Sunday, July 6, 2008

Author Q & A: Peter Cozzens (Part 2)

A continuation of my interview (see Part 1) with Peter Cozzens, whose latest book Shenandoah 1862 will be available later this year:

DW: History has accorded John White Geary a fairly solid reputation as a military officer, but your book excoriates him for his repeated alarmist (and false) reports in the wake of Jackson's Front Royal/Winchester victories. Do you believe Geary's unfortunate actions had a significant role in influencing Lincoln's decision to divert McDowell to the Shenandoah?

PC: Absolutely. He behaved as shamefully as General Shields said he did at the time. The man was panic-stricken by phantom forces, and his dispatches reflect that. But Lincoln and Stanton could not ignore them; after all, Geary was the commander on the ground and presumably had at least some notion of what he was up against. The trouble is, he didn’t.

DW: While you take some pains to paint Lincoln's direct order to send McDowell into Valley as a measured (not panicked) response, you do not expressly condemn it until the book's final pages, and rather briefly at that. As operational blunders go, on a scale of 1 to 10, where would you place the president's decision to suspend McDowell's movement toward Richmond?

PC: There is no question that it was measured, but I think it was the wrong decision. With one being foolhardy and ten being brilliant, I’d rank it as a four. Given his propensity to inflate his enemy’s numbers, there’s no guarantee McClellan would have succeeded with McDowell’s additional 40,000 men. But the extra pressure McDowell undoubtedly would have exerted on the Confederates would have forced Johnston to spread his forces so thin that even a McClellan-like tap most probably would have sufficed to break his lines. And if Johnston had been defeated and Richmond captured, Jackson’s small army in the Valley would have been of no consequence.

DW: You (in a more detailed fashion in Shenandoah 1862) and Gary Ecelbarger both mention the shooting of retreating Federal troops by the female residents of Winchester. I don't recall reading anything quite like it. How much corroborating evidence is available for these unsettling incidents?

PC: An overwhelming amount, including some from the Confederate side, which is most telling. It wasn’t a case of camp rumor, the “I heard him say that he heard someone else say that ladies fired upon him” sort of thing. It was direct and compelling.

DW: Coincidentally, I just read of another similar incident (a young Hagerstown woman shot a Federal sergeant from an upstairs window) in the new Gettysburg retreat book One Continuous Fight. Perhaps the controversial topic of pre-war firearms familiarity between the opposing sections needs to be extended to the ladies!

You frequently cite incidents of widespread straggling and plundering by the Germans of Blenker's division. How much of these reports do you attribute to both sides' nativist attitude toward foreigners vs. the degree of actual depredation?

PC: I’m afraid the evidence is pretty strong that Blenker’s men committed widespread depredations – at least by the standards of 1862. But they had had a pretty rough time of it, being marched hither and yon for weeks on half rations or less.

DW: Christian Keller's recent study of German troops in the eastern theater certainly agrees with that assessment.

Heavy straggling was a severe problem for Jackson throughout the campaign. Do you believe there were inherent problems in the discipline and organization of his Valley District army, or would any force exposed to similarly exceptional hard marching and deprivations (at least at this stage of the war) experience comparable loss levels?

PC: I think most commands under similar circumstances would have lost nearly the same number of men to straggling. The proximity of many of the men to their homes, at least those of the Stonewall Brigade, encouraged some undue wandering.

DW: I suppose he will always be "Commissary" Banks in the public imagination, but your book is the second this year to provide a revisionist account of the Massachusetts general's underrated performance. Both are persuasively argued. Were you surprised by your own conclusions?

PC: Yes, I was. But I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the Union quartermaster reports that reveal just how few wagons he lost. Also, in the immediate wake of his defeat at Winchester – often in letters penned the same night – Banks’s officers and men praised him for his conduct of the retreat from Strasburg to Winchester, of his handling of the battle itself, and of his personal courage and fine leadership during the retreat to the Potomac. Men who have just suffered a defeat don’t praise their commander unless he did something right, and they certainly would not have if he had lost an appreciable part of his trains. Apropos of nothing, from contemporaneous sources, Banks also comes across as a very likeable and principled man.

Thank you Drew for the thoughtful questions and for giving me the chance to talk about Shenandoah 1862.

DW: Thank you for your time, Mr. Cozzens, and best wishes for your book's success.

[My review of Shenandoah 1862 from August 22, 2008.]

[back to Part One]


  1. Thanks for posting this interview, very good reading.

  2. Thank you Drew. That was a really great Q&A. Can't wait for the book -- glad to see Banks finally getting some respect.


  3. Glad you both liked the preview and discussion. The book galley I read looked to be fairly close to a finished product, and I think most readers will be very pleased with it overall.

  4. I'd like to thank Drew for hosting me on his blog. I'd be happy to answer any additional questions readers may have.


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