Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ecelbarger: "Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester"

[ Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester by Gary Ecelbarger (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2008) Hardcover, 12 maps, photos, OB, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 242/291. ISBN: 978-0-8061-3886-2 $29.95 ]

Even the best examples of military studies from the 1862 Valley Campaign literature, publications from the likes of Robert Tanner and Robert K. Krick, are heavily weighted toward the Confederate viewpoint of events. Regardless of what one might suppose from the subtitle, Gary Ecelbarger's new book Three Days in the Shenandoah is a refreshingly balanced study of the battles of Front Royal and Winchester. In regard to assessing Stonewall Jackson's leadership performance, the author's writing is remarkably disinterested in nature. A strong yet fair critic, Ecelbarger's judgments are centered on a careful weighing of evidence gleaned from primary sources. He also avoids suffusing his narrative with a language and admiring tone more reflective of the future Jackson, the one of legend. Carefully presenting the options available to both sides in terms of the information available at the time, Ecelbarger deals out praise and censure with equally studied measure.

While ultimately successful in achieving the goals outlined by his superiors, Stonewall Jackson committed numerous tactical errors from May 23-25 that greatly limited the scope of his twin military victories. Jackson's operational movements prior to May 23 placed him in a highly advantageous position relative to Banks's main body at Strasburg. While Federal forces were nearly annihilated at Front Royal on the 24th, and broken at Winchester the next day, the results should have been much worse for the U.S. army. Operationally, Jackson concentrated on single approaches, and, tactically, he committed his forces slowly and piecemeal on the battlefield. For the most part, the artillery was grossly underutilized, and, with the grand exception of Cedarville1, the cavalry's performance was abysmal2. For all this, Jackson fulfilled his orders to press the enemy to the Potomac and threaten points beyond. Garnering some needed supplies and inflicting heavy casualties on Banks's force was a bonus. All these points the author addresses in detail.

Taking into account Nathaniel Banks's tactical errors, Ecelbarger's assessment of the Bay State general's 72 hour performance is largely forgiving, and often positive. His case is persuasive. Two freak events3 beyond Banks's personal control led to the majority of Federal losses (mostly in prisoners), but the Union general was nevertheless able to save, by the author's estimation, 80% of his vast supply train and 75% of his heavily outnumbered command. The general's derisive sobriquet of "Commissary" Banks, stemming from this period, appears undeserved. With both commanding generals making errors of similar scale, the difference in outcome can be largely attributed to Jackson's determination, backed by superior numbers.

As demonstrated earlier by his history of the Battle of Kernstown, Ecelbarger again showcases in Three Days in the Shenandoah his mastery of the campaign and battle narrative. The text is highly detailed, yet smoothly follows the course of the fighting at the level of the company and regiment. The tactical scale elements of the author's writing and analysis, which include appropriate discussions of terrain, weapons, formations, and unit tactics, are first-rate. Broader operational and strategic level contexts are also carefully pinpointed.

Overall, there is precious little in the author's analysis upon which to quibble. Ecelbarger's research, strongly based upon unpublished materials, is deep. It is easily apparent that he operates outside a preconceived interpretive framework, allowing the evidence to freely guide him. This is a consistent property of Ecelbarger's scholarship, and something rarer to the general run of Civil War publishing than we would like to admit. A few points, however, would perhaps have benefited from a more expansive treatment or point of emphasis. Ecelbarger discovered that the effective strength of Jackson's Valley District command decreased by almost 50% between the battles of McDowell and Front Royal. He mentions the heavy straggling and desertion, but I believe the factors behind such a drastic strength reduction was deserving of further inquiry. In terms of the strategic consequences of the Confederate victories at Front Royal and Winchester, I wish the author had dwelled more deeply upon the catastrophic effects of Lincoln's direct intervention into the planned movements of eastern theater forces, certainly one of the greatest operational blunders of the war and a fatal blow to McClellan's Peninsula Campaign.

Devoted readers of modern Civil War campaign studies rightly hold high expectations in the area of cartography, and the mapset from Three Days is certainly better than average. The tactical diagrams depict unit positions and movements at company and regimental level, while the operational maps trace brigade and divisional maneuvers. Although lacking discretely drawn representations of some common features of the natural terrain (e.g. wood lines and fields), the maps are otherwise clear and appropriately detailed.

A first-rate Civil War contribution to Oklahoma's "Campaigns and Commanders Series" [Vol. 14]4, Three Days in the Shenandoah fulfills, and more often exceeds, all the requirements of a modern battle history. Gary Ecelbarger's fresh study also provides a challenging reassessment of the relative performance of the campaign's two chief antagonists, Banks and Jackson. Highly recommended.

1 - Near Cedarville on the evening of May 23, in what must have been one of the most impressive saber charges of the war, four companies of the 6th Virginia cavalry nearly wiped out the remnants of Kenly's brigade (650 men) on its retreat from Front Royal.
2 - The poor discipline of Ashby's cavalry is well known, but the incredible degree of desertion and straggling in the infantry is indicative of a serious deficiency in that branch as well. It's a fascinating subject, especially in light of Jackson's own personal views on military duty, and worthy of further study.
3 - The unusually successful saber charge against a superior infantry force at Cedarville on the 23rd, and the inexplicable tactical withdrawal on the right flank at Winchester [a loosely analagous "Wood at Chickamauga"-type event] that led to the collapse of the Bower's Hill line.
4 - See also, Mackey and Einolf. I don't have a copy of the latter, but Mackey's scholarship dealing with the irregular conflict in The Uncivil War is impressive.


  1. Drew,

    Nice job. That is a very USEFUL review, deeply informative about the subject matter, and still a meaningful critique of the author's effort. I am glad to hear about the balance you mentioned. Ecelbarger has earned the benefit of the doubt (wrote a good Logan biography too), but book buyers are necessarily guarded about new books on sure-fire cash register themes (Jackson, Lee, Chamberlain, Gettysburg).

    Me, I'll buy just about anything the University of OK Press publishes.


  2. David,
    Thanks for writing. I'm glad you found it so.

    His book is an award-worthy effort, IMO. Among this year's crop of campaign studies, it will be a tough one to beat.

    As a Nebraska football partisan it is tough to admit it, but the Sooners do an OK job in Civil War publishing.

  3. The Huskers are not too shabby in that arena either. I was raised as a Nebraska fan, too, but always gave Norman a pass in that regard.


  4. Drew,

    Great review as usual. I just finished, and this one was definitely as good as "We Are In For It!". I'll have a review out probably in early June. I was surprised, but not unpleasantly so, by Ecelbarger's "grades" of the participants in this portion of the Valley Campaign. It is apparent this isn't another book idolizing Jackson.


  5. Brett,
    Thanks. With Ecelbarger fresh in my mind, I think I will grab Cozzens from the stack. He has a lot of new source material (esp. northern) so a comparison of the same period should make for some good reading.

    Looking forward to your review of "Three Days".



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