Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Stratagem 1861: Early Civil War Battles and the Battle for the Potomac"

The 1861-62 Confederate "blockade" of the Potomac River has not been covered extensively in the literature, with the standard work from Mary Alice Wills now almost four decades old.  Robert H.C. Alton covers similar ground with his book Stratagem 1861: Early Civil War Battles and the Battle for the Potomac (Walsworth Publishing Co., 2011) with mixed results.

The book itself is beautiful to behold, full of color illustrations, photos, maps, and order of battle tables. Land and naval actions at Aquia Creek, Freestone Point, Evansport, and Cockpit Point are covered, albeit not at the level of detail that the most serious segment of the reading audience would find satisfying. One of the best passages discusses (with several good color maps attached) General Hooker's rejected plan to clear the batteries from the lower Potomac and reopen the river to free navigation.

While nothing strikes the reader as grossly inaccurate, significant flaws abound. Like many first time non-fiction writers who are basically self publishing, Alton's text really misses the skill of a professional editor. The bibliography is insubstantial and obviously incomplete, with sources mentioned in the notes missing from the bibliography. Speaking of the endnotes, there are only twelve for a 160 page book. Also, there is a bit of an overreliance in places on substituting narrative with full reports reproduced as sidebars.

Overall, I do think Stratagem 1861 is worth a look by those particularly interested in this period of the war. If it comes to choosing between the two, I do think the more scholarly inclined reading audience will be best off sticking with Wills. While she also did not fully document The Confederate Blockade of Washington, D.C., 1861-1862, her depth of research, especially in all types of  primary source material, is far superior. However, if Alton were able to publish another edition correcting the shortcomings mentioned above, his work might very well take on more serious value beyond local interest.


  1. Drew--Thanks for pointing out this book. I recently received a copy of it for Christmas. I agree with your review completely. Like you, I found that the book could have benefited from a good editor. There were many typographical errors, and the descriptions of Dranesville and Ball's Bluff seemed a little off in spots. The lawyer in me has a problem overlooking such things....In any event, it is a nice addition to my collection of books on the war in and around DC. Although not on par with Wills, it is nice to have an illustrated history of something on the more obscure side!

  2. It is definitely one of the nicest looking (essentially) self-published books in the Civil War world.


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