Monday, March 13, 2006

Review: "Donnybrook"

[Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861 by David Detzer. (Harcourt, Inc, 2004. Pp. 512, $28.00, Hardback, photos, notes. ISBN 0-15-100889-2)

The Battle of Bull Run is so full of drama, controversy, and interesting personages that there always seems to be room for a fresh interpretation. Professor David Detzer, whose previous Civil War book Allegiance was well received, has entered the mix with a new history of the battle that challenges many of the conclusions of prior authors. The jacket boldly proclaims that Donnybrook is the “first major history of Bull Run to detail the battle from its origins through its aftermath”. Questionable premise aside, the result is a bit of mixed bag.

Donnybrook is not a classic battle study, but rather a vibrant narrative history that will appeal to a wide range of readers. Detzer’s style is informal and a bit eccentric but very effective and unfailingly entertaining. How many academic historians would describe Stonewall Jackson as a “twit” or quote boxer Mike Tyson in a chapter head? Another passage, related to Israel Richardson’s new marriage, amusingly stated that “though his loins may have been more relaxed, his fighting instinct remained”. Granted, the style isn’t for everybody, but the substance cannot be discounted. Although there is no bibliography to compare with previous works, detailed endnotes are included that make it abundantly clear that the author did his homework. Detzer uncovered a vast number of primary accounts and skillfully weaved them into the text.

Even the most jaded Bull Run specialist will enjoy reading this book. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of Donnybrook is the author’s unabashed challenging of the battle’s many myths and interpretations. There are far too many to list here but they include perhaps history’s least condemning review of Robert Patterson’s generalship (ed. 3/12/06 - Russel Beatie is similarly corrective in volume one of his Army of the Potomac series). The author’s assessment of the campaign’s heroes and villains is certainly unconventional. Detzer additionally holds the actions of Jackson and his Virginians to be unexceptional and he is never afraid to confront previous historians’s conclusions about specific events that took place during the fighting on Henry House Hill.

However, the book is not without flaws, some serious. The absence of even a single map is really unacceptable. Considering how inviting most of the book is to the novice reader, how that person will begin to understand the confused fighting without maps is beyond me. Though the depiction of events up to and including the action on Matthew’s Hill is excellent, the previously smoothly flowing narrative breaks down on Henry House Hill. Mythbusting tangents and conflicting sources notwithstanding, the author fails to construct a likely sequence of events from the sources available that is comprehensive enough to give the reader a reasonable impression of what happened there. The previous works of Hennessy, Davis, and most recently Rafuse were much more successful in this regard. Finally, the ending was rushed. Though organized into three books, the action on Matthew’s Hill does not begin in earnest until Book Three and the battle’s aftermath takes up only a dozen pages or so in a book containing over 400 pages of text. This wasn’t enough space to convincingly lay out the author’s thesis minimizing the negative consequences of the Union defeat.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in the Battle of Bull Run should read this book. Detzer’s narrative style is extremely entertaining, accessible, and can draw the general reader in in the vein of a Foote or a McPherson and the multitude of new interpretations of persons and events should spark a lively debate among the specialists.

(P.S.--3/12/06-- I should say that, although maps were absent in the review galley proof, a single rather poorly presented period map was included in the published edition. I also got a kick out of the magazine advertisement the publisher created for the book, which cherry-picked choice phrases from my N&S review, connecting them with "...", making it appear as if I had given it a rave review.)

(Reprinted with Permission from North & South Magazine. Originally published in Vol. 7 #7, pg. 90, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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