrison duty. Union attention was also diverted from Loring's impending advance by a summer mounted raid conducted far to the rear by Confederate cavalry general Albert Gallatin Jenkins.

The campaign's first major encounter occurred on September 10 at Fayetteville, where Loring attacked a series of detached Union fortifications surrounding the town. The Union defenders, ably led by Colonel Edward Siber, held their position and later escaped during the night. Gathering in forces from the surrounding countryside as they retreated, the Federals split into two groups after the September 11 skirmish at Montgomery's Ferry (near Gauley Bridge). With Union forces traveling down both banks of the Kanawha River, the pursuing Confederates likewise divided. They soon caught up with Lightburn's united command at Charleston. On the 13th, Loring's men drove the federals through the town and forced them to continue their retreat, which didn't end until the Ohio River itself was reached at Point Pleasant.

Upon conclusion of this dramatic week-long offensive, the Confederates occupied the valley for six weeks, securing an enormous quantity of precious salt but few recruits. Rapidly reinforced to perhaps 20,000 men (including the tattered division of General George W. Morgan that had just completed a truly epic escape from Cumberland Gap), the Union forces in the Kanawha, led by freshly returned General Jacob Cox (the valley's original conqueror), turned the tables on the Confederates and drove them from the valley for the final time. Loring actually began his retreat before the federal counter-offensive even started, an unauthorized action for which he was sacked in favor of General John Echols. Echols promptly reversed course and returned to Charleston only to evacuate the entire valley soon after. No significant battle was fought during Cox's successful and almost bloodless October-November operation.

All of the events described above are meticulously recounted in the book. The word exhaustive is a common descriptor attached to historical works that are merely detailed, but, if anything, the term is an understatement when applied to this book. Physically, the volume is fairly massive, with the manuscript comprised of nearly 500 text-heavy pages presented in oversized 8.5" x 11" format. Integrated into every page are innumerable firsthand accounts written by civilian observers and military participants of all ranks. The book is first and foremost a campaign history, but a great deal of attention is devoted to the affects of the fighting (both conventional and irregular) on civilian lives, property, and commerce. Though casualties were minimal, the initial phase of the campaign (Loring's advance and Lightburn's retreat) was quite destructive. Much of Charleston was burned during the federal withdrawal from the town, and the fine suspension bridge over the Elk River demolished. As mentioned before, the valley had coveted economic value, and the Confederate occupation put salt production and transportation of the commodity back to friendly lines in high gear.

The study begins with a very thorough examination of the officer corps and campaign order of battle for both sides. The background history of each regiment's Civil War service up to September 1862 is discussed at some length, and capsules biographies are offered for seemingly every field grade and general officer in either army. A full account of the August-September cavalry raid conducted by Jenkins that preceded Loring's advance is delivered, as well. Events large and small are duly described in the book on a daily basis between September 6 and November 20, with even the most minute peripheral actions diligently studied.

The tactical treatments of the main battles at Fayetteville and Charleston (as well as several smaller skirmishes at Cotton Hill, Montgomery's Ferry, and elsewhere) are well executed. Discussions of the campaign's military geography are informative, and the battlefield actions of each regiment and battery are generally made clear. It's a testament to the thoroughness of the narrative that visualizing the course of each skirmish and battle is not difficult. However, a set of  tactical maps originally designed to accompany the text (especially for the chapters on Fayetteville and Charleston) would have been immensely helpful. The campaign and battle drawings actually included in the book are rough schematic affairs with very limited features. It is much regretted that so much fine work went into the making of the book only for a critical element like maps to fall short of the high standards displayed elsewhere. The lack of an index is another source of complaint.

Lowry's command evaluations seem well justified. Lightburn was much faulted at the time for what was considered an overly precipitate withdrawal, but his command suffered few casualties in the process and arrived at the Ohio River with both its combat effectiveness and its 700-wagon supply train almost entirely intact. These would be important factors in determining how quickly a Union counteroffensive could be launched. Loring's unspectacular performance was typical of his Civil War career as a whole, but he achieved his primary goal of reoccupying the Kanawaha Valley, all at a relatively small cost in men. If the enemy escaped largely unscathed and the occupation proved only short lived, the Confederate operation nevertheless did make a significant contribution to the war effort by acquiring vast quantities of invaluable salt. Expectations up the chain of command that Loring might advance north against Union railroads or act in support of Robert E. Lee's western flank were completely unrealistic given the Kanawha army's small numbers and logistical limitations.

One of the book's most impressive features is its collection of more than 300 photographs (which range from modern photos to rare archival images) and other illustrations related to the Kanawha Campaign. Lowry also usefully compiled a casualty appendix that significantly revises the official loss numbers, which have been deemed too low by the author.

Among Terry Lowry's many fine contributions to the historiography of the Civil War in West(ern) Virginia, The Battle of Charleston and the 1862 Kanawha Valley Campaign makes by far the fewest concessions to popular history. The casual reader might easily be overwhelmed by the depth involved, but others will revel in the historical micro-details present in the book's expansive combination of full-scale campaign narrative and encyclopedic officer and unit reference guide. The first of its kind and exceeding expectations in many ways, this study will very likely remain the standard treatment of the campaign long into the foreseeable future.


Notes:
1 - This may not be entirely true. In comparing views on a number of matters, Lowry cites an obscure self-published book, Kanawha Valley Campaign of 1862 or West Virginia History Lost and Found (2012), by Joseph A.J. Lightburn descendant Frances Lightburn Cressman. Not being aware of its existence prior to reading Lowry's book, the quality and extent of Cressman's work is unknown to me.
2 - The Battle of Scary Creek: Military Operations in the Kanawha Valley, April-July 1861 (1998, 2nd edition).
3 - That is the official figure, but some have suggested Loring might have actually commanded upwards of twice that number, though that seems unlikely given the established order of battle.

1 comment:

  1. I mentioned this campaign only briefly in my biography of Cox (Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era -- Ohio University Press, 2014), so I look forward to reading this book. As you note, with Cox's return after the Battle of Antietam, the rebels seemingly just "skedaddled" (one of my favorite words from this era) when they heard that the man most responsible for making the Kanawha Valley Union territory was returning.

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