Monday, April 3, 2006

Review: "A Single Grand Victory"

[A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas by Ethan S. Rafuse (Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books, 2002, Pp. 232 est., Paper, $17.95, ISBN: 0-8420-2876-5)]

West Point professor Ethan Rafuse’s new book A Single Grand Victory is volume seven of the American Crisis Series edited by Steven Woodworth. Despite a few quibbles with the book’s presentation, A Single Grand Victory is a worthy addition to the series. While acknowledging the previous excellent work of William C. Davis and John Hennessy in their books Battle at Bull Run and The First Battle of Manassas, the author seeks to expand our understanding of the first major campaign of the Civil War by also discussing the social, political, economic, and gender-related factors that led to the outbreak of civil strife. Indeed, the author has mined the wealth of current research and scholarship pertaining to cultural influences and summarizes the findings well. The issues of soldier motivation and what factors led each side to expect a war that would be largely decided in one decisive battle are also examined.

The sections covering the campaign and battle are written in a lively fashion with many first-person accounts woven seamlessly into the text. Though no groundbreaking discoveries are made, the analysis throughout is sound. Unfortunately, the reader’s understanding of the Manassas campaign’s operational and tactical movements is hampered by maps that are both too few and lacking in detail. For example, in a battle often characterized by uncoordinated regimental level attacks, the maps are mostly brigade-level and lack important terrain features.

Though not necessarily meriting great criticism, some omissions in the text are curious. For instance, the author mentions the civilian spectators only in passing and chose not to delve into the Bee/Jackson controversy, limiting the treatment of the subject to a short paragraph. In his analysis of the battle, Rafuse does not criticize McDowell’s decision to make Tyler’s diversion on the same flank where the main attack was to be made. No formal order-of-battle or discussion of weapons, tactics or training is included either.

These criticisms aside, Rafuse has written a solid overview of the First Manassas campaign that places military events in a cultural context. The general reader especially will find the book’s comprehensive coverage of the campaign and battle to be interesting and informative. On the other hand, though the discussion of the campaign’s operational elements is particularly useful to students of military history, readers interested mainly in the battle’s tactical details will still find Hennessy’s book to be the best source available.

(The following review is reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appeared in vol. 5 #4, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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