Monday, September 24, 2018

Book News - Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed

Though the Confederate Army of Tennessee had moments of success in the early stages of several battles and won a decisive (albeit pyrrhic) victory at Chickamauga, it is generally considered a dysfunctional mess than never lived up to its potential. Opinions regarding just what went wrong with the army have been offered in numerous books and articles over the years. Comparing the Army of the Tennessee to the Confederacy's most successful field army rather than some kind of unattainable standard, Richard McMurry's Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History (1989) remains one of the more interesting contributions to the conversation. Recognizing that the Army of Tennessee's problems went far deeper than the series of men at the top, the book convincingly examined the internal and external factors that together help explain Confederate failure in the West while also plausibly arguing why the Army of Northern Virginia proved to be a better army than the Army of Tennessee.

Also from UNC Press, Larry Daniel's upcoming Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed (May 2019) will also move beyond leadership questions. "Surpassing previous work that has focused on questions of command structure and the force's fate on the fields of battle, Daniel provides the clearest view to date of the army's inner workings, from top-level command and unit cohesion to the varied experiences of common soldiers and their connections to the home front. Drawing from his mastery of the relevant sources, Daniel's book is a thought-provoking reassessment of an army's fate, with important implications for Civil War history and military history writ large."

The author of well-received Stones River and Shiloh campaign histories, a study of the Army of the Cumberland (the Army of Tennessee's main antagonist), and a detailed examination of soldier life in the Army of Tennessee, Daniel is as well versed as anyone on the subject of the inner workings of the Confederacy's principal western army and its direct predecessors. Also informing Conquered, his book Cannoneers in Gray: The Field Artillery of the Army of Tennessee (rev. 2005) pointed toward a forced reliance on obsolete guns (in comparison to the Army of Northern Virginia) as having a significant negative impact on the army's effectiveness, particularly its offensive punch. Given the author's demonstrated knowledge and expertise, Conquered will join the list of my most highly anticipated titles of next year.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Booknotes: Military History of the West, Vol. 47

New Arrival:
Military History of the West, Vol. 47 edited by Alex Mendoza (Univ of N Texas Press, 2018).

Distributed by UNT Press, Military History of the West "is a peer-reviewed journal focused on scholarly study of western US military history, including the Mississippi Valley and all states west of that line. The journal features articles on the Texas Revolution, the Mexican War, frontier military service, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, Mexican border service, and the Texas National Guard in the twentieth century, including its service in World War I and World War II." The journal has gone through a number of iterations between 1961 and today, including Texas Military History, Military History of Texas and the Southwest, and Military History of the Southwest. The last is the version I'm most familiar with, having obtained numerous fine Civil War era articles from it through interlibrary loan.

Volume 47 has three essays covering diverse topics. The first examines General O.O. Howard's peace negotiations with Chiracahua Apache leader Cochise and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, the second explores U.S.-Mexican War operations of Texas mounted volunteer units, and the final essay recounts the history of Lubbock civilian contractor Clent Breedlove's WW2 training school for pilots. As is the case with most scholarly journals, there's a hefty book review section in Vol. 47, with five of the twelve titles evaluated being Civil War related.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Booknotes: Crossing the Deadlines

New Arrival:
Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered edited by Michael P. Gray
  (KSU Press, 2018).

In Crossing the Deadlines, editor Michael Gray has assembled nine essays representative of current trends in the Civil War prisons scholarship. It "crosses those boundaries of old scholarship by taking on bold initiatives with new methodologies, filling a void in the current scholarship of Civil War prison historiography, which usually does not go beyond discussing policy, prison history and environmental and social themes."

More from the description: "As the historiography of Civil War captivity continues to evolve, readers of Crossing the Deadlines will discover elaboration on themes that emerged in William Hesseltine’s classic collection, Civil War Prisons, as well as interconnections with more recent interdisciplinary scholarship. Rather than being dominated by policy analysis, this collection examines the latest trends, methodologies, and multidisciplinary approaches in Civil War carceral studies. Unlike its predecessor, which took a micro approach on individual prisons and personal accounts, Crossing the Deadlines is a compilation of important themes that are interwoven on broader scale by investigating many prisons North and South."

Gray's introduction informatively traces the evolution of the Civil War prison historiography. The three essays comprising Part 1 begin with a chapter that employs a "sensory approach" to studying the environment of Civil War prisoner of war camps. The self-described sense of being 'caged animals' is reinforced by the following essay, which looks at prisons and prisoners as tourist attractions for the home front civilian population. Prisoners seeking solace often turned to religion and the final contribution in the section examines the role of Catholicism and priests in military prisons.

Part 2 focuses on issues of race and retaliation, with the first essay discussing hostages and other punitive measures aimed at ensuring the other side adhered to what they viewed as the tenets of civilized warfare. The next offering looks at the experiences of black prisoners in Confederate POW camps, but it also studies interactions between slaves and white Union prisoners in order to show how such encounters shaped the latter group's views on race and emancipation. Another essay examines the use of black soldiers as prison guards.

Two essays in Part 3 recognize the important role of archaeology in the study of Civil War prisons. The first is an appreciation of both material culture studies and multi-disciplinary approaches as bettering our understanding of the captive experience at Johnson's Island, and the second, in another good example of the use of material culture to resurrect lost history, discusses the ongoing evolution of the work being done uncovering Georgia's Camp Lawton. The final essay in the volume investigates the topic of prison memory and the historical challenges it represents.

The Kent State UP makes frequent contributions to the Civil War prison literature, and this newest one looks like another very useful addition.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review - "Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion: The Battle of Aiken, South Carolina, February 11, 1865" by Eric Wittenberg

[Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion: The Battle of Aiken, South Carolina, February 11, 1865 by Eric J. Wittenberg (Fox Run Publishing, 2018). Cloth hardcover, 5 maps, photos, footnotes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vi,138/183. ISBN:978-1-945602-06-1. $26.95]

While book-length studies of Civil War battles of all sizes abound in the literature, it's only been over the past two decades that most of the engagements associated with the 1865 Carolinas Campaign have been satisfactorily addressed. In the late 1990s, a pair of closely released Bentonville studies by Mark Bradley and Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes told the story of that climactic battle for first time in detail. These were followed by a history of the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads from Eric Wittenberg and Wise's Forks and Averasboro studies from co-authors Mark Smith and Wade Sokolosky, all three excellent contributions. The Union march through South Carolina has also been more generally covered in works from Tom Elmore and Christopher Crabb. The latest addition to this list is Eric Wittenberg's Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion: The Battle of Aiken, South Carolina, February 11, 1865.

The early chapters do a fine job of situating the Aiken battle within the larger context of Sherman's march north through South Carolina. In addition to tracing the movements of Union and Confederate forces in the state prior to the fall of Columbia, Wittenberg provides a series of lengthy biographical sketches of major military figures involved in the Battle of Aiken. These range from notable regimental commanders (like Lt. Col. Matthew Van Buskirk of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry) on up to the highest ranking generals of both sides. Even more can be found outside the main text in the footnotes.

The Battle of Aiken, which lasted for perhaps one frenetic hour in the streets of the town and for most of the day in toto, is recounted in full by Wittenberg, who specializes in cavalry battle narratives of this type. The battle came about when Confederate cavalry corps chief Major General Joseph Wheeler disobeyed orders directing him to reinforce the thin Edisto River line defending Columbia and instead set up a cleverly arranged ambush for his opponent, Major General Judson Kilpatrick, well off to the west in the streets of Aiken. Both commanders were eager to face off against each other. Approaching the eastern outskirts of the town, Kilpatrick ordered Brigadier General Smith D. Atkins's lead brigade to push forward into the streets of Aiken, where it was in turn assailed in front and on both flanks by Wheeler's men, who were deployed in a wide "V" formation that overlapped the Union line and subjected it to converging fire. The Union hero of the battle was the aforementioned Buskirk, who, assisted by the high-volume fire of his outnumbered men's repeating arms, was instrumental in extricating the brigade from its hazardous predicament at Aiken and shepherding the retreating bluecoats back east to Johnson's Turnout. There, they rejoined the balance of Kilpatrick's division and together abruptly checked the pursuing Confederates.

Certainly every Civil War action is deserving of full documentation for the historical record, but Wittenberg makes a strong case that Aiken is worthy of deeper consideration, as well. Though it resulted in a Confederate tactical victory, Wheeler's impetuous move to Aiken completely compromised the planned line of defense in front of the state capital. While it's unclear how much effect the presence of Wheeler's men might have had in delaying the fall of Columbia, their absence rendered impossible any real defense of the city and its hasty, disorganized abandonment in the face of the enemy directly contributed to the fires and destruction that ensued. Interestingly, though there's no contemporary written evidence to support it, Wittenberg believes it more than likely that Sherman deliberately ordered Kilpatrick west toward Augusta to bait Wheeler, who he knew to be an ill-disciplined sort of general. It's certainly plausible given how heavily Sherman's conduct of the campaign up to that point relied on misdirection rather than brute force to achieve its desired results. Sherman's multi-axis advance through South Carolina kept the Confederates off balance and uncertain of Union objectives, which allowed Union forces to successfully navigate numerous potentially dangerous roadblocks and move forward against key strategic points in the state without fighting any major battles. Aiken fits well within this narrative. The author also believes the battle worthy of attention for being one of only four (by his estimate) urban cavalry battles fought east of the Mississippi during the war.

Period photographs are sprinkled throughout the volume (though there are unfortunately no images, modern or archival, of the town or battlefield environs), and the book's five original maps effectively support the text. However, tactical coverage between sides is a bit uneven in terms of small-unit detail. For example, in its discussion of the Aiken fighting, the book's regimental-scale depictions of Union movements and positioning are not similarly carried over to the Confederate side in the maps or narrative, which may well be a function of source limitations. The appendix section has three parts: an order of battle for each side, a list (probably incomplete) of known Confederate casualties, and an interesting short piece contrasting the battles of Waynesboro and Aiken (the 1864 and 1865 fights that were both thought at the time to have "saved" Augusta, which was never targeted). In the research sphere, the bibliography displays the expected depth and range of sources (i.e. newspapers, unpublished manuscript materials, and published primary and secondary sources).

Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion is another winning account of a Civil War cavalry battle by the prolific Eric Wittenberg. The book also satisfactorily addresses one of the remaining gaps in the military historiography of the 1865 Carolinas Campaign.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book News: The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19–22, 1863 (updated)

I always look forward to the next volume in SIU Press's Civil War Campaigns in the West series (formerly the Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series). Five books have been published so far, the most recent covering the Tennessee Campaign of 1864, and I've liked them all. We now have some solid intel regarding when we'll see the next one.

The release of The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19–22, 1863 is currently scheduled for late spring 2019, so patient anticipation is in order. It picks up where the first Vicksburg entry in the series, The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863, left off and there will be more to follow. Grant's two failed assaults in front of Vicksburg after a string of devastating victories have never had an entire book devoted to them. I am very curious to discover what the contributing authors have to say.

UPDATE:
This is easily the most micro-focused of the series entries, and I did wonder how the editors planned to fill the typical Civil War anthology book complement of eight to ten chapters. More information has come out since the original news post, and the answer appears to be that they are breaking the mold and going with five, presumably longer form, essays (from only four contributors) instead. If accurate, that sounds fine with me.

From the description: "Ranging from military to social history, the essays examine the assaults while furthering historical debates on more prominent topics, such as the reactions of Midwesterners to the first failures of Grant’s Vicksburg campaign. The assaults symbolized a turning point in social and economic views of the campaign. Two essays from opposing sides analyze the controversial decisions surrounding the Railroad Redoubt, the site of the bloodiest fighting on May 22. Another examines how the tenacity of Texan reinforcements forced Union soldiers to abandon their gains." More: "By zeroing in on the two assaults, the contributors offer essential clarity and understanding of these important events within the larger scope of the Civil War’s Vicksburg Campaign."

The current release date is early May 2019.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Booknotes: At the Forefront of Lee's Invasion

New Arrival:
At the Forefront of Lee's Invasion: Retribution, Plunder, and Clashing Cultures on Richard S. Ewell's Road to Gettysburg by Robert J. Wynstra (KSU Press, 2018).

In terms of treatment of enemy civilians and their property, tradition holds that on the whole the men of Lee's army behaved better than their northern counterparts. Reassessing this and other related topics is the new book At the Forefront of Lee's Invasion: Retribution, Plunder, and Clashing Cultures on Richard S. Ewell's Road to Gettysburg. In it, author Robert Wynstra examines and analyzes the many encounters between the invading Confederate vanguard, Ewell's Second Corps, and the Pennsylvania citizenry who lived along its path north to Gettysburg.

According to Wynstra, "Civilian property losses in the North amounted to several million dollars. The interactions along the way further laid bare the enormous cultural gulf that separated the two sides in the war. As Robert Wynstra explains, Ewell and his top commanders constantly struggled to control the desire among the troops to seek retribution for what they perceived as Federal outrages in the South and to stop the plundering, working to maintain strict discipline in the army and uphold Southern honor." The study also addresses the "slave hunts" conducted by some units of the Army of Northern Virginia. With varying degrees of approval from superiors, they sought to capture and return escaped slaves to bondage but also kidnapped numerous free blacks in the process.

More: "In this new study, Wynstra draws on an array of primary sources, including rare soldiers letters and eyewitness accounts published in local newspapers, manuscripts and diaries in small historical societies, and a trove of postwar damage claims from the invasion to fill in this vital gap in the historiography of the campaign." The Gettysburg Campaign literature is (of course) vast and wide ranging, but I don't recall coming across a specialized title quite like this one before. It should be interesting.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Booknotes: Decisions at Chattanooga

New Arrival:
Decisions at Chattanooga: The Nineteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle
  by Larry Peterson (UT Press, 2018).

It's clear to anyone reading my reviews of Decisions at Stones River (2018) and Decisions at Second Manassas (2018) that I am a fan of UT Press's new Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series, which offers readers a fresh way of dissecting major campaigns and battles. With Decisions at Chickamauga (2018) and now Decisions at Chattanooga: The Nineteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle from Larry Peterson, we now have four series installments, all published in the same year! That's pretty remarkable. There's even a Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign (also from Peterson) on the way just over the horizon in mid-2019. 

Personally, I am pleased and impressed that the series is taking a deep swing through the western theater right from the start rather than going down the time-tested Gettysburg→Antietam→onward pathway. On the other hand, it should be mentioned that series creator Matt Spruill did do a similar Decisions at Gettysburg title seven years ago that obviously served as inspiration for what followed but is nevertheless apparently not considered series "canon."

From the description: "Decisions at Chattanooga introduces readers to critical decisions made by Confederate and Union commanders. Larry Peterson examines the decisions that shaped the way both campaign and battle unfolded. Rather than offering a history of the Battle of Chattanooga, Peterson focuses on the critical decisions, presenting the reader with a coherent and manageable blueprint of the battle’s development. Exploring and studying the critical decisions allows the reader to progress from an understanding of what happened to why events happened as they did." As is the case with the earlier volumes, the book contains numerous original maps and a detailed tour tied to the decision analysis. In what's a very minor change, the cover has a different color scheme this time around, tan (butternut?) instead of dark gray.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review - "Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands" by William Kiser

[Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands by William S. Kiser (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,184/284. ISBN:978-0-8061-6026-9. $32.95]

Though many nineteenth-century Americans viewed the Desert Southwest as a danger-filled wasteland unworthy of national possession and development, William Kiser's Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands argues strongly that New Mexico eventually proved to be a vital cog in the process of westward expansion, one that the U.S. government invested a tremendous amount of manpower and national treasure in managing. While it's stating the obvious that incorporating all territory lying between California and Texas would be an essential step in the United States becoming a truly continental nation, Kiser's study, which is heavily informed by his previous book-length examinations of Mesilla Valley territorial history, regional Apache resistance, and the Southwest's peonage and captive-taking traditions, richly illustrates a host of unique factors that together demonstrate the exceptional nature of New Mexico's place in Manifest Destiny.

Missouri is popularly known as the stepping off point for the famous continental emigrant trails that tens of thousands of Americans used to cross the vast central plains and mountains of the West to the Pacific, but the book effectively reminds us that Missouri and its own enterprising citizens also played an equally important role in the commercial development of New Mexico. With the town of Independence marking the beginning of the Santa Fe trail, Missourians took advantage of this hugely profitable economic pipeline to become prominent New Mexican businessmen and land owners, aided along the way by newly independent Mexico's desires to cast aside the draconian Imperial Spanish trade restrictions that retarded progress and then attract American entrepreneurs to the area with promises of easy citizenship, generous land grants, and low taxes. Even when corrupt Mexican governors levied exorbitant (and illegal) import fees on American merchants, the foreign goods were in such high demand locally that profits were high. New Mexico was thus transformed into a significant center of regional trade. As was the case with Texas and other borderlands characterized by elastic allegiances and hybridized citizenship, it was hoped that these measures would bind the newcomers to Mexico, but it quickly came to be more the case that they inadvertently accelerated the Americanization of the Desert Southwest. When tensions between the U.S. and Mexico boiled over into war in 1846, previously respected and highly successful American immigrants (even those who had married into local families and had to some degree assimilated into local culture) became targeted, often violently, as unwanted outsiders.

From the late Imperial Spanish period onward, military conflict and occupation were mainstays of the New Mexican experience, and this is one of the chief themes of the book. Early in the nineteenth century, army-sponsored exploration teams such as those led by Zebulon Pike mapped and marked southwestern trails. In 1846, New Mexico was conquered by General Stephen W. Kearny's small American army. In an example of the military's tendency to involve itself in civilian affairs in New Mexico, often without official approval, Kearny's proclamations regarding citizenship for the inhabitants got him into hot water with government authorities back home. As the book shows, naive U.S. expectations that New Mexicans would readily embrace the nationality change and its promises of newfound freedom, prosperity, and protection from hostile Indians were quickly dashed, particularly after the shocking brutality of the Taos Rebellion (the story of which, along with its suppression, is recounted well in the volume). Even so, by the end of the U.S. war with Mexico a growing number of residents became reconciled to becoming Americans, especially if the U.S. Army could physically protect them better than the neglectful Imperial Spanish and Mexican militaries.

However, shielding residents from hostile Ute, Navajo, Mescalero Apache, and Comanche raiders would require a huge proportion of the U.S. Army's manpower and budget, and the book covers in some detail the country's efforts, at exorbitant cost, to overcome this huge obstacle to New Mexican settlement and development. Kiser ably traces how conflicts over civilian vs. military oversight of the "Indian problem," an often wasteful army strategy on the ground that swung inconsistently between limited and total warfare, and the failed assumptions of the reservation system together meant that promises of protection could not be met during the decade following the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War. An early understanding was achieved with the Utes, but the Navajos were not broken as a regional power until the end of the Civil War and the Comanche and Apache conflicts would endure for far longer (into the 1870s and 1880s respectively). Stabilizing New Mexico and assimilating its population would prove to be a much longer and far more difficult and expensive process than most had anticipated.

In the 1850s, New Mexico also became a key component of national debates over slavery and popular sovereignty. While there were never more than a few dozen blacks (free or slave) residing in the territory during the decade and neither section believed the Desert Southwest conducive to any kind of large-scale slave labor economy, the book shows how the issue of a proslavery New Mexico was largely an ideological and political one (with two future Senate votes as a prize) rather than a practical consideration. Most interestingly, and perhaps uniquely, Kiser meaningfully integrates the centuries-old New Mexican traditions of debt peonage and captive labor into the national slavery debates, and he clearly demonstrates that New Mexico weighed heavily on the minds of faraway northern politicians and abolitionists throughout this period. The most conspiracy-minded among them feared that proslavery advocates would use those long-standing examples of enforced servitude as stepping stones for the introduction and acceptance of racial slavery, a form of bondage that held little to no favor among the locals. As the book demonstrates, there was some justification for these fears, as proponents of black slavery often justified the institution's placement in New Mexico as simply a reasonable extension of the established labor culture of the region. Indeed, Kiser's book performs an important service in highlighting popular action against Southwest peonage (which was finally formally abolished in 1868 but lasted even longer in extralegal form) as an underappreciated corollary to the abolitionist movement.

Like it did with the national slavery debates, New Mexico also figured prominently in the sectional contest over the building of a transcontinental railroad. Kiser offers a good short summary of the various northern, central, and southern surveys conducted, and shows that a pair of routes through New Mexico were objectively advantageous for railroad construction. However, the radical nature of sectional politics made it a certainty that no consensus agreement on a transcontinental route could be reached during the late antebellum period. Though contemporary commentators viewed the railroad almost entirely in economic terms, Kiser sees as equally important the ideological victory (in terms of the spread of people and ideas) that would be gained by whichever section won the transcontinental railroad race. While this is a valid point to some degree, and the author also concedes the oddness of the assumption at the time that there might be only one railroad spanning the vast American West, Kiser perhaps overestimates the material and ideological threat of southern expansion given that proslavery forces couldn't even succeed in next-door Kansas.

The final section of the book covers the Civil War years in New Mexico, when both sides determined that the territory was vital to their competing continental aspirations and worthy of significant military investment. The early-war Confederate invasion of New Mexico, and the Union Army's success in repelling it, have already been expansively documented in numerous fine works, and Kiser offers readers a sound summary of those events and synthesis of the existing scholarship. Solid overviews of the wartime campaigns against remaining Indian threats and Union measures aimed at thwarting any possible Confederate offensive renewal are also included. Along the way, Kiser cites Hispano recruitment of New Mexico volunteer units and pro-Union militias in large numbers [for a truly exhaustive examination of this topic see Jerry Thompson's A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia (2015)] as evidence of an increasing success in Americanization, but it's also very likely that hatred of Texans was a motivating factor at least as important.

In all of the above-mentioned ways, Coast-to-Coast Empire very effectively situates New Mexico as key nineteenth-century battleground and conduit of American capitalism, culture, politics, and ideas. As the book argues, between Mexican independence in 1821 and the end of the American Civil War, New Mexico became a nexus to a host of issues related to the idea of Manifest Destiny, including domestic and international trade, military conquest and occupation, Indian wars, slavery debates, and the transcontinental railroad. William Kiser is rapidly becoming a leading authority on many aspects of Desert Southwest history, and this study represents another meaningful contribution on his part to that growing body of borderlands literature.  Recommended.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Booknotes: Meade

New Arrival:
Meade: The Price of Command, 1863–1865 by John G. Selby (KSU Press, 2018).

Most Civil War army commanders have modern admirers and detractors, but reviews of George Gordon Meade's leadership qualities remain perhaps more mixed in nature than most. No one will dispute that Gettysburg was his finest moment and more recent assessments of his handling of the post-battle pursuit have trended in a much more positive direction. Nevertheless, Meade was unable to bring Lee's army to battle under favorable circumstances throughout the rest of the summer and fall months, and he was heavily criticized for it. 

While retained as army commander by Grant, the awkward high command arrangement that existed between them for the duration of the conflict understandably grated on Meade. Possessing nebulous authority certainly restricted his effectiveness, but he generally failed to distinguish himself when opportunities arose, and the manner in which he alienated his chief subordinates has led the most recent chronicler of the 1864-65 Richmond-Petersburg Campaign to conclude that Meade outlived his usefulness long before Appomattox.

However, it's probably safe to say that the latest dissection of Meade's career directing the Army of the Potomac, John Selby's Meade: The Price of Command, 1863–1865, rates the general's strengths higher than what most of the author's colleagues would be willing to entertain. "This first full-length study of Meade’s two-year tenure as commander of the Army of the Potomac brings him out of Grant’s shadow and into focus as one of the top three Union generals of the war." Interesting. You certainly won't find too many people bold enough to rank Meade in the same company with Grant and Sherman. More from the description: "By basing his study on the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, original Meade letters, and the letters, diaries, journals, and reminiscences of contemporaries, Selby demonstrates that Meade was a much more active, thoughtful, and enterprising commander than has been assumed. This sensitive and reflective man accepted a position that was as political as it was military, despite knowing that the political dimensions of the job might ultimately destroy what he valued the most, his reputation."

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Booknotes: My Dearest Julia

New Arrival:
My Dearest Julia: The Wartime Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to His Wife
  Intro by Ron Chernow (Library of America, 2018).

Found in all biographies of U.S. Grant is the determination that being a husband and father was at the very core of the man's being. Of course, Grant was hardly the only frontier army officer to experience intense longing for family and harbor serious doubts about being able to adequately provide for them, but in his case those considerations likely were overriding factors in Grant's decision to leave the army altogether in 1854.

Physically separated for extended periods, Grant "wrote hundreds of intimate and revealing letters to his wife, Julia Dent Grant," during his army service, and My Dearest Julia: The Wartime Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to His Wife consists of a selection of over eighty of those letters. Written between 1844 and 1865, they encompass key life events such as the couple's engagement, Grant's experiences of the war in Mexico, his frontier service, and the general's illustrious Civil War career. 

The volume, published in a handsome little package by the Library of America, is introduced by noted Grant biographer Ron Chernow. The following is a rundown of the table of contents:

Introduction by Ron Chernow

LETTERS
Part I: June 4, 1844 to February 2, 1854
Part II : May 1, 1861 to April 25, 1865
Coda: June 29, 1885

Biographical Notes
Sources And Acknowledgments
Index

Monday, September 10, 2018

Book Snapshot: Battlefield Atlas of Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864

Charles D. Collins, Jr. is a history professor at the U.S. Army's Combat Studies Institute and the author of a pair of military atlases covering the Cheyenne and Sioux wars. His new map and text study, Battlefield Atlas of Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864 (2018), addresses one of the very largest, but at the same time least studied, Civil War campaigns fought in the Trans-Mississippi theater. Only very recently has the first truly full-length military history of this operation been published, Kyle Sinisi's excellent The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864 (2015).

Consisting of 77 maps in total, the Missouri Expedition atlas is divided into seven parts, with the first two sections  background related, for both early Missouri history and for those military events that occurred in the state during the first half of the war. Parts III-VII together discuss and map the entire 1864 campaign beginning to end, from initial planning stages through the ultimate return of Price's shattered remnants to Arkansas. 

In terms of general layout, the author adopts the common military atlas format of presenting a full-page map on the left faced by explanatory text on the right. Pages are 8.5" x 11" in size so the large maps make it easy to view the wealth of features that so many of them offer. The cartography comes in all three military map scales—strategic, operational, and tactical.  Most attractive are the last, a good example of which can be seen on the cover art image above. For a great many of these, impressive terrain and small-unit details are present, and the modern landscape is faintly traced as an additional layer underneath the historical one (a helpful touch for those wanting to visit the sites today). It should be mentioned that the new 2018 print edition's cartography is all in black and white. Those wishing to see the maps in color will need to pick up a copy of the earlier 2017 version, which is nearly double the list price. As far as I know, that is the only difference between the two editions beyond the cover art, which is frankly terrible in the case of the 2017 color edition. For those that don't mind looking at atlases on a computer screen, a digital version has been made available free of charge since 2016.

The author research that goes into atlas studies can be typically characterized as a synthesis of select published sources, and that is the case here, as well. Notes and bibliography indicate reliance on the O.R. plus a small list of published books and a few journal, magazine, and newspaper articles. Sinisi's study is not referenced, but that's understandable given the closeness of original publishing dates.

Many events, most particularly from Westport onward, receive appropriately exhaustive coverage, but some earlier battles, even significant ones, get comparatively slight treatment. For example, the bloody Pilot Knob battle only gets two maps that aren't particularly detailed and the book's text description of the fight at Glasgow is only a couple sentences in length even though readily available sources exist, particular the work of James Denny, that could have fleshed out the skirmish/battle more. Also, many of the map-facing text pages contain a great deal of empty white space that could have been put to use. In general, I would have preferred more interpreted text rather than the primary source 'vignettes' placed at the bottom of every right-hand page, but the latter have a larger purpose Collins deems important [From the author: "These vignettes provide an overview of the events shown on the map and discussed in the narrative from the perspective of persons who participated in the events. In most cases there are two vignettes with the first from a person loyal to the Union and the second from a person who supported the southern cause. A few narratives have two or more vignettes from only the Union side. This was done to emphasize disagreements and struggles among senior leaders to establish a common course of action."]

Maps and text seem globally reliable, though the latter could have used some much more thorough proofreading. Without offering specifics, one campaign authority claims to have found map "errors" for the October 23 fighting, but it's unclear if these were careless mistakes on the part of Collins or just differences in interpretation. Of course, everything should be viewed with a critical eye, and I don't see any reason for anyone interested in the campaign to be deterred from picking up a copy. With so many events mapped in unprecedented detail (or for the first time ever) in its pages, Battlefield Atlas of Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864 is an exciting new resource.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Book News: Politician in Uniform

Over the past fifteen years, scholarly and popular appreciation of the Civil War career of Lew Wallace has undergone quite a transformation. General acceptance of commentary condemning, or even mocking, Wallace as the incompetent political general who was unconscionably "late" at Shiloh has been replaced by far more nuanced, and more positive, assessments of many aspects of the high-ranking citizen-general's Civil War service. Both Gail Stephens's Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War (2010) and Charles Beemer's "My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune": Major General Lew Wallace in the West, 1861-1862 (2015) largely laud Wallace's performance as fast-learning field commander while also taking into consideration those significant personal flaws that often made the general his own worst enemy. Both of these books are excellent, and there are even more out there from the period. Unread by me are Scapegoat of Shiloh: The Distortion of Lew Wallace's Record by U. S. Grant by Kevin Getchell (2013) and Ray Boomhower's The Sword & the Pen: A Life of Lew Wallace (2005).

Now it appears that there's yet another Lew Wallace military study in the works. If the official description is an accurate measure of its arguments and contents, Christopher R. Mortenson's Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War (OU Press, 2019) shares similar themes with the earlier works mentioned above. "Combining military biography, historical analysis, and political insight, the book offers an expanded and balanced view of Wallace’s military career—and offers the reader a new understanding of the experience of a voluntary general like Lew Wallace."

More from the description: "A rising politician from Indiana, Wallace became a Civil War general through his political connections. While he had much success as a regimental commander, he ran into trouble at the brigade and division levels. A natural rivalry and tension between West Pointers and political generals might have accounted for some of this, but many of his difficulties, as Mortenson shows us, were of Wallace’s own making. A temperamental officer with a “rough” conception of manhood, Wallace often found his mentors wanting, disrespected his superiors, and vigorously sought opportunities for glorious action in the field, only to perform poorly when given the chance." From this it seems that Mortenson doesn't quite rate Wallace's generalship as high as the Stephens and Beemer works did, and it will be interesting to see where the author believes Wallace to have often performed poorly.

That said, Mortenson's study is not without recognition of Wallace's successes. "Despite his flaws, Mortenson notes, Wallace contributed both politically and militarily to the war effort—in the fight for Fort Donelson and at the Battle of Shiloh, in the defense of Cincinnati and southern Indiana, and in the administration of Baltimore and the Middle Department. Detailing these and other instances of Wallace’s success along with his weaknesses and failures, Mortenson provides an unusually thorough, and instructive picture of this complicated character in his military service." I've found the University of Oklahoma Press military biographies of Civil War era figures generally appealing, so I'm looking forward to reading this one.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Booknotes: The Field of Blood

New Arrival:
The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
  by Joanne B. Freeman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

Most people probably view the shocking caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner in 1856 as an exceptional act of violence perpetrated on Capitol Hill. However, Joanne Freeman's The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War shows that, while the Sumner-Brooks altercation was the most famous incident of its kind, violence between U.S. Senate and House legislators had been occurring since the 1830s.

Freeman's extensive research has discovered "roughly seventy physically violent incidents in the House and Senate chambers in the pre-Civil War decades." As recounted in the book, such fights consisted of "throwing punches, toppling desks, brawling, brandishing guns and knives, and occasionally engaging in duels." In her examination of this phenomenon, the author comes to the conclusion that violence or threats of violence became "a core part of the political process" during the antebellum period, particularly when slavery was the political topic of contention.

From the description: "These fights didn’t happen in a vacuum. Freeman’s dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities―the feel, sense, and sound of it―as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril."

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review - "Palmito Ranch: From Civil War Battlefield to National Historic Landmark" by Ginn & McWhorter

[Palmito Ranch: From Civil War Battlefield to National Historic Landmark by Jody Edward Ginn and William Alexander McWhorter (Texas A&M University Press, 2018). Flexbound softcover, 6 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,91/132. ISBN:978-1-62349-636-4. $26]

In the realm of Texas Civil War battles, the two late-war engagements fought at Palmito Ranch pale in size and significance to earlier Confederate victories at Galveston and Sabine Pass. Nevertheless, the May 12-13, 1865 fight at Palmito Ranch does hold the distinction of being the Civil War's final battle, one that was also ironically a Confederate victory. As its title suggests, Jody Edward Ginn and William Alexander McWhorter's Palmito Ranch: From Civil War Battlefield to National Historic Landmark tells the story of the battles as well as the modern effort to preserve and interpret the battlefield for posterity. Small in size but wide in scope, Palmito Ranch is a three-part study that encompasses the history of the battles fought there, the results of a series of archaeological surveys performed on the site, and the long collaborative process that led to the establishment of the National Historic Landmark.

In summarizing the two battles fought at Palmito Ranch in September 1864 and May 1865, the authors survey the worthiness of existing works and are not afraid to criticize their shortcomings where needed. Their determination that Jeffrey Hunt's The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch (2000) is the best book-length study of the 1865 battle published thus far is in line with current opinion. Citing the many different names attached to the site located roughly halfway between Brownsville and Brazos Santiago, the authors offer a convincing argument that any combination of Palmito/Palmetto Ranch/Hill can be reasonably justified from the historical record. Though their arguments are mostly contained in the notes, Ginn and McWhorter also dismiss other "last battle" claimants.

Some interesting insights into the lesser-known first battle at Palmito Ranch are offered. The authors are certainly correct that the First Battle of Palmito Ranch, which was really a week-long series of skirmishes (roughly over the period September 5-12, 1864) that also involved French Imperial forces in indirect support of John S. "Rip" Ford's Confederates on one side and Mexican Cortinista infantry and artillery directly allied with Union forces on the other, needs more research. Details of the 1864 fighting remain nebulous, but Ford subordinate Lt. Col. Daniel Showalter's smaller Confederate command reportedly held back the combined enemy over several days before withdrawing, returning later to join forces with Lt. Col. George Giddings (who did not mention Showalter in his own reports and accounts) to finally restore Confederate control over lost ground. Contrary to some other interpretations of the fighting, it does seem clear that Juan Cortina's forces did indeed physically cross the river to fight (that Mexican prisoners were taken in the field in Texas was acknowledged by both sides), and did not simply shell the Confederates from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

Throughout, the authors frequently cite the Ford Papers, which apparently were not available to Hunt at the time of his own Palmito Ranch research, as an important "new" resource for scholars of the border fighting that included these battles. According to Ginn and McWhorter, the muster rolls contained in the papers conclusively demonstrate that Ford's command was a polyglot group of draft-age veterans (not a hasty assemblage of youths and old men as some have argued). Additionally, these personnel documents do not support the common contention that Ford's men deserted in large numbers upon hearing of the Appomattox surrender. The papers and other sources also buttress Ford's published casualty figures for both Palmito Ranch engagements, numbers that many subsequent writers considered underreported.

The only real source of complaint in all this is the absence of original battle maps in an otherwise beautifully presented and richly illustrated volume. There is no map at all for the 1864 fighting, and the blandness of the book's borrowed cartography for the 1865 battle stands in stark contrast with the overall attractiveness of the volume's presentation.

The book's discussion of the three archaeological surveys performed between 2001 and 2010 reaffirms the worth of that methodology, both in confirming/questioning documentary history and in supporting preservation. It also shows that in archaeology what you don't find is just as important as what you do. Interestingly, while the digging on Palmetto Hill did not discover evidence of that strategic high ground being the location of major fighting, it did have a positive effect on marshaling support for landmark preservation. The absence of artifacts there supports contemporary reports that indicate a military presence on the hill for observation purposes but not significant fighting, with the position considered "indefensible" with the resources at hand. This section of the book amply reinforces the now widely accepted viewpoint that battlefield archaeology is at its best when employing a multi-disciplinary team of professionals in direct collaboration with outside stakeholders and participants possessing valuable local knowledge.

The last part of the volume traces the development of Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark. Along the way, it appropriately credits teamwork between federal agencies, the state historical commission, the Civil War Trust, and other dedicated individuals and organizations with preserving both the battlefield and the natural landscape in and around it. As part of the process, events like Park Day raised public awareness of Palmito Ranch while drawing in new supporters. With the site's relative isolation and funding not available for permanent staffing, the study also notes some of the innovative battlefield interpretive measures employed, in particular the radio broadcast repeater system installed in 2011 (which offers 24/7 visitor access to interpretive information recordings on the airwaves over a ten-mile radius around the landmark).

This volume is a wonderful new tool for raising public awareness and appreciation of the Palmito Ranch landmark and the history behind it. In addition to constructing a narrative appealing to new readers, authors Ginn and McWhorter offer fresh insights and information that those familiar with the existing literature should well appreciate. The book also represents another example of the indispensable importance in historical preservation of public and private resources and teamwork. Finally, the volume very effectively advances the notion that Palmito Ranch is deserving of a higher legacy than simply being the answer to a common Civil War trivia question. As a part of this, its narrative of events dovetails usefully with elements of the growing and influential North American borderlands scholarship. Highly recommended.