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]

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