Thursday, December 30, 2010

Booknotes III (December '10)

New Arrivals:

1. The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature by Joe B. Fulton (LSU Pr, 2010).

Fulton, the author of three earlier scholarly Twain studies, here attempts to demonstrate that the man in white's personal and literary transformation (in terms of his views on Union, politics, and race) was much more rocky and lengthy than popularly believed.

2. More Damning than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army by Mark A. Weitz (U of Neb Pr, 2008).

This is the paperback reissue of the author's highly regarded 2005 title, a key volume in understanding the disastrous impact of large scale desertion on both the Confederate army and the social order and morale of the southern home front.

3. The Confederacy's Last Northern Offensive: Jubal Early, the Army of the Valley and the Raid on Washington by Steven Bernstein (McFarland, 2010).

This book provides an overview of the 1864 Confederate advance to the outskirts of the capital, as well as short summaries of subsequent Valley battles all the way through the final southern stand at Waynesboro in March 1865. Looks to be a synthesis of the published literature, with a handful of manuscript collections utilized.

4. From Battlefields Rising: How The Civil War Transformed American Literature by Randall Fuller (Oxford Univ Pr, 2011).

Fuller examines the impact of the war on three literary giants. As with Cynthia Wachtell's recent book about northern anti-war writing, we meet Hawthorne and Whitman here, but the inclusion of Emily Dickinson will make the book most worth reading, at least for me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A pair of upcoming Texas titles

The states of Arkansas, Missouri, and Louisiana witnessed far more fighting within their borders than Texas did, but, in terms of yearly output, the Civil War literature of the Lone Star State still dominates its Trans-Mississippi brethren. Keeping up the tradition, two new Texas studies are due to appear next February, Richard McCaslin's Fighting Stock: John S. "Rip" Ford of Texas (TCU Press) and Tejanos in Gray: Civil War Letters of Captains Joseph Rafael de la Garza and Manuel Yturri, edited by Jerry Thompson (TAMU Press).

No one's done more to bring Mexican Texans (both blue and gray) to the attention of the reading public than Thompson, and these letters, translated by José Roberto Juárez, should be yet another valuable contribution. Rip Ford is certainly deserving of an up to date biography and there's no reason to think McCaslin isn't the right man for the job. I just help it dwells far more on the Civil War years than a previous volume in the publisher's Texas Biography Series, which only lightly touched upon the unusual military career of General Edmund J. Davis, the prominent southern unionist and future governor who led the 1st Texas Cavalry.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Booknotes II (December '10)

New Arrivals:

1. The Rashness of That Hour: Politics, Gettysburg, and the Downfall of Confederate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson by Robert J. Wynstra (Savas Beatie, 2010).

There is no shortage of Gettysburg titles from this publisher, but among other things they do a fine job with 'man and moment' studies, the moment here being the mismanaged July 1, 1863 assault on Oak Hill by Alfred Iverson's North Carolina brigade. Even if you are not a Gettysburg wonk, the mass killing in front of the stone wall remains on of the war's most memorable disasters, with Iverson popularly cast as the incompetent villain. Wynstra presents the attack itself and its personal and political fallout in great detail.

2. Massacre Along the Medicine Road: A Social History of the Indian War of 1864 in Nebraska Territory by Ronald Becher (Caxton Pr, 1999).

This is a great book and I thought I would finally grab a new personal copy before it goes out of print.

3. Brother of Mine: The Civil War Letters of Thomas and William Christie edited by Hampton Smith (Minnesota Hist Society Pr, 2010).

The Christie brothers were battery mates with 1st Minnesota Light Artillery (Munch's), fighting at Shiloh, Corinth, and in the Vicksburg, Atlanta, and Carolinas campaigns. This volume comprises their letters (which reside in the society archive) home. The editor, MHS reference librarian Hampton Smith, provides scholarly editing and an introduction to this very worthwhile looking collection.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Powell: "FAILURE IN THE SADDLE: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign"

[Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign by David A. Powell (Savas Beatie, 2010). Hardcover, 15 maps, photos, tour, order of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:274/383. ISBN: 978-1-932714-87-6 $34.95]

Confederate missteps committed during the September 1863 Chickamauga Campaign are most often laid at the feet of commanding General Braxton Bragg and his principal subordinates, generals Leonidas Polk, D.H. Hill, and Thomas Hindman. Much of the literature either glosses over or omits entirely the significant impact of errors made by the leaders of the mounted forces of the Army of Tennessee, beginning with corps commanders Joseph Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest. David Powell's Failure in the Saddle is an exhaustive descriptive and analytical account of the role of the Confederate cavalry in the campaign, and provides an expertly researched assessment of the varied performances of its corps, division, and brigade leaders.

Powell does a very good job of keeping his narrative sharply focused on the cavalry and its operational and tactical role in the campaign and battle. One cannot imagine a better balance struck between the author's often micro-detailed handling of the cavalry and the need to provide enough context for the reader to understand the larger picture. One is always kept abreast of how the cavalry's failures directly impacted the rest of the army.

While the book duly notes the mistakes of Braxton Bragg, both in general and in specific regard to the cavalry, the officer singled out for severest censure is the ranking cavalry general in the Army of Tennessee, Major General Joseph Wheeler, who seems to have neglected badly almost every important task assigned him. His greatest failure occurred a the very beginning when, given the task of scouting the Tennessee River crossings below Chattanooga and screening the army's left flank, Wheeler moved his corps dozens of miles to the south, only keeping two small regiments behind to do the job. This allowed the Army of the Cumberland's crossing to pass unhindered and unreported, a grave and unforgivable error. Wheeler also either ignored or was slow to react to a series of orders from Bragg to close up on the army's left in the days before the September 18-20 Battle of Chickamauga, keeping half of Nathan Bedford Forrest's command from its own task of securing the West Chickamauga Creek bridges and screening the army's right flank. During the battle itself, Wheeler accomplished little beyond overwhelming two small isolated Union brigades in separate actions. During the pursuit, the diminutive Georgian repeatedly failed to maintain contact with the retreating Federals, even to the point of sending his men miles to rear for rest.

Although his own performance was mixed, at least Nathan Bedford Forrest was active. Powell is critical of Forrest's September 17 failure to concentrate his available force and secure the Alexander and Reed's bridge crossings before the arrival of the infantry. The 18th also did not go well, although it was not all his fault. The morning was frittered away with a mix up in orders and the foot soldiers had to spend the greater part of the afternoon clearing the federal cavalry from the west bank. The trouble it took infantry to complete the task casts some doubt upon how feasible it would have been for cavalry alone to succeed, but Powell makes a good point that Forrest could at least have masked the blocked main crossings and secured alternate ones. On the other hand, skillful handling of cavalry seems to have been beyond Forrest subordinate John Pegram, who proceeded to foul up every assignment given his division. Like many judgments leveled against historical figures, some of Powell's criticisms of Forrest, formulated from peaceful consideration of decades of exhaustive research, seem too harsh by half given the lack of help rendered by Forrest's colleagues and subordinates, as well as his own need to make snap decisions amid the fog and chaos of battle. Nevertheless, blunders were made. Forrest's most significant and objectively censurable error, in this reviewer's opinion, was his failure to properly screen the Confederate right flank (John Bell Hood's infantry) that evening. Instead, the mounted flank guards were actually behind the road providing Hood's line of communication [a situation finely illustrated in a map]. Additionally, a gaping hole in the federal center was missed, as well as the position of the Union army's northern flank, information of grave importance to Bragg's plan to envelop the enemy left. During the pursuit, Forrest also provide poor intelligence about the Army of the Cumberland's temporary position at Missionary Ridge. All of these points are clearly and irrefutably outlined by the author.

As for corps subordinates, Powell praises William Martin, an officer that flawlessly executed his orders to scout and screen the McLemore's Cove operation. Gabriel Wharton, Wheeler's other division commander, performed competently although he was given no opportunity for independent action. On the other hand, John Scott, a brigade commander under Pegram, did his part as badly as his division commander, uncovering the army's base at Ringgold on two occasions, leaving his assigned post without orders at Red House Bridge, and never cooperating with Pegram. With officers like these, it is no wonder Forrest had a rocky beginning to corps command, although Frank Armstrong and George Dibrell proved themselves worthy of campaign laurels.

Powell ends his study in a manner that one wishes more authors would think to do. The penultimate chapter spends almost thirty pages summarizing the book's findings in a step-by-step manner, while the final section discusses in some detail the historiography of the campaign as it pertains to the Confederate cavalry. Most studies treat their wrap up only cursorily, as if in too great a hurry to end the book. Similarly, historiographical analysis, widely considered to be of limited value to the larger group of readers, is too often cut from non-academic publications or left buried in the end notes for independent investigation. Not so here, with Powell ably contrasting the findings of Connelly, Tucker, Cozzens, Woodworth, and Hallock, as well as that of the Forrest and Wheeler biographers.

The book's fifteen maps, of the operational and tactical variety, effectively complement the text. Other supplementary materials include an excellent driving tour (complete with detailed directions, photos, and GPS coordinates), an order of battle with strength and loss information and analysis, and the text of Colonel Alfred Roman's inspection report of Wheeler's corps. A reassessment of the famous confrontation between Forrest and Bragg and an author interview are also present as appendices.

Readers accustomed to the celebratory portraits of southern cavalry in the eastern theater literature might find Powell's analysis to be quite a shock and a revelation. Joe Wheeler was no J.E.B. Stuart and the western Confederate cavalry often paled in comparison to its eastern brethren in terms of discipline, organization, equipment, and leadership. In addition to this expertly managed expose of the structural failings of the western mounted arm, Failure in the Saddle should be considered a vital part of the small but growing essential Chickamauga bookshelf, joining the work of Cozzens and Robertson as exemplars of the best of modern scholarship. It is very highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Booknotes (December '10)

New Arrivals:

1. A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters: Life on Board USS Saginaw by Hans Konrad Van Tilburg (U. Pr of Florida, 2010).

Between 1860 and 1870, the Saginaw patrolled all over the Pacific, from China and Japan in the Far East to the west coasts of North and South America, before sinking at the remote Kure Atoll. The wreckage was discovered in 2003 by a team led by Hans Van Tilburg, whose book appears to concentrate on the ship's history and its crew, with the archaeology dealt with in the afterword.

2. The Confederacy On Trial: The Piracy And Sequestration Cases Of 1861 by Mark A. Weitz (U. Pr of Kansas, 2005).

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Lone Star Regiments in Gray"

Anyone perusing the notes of a modern study of Civil War Texas doesn't have to go too far before running into the works of Lamar University professor Ralph A. Wooster. The author of seven books and many dozens more journal articles and essays, he's a 'go to' scholar in many respects. For me, his most valuable book is the reference guide Lone Star Regiments in Gray (Eakin Press, 2002). The hardcover has been out of print for a few years now, but last time I looked it remained available in paperback format.

Texas supplied a whopping 53 cavalry regiments to the Confederate army, along with 24 infantry regiments, an artillery regiment, 4 artillery battalions, and 35 batteries. Divided into chapters by geographical region of service, all of these units are discussed by Wooster. He also elected to group many of them by brigade, instead of by the more common sequential presentation, a logical choice given that so many Texas regiments were afforded the unusual privilege of being able to serve together in the same brigade for the entire war.

The capsule regimental histories are footnoted and provide basic organizational, leadership, and combat service information. Photos of prominent officers are present, as well as maps. While many of the regimental entries are quite lengthy, the book's artillery section is brief, with many batteries receiving only a single short paragraph. As so many Texas infantry and cavalry (mounted and dismounted) units, and nearly all the artillery, spent their entire Civil War careers in the Trans-Mississippi theater, the book is also a useful record of obscure formations. Wooster ends the book with an excellent bibliographical essay and index.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Shairer: "LEE'S BOLD PLAN FOR POINT LOOKOUT: The Rescue of Confederate Prisoners that Never Happened"

[Lee's Bold Plan For Point Lookout: The Rescue of Confederate Prisoners That Never Happened by Jack E. Schairer (McFarland, 2008). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 265 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7864-3555-5. $39.95]

In 1864, a daring plan to free the thousands of Confederate prisoners housed at Point Lookout, Maryland was hatched. The raid was timed to coincide with Confederate General Jubal Early’s larger operation that would threaten Washington. As the Confederate army approached the U.S. capital, a small detached cavalry force under Bradley Johnson and Harry Gilmor would move around Washington, threaten Baltimore, and swing southeast to Point Lookout. Meanwhile, a naval force under John Taylor Wood would move up the coast from Wilmington and launch an amphibious assault on the prison complex from the Chesapeake. Once freed, the prisoners would then march overland across Maryland and enter Virginia via the upper Potomac crossings. None of these events occurred, however, as the scheme’s execution was botched from the beginning. Both forces failed to reach the prison, with the naval command turning back soon after leaving port.

Jack Schairer’s objective in Lee’s Bold Plan for Point Lookout is to convince readers of the brilliance of the plan’s conception, and how it should have succeeded and changed the course of the war. The author ably outlines the many reasons behind its failure (along with the factors precluding an opportunity by Early to capture Washington), but is unable to convince at least this reader that the prisoner release plan had any chance of success. Schairer does not address the difficulty of coordinating a widely separated army-navy operation that would rely on precise timing for success. It’s also no sure thing that the place could be taken by the forces allocated, even with a severely depleted defense force. Additionally, how a small escort and thousands of malnourished and hastily organized prisoners would be able to traverse the state of Maryland, and reach the upper Potomac without being intercepted, is not explained.

While the narrative is acceptable as a summary of Early’s raid, the book has little in the way of original research, instead relying almost entirely on published primary and secondary sources as well as a handful of newspapers. Of its 33 chapters, only four deal directly with the Point Lookout operation. As we already have several histories of Early’s raid, written by B.F. Cooling and others, it’s difficult to justify the need for another overview. The readership would have been better served if the author had focused his efforts more narrowly on the lesser covered titular operation.

[This review originally appeared in Blue & Gray Magazine, XXVII #2, Pg. 37-38]

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Q&A: Tom Post of University of Tennessee Press

I've been looking to interview a representative of an academic press for some time. As you might guess, most of my contact with publishers of all types is through their marketing and publicity managers. Tom Post is the publicist for University of Tennessee Press and he's kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his work and UTP.

DW:  Tom, what is a typical day like for a university press publicist?

TP:  A good thing about publishing is that there are deadlines everyday, but a book isn’t the daily newspaper, which gives flexibility in the workflow. I do all the typical things like press releases, direct mail, and answer requests from journals that you think of when you say publicity. I also organize our exhibit schedule-Society of Civil War Historians, Appalachian Studies and the Southern History Association to name a few. Books are also displayed at conferences that we choose not to attend. Publicity is the point of contact for most authors. It can be repetitive-you have to do the same things for every book, but some books get more. In the end, it is all about communications.

DW: Overseeing publicity for the entire press, with its vast variety of titles, must be challenging. Do you find that the (relative) popularity of Civil War titles outside of academic circles makes your job easier, or is that presumption overblown?

TP: In the entire scheme of things, it is still a niche market, but a large niche. It simplifies a good deal of the marketing, because there are a finite number of journals, outlets (Abraham Lincoln Bookstore, Gettysburg Battlefield Bookstore), reviewers (you) and events (CW Preservation Trust national meeting).

DW: Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that Civil War books are either a tiny part or completely absent from many, if not most, UP catalogs in a given season (the exception, of course, being many of the major southern presses). Can you quantify how important Civil War publishing is to the overall operation of UTP?

TP: We do about 35 books a year. CW books can be as few as 2 or 3 or as many as 8 or so, but books like James McDonough’s Shiloh and Five Tragic Hours consistently are in our year end top twenty-five bestsellers, which is huge. There is also a great deal of bad Civil War history-an example is the telling of what is essentially folklore presented as fact. Have you ever listened to Bud Robertson deconstruct a Jackson myth? Which means it is sometimes difficult for folks to separate out the good from the awful.

DW: Can you briefly describe for the readers the steps a manuscript must go through before it is published by UTP (and the time intervals involved)?

TP: There are four stages for a book. The book is acquired by an acquisitions editor who first determines if the proposal has merit, if the writing is acceptable, does it fit with other books we have done, and, finally, do experts in the field also think it has merit. Our editorial board formally votes the approval of a contract for each book we publish.

Second, the book moves to copyediting. The majority of our books go through three rounds of editing. There are also all the questions of maps, pictures, copyright and permissions that need to be done before the book moves to production.

The third step is design and production. Typesetting, cover design, type of paper and all the other many steps to take a pile of typing paper and make it something that you are proud to have in your bookcase.

Fourth, marketing, someone has to sell these things. That book might be your special baby, but not all children are gifted. Authors today have to take a great deal of the responsibility for the marketing of their books.

The average is about two years from contract to printing. Often longer, usually because the author is slow in getting back to us. There does seem to be a prevailing myth that what we really do can be compared to Kinkos when it comes to the schedule.

DW: Prices of UP titles in general are often a source of confusion among consumers, with books in the same catalog sharing similar presentations and material quality but priced at vastly different levels. What factors go into your pricing model?

TP: There are two pricing levels-short or trade. That means the bookseller pays 25%-off the list price or 40%. The more academic a book the more it is priced as a short discount. The biggest thing driving book prices today is the cost of paper. With current technology it is my opinion that we are producing better books more efficiently then we were a decade ago. Doesn’t mean the writing is any better.

DW: UTP's new Western Theater in the Civil War series is one of the more exciting to emerge in recent years and has had an auspicious start. Can you share a little bit about how it came about?

TP: Larry Hewitt is responsible. According to our Director, Scot Danforth, this whole project has been percolating in Larry’s head for a good while. He got folks lined up and went to work. There will be three volumes of Western Theater and two of Trans-Mississippi.

DW: What are your thoughts on the role (in the short and long term) of e-books for the future of UTP? Do you envision a time when UPs like your own no longer print physical books?

TP: We are still trying to figure that out-ask me in five years. Really, it seems we are wading through this swamp of enthusiastic bombast-Google or the naysayers who say it’s all a façade.

Short answer-no. There will, I think, always be a place for the traditionally edited and produced book, but you also might be able to look at the maps on your iPad. I don’t see a coffee table Kindle in my future.

DW: Does UT Press have any special plans (in terms of publishing and promotion) for the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial?

TP: With Tennessee being the site of so many battles, we will be making special note in our catalogs and on our website. I attended the first program to launch the commemoration over in Nashville a couple of weeks ago and had a great time. Got to hear some very good presentations. We will be trying to coordinate things with the TN Historical Society and the Department of Tourism.

DW: Finally, do you have any sage advice for prospective authors to follow that would increase the chance of getting published by a press like UTP?

TP: Take a look at what we have done. Follow our submission guidelines and ask yourself if what you want to write about is fresh and new. Then get going.

DW: Thanks for your time, Tom!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hannings: "EVERY DAY OF THE CIVIL WAR: A Chronological Encyclopedia"

Monday morning quarterbacking, theories, and conjectures of all types are endemic to the popular and academic study of the Civil War, yet many of these assertions, no matter how persuasive on the surface, can be rejected simply upon close examination of a relevant timeline of events. In addition to their inherent reference value, day-by-day guides are a great help in facilitating such lines of inquiry. Bud Hannings’s book Every Day of the Civil War: A Chronological Encyclopedia [(McFarland, 2010). Hardcover. 637 Pages. ISBN: 978-0-7864-4464-9. $125 ] might actually go further than any prior effort in chronicling the war's military features.

The net cast by Hannings is exceptionally broad. He's found a prominent place for all scales of combat, from tiny militia and guerrilla ambushes in the Trans-Mississippi on up to the colossal battles of the eastern and western theaters. The latter are often recorded with more than expected operational and tactical detail, but casualties are almost uniformly noted regardless of the fight's size. The degree of attention paid to geographical scope is equally wide.

Daily entries are presented in paragraph form, by state, with naval actions and officer (appointments, promotions, etc.) activities grouped into separate subheadings. Period illustrations are placed throughout, and appendices highlight Medal of Honor recipients as well as delve further in naval matters. An extensive index is essential for a work of this type, and the book does not disappoint.  Every Day of the Civil War is a hefty, oversize hardcover with a price to match, but it should prove to be a useful reference guide for personal and public libraries.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

White Mane / Burd Street still kicking

When their old website wasn't updated for a couple years I thought they were done for and forgot about them, but they are still around (here).

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ecelbarger: "THE DAY DIXIE DIED: The Battle of Atlanta"

[The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta by Gary Ecelbarger (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010).  Hardcover, 13 maps, illustrations, OB, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:249/317. ISBN:978-0-312-56399-8  $26.99]

Gary Ecelbarger's The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta is the first full length treatment of the bloody July 21-22 fight east of the city, remarkable for the death of Union Army of the Tennessee commander James B. McPherson and intense clashes around local landmarks like Bald Hill and the "white house" of the Widow Pope. Professional and avocational historians alike have been remarkably reluctant to write histories of the battles that together comprise the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. In some ways, it is understandable in the sense that the battles were often chronologically close together and only decisive in a cumulative sense, but far smaller and less significant Civil War fights have been treated to impressive works of military historical value. Ecelbarger does not say so in so many words but his study impresses upon the reader the truth that Confederate general John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee, at best, had the strength remaining for one coordinated assault capable of crushing a portion of General Sherman's army group. July 22, 1864 was that effort and The Day Dixie Died demonstrates well its author's assertion that it was the most decisive battle of arguably the war's most decisive campaign.

Ecelbarger begins his study with a brief description of the fighting atop Bald Hill two miles east of Atlanta between the Confederate divisions of Patrick Cleburne and Joseph Wheeler and a pair of divisions from Frank Blair's 17th Corps under Giles A. Smith and Mortimer Leggett. It was an episode characterized less by a brilliant defense than excessive caution (again in a critical moment of the campaign) on the part of James B. McPherson. His army strongly positioned against Hood's weakest flank, he failed to move aggressively, likely forfeiting a golden opportunity to capture Atlanta.

All phases of the next day's battle are well documented in the book. The original plan of having William J. Hardee's corps conduct a night march around McPherson's southern flank, capture Decatur, and move west to attack the federal left rear, proved to be unrealistic. The alternate plan, fixed on the fly, was for Hardee's force (four divisions led by W.H.T. Walker, Patrick Cleburne, William Bate, and George Maney) to hit the Union left directly at its southern terminus, while Wheeler's cavalry division moved northeast to capture the federal trains at Decatur. Additionally, Benjamin Cheatham's corps (the divisions of Carter L. Stevenson, John C. Brown, and Henry Clayton's) together with Gustavus Smith's four brigades of Georgia militia, would launch a diversionary attack directly east from Atlanta.

The cavalry under Wheeler fulfilled their mission of capturing Decatur, but failed to prevent the escape of the  Army of the Tennessee's immense wagon train (estimated at 1,600 teams). The infantry attack went even worse, with Walker's division wasted in frontal brigade sized assaults against the unexpected presence of Grenville Dodge's understrength16th Corps (a pair of well led divisions under the Thomas Sweeny and John Fuller). Cleburne's division advanced west of Walker, passing through a gaping wooded gap between 16th and 17th Corps and striking the division of Giles Smith. Smith's bluecoats manned the refused flank of the Union army a half mile south of Bald Hill. Maney's division deployed on Cleburne's left and rear, and together they drove the Union forces from the lower works and back on Bald Hill. There, with the aid of timely reinforcements, the defenders stiffened.

The circumstances surrounding the death of McPherson inside the wooded area in Cleburne's front is covered well by Ecelbarger, as well as its consequences, short lived as they may have been, to army cohesion. The ascension of 15th Corps commander John A. Logan to head the Army of the Tennessee in mid battle sent ripples down the chain of command caused a temporary confusion within an army already back on its heels from relentless, if badly disjointed, Confederate assaults.

Cheatham's "diversion" was then launched en echelon from right to left, penetrating the Union line in two places, at the point where the Georgia Railroad and Decatur Road passed through the works1 and through a short section works one half mile to the south. Both breakthroughs were effectively contained and eliminated by the determined efforts of Logan and his subordinates. A final Confederate evening assault by a division sized force assembled ad-hoc by Patrick Cleburne failed to break the federal left and the battle finally ended.

Ecelbarger rightly points toward coordination problems, either through early leadership casualties, terrain difficulties, or typical command failures, for the inability of Confederate forces to achieve more on July 22 to compensate for the loss of approximately 6,000 men (against less than 4,000 for U.S. forces). Heat and exhaustion from the long march led to heavy straggling, as well. The author's enumeration of leadership casualties, with 30 general and field grade officers lost in a single day, is testament to the ferocity of the battle and the degree to which the fighting decapitated Hardee's Corps, crippling its effectiveness for the rest of the campaign.

The author also clears up some the popular mythology surrounding the battle, especially the notion that Sherman withheld reinforcements to the Army of the Tennessee, preferring to allow them to avenge McPherson's death on their own. In truth, substantial reinforcements were present or immediately available. Ecelbarger's timing of events also highlights the implausibility of claims that Union defenders frequently hopped back and forth across their own breastworks, repelling simultaneous assaults from both directions.

The battle narrative in The Day Dixie Died is presented at a mixture of brigade and regimental scales. Some readers might wish for more regimental level detail, but even the most demanding students of tactical minutiae will be largely satisfied with Ecelbarger's writing. The maps, thirteen excellent full page creations by noted cartographer George Skoch, match the scale presented in the text in terms of troop positions and movements, with terrain features also finely rendered.

In the nitpicking department, a pair of important commanders left the narrative a bit soon. Hardee disappears once the fighting begins, and Wheeler similarly leaves the scene after his capture of Decatur and attenuated pursuit. Perhaps the author subconsciously subscribes to Thomas Schott's2 contention that Civil War historians place too much emphasis on a corps commander's ability to influence events after the first bullets fly. It's also unclear if the failure to detect Dodge's 16th Corps was a reconnaissance omission on Wheeler's part or a consequence of an altered plan leaving no mounted units to spare for screening the infantry advance. Regardless, Confederate intelligence gathering was abysmal.

On the spectrum of tactical depth, The Day Dixie Died lies somewhere in between that found in popular military non-fiction and the author's previous work on the Battles of Kernstown and Winchester/Front Royal. Generally speaking, it is a very workable compromise that should satisfy readers in both camps. The essential canon of Atlanta Campaign military studies, pitifully small as it may be, has a significant addition with this highly recommended study.

1 - This is the scene depicted in the famous cyclorama painting, a part of which is reproduced in the book.
2 - Published in essay form in Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War edited by Lawrence Lee Hewitt and Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr. (University of Tennessee Press, 2010).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Best of Civil War Publishing - 2010: My Year in Review

With the advent of December, it's yet again time to go back and review the reviews, making my "best of" picks for the year (actually, roughly November to November).

General Military:
The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War by Donald Stoker (Oxford Univ Pr).

Social/Political/Economic History:
Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front by Timothy B. Smith (Univ Pr of Mississippi).

Battle/Campaign History:
Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864 by Charles R. Knight (Savas Beatie).

Unit History:
Louisianians in the Western Confederacy: The Adams-Gibson Brigade in the Civil War by Stuart Salling (McFarland).

Essay Collection:
Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War edited by Lawrence Lee Hewitt and Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr. (Univ of Tennessee Pr).

Reference Book(s):
Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South by Helen Trimpi and Yale's Confederates: A Biographical Dictionary by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes (Univ of Tenn Pr). [I don't believe these two were formally marketed as a set, but design and presentation are remarkably similar.]

Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator by Sam Davis Elliott (LSU Pr).

Naval History:
Tinclads in the Civil War: Union Light-Draught Gunboat Operations on Western Waters, 1862-1865 by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland).

Edited Letters/Memoir/Diary:
Love and War: The Civil War Letters and Medicinal Book of Augustus V. Ball edited by Donald S. Frazier and Andrew Hillhouse, transcribed by Anne Ball Ryals (State House Pr).

Guide Book/Map Study:
The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 - September 23, 1863 by David A. Powell and David A. Friedrichs (Savas Beatie).

Self-Publishing Effort:
The Stone's River Campaign, 26 December 1862 - 5 January 1863: Army of Tennessee by Lanny K. Smith.

Local/Regional History:
Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida by Daniel L. Schafer (Univ Pr of Florida).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Frazier & Hillhouse (eds.): "LOVE AND WAR: The Civil War Letters and Medicinal Book of Augustus V. Ball"

[Love and War: The Civil War Letters and Medicinal Book of Augustus V. Ball edited by Donald S. Frazier and Andrew Hillhouse, transcribed by Anne Ball Ryals (State House Press, 2010). Cloth, 21 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 523 pp. ISBN:978-1-933337-42-5  $59.95]

Like many contemporaries seeking a better life in the west, 27 year old native Georgian Augustus "Gus" V. Ball planned to emigrate to Texas with his new bride. Unfortunately for the young couple, their timing could not have been worse. Just weeks before their wedding, first Georgia then Texas seceded, casting doubt on peaceful pursuits. Ball was a graduate of the Reform Medical College in Macon, Georgia, an institution that followed the teachings of New England herbalist Samuel Thomson, the founder of a nineteenth century movement to cure bodily ills with botanical concoctions. Licensed only in Georgia, Ball in 1862 was not exempt from conscription in Texas. Joining the war effort a year after his arrival in the state, he enlisted with the 23rd Texas Cavalry as a private and was assigned hospital attendant duties.

In the remarkable new book Love and War: The Civil War Letters and Medicinal Book of Augustus V. Ball, Ball's wartime correspondence (mostly to his wife, Argent, but also to and from friends and family), transcribed by descendant Ann Ball Ryals and edited by noted Trans-Mississippi Civil War historian Donald Frazier, is given a classy treatment. Maps and photographs abound, and Frazier's work goes beyond that usually found in books of this type. The letters are grouped into chapters roughly by campaign, each of which is introduced by an essay preparing the reader for the events that follow with detailed background information and context. In addition to their incorporation of key excerpts from the letters that immediately follow, these narratives expand significantly upon events (mostly military) mentioned by Ball in his letters. The correspondence is also carefully annotated by Frazier and his student assistants. In addition to identifying persons, places, and events, there is a great deal of explanatory material present in their work. The notes are also helpfully placed at the bottom of each page.

The 23rd patrolled northeast Texas until early 1863, when it was sent to the coast to repel Union amphibious attacks. There, camped along the unhealthy mouth of the Brazos River, Ball cared for sick comrades. Although he does not relate much detail about his army duties in his correspondence, insight is provided into the sorry state of his regiment, which suffered from poor leadership (especially at the top with Colonel Gould), indiscipline, and desertion. It is a familiar story to students of many disaffected Trans-Mississippi regiments, but the 23rd seems almost exceptionally dysfunctional.

By the end of the year, Ball found himself transferred to the artillery, appointed a limber driver in McMahan's Battery (previously designated Co. E, 1st Texas Heavy Artillery). The battery participated in the battles of the 1864 Red River Campaign, with Ball being called forward to the firing line to help serve the battered guns during the Battle of Yellow Bayou. Frazier's own contribution to this part of the book is worthy of special mention. His chapter length account of Yellow Bayou and his sequence of eight small scale tactical maps together comprise a wonderful record of the battle and McMahan's battery's role in it [Ball himself writes little of his battlefield experiences].

One of the most valuable aspects of Ball's correspondence is his recording of events occurring between the conclusion of the 1864 Red River Campaign and final surrender, a period of the war in Trans-Mississippi Louisiana little addressed in the literature. Generally speaking, Ball and his unit remained in the Alexandria area during this time, manning fortifications and countering small scale Federal incursions by ships, regular units, and guerrillas.

Another fascinating section of the book is the inclusion of Ball's collection of Thomsonian remedies. Running over sixty pages, and expertly edited by biomedical researcher Dr. Andrew Hillhouse, the recipe book is a large compilation of pharmaceutical formulas from a bygone medical system. Hillhouse diligently identifies the herbs, compounds, and chemicals listed, as well as the often arcane terminology of the period.

Beautifully bound and illustrated, and touching upon several understudied facets of the war in the Trans-Mississippi theater, Love and War is a truly unique contribution to the literature and is highly recommended. Students of Civil War medicine, as well as those with a specialized interest in American nineteenth century medical fads, will also find the recipe book section a valuable historical document.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Slow season

October and November sure seem like the weakest Fall I've seen since beginning to keep track of such things. I don't think it points toward any particular trend. A few Fall scheduled releases have been pushed into December, and the situation could very well be that the numbers are similar but with fewer titles than usual appealing to me personally. Perhaps some publishers are holding back books in the (farfetched) hope that the first year of the Sesquicentennial "celebrations" will significantly boost sales. Who knows. The good news is my previously huge review copy pile evaporated during this time, and the bad that I had to burn through my backlog of completed reviews I always save up over time for weeks when I don't feel like writing.

I should have my annual 'Best of the Year' list up soon, maybe as early as next week.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mesic: "COBB'S LEGION CAVALRY: A History and Roster of the Ninth Georgia Volunteers in the Civil War"

[Cobb's Legion Cavalry: A History and Roster of the Ninth Georgia Volunteers in the Civil War by Harriet Bey Mesic (McFarland, 2009). Hardcover, 24 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. 376 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-3795-5. $59.95]

Raised by prominent Georgia lawyer and ardent secessionist Thomas R.R. Cobb in the summer of 1861, the infantry, cavalry, and artillery components of Cobb’s Georgia Legion were destined not to serve together as a single unit. The mounted battalion, later consolidated with other companies to form the 9th Georgia Cavalry, first fought in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. From there, the Legion cavalry participated in some capacity in most of the major campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia, ending its distinguished service in the Carolinas in 1865.

Mostly a straightforward narrative of military events, Harriet Bey Mesic’s unit history of Cobb’s Legion Cavalry runs roughly half the book’s length. While the text is annotated, there are some basic errors [two on the first page of chapter one alone – James Longstreet was not a Confederate army corps commander in 1861, and squadron/company are not interchangeable cavalry organization terms] that raise concerns about the author’s attention to detail. That said, the battle and campaign summaries of the legion’s wartime service are well organized for quick referral, and the military coverage is quite comprehensive. Many descriptions of raids and obscure actions occurring along the periphery of the main army clashes were included.

The bibliography is limited, but does include some manuscript material. A number of prominent secondary sources were absent. While somewhat crudely drawn, maps are plentiful, mostly depicting broad geographical areas of operation. There are tactical battle maps for the Brandy Station, East Cavalry Field (Gettysburg) and Trevilian Station battles.

The second half of Cobb’s Legion Cavalry is composed of a well researched and wonderfully detailed unit roster. Running almost 150 pages in length, each name entry (1,457 in total) is packed with far more information than that found in the typical Civil War roster study. Other appendices provide select biographical sketches, along with death, POW, deserter, and final surrender lists. While the narrative history is a useful summary, it is the roster section that will likely provide the book’s most enduring value to readers, historians, and genealogical researchers.

[This review originally appeared in Blue & Gray Magazine, XXVI #3, Pg. 32,41]

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Booknotes II (November '10)

New Arrivals:

1. The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta by Gary Ecelbarger (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2010).

At first glance, The Day Dixie Died appears to be a favorable compromise between a large publisher's market and the author's previous battle books [Kernstown and First Winchester/Front Royal] targeted for a smaller audience. By the way, the Publisher's Weekly blurb that's been out for a while now mistakenly lists the number of maps at 3; there are actually 13.  And, yes, that did pre-sour me unnecessarily.  I am going to start on this one tonight.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dakota Dawn

Although numerous books have chronicled the events of the Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota, none have really detailed the early fighting in a satisfying way.  This will likely change next April with the publication of Gregory Michno's Dakota Dawn: The Decisive First Week of the Sioux Uprising, August 1862. It will run over 450 pages and be given the Savas Beatie treatment so hopefully, in addition to the fullest narrative yet, we'll get some real maps of the fighting at Fort Ridgely, Redwood Ferry, Birch Coulee, and New Ulm.

From the publisher description:
In addition to important secondary studies, Michno's work is based upon 2,000 pages of primary sources including recollections, original records, diaries, newspaper accounts, and other archival records. One seldom-used resource is the Indian Depredation Claim files. After the Uprising, settlers filed nearly 3,000 claims for damages in which they itemized losses and set forth their experiences. These priceless documents paint firsthand slices of the life of a frontier people, their cabins, tools, clothes, crops, animals, and cherished possessions. Many of these claims have never been incorporated into a book, allowing Michno to more fully expound on various episodes and correct previous misconceptions.

Can't wait.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wolk: "FRIEND AND FOE ALIKE: A Tour Guide to Missouri's Civil War"

[Friend and Foe Alike: A Tour Guide to Missouri's Civil War by Gregory Wolk* (Monograph Publishing, 2010).  Softcover, maps, drawings, photos, bibliography, place name index. 262 pages. ISBN:978-0-9799482-6-8  $29.95]

With its broad reach and detailed presentation, Gregory Wolk's Friend and Foe Alike is an ambitious driving tour guide of Civil War Missouri. In it, he's created five long travel loops, each of which generally follows the path of historic roads and, according to the author, takes approximately two days to complete. Loops are further broken down into discrete segments for those visitors unable to devote the full recommended time to a particular region. Additionally, seven "connecting routes" (labeled A through G at the back of the book) offer alternate pathways and, in some cases, connect adjacent loops.

All military focused, the five tours each have several major themes, with some overlap. An example of a campaign with sites present in all tours is the wide ranging 1864 Price Raid.

The following denote the primary events emphasized in each:
Loop 1: St. Louis and SE Missouri - U.S. Grant in Missouri (1861), M. Jeff Thompson's Big River Campaign, John Pope's Island No. 10 Campaign, and the Price Raid.
Loop 2: North Central Missouri - Grant's Missouri command again, Joseph Porter's north Missouri recruiting expedition, Bloody Bill Anderson in Centralia, and the Price Raid.
Loop 3: South Central Missouri - Jo Shelby's "Great Raid", John C. Fremont's 1861 campaign, and the Price Raid.
Loop 4: Region of Kansas City - 1861 Lexington Campaign, Thornton-Thrailkill Raid, and the Price Raid.
Loop 5: Southwest Missouri - Wilson's Creek Campaign, Prairie Grove, Pea Ridge, John S. Marmaduke's 1863 Springfield Raid, and the Price Raid once again.

By following these routes, readers will visit courthouses, cemeteries, battle and skirmish sites, bridges, buildings, museums, towns, and camp sites. Each stop is photographed, with detailed directions (distances are measured in mile tenths) located in the book margins. Numerous informational sidebars, mostly biographical in nature, are also placed there and within the main text.

One of the best features of the book is its heavy emphasis on obscure 1861 events, including material on U.S. Grant's time in Missouri and the war in the much neglected southeastern part of the state. Most readers will be familiar with the Wilson's Creek Campaign, but 1861 saw fighting all over the state, and many of these battles and skirmishes are covered, the Battle of Athens in far NE Missouri being a notable exception.

Some smaller historical maps are present in addition to the modern automobile route tracings, but one wishes the author had created some modern overlay maps for battles with multiple tour stops (e.g. Marshall and Fredericktown) so the reader can better grasp the terrain and troop positions. A more complete index would be helpful to the success of a future edition, too.

Minor complaints aside, this is the best guidebook available examining sites statewide in a single volume. Highlighting both famous and little known events, places, and personalities from Missouri's Civil War history in its thoughtfully constructed road tours, Friend and Foe Alike is an excellent resource for casual tourists and serious students alike.

* - The author has a book blog here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Desert Tiger: Captain Paddy Graydon and the Civil War in the Far Southwest"

If he's recognized at all by Civil War readers, James "Paddy" Graydon is known for his flawed scheme to attack a Confederate camp in New Mexico by forwarding mules laden with lit fused howitzer shells. Regardless of which version of the story is to be believed, it was a fiasco, fatal only to the poor mules. But there is more to Capt. Graydon's Civil War service, a subject ably recounted by Jerry Thompson in his study Desert Tiger: Captain Paddy Graydon and the Civil War in the Far Southwest (Texas Western Press, 1992).

Born in Ireland, Graydon immigrated to America at age 21, enlisting almost immediately in the 1st Dragoons in 1853. The dragoons ranged across the New Mexico Territory and the Gadsden Purchase, gaining its officers and men valuable experience fighting Indians, particularly the Apache. Discharged in 1858, Graydon stayed in the area and became a prosperous businessman, and a bit of a frontier enforcer. When Civil War broke out, he formed an "Independent Spy Company", recruited from a cross section of New Mexican society. Attached to E.R.S. Canby's army at Fort Craig, Graydon's company vigorously gathered intelligence about the approaching Confederates under Henry H. Sibley. While appreciating the Irishman's success in maintaining discipline, Thompson notes that the information obtained by Graydon was sometimes seriously inaccurate. Even so, he was well regarded by many in the Union army. After Sibley's retreat back to Texas, Graydon remained in New Mexico, scouting the mountains and trails surrounding Fort Stanton. There, an alleged ambush and massacre of Apaches at Gallinas Springs indirectly led to Graydon's demise, as he was mortally wounded in a dispute over the event with ex-army surgeon John Whitlock at Fort Stanton in November 1862.

At only 63 pages of text, Thompson's monograph is a brief, albeit well researched and even handed treatment of James Graydon's army service, both before and during the Civil War. While it is fully annotated and several useful maps supplement the narrative, the book suffers from the lack of a bibliography and index. Nevertheless, in addition to its biographical features, Desert Tiger provides important insights into lesser known events of the Civil War in the desert southwest.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Civil War in Texas in 20 books

Battles and Campaigns:
* Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861-January 1863 by Donald S. Frazier.
* Waters of Discord: The Union Blockade of Texas During the Civil War by Rodman L. Underwood.
* Planting The Union Flag In Texas: The Campaigns of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in the West by Stephen A. Dupree.
* The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch by Jeffrey W. Hunt.
* The Yankee Invasion of Texas by Stephen A. Townsend.
* Sabine Pass : The Confederacy's Thermopylae by Edward T. Cotham.
* Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston by Edward T. Cotham.

Essay Compilations:
* Lone Star Blue and Gray: Essays on Texas in the Civil War by Ralph A. Wooster.
* The Seventh Star of the Confederacy: Texas During the Civil War edited by Kenneth W. Howell.
* The Fate of Texas: The Civil War and the Lone Star State ed. by Charles D. Grear.

Dissent and Unionism:
* Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, 1862 by Richard B. McCaslin.
* Brush Men and Vigilantes: Civil War Dissent in Texas by David Pickering and Judith M. Falls.
* Death on the Nueces: German Texans, Treue Der Union by Rodman L. Underwood.

* Lone Star Regiments in Gray by Ralph A. Wooster.
* Walker's Texas Division, C.S.A: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi by Richard Lowe.

Politics and Society:
* Vaqueros in Blue & Gray by Jerry D. Thompson.
* Why Texans Fought in the Civil War by Charles David Grear.
* Texas in the Confederacy: An Experiment in Nation Building by Clayton E. Jewett.

The Borders:
* Frontier Defense in the Civil War: Texas' Rangers and Rebels by David Paul Smith.
* Civil War & Revolution On The Rio Grande Frontier: A Narrative And Photographic History by Jerry D. Thompson and Lawrence T. Jones III.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


[The 22nd Maine Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster by Ned Smith (McFarland, 2010). Softcover, 13 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. 260 pages. ISBN:978-0-7864-4893-7 $35]

The 22nd Maine was a 9-month infantry regiment formed in the summer of 1862. After a stopover in Washington D.C., it was shipped to Louisiana as part of General Nathaniel Banks's Department of the Gulf (19th Corps, Cuvier Grover's division). Soon after their arrival on the lower Mississippi, the Maine men were assigned to garrison duty in Baton Rouge and participated in the land diversion directed against Port Hudson in support of Admiral Farragut's attempted forced passage of the batteries there.

The 22nd, along with the rest of Grover's division, next met the enemy at the April 14, 1863 Battle of Irish Bend during the Teche Campaign, suffering only one man wounded. Their stay in New Iberia and St. Martinville exposed the men to the local plantation culture, with a detachment from the regiment helping to quell an apparent slave uprising at the latter place. The 22nd reinforced the Port Hudson trenches after the May 27 assaults failed to carry the Confederate defenses. The regiment supported attacks west of Fort Desperate on June 11 and the north face of the "Priest Cap" sector three days later. Suffering the loss of only six members KIA or mortally wounded over the entire term of its extended service (in contrast to 160 dead by disease) in Louisiana, the men of the 22nd were fortunate to avoid the bloodiest that Port Hudson had to offer and were able to go home soon after its surrender.

Using the O.R. and a range of published and manuscript source materials, historian Ned Smith's The 22nd Maine Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War brings the history of the regiment to readers for the first time. In addition to Smith's narrative, much of the details of the 22nd's wartime odyssey are related through the correspondence of Francis A. Ireland, a young enlisted soldier from Dexter, Maine. Dozens of these letters, addressed to Ireland's family back home, are reproduced in full, adding personal insights into his regiment's camp, garrison, travel, and combat experiences. As with many soldiers sent to the Deep South, disease was a constant companion and concern expressed in Ireland's letters. He also frequently rails against being held past his term of enlistment by the Port Hudson Campaign, and his difficulty in obtaining information about the official muster date (a problem for many Civil War regiments). The book does not provide much in the way of new information about the Bayou Teche and Port Hudson Campaigns, but it does flesh out a few things, such as the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of the 22nd's commander, Colonel Simon Jerrard, for insubordinate language and refusal to obey attack orders at Port Hudson.

The volume is well illustrated and the maps adapted from Official Military Atlas plates. While not ideal, they do give the reader a general idea of where the regiment fought its battles. A lengthy appendix attempts to sort out the reasons behind the variety of enlistment terms of Maine regiments. A complete unit roster can also be found in the appendix section. The text is fully documented, but the bibliography appears to be comprised of only a limited selection of the sources consulted by the author.

It is unusual for a regimental history of a 9-month unit to be published, perhaps even more so for a New England unit that experienced active combat service in the Gulf Department. On those grounds and of its own merit, The 22nd Maine Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War is worthy of recommendation.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Holly Springs raid

I haven't received my copy yet, but the latest issue of Blue & Gray features Earl Van Dorn's 1862 Holly Springs raid, the one widely credited with ruining Grant's overland campaign to capture Vicksburg. B&G is a wonderful outlet for military subjects with scopes exceeding that found in the typical article but perhaps not quite meriting book length treatment. They certainly get a first class presentation by Dave Roth and staff in terms of maps, illustrations, and a detailed tour. Beyond Ed Bearss's Holly Springs section from his Centennial-era book Decision in Mississippi (1962) -- which I believe was also reprinted in full in his Vicksburg trilogy -- no significant publication has dealt with this raid, so I am looking forward to Corinth ranger Thomas E. Parson's take on the event.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dishman: "A PERFECT GIBRALTAR: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846"

[A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846 by Christopher D. Dishman (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010). Hardcover, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:240/288. ISBN:978-0-8061-4140-4  $34.95 ]

In terms of inspiring premier modern style battle studies, the U.S.-Mexican War lags far behind other 18th and 19th century American wars, especially the Civil War. Thankfully, Christopher Dishman's A Perfect Gibraltar, a military history of the September 21-23, 1846 Battle of Monterrey, goes some distance in addressing this historiographical deficiency.

Monterrey was preceded by a pair of demoralizing Mexican defeats at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, but the Mexican authorities responded by marshaling heavy reinforcements and fortifying the Monterrey defenses. Dishman's text does a good job summarizing the political situation in northern Mexico and informing the reader how the chaos hampered their ability to repel the invaders. Terrain difficulties and time worn issues of time and distance were also critical. The author also describes well the Mexican efforts to fortify all likely military approaches into the city, the imposing geography and defensive works together comprising the "perfect Gibraltar" of the book's title.

Mexican War studies generally gush about the role of West Point trained U.S. topographical engineers in scouting roads and gathering intelligence (especially during Winfield Scott's later more famous Mexico City campaign). However, for the approach to Monterrey, Taylor instead relied on Texas Ranger companies, who did an excellent job of scouting and screening the U.S. advance, capturing enemy soldiers for interrogation, and, most important, discovering the best routes for the passage of the army's artillery and trains. In his private correspondence, engineer officer George Meade bitterly laments Taylor's perceived lack of respect for and use of the Pennsylvanian's professional skills prior to Monterrey.

Once the army arrived at Monterrey, the lack of siege artillery led Taylor to plan a direct assault on the city. Accordingly, he divided his army into wings for an attack on September 21. The left, under Taylor himself, would press against the works on the Mexican right and center in what was later termed a diversion but what was in reality a fairly vigorous assault with heavy casualties. The right wing, entrusted to William Worth, would pass both through and around the fortified high ground ringing the west and southwest approaches to the city. Though he captured Fort Teneria, Taylor's attack on the left was essentially repulsed, but Worth succeeded magnificently, capturing all of his objectives with comparatively little loss. It only remained for the Americans to pitch into the city itself and squeeze the Mexican army between Taylor and Worth's wings.

It is here, once the street fighting begins, that the balance of perspectives is most upset. Dishman recounts the swirling combat in stirring detail, noting that the Texan volunteers leveraged their knowledge of Mexican architecture and experience in urban warfare (most notably at Mier) to demonstrate to the rest of the army the way to press back the Mexican defenders without suffering catastrophic loss. In contrast to the detail lavished on the Americans, however, the Mexican point of view from command level on down is only intermittently presented, with the reader provided with little information about their order of battle or positioning of forces to oppose the Americans. One suspects a dearth of source material is the primary culprit.  The rank and file of the Mexican army was clearly less literate than their American counterparts, and it is a shame more officers and civilian residents did not write of their experience.  

The author's treatment of the end of the battle is abrupt, with the negotiations to surrender the Mexican forces covered in a single short sentence. However, the political fallout over Taylor's too generous terms is  recounted and a lengthy final chapter relates the war's course subsequent to the battle.

The book's main failing is in its cartography.  Including previously unpublished archival maps and a series of beautiful battle lithographs is fine, but usefulness needs to trump all other concerns. Shrinking a large historically significant map to fit within a half page space makes identifying its features all but impossible. All proper battle histories must have original terrain and troop position maps specifically wedded to the text. As an example, for all its narrative excellence, a truly solid grasp of the course of the street fighting around Fort Teneria during Taylor's diversionary attack, and for the combined urban assault on the 23rd, is substantially lost on the reader without clear maps.

Nevertheless, even with its presentation flaws, A Perfect Gibraltar is clearly one of the better Mexican War battle studies in the literature, certainly the finest account of the Battle of Monterrey to date. All serious students of the U.S. war with Mexico will want to find a copy of this book. The exploits recounted therein of prominent volunteer and West Point trained officers who would go on to assume roles of great responsibility during the Civil War should be of interest to enthusiasts of that later conflict, as well. Recommended.

Other CWBA reviews of books from this publisher:
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865

Friday, November 5, 2010

Booknotes (November '10)

New Arrivals:

1. Red Cloud's War: The Bozeman Trail, 1866-1868 (2 Volumes) by John D. McDermott (Arthur H. Clark, 2010).

The conflicts with Northern Plains tribes described in this two volume set had their origin in the 1863 gold discoveries in Montana. Among others clashes covered in the books are the famous Fetterman Massacre, Wagon Box Fight, and Hayfield Fight.

2. Marking Civil War History in the Ozarks: A Guide to Civil War Markers and Monuments in Twenty-Four Southwest Missouri Counties by Frances Carver Black and Sally Napier Bueno (Mary Whitney Phelps Tent DUV, 2010).

In addition to the 140 markers and monuments highlighted and the 250 photographs, there is a useful amount of background information contained in the book.

3. Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President edited by Roger Billings and Frank J. Williams (Univ Pr of KY, 2010).

This is a wide ranging collection of essays discussing the significance of Lincoln's law practice to history.

4. Fugitive Slave on Trial: The Anthony Burns Case and Abolitionist Outrage by Earl M. Maltz (U Pr of Kansas).

A paperback reprint.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

November releases and future happenings

November will be a fairly active month for book publishing.

Also, items from Spring/Summer catalogs are now bubbling up faster. The delayed Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February-May 1863 now has a tentative August date. It's been a while since we've seen something Civil War related from Clayton Newell, so it's nice to see Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War. A history of the Regulars in the western armies was published in the fairly recent past, but Newell's should be interesting (nasty price, though). Scott Patchan will be busy, with the Chinn Ridge book in April and The Last Battle of Winchester: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, August 7 - September 19, 1864 set for May. The ground covered in The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Eleven Days That Shook the Union appeals to me, but it does sound a bit too pop history for me.