Friday, September 24, 2010

Hewitt & Bergeron (eds.): "CONFEDERATE GENERALS IN THE WESTERN THEATER, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War"

[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). Cloth, 19 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 320 Pages. ISBN:978-1-57233-699-5 $45.95]

Volume 2 of the Confederate Generals in the Western Theater series is the first to include all original essays, ten in number and all are written by Civil War scholars with recognized western theater expertise.  To begin the book, James Prichard reassesses the career of Major General George B. Crittenden, a figure much maligned by many writers and historians as a drunken incompetent. Here, however the author presents a more complex view of the Kentuckian's up and down career. While Prichard found no evidence that Crittenden was ever drunk in battle and a good argument could be made that his hand was forced by subordinate blunders during the Mill Springs campaign, surely high command duties off the battlefield are just as important and the correct decision was made to sack him if for nothing else than the future risk was too great. However, in a case similar to John C. Pemberton, the disgraced general officer rejoined the war at a much lower rank (Colonel) and fought creditably to the end, and the author reminds us that, when viewed in its totality, Crittenden's Civil War career could be viewed as a credit to the Confederacy. The conclusion is certainly debatable, but the overall point that one shouldn't judge an officer that served throughout the war on the basis of a single campaign is well taken.

Stuart Sanders's second chapter is a swift moving overview of the Civil War career of Alfred Vaughan, a relatively obscure figure that the author opines to be one of the best regiment and brigade commanders in the West. Although length permits much in the way of detail, his argument is largely persuasive. In a similar fashion, Brian Steel Wills's article follows the hoofprints of Hylan B. Lyon, strongly making the case that the Kentuckian should be regarded as one of the best brigade level cavalry leaders in the western Confederate armies.

Major General Earl Van Dorn's 1862 Baton Rouge campaign is the subject of an essay by Charles Elliott. His observation that the Mississippian's hyper aggressive tactics and lack of attention to logistical matters had its origins in small unit actions against Indians strikes one as reasonable, although many other officers with the opposite Civil War command temperament had the same pre-war army experience. The writer's contention that Van Dorn's misuse of the CSS Arkansas was a major blunder strikes one as valid, considering the ironclad -- balky though its engines were -- was really the only Confederate vessel of its kind with substantial freedom of movement (the others bottled up in harbors and obstructed waterways).

The two Joseph E. Johnston chapters depict that general at his best and worst. Vicksburg Campaign historian Terrence Winschel offers the now standard view of Johnston's failure to relieve the besieged garrison. Whatever one thinks of the chances of success or the amount of support rendered to Johnston, the Virginian is rightly damned for not even trying.  One the other end of scale, is Craig Symonds's look at Johnston in North Carolina. Given the impossible task of checking Sherman's northward advance, the general skillfully concentrated widely scattered bits and pieces of unfamiliar parts of battered Confederate formations to fight them well at the Battle of Bentonville, and later surrender the whole lot honorably.

Alexander Mendoza's contribution is a distillation of the views presented in his book about James Longstreet's time in the western theater, from Chickamauga to First Corps's return to the Army of Northern Virginia, a period wracked by insubordination, intrigue, and failure on the part of Longstreet, as well as Old Pete's vindictive attacks on his own lieutenants. Much better able to avoid personal and political backbiting was Alexander P. Stewart, and Sam Davis Elliot examines Stewart's creditable performance in the opening battles of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

Taking a look at the historical images of controversial Civil War generals, a pair of chapters trace how difficult it can be to alter convention, even those cemented on slim or no evidence. Stephen Davis takes historians to task for asserting (or using unsourced weighted language to hint at) John Bell Hood's use/overuse of opiates. In another article, Thomas Schott seeks to revive corps commander William J. Hardee's reputation as "Old Reliable", although, in this reader's opinion, his arguments that Hardee was a faithful subordinate are unconvincing. Perhaps the most interesting of Schott's arguments is his idea that corps commanders should not be criticized by historians for their battlefield management, as their ability to direct events extended little beyond the planning stages. While the idea is intriguing on the surface, the author proceeds a bit too far with it. While it's obvious that multiple variables and events beyond a commander's control make results unpredictable, one can find numerous prominent examples of corps commanders (think George Thomas at Chickamauga) personally shaping and reshaping in mid-stream the course of Civil War battles. However, it is agreed that criticism of this kind should be used more sparingly in the literature.

Gathered together in a handsome black cloth volume and supported with numerous maps, this group of wide ranging and thoughtful essays on Confederate western leaders and leadership is a worthy addition to personal and institutional libraries. With subject officers ranging from the famous to the obscure, and with a fair bit of healthy evidentiary-based historiographical revisionism added, there is something here for western theater students of all levels. One greatly looks forward to future volumes in the series.

Also from this publisher:
* Great Things Are Expected of Us: The Letters of Colonel C. Irvine Walker, 10th South Carolina Infantry, C.S.A.
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 1: Classic Essays on America’s Civil War
* Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South
* Yale's Confederates: A Biographical Dictionary
* The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged
* The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion
* Echoes of Thunder: A Guide to the Seven Days Battles
* Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaigns, 1863–1864
* Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana, and the Defense of Red River
* Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West

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