Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Peskin: "Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms"

[Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms by Allan Peskin. (Kent State University Press, 2004). Pp. 310, $49.00, Hardback, photos, maps, notes. ISBN 0-87338-774-0]

Winfield Scott was one of the greatest military figures of his age—truly a giant—yet he fails to excite the imagination of the modern reader. You won’t find him placed highly on many lists of the top American generals by historians and general readers alike. Perhaps Scott’s personality plays a part in this or his professional career was so long that what is remembered most is the general’s deteriorated condition in his later years. Fortunately, several modern biographies have been published in recent years that can provide us with a richer picture of General Scott’s life and career.

Allan Peskin, perhaps best known as a biographer of President Garfield, has written a nice overview of Winfield Scott’s military and political career. It is a balanced account that refreshingly never approaches hagiography. Indeed, Scott’s considerable professional faults and personality flaws are prominently displayed but they are not used to overshadow the general’s exceptional achievements. Although family and personal relationships are not ignored, the central theme of Peskin’s writing is Scott’s lifelong mission of creating and maintaining a professional army in America (in direct opposition to the popular disdain of standing armies and reliance on militia and civilian officers in national crises). The author credits the general with the creation of a vastly more efficient managerial structure for the army along with standardized training and tactical manuals gleaned from European experts.

General Scott’s long military career stretched from 1807 to 1861. He seemed to have a significant hand in all the important events of the times and Peskin provides the reader with able summaries of all of them, from the War of 1812 to the Black Hawk, Seminole, Mexican, Pig and Civil Wars. Additionally, Scott was often the government’s chief firefighter in resolving seemingly endless border disputes and for easing internal problems such as the Nullification Crisis. Beyond his exceptional military skills, Scott was so successful at peace negotiations and in defusing potentially explosive crises that his abilities led some to call him the “Great Pacificator”. He even had a prominent role in national politics and was the last Whig nominee for president.

Peskin’s coverage of military battles and campaigns is brief but serviceable. The author is so evenhanded that he perhaps does not laud Scott enough for his masterpiece Vera Cruz to Mexico City campaign. As for maps, they are mostly well chosen although the single drawing of the Mexico City environs is inadequate to cover the battles for the capital. The military events in Peskin’s book are repeatedly overshadowed by the litany of betrayals and partisan backbiting (whether self-inflicted or not) that all too often characterized Winfield Scott’s relationships with politicians and fellow army officers. In the general’s defense, many of the men who were president during Scott’s career do not come off very well, especially James Polk.

Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms
reaffirms the general’s prominent place in American history. For our purposes here, about ten percent of the book covers Scott’s Civil War service. Significant new information will not be found here and the author’s analysis of this period is conventional. However, any reader interested in a solid overview of the military and political career of Winfield Scott will find this book a helpful read.

(Review reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appearing in vol.7 #7, pp. 86-87, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

Monday, October 29, 2007

McCaslin: "Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Tennessee in the Civil War"

[Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Tennessee in the Civil War by Richard B. McCaslin (University of Arkansas Press, 2007) Cloth, 250 photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pp. 430 ISBN: 978-1-55728-831-8 $59.95]
I must admit to being entirely new to the Portraits of Conflict series. Always curious, I'd never had to opportunity to hold one in my hands until now. Previous volumes include those for the states of Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. This new Tennessee addition to the series is the first in nine years.

The study begins with a short summary of the careers of various photographers that did business in the state. With chapters covering secession and Reconstruction bookending those centering on the main Tennessee campaigns and battles, the book's focus is not entirely military. Each chapter includes an introduction by McCaslin and the heading additionally provides a thematic focus for the photographs and captions that follow. It is a structure that works quite well.

The images selected for inclusion in the study range from the very familiar to the never before published. The 200-300 word (or more) caption attached to each photograph begins with a placement of the image in the context of the particular chapter where it resides. This is followed by a brief history or biography of the subject. In keeping with the largely military theme of the chapters, the majority of photographic subjects are carte de visite-type images of soldiers. No landscapes can be recalled, but images of women, politicians, and gunboats were also included.

Note should be made of the exceptional material quality and aesthetic presentation of this volume. Upon lifting it, one immediately notices the book's weight relative to other publications of similar dimension. Pages are made from high grade, high gloss paper and the fine cloth binding is sturdy. The original photographs vary in condition (some of the selections are badly deteriorated), but the reproductions of the best preserved images are exceptional in clarity. If this Tennessee volume is indicative of the quality of the series as a whole, these studies should be considered essential additions to institutional libraries and the bookshelves of Civil War photography enthusiasts.

Friday, October 26, 2007

William Shea & Prairie Grove

Like many other Civil War in the Ozarks devotees, I've been waiting impatiently for the publication of William Shea's Prairie Grove project. I don't know which press will be publishing it, but as far as I can tell, the book is still scheduled for a release sometime in 2008 [I hope to see some mention of it in an upcoming Spring/Summer university press catalog; if UNC would do as wonderful a job with PG as they did with his earlier Pea Ridgebook, I would be well pleased to learn that Shea went with them].

The working title I've run across on the net is Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign but I have no official confirmation of it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Collins: "The Jones-Imboden Raid"

[The Jones-Imboden Raid: The Confederate Attempt to Destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Retake West Virginia by Darrell L. Collins (McFarland ph.800 253-2187, 2007). Softcover, 15 maps, photos, notes, bibliography. Pages total/main: 217/194 ISBN: 978-0-7864-3070-3 $35]

In the shadow of the looming clash between Lee and Hooker at Chancellorsville, the enterprise that ultimately became the Jones-Imboden Raid1 could claim some fairly ambitious political, military, and economic aims of its own. Originally conceived by John H. "Hanse" McNeill as a battalion-strength lightning strike on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridge at Cheat River, subsequent interest in the endeavor expanded its scope into a multi-pronged raid. It's goals were many fold. Beyond a generalized disruption of the new state of West Virginia, the raid was also a Confederate recruitment drive. Additionally, the troopers planned to impress goods and forage freely. The bridges (especially the vital Cheat River Bridge) and tracks of the B&O were also targeted for destruction. While the others appear attainable, the goal of actually pushing Federal troops out of the state appears far fetched to us today. Union forces in the immediate area outnumbered the raiders by at least three to one, and cavalry is particularly unsuited to the task of invasion and occupation.

Writing a memorable cavalry raid history is difficult, but author Darrell Collins has previously demonstrated his ability with a fine Salem Raid study. The description of rapid movements over long distances in a narrative can subject readers to a constant, mind numbing barrage of unfamiliar names and places. Collins largely avoids this trap by smoothly reorienting the reader at each turn and inserting maps at regular intervals. The author writes well, and his research is sufficient2 to construct a reasonably detailed military history of the raid, as well as an enlightening picture of the civilian experience3. According to Collins, West Virginia citizens suffered significant property loss, regardless of political orientation.

Collins' analysis of the effectiveness of the Jones-Imboden Raid is penetrating. Rather than discouraging support of the new government of West Virginia, the Confederate incursion served to stiffen the resolve of the Unionist population. Few recruits flocked to Confederate colors, and wholesale impressment provoked a backlash against the state's considerable population of secessionist sympathizing residents. This widespread practice of seizing horses and cattle from citizens (thousands were obtained in this manner regardless of political affiliation) also did little to inspire allegiance to the Confederacy. Desertion and march attrition largely offset gains in army recruitment and impressment of horseflesh. The effect of the damage to the B&O was fleeting and disappointing as well. While the iron railroad bridge at Fairmont was destroyed, the Cheat River Bridge (a major objective) was untouched and the railroad was up and running throughout its length within ten days. One of the most interesting and successful aspects of the raid was the destruction of the oil fields near Burning Springs. Not originally an objective, the action caused severe economic damage to the industry, effectively ending it for the duration of the war.

While acknowledging the great difficulty of catching cavalry with infantry, Collins is highly critical of the timidity of the Union military response (especially that of the hapless Gen. Benjamin Roberts) to the movements of Jones and Imboden. Under the overall direction of Gen. Robert Schenck, the instinct of what to do was present at times, but the general showed a complete inability to inspire his subordinates to action. On the other side, while the raid failed to meet expectations, the author generally finds little fault with the actions of the Confederate commanders. With so many unrealistic goals, this view is reasonable. However, the author appropriately takes Jones to task for instances of hesitancy that cost him several opportunities to inflict more extensive damage to the B&O [the failure at Cheat River Bridge is the most egregious example].

With The Jones-Imboden Raid, author Darrell Collins provides us with the first modern, book length treatment of the subject. It's another fine effort by this author. Well written, skillfully analyzed, and persuasively argued, I would recommend this volume to all serious students of cavalry raids and any reader interested in the Civil War in West Virginia.

1 - Brigades under William E. "Grumble" Jones and John D. Imboden participated in the raid, with Jones operating generally along the line of the B&O and Imboden covering his southern flank. Starting from the Shenandoah, the Confederate raiders executed a grand counterclockwise sweep through the length of West Virginia before returning to the valley.

2 - Being unfamiliar with the sources available for this raid, I am reluctant to complain too heavily of the limited nature of the bibliography. However, for a work of this scope, I was expecting to find more manuscript and primary source materials listed.

3 - The raiders' negative impression of the residents of the southern region of West Virginia on the raiders is reminiscent of the similar attitude toward rural Arkansans examined by William Shea in his essay published in
Civil War Arkansas: Beyond Battles and Leaders.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Books received (Oct 07)

Regular rundown of book purchases and review copies received:

1. Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaigns, 1863–1864 ed. by Gary D. Joiner (University of Tennessee Press, 2007). UT Press's Voices of the Civil War Series is on a nice run as one of the premier publishers of edited primary accounts. In addition to its obvious value as a provider of useful published source materials, there are some really nice maps included in this volume [I was unaware that such a detailed map study of Pleasant Hill existed. The full run would appear worthy of publication somewhere].

2. Firearms in American History: A Guide for Writers, Curators, and General Readers by Charles G. Worman (Westholme Publishing, 2007). Contradictions and wildly varying opinions abound in the CW literature when it comes to the discussion of weaponry. Who to believe? Judging from the author's background, this particular study could serve as a valuable reference work.

3. Images of Civil War Medicine: A Photographic History by Gordon Dammann and Alfred Jay Bollet (Demos Medical Publishing, 2007). The usefulness of the text is undetermined at present, but this ARC indeed looks like it should be a worthy purchase for the Civil War photography enthusiast.

4. Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War edited by Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter (University Press of Florida, 2003). Considering the mainstream popularity of both the ACW and archaeology, it is a bit surprising to see so few books published that utilize the intersection at depth [Hess's series of field fortifications immediately comes to mind]. On the other hand, perhaps archaeology's general popularity is largely limited to ancient civilizations. As the many surveys, studies, articles, and field reports attest, battlefield archaeology can teach us a great deal about the Civil War. I have been meaning to read this particular book for a long time, and am excited to finally obtain a copy. From the table of contents (see link above), this edited volume contains a great number of articles that should enlighten interested readers as to archaeological methods & techniques and how they can be used to draw conclusions about not only battles and battlefields, but also everyday life in camps, hospitals, farms, towns, and forts.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Joiner: "Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy"

[Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron by Gary D. Joiner (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) Softcover, photos, maps, notes, bibliography. Page Total/Main: 212/189 ISBN: 0-7425-5098-2/978-0-7425-5098-8 $24.95]

The Mississippi Squadron was no mere junior partner to the U.S. army's efforts in the western theater during the Civil War. The navy was indispensable in a number of roles, and was a decisive factor in the success of many of the major Union campaigns. With Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy, Gary Joiner provides readers with a useful, up-to-date survey history of this celebrated naval organization.

As with many American Crisis Series volumes, Brown Water Navy successfully covers a broad swath of ground in a limited amount of space. From its inception as the Western Gunboat Flotilla to its complete dismantling shortly after war's end, Joiner chronicles all the major events and personalities involved in the history of the Mississippi Squadron. The author lauds the political and administrative capabilities of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and his assistant Gustavus V. Fox, granting the pair the lion's share of credit for laying the groundwork for success on western waters. He also conveys to the reader a good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the various gunboats, especially the famous Eads/Pook designs. All of the major naval actions* are summarized, and the command abilities of officers John Rodgers, Andrew Foote, Charles Ellet, David Porter, and Samuel Lee are evaluated with a depth appropriate to the book's scope. At a similar level, there is some discussion of naval tactics and strategy.

Brown Water Navy is a richly illustrated volume as well. Ten maps help trace the myriad of inland waterways traversed by men and machine. Numerous photographs (many unfamiliar to me) of the ships that served in the squadron are also included. It's really a great visual record of the wild array of ironclad, timberclad, tinclad, and ram designs utilized by the U.S. Navy, either as original construction or converted civilian vessels. The only thing missing are pictures of some of the more specialized members of the squadron, like pump boats.

While Joiner's study relies heavily on published sources, the detriment is not significant for a work that is essentially one of synthesis. Thus, those readers primarily seeking a broad introduction to the subject based on the latest research will be most rewarded. However, others already steeped in the literature of the war on western waters should also be satisfied with the level of detail found in Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy, its content serving as a valuable quick reference guide.

* = Battles and campaigns include - Belmont, Forts Henry & Donelson, Shiloh, New Madrid, Memphis, Ft. Pillow, New Orleans, Vicksburg, and Red River. Various smaller actions along the Mississippi, Cumberland, Tennessee, White, Arkansas, Yazoo, Red, Black, and Ouachita rivers are also covered.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Book Awards

I am struck by the number of ACW book awards*, most of which don't really register with me until I see their mention in the 'About the Author' page at the rear of a particular book. While announcement of the more prominent ones (e.g. the Lincoln Prize) is covered in the mainstream media, many others seem to pass under the radar. Perhaps on the opposite end of the visibility spectrum from the Lincoln Prize is the A.M. Pate Jr. Award. Organized by the Fort Worth Civil War Round Table, the honor is conferred upon the work considered by their committee to be the best book on the Trans-Mississippi region published over a two year period. The $1000 prize is intended to encourage further T-M scholarship, and past winners include Gary Joiner, Donald Frazier, and Jerry Thompson [a fine lineup, IMO].

A recent email correspondent from the U.K. reminded me of how difficult it can be to find lists of past winners for many such awards. While it is an easy enough google search for the one he was interested in, the Douglas Southall Freeman History Award, others require some digging or the search fails altogether. I have always thought how nice it would be for readers to have access to some sort of clearinghouse website listing past winners of known Civil War book awards. As far as I know, no such thing exists. If anyone knows otherwise, please comment below.

* = For me, it is mainly an issue of curiosity. Agendas undoubtedly abound in any kind of award system. I have no illusions that winners are chosen solely on scholarly merit.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bradley: "With Blood & Fire: Life Behind Union Lines in Middle Tennessee, 1863-65"

["With Blood & Fire": Life Behind Union Lines in Middle Tennessee, 1863-65 by Michael R. Bradley (Burd Street Press, 2003) Softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography. Pages total/main: 210/197. ISBN: 1572493232]

While most of the popular literature examining "hard war" aspects of Federal policy continue to concentrate on active campaigns (e.g. Sherman's March), it seems clear that the worst abuses by far occurred in those occupied rear areas heavily exposed to guerrilla warfare. If the area was strategically critical to the occupiers, as in the case of Middle Tennessee, tensions with the local population were only intensified, and forbearance of even passive dissent considerably weaker.

In researching his book With Blood & Fire: Life Behind Union Lines in Middle Tennessee, 1863-65, historian Michael Bradley mined hundreds of reels of microfilm holding the provost marshal records of "Military Sub District #1, Defenses of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad" and other records of the provost's involvement with individuals and groups of citizens. Complicating matters, these records were poorly organized and un-indexed, making the task of finding even simple information extremely cumbersome.

Bradley organizes the book around these records, quoting at length (perhaps too much so) from military reports and civilian testimony. His examination of occupation policies and military-civilian interaction in Middle Tennessee is not systematic, but rather takes the form of selective snapshots. Union Gen. Alpheus Williams's time in command is contrasted sharply with that of Gen. Robert Milroy. Union forces (assisted by local Home Guards) dealt harshly with guerrillas and with civilians suspected of aiding them. Milroy actually incorporated death lists into his orders, hanging or shooting numerous civilians without trial. Even neutrality or passive support for the Confederacy led to being a target for violence. Banishment, levies, and the refusal to grant permits to buy personal goods were other tactics used by Union commanders to combat guerrilla attacks and weaken Confederate civilian support for the war. The book's final chapter documents the involvement of ex-slaves in the provost marshal system, either in criminal matters or in civil issues such as distribution of property, lost wages, or other compensation owed.

In the end, With Blood & Fire utilizes the provost marshal records perhaps a bit too exclusively. The bibliography has less than 20 entries, and a far richer picture of civilian life in Middle Tennessee could be painted if the author broadened his range of primary source materials consulted. While the focus is narrow and selective, Bradley and his colleagues deserve praise for bringing these neglected provost marshal records to light. It's an intriguing introduction and hopefully others will expand upon this work. Clearly, unwarranted abuses occurred with alarming regularity under Milroy's tenure, but a broader and more analytical approach to examining Union military policy toward civilians in the region would be welcomed.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Elizabeth City, NC study

I seem to be on a bit of a North Carolina turn recently, so I thought I would pass along some news about a book that will be published shortly, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation by Alex Christopher Meekins (The History Press, Nov 2007). I don't know much of anything about book, author, or publisher*, but the title and short blurb point to a geographic region [coastal NC] and a subject [occupation] I always find interesting.

* = I have a sidebar link to a publisher of the same name, and assume they are one and the same even though the website does not mention this book at all. The History Press appears to be a prolific publisher of local lore across many states.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Walker: "Rebel Gibraltar: Fort Fisher and Wilmington, C.S.A."

[Rebel Gibraltar: Fort Fisher and Wilmington, C.S.A. by James L. Walker Jr. (Dram Tree Books, 2005) Softcover, maps, illustrations, notes, appendix, bibliography. Page total/main: 440/402 ISBN 0-9723240-7-0 $32]

With his book Rebel Gibraltar, James Walker provides the reader with perhaps the broadest modern wartime history of the port city of Wilmington. Recognizing the great prior work of both Chris Fonvielle [The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope*] and Rod Gragg [Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher], the author wisely elected to shift his focus from the well covered Dec. 1864-Jan. 1865 campaigns. Walker chronicles Wilmington's entire wartime experience from secession to its ultimate fall to Union forces in February of 1865. That's not to say that the Butler and Terry expeditions are not covered sufficiently (they are); but Rebel Gibraltar illuminates best the town's critical role as a supply conduit and facilitator of blockade running.

The author writes well, and effectively conveys to the reader an native's knowledge of the ground. Readers are also shown snapshots of what civilian life was like in the bustling port city. Other chapters closely follow the construction of Wilmington's extensive system of defenses, to include Fort Fisher and a host of other outlying forts and batteries. The contributions of the citizens of Wilmington to the overall Confederate war effort are also detailed. While Walker lauds the diligence and skill of General Chase Whiting and Colonel Lamb, he is unsparing in his criticism of General Bragg, holding that officer chiefly responsible for the rapid loss of both Fort Fisher and Wilmington in Jan-Feb 1865.

A particularly interesting military facet of Walker's study is his description of the impressive long term ability of Confederate authorities to effectively aid the ingress and egress of blockade runners. The author attributes much of this success to Colonel William Lamb's system of utilizing mobile Whitworth batteries, often from pre-planned positions, to consistently push U.S.N. blockading stations as much as five miles offshore. These batteries were also able to successfully assist in the cargo salvage of a number of grounded runners.

If not exhaustive in depth, a broad range of source materials were consulted, including archival materials. The text is supported by maps reproduced from the previous work of respected cartographer and historian Mark Moore [see The Wilmington Campaign and the Battle for Fort Fisher]. While these maps are fine, more were needed, especially for the Sugar Loaf defenses and Schofield's final drive on Wilmington after Terry's capture of Fort Fisher. Such events are heavily discussed in the text but lack map coverage.

Rebel Gibraltar
is worthy of recommendation as a comprehensive overview of Civil War Wilmington, North Carolina. Readers interested generally in the blockade, blockade running, and combined operations in coastal areas should also find this densely detailed, and often fascinating, study of use.

* = Of the two works, Fonvielle's is my personal preference, and a truly great study. The list of archival sources is astounding.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Books received (Sept 07)

The Jones-Imboden Raid: The Confederate Attempt to Destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Retake West Virginia by Darrell L. Collins (McFarland, 2007).

Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron -- by Gary D. Joiner (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007).

Lincoln: The Presidential Archives - Intimate Photographs, Personal Letters, and Documents that Changed History -- by Chuck Wills (DK Publishing, 2007). This book is similar to William Miller's cartography study (reviewed here) in the sense that it is an oversize text and photo publication that also incorporates pockets holding removable facsimile documents.

Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign -- by Earl J. Hess (University of North Carolina Press, 2007). This is the much anticipated second volume of Hess's 3-part series examining field fortifications in the eastern theater. Also, in what seems to be a Fall/Winter tradition among many of the university presses, UNC is promoting a big sale. Looks like it includes some new books as well (link to CW section).

They Went into the Fight Cheering!: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina -- by Walter Hilderman III (Parkway Book Publishers, 2005).