Monday, May 20, 2024

Author Q&A: Charles McLandress on "Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor"

The CWBA author interview feature returns with a new Q&A session, this time with Charles W. McLandress, editor of Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor. Civil War naval historians consider the Keeler correspondence among the top rank of firsthand accounts of the conflict afloat, and this is the first publication to reproduce those letters in full.

CWBA: Thank you for joining us, Charles. Your author bio reveals that you are the great-great-grandson of Paymaster Keeler. In your experience up to now, was his Civil War service still a topic of discussion in family circles?

CM: Thank you, Drew, for inviting me to do this interview. Unfortunately, no one in my immediate family is particularly interested in the American Civil War. Our dinner table conversations tend to revolve around what the kids learned at school and why the Maple Leafs never make it beyond the first round of the playoffs.

CWBA: Where do Keeler’s letters reside today? Does the family still possess any of his original writings or wartime mementos?

CM: A decade after the end of the Civil War Keeler bound his letters in a book that he entitled My Naval Experience. That “letter book” now resides at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, MD. How the book got there is itself an interesting story: Following the death of Keeler’s wife Anna in 1901, the book passed to their only surviving child Elizabeth who in 1926 sold it to Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, a collector of rare books and manuscripts. The book remained in Rosenbach’s possession for nearly two decades, during which time he offered it for sale to soon-to-be-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and listed it in his 1938 sales catalogue for a whopping $24,000 (roughly $500,000 today!). Rosenbach sold the letter book to the Naval Academy in 1943, along with other naval material, for an undisclosed amount of money. My family has none of Keeler’s original writings. My grandmother attributes that state of affairs to a fire that destroyed her mother’s house in Berkeley, CA in 1923 along with all of the family records stored therein.

Only a handful of Keeler’s mementos have survived; none of them are from the Civil War. All that is in my possession is a silver fork inscribed with “Paymaster” on the front and “United States Steamer Monitor” on the back and several of his business cards. A distant cousin of mine has photos of Keeler and his wife.

CWBA: Civil War naval historians often cast a jealous eye toward their army counterparts when it comes to the number and richness of available firsthand accounts. Aside from Keeler’s letters, how many Monitor crew correspondence collections, journals, and memoirs exist?

CM: As far as I know the only other collection of letters from someone who served on the Monitor are those of 1st Class Fireman George S. Geer, which are a far cry from Keeler’s vivid letters. There are a number of accounts of the battle with the CSS Virginia and the sinking of the Monitor written by several of the officers and crew of the Monitor. However, since those accounts were written long after the war, they lack the immediacy and vividness of Keeler’s contemporaneous letters.

CWBA: The significance of the Keeler letters to scholars is unquestioned. What service-related topics did he write about that are, in your view, most uniquely valuable? How would you describe his writing style?

CM: Since, as paymaster, Keeler had neither an active role in the operation or management of the vessels on which he served nor a station in battle, he was ideally suited to observe and record events. With a keen eye for detail and an agile pen he was the perfect chronicler. His vivid description of the epic naval battle between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads, VA on March 9, 1862 is in my opinion his most uniquely valuable contribution to naval history. Since he was the person who transmitted the verbal messages between the pilot house where the captain was stationed and the turret where the two guns were located, he was uniquely placed to accurately describe the battle, which he did in vivid detail. The fact that the Monitor’s captain John Worden, who was injured during the battle, did not write an official report about the battle, makes Keeler’s account even more valuable. In addition, Keeler’s detailed descriptions of other engagements, such as the failed ironclad attack on Fort Darling on the James River near Richmond on May 15, 1862 are also important. With an eye for detail Keeler also described in detail his responsibilities as a Civil War naval paymaster. Those descriptions are more numerous in his letters from the USS Florida.

In describing Keeler’s writing style the words that come to mind are wonderfully vivid, descriptive, colorful, graphic, forceful, insightful, thoughtful, and at times humorous.

CWBA: What are some of your favorite episodes/anecdotes from the Keeler letters?

CM: Keeler’s accounts of their nearly disastrous trip to Hampton Roads and the ensuing battle with the CSS Virginia and the sinking of the USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras, NC on December 31, 1862 are of course at the top of my list. His descriptions of the naval blockade of the Confederate port city of Wilmington while he was serving on the USS Florida, in particular the excitement of chasing blockade runners, also make for great reading. Surprisingly, what impressed me the most were his vivid descriptions of people he encountered during the war.

Here are three nice examples of the latter:

Keeler’s description of President Lincoln’s visit to the Monitor on May 7, 1862 is particularly moving:
“Mr. Lincoln had a sad, care worn & anxious look in strong contrast with the gay cortege by which he was surrounded. As the boat which brought the party came along side every eye sought the Monitor but his own. He stood with his face averted as if to hide some disagreeable sight. When he turned to us I could see his lip quiver & his frame tremble with strong emotion & imagined that the terrible drama in these waters of the ninth [eighth] & tenth [ninth] of March was passing in review before him. As the officers were introduced I was presented as being from his own state. He was very happy he said to find one from Illinois on board the Monitor. He examined everything about the vessel with care, manifesting great interest. His remarks evidently shewing that he had carefully studied what he thought to be our weak points & that he was well acquainted with all the mechanical details of our construction. Most of our visitors come on board filled with enthusiasm & patriotism, ready, like a bottle of soda water, to effervesce the instant the cork is withdrawn. But with Mr. Lincoln it was different. His few remarks as he accompanied us around the vessel were sound, simple & practical. The points of admiration & exclamation he left to his suite. Before he left he had the crew mustered on the Spar deck & passed slowly before them hat in hand. It gives me pleasure to say, & I record it to his credit, that he declined the invitation to whiskey but took a glass of ice water.”

While the USS Florida was at Beaufort, NC taking on coal and supplies, Keeler and several fellow officers went to one of the nearby sandy islands for a clam bake. There on January 28, 1864 they encountered a poor white named “Aunt Peggy” about whom Keeler had the following to say:
“The only peculiarity about our visit on this occasion was a call on “Aunt Peggy” & I wish you could have been a witness to it. The house was made of rough board from the common yellow pine of the country, with cracks on all sides through which the chickens could almost run—one room which answered for kitchen, chamber & parlour for the family which I should have said were some of the “poor white trash” of the country & consisted as far as I could see of “Aunt Peggy” & two daughters, one of whom was married & her husband & three children went to make up the occupants of the single room. Two rough bedsteads, three chairs & a rough pine table comprised the furniture. Upon showing ourselves at the door, Aunt Peggy invited us to “walk in gentleman” & take some chairs. As I found that five of us couldn’t comfortably be seated in three chairs I was upon the point [of] seating myself upon one of the beds when Aunt Peggy rushed up with “Oh don’t set on the baby,” to which very reasonable request I of course assented & turning down a corner of the quilt brought to light a very pretty plump blue eyed baby . . . The two beds, which looked as if they had been “slept in forever & never made up,” occupied one end of the room. Opposite was the rude fire place, the hearth strewn with a motley collection of pine chips, dead embers, live coals & oyster shells, flanked by an old iron teakettle & a lazy dog. An application to “Aunt Peggy” for some water brought forth a reply something after this fashion—“Reckon there ain’t any. Dis yere tide’s so low it’s all gin out, but I kin give yer some right smart yaupon [tea].” . . . My curiosity to taste the beverage was conquered by conscientious scruples against consuming more than “my peck of dirt.” Some of the others who were not detered by trifles declared it tasted like a mingling of sage, catnip & boneset, flavored with quinine. I suppose they were fair specimens of the poor whites of the south. They declared themselves good Union folks, & I think truly so.”

In July 1865 the USS Florida transported four of the Lincoln assassination conspirators to a prison in the Florida Keys. They were Dr. Samuel Mudd (who set the broken leg of assassin John Wilkes Booth when he was on the run), Edmund Spangler (a carpenter and stagehand at Ford’s Theater where Lincoln was shot), Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen (both involved in two failed attempts to kidnap Lincoln). The following excerpt has been combined from two of Keeler’s letters:
“We have on board the President’s murderers (the unhung ones), taking them to the Dry Tortugas where government is to furnish them (except Spangler) with a residence for the rest of their lives. Spangler goes for six years. I only regret that these [men] didn’t go with Mrs. Surratt to keep her company we should have been saved this trip down here. Like most all criminals they all claimed that they had been found guilty upon false evidence. Dr. Mudd had a good deal to say about the trial, pointing out the evidence where it clashed as he thought, giving the character of various witnesses, calling attention to points which he thought had been overlooked or had not received sufficient attention from the court. He had had the evidence in his case, pro & con, published in book form & produced a copy which he commended to our careful perusal. He is about 30 years of age, though he looks much older. He leaves a wife & four children. He is said to be a sharp shrewd man but I saw nothing about him to indicate it. He has a sort of cunning, foxy look, as if possessed of plenty of low cunning & a desire for concealment. The officers in charge of them & who have had a good opportunity of knowing say that “Mrs. Surratt & him furnished the brains for the party” & they think that he should have accompanied her to the gallows, that her fate was just & merited they have no doubt & that she had any claims, as a woman, on executive clemency they deny. Spangler is a coarse, rough, uneducated, unprincipled man. His bull neck, bullet head & brutish features mark a villain, but without sufficient nerve & steadiness to carry out the villainny his heart would prompt. He appears to take his punishment (six years) quite stoically & appears at times quite light hearted. He protests with any amount of profanity his entire innocence of the charge, but admits that he has committed crime enough of other kinds to merit the punishment so that his sentence is not undeserved. The other two [Arnold and O’Laughlen] are young men, quiet & still, saying but little except when spoken to—men of no more than ordinary information & intelligence. With the exception of Dr. Mudd who may have the ability to plan I cannot conceive how the execution of plans of such vast consequences to the rebels could have been entrusted to such kind of persons.”

CWBA: Along the spectrum of editorial approaches, from light to heavy, your work is clearly on the latter end. Can you describe what you were trying to accomplish as editor of the material?

CM: Since historians today are more interested in the personal and social aspects of the Civil War than they were in the past, I placed more emphasis on the people Keeler mentioned in his letters than did Robert Daly (the editor of the two volumes of Keeler’s letters published in the 1960s) who focused almost exclusively on naval and military matters. I did this by adding footnotes in the letters, as well as a biographical notes section at the end of the book. Award-winning Civil War historian William C. Davis, who reviewed an earlier version of the book, commented that “the editing is useful but never intrusive” and that “McLandress has done a skillful job of illuminating the letters with frequent contextual commentaries, and excellent annotation to identify people and places mentioned in the letters.” Since I also wanted to make the book accessible to anyone interested in American history and not just Civil War aficionados, I started each chapter with an introduction which provides the necessary background and contextual information to easily follow the letters.

CWBA: Along those lines (in regard to content and editing), how does your fresh edition compare to Robert Daly’s two volumes published back in the 1960s?

CM: Robert Daly omitted roughly 40% of the content of Keeler’s letters. This, in conjunction with numerous editorial notes inserted in the middle of the letters, breaks up the letters and makes for difficult reading. In Ink, Dirt & Powder Smoke, I included Keeler’s letters in their entirety and placed the editorial notes at the bottoms of the pages. This makes for much smoother reading, thus further enhancing the richness and vitality of his writing. Since a fair chunk of the material deleted by Daly pertains to people and personal matters, the inclusion of the omitted material helps to fill out Keeler’s relationship with his friends and family back home, as well as providing us with vivid descriptions of many of the people he encountered. Some notable omissions by Daly include Keeler’s wonderful half-page description of the African-American Siah Hulett Carter who escaped from Shirley Plantation where he was enslaved and served as a 1st Class Boy on the Monitor and later on the USS Florida where he rose to the rank of Ordinary Seaman. Another is Union general Michael Corcoran’s Irish Brigade at Newport News, VA, which Keeler described as “halt, lame, hump backs, decrepit old men, boys, everything in fact who would a sogering go,” with the remainder being made up of “wild irishmen from the vilest holes of New York City.” The colorful description of Aunt Peggy quoted above was also omitted by Daly. The inclusion of trivial matters such as where to pasture their cow, whether to use corn or oats to feed their hens, the state of their garden, his wish to be back home eating strawberries and cream with Anna, and many more helps to fill out home-life back in La Salle, Illinois.

Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke includes a more in-depth discussion of Keeler’s life before and after the war. His growing up in Brooklyn, his work as a dry goods merchant in Bridgeport, CT, as well as his tragic trip to the California gold fields in 1849 where his two brothers died are discussed in much greater detail. The inclusion of the letters he wrote in the 1880s to a Connecticut collector named Frank H. Pierce who was gathering information about the Monitor (letters that were unavailable to Daly) give us Keeler’s final thoughts on the Monitor. These letters also provide a fitting end to his story since he was dying of heart disease as he wrote them. When he was too ill to write, Anna had to continue the correspondence. In her last letter to Pierce she wrote:
“The packing of the box was the last work Mr. Keeler ever did. The letter announcing its safe arrival reached him a day or two before his death and I told him of its contents. The keys of the safe of the Monitor that he had in his pocket when the vessel went down he left to our son and son in law.”

CWBA: The presentation of your book is very professional looking. Having gone through the entire process of self-publishing, are you satisfied with your decision and with the results? I would imagine that not having to submit to the abridgment compromises that Daly had to endure played a part in your decision-making.

CM: I am very happy with my decision to self-publish Keeler’s letters and very satisfied with the final result. Before going that route, however, I contacted the U.S. Naval Institute Press and several university presses about whether they would be interested in publishing a complete and unabridged version of Keeler’s letters. Given the length of my proposed book and the fact that an abridged version had already been published, they politely declined. Realizing that no publishing house would take on my project, I reached out to a friend of mine who self-publishes his own books. With some words of advice from him, I reformatted my MS word document for publication by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for paperback and by IngramSpark for both paperback and hardcover, and generated cover files for the books. The KDP paperback was published in July 2023 and the IngramSpark hardcover and paperback in September and December 2023, respectively. Since then I have been busy advertising the book, and to that end have built a website and a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/SealRiverPublishing/) to promote it. I have learned that self-publishing a book is the easy part, advertising it is not.

CWBA: Finally, I also found your website (https://www.sealriverpublishing.com) to be quite engaging. Can you share any plans for the future of Seal River Publishing?

CM: My website is the main vehicle for promoting my book. But it is actually much more than that, for it delves into my American-born mother’s family tree where a number of interesting characters lurk. My mother’s ancestors were from both the North and the South. Roughly three quarters were Southerners, with one third of them coming from a wealthy plantation in Louisiana. The remaining quarter were mainly Connecticut Yankees. The two sides came together when my great grandfather (a Northerner and the astronomer son of Paymaster Keeler) married my great grandmother (a Southerner from Oakley Plantation in Louisiana). In the Civil War, three of my Northern ancestors fought for the Union and six of the Southerners for the Confederacy.

I have two other book projects planned for Seal River Publishing. One is the letters of a great-great uncle of mine named Henry Melzar Dutton, who was a young lawyer in Connecticut when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted in a Connecticut infantry regiment in July 1861 and served in Nathaniel P. Banks’ army in western Maryland until the spring of 1862, in the Shenandoah Valley chasing Stonewall Jackson and finally in northern Virginia where he was killed at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in August 1862. Continuing down Paymaster Keeler’s branch of my mother’s family tree, I also plan a book containing the letters of Keeler’s grandson Henry Bowman Keeler who worked in China for the Standard Oil Company from 1915 until his death there at the age of 25 in 1918. Rich in detail and often very humorous, these letters provide a Westerner’s perspective of life in China during a period of great political upheaval when Western businessmen and missionaries, as well as Chinese river bandits and warlord generals’ armies, populated the landscape. My website has sample letters of Melzar Dutton and Henry Keeler, as well as a brief story of their lives.

Persons interested in learning more can subscribe to my mailing list on the website for updates to the webpage, as well as upcoming books, and follow my Facebook page for interesting posts about those books and the letter writers.

CWBA: Thank you, Charles. Readers, once again the title of Charles's book is Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor, available in both hardcover and paperback.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Booknotes: The Inland Campaign for Vicksburg

New Arrival:

The Inland Campaign for Vicksburg: Five Battles in Seventeen Days, May 1-17, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (UP of Kansas, 2024).

Michael Ballard's single-volume overview is a great choice for those with a more common interest in the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign. On the other hand, others wishing to explore every nook and cranny of the campaign without having to do the research themselves now have a grand trio of options in (1) Edwin Bearss's classic trilogy, (2) Warren Grabau's unique single tome, and (3) Timothy Smith's newly completed five-volume series (seven books if you include his standalone studies of Champion Hill and Grierson's Raid). Residing smack dab in the middle of the five-book run published by University Press of Kansas between 2020 and today is Smith's The Inland Campaign for Vicksburg: Five Battles in Seventeen Days, May 1-17, 1863. Among the majority of readers this is likely the series' most highly anticipated installment.

Beginning with Grant's army pressing inland from Bruinsburg and ending with the rout at Big Black River Bridge, Smith's book covers the ground addressed in Parts V, VI, and VII of Bearss's Volume II. From the description: Smith's work in this volume "sheds much-needed light to this often-misunderstood episode of the Union’s efforts to take Vicksburg. In the entire nine-month-long campaign, there was no more tension and drama than in these seventeen days when Grant’s Army of the Tennessee marched through the wilds of Mississippi, claiming victory after victory, tearing the heart out of the State of Mississippi and the Confederacy. By the end of the swift assault, Grant arrived victorious at the exact place he had worked to gain for months: the high ground east of Vicksburg where he had access to both the city and an open and unchallenged supply route via the Yazoo River to the north. He could finally begin the process of capturing Vicksburg."

Of course, the five battles referenced in the subtitle are Port Gibson, Raymond, First Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River Bridge, all resounding Union victories. Those accounts fill roughly 400 pages of narrative. More from the description: "Civil War historians have long disagreed about how to understand this moment of the Vicksburg Campaign as they analyze Union supply lines, the swiftness of the campaign, and other salient details of Grant’s success. Amid this debate, Tim Smith has written the first standalone investigation of the Inland Campaign, which boasts new insights, keen attention to primary sources, and a broad, clear-eyed look at Grant’s brilliance as he led the Army of the Tennessee toward Vicksburg." Supplementing the text are 22 maps, and orders of battle can be found in the appendix section.

CWBA reviews of the other four volumes in the series are linked below:
• Volume 1 - Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862 (2022)
• Volume 2 - Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863 (2023)
• Volume 3 - The Inland Campaign for Vicksburg: Five Battles in Seventeen Days, May 1-17, 1863 (2024)
• Volume 4 - The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863 (2020)
• Volume 5 - The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863 (2021)

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Review - "J.E.B. Stuart: The Soldier and the Man" by Edward Longacre

[J.E.B. Stuart: The Soldier and the Man by Edward G. Longacre (Savas Beatie, 2024). Hardcover, 12 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,392/442. ISBN:978-1-61121-680-6. $34.95]

Inevitably, the big four of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia—commanding general Robert E. Lee, wing/corps commanders James Longstreet and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, and cavalry leader James Ewell Brown Stuart—have each drawn the interest of multiple biographers over the decades. Just within the past few years we've had a major new Lee biography published as well as two full-length reexaminations of Longstreet's military career. Yet another current title reappraises Longstreet's post-war activities. Next up is a new full biography of the "Beau Sabreur of the Confederacy."

The first major twentieth-century biography, John William Thomason Jr.'s Jeb Stuart, was first published in 1930. That was followed in 1957 by Burke Davis's Jeb Stuart: The Last Cavalier. Nearly thirty years would pass until the next full-length treatment, Emory Thomas's Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart (1986), set the standard. More recently, Jeffry Wert, also a Longstreet biographer, was the next to contribute with his well-received 2008 study Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart. Also striving toward a more balanced assessment of Stuart's military successes and failures along with his leadership and character strengths and flaws is Civil War cavalry historian Edward Longacre's J.E.B. Stuart: The Soldier and the Man. Longacre's study is primarily a Civil War military biography but it does also offer solid coverage of Stuart's early life, West Point educational experience, and antebellum Regular Army service.

Generally speaking, Longacre joins most current historians in charting the course of Stuart's Civil War career as a tale of two halves. Between the beginning of the conflict and the middle of 1863, Stuart outclassed opposing cavalry formations inferior in leadership and organization. In the process he famously ran rings around the Army of the Potomac and seriously embarrassed the fledgling Army of Virginia. Additionally, in the performance of his duties as the eyes and ears of Lee's army, Stuart left little room for serious complaint. As 1863 progressed, however, the Army of the Potomac's cavalry branch finally came into its own in terms of leadership, training, and organization while at the same time surpassing Stuart's command in both individual trooper firepower and overall quantity and quality of horseflesh. In the views of Longacre and other eastern theater cavalry experts, Stuart from 1863 onward still largely excelled in the standard roles assigned to mid-19th century cavalry—from outpost operations when the armies were seasonally static to intelligence gathering, advance guard, screening front and flanks, rear guard, and direct attack actions—but his vastly improved opponents proved more capable of exposing Stuart's missteps and shortcomings.

Stuart scored high in artillery tactics at West Point, and the author credits him throughout the book with exceptional skill in the use of that support arm. How Stuart's tactical thinking may have evolved over the course of the war is mostly tangentially addressed. Longacre brings up Stuart's late-war attempt to create a tactical manual (through which he hoped to foster more standardized practices among his subordinates), and one might appropriately wonder why the general waited so long to do so. In the main, Longacre concludes that Stuart, though he displayed strong skills at managing combined arms, had an overall mixed record in terms of leadership judgment and performance (who among Civil War generals of Stuart's breadth of responsibility and length of service didn't?). On those occasions when Longacre feels Stuart's actions most deserving of censure he is very upfront about it, but one is hard pressed to discern a persistent pattern indicative of any fatal flaws in the flamboyant general's operational or tactical thinking (though the author is of the opinion that Stuart failed to adapt as readily as others did to the benefits of employing mixed—mounted and dismounted—cavalry formations in combat).

Stuart's Civil War military career has been exhaustively recounted in the pages of innumerable articles, biographies, battle/raid studies, and campaign histories, so there's no reason to list them again here. Suffice it to say that Longacre's coverage is fully comprehensive and his summaries of events more than suitable in depth. In well-rounded fashion, the author blends his own measured assessments of Stuart's leadership and actions with accounts judiciously representative of both contemporary and historiographical criticism and praise. The most controversial aspects of Stuart's military career, including his widely condemned decision-making during the march to Gettysburg, are addressed from multiple angles and points of view, leaving open-minded readers with much to consider. Critics then and now cast a judgmental eye toward Stuart's alleged surfeit of vanity, excessive love for the pageantry aspects of war (in dress, behavior, conducting military reviews, camp entertainment, etc.), and his enjoyment of the adulation and company of young women not his wife, but it's difficult to argue that those personal traits (and gossipy complaints attached to them) were of any great consequence when it came to Stuart's performance of his professional duties.

In most ways, Stuart was a genial and nurturing boss. Though he could be thin-skinned in response to public and professional barbs, in his reports Stuart routinely and generously shared credit for his command's successes and, when they deserved it, cast his own personal differences aside and praised officers with whom he did not get along (prominent examples being Grumble Jones and Beverly Robertson). Even when doing so helped take them away from his command, he also heartily supported the promotions of cherished subordinates. In the book Longacre documents numerous examples of the types of professional bickering and jealousies common to the hierarchies of Civil War military formations. Even though Stuart was one of his chief sponsors, Tom Rosser constantly sniped at him. Just as often, Wade Hampton moaned about Stuart's alleged favoritism toward any units but Hampton's own to anyone who would listen, but that did not stop Stuart from consistently affirming Hampton's value to his command. On a side note, Longacre suggests that Hampton might have been better suited than Stuart to lead the army's cavalry corps during the late-war phase of the arm's operational and tactical evolution. He is not alone in suggesting that.

Even for achievements that might seem largely critic-proof, Longacre reserves plenty of room for dissenting opinion. For example, Stuart's raids behind enemy lines were celebrated accomplishments inside and outside the army but more than a few serving in his ranks believed the wear and tear produced on man, beast, and equipment all too often not worth the result. With many of the factors that progressively hampered the efficiency of Stuart's command being structural (one being the Confederacy's lack of a central horse remount/rehabilitation system similar to what the U.S. Army created for its cavalry arm), the author does not note any particular administrative deficiencies in Stuart's leadership.

One of the most tantalizing what-ifs of Stuart's Civil War career surrounds the question of his retaining command of Stonewall Jackson's infantry corps after Chancellorsville. By most accounts, including Lee's, the poise with which Stuart assumed his mid-battle service branch transition and his seamless handling of Jackson's large command after it was abruptly thrust upon him were impressive. Wert's biography also awarded Stuart will similar plaudits. Given Stuart's history and personality, one might have expected him to be eager to return to the cavalry, but Longacre finds some reason to believe that Stuart was honestly disappointed when he wasn't offered the infantry corps leadership position, which would also have come with a much cherished promotion to lieutenant general, on a permanent basis. According to Longacre, Stuart also floated the idea in 1864 of leaving Lee's army if it meant a bump up in grade, though he does question the seriousness of the thought. Even though he led a corps-level command, Stuart never received that much hoped for promotion, dying a major general. The book does consider whether Lee lost confidence in Stuart from mid-war (post-Gettysburg) onward, but there's really not enough clear information available to arrive at a strong conclusion on that matter.

Combining the author's own extensive archival research with a strong engagement with the published literature, Edward Longacre's J.E.B. Stuart: The Soldier and the Man clearly and convincingly explains what made his subject such an effective cavalry commander. On the other side of the equation, the book vigorously but fairly articulates and explores the general's shortcomings and their consequences during specific campaigns and actions. The result is a comprehensive portrait of the military career of the Civil War's most iconic cavalryman, one that healthily rejects both hagiography and unwarranted fixation on critical assumptions regarding Stuart's character and motivations.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Booknotes - The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Peach Tree Creek to the Fall of the City

New Arrival:

The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Peach Tree Creek to the Fall of the City by David A. Powell (Casemate, 2024).

Following up on yesterday's introduction to the first installment of Dave Powell's two-part Atlanta Campaign contribution to the Casemate Illustrated series is today's brief announcement of its companion book, The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Peach Tree Creek to the Fall of the City.

Beginning where the previous volume left off, with John Bell Hood taking command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and attempting to flip the switch on who would be campaign's initiative holder during its second great phase, this book takes the reader through to the final battle at Jonesboro and the evacuation of Atlanta. In sum, it "portrays the final months of the struggle for Atlanta, from mid-July to September, including what remains to be seen of the battles around the city: Peachtree Creek, Atlanta, Decatur, and Ezra Church. The siege will cover historic views of Atlanta, operations east of the city, and the city’s capture. The cavalry chapter focuses on the Union cavalry raids south of Atlanta which ended in disaster. Finally, the fighting at Jonesboro will bring the series to a close."

As content format and presentation style are consistent series features, refer to the coverage of part one (linked above) for a few notes on those matters. I should mention that, in terms of unit and formation levels depicted, the maps in the books limit themselves to the higher elements of the army orders of battle. So they range from single lines representing entire army fronts to a bit more detailed depictions of division and brigade-scale actions for the larger, more involved battles covered in the second volume.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Booknotes - The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Sherman's Campaign to the Outskirts of Atlanta

New Arrival:

The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Sherman's Campaign to the Outskirts of Atlanta by David A. Powell (Casemate, 2024).

Dave Powell's The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Sherman's Campaign to the Outskirts of Atlanta is part of the Casemate Illustrated series. As it now stands, the series is heavily focused on WW2 topics but an 1862 Maryland Campaign installment was recently published, and Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Overland Campaign volumes are scheduled for this coming summer. As will be the case with Vicksburg, Powell's Atlanta coverage comes in two parts.

The course of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign is commonly divided into two major phases, the natural transition point being the arrival of both armies at the Chattahoochie River and the replacement of Confederate Army of Tennessee commander Joseph E. Johnston with John Bell Hood. Powell's pairing adopts that same concept.

From the description: "The first half of the campaign, from May to mid-July, can be defined as a war of maneuver, called by one historian the “Red Clay Minuet.” Under Joseph E. Johnston the Confederate Army of Tennessee repeatedly invited battle from strong defensive positions. Under William T. Sherman, the combined Federal armies of the Cumberland, the Tennessee, and the Ohio repeatedly avoided attacking those positions; Sherman preferring to outflank them instead. Though there were a number of sharp, bloody engagements during this phase of the campaign, the combats were limited. Only the battles of Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain could be considered general engagements."

Covered in this part one are Dalton, Resaca, Cassville, New Hope Church, Pickett's Mill, Dallas, Kolb's Farm, Kennesaw Mountain, and the Chattahoochee River Line. Visually oriented, the general format hearkens back to the classic Osprey style of overview presentation. So in addition to the tight narrative text there is a campaign timeline, orders of battle, color maps, photographs (both period and modern), classic artwork and illustrations, and army/leader profiles and sidebars.

Knowing that Powell is in the middle of writing a grand series of tomes that will do for the 1864 Atlanta Campaign what was done in three hefty volumes for the Chickamauga Campaign, the text here should provide some hints at lines of thinking that will be more fully developed in the future.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Booknotes: The Limits of the Lost Cause

New Arrival:

The Limits of the Lost Cause: Essays on Civil War Memory by Gaines M. Foster (LSU Press, 2024).

From the description: Gaines Foster's The Limits of the Lost Cause: Essays on Civil War Memory is "a collection of essays that challenge the prevailing ways of thinking about the impact of the Civil War on the American South." In Foster's introduction he discusses what he sees as the two main patterns that emerged in the interpretation of Civil War remembrance in the South. His "introduction provides a comprehensive overview of scholarship on the Lost Cause and Civil War memory that highlights the emergence of two ways of thinking about these topics: an older one, pioneered by C. Vann Woodward, that made a case for a southern identity shaped by defeat and guilt; and a more recent one, prevalent not only in current scholarship but in the press and public discussion, that suggests the South is still fighting the Civil War."

Eight essays covering a range of topics follow the introduction. More from the description: "Foster challenges Woodward's definition of southern identity in his first three essays, one of which also compares the South's response to defeat to America's response after the Vietnam War. His next four essays address diverse topics: how Civil War became the war's name and what that reveals; the promotion of racist symbolism and also a renewed nationalism in Thomas Dixon's The Clansman and D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation; an exploration of the memory of Robert E. Lee that evaluates his suitability to be a hero for today; and the white South's role in the expansion of federal power in the first half of the twentieth century."

Foster's essays challenge the interpretation, popular among many today, of the unending Civil War. Collectively, his essays "make a case for reunion and sectional reconciliation by the early twentieth century, which undermines the idea that the South was still fighting the Civil War. They also point to other lines of division within the United States, particularly between the nation's core and its periphery, in addition to the one between the North and South."

Of course, no book of this type would be complete without a discussion of the Confederate Battle Flag's place in recent public debates over historical memory and the unending Civil War. Saving that examination for the end, Foster's final essay "explores the complex divisions that have marked the fight over the public use of the Confederate battle flag over the last thirty years, making the case that the Lost Cause has had limited impact on support for the flag. Instead, Foster suggests, debates over the Confederate flag are rooted in differences in wealth and education, as well as urban-rural and deep partisan divides."

In sum: "Throughout these essays, and more explicitly in his conclusion, Foster argues that whenever one sees a Confederate flag or listens to an argument about Confederate symbolism, the temptation to talk about a continuing Civil War obscures more than it illuminates. Far more important, he suggests, is the extent of reunion and reconciliation between North and South, as well as the limits of the Lost Cause."

Friday, May 10, 2024

Booknotes: War in the Western Theater

New Arrival:

War in the Western Theater: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War edited by Chris Mackowski & Sarah Kay Bierle (Savas Beatie, 2024).

With something posted on the Emerging Civil War blog seemingly every day (and often multiple times per day), regular crew and guest writers there are a busy bunch. Every so often, founder Chris Mackowski and another editor compile theme-based articles for print publication as part of the Civil War history collective's 10th Anniversary Series. The latest, and eighth in the series, is War in the Western Theater: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War.

According to ECW's series description, the anniversary titles "not only collect some of our best blog posts, but they also include selected transcripts from Symposium talks and podcasts. Plus, each include original scholarship, as well, plus new maps and lots of photos. They’re not intended as complete narrative histories but are rather meant to reflect the eclectic conversation of topics and voices readers find on the blog itself." The goal is not just to provide a physical copy of previously published, and readily accessible, digital material but to truly embark on a "value-added" exercise. So the original blog pieces are "updated, and, in most cases, expanded and footnoted" (pg. xiv).

Around four dozen articles are compiled in this western-themed volume. In addition to discussing campaigns and battles (along with frequently featuring the involvement of individuals and units during particular episodes), chapters explore a variety of city, state, and family connections to the war in the western theater. Remembrance, what-if ponderings, debate, and analysis articles are also sprinkled about. Supplementing the text are eight maps and numerous other photographs and illustrations.

As summed up in the description, the articles collected in War in the Western Theater "bring together the best scholarship from Emerging Civil War’s blog, symposia, and podcast, revised and updated, together with original pieces designed to shed new light and insight on some of the most important and fascinating events that have for too long flown under the radar of history’s pens."

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Review - "The Cassville Affairs: Johnston, Hood, and the Failed Confederate Strategy in the Atlanta Campaign, 19 May 1864" by Robert Jenkins

[The Cassville Affairs: Johnston, Hood, and the Failed Confederate Strategy in the Atlanta Campaign, 19 May 1864 by Robert D. Jenkins, Sr. (Mercer University Press, 2024). Hardcover, 21 maps, 32 exhibits, photos, appendix section, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,247/402. ISBN:978-0-88146-931-8. $39]

Both Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston remained very much in character as their 1864 campaigns unfolded. On the Virginia front, despite the near-catastrophic leadership and manpower losses suffered by his army the previous year, Lee still maintained his customarily aggressive mindset against advancing Union forces. In stark contrast to Lee, Johnston ceded the initiative in North Georgia from the outset, adopting a far more passive approach to his wilderness clash with William T. Sherman's mighty western army group. Believing the odds stacked against his Army of Tennessee much too great to risk attacking moves and pitched battles, Johnston elected to trade space for time and hope that his wily opponent gifted him a favorable opening for an offensive counterstroke. It has often been proposed that the events of May 17-19, 1864 provided Johnston with just such an opportunity to turn the tables on his foe. Contrary to Confederate hopes and expectations, however, no such potentially campaign-altering battle materialized. Instead, the failure and disappointment stemming from the infamous "Cassville Affair" became a topic of enduring misunderstanding and controversy.

As the story goes, a plan involving a sharp backhand blow germinated in Johnston's mind on May 17 at Adairsville and matured by May 19 into an offensive operation. With the Army of Tennessee concentrated at Cassville after falling back from Adairsville upon multiple routes, John Bell Hood's corps would spring back and launch a surprise attack against an isolated and presumably strung-out portion of Sherman's pursuing host. That never came about. Rather than initiating a grand battle, Hood, who encountered the unexpected presence of a Union force of unknown size opposite his own flank, called off the May 19 morning attack and returned to a defensive posture. A disappointed Johnston, who doubted the veracity of Hood's claim, accepted that his plan miscarried and ordered his army to fall back again and entrench atop a new patch of high ground southeast of Cassville. There, the Army of Tennessee would await an expected Union attack on the morrow. Once again, things did not go as planned. Two of the army's senior officers (Hood and Leonidas Polk) pointed out that the high ground abandoned earlier in the day provided Sherman's gunners with prime rifled artillery platforms from which to enfilade Confederate lines. According to those two trusted corps commanders, such fire would render their fronts indefensible within hours. Startled by Hood and Polk's misgivings, though disagreeing with their stance, Johnston immediately ordered a general retreat across the Etowah River. The morning and afternoon/evening events comprising what came to be known as the Cassville Affair distressed the civilian leadership in Richmond, prompted the campaign's first major schism within the Army of Tennessee's high command structure, and demoralized an army rank and file promised both an end to retreats and an opportunity to inflict a telling blow on the enemy.

The problem with the traditional line of interpretation outlined above is that it was largely formed and perpetuated by Johnston in defense of himself and his actions. There have always been doubters of Johnston's version of events as handed down to posterity (Richard McMurry being one of the most prominent among them), but the substance of the entire affair has received remarkably little in the way of detailed reexamination over the years. That has changed in a major way with the publication of Robert Jenkins's The Cassville Affairs: Johnston, Hood, and the Failed Confederate Strategy in the Atlanta Campaign, 19 May 1864.

Examining each key component of the Cassville Affair in turn, Jenkins divides his analysis into two distinctive yet obviously connected sequences. These major event groupings are the Cassville Affairs of the book's title, the first being the aborted offensive that was the morning Cassville Affair and the second the abruptly abandoned defensive action that was the evening Cassville Affair. In each part, Jenkins, an attorney by profession, effectively combines blow-by-blow narrative accounts of the military movements and key decisions of both sides with the kinds of meticulously argumentative evidence breakdowns that one might assume lawyer-historians would revel in presenting to their captive reader-jurors. In addition to demonstrating a clear mastery of the confusing cartographic history of the series of events and misunderstandings that unfolded between Adairsville and Cassville, Jenkins skillfully enhances his own prodigious primary source research with a 'back to basics' critical analysis of original sources and influential secondary works. An item of particular interest is the author's reintroduction of McMurry's decades-old research findings in regard to a notable staff officer journal, samples of which underwent revision and one version of which (termed the "O" Sample of the T.B. Mackall journal) was submitted in altered form by Johnston himself for publication in the Official Records.

All key events that led into and comprised the May 19 Cassville Affair—including the Confederate retreat from Adairsville to Cassville, the Union pursuit and the fighting for Rome, Hood's movements north of Cassville and the Union cavalry operations that undid his plans, the May 19 afternoon redeployment of both armies southeast of Cassville, and what went into Johnston's ultimate decision to retreat across the Etowah without a battle—are described at consistently satisfying levels of clarity and detail. As Jenkins convincingly demonstrates, the high command's flawed knowledge of the road network around Cassville, in particular along the path of Hood's flanking march, directly led to a major thoroughfare (the Spring Place Road) being left completely unguarded by the Confederate cavalry screen. Union cavalry exploited that critical gap, and their startlingly aggressive plunge into Hood's flank and rear disrupted and ultimately halted the ambush offensive planned for the day. Of course, when military plans badly miscarry it is very often the case that the enemy also had something to do with it, and the book makes the case that Sherman's posture and decision-making profoundly influenced what happened and what didn't happen at Cassville. Disappointed in his mounted arm up to that point, Sherman lit a fire under his cavalry subordinates, and the book argues persuasively that that had a demonstrable impact on the cavalry's newfound aggressiveness. Significantly, is also pointed out by Jenkins that even if Union cavalry hadn't discovered and exploited the gap in Wheeler's screen northeast of Cassville the road principally targeted by Hood's ambush would have been empty that day solely due to Sherman's direct intervention.

Several noteworthy conclusions emerge from Jenkins's study. The author could find no evidence that Johnston, as he later claimed, developed a full-fledged offensive plan beginning on the 17th at Adairsville. Even the offensive action outlined for the 19th was Hood's plan, to which Johnston acquiesced. Additionally, instead of demonstrating a commanding general's mastery of the situation at Cassville on the morning of the 19th, Johnston's subsequent writings (as critiqued at length by Jenkins) instead revealed that the general possessed remarkably ill-informed conceptions of Hood's flank movement, the enemy threat to it, and the road network over which the day's events unfolded. Dismissing Hood's and Polk's claims that the army's afternoon orientation was indefensible in the face of concentrated enfilade fire, Johnston still ordered another retreat, citing the dangers inherent in attempting to hold defensive positions that two of his corps commanders had no confidence in maintaining. Citing evidence that points in a different direction, Jenkins alternatively concludes that this was essentially a latter-day excuse and Johnston most likely retreated upon receiving false reports that Sherman's men had already crossed the Etowah in force and were threatening Confederate lines of communication. In presenting that justification for his actions, Johnston failed to cite Hood and Polk on record in regard to their dual support for launching a major attack from those same positions both generals felt could not be defended. One might be tempted to believe that Johnston's story, in which he professed a determination to hold his ground and only retreated after two of his principal subordinates lost their nerve, was chiefly formulated to make the Fabian general, who was justifiably skeptical of the advisability of attacking Sherman's concentrated forces over the ground favored by Hood and Polk, look more like a fighting general to his critics. In sum, the book presents a strong case that the available evidence does not support Johnston's popular version of the Cassville Affair and his role in it.

Critical to understanding both the military movements meticulously traced in the narrative and the historiographical arguments and debates that emerged later, the volume's prodigious map set does not disappoint. Ranging from contemporary rough sketches and detailed military engineer drawings to well-executed modern cartography, the book's 21 numbered maps (and around a dozen more 1-2 page maps presented under the "exhibit" label) provide all the military detail readers might wish to have at their fingertips when evaluating the text. The maps are critical pieces in explaining all the period and modern understandings (and misunderstandings) associated with the historical road network spanning the large area of operations south of Adairsville, north of the Etowah River, and well east and west of the Western & Atlantic Railroad corridor. Rather than being interspersed throughout, the exhibits and maps are collected together near the front of the book. It is perhaps worthy of recommendation that knowledgeable and novice readers alike familiarize themselves with both before grappling with the volume's complicated discussions of the relevant geography. The maps, in conjunction with their detailed captions, bountifully arm the reader with the situational awareness necessary to more fully and more readily grasp the essential nuances found in the book's historiographical arguments and source debates, many of which tend to plunge deeply into the weeds.

This volume weighs the evidence and persuasively reasons toward a fresh understanding of a key series of disputed events from the early stages of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. As is always the case with historical discourse, questions and points of disagreement surely remain, but all future studies will have to contend with Jenkins's powerful arguments. Indeed, one looks forward to reading how David Powell, with whom Jenkins frequently discussed matters pertaining to Cassville, addresses this period in the first installment of his upcoming multi-volume history of the campaign. The Cassville Affairs is highly recommended.

Monday, May 6, 2024

Booknotes: Chorus of the Union

New Arrival:

Chorus of the Union: How Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas Set Aside Their Rivalry to Save the Nation by Edward Robert McClelland (Pegasus Bks, 2024).

Over a number of consecutive weeks straddling March and April it started to look like old times again with new releases pouring in, then the spigot turned off again. This book is actually a June 4 title. I don't know if you'll have to wait until then for its general release.

Numerous biographies and political histories examine at length the long record of political differences between Whig (then upstart Republican) Abraham Lincoln and the Democracy's "Little Giant" Stephen Douglas. Over time, their relationship evolved into one of the great rivalries of eighteenth-century American political discourse. From the description: "Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas are a misunderstood duo. History remembers them as antagonists, and for most of the years the two men knew each other, they were. In the 1830s, they debated politics around the stove in the back of Joshua Speed’s store in Springfield, Illinois. In the 1850s, they disagreed over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and debated slavery as opponents for a Senate seat. In 1860, they both ran for president."

Rather than return to the pair's classic antebellum political clashes, Edward Robert McClelland's new book Chorus of the Union instead stresses the key period when the two men came together to serve a single cause. More from the description: "When Douglas realized he was going to lose the 1860 election, he stopped campaigning for himself and went South to persuade the slave states to accept Lincoln as president. After that effort failed, and the newly formed Confederate States of America bombed Fort Sumter, Douglas met with Lincoln to discuss raising an army." With Douglas dying soon after on June 3, 1861, less than three weeks before First Bull Run, we'll never know how their relationship might have developed as the war progressed.

McClelland also discusses the role of environment and timing in Lincoln's rise. "(B)y focusing on the importance of Illinois to Lincoln’s political development, Chorus of the Union will challenge the notion that he was an indispensable “great man.” Lincoln was the right person to lead the country through the Civil War, but he became president because he was from the right place. Living in Illinois provided Lincoln the opportunity to confront Douglas over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The debates with Douglas during the 1858 Senate campaign brought him the fame and prestige to contend for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Lincoln's moderate views on slavery, which he developed in the swing region of a swing state, made him the ideal candidate for an election that had sweeping historical consequences."

Friday, May 3, 2024

Booknotes: Wide Awake

New Arrival:

Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War by Jon Grinspan (Bloomsbury, 2024).

Every student of the 1860 election period recognizes that the Republican Wide Awakes played a significant role in mobilizing support for their party's candidate, but Jon Grinspan's Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War makes some especially strong claims about the youth movement's place on American history's political stage.

From the description: "At the start of the 1860 presidential campaign, a handful of fired-up young Northerners appeared as bodyguards to defend anti-slavery stump speakers from frequent attacks. The group called themselves the Wide Awakes. Soon, hundreds of thousands of young White and Black men, and a number of women, were organizing boisterous, uniformed, torch-bearing brigades of their own. These Wide Awakes--mostly working-class Americans in their twenties--became one of the largest, most spectacular, and most influential political movements in our history."

Wide Awake chapters quickly spread across the North during Lincoln's campaign and some membership estimates were as high as half a million. A group of that size, especially one with paramilitary pretensions, was bound to draw a range of reactions among the nation's heatedly divided populace. More from the description: "To some," the movement "demonstrated the power of a rising majority to push back against slavery. To others, it looked like a paramilitary force training to invade the South. Within a year, the nation would be at war with itself, and many on both sides would point to the Wide Awakes as the mechanism that got them there."

My initial impression of the stylistic approach is that of an immersive popular-style narrative that attempts to place the reader on the ground and in the middle of the action. From that perspective, the book "examines how exactly our nation crossed the threshold from a political campaign into a war."

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Booknotes: Dranesville

New Arrival:

Dranesville: A Northern Virginia Town in the Crossfire of a Forgotten Battle, December 20, 1861 by Ryan T. Quint (Savas Beatie, 2024).

When it comes to 1861 battles fought on Virginia soil, the July 21 Battle of Bull Run understandably absorbs the lion's share of attention, but a number of smaller affairs have also received one or more standalone studies. Among the best are James Morgan's A Little Short of Boats: The Civil War Battles of Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21 - 22, 1861 (2004, 2011-rev) and Cobb, Hicks, and Holt's The Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia (2013). This month publisher Savas Beatie adds to that lineup with their release of Ryan Quint's Dranesville: A Northern Virginia Town in the Crossfire of a Forgotten Battle, December 20, 1861. A topic usually dispensed with quickly in books devoted to larger subjects, Dranesville is an engagement that I am looking forward to learning much more about through this first full-length treatment.

From the description: "The fall and early winter of 1861 was a hotbed of activity that culminated in the December combat at Dranesville. The Union victory, although small when measured against what was to come, was sorely needed after the string of defeats at Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff; it also helped shape many of the players in the bloody years to come." I encountered Dranesville most recently in Longacre's Stuart biography, and the author describes the battle as being the cavalier's first bloody nose.

Tucked into the northwest corner of Fairfax County (not too far from the Potomac), Dranesville experienced war on its doorstep early and often. More from the description: "No one knew what was coming, but soon civilians (sympathetic to both sides) were thrown into a spreading civil war of their own as neighbor turned on neighbor. In time, this style of warfare, on the home front and on the battlefield, reached the town of Dranesville in Fairfax County."

As expected, the conventional war and titular battle get the most thorough attention in the book. More: "A host of characters and commanders that would become household names cut their teeth during these months, including Generals J. E. B. Stuart and Edward Ord. The men of the Pennsylvania Reserves saw their baptism of fire at Dranesville, setting the Keystone State soldiers on a path to becoming one of the best combat units of the entire war. Though eclipsed by larger and bloodier battles, Dranesville remained a defining moment for many of its participants—soldiers and civilians alike—for the rest of their lives."

Monday, April 29, 2024

Coming Soon (May '24 Edition)

Scheduled for MAY 20241:

Dranesville: A Northern Virginia Town in the Crossfire of a Forgotten Battle, December 20, 1861 by Ryan Quint.
Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War by Jon Grinspan.
The Inland Campaign for Vicksburg: Five Battles in Seventeen Days, May 1-17, 1863 by Timothy Smith.
Voices from Gettysburg: Letters, Papers, and Memoirs from the Greatest Battle of the Civil War by Allen Guelzo.
The Union Army 1861–65 (2): Eastern and New England States by Ron Field.
American Civil Wars: A Continental History, 1850-1873 by Alan Taylor.
Garden of Ruins: Occupied Louisiana in the Civil War by J. Matthew Ward.
War in the Western Theater: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War edited by Bierle & Mackowski.
Union General Daniel Butterfield: A Civil War Biography by James Pula.
 

1 - These monthly release lists are not meant to be exhaustive compilations of non-fiction releases. They do not include reprints that are not significantly revised/expanded, special editions not distributed to reviewers, children's books, 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.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Booknotes: Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke

New Arrival:

Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor edited by Charles W. McLandress (Author-Seal River Pub, 2023).

From the description: "William F. Keeler’s superbly vivid letters from the USS Monitor and USS Florida are essential classics for Civil War scholars and amateurs alike. His letters from the Monitor provide the most complete picture of life on board a Civil War ironclad. His riveting accounts of the battle with the CSS Virginia, naval expeditions up the James River, the Peninsula Campaign, and the sinking of the Monitor off Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1862 bring an immediacy to (those) events..." In addition, "(h)is equally colorful letters from the Florida provide one of the most compelling pictures of life on board a vessel on the Union blockade, a hugely important, but largely overlooked, chapter of the war." Those blockade enforcement duties with the Florida were performed up and the down the Atlantic seaboard as well as in the Gulf of Mexico during the final stages of the war.

The Keeler letters were first published by the U.S. Naval Institute in two volumes that were edited by Robert W. Daly. Aboard the USS Monitor: 1862 - The Letters of Acting Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, U.S. Navy, to His Wife, Anna was released in 1962. That was followed in 1968 by Aboard the USS Florida: 1863-65 - The Letters of Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, U.S. Navy, to His Wife, Anna. I don't know about the Monitor volume getting another release between then and now, but according to Google Books the Florida volume was reissued in 1980 by Arno Press, a now defunct outfit that specialized in reprinting rare and out-of-print classics.

Charles McLandress, editor of Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor, notes that the Keeler material contained in the Daly volumes was highly selective in nature. More from the description: "(D)ue to space constraints substantial portions of Keeler's letters were edited out. Not only does this render the letters disjointed and difficult to read, it also leaves the reader with an incomplete picture of William Keeler – husband, father and friend. With his focus on naval aspects, Daly also paid scant attention to many of the people mentioned in the letters. These include not only Keeler’s family and friends, but also navy and army officers he encountered along the way, many of whom were unsung heroes of Civil War."

McLandress's book is a handsome, professional-looking self-published paperback. Most notably, it is the first publication to reproduce the voluminous Keller correspondence in full. Additionally, with Daly's volumes providing "little contextual information about the military situation, making it difficult for all but the expert reader to easily follow the letters," the new edition exhibits plentiful editorial enhancements."With more attention paid to the people mentioned in the letters and a more in-depth account of Keeler's fascinating and eclectic life (dry goods merchant, iron founder, Forty-Niner, orange grower, newspaper correspondent and more) this new edition makes his letters accessible to a new generation of readers."

Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke augments its text with a number of photographs as well as copies of the hand-drawn Keeler maps first published in the Daly volumes. Approaching 700 pages in total, it's a fairly massive volume. The editor surveys Keeler's early life in a brief opening chapter, and he also inserts very extensive bridging narrative throughout the parts covering the Civil War years aboard the Monitor and Florida. That prodigious supplemental background history and editorial text broadly contextualizes the letters from multiple angles. Both letter and editorial materials are footnoted. Postwar Keeler letters extend into the 1880s, and the biographical notes feature in the appendix section will undoubtedly interest many readers.

McLandress has created a nice website for this book and his other publishing interests. In addition to promotion there is extra information provided there. Per an email from the author: the website also "ties Paymaster William Keeler to the other members of his family, in particular his son James Edward, the astronomer, his brother-in-law Melzar Dutton who was killed in the Civil War, and his grandson Henry Keeler who went to China in 1915 and died there at age 25."

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Review - "Miserable Little Conglomeration: A Social History of the Port Hudson Campaign" by Christopher Thrasher

[Miserable Little Conglomeration: A Social History of the Port Hudson Campaign by Christopher Thrasher (University of Tennessee Press, 2023). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, orders of battle appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxxi,319/434. ISBN:978-1-62190-791-6. $45]

The fortified citadel of Port Hudson, Louisiana was arguably just as important as Vicksburg, Mississippi in its ability to impede Union control of the Mississippi and, in tandem, both places protected one of the great river's vital stretches (including the mouth of the Red River), yet the historiography of the combined 1862-63 efforts by Union forces to permanently open the Lower Mississippi Valley nevertheless is still strongly dominated by U.S. Grant's Vicksburg campaign. That's not to suggest that Port Hudson has been entirely neglected in the popular and scholarly literature, however, as a small handful of published studies do exist. The campaign's seminal modern work, Edward Cunningham's The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862–1863, was first published way back in 1963 during the Centennial. That was followed nearly two and half decades later by Lawrence Lee Hewitt's Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi (1987), a study of the siege phase of the 1863 campaign. The only work that addresses in great detail the entire military operation from start to finish is David C. Edmonds's two-volume set The Guns of Port Hudson (1983-1984), now long out of print. Most recently, Hewitt, the first manager of the Port Hudson State Historic Site, returned to the subject with 2021's Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War, a fascinating visual feast also filled with expert analysis. Contributing mightily to this mini-resurgence in Port Hudson interest is Christopher Thrasher's new ground-level examination of the campaign and siege titled Miserable Little Conglomeration: A Social History of the Port Hudson Campaign.

In terms of scale, Thrasher's project addresses the entire breadth of the contest for control of Port Hudson, from initial Confederate defensive preparations prompted by the fall of New Orleans to the fortified post's July 9, 1863 surrender to Union general Nathaniel Banks's Army of the Gulf. In between are vivid descriptions of a great number of episodes both great and small. The dramatic attempt by Rear Admiral David Farragut to pass the Port Hudson batteries with his deepwater squadron, the initial probing attacks against the Confederate earthworks, the failed grand assaults of May 27 and June 14, and, finally, the 48-day siege are all covered. In order to recreate for his readers what it was like to experience the campaign up close, Thrasher consulted a wide variety of primary source materials. The result is an expansive collection of stories and perspectives, including those of the common soldiers and lower-ranking officers of both sides, the many civilians caught up in the fighting, and the impressed slave labor that helped dig Port Hudson's extensive network of earthwork fortifications. The author presents those findings through a narrative construct similar to that found in his previous book Suffering in the Army of Tennessee: A Social History of the Confederate Army of the Heartland from the Battles for Atlanta to the Retreat from Nashville, though without another singular overarching theme. Obviously, misery was a shared experience among all involved with the Port Hudson Campaign, but it is not a theme that is directly explored in the explicit manner that "suffering" was in the 1864 Tennessee Campaign book.

Thrasher skillfully incorporates into his narrative letter/diary/journal excerpts adeptly chosen for the interest level and value of their insights. Together, they convey to the reader what it was like to serve on a ship during the campaign, come under heavy bombardment, live in the trenches, be thrown into hopeless front assaults, roast under the hot southern sun, and suffer from disease and hunger. But it isn't all horror and mayhem as the book also frequent cites instances of those taking advantage of small pleasures and moments of comradery with friend and foe alike. These personal thoughts and perspectives often appear in the text as standalone episodes, but the author also follows through much of the book a select number of individuals who recorded their observations over the entire length of the campaign. Thus, one gets both longitudinal and snapshot-in-time viewpoints of the sequence of events comprising the Port Hudson Campaign. In a much more consistent and skillful manner than what is often found in other social history-focused works of this type, Thrasher never allows his large collection of narrow individual perspectives to accumulate in ways that leave the reader without the benefit of understanding the larger tactical, operational, and strategic contexts involved (for an example of a recent work on the other end of the spectrum, see British oral historian Peter Hart's The Somme). Thrasher modestly asserts that his book is not, and is not meant to be, another traditional-style military history of the campaign, but his narrative does possess a great many of those elements and characteristics.

Clearly, in addition to being fought concurrently, there were a number of parallels between the Port Hudson and Vicksburg campaigns and sieges, but some noteworthy differences do emerge from Thrasher's study. Scholars of both campaigns have pointed out that those in charge of each post did a poor job of warehousing accumulated supplies, disastrous oversights that led to vast quantities of wastage and rot. Nevertheless, in citing reports on remaining food stocks, recent scholarship has questioned the role actual starvation played in forcing the surrender of the Vicksburg garrison. By comparison, Port Hudson's defenders seem to have been truly on their last legs when it came to food reserves and medicine. Thrasher's study also seems to suggest that rates of debilitating disease affecting both sides were higher at Port Hudson than at Vicksburg (which was bad enough). According to Thrasher's research into rank and file opinion, Banks's army, distinct from Grant's command, became more and more disenchanted with its previously popular commander over the course of the campaign and by siege's end was approaching critical deficits in both general health and morale. Another clearly notable difference between the two campaigns was that Confederate cavalry operated outside Port Hudson's siege lines in enough strength to occasionally disrupt Union resupply and lines of communication. Though the damage they were able to do was substantial in places, it was never significant enough to actually endanger the siege.

With the small Confederate garrison at Port Hudson inflicting on Banks's army deaths at a rate the author estimates at ten to one and at the same time enduring the war's longest true siege, Thrasher ponders how much more difficult things might have been for Union forces had every Confederate garrison and fighting force been so steadfast. On the other hand, in maintaining that "Port Hudson demonstrated the insignificance of Confederate resistance" (pg. 317), Thrasher closely approaches the inevitability camp in arguing that Port Hudson, and the war itself on a collective basis, proved that Union fighting forces and home front supporters alike possessed bottomless wells of willing sacrifice in pursuit of victory. That minimization of the role of contingency in the war's progress and outcome certainly goes against the grain of recent scholarship. Aside from that, Thrasher strongly and persuasively argues that the stupendous determination and human sacrifice displayed by both sides during the fighting at Port Hudson and the strategic implications of the Union capture of Port Hudson itself are factors that render the military operation more than deserving of its own consideration as one of the war's momentous campaigns, decoupled from Vicksburg. That's a conclusion that will likely draw scant disagreement from readers of Miserable Little Conglomeration.