Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Booknotes: Voices of the Army of the Potomac

New Arrival:
Voices of the Army of the Potomac: Personal Reminiscences of Union Veterans by Vincent L. Burns (Casemate, 2021).

Utilizing a selection from the war's vast reservoir of published "memoirs, recollections and regimental histories," Voices of the Army of the Potomac: Personal Reminiscences of Union Veterans "is an overview of what Civil War soldiers and veterans wrote about their experiences. It focuses on what veterans remembered, what they were prepared to record, and what they wrote down in the years after the end of the war." With the earlier campaigns of the Army of the Potomac covered in one chapter, the material appears heavily weighted toward the second half of the conflict from Spring 1863 onward (I skimmed the "Author's Note" and preface and didn't see any indication why that particular choice was made, though I might have missed it).

Veteran-authored excerpts reproduced in the text range in length from a single sentence to multiple paragraphs. On the page they are either presented in smaller font as separate passages or placed in quotations and incorporated into the author's own extensive chronological narrative.

These veteran writings "convey their views on the cataclysmic events they had witnessed but also their memories of everyday events during the war. While many of them undertook detailed research of battles and campaigns before writing their accounts, it is clear that a number were less concerned with whether their words aligned with the historical record than whether they recorded what they believed to be true. This book explores these themes and also the connection between veterans writing their personal war history and the issue of veterans’ pensions. Understanding what these veterans chose to record and why is important to achieving a deeper understanding of the experience of these men who were caught up in this central moment in American life."

Friday, December 3, 2021

Booknotes: Illusions of Empire

New Arrival:
Illusions of Empire: The Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by William S. Kiser (Univ of Penn Press, 2022).

With a number of excellent studies already to his credit, all published over the past decade (I've reviewed two of them here and here), William Kiser has rapidly become one of the leading scholars of the Civil War-era American Southwest. His latest book, Illusions of Empire: The Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, is exceptional in being the "first study to treat antebellum U.S. foreign policy, Civil War campaigning, the French Intervention in Mexico, Southwestern Indian Wars, South Texas Bandit Wars, and U.S. Reconstruction in a single volume, balancing U.S. and Mexican source materials to tell an important story of borderlands conflict with ramifications that are still felt in the region today."

Kiser's study "adopts a multinational view of North American borderlands, examining the ways in which Mexico's North overlapped with the U.S. Southwest in the context of diplomacy, politics, economics, and military operations during the Civil War era." Remarkably, he's able to achieve that impressive breadth in less than 200 pages of narrative.

With western frontier borderlands history continuing to be a popular scholarly purusit, the volume "examines a fascinating series of events in which a disparate group of historical actors vied for power and control along the U.S.-Mexico border: from Union and Confederate generals and presidents, to Indigenous groups, diplomatic officials, bandits, and revolutionaries, to a Mexican president, a Mexican monarch, and a French king. Their unconventional approaches to foreign relations demonstrate the complex ways that individuals influence the course of global affairs and reveal that borderlands simultaneously enable and stifle the growth of empires." Scholars of the international dimensions of the mid-century civil wars in the US and Mexico, citing among other things the frustrations involved in Napoleon III's "Grand Design," would certainly agree wholeheartedly with the last sentence.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Review - "Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General" by Simione & Schmiel, w/ Schneider

[Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General by Frank P. Simione, Jr. and Gene Schmiel, with E.L. Schneider (Authors, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, footnotes, appendix section, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,244/289. ISBN:9798527312492. $19.99]

Having led the eastern army of the United States in its first major Civil War battle, held a large independent command in northern Virginia during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, and served as John Pope's principal subordinate during the Second Manassas Campaign, Major General Irvin McDowell was the Union high command's most visible connecting thread over the disastrous first sixteen months of the war fought in the East. The reasons behind the continued lack of a comprehensive biography of such a major early-war figure are many, with one of the primary research obstacles being the lack of any significant archive of personal papers (just a handful of McDowell's wartime letters to his wife survive). Though relatively modest in scope and limited in research, Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General is nevertheless a respectable attempt at going where no one else has heretofore dared to tread.

In gathering their research material, Frank Simione, Gene Schmiel, and contributor E.L. Schneider did not significantly expand their source targeting horizons beyond government documents and a selection of published primary and secondary materials in book and article format. Absent much in the way of manuscript research and with only tentative investigation of other potentially rich resources such as the nation's voluminous newspaper archives, the analysis presented in the book of General McDowell's leadership qualities and generalship can probably be most accurately described as selective synthesis.

While there is some coverage of McDowell's early life, pre-Civil War military career, and postwar activities (he was a career officer who faced mandatory retirement in 1882), the text's overwhelming focus is on examining the general's conduct during the early-war eastern campaigns from First Bull Run through Second Bull Run. Existing definitive-level accounts of the First and Second Bull Run campaigns and battles have already extensively discussed McDowell's questionable actions and costly mistakes, and this book does not claim to have any new evidence to support any major alteration of how those earlier works portrayed and assessed McDowell's flawed generalship in both campaigns. While McDowell's overall battle plan at First Bull Run was a sound one that could just as easily have succeeded, this volume shows how in both Manassas battles the general committed grave missteps in decision-making and tactics that materially contributed to disastrous defeat. Searching's summary of McDowell's pivotal sins committed at Second Bull Run is basically a recapitulation of the conclusions found in John Hennessy's modern classic Return to Bull Run.

On a more general leadership level, the book persuasively characterizes McDowell as an Old Army staff officer unable to effectively make the transition to field commander in the new volunteer US army. The general possessed a largely aloof and uncharismatic personality that did not inspire confidence among officers and common soldiers alike. As demonstrated at both Bull Run engagements, McDowell tended to lose his composure under the stresses of command. Like many other Civil War generals (especially during the earlier period of the war), McDowell also felt compelled to micromanage tasks better left to staff officers. Whether mistrusting his staff to perform many basic functions was due to his own inability to judge talent or his having incompetent officers thrust upon him is not said. Similar to his behavior off the battlefield, in battle the general too often attended to micro-tactical matters properly considered some level below his own command responsibility.

As the book clearly highlights, good fortune never seemed to shine on McDowell. Just when his large, independent command in Virginia seemed poised to be a decisive factor in the mid-1862 drive on Richmond, his powerful divisions were instead subjected to a decidedly unproductive military-political tug of war between President Lincoln's capital defense and Shenandoah Valley-obsessed leadership in Washington and General McClellan's headquarters on the Peninsula. Parceled out and repeatedly delayed, McDowell's army-sized command never made it to the gates of Richmond. It had no notable impact either in the Valley or on the Peninsula, and McDowell's reputation, regardless of actual culpability, became associated with only another scapegoat-seeking debacle. Apparently, the hapless McDowell, even though he was a clear supporter of combining forces with the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula, was accused in pro-McClellan circles of being more concerned with retaining independent command and furthering his own ambitions than in assisting the Army of the Potomac. The authors seem to agree with Hennessy that by the end of the Second Bull Run campaign McDowell, for one reason or another, was the chief high-ranking target through which the eastern theater rank and file vented their anger and frustrations. Therefore, it is no surprise that even some of his more sympathetic supporters in Washington viewed McDowell as fatally compromised for another major active leadership role in the war effort.

Like other writers before them, including the aforementioned leading First and Second Manassas expert John Hennessy and Porter biographer William Marvel (this book was written before Marvel's study was published), the authors convincingly portray McDowell as a very poor defense and prosecution witness during his own ill-advised court of inquiry and the infamous Porter court-martial case. This book's analysis certainly agrees with the common argument that McDowell's participation in both proceedings, while clearing him of the most ridiculous accusations of being a traitor or having been drunk at Second Bull Run, did almost nothing to wipe away the stain to his reputation caused by his key involvement in both Bull Run military debacles. Given that history, one might have expected that that a deeply pained McDowell would, like so many other controversial generals, have pounced on the opportunity to publish a Civil War memoir defending his record, but he didn't. The authors of this book speculate that McDowell's reluctance might have stemmed from the fact that he had too frequently cited a lack of memory in deflecting criticism of his own actions at Second Manassas. After he had consistently claimed in court to not remember vital details and events that happened only months before, how would it have appeared to readers if he suddenly could do so decades later? Acerbic reviewers and partisan observers would have had a field day with that. There's no evidence presented to suggest that that line of thinking was part of the general's decision-making process, but it's an interesting possibility to consider.

Overall, Searching for Irvin McDowell does a solid job of establishing the significance of the general's role in the war and in fairly describing and assessing those considerable leadership flaws and battlefield mistakes that have contributed to his enduring low standing among the war's prominent generals.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Booknotes: Their Maryland

New Arrival:
Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862 by Alexander B. Rossino (Savas Beatie, 2021).

With Scott Hartwig's second volume coming soon (maybe/probably next year), I'm not looking to read another narrative history of the Maryland Campaign and Antietam battle. However, I am interested in what's in Alexander Rossino's Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862. Similar in format to Steven Stotelmyer's book from the same publisher, which challenged traditional accounts of General McClellan's role in the operation in five critical essays, Rossino examines seven issues involving "distortions" that "continue to shape modern understanding of the campaign." From the table of contents:
1. Rebel Revolutionary: Did Robert E. Lee Hope to Foment Rebellion in Maryland in September 1862?
2. High Hope for Liberating Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia Crosses the Potomac River, September 4–7, 1862.
3. Four Days on the Monocacy: Confederate Encampments Near Frederick City and the Implications for the Lost Orders Debate.
4. Dreams Dashed on the Rocks of Reality: The Army of Northern Virginia’s Mixed Reception in Maryland.
5. Rebels Photographed in Frederick, Maryland: The Case for September 1862.
6. The Army of Northern Virginia Makes a Stand: A Critical Assessment of Robert E. Lee’s Defensive Strategy at Sharpsburg on September 15–16, 1862.
7. A Very Personal Fight: The Role of Robert E. Lee on the Field at Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862.

The above chapters are supported by nine maps. Additional issues and questions are addressed in the appendix section.

The essay collection "sheds new light on old subjects and reinvigorates the debate on several fronts," and "reveals that many long-held assumptions about the Confederate experience in Maryland do not hold up under close scrutiny."

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Coming Soon (December '21 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for DEC 2021:

My Dear Sara: Civil War Letters 1861-1865 ed. by Robert Adams.
Invisible Wounds: Mental Illness and Civil War Soldiers by Dillon Carroll.
First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero by Meg Groeling.
North Carolina: A Military History by John Maass and Mark Bradley.

Comments: Even after counting some November carryovers, it will be a slim December similar to last year.

1 - These monthly release lists are not meant to be exhaustive compilations of non-fiction releases. They do not include non-revised/expanded reprints of previously published books, special editions not distributed to reviewers, and digital-only titles. Works that only tangentially address the war years are also generally excluded. Inevitably, one or more titles on this list will get a rescheduled release (and they do not get repeated later), so revisiting the past few "Coming Soon" posts is the best way to pick up stragglers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Seasonal reminder

It is once again time for the yearly reminder about how you the reader can help sustain Civil War Books and Authors.

1. As always, there are ways to help that do not cost anything extra and are completely private. Most pages on the site contain affiliate program hyperlinks (most commonly the blue-colored book titles), meaning CWBA might get a small commission from online purchases (of any item, not just books) made after clicking through those links, all at no additional cost to you.

2. You can also give directly to the CWBA Book Fund by clicking on the yellow "Donate" button below or the one prominently displayed in the right sidebar, fourth box down from the top. (Note: you do not need a PayPal account to make a donation).

Thank you to all who choose to contribute, and to those who have already been contributing, in either manner. It all helps to keep the site humming along and is much appreciated.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Booknotes: The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered

New Arrival:
The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered edited by Charles W. Mitchell and Jean H. Baker (LSU Press, 2021).

From the description: "Today the literature on Maryland's Civil War is vast and scattered. Given its location surrounding Washington, its unique proportion of enslaved and freeborn African Americans, and its circumstances as the site of significant Civil War battles, the state has always attracted historians. Original documents, in archives throughout the nation and in private collections, tell the story of the conflict, as do a number of secondary sources. This book of essays brings together new scholarship based on these sources, hence the title "The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered." Contributors afford new insights on familiar subjects, along with the development of previously unexplored topics."

Edited by Charles Mitchell and Jean Baker, The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered is a major collection of new essays addressing a range of social, military, and political topics spanning the antebellum period through to today. The volume's thirteen essays listed below can be further categorized into two main types. The first is "based primarily on previously unused material and framed by new methods." The second type "provides comprehensive overviews and synthesis to critical episodes in the state's Civil War history."

• Foreword, Adam Goodheart.
• Introduction, Jean H. Baker and Charles W. Mitchell.
• “Border State, Border War: Fighting for Freedom and Slavery in Antebellum Maryland,” Richard Bell.
• “Charity Folks and the Ghosts of Slavery in Pre–Civil War Maryland,” Jessica Millward - "employs new sources in her analysis of how gender shaped the experience of Maryland's enslaved women during the period."
• “Confronting Dred Scott: Seeing Citizenship from Baltimore,” Martha S. Jones - "focuses on the Baltimore courts where blacks continued to assert their rights. Jones's study reveals a previously overlooked aspect of the Dred Scott decision after Maryland's high courts gave blacks standing to sue in state courts."
• “‘Maryland Is This Day . . . True to the American Union’: The Election of 1860 and a Winter of Discontent,” Charles W. Mitchell - "examines the issues and candidates of the 1860 election and the participation of its leaders in the subsequent secession winter, concluding that the election was a harbinger of the state's loyalty to the Union."
• “Baltimore’s Secessionist Moment: Conservatism and Political Networks in the Pratt Street Riot and Its Aftermath,” Frank Towers - "brings together the current scholarship on the Pratt Street riot of April 19, 1861, and discusses the significance of the riot in subsequent events."
• “Abraham Lincoln, Civil Liberties, and Maryland,” Frank J. Williams - "synthesizes material on civil liberties in Maryland during the Civil War."
• “The Fighting Sons of ‘My Maryland’: The Recruitment of Union Regiments in Baltimore, 1861–1865,” Timothy J. Orr - "relying on public records, focuses on the recruitment of Union regiments in Baltimore, a city of divided loyalties; his conclusion speaks to the relationship of the federal, state, and city governments during the war."
• “‘What I Witnessed Would Only Make You Sick’: Union Soldiers Confront the Dead at Antietam,” Brian Matthew Jordan - "goes beyond the familiar descriptions of the battle of Antietam to investigate the reaction of soldiers and civilians to the carnage."
• “Confederate Invasions of Maryland,” Thomas G. Clemens - "analyzes the effect of the critical Confederate invasion of the state leading to the battle Antietam, in which local events had a dramatic effect on our national history."
• “Achieving Emancipation in Maryland,” Jonathan W. White - "investigates a critical episode in the state's history: the contentious process in which the soldiers' vote played a significant role in freeing Maryland's slaves in 1864, even as pro-slavery advocates in the state legislature fought to preserve the institution."
• “Maryland’s Women at War,” Robert W. Schoeberlein - "discusses the ways in which Union and secessionist women crossed traditional boundaries to support their respective wars."
• “The Failed Promise of Reconstruction,” Sharita Jacobs Thompson - "examines the Reconstruction period in Maryland, emphasizing how local circumstances interacted, and in some cases, modified national policies."
• “‘F––k the Confederacy’: The Strange Career of Civil War Memory in Maryland after 1865,” Robert J. Cook - "working within the framework of memory studies, explores the construction and evolution of Maryland's Civil War memories from 1865 to the present day when the subject has entered contemporary politics."

Filling nearly 350 pages of material, this compilation "illuminates the complexities of Maryland's Civil War story, an endlessly fascinating subject that remains a part of our most powerful national memory, defining who we are not only as Marylanders, but as Americans."

Monday, November 22, 2021

Book Snapshot: "The Summer of ’63: Vicksburg and Tullahoma"

Concurrent (though not necessarily coordinated) offensive operations across multiple theaters figured prominently in several of the Civil War's key intervals (ex. the series of Confederate late summer-early fall 1862 advances and the Union Army's massive offensive of spring 1864). Certainly one of the most significant of these confluences of events occurred in the middle of 1863 when large-scale campaigns conducted within all three major fighting corridors—the eastern theater, the Mississippi River Valley, and the western heartland—all resulted in major Union victories. Created as a companion volume to The Summer of ’63: Gettysburg - Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War (2021), Chris Mackowski and Dan Welch's The Summer of ’63: Vicksburg and Tullahoma - Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War (Savas Beatie, 2021) addresses the other two campaigns forming that summer's trio of Union triumphs.

The book's content consists of a potpourri of 39 pieces drawn from the now extensive ECW multimedia archives. Highly variable in length and encompassing both formal and informal styles of presentation (among the latter are some personal journeys written in first person), the collection includes a great range of categories and topics, among them battle history, biography, contemporary poetry, firsthand battle accounts, book chats, interviews, civilian experiences, leader analysis, strategic discussion, memorialization, and transcriptions of tours and speaking events. The theme of Vicksburg and Gettysburg coverage greatly overshadowing that of Tullahoma in both the Civil War literature and the popular imagination (the book was compiled before the publication of David Powell and Eric Wittenberg's Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 - July 4, 1863) is reflected in the volume's own chapter distribution (29 Vicksburg versus 10 Tullahoma Campaign pieces).

With some original contributions added along with transcriptions of audio and visual presentations, the book is not entirely a clip show of previously published ECW material. Blog pieces have also been updated, expanded, and/or annotated for this publication. A selection of favorite chapters includes an appreciation of the Grant-Porter partnership, a deep dive into the story of Abraham (the slave who was allegedly blown into Union lines during the second Vicksburg mine explosion), the story of the 8th Wisconsin's eagle mascot "Old Abe," a good account of the Battle of Liberty Gap, and a look at dying Confederate general John S. Bowen's role in the Vicksburg surrender. The book's lengthy transcription of a live ECW tour of the Vicksburg Campaign (which included a photo of a large structure constructed atop high stilts) also evoked fond memories of my hurried, and probably unwise, side trip to Grand Gulf amid disconcertingly rising Mississippi River waters.

Supplementing the text are numerous photographs and eight maps. The two volumes of The Summer of '63 are part of the new ECW Anniversary Series, and there is another one already in the release pipeline titled Grant vs Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Booknotes: Gettysburg 1963

New Arrival:
Gettysburg 1963: Civil Rights, Cold War Politics, and Historical Memory in America's Most Famous Small Town by Jill Ogline Titus (UNC Press, 2021).

During the middle year of the Civil War Centennial, "(c)ommemorative events centered on Gettysburg, site of the best-known, bloodiest, and most symbolically charged battle of the conflict. Inevitably, the centennial of Lincoln's iconic Gettysburg Address received special focus, pressed into service to help the nation understand its present and define its future--a future that would ironically include another tragic event days later with the assassination of another American president."

In seeking to contextualize the period and its meaning, much of the Centennial scholarship focuses most closely on the concurrent Civil Rights movement but Jill Titus's Gettysburg 1963: Civil Rights, Cold War Politics, and Historical Memory in America's Most Famous Small Town also brings interrelated Cold War social and political tensions to the fore.

Titus sees three major narratives (all "rooted in the anniversary's Cold War context") that came out of 1963 attempts by those in government "to harness the symbolic power of Gettysburg to connect the battle to contemporary struggles to define America's place in the world and the future of black citizenship in the United States." "The first was a states' rights interpretation of the war that branded the intensifying black freedom struggle as a frontal attack on the liberties of white Americans and the political ideals of the nation; the second a conviction that the best way to honor those fallen at Gettysburg was to work for racial justice in the present; and the third a Cold War-themed call to embrace a consensus version of the Civil War past that could help spread American democracy, capitalism, and technology around the world."

More from the description: By studying "the experiences of political leaders, civil rights activists, preservation-minded Civil War enthusiasts, and local residents," Titus "uses centennial events in Gettysburg to examine the history of political, social, and community change in 1960s America." In the end, different groups would "define the meaning of the battle, the address, and the war in dramatically different ways."

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Review - "The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad" by David Smithweck

[The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad by David Smithweck (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, line drawings, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pp 158. ISBN:978-1-4671-4974-7. $21.99]

On August 5, 1864 a US Navy squadron commanded by Admiral David G. Farragut comprised of single and double-turret monitors and wooden warships steamed in parallel columns past the forts guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay and engaged a much weaker defending Confederate squadron. The ensuing action resulted in a complete Union victory, highlighted by the capture of the bay's most powerful Confederate ship, the ironclad CSS Tennessee, and the surrender of the forts. Tragically, however, the first of Farragut's ships to enter the bay, the USS Tecumseh, struck a torpedo and sank so rapidly that 93 crew members could not escape. Presumably, many of those unfortunate souls remain entombed within the sunken wreck to this day.

In order to frame reader expectations regarding David Smithweck's The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad, it needs to be mentioned up front that the volume is very different from the popular-style narrative histories typically released through this publisher. Though there is bridging text and patches of interpretive narrative sprinkled about, the vast majority of the volume's content is comprised of useful reference material in the form of reports, source excerpts, photos, illustrations, drawings, survey notes, and biographies.

The design, construction, deployment, and wartime history of the vessel are very briefly summarized in a pair of chapters only a few pages each in length. Discussed in them are several new design features aimed at addressing flaws made apparent during the original Monitor's active service. The background overview sections, like the rest of the book, are thickly populated with block quotes from firsthand accounts and contain all manner of visual aids of the variety referenced earlier.

Contents are loosely organized as a collection of largely independent chapters related to the ship and the Battle of Mobile Bay. One addresses the topic of torpedoes, noting how singularly unlucky the Tecumseh was given the age of the torpedoes deployed in the bay (these were emplaced as much as two years earlier) and considering how so many others, presumably waterlogged or with corroded mechanisms, failed to detonate during the battle. Another chapter looks at the bay forts (Morgan, Powell, and Gaines), mostly highlighting their weaponry. Perhaps that material was included to provide context for outlier reports that the ironclad was sunk by cannon fire. Eyewitness accounts of the sinking from a variety of shipboard and onshore observers are collected in another section, and some officer profiles and newspaper reports are compiled inside another pair of chapters.

Many readers are probably unaware that Civil War Centennial plans existed to raise the ironclad and display it in all its restored glory at a new Smithsonian-operated Bicentennial Park in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, those highly ambitious plans fell through due to lack of legislative interest and funding. However, before that, the Smithsonian commissioned an extensive survey of the wreck site, and the book includes a fascinating selection of dive notes. The transcribed notes offer a multitude of insights into the process of conducting mid-twentieth century underwater archaeology and ship/artifact preservation. As another good example of archaeology working hand in hand with eyewitness and documentary accounts, the divers found and mapped the battle damage to the hull (which faced upward and at an angle, as the ship rolled over as it sank), and they confirmed that the fatal blow was due to a torpedo. Evidence discovered around the ironclad was highly suggestive of the killing blow having been dealt by a frame torpedo. In another example of archaeological investigation complementing eyewitness history, the position of the rudder confirmed that the ship had veered away from its planned course and into the marked minefield just before it was fatally struck. The notes also insightfully highlight many of the more general challenges to underwater archaeology, namely weather, tides, visibility, and funding.

Before the survey was completed and the hull resealed (but unfortunately not reburied), a number of artifacts were recovered, and these are also pictured and labeled in the book. The results of later surveys, mostly conducted on a monitoring basis, are also summarized. Sadly, evidence of looting attempts (by cutting through the hull) were discovered during surveys performed subsequent to the Smithsonian "Tecumseh Project" of July 1967, and the uncovered hull has suffered some deterioration. Happily, the latest NPS survey from 2019 showed no recent damage.

While a full history of the Tecumseh and its crew prior to its sinking remains to be written, Smithweck's book nevertheless houses an important and often engrossing collection of reference material for students of Civil War naval engagements, ironclad warship technology, and underwater conflict archaeology to consult and appreciate.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Booknotes: After Vicksburg

New Arrival:
After Vicksburg: The Civil War on Western Waters, 1863-1865 by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland, 2021).

No other individual has documented the histories of the men and machines that prowled the West's inland waterways during the Civil War in more detail than Myron Smith. In eight volumes published from 2007 to 2017  (all of which, I believe, have been reviewed on this site over the years), Smith has created a frequently exhaustive record of timberclad, tinclad, and ironclad gunboat operations on western and Trans-Mississippi waters while also assembling for the reader a vast biographical compilation of key figures associated with the subject, both military and civilian. His newest installment, After Vicksburg: The Civil War on Western Waters, 1863-1865, covers the many lesser-known and appreciated actions that occurred after the Union "Brown Water Navy" finally seized control of all three major western rivers—the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and, most notably, the entire length of the Mississippi.

From the description: "This is the first published comprehensive survey of naval action on the Mississippi River and its tributaries for the years 1863-1865. Following introductory reviews of the rivers and of the U.S. Navy's Mississippi Squadron, chronological Federal naval participation in various raids and larger campaigns is highlighted, as well as counterinsurgency, economical support and control, and logistical protection."

Chapters cover military operations along with military and commercial interdiction on both sides of the Mississippi, including 1863-64 actions in the Cumberland Mountains, the Red River Campaign of 1864 in Louisiana, Nathan Bedford Forrest's attacks on river forts in Kentucky and Tennessee, White River actions subsequent to the Union capture of the Arkansas capital, and late-war activities on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. In those chapters, "(t)he book includes details on units, locations and activities that have been previously underreported or ignored." Finally, "(t)he last chapter details the coming of the peace in 1865 and the decommissioning of the U.S. river navy and the sale of its gunboats."

Though the title suggests that this could be the final volume in the informal series, a quick skim through the introduction provides no indication that this is the last of Smith's publishing plans for the topic.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

2021 Civil War book award winners list

Tom Watson Brown Award:
Thavolia Glymph for The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (UNC Press).

Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History:
Thavolia Glymph for The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (UNC Press).

A.M. Pate Award:
TBA (I believe in January).

Albert Castel Book Award:
This is a biennial prize awarded on even-numbered years.

Dan and Marilyn Laney Prize:
H. W. Brands for The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom (Knopf).

Richard Barksdale Harwell Book Award:
Stephen Davis for Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood (Mercer UP).

Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize:
David S. Reynolds for Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times (Penguin).

Wiley-Silver Prize:
Ariel Ron for Grassroots Leviathan: Northern Agricultural Reform in the Slaveholding Republic (Johns Hopkins UP).

Fletcher Pratt Award:
Stephen Davis for Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood (Mercer UP).

Douglas Southall Freeman History Award:
Stephen Davis for Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood (Mercer UP).

OAH Civil War and Reconstruction Book Award:
Thavolia Glymph for The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (UNC Press).

Also, CWBA Book of the Year recognition is TBA.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Booknotes: Choctaw Confederates

New Arrival:
Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country by Fay A. Yarbrough (UNC Press, 2021).

As one of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" of Indian Territory to sign alliance treaties with the Confederacy, the Choctaw found several reasons to commit themselves to that risky military and political realignment, among them their sudden abandonment by the federal government, their cultural affinity with southern society, and concerns of self-interest/self-preservation. The literature of Civil War-period Indian Territory is dominated by Cherokee and Creek studies (especially the former), so the publication of Fay Yarbrough's Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country is notably welcome on that measure alone.

Of course, a major element of the aforementioned affinity with southern culture was slavery. From the description: "When the Choctaw Nation was forcibly resettled in Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma in the 1830s, it was joined by enslaved Black people—the tribe had owned enslaved Blacks since the 1720s. By the eve of the Civil War, 14 percent of the Choctaw Nation consisted of enslaved Blacks."

Across Indian Territory, support for the Confederacy was far from universal, however, and the war deeply divided some tribes and exacerbated preexisting internal factionalism that had its origins in the Removal treaties of previous decades. According to Yarbrough, the Choctaw ranked among the more enthusiastic Confederates. More from the description: "Avid supporters of the Confederate States of America, the Nation passed a measure requiring all whites living in its territory to swear allegiance to the Confederacy and deemed any criticism of it or its army treasonous and punishable by death. Choctaws also raised an infantry force and a cavalry to fight alongside Confederate forces."

Organized in the summer of 1861, the First Regiment, Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles (commanded by former Indian agent Douglas Cooper and mixed-blood Choctaw Lt. Col. Tandy Walker) is the best known unit of Confederate Choctaws, fighting in the Trans-Mississippi theater across a wide geographical area of operation that included parts of Indian Territory, Missouri, and Arkansas. The regiment is also the primary source of Yarbrough's investigation into Choctaw wartime motivations and experiences. Her groundbreaking study "reveals that, while sovereignty and states' rights mattered to Choctaw leaders, the survival of slavery also determined the Nation's support of the Confederacy. Mining service records for approximately 3,000 members of the First Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles, Yarbrough examines the experiences of Choctaw soldiers and notes that although their enthusiasm waned as the war persisted, military service allowed them to embrace traditional masculine roles that were disappearing in a changing political and economic landscape."

In the end, by "drawing parallels between the Choctaw Nation and the Confederate states, Yarbrough looks beyond the traditional binary of the Union and Confederacy and reconsiders the historical relationship between Native populations and slavery."

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Review - "The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment" by Bonner & McCord

[The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment by Michael Brem Bonner & Peter McCord (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Hardcover, tables, appendix section, notes, list of works cited, index. Pages main/total:viii,170/225. ISBN:978-1-62190-670-4. $45]

The literature of the 1861-65 Union blockade of the southern coastline is rich and continues to expand. As just one example of its ever-evolving nature, scholarly examination of the international dimensions of the American Civil War is in high fashion at the moment, and the trend has produced numerous new works on blockade-related diplomacy as well as more in-depth looks at Britain's participation in all aspects of blockade running. The blockade remains a fairly contentious topic, with well-regarded historians lined up on both sides of the debate regarding the its effectiveness and whether it was a decisive factor in Union victory and Confederate defeat. Reexamining those questions, particularly the former, is Michael Bonner and Peter McCord's fascinating new study The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment.

Using the existing published literature as the foundation for their research, Bonner and McCord craft a synthesis history of the blockade and blockade running that is concise yet remarkably thorough for a narrative less than 200 pages in length. Through examining policy and practices as well as the outcomes of particular inciting events (ex. the prewar Vixen and wartime Petrel and Labuan affairs), the authors do a fine job of explaining how all three parties—the belligerent United States and Confederate governments and neutral Great Britain—attempted to manipulate any and all gray areas of international law regarding blockades and neutral shipping rights (as then recently defined in the Declaration of Paris) to their own benefit while at the same time assiduously seeking to avoid creating harmful precedent for present and future conflicts. In striving to escape war with the US while still keeping access to southern cotton (the latter by respecting the blockade but looking the other way when it came to officially endorsing blockade running), the professionalism of the British Empire's diplomatic corps is credited most by Bonner and McCord for avoiding more serious conflict and in best upholding established maritime law. Also discussed are Union blockade strategy and tactics (including how geographical challenges were confronted) along with the evolving naval ship numbers and composition of blockading squadrons. On the Confederate side of the equation, blockade running tactics, new ship designs, cargoes, and technologies are addressed, as are relevant failures in diplomacy and economic policy (ex. King Cotton diplomacy and the early-war embargo). Another chapter offers insights into how Confederate high-seas commerce raiders affected the blockade.

In terms of freshest material, the book shines brightest in its latter third, where all of the arguments regarding blockade effectiveness are reexamined. More than most, Bonner and McCord convey a broad appreciation of the psychological effects of the blockade. The authors argue that the blockade imposed a progressively demoralizing impression of impending doom on the Confederate home front as well as an unavoidably high-profile and dispiriting window into superior Union military might. They base this on a selection of well-known Confederate diaries (with the assumption that letters would offer the same sentiments), but it would be interesting to also consider geography and class as additional factors (the latter from groups less accustomed to imported luxuries). On the Union side, the blockade declaration provided a needed morale boost in the North when news on the war front was less encouraging in 1861.

One of the chief problems in assessing blockade effectiveness, and a large reason why it remains a topic of eternal scholarly debate, lies in the difficulty in establishing a common definition and its parameters. In each discussion, Bonner and McCord weigh competing scholarly arguments and then offer their own assessment. As a corollary to the psychological impact of the blockade, the 'deterrent effect' argument for the blockade's effectiveness is one that does not greatly impress the authors of this study. While acknowledging in passing that the blockade led to an almost immediate cessation of ordinary international and intersectional bulk-shipping trade as well as suppression of sail-powered intercoastal trade, Bonner and McCord find no evidence that blockade had a deterrent effect on those seeking the opportunity to challenge it. However, limiting the research sample to the high risk/high reward players doesn't strike one as a representative enough data pool from which to draw general conclusions regarding the overall deterrence effect. Though conceding the fact that deciding not to engage in an enterprise will always be far less documented than actually doing so, the authors nevertheless cite a year on year increase in the number of steamships that ran the blockade 1861-64 before coming to the conclusion that the "blockade-as-a-deterrent" model will always remain "speculative" (pg. 139). While informative in its way, this section's analysis is arguably the book's least convincing.

In the context of the accepted view that Confederate home industry was inadequate to sustain a modern war machine, the axiom that Confederate armies never lost a battle due to lack of arms and ammunition is commonly cited as a reason to suggest the blockade was ineffective. The authors agree with that general assertion, though one might argue that it is too simplistic and due for a modern reassessment of its own.

On the other hand, proponents of an effective blockade claim that the Union's Navy's efforts in that regard rank highest among those factors that resulted in the wrecking of the southern economy, many sectors of which were import-dependent before the war. The authors of this study certainly agree that the blockade had a contributory effect in creating consumer and industrial goods scarcities that exacerbated pricing inflation, but, like some others, they see domestic actions (chief among them disastrous Confederate fiscal and monetary policies) and other limitations as more significant.

Where the authors of this study make their own greatest contribution to the blockade discussion is in their statistical analysis of effectiveness through quantitative investigation of blockade running attempts, successes, and captures. Employing two authoritative data sets compiled by historians Marcus Price and Stephen Wise, Bonner and McCord gauge blockade interdiction effectiveness over time through twelve three-month "phases" from October 1861 through October 1864 (with the periods before and after deemed outliers). The results are striking in that they directly contradict decades of commonly accepted assumptions that the blockade's efficiency increased over time. This book's analysis demonstrates that blockade efficiency steadily decreased (as a function of number of steamers captured or destroyed divided by total blockade running attempts) from a July 1862 peak of nearly 68% to a wartime nadir of less than 13% for late-1864's phase twelve. Why the blockade was at its least efficient when it was at its peak in terms of numbers and types of ships employed and experience levels of admirals, captains, and crews (and those after most major ports or outlets were captured) is not a topic of extensive conjecture in the book, with the authors simply citing the technological advances in blockade runner design and technology possibly outweighing those other factors. In viewing the blockade as a campaign in its own right, the war's longest and most continuous, the authors also perceptively note the stark contrast in attrition between Confederate army and Confederate blockade-running resources. While the Confederate Army was being progressively ground down from 1862-64, the blockade running part of the war effort was always able to both replace its prodigious losses and augment its fleet with significant year on year increases in blockade-runner total tonnage, with an 1864 peak. Lest one overstate their conclusions, it should also be noted that the authors make clear that their novel observation "does not negate the blockade's overall effectiveness" (pg. 162) or its status as a major contributor to Union victory.

As the authors maintain, all of the above demonstrates how difficult it is to arrive at general statements without some contradiction regarding the effectiveness of the Union blockade of southern ports during the Civil War. That the blockade could be both an important contributor to Union victory (and thus presumed to be effective) but also startlingly ineffective when it came to catching steam-powered blockade runners exemplifies one of the central themes of the book, the argument that gauging effectiveness often depends on how general or specific the question under consideration. The examples cited above along with others unmentioned here lead one to arrive at a more nuanced appreciation of the blockade as both effective and ineffective. Because this debate will always be open to multiple lines of interpretation, it will undoubtedly remain a subject of sustained scholarly publishing, and this new offering from Michael Bonner and Peter McCord is a notable addition that effectively synthesizes, questions, and augments our current understanding.