Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Review - "The Desperate Struggle: Louisiana Civil War Compendium - A Military History of Campaigns & Battles 1861-1865" by Henry Robertson

[The Desperate Struggle: Louisiana Civil War Compendium - A Military History of Campaigns & Battles 1861-1865 by Henry O. Robertson (Louisiana Bungalow Press-Author, 2020). Softcover, color and B&W maps, illustrations, bibliography. Pages main/total:160/173. ISBN:9798639485268. $34.99]

Historian Donald Frazier is currently in the late stages of a mammoth book series (the fourth volume has just been released) detailing the Civil War campaigns and battles fought in Louisiana and Texas, but the most recent authoritative, single-volume military history survey of events in the Pelican State remains John Winters's The Civil War in Louisiana (1963). Between the Centennial publication of Winters's book and the present, professional and avocational scholars have produced a large body of fine work on the topic, so the time is ripe for an updated synthesis accessible to all. An attempt at doing just that is Henry Robertson's The Desperate Struggle: Louisiana Civil War Compendium - A Military History of Campaigns & Battles 1861-1865.

Not arranged in the fashion of a standard chronological narrative, Robertson's book instead organizes events by geography (five areas plus New Orleans). Breadth of treatment is more than reasonably comprehensive, encompassing major operations (ex. the New Orleans Campaign, Bayou Teche, Vicksburg Campaign, Texas Overland Expedition, and Red River) along with a host of smaller actions. The volume is not a guidebook in the sense of providing automobile touring routes and stops, but the geographical sections are accompanied by author-recommended site lists with current contact/location information and occasional commentary. In lieu of original creations, the book's maps are borrowed from the public domain (readers will recognize many of them from their inclusion in the atlas to the O.R.). As is often the case with this practice, much detail is lost or obscured by the process of shrinking the archival maps to fit the book's much smaller page dimensions.

Robertson's stated goal is to "give the general reader a regional compendium of the Civil War campaigns in Louisiana," and the popular style of writing and light to moderate detail level of the text generally fit that objective. Oddly, only the Red River Campaign sections incorporate lively firsthand accounts into the text. This is probably a function of the author's deeper research into that particular campaign [see his excellent 2016 study The Red River Campaign and Its Toll: 69 Bloody Days in Louisiana, March - May 1864], but the difference between those parts and the rest of the more top-down oriented chapters is highly noticeable. In meeting another expectation of the target audience, the book has no footnotes or endnotes. The bibliography suggests that the author's research was based on the Official Records supplemented by a small but solid collection of published books and journal articles.

While the informational content suits the book's purpose quite well, how it is presented to the reader is deeply flawed. The state of the published manuscript is very rough. Poor sentence structure and missing punctuation abound along with missing words, misspellings, and all manner of typos. There's also no index. At least some of the night-and-day contrast between this and the far more polished state of the author's writing in his previous book (the aforementioned The Red River Campaign and Its Toll) can be attributed to common drawbacks of self-publishing. Unfortunately, while the core of a good book is inside the pages of The Desperate Struggle, the presentational flaws exhibited in the final product are so pronounced that they will more than likely keep the book from being able to relate successfully with its target audience.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Booknotes: Sacrifice All for the Union

New Arrival:
Sacrifice All for the Union: The Civil War Experiences of Captain John Valley Young and his Family by Philip Hatfield (35th Star, 2020).

According to author Philip Hatfield, "(t)he story of Captain John Valley Young personifies the body of rugged Union Army volunteers from West Virginia during the Civil War: highly resilient, stubbornly independent, and fiercely patriotic. Using Captain Young’s wartime letters to his wife, Paulina Franklin Young, and his daughters, Sarah and Emily Young, along with his diary and numerous other original soldier accounts, this book reveals the experiences of a Union soldier and his family who were truly willing to “Sacrifice All for the Union.”"

More from the description: "Young, a farmer and Methodist-Episcopalian minister prior to the Civil War, during April 1861 raised a company of Union volunteers at the strongly pro-Southern village of Coalsmouth, Virginia, (modern St. Albans, West Virginia). He was adamantly opposed to slavery, yet often expressed a bitter ire at having to fight a violent civil war because his beloved nation had thus far failed to eradicate the awful practice. His company became Company G of the 13th West Virginia Infantry and was later transferred to the 11th West Virginia Infantry."

Young and his unit fought guerrillas and Confederate soldiers on both sides of the mountains in Virginia. Small West Virginia-based presses are responsible for much of the book literature detailing military actions in the Kanawha Valley and the rest of the state, and this book certainly is a part of that ongoing tradition. "While he displayed an unshakeable desire to preserve the Union, Young’s convictions were severely tested as he and his family faced constant dangers from guerillas and Confederate raids in the Kanawha Valley. Captain Young also participated in more than one hundred skirmishes and eleven major engagements in the bloody Shenandoah Valley, and at Petersburg, and Appomattox; more than any other Union officer from West Virginia." Though he survived the war, Young ultimately succumbed to tuberculosis in 1867.

The book is written in narrative format with extensively quoted letter excerpts directly incorporated into the text. From a glancing look through the chapter notes, it's apparent that Young left behind both war diary and letters. The appendix section contains company muster roll information and returns from various dates.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Booknotes: Lincoln and the American Founding

New Arrival:
Lincoln and the American Founding by Lucas E. Morel (SIU Press, 2020).

From the information available on the publisher's website, it looks like the Concise Lincoln Library series is now approaching thirty volumes with no slowing in sight. The newest entry, Lucas Morel's Lincoln and the American Founding, "argues that the most important influence on Abraham Lincoln’s political thought and practice was what he learned from the leading figures of and documents from the birth of the United States. In this systematic account of those principles, Morel compellingly demonstrates that to know Lincoln well is to understand thoroughly the founding of America."

Morel's study of Lincoln's relationship with the Founders and founding documents is presented in five main parts, "(w)ith each chapter describing a particular influence, Morel leads readers from the Founding Father, George Washington; to the founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution; to the founding compromise over slavery; and finally to a consideration of how the original intentions of the Founding Fathers should be respected in light of experience, progress, and improvements over time. 

Within these key discussions, Morel shows that without the ideals of the American Revolution, Lincoln’s most famous speeches would be unrecognizable, and the character of the nation would have lost its foundation on the universal principles of human equality, individual liberty, and government by the consent of the governed."

In sum, "Morel posits that adopting the way of thinking and speaking Lincoln advocated, based on the country’s founding, could help mend our current polarized discourse and direct the American people to employ their common government on behalf of a truly common good."

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Book News: Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War

During the first half of the previous decade, the History Press's prolific Civil War Sesquicentennial series provided writers with a great forum for presenting concise, well-illustrated narratives covering a broad range of topics both well-known and obscure. Though the pace of Civil War releases has slowed since that time and the press has since joined forces with fellow Charleston, SC outfit Arcadia Publishing, their Civil War Series remains hard at work filling in some of the smaller yet still significant gaps in the book-length literature. A solid component of the ongoing series addresses neglected Civil War events that occurred along the coastlines and inland waterways of the South Atlantic. The next release from that category will be Frank Ofeldt's Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War.

Even though Amelia Island was connected by rail to the Florida interior, its deep-water port of Fernandina and its military guardian, Fort Clinch, were notable casualties of the widespread pullback of Confederate forces from the coast undertaken in the wake of a series of early-war military disasters that clearly demonstrated the Confederacy's inability to adequately defend its maritime borders against Union amphibious might. Ofeldt's book discusses this lesser-known part of Florida's Civil War history.

From the description: "Even though Fernandina was tucked away in the far southern reaches of the Confederacy, Fort Clinch had been abandoned to Federal forces by March 1862. It proved a boon to the Union war effort, and the island became a haven for runaway slaves, with many joining the Federal army. The military occupation of this vital seaport helped end the war, and the Reconstruction period that followed bore witness to Union and Confederate veterans working together to bring Fernandina into a golden era of prosperity."

According to his author bio, Ofeldt is currently serving as a park service specialist at Fort Clinch, where he's spent over two decades of a nearly thirty-year career with the Florida Park Service. Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War is set for an August 2020 release [Note: at the moment, the 'Look Inside' feature found at the link above erroneously takes you inside Ofeldt's earlier Fort Clinch book. Hopefully, that will get fixed soon.].

Monday, July 6, 2020

Booknotes: Vicksburg Besieged

New Arrival:
Vicksburg Besieged edited by Steven E. Woodworth & Charles D. Grear (SIU Press, 2020).

This is the third of five planned Vicksburg volumes in SIU Press's Civil War Campaigns in the West series, the first two being 2013's The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29–May 18, 1863 and 2019's The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863. As the title suggests, Vicksburg Besieged picks up where the failure of Grant's May 19 and May 22 attacks left off and covers a variety of topics related to the six-week siege of the Hill City.

Contributors to the book's eight essays are Charles Grear, Andrew Bledsoe, co-writers Scott Stabler & Martin Hershock, Jonathan Steplyk, Steven Woodworth, Justin Solonick, John Gaines, and Richard Holloway. The formal table of contents can be accessed through the bold-face title link above (go to the 'Look Inside' feature), but the topics addressed in the book are summarized in the publisher's description as follows:
"Ranging in scope from military to social history, the contributors’ invitingly written essays examine the role of Grant’s staff, the critical contributions of African American troops to the Union Army of the Tennessee, both sides’ use of sharpshooters and soldiers’ opinions about them, unusual nighttime activities between the Union siege lines and Confederate defensive positions, the use of West Point siege theory and the ingenuity of Midwestern soldiers in mining tunnels under the city’s defenses, the horrific experiences of civilians trapped in Vicksburg, the failure of Louisiana soldiers’ defense at the subsequent siege of Jackson, and the effect of the campaign on Confederate soldiers from the Trans-Mississippi region.

The contributors explore how the Confederate Army of Mississippi and residents of Vicksburg faced food and supply shortages as well as constant danger from Union cannons and sharpshooters. Rebel troops under the leadership of General John C. Pemberton sought to stave off the Union soldiers, and though their morale plummeted, the besieged soldiers held their ground until starvation set in. Their surrender meant that Grant’s forces succeeded in splitting in half the Confederate States of America."
As I've mentioned before, I like this series as finally doing for the western theater something like what UNC Press's Military Campaigns of the Civil War did for the East. I always look forward to what's next. As for what's coming in the future and in what order, I'm not certain. Just going from the original list of planned titles, the Forts Henry and Donelson volume was skipped over (hopefully temporarily) in favor of this one, and the 1862 Kentucky Campaign (the original #9) is up next. After that, the series is scheduled to return to the Vicksburg Campaign with the tentatively titled Vicksburg: To Chickasaw Bayou.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Review - "German Americans on the Middle Border: From Antislavery to Reconciliation, 1830–1877" by Zachary Stuart Garrison

[German Americans on the Middle Border: From Antislavery to Reconciliation, 1830–1877 by Zachary Stuart Garrison (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Softcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,151/226. ISBN:978-0-8093-3755-2. $30]

In German Americans on the Middle Border historian Zachary Stuart Garrison has assigned himself the daunting task of measuring the influence of first and second-generation German Americans on western American history during the country's most momentous period of societal upheaval, a nearly five-decade span that encompassed mass immigration, sweeping political realignment, the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction. That he achieves this lofty goal with comprehensive success in little more than 150 pages of historical narrative is all the more remarkable.

Most general studies of the Civil War era still characterize the great waves of German immigrants that washed upon America's shores during the antebellum period's final two decades as being more politically radical than the native-born citizenry on the issues of slavery and racial egalitarianism. In doing so, much emphasis has been placed on the role of the more militant antislavery "Forty-Eighters" in shaping the growing free soil and free labor reform movement in the American Midwest. Those leaders and participants in the failed 1848 democratic revolutions of Central Europe fled to the United States to take advantage of New World freedoms and economic opportunities, but they also fervently believed they could better their adopted homeland through their own brand of Bildung (the German tradition of self-cultivation and cultural development).

However, there were earlier German social reformers in America that have been comparatively neglected, and Garrison's study accords the German immigrants of the 1830s (the "Dreissigers") appropriate credit for the critical part they played in establishing the burgeoning German-American immigrant population as a cultural and political force to be reckoned with along the country's Middle Border (for the purposes of this study, the states of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky). As Garrison maintains, the Dreissigers did more than simply set the stage for the Forty-Eighters and pass the mantle. They managed influential newspapers and entered politics. A prime example of a leading individual from this group is Gustav Koerner, who was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives and served on the state's Supreme Court (all before 1848). Though there arose some rivalries and inter-generational friction between the two groups of failed European revolutionaries, there was by the author's estimate even more considerable ideological alignment and shared purpose.

Garrison's broad characterization of the Middle Border as a highly fluid geography of cultural, economic, and political exchange closely matches the vividly drawn picture of the region presented in Christopher Phillips's masterful 2016 study The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border. This is not surprising given that Garrison was a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati and credits Phillips as a mentor of his own work on the topic. Both scholars are persuasive in arguing against the dated characterization of the Ohio River as a wall between the country's free and slave societies.

Recently, the historical stereotype of the radical antislavery German-American of the early to mid-1800s has been challenged by those who insist that the Forty-Eighters were not representative of the immigrant population as a whole (the majority of whom tended to accept local customs and align themselves with mainstream, immigrant-friendly Democratic Party politics). Certainly, what it meant to be antislavery in the 1850s American West was shifting and complicated. In her excellent 2016 study Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America, historian Kristen Layne Anderson argued effectively that German-American political opposition to slavery in Missouri was largely muted until the early 1850s, when their antislavery objections to the Compromise of 1850 and especially the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 boiled over into widespread public activism and large-scale defection to the infant Republican Party. Garrison seems to agree with that timeline of events but is a bit more willing than Anderson (who emphasizes pragmatic factors) to assign ideological motivations to the change.

Sympathetic to the pitfalls surrounding the overrepresentation of urban Forty-Eighters in the political discussion, Garrison does, unlike Anderson, at least episodically venture into the rural Middle Border, where large pockets of more conservative German Catholics resided. However, while considerably more broad in his approach, Garrison's work can still be challenged on some level as being too urban-based and too narrowly focused on St. Louis (though not to the extent of Anderson's Abolitionizing Missouri, which confines its analysis to the Germans of that city). That said, historians have to go where the sources take them and St. Louis was unquestionably the great hub of German-American influence in the nineteenth-century Middle Border. That's not to suggest that other urban centers of great relevance to the subject matter at hand (including Evansville, Louisville, and Cincinnati) are entirely neglected by Garrison because they are not. In reading those sections, many readers will be surprised to learn just how proportionately large the German immigrant populations had become in a number of great Middle Border cities by the 1850s.

Antislavery but not necessarily egalitarian nor abolitionist, most urban and rural German-Americans of the antebellum Middle Border were, according to Garrison's research, more concerned with the nativist and temperance movements that affected their communities directly and the Free Soil politics that they felt would guide economic prospects in the expanding West. For most antislavery German-Americans the welfare of the slaves themselves was secondary to their own interests. In the author's view (and Anderson would probably agree with him), the newfound willingness of many German-Americans to join the Republican Party was rooted in their belief that the Free Soil wing of the Democratic Party could no longer restrain the perceived disproportionate power of the party's minority slavocracy element. While some Middle Border Germans were still distrustful of nativist remnants within the new Republican Party and remained loyal to the old Democracy of Jacksonian principles, others felt that the Democratic Party of the 1850s directly threatened their "free soil, free labor, free men" futures.

According to Garrison, the German response to Lincoln's presidential candidacy wasn't entirely enthusiastic (many still preferred Fremont), though Lincoln's unqualified support for a homestead act and his anti-nativist stance appealed to all. Though it was frequently proclaimed at the time that the German vote made the difference in the free states of the Middle Border going Republican, Garrison notes that the German-American vote remained split with Northern Democrats and only in Illinois did their vote count tip the balance between Republican victory and defeat.

When Civil War came Middle Border Germans, in some contrast with their more cautious eastern counterparts, enlisted immediately and in droves. According to Garrison, European turmoil of the 1830s and 40s directly informed the motivations of German American officers in the Union Army. In their view, the consequences of secession to the American Union directly reminded them of the kinds of petty states and squabbling principalities back home that crushed their own ideals of German nationalism, and they equated the power of the southern planter class with the aristocratic despotism that they left behind in Europe. While recent scholarship by Kamphoefner and Helbich suggests that the majority of German American rank and file soldiers primarily enlisted for economic reasons rather than patriotism and ideology, Garrison notes that the opposite tended to be true for the Middle Border cohort of their study (persuasively positing that the close proximity of Middle Border Germans to slavery made a great deal of difference in their outlook). While Garrison is careful throughout to remind readers that the Germans of the Middle Border were not all radicals and were never unanimous on any major issue, it is incontestable that they were leading bastions of Unconditional Unionism in the West. To most of them the meaning of the Union in America was synonymous with the ideals of liberal nationalism many fought for and lost in Germany. Though the majority of Middle Border German civilians and soldiers joined their native-born comrades in making the preservation of the Union the chief goal of the war, they were nevertheless also leading voices in promoting emancipation as a war aim early on in the conflict, well before the majority of their Middle Border neighbors.

Predictably, Middle Border Germans placing themselves at the forefront of the push for emancipation as early as 1861-62 made them prime targets for proslavery guerrillas, and nowhere was this more apparent than in strife-torn Missouri. It wasn't just the wartime assault on Missouri culture and property by "foreign" invaders that exacerbated the guerrilla war, but also three decades of pent up animosity between proslavery Missourians and German immigrants that arrived over that period in such numbers as to directly threaten slavery in the state along with any hopes for the institution's western expansion.

Indeed, their consistent support for emancipation and hard war in all its aspects made German Americans the Radical Republican face of the Middle Border body politic. Amid already long-standing ethnic tensions, their aggressive brand of wartime radicalism only further isolated them from the region's moderate and conservative majority. While German political power and bayonets helped secure Republican rule in Missouri by 1864 against disorganized (and demoralized) opposition further weakened through various wartime voter suppression measures instituted in the state, according to Garrison and others even moderate German Republicans began to question the wisdom of the most radical wing when it came to the best way to secure the German vision of liberal nationalism in the West along with the rest of reunited America. Both Anderson and Garrison found that many Germans feared that their own interests would be sidelined (or even forgotten) amid the Radical Republican focus on black civil rights and citizenship issues. To many, maintaining the radical ideology that did so much to win the Civil War in the West would only further isolate German communities in the region going forward.

In the final sections of his book, Garrison offers a masterfully-composed concise explanation of how German Americans, who were instrumental to Union victory and emancipation, built for themselves a Civil War legacy of loyalty and sacrifice second to none only to have any hopes of carrying that influence over into national prominence and leadership roles almost immediately dashed by political forces both of and not of their own making. German Radical Republican ranks shrank quickly after the war concluded. With the end of slavery and restoration of the Union—the most necessary components of German liberal nationalism and Bildung—secured, most Germans felt the greatest goals of the war had been achieved. Though there remained a minority subset of German radicals who were steadfast in defending full citizenship for blacks, the majority turned to focus on class and labor issues along with the need to confront renewed Republican-led nativist and temperance movements. Many formerly radicalized Germans also felt that a great number of Radical Reconstruction policies (including military occupation of the South, disenfranchisement of ex-Rebels, and government intervention in elevating the place of freedmen in society) unwisely inhibited reunion and western development. Fearing that much of Reconstruction policy mimicked the kind of autocratic repression they fled Europe to escape, many Germans seeking the return of democratic inclusivity supported black suffrage only if it was paired with restoring voting rights to ex-Confederates. Sensing that a move to the middle was necessary if Germans were to maintain their hard fought cultural and political influence in Middle Border society, many ex-radicals joined the more moderate Liberal Republican movement or returned to the reinvigorated Democratic Party. Unfortunately for them, the pragmatic retreat to moderation did very little to alter the rapid German American socio-political decline from wartime heights of national consciousness to a distressingly marginalized, non-leadership role within the region's new postwar political reality (even with 100,000 new immigrants arriving in the country each year).

On a somewhat related matter, it might be interesting to study what effect repeated demonstration of German military prowess on western and Trans-Mississippi battlefields had on postwar assimilation trends in those regions. This could be carried out specifically as a possible source of contrast with the conclusions of eastern theater scholars such as Christian Keller, who have maintained that the popular nativist impression that Germans fought poorly during the conflict (and were largely responsible for the military disaster at Chancellorsville and the Day One collapse of the Union line at Gettysburg) contributed heavily to German Americans resisting assimilation after the war.

Melding the best of recent scholarship with his own research and creative interpretation, Garrison alternately reaffirms and challenges much of what has been popularly written about the German Americans of the Civil War era. His skillful and persuasive tracing of immigrant German antislavery and pro-Union ideology to their Old World origins firmly establishes the background context necessary to comprehend the fervency of German reaction in the border West to slavery, sectional politics, secession, and Civil War. German Americans on the Middle Border is exquisitely crafted history, both in its nuanced reassessment of the nature and results of German antislavery activism before, during, and after the Civil War and its lucid explanation of the many complicated reasons behind the dizzying rise and fall of German social and political influence and status in the region over that period of time. It would be difficult to imagine an introductory-scale treatment of the subject matter that could best the one presented in this outstanding book.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Booknotes: America’s Buried History

New Arrival:
America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War by Kenneth R. Rutherford (Savas Beatie, 2020).

From the description: "Modern landmines were used for the first time in history on a widespread basis during the Civil War when the Confederacy, in desperate need of an innovative technology to overcome significant deficits in materiel and manpower, employed them. The first American to die from a victim-activated landmine was on the Virginia Peninsula in early 1862 during the siege of Yorktown. Their use set off explosive debates inside the Confederate government and within the ranks of the army over the ethics of using “weapons that wait.” As Confederate fortunes dimmed, leveraging low-cost weapons like landmines became acceptable and even desirable."

For a long time the standard work on the Confederate use of torpedoes (as land and sea mines were called back then) was Milton Perry's 1965 book Infernal Machines. Since then the topic has been broached on a number of occasions in the literature, mostly as parts of larger studies (a recent example being Mark Ragan's excellent Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War) or in reference-style works such as the Herbert Schiller-edited volume Confederate Torpedoes. The goal of Kenneth Rutherford's America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War is to provide readers with a multi-faceted overview of the subject.

Most Civil War students are at least aware of Confederate general Gabriel Rains's pioneering work in developing torpedo weaponry in North America (and Savas Beatie, the publisher of this book, also released in 2017 a short history of the topic titled Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau). As Rutherford recounts in his book, explosive devices developed by Rains and others "saw extensive use in Virginia, at Port Hudson in Louisiana, in Georgia, the Trans-Mississippi Theater, during the closing weeks of the war in the Carolinas, and in harbors and rivers in multiple states. Debates over the ethics of using mine warfare did not end in 1865, and are still being waged to this day."

In the book, Rutherford, "who is known worldwide for his work in the landmine discipline, and who himself lost his legs to a mine in Africa," aims to "demonstrate how and why the mines were built, how and where they were deployed, the effects of their use, and the reactions of those who suffered from their deadly blasts."

Friday, June 26, 2020

Booknotes: Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes

New Arrival:
Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal North Carolina, 1861–1865 by Michael G. Laramie (Westholme, 2020).

At least when it came to the publication of detailed book-length studies, the military history of the Civil War in the Old North State stagnated over the decades following the Centennial release of John Barratt's now classic overview The Civil War in North Carolina. Though works of merit occasionally popped up (the best being Richard Sauers's unsurpassed history of the 1862 Burnside Expedition), intensive coverage of the campaigns and battles fought in the state slowly but steadily took off only after the 1996 publication of Mark Bradley's wonderful Bentonville study Last Stand in the Carolinas. Since then nearly every important operation has received standalone attention (one example of a remaining gap being Foster's 1862 Goldsboro raid). Perhaps now is a good time for another major synthesis to update Barratt. 

Michael Laramie's Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal North Carolina, 1861–1865 isn't quite that (as its title states, it focuses on the coastal plains where most the action occurred), but the regional treatment is comprehensive (from Butler's 1861 barrier islands expedition through the final link up with Sherman's advance after the capture of Wilmington). I like what I've read so far after sampling the first couple chapters.

From the description: Laramie's study "chronicles both the battle over supplying the South by sea as well as the ways this region proved to be a fertile ground for the application of new technologies. With the advent of steam propulsion, the telegraph, rifled cannon, repeating firearms, ironclads, and naval mines, the methods and tactics of the old wooden walls soon fell to those of this first major conflict of the industrial age. Soldiers and sailors could fire farther and faster than ever before. With rail transportation available, marches were no longer weeks but days or even hours, allowing commanders to quickly shift men and materials to meet an oncoming threat or exploit an enemy weakness. Fortifications changed to meet the challenges imposed by improved artillery, while the telegraph stretched the battlefield even further. Yet for all the technological changes, many of which would be harbingers of greater conflicts to come, the real story of this strategic coast is found in the words and actions of the soldiers and sailors who vied for this region for nearly four years. It is here, where the choices made—whether good or bad, misinformed, or not made at all—intersected with logistical hurdles, geography, valor, and fear to shape the conflict; a conflict that would ultimately set the postwar nation on track to becoming a modern naval power."

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Review - "American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History" by Daniel Miller

[American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History by Daniel J. Miller (McFarland, 2020). Softcover, 397 photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:viii,476/533. ISBN:978-1-4766-7726-2. $95]

It's been said that any individual holding a great artifact collection of historical significance has an unspoken obligation to permanently document it in some distributable form for the wider public and posterity. Taking that wise counsel to heart is Daniel Miller, a retired law enforcement professional with a massive collection of Zouave photographs and printed ephemera. His book American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History is a photographic encyclopedia of American Zouave units organized between the end of the late antebellum era (when Elmer Ellsworth's Chicago Zouave Cadets swept the national imagination) through the middle of the twentieth century. By the latter period, the forces of National Guard standardization finally ended the wider Zouave phenomenon.

The stated purpose of Miller's Zouave study is "to offer a visual glimpse and written record of these long forgotten military units to provide collectors and historians with a reference aid in identifying the surviving images and historical artifacts of these units" (pg 2). All of the images presented in the book, from photos to "patriotic envelopes, cigarette cards, ballroom invitations, woodcuts, and lithographed song sheets," are part of the author's personal collection. According to Miller, song sheets rate among the most historically useful sources as they often include images of Zouave companies based on photographs, with color information provided directly from the men in the unit.

Attached image or not, the unit encyclopedia, which includes both military and non-military Zouave squads, companies, battalions, and regiments of different races and ethnicities from 41 states and the District of Columbia, is incredibly comprehensive. Unit entries, organized in chapters by state, range from well-documented military units that fill several pages in the book to those that have so little information about them that there's the possibility they didn't even exist. Complicating matters are the companies that called themselves Zouaves but didn't wear Zouave uniforms or the ones that wore the uniforms and didn't call themselves Zouaves! The author's work is not finished either, as the volume contains an extensive late chapter including a large number of so far unidentified Zouave images. The overwhelming focus of the book is on the Civil War period, but the uniforms remained popular among National Guard units and a great many post-war "civil organizations, youth cadet companies, political marching groups, and quasi-military groups."

The captions applied to the volume's nearly 400 images (41 of which are in color) often include a great amount of detailed commentary, and unit entries themselves typically offer some initial organizational information accompanied by extensive uniform descriptions. Some of the best sources for the latter are newspaper reports, which are often quoted extensively in the text though the author appropriately cautions the reader about their veracity. It is apparent that the volume does not aim to provide extensive service histories (even for the famous units), and early chapter discussions of late antebellum "Zouave Fever" in the U.S. as well as the history of the French Zouave combat units that inspired it are also quite brief.  Some readers will wish Miller had included more of this background information but space considerations in an already very large book probably entered into play.

The book notes the seeming incongruity of normally pragmatic American volunteers embracing such an exotic model with bright colors that made inviting targets on the battlefield (indeed, Miller cites some contemporary pushback against the craze in the newspaper media). However, as most Civil War readers are aware, French military history and practices over the first half of the 1800s heavily influenced all aspects of the American military establishment and the added romanticism of the Zouaves easily overcame any misgivings. The author confirms that early Union Army martyr Elmer Ellsworth's much celebrated role in exciting a national embrace of the Zouave phenomenon has not been exaggerated. Miller also does try to clear up what he sees as the popular misconception among Civil War writers that Zouave uniforms rapidly declined into near universal disfavor, with nearly all units freely adopting more conventional appearances relatively early in the conflict According to the author's research, Zouave units often went to great lengths to try to preserve their distinctive uniforms, and it was mostly outside factors (such as material shortages) that forced many units to adopt mixed uniforms and other more expedient alternatives.

Though apparently outside the scope of the book, one wishes Miller had devoted at least some space to a brief discussion of whether Civil War Zouaves conducted themselves on the battlefield in any unique ways. He does reproduce in full an extensive newspaper article that describes in some detail the reporter's observation of a new Zouave regiment's drilling exercise, one that included the "Zouave Rush" frequently mentioned in the secondary literature.

Daniel Miller's exhaustive documentation of his Zouave image collection, expanded to include a descriptive organization and uniform register of all known Zouave units of any kind over a century-long period of American history, represents an invaluable reference tool for subject enthusiasts and serious researchers alike. With the publication of this volume, Miller's self-imposed collector's obligation to the public can be regarded as redeemed in full.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Booknotes: Hellmira

New Arrival:
Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY by Derek Maxfield (Savas Beatie, 2020).

After an incredibly prolific period when it seemed like no month passed without the publication of at least one Emerging Civil War title, I believe this is the first series installment to appear in around a year (the next most recent being the New Market entry). In Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY, Derek Maxfield examines the improvised POW camp (only in operation during the final year of the war) that more than earned its nickname of "Hellmira."

From the description: "Hastily constructed, poorly planned, and overcrowded, prisoner of war camps North and South were dumping grounds for the refuse of war. An unfortunate necessity, both sides regarded the camps as temporary inconveniences—and distractions from the important task of winning the war. There was no need, they believed, to construct expensive shelters or provide better rations. They needed only to sustain life long enough for the war to be won. Victory would deliver prisoners from their conditions." Before that final victory arrived, very nearly a quarter of the 12,000 Confederate prisoners housed at Elmira during its year of operation died.

As most readers are aware of already, Elmira is sometimes regarded as the North's Andersonville. "In the years after the war, as Reconstruction became increasingly bitter, the North pointed to Camp Sumter—better known as the Andersonville POW camp in Americus, Georgia—as evidence of the cruelty and barbarity of the Confederacy. The South, in turn, cited the camp in Elmira as a place where Union authorities withheld adequate food and shelter and purposefully caused thousands to suffer in the bitter cold. This finger-pointing by both sides would go on for over a century."

Not interested in engaging in that kind of back and forth, Maxfield instead "contextualizes the rise of prison camps during the Civil War, explores the failed exchange of prisoners, and tells the tale of the creation and evolution of the prison camp in Elmira. In the end, Maxfield suggests that it is time to move on from the blame game and see prisoner of war camps—North and South—as a great humanitarian failure."

As expected, the book possesses an abundance of photographs and other illustrations. The popular appendix section, a series mainstay, includes a driving tour of Elmira; a profile of John W. Jones (a former slave who was sexton of nearby Woodlawn Cemetery, where the Elmira dead were interred); an account of the Shohola Train Wreck of 1864 that killed 48 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards; the story of prisoner Berry Benson's escape from Elmira; a look at Mark Twain's past and present associations with the city of Elmira (he's buried at Woodlawn Cemetery) and Elmira College (which has a Center for Mark Twain Studies); an overview of Andersonville; and finally, in common with most series titles, a preservation essay.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Book News: Violence in the Hill Country

It seems like it's been weeks since a new upcoming title of interest has popped up on my radar. As surely every regular reader knows by now, any book related to Civil War-era events west of the Mississippi grabs my attention. Nicholas Keefauver Roland's Violence in the Hill Country: The Texas Frontier in the Civil War Era (University of Texas Press, Feb 2021) will join a recent spate of titles melding Civil War history with western borderlands studies. From the description: "The nineteenth-century Texas Hill Country functioned as a kind of borderland within the larger borderland of Texas itself, a vast and fluid area where the slaveholding South and the nominally free-labor West collided. And as in many borderlands, it was a place marked by violence, as one set of peoples, states, and systems eventually triumphed over others."

Seeing Roland's title, two other books on the topic of Texas frontier violence during the Civil War immediately came to mind. Gregory Michno's The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s (Caxton, 2011) emphasizes the general ineffectiveness of U.S., Confederate, and Texas state military and paramilitary forces in protecting isolated settlers from Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche raiders. The best scholarly book on the topic of western Texas border security during the Civil War is still David Paul Smith's Frontier Defense in the Civil War: Texas' Rangers and Rebels (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1992). Roland's upcoming book will have a different emphasis on the theme of borderland violence. It aims to "trace the role of violence in the region from the eve of the Civil War, through the crisis of secession and the Indian wars, and into the Reconstruction period, ultimately showing how patterns of violence both defined and revealed the priorities of white settlers in the Hill Country--most importantly, the advancement of market integration and state-building in the broader Southwest."

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Review - "Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia" by Steve Norder

[Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia by Steve Norder (Savas Beatie, 2020) Hardcover, 2 maps, 36 illustrations, footnotes, timeline, dramatis personae, ship directory, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxxvi,209/325. ISBN:978-1-61121-457-4. $32.95]

In April 1861, when Virginia state forces seized Portsmouth's Gosport Navy Yard (located just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk) significantly intact after a halfhearted U.S. effort at destruction, they came into possession of a mountain of useful materiel (including heavy ordnance, munitions, military provisions, and the partially burned steam frigate USS Merrimack). Using Gosport's invaluable drydock and other support facilities, Confederate authorities were able to construct or reconstruct a number of war vessels, their most significant achievement being their conversion of the damaged Merrimack hull into the feared ironclad ram CSS Virginia. Much has been written about the Virginia and her brief but epic career as a terror to Union blockading vessels and thorn in the side of any planned enemy movement up the James River, but the famous ironclad's Norfolk harbor base has received far less attention in the literature. With its fall deemed inevitable by the Army of the Potomac's advance up the Virginia Peninsula in early 1862, most authors only briefly dispense with Norfolk's abandonment and occupation before moving on to the bloody face off between the main armies in front of Richmond. Very frequently mentioned in books, but not typically elaborated upon, is President Abraham Lincoln's personal intervention in the planning of Norfolk's capture. Addressing that episode of Civil War history in expansive and original fashion is Steve Norder's Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia.

In early May 1862, Lincoln and cabinet secretaries Chase, Stanton, and Welles embarked from Washington on a trip to Fort Monroe to see for themselves what progress was being made (or not made) on the Virginia Peninsula. Using a great variety of sources, Norder attempts in minute fashion to document all of Lincoln's activities during his eventful week-long stay there from May 5 to May 12. During that time, Lincoln acquainted himself with the military situation at Hampton Roads, interviewed the officers stationed there, reviewed troops and sailors, inspected facilities, and eagerly observed bombardments of the enemy shoreline. He also took a keen interest in potential Southside landing sites and eventually ordered the Fort Monroe/Hampton Roads army and navy commanders (General John Wool and Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, respectively) to cooperate in a combined operation aimed at capturing Norfolk.

Though clearly focused on Lincoln and Union army and navy affairs, the book does not neglect Confederate civilian and military perspectives of the events covered in the book. When General Joseph E. Johnston slipped out of his fortified Yorktown line on May 1 and retreated toward the capital, he informed Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall that Norfolk would have to be abandoned and the Virginia destroyed, if necessary. By May 3, the process of evacuating Norfolk was well underway.

Given that all the major military minds on both sides independently came to the conclusion that Norfolk would have to be evacuated once McClellan's army advanced up the Peninsula, it is legitimate to question the military propriety of an immediate amphibious movement against Norfolk. McClellan, who was confident the U.S. naval forces present at Hampton Roads could keep the Virginia in check, seemed content to not unnecessarily risk ships and men he hoped to use himself for the final drive on Richmond to attack a place that would fall on its own accord. Indeed, Norfolk and Portsmouth were already in the process of being evacuated before Lincoln embarked from Washington. Perhaps a better question is whether Lincoln's actions sped up events to the extent that the Confederates lost vital war-making resources they might otherwise have saved given a bit more time. The book doesn't really indicate that this might have been the case. There also doesn't seem to be much strong evidence to believe with any great confidence that a different time line could have allowed the Confederate Navy opportunity to lighten the Virginia enough for it to make it up the James River to safety. On the other hand, it was certainly reasonable on Lincoln's part to wish to secure sooner rather than later both the morale boost that the destruction of the Virginia would give to those who saw the Peninsula operation as stalled and the relief it would give to the many influential persons inside and outside the government who continued to greatly overestimate the ironclad's capabilities.

The event from the week that would most become a part of Lincoln lore occurred late on May 9, when the president personally accompanied a landing site reconnaissance mission and even joined a small detachment that briefly debarked on enemy shore to test a site's landing suitability. In retrospect, this impulsive evening foray seems like a highly foolish action for the President of the United States to have undertaken, especially when Confederate videttes were present at the location only moments earlier. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt among historians that the event happened. Though Norder cites three sources (a letter to daughter "Nettie" from Secretary Chase, a New York Times article dated 1874, and an account by Union army officer Egbert Viele), only one (Chase's letter) appears to have been written by an eyewitness to the dramatic affair. Perhaps other firsthand accounts exist cited elsewhere. In any case, the military planners at the time cited justifiable reasons for ultimately rejecting that site in favor of the one at Ocean View originally selected.

Union troops landed at Ocean View early on May 10. Lincoln witnessed the debarkation but did not go ashore with the troops, electing instead to return to Fort Monroe and await reports. The operation did not go completely according to plan, especially after the Confederates burned the bridge over Tanners Creek. However, Secretary Chase, who was present at the front, was able to resolve a dispute that arose between generals Wool and Mansfield in a way that allowed the march to resume with renewed purpose. Lincoln, who heard about the temporary snafu from Mansfield himself, arrived at the beach with Secretary Stanton late in the afternoon but returned to Fort Monroe after finding things at the front back on track. Against only token opposition, Wool occupied Norfolk that day. On the Confederate side, one big hitch emerged during the final stages of an otherwise smooth evacuation of the harbor. In an act of almost incredible omission, those on board the Virginia were not notified that the evacuation was completed and the naval base destroyed. With nowhere to turn and no time to try any other desperate measures aimed at decreasing its draft, the Virginia, with its now unprotected hull fully exposed by previous efforts at lightening the vessel, had to be immediately destroyed to preclude any possibility of capture.

Norder's final chapter, one of the book's best, details in fine fashion how Union occupying authorities struggled to sort through local allegiances and maintain security in Norfolk while also meeting the basic survival needs of a sizable population of 20,000. As was the case with other major commercial centers under Union occupation, it needed to be decided under what conditions trade and local business would be allowed to resume. How long Norfolk would continue to be covered by the North Atlantic naval blockade also had to be considered. The first military governor, General Wool, would take a hard line against the hostile majority of Norfolk residents (even to the level of being accused of trying to starve the population into submission), but his successor, General John Dix, relaxed many of his predecessor's restrictions. While this eased the suffering, other problems emerged. Controversy and corruption related to the issuing of trade permits was common throughout the occupied South, and it was no different at Norfolk. That topic and additional army-navy interservice clashes and treasury department conflicts are informatively discussed at some length by Norder.

In sum, Norder believes that the week "provided the foundation Abraham Lincoln needed to develop the confidence and vision he would need to fight the long war ahead and bring it to a successful end" (pg. 98). That claim of long-term insight into the evolution of Lincoln's strategic mind is impossible to assess with any kind of certainty, but there is some short-term support in the fact that Lincoln again directly intervened in military campaign planning mere weeks later. In that case, the end result of the president's redirection of potential Peninsula reinforcements into the Shenandoah Valley and his attempt to coordinate multiple columns aimed at destroying Stonewall Jackson there was dismal failure. Bringing in General Henry Halleck to Washington soon after to act as general in chief of the Union Army also might be seen as clouding the continuity of the author's claim, but Norder prefers to view Halleck's promotion as Lincoln sagely realizing his own limitations. Regardless of whether one believes the impact of the Norfolk operation on Lincoln's development as Commander in Chief to have been fleeting or long lasting, the book possesses many other strengths that clearly mark it as a work of considerable distinction. Amid all the popular and scholarly obsession over each day of Lincoln's life, it is impossible to imagine any other work matching this level of biographical detail in documenting Lincoln's activities during this particular week of May 1862. It is equally certain that the circumstances surrounding the capture of Norfolk have never before been examined at anything approaching this depth. In that sense, Lincoln Takes Command more than satisfactorily fills in one of the many remaining gaps in the Civil War literature's uneven coverage of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Booknotes: Organizing Freedom

New Arrival:
Organizing Freedom: Black Emancipation Activism in the Civil War Midwest by Jennifer R. Harbour (SIU Press, 2020).

Jennifer Harbour's Organizing Freedom is a "social history of black emancipation activism in Indiana and Illinois during the Civil War era." Most Civil War readers are aware of how deeply unpopular both abolitionist sentiment and free black emigration was among residents of many parts of the lower Midwest, with the 1837 murder of Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois being the most commonly cited example of the most extreme public reaction to the former.

From the description: "Nevertheless, as Harbour shows, black Americans settled there, and in a liminal space between legal slavery and true freedom, they focused on their main goals: creating institutions like churches, schools, and police watches; establishing citizenship rights; arguing against oppressive laws in public and in print; and, later, supporting their communities throughout the Civil War."

Harbour's research is centered is on the emancipation efforts of black women during the war. More from the description: "Her distinct focus on what military service meant for the families of black Civil War soldiers elucidates how black women navigated life at home without a male breadwinner at the same time they began a new, public practice of emancipation activism. During the tumult of war, Midwestern black women negotiated relationships with local, state, and federal entities through the practices of philanthropy, mutual aid, religiosity, and refugee and soldier relief."

In the end, according to Harbour, "(a)s they worked through the sluggish, incremental process to achieve abolition and emancipation, Midwestern black activists created a unique regional identity."