Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Holt's "The Fate of Their Country"

Every once in a while I feel the need to grab a refresher on the national politics leading up to the Civil War. Michael F. Holt's The Fate of Their Country : Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War is my latest effort in this regard. From what I gather, this slim volume is basically an unannotated distillation of Professor Holt's Political Crisis of the 1850s and The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party : Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. Running at only 127 pages of text, Holt provides a wonderful summary of the territorial debates in Congress, beginning with the Missouri Compromise and moving on through the Compromise of 1850 and ending with the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854).

Holt places partisan politics over mere sectional differences as the primary lead-in to Civil War. When the two can be separated, Whig-Democrat maneuvering for short term political gain at the expense of the fate of the nation is at least as damaging as the increasing split between North and South. His outline of the Janus-faced (Holt's term) political stances of Southern Whigs during much of this period is fascinating. He makes a powerful case. His argument that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was "arguably the most consequential piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress" is compelling. Nicole Etcheson makes much the same argument in her book Bleeding Kansas.

I was unaware of the level of Congressional discord and length of debate over the final demarcation of the western border of Texas. Holt's discussion of the Southerners' primary need to salvage honor/save face over any realistic expectation of the extension of slavery into the territories (a view certainly shared by others) is interesting as well. Overall, I think this book is a great introduction to politics at a national level for the 40 years preceding secession. It makes me wish to want to read Holt's "The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party" (alas, like Joyce's Ulysses, it would likely remain on the shelf as something simply to point at, something you would dearly love to say you have read but are extremely unlikely to actually do so).

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Ed Bearss' Trans-Mississippi work

After finishing listening to yesterday's Civil War Talk Radio interview with Edwin Cole Bearss, I lamented to myself how few (if any) interviewers ask him about his considerable work on the war in the Trans-Mississippi theater. Mr. Bearss is largely responsible for my primary interest in this front. His writings, in the form of numerous books and journal articles, are prodigious and, although much of it was written around the Centennial period, large stretches have not been revisited since that time. Many of his journal articles have a book study level of detail along with more (and better) maps than you find in most current CW histories.

I've provided a selected book and article list below organized by state:

Bearss, Edwin C. The Battle of Wilson's Creek. Fourth edition. Springfield: Wilson's Creek National Battlefield Foundation, 1992. 170p.

Bearss, Edwin C. "Army of the Frontier's First Campaign: The Confederates Win at Newtonia." Missouri Historical Review 60 (April 1966): 283-319.

Bearss, Edwin C. “The Battle of Helena, July 4, 1863.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XX (Autumn 1961), 25 6-297.

Bearss, Edwin C. “The Battle of the Post of Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XVIII (Autumn 1959), 237-279.

Bearss, Edwin C. "Confederate Action Against Fort Smith Post: Early 1864.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXIX (Autumn 1970), 226-252.

Bearss, Edwin C. “The Confederate Attempt to Regain Fort Smith, 1863.” Arkansas Historical Quarter4’, XXVIII (Winter 1969), 342-380.

Bearss, Edwin C. “Federal Generals Squabble Over Fort Smith Post, 1863- 1864.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXIX (Summer 1970), 119-15.1.

Bearss, Edwin C. “The Federals Capture Fort Smith, 1863.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXVIII (Summer 1969), 156-190.

Bearss, Edwin C. “The Federals Raid Van Buren and Threaten Fort Smith.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXVI (Summer 1967), 123-142.

Bearss, Edwin C. “The Federals Struggle to Hold on to Fort Smith.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXIV (Summer 1965), 149-179.

Bearss, Edwin C. “Fort Smith Serves General McCulloch as a Supply Depot.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXIV (Winter 1965), 315-347.

Bearss, Edwin C. “From Rolla to Fayetteville with General Curtis.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly XIX (Autumn 1960), 225-259.

Bearss, Edwin C. “General Bussey Takes Over at Fort Smith.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly’, XXIV (Autumn 1965), 220-240.

Bearss, Edwin C. “General Cooper’s CSA Indians Threaten Fort Smith.” Arkansas Historical Quarterb’, XXVI (Autumn 1967), 257-284.

Bearss, Edwin C. “General William Steele Fights to Hold onto Northwest Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXV (Spring 1966), 36-93.

Bearss, Edwin C. “Marmaduke Attacks Pine Bluff.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXIII (Winter 1964), 291-313.

Bearss, Edwin C., Steele’s Retreat from Camden and the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. Little Rock: Arkansas Civil War Centennial Commission, 1967.

Bearss, Edwin C., “The White River Expedition June l0-July 15, 1862.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly XXI (Winter 1962), 305-362.

Bearss, Edwin C., "The Seizure of the Forts and Public Property in Louisiana"

Bearss, Edwin C.,"The Battle of Baton Rouge", Louisiana History (Vol III, No. 3, Spring 1962)

Bearss, Edwin C., "The Civil War Comes to the Lafourche"

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

More CW in the Southwest this year

Looks like this year will see some more interesting titles dealing with the Civil War in the desert southwest. The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865 (June 2006) and Distant Bugles, Distant Drums: The Union Response to the Confederate Invasion of New Mexico (May 2006).

I am not familiar with the work of either author, but both books above join the upcoming Grant at Cairo book as Big 12 university press publications (Tigers, Sooners, and Buffaloes) so they can't be all bad.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

More on "The Texas Overland Expedition of 1863"

Those readers that would prefer a 'Cliff Notes' version of the 1863 Texas Overland Expedition story to David C. Edmonds's lengthy and definitive volume, will not find anything better than Richard Lowe's The Texas Overland Expedition of 1863. Lowe, who you might recall as the the author of Walker's Texas Division, C.S.A: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi, is well qualified to write about this campaign and does a masterful job of condensing its history into a brief yet highly detailed treatment.

This book is definitely one of the better McWhiney Foundation Press overviews that I have read. With this particular volume, Lowe's crisp writing is combined with helpful photos, maps, and drawings to give the reader an excellent introduction to this comparatively obscure campaign.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Richey: "The Battle of Baton Rouge"

Ed Bearss's lengthy Louisiana History (Vol III, No. 3, Spring 1962) article has long been the standard account of the Battle of Baton Rouge. What Thomas Richey's new book The Battle of Baton Rouge does is increase our understanding of the battle by expanding around the edges of Bearss's work. Richey adds depth by providing background into the city's role in the war up to the August 5, 1862 battle. Capsule histories of each regiment and battery that participated in the battle are included along with numbers and armaments information when available. Brief portraits of the officers leading these units are provided as well.

Thomas Williams, the Union commander at Baton Rouge, is given rather rough treatment. I was unaware that he had invented a new formation called the "Order of Combat". He drilled his men incessantly on this although it appears to have been universally reviled by his fellow officers. Curiously, when the battle actually occurred, Williams abandoned his cherished tactical project and deployed his men conventionally. His death during the fight ended the experiment. The text descriptions of the Order of Combat in the book are a bit confusing and I wish a diagram of the drill had been provided.

The book has a large number of maps depicting troops movements at the regiment and battery level, but the author made the unfortunate choice of overlaying these units over a modern map of the city. Undoubtedly, this helps visitors and current residents find where the action occurred but it doesn't further the reader's understanding. Fortunately, a good period map is provided for reference. This solves the problem but I would have wished the author had switched the two instead.

The level of research is adequate and Richey does attempt some revision of current thought on the battle. As an example, he asserts that there was no significant diminution of Confederate strength prior to the battle and instead proposes that Breckinridge had up to 4,000 men at the battle rather than the conventional figure of 2,600. Richey claims to have found no accounts that depict the approach march as anything but a normal journey with no evidence of extensive straggling or other kinds of march attrition. It isn't an entirely convincing case but worth contemplating.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the battle is the terrain. It was certainly unusual to find a Civil War urban battlefield composed equally of city buildings and densely wooded areas. Some call it the only truly urban battle of the Civil War but I'm not sure how accurate that is. Like most things, it probably comes down to a question of degree.

In the end, the Battle of Baton Rouge was a wasteful, inconclusive battle. The major lasting result, in my mind, is the loss of the C.S.S. Arkansas, which due to engine trouble could not participate in the battle and was soon after blown up by its crew to avoid capture. It was a critical loss of a powerful ironclad. Overall, this inexpensive volume is a cut above the usual quality of a POD book and is well worth buying for those interested in this battle.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Ray: "Shock Troops of the Confederacy"

Although a few books from or about the officers and men of Confederate sharpshooter battalions have been published, none approach the comprehensive coverage and depth of research of Fred Ray's upcoming book Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia (CSF Press). Ray also takes a wider view of the subject than previous writers, tracing the development of light infantry and their tactics from the late 1700s through WW1 and the development of the German Stosstruppen. Of course, the emphasis is on American military changes during the Civil War, and here much of the credit is given to Robert Rodes and his subordinates Eugene Blackford and Bristor Gayle. Clearly, support from the higher command echelons is essential for the success of any new tactical innovation and Rodes's brigade and divisional leadership in this regard was singularly unwavering.

Ray skillfully demonstrates the evolution of the Confederate sharpshooter units from the open order drills and marksmanship training of the individual battalions to the creation of a hardhitting divisional organization composed of a sharpshooter battalion drawn from each brigade. Aside from regular screening, scouting, and reconnaissance duties, by 1864, the battalions evolved into specialized units with considerable offensive punch. The transformation into shock troops is clearly demonstrated during the 1864 Valley Campaign and the assault on Fort Stedman in 1865. The Fort Stedman attack is recreated in the book in minute detail with the aid of many highly detailed maps. In fact, the book contains a large number of maps (43). The quality is a bit inconsistent but the overall effort is impressive.

The maps and text are also used to illustrate certain tactical improvements that sprung from the minds of innovative junior officers. The capture of an enemy picket line by use of a brilliant movement they called "seine-hauling" was particularly interesting. Other officers developed variations on this tactic and the Confederate sharpshooters became an absolute terror on the Union picket line.

The author also includes several chapters on the development and use of Federal sharpshooter units, comparing the strengths and weaknesses of each side. A brief chapter introducing western theater Confederate sharpshooter battalions is provided as well. Additionally, Union and Confederate sharpshooter uniforms and weapons are discussed and a useful chapter summarizing modern testing results of various period weaponry is placed in the appendix. In my opinion, what's missing from the main text or the appendices is a concentrated and highly detailed description of the battalion skirmisher/open order drills. I may be nitpicking here, and you do get a good idea of the tactical evolutions from a complete reading of the text, but I would have preferred a more formalized presentation at some point.

In terms of production values and visual presentation issues, Shock Troops is well-written and well-edited, not something commonly seen with POD books. Maps, drawings, photos, and illustrations are numerous and well chosen. All in all, it is a quality production. I would recommend this highly original and truly groundbreaking study to anyone interested in Civil War military history, specialists and generalists alike.

(addendum 2/10/06: author Fred Ray wrote me with a correction. The sale version of the book will be higher quality via a regular press run, only the advance/review copies were POD.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Edmonds: "Yankee Autumn in Acadiana: A Narrative of the Great Texas Overland Expedition Through Southwestern Louisiana, October - December 1863"

(Reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appeared in vol. 8 #7, pp. 85-86 , reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

[Yankee Autumn in Acadiana: A Narrative of the Great Texas Overland Expedition Through Southwestern Louisiana, October - December 1863 by David C. Edmonds. (Lafayette, LA: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2005). Pp. 464, $24.95 (shipping included), Softcover, photos, maps, illustrations, notes, appendices. ISBN 1-887366-62-8)]

Although it was one of the largest operations conducted in the Trans-Mississippi theater during the Civil War, the 1863 Texas Overland Expedition remained an obscure subject for study until relatively recent times. Sandwiched between the more celebrated battle at Sabine Pass and the Red River campaign, the autumn expedition lacks the signature battle or the compelling figures that serve to burn events into historical memory. Beyond Richard Lowe’s brief but excellent introductory monograph, the only book length study available was David Edmonds’ exhaustive but rare and long out-of-print book Yankee Autumn in Acadiana. Fortunately, Edmonds’ work has now been reprinted in paperback and is available to a wider audience. The breadth and scope of research for Yankee Autumn, the vast majority of which is unpublished primary sources, is impressive, providing the reader with a comprehensive examination of the campaign and its dire consequences for the local civilian population.

The large federal force participating in the Texas Overland Expedition (XIII and XIX Corps, augmented by an ad-hoc cavalry division) was under the overall leadership of General Nathaniel Banks but under the operational command of General William Franklin. The opposing Confederate army under General Richard Taylor was vastly outnumbered and fought a delaying action over the bayous and prairies of southwest Louisiana. Franklin, with only vague instruction from Banks, advanced his army up the Teche region in fits and starts, fighting numerous skirmishes with Taylor’s cavalry under Tom Green. The Union army’s forward progress ended in Louisiana at Opelousas and Barre’s Landing. Still lacking clear orders from above, Franklin chose to withdraw closer to his base, effectively ending the campaign without ever seriously threatening Texas. A sharp rear guard action at Bayou Bourbeux occurred during this time and was the campaign’s only conflict large enough to be really considered a battle. The fight resulted in a clear Confederate victory, although wins in several minor skirmishes subsequently helped the Union forces to restore the balance to some degree.

Beyond harassing the civilian population with undisciplined looting and foraging, the Union expedition accomplished little if anything. It is these social and economic aspects of the campaign that comprise much of the focus of the book. The author mined vast numbers of domestic and foreign claims commission documents and numerous newspaper, church, and courthouse records in order to provide for the reader an incredibly detailed account of the campaign’s ruinous effects on the local multi-ethnic population.

The military features of the campaign are fully examined as well and are supplemented by numerous and highly detailed maps of both march routes and battlefields. My only complaint in this regard is that many of the maps are poorly copied and so shrunken as to make it difficult and sometimes impossible to read the labels. This, combined with the numerous misspellings, makes the reader wish for a stronger editing hand. Issues of presentation aside, however, this lengthy and definitive work admirably fills a historical void and is highly recommended for readers interested in Civil War Louisiana and its people and Trans-Mississippi operations in general.

Friday, February 3, 2006

"River Run Red"

Andrew Ward's River Run Red : The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War is a bottom up narrative history of the events surrounding CSA General Nathan Bedford Forrest's 1864 assault and capture of Fort Pillow and its sanguinary aftermath. Ward's history is wide in scope (the battle ends only halfway through a lengthy book) and he has amassed an impressive number of soldier and civilian first-person accounts from both sides--although predominantly Union--in order to tell his tale. The common soldiers (both black and white) are the focus here. Unfortunately, Ward seems to have succumbed to the somewhat understandable temptation to include in his narrative seemingly every anecdote he encountered in his research, regardless of relevance.

Other problems occur in the author's construction of military events. Granted, battle is confusion itself, but if your combat narrative is simply narrow individual accounts strung together with little attempt at a higher organization the reader is left with quite a mess to untangle on his own. Ward never takes the time to place the individual regiments of either side on the battlefield at the different stages of the fight and only provides a vague description of the locations of the Confederate brigades. This situation is compounded by the lack of any useful maps. In addition, the kinds of errors that creep into the text (although general readers would probably consider them minor) indicate the lack by the author of a deep understanding of Civil War military operations.

Ward, although certainly no Forrest apologist, does attempt an evenhanded approach in many places. The brutality and extreme corruption of the Federal occupation of West Tennessee is detailed over several chapters. This context is not used to excuse Confederate behavior during the aftermath of the Fort Pillow battle, but rather to provide insight into the mutual hatred Confederate and pro-Union Tennesseans had for each other.

The heart of Ward's narrative is clearly the experience of black soldiers before, during, and after the battle. It is remarkable how many stories and writings from these men the author was able to find. A viewing of the bibliography reveals work that is adequately researched, although I do wish Ward had categorized his source material. In the end, River Run Red, although interesting in places, cannot lay claim to definitive status. Expectations will probably rule here. Readers searching for a highly structured, well-argued, and thesis driven examination of Fort Pillow will instead find a rather loosely organized popular style narrative history.