Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nelson: "RUIN NATION: Destruction and the American Civil War"

[ Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War by Megan Kate Nelson (University of Georgia Press, 2012). Softcover, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:256/349. ISBN:978-0-8203-4251-1 $24.95]

With so much written about the character and extent of American Civil War destructiveness, it takes some doing to come up with a new twist on the subject, but Megan Kate Nelson's new book Ruin Nation makes a game attempt at it. Using the language of modern military, gender, class, race, and environmental disciplines, she crafts a cultural history of Civil War physical mayhem in the context of four spheres: the societal (cities), domestic (homes), natural (forests), and the personal (amputation).

Citing Hampton (Va), Chambersburg (Pa), and Columbia (SC) as examples, the first section of Ruin Nation examines the impact of the destruction of towns and cities and the motivations (e.g. revenge or military necessity) behind the act. At the forefront is the American cultural expectation of how and when the justifiable application of ruin to cities would commence, what limits should be imposed, and how the civilian population should be treated. Since the mid-1990s, the effort by many historians to shed the Civil War's problematic "Total War" label has unfortunately led some to reach too far in the other direction, minimizing the level of destruction wrought upon the southern landscape. Nelson's book is a nice tonic to this overcompensation.

Invasions of privacy and feminine domain are issues at the heart of the book's examination of the pillaging and destruction of private homes by both sides. Homes in the paths of armies were often occupied only by women and small children, and Nelson argues that soldiers knew very well the cultural dictates of the various zones of privacy in homes but violated them anyway in order to intimidate, demoralize, and otherwise demonstrate to the civilian population that their government could not protect them. Nelson's descriptions of the pillaging and destruction of slave cabins by Union armies should lead many readers to reconsider the currently popular position that Union soldiers were generally discriminatory in their application of destruction, ransacking plantations and other assumed symbols of secession while leaving the smaller property of the lower classes alone. Nelson found evidence that many slaves were able to acquire a sizable amount of personal property, enough to make them a target for plunder.

"Battle Logs" documents the razing of the forests of the South to feed the insatiable need by roving armies for fuel and construction materials. Vast swaths of woodlands went into fire wood, winter camps, fortifications (e.g. abatis, breastworks, chevaux de frise, etc.), bridges, and corduroyed roads. The interesting cultural note in this section is how so many soldiers seemed not to lament in their letters home the physical transformation of the landscape. Perhaps the frontier American theme of altering nature to human will as a form of "improvement" comes to the fore here.

The final section of Ruin Nation examines what it meant to society to be inundated with thousands of young men maimed by war. The booming prosthetics industry and the ways missing limbs challenged contemporary notions of masculinity and virility are major components of this chapter.

Throughout the book, Nelson stresses the "ephemeral" nature of American Civil War ruination. Symbolic of reconciliation, or perhaps as a broad expression of the American cultural trait of always looking forward, we do not leave ruins in place to serve as memorials. Other cultures may do so, but Americans tend to quickly rebuild or replace. Battlefield homes like the Henry House are reconstructed to their prewar appearance rather than left as naked chimneys for later generations to contemplate. At worst, ground level remains of foundations of homes long gone dot our landscapes and battlefields. In the years following war's end, shattered forests quickly regrew and stumps were removed for more farmland and pasture. Even nineteenth century prosthetics offered the wearer the ability to hide his injury enough to fool the casual viewer. It is these thoughtful perspectives of the cultural aspects of Ruin Nation, rather than its descriptive elements, that make it most worth reading.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"A Civil War Campaign Through Missouri"

While browsing the online listings, I recently came across a newly released small press book [A Civil War Campaign Through Missouri Compiled by Dennis Hood. Trans. and introduced by Stephen Trobisch. Edited by Cynthia Johnson] that is both a transcription and a translation of a Civil War memoir based upon the February 1862 sections of a campaign journal penned by an anonymous German soldier.  This period encompasses the early Missouri and Arkansas stages of what would be the Pea Ridge Campaign. The memoir's existence was news to my go to guy for all things CW Missouri as well, but he was able to direct me to the publisher's page for it, which also contains a nice little sample. It looks like a nice production worthy of a look.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Simon, LaFantasie (ed.): "THE UNION FOREVER: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War"

[ The Union Forever: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War by John Y. Simon, ed. by Glenn LaFantasie (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). Hardcover, notes, appendix, index. 323 pp. ISBN:978-0-8131-3444-4 $40 ]

The 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant compiled, edited, and published under John Y. Simon's direction surely comprise the crown jewel of that historian's professional career. However, in addition to a number of other books (mostly in an editorial capacity), Simon published a large number of articles and other publications*. Fifteen of these previously published essays have been selected by historian Glenn LaFantasie for this memorial volume The Union Forever: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War.

No one can accuse John Y. Simon of not being a fervent admirer of Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant, but the essays, all of which reference Grant, Lincoln, or both men together, do dutifully condemn attitudes and actions that reflected poorly on the character of both men (more on this below). Lincoln subjects include political and policy issues related to the Sumter crisis, emancipation, and the crisis of the summer of 1864, as well as the president's relationship with his father, Ann Rutledge, and Henry Halleck. The Grant articles are also wide ranging, looking at his marriage, his generalship, the controversy surrounding the infamous General Order #11, and the general's relationship with political sponsor Elihu Washburne. The pair of 'Lincoln and Grant' chapters examine how both handled the delicate situation in Kentucky in 1861 and the 1864-65 war in the East.  With all essays except one published between 1983 and 2001, the reader is not presented with especially dated material or scholarship. Like all compilations of this type, some entries are more impactful than others**, so, instead of going through them all, I'd like to address just a few salient points of personal interest.

The Lincoln and Rutledge chapter provides a fine lesson in being too hasty to dismiss evidence provided by an unreliable source, in this case William Herndon.  Simon's argument that a relationship existed between the two is powerful, with the great unknowables being its exact nature and to what degree it shaped Lincoln's later life. I believe this is now the consensus view.  Simon also takes other historians to task for mythologizing the 1864 Grant-Lincoln relationship as one of almost instant trust and rapport.

An unconventional emphasis of the essay detailing Lincoln's emancipation policy was Simon's recounting of the mad scramble in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation to elect unionist congressional representatives (either local or imported) for occupied districts.  According to Simon, this mid-war reconstruction action comprised official recognition that the district under consideration was loyal, and thus exempt from emancipation. Unsurprisingly, partisan congressional Republicans moved to block the seating of these men whenever possible.

Historians often wonder why Lincoln did not remove Henry Halleck after his many failings became apparent to nearly everyone else. Simon's proposition that Lincoln was well aware of Halleck's deficiencies but found the general to be a useful shield from criticism sounds plausible, as Lincoln was an adept practitioner of cold political calculus.  Generals unhappy with official directives could blame Halleck instead of the president.  Similarly, civilian critics would find a ready scapegoat for military disasters. 

Simon is also critical of historians who treat Grant's order expelling Jews from his department as a one-off event, heavily influenced by anger and embarrassment stemming from his father's involvement in the cotton trade.  Simon points to several other episodes of anti-Semitic sentiment in Grant correspondence, and duly notes that Grant, widely assumed to be properly chastened later in life, was actually quite defensive of his behavior and neglected mention of the order entirely when writing his celebrated memoir [I'll take Simon's word for it that this is true].

I hope these few examples demonstrate some of the range and intellectual value present in these essays. It's obvious that John Y. Simon's early death left a large number of friends and academic colleagues saddened by his passing.  Glenn LaFantasie's introduction is both an act of personal appreciation of Simon as well as a summary of the meaning of Simon's career to Civil War and presidential historiography. This, together with a useful sampling of Simon's scholarly output, makes The Union Forever a fitting tribute to the man and his work.

* - A complete Simon bibliography (books, articles, reviews, presentations, and more) is attached.
** - For example, his view of the Sumter crisis in one essay struck this reader as too one dimensional and I believe Simon's portrait of Governor Beriah Magoffin as an arch secessionist misreads the man in another.

More CWBA reviews of UPK titles:
* One of Morgan's Men: Memoirs of Lieutenant John M. Porter of the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry
* My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans
* Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War
* Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy
* Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History
* Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee
* Kentuckians in Gray: Confederate Generals and Field Officers of the Bluegrass State
* Virginia at War, 1863
* Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Booknotes III (June '12)

New Arrivals:

1. The Battle of Brice's Crossroads by Stewart L. Bennett (The History Pr, 2012).

Off hand, I can't think of a Brice's Crossroads book of any substance being published in the decades since Ed Bearss's classic history hit the scene. Like any large series, the depth and quality of Civil War Sesquicentennial books run the full gamut. I get a positive vibe from this one.

2. The Mary Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America's Most Controversial First Lady ed. by Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer (SIU Pr, 2012).

Mention of Mrs. Lincoln solicits a wide variety of reactions and opinions, and presumably the whole range will be presented in this compilation of thirteen essays addressing her marriage, mental state, stance on slavery, politics, social position, fashion sense, and more.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Author Q & A: Earl J. Hess

Earl Hess is the Stewart W. McClelland Chair in History at Lincoln Memorial University and the author of an impressive array of truly groundbreaking studies.  His next book, The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee (UT Press) is the subject of this interview.

superb choice of cover art
CWBA: Dr. Hess, thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your new book. Both phases of the 1863 East Tennessee Campaign, Burnside’s capture and occupation of Knoxville and Longstreet’s attempt to retake the city later in the year, remain obscure (especially the former). What events did you choose to focus on in The Knoxville Campaign?

EH: The book focuses on Longstreet’s effort to recapture Knoxville in November and December, 1863. I devote a couple of background chapters to cover Burnside’s invasion of East Tennessee and a couple of post ground chapters to cover the battle of Bean’s Station and Longstreet’s extended stay in East Tennessee.

CWBA: What are the primary themes from this campaign you wish to convey to the reader?

EH: The Knoxville campaign was heavily influenced by issues of supply and logistics, and I pay a great deal of attention to those issues. Both sides suffered a lot from shortages of all kinds, these supply issues being mostly influenced by the geography and relatively under developed systems of transportation, as well as by the reduced agricultural capacity, of the region. I also stress the dual issues involved for the Federals in their desire to occupy East Tennessee—the need to help the mountain loyalists (a political issue) and the need to support the more important campaign for Chattanooga by controlling the upper Tennessee River Valley and the single line of railroad that ran through it, linking Virginia with Georgia. For the Confederates, it was a matter of finding something to do as a supplement to the Chattanooga operations, given that Braxton Bragg was adamant about not taking the offensive after the victory at Chickamauga. The Knoxville campaign had a huge impact on the region of East Tennessee, and I cover that impact by looking at the experiences of civilians in and around the city as well.

CWBA: Do you share Alexander Mendoza’s sympathetic assessment of Longstreet’s time in E. Tennessee (as expressed in his book Confederate Struggle for Command)?

EH: My view of Longstreet in the Knoxville campaign is rather negative. I found evidence that he made many mistakes during the course of the campaign. He greatly contributed to the Confederate failure at the battle of Campbell’s Station by failing to give clear instructions to his two division commanders, thereby wasting 2-3 hours of precious time on the battlefield. He waffled terribly after getting to Knoxville before ordering an attack on Fort Sanders long after the Federals had strengthened it (in the meanwhile ordering several attacks which he postponed at the last minute, causing a lot of trouble for no purpose to his men). He did not believe local CS sympathizers when they tried to educate him about regional geography so he could try to curtail the flow of supplies coming into Knoxville from the south and from the French Broad River Valley. His own men often criticized his conduct of the campaign in their letters and diaries. Longstreet was far out of his element as an independent commander, and I think the Knoxville campaign dramatically highlights that point.

CWBA: Do you believe the Confederates under Longstreet had any reasonable chance (or window of opportunity) to recapture Knoxville?

EH: They did have a chance to accomplish something, but only in the early phase of the campaign, after Longstreet crossed the Tennessee River near Loudoun and operated around the town of Lenoir’s Station on November 14-15, and again in the race toward Knoxville on November 16. If Longstreet could have cut off Burnside from reaching Knoxville those days, he had a good chance of success. But he made several mistakes, Burnside handled his outnumbered command well, and the result was stalemate outside the gates of Knoxville.

CWBA: What is your opinion of Burnside’s handling of the campaign?

EH: Burnside performed magnificently in the campaign, despite waffling for a few hours when news of Longstreet’s crossing of the river first reached his headquarters at Knoxville. After he calmed down and settled on a Fabian plan of campaign, to lure Longstreet as far from Chattanooga as possible, for as long as possible, to help Grant, he conducted himself with consummate skill. Burnside was in his element as an independent commander of small forces.

CWBA: Are there aspects of your interpretation that you feel overturn conventional thought on the campaign in particularly significant way(s)?

EH: Probably my negative take on Longstreet falls into this category, for I know there is a sizeable group of historians and readers out there who tend to like him and want to look on his best side. My positive take on Burnside might fall into this category too, considering the drubbing he took at Fredericksburg. Actually, the Knoxville campaign has largely received marginal treatment from serious historians, so I am not sure there is a large body of received wisdom about its details.

CWBA: You’ve partnered with a number of different university presses. Is there any kind of home court advantage of having your Knoxville book published by the press of UT-Knoxville?

EH: Yes, I think there is an advantage to having the book published by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The staff there is very excited about it, and the local Civil War community has been rejuvenated in the past few years by success in preserving some Civil War sites. With the sesquicentennial, it is the right time and the right publisher for a book like this.

CWBA: You’ve been averaging a book a year over the past decade. Is that a pace you would like to continue into the foreseeable future? What subjects currently interest you?

EH: It would be nice to continue this pace, and keep up the quality at the same time, but I suspect I will slow down pretty soon as old age begins to creep up on me. My study of the battle of Kennesaw Mountain is going to be published by the University of North Carolina Press in spring 2013 and I have books well advanced on Stones River, on infantry tactics in the Civil War, and on the battle of Ezra Church.

CWBA: It's good to hear that books covering the individual battles of the Atlanta Campaign are finally emerging. It's a bit surprising that we've yet to witness the publication of a fully realized book dedicated to the nuts and bolts of Civil War battlefield tactics, so I would look forward to your take on that subject, as well. Finally, you’re a native Missourian, what are the chances that we can get you to return to the Trans-Mississippi for some future book project or projects?

EH: I have long been interested in doing another book on the Trans-Mississippi. It was the area where I grew up, as well as the area of my first Civil War publishing efforts. It holds a special place for me. I am interested especially in Steele’s Camden Campaign, and the battle of Helena. The mix of people who participated in the war in the Trans-Mississippi, African-American soldiers, Native-American soldiers, and European immigrants, is fascinating as well. Proportionately, there are fewer top-notch academic studies of the Trans-Mississippi War than of any other region of Civil War activity. It is a fruitful area to work in.

CWBA: Indeed. I know that I and many others would like to see more scholarly effort directed there. As you say, given the unique mix of people involved, perhaps best exemplified by the Civil War in the Indian Territory, the dearth of attention is mystifying.

Thanks again to Prof. Hess for this informative preview of his upcoming book. Readers, look for The Knoxville Campaign this September from University of Tennessee Press.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Booknotes II (June '12)

New Arrivals:

1. War's Desolating Scourge: The Union's Occupation of North Alabama by Joseph W. Danielson (UP of Kansas, 2012).

The Union's first military occupation of a large stretch of the Deep South with significant Confederate and unionist populations is always a fertile subject for study. A much admired favorite is Bradley and Dahlen's From Conciliation to Conquest.

2. Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby: The Union Cavalry in Northern Virginia from Second Manassas to Gettysburg by Robert F. O'Neill (McFarland, 2012).

I seem to recall one or more Blue and Gray feature articles by O'Neill having to do with this subject. My initial impression is that this is a well researched operational and tactical history.

3. A History of the Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1865 by George Washington Williams (Fordham UP, 2012).

A paperback reprint of Williams's 1887 study, this new edition includes an introduction by John David Smith. The back cover bio credits Williams with authoring "the first work of serious scholarship by an African American" [1882's History of the Negro Race in America, 1619-1880] and Smith is interested in reassessing this later book's content and historiographical value.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A pair of new releases from Camp Pope Publishing: 35th Iowa regimental and Antietam cavalry study

Camp Pope Publishing announced today the release of a two new studies (click on the cover art for more information):

Triumph & Tragedy"The 35th Iowa had a unusually active combat record. Beginning with the Siege of Vicksburg, the regiment fought at Jackson, Pleasant Hill, Yellow Bayou, Old River Lake, Tupelo, Nashville, and Spanish Fort. Forty-nine offices and men were killed or mortally wounded in combat, including their beloved commander Sylvester Hill, and another 188 died of disease.
Based on primary material and contemporary sources, Triumph & Tragedy is a 6 x 9 quality paperback, 154 pages, and features 29 maps, photographs, and illustrations, a full roster, and index. (Published 2012, ISBN: 978-1-929919-41-3). $12.00."

Boots and Saddles"Ready now for the 150th anniversary of the battle, this massive study, the product of years of research and topographical analysis, will surely be the definitive scholarly resource on this aspect of the Civil War for years to come. ... Painstakingly researched in primary and secondary sources and thoroughly documented and annotated, Boots and Saddles: Cavalry During the Maryland Campaign of September 1862 is a 594-page, 8½ x 11" hardcover, with over 200 maps, photographs, and illustrations. Included is a driving tour written by Craig Swain, with modern maps and GPS coordinates. (Published 2012, ISBN: 978-1-929919-42-0). $39.50."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Stickney: "PROMOTION OR THE BOTTOM OF THE RIVER: The Blue and Gray Naval Careers of Alexander F. Warley, South Carolinian"

[ Promotion or the Bottom of the River: The Blue and Gray Naval Careers of Alexander F. Warley, South Carolinian by John M. Stickney (University of South Carolina Press, 2012) Cloth, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:170/198.  ISBN:978-1-61117-065-8  $29.95 ]

University of South Carolina Press's Studies in Maritime History series features a number of Civil War related titles worthy of our attention. The latest is a compact account of the naval career of Alexander F. Warley written by John M. Stickney with the inspired title Promotion or the Bottom of the River. Warley is not a household name in the vein of Raphael Semmes or even Franklin Buchanan, but he served competently at most of the Confederacy's more important naval stations and commanded significant vessels on more than one occasion.  With only a handful of pages devoted to its subject's childhood and post-Civil War years, the book is not a full biography in the traditional sense, concentrating instead almost totally on Warley's professional life.

As an acting midshipman, Warley's first voyage was a three year Pacific Squadron appointment aboard the USS Yorktown, hitting Brazilian and Chilean ports before cruising north. In 1842, he was involved in the capture of Monterey in California, under the mistaken assumption that war had been declared with Mexico. The next three years saw the South Carolinian assigned to a number of different vessels. In 1846, Warley found himself one of the passed midshipmen of the Independence, blockading and fighting in Baja California coastal waters during the US-Mexican War. The next period of service was at the Naval Observatory and then another sea assignment, this time with the Brazil Squadron aboard the Jamestown and later the Savannah. He was also promoted to lieutenant during this time. His last post before secession and resignation from the US Navy was with the Mississippi.

While Warley's overall competence as a naval officer appears to have been accepted by his peers, he frequently ran afoul of superiors, having charges preferred against him on a number of occasions. This flaw in his professional behavior would continue during the Civil War. His first assignment was to a shore battery at Charleston, but soon after he was sent to New Orleans, where he and the gunboat CSS McRae were involved in securing Ship Island. After it became clear that the island defenses could not be held, it was abandoned and Warley received his first command, the Manassas.  Underpowered and suffering from design flaws that limited its effectiveness, Warley nevertheless operated the ironclad to success at Head of Passes.  Forced to abandon and destroy a Manassas crippled in the contest against the massive Union naval force that ascended the river to capture New Orleans in the spring of 1862, Warley was captured and imprisoned.

After his exchange, he received another ironclad command, the Palmetto State at Charleston.  Inactivity there led him to secure a brief transfer to Galveston.  Returning to Charleston, Warley was posted to the ironclad Chicora, but he also led several boat raids in the area.  In 1864, Warley commanded the prize ship Water Witch for a time before being sent to North Carolina waters to take the helm of the celebrated Albemarle.  Unfortunately, the ironclad was sunk by a daring commando raid soon after he took charge.  The rest of the war was spent seeking opportunities that no longer existed, and Warley surrendered to Union forces in Athens, Georgia in May 1865.

Stickney's workmanlike summary of Warley's two naval careers (US and Confederate) is excellent [the section covering the officer's time in command of the Manassas is particularly useful], but his book is unable to offer much of a human portrait of the man underneath the uniform. Some Warley family papers are held by the South Carolina Historical Society archives, but it appears that no substantial body of material written by Warley himself (or writings about Warley by colleagues and other contemporaries) survives. Even so, Stickney's study provides valuable insights into US naval operations during the two decades prior to the Civil War, especially for the South American stations and the Pacific Squadron's role in the Mexican conflict. Clearly, the highlight of Warley's career was skippering the Manassas during the Civil War, and Stickney's account does this period ample justice. An illuminating byproduct of the book is how clearly it demonstrates the wandering gypsy-like nature of the Confederate naval service, with so many commissioned officers vying for dwindling numbers of warship commands. With only brief circumstances favoring the execution of real action, getting the opportunity to shine in the Confederate navy was largely a product of luck. This truth likely had something to do with Warley's determination to find "promotion or the bottom of the river".

More CWBA reviews of USC Press titles:
* Faith, Valor, and Devotion: The Civil War Letters of William Porcher DuBose and A Palmetto Boy: Civil War-Era Diaries and Letters of James Adams Tillman
* Twilight on the South Carolina Rice Fields: Letters of the Heyward Family, 1862-1871
* Never for Want of Powder: The Confederate Powder Works in Augusta, Georgia
* Upcountry South Carolina Goes to War: Letters of the Anderson, Brockman, and Moore Families, 1853-1865
* Cuban Confederate Colonel: The Life of Ambrosio Jose Gonzales
* The Good Fight That Didn't End: Henry P. Goddard's Accounts of Civil War and Peace
* Guardian of Savannah: Fort McAllister, Georgia, in the Civil War and Beyond
* High Seas And Yankee Gunboats: A Blockade-Running Adventure From The Diary Of James Dickson
* Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Booknotes (June '12)

New Arrivals:

1. Joshua L. Chamberlain: The Life in Letters of a Great Leader of the American Civil War by Thomas Desjardin (Osprey Publishing, 2012).

From publisher: "This new volume brings to public light 300 never-before-seen letters from Chamberlain's personal correspondence, which comprises letters sent by or to Chamberlain from his college years in 1852 to his death in 1914. The first 100 letters shed light on Chamberlain's formative years and his courtship with Fannie Adams, which has been the source of much speculation by scholars. The final 200 letters reveal insights into Chamberlain the Union commander and the aftermath of the war."

2. The Union Forever: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War by John Y. Simon, ed. by Glenn LaFantasie (UP of KY, 2012).

This is a compilation of previously published Simon essays on a variety of Grant and Lincoln subjects, in both isolation and intersection.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Earl Hess's Knoxville book

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Earl Hess's The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee (UT Press, October) will be published this fall. The entire campaign has never been the subject of a book length study before (Alexander Mendoza covered parts of it, with a Longstreet-centric approach), so this is new territory. The publisher's description seems to emphasize the period encompassing the defense of the city against Longstreet's detachment during the fall and winter months, but I hope the earlier East Tennessee campaign, the one that resulted in Burnside's capture of Knoxville in the first place, will also be covered.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wilson, ed.: "FROM WESTERN DESERTS TO CAROLINA SWAMPS: A Civil War Soldier's Journals and Letters Home"

[ From Western Deserts to Carolina Swamps: A Civil War Soldier's Journals and Letters Home edited by John P. Wilson (University of New Mexico Press, 2012). Cloth, 10 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 292 pp. ISBN:978-0-8263-5142-5 $40 ]

In 1858, with continuing Utah troubles leading the army to solicit recruits, Adams County, Illinois native Lewis Roe enlisted in the 7th Infantry. His antebellum regular army and later Civil War diaries and letters are the subject of John P. Wilson's From Western Deserts to Carolina Swamps. With a year of Knox College under his belt, Roe was a literate soldier whose writings became more illustrative with his second stint in the military, this time as a Union volunteer infantryman with the 50th Illinois.  The material is significantly enhanced by Wilson's editing, the depth of which frequently goes above and beyond what one typically finds in works of this type. 

As Wilson notes, Roe's daily diary of his regiment's 1860 march, a long and arduous one from Colorado to Fort Fillmore in New Mexico, is an unusual find. Observations and details are relatively sparse here, with typical entries noting camp locations, brief descriptions of the natural landscape, and distances traversed. In addition to analyzing the two versions of Roe's 1860 journal, Wilson also went some way in confirming the route with his own travels to the sites (with photos). Roe was fortunate in that his own company was not among those surrendered at San Augustin Springs, an early war disaster that brought disgrace to the regiment's immediate commander Major Isaac Lynde. Roe mustered out of the army in 1863 at the end of his enlistment term, and returned to Illinois, where he married and worked for some time as a teacher.

He did not stay out of the army long, however, as the desire to serve (and the healthy bounty offered) led him to join the 50th Illinois as a veteran volunteer. His diary and letters for this period cover aspects of the Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the Carolinas Campaign. In Georgia, some of the more obscure encounters of the campaign, such as those at Lay's Ferry and Rome Crossroads, are usefully described, but Roe spent much of the season garrisoning the town of Rome. His diary's recounting of almost daily guerrilla attacks on the picket lines and foraging expeditions provides a particularly enlightening picture of the atmosphere behind the front lines in NW Georgia during this period. With the Confederate Army of Tennessee returning to the area after the fall of Atlanta, the 50th was also rushed to the defense of Allatoona Pass. Roe offers worthwhile insights into that battle.

As mentioned before, Roe's descriptive powers were at their height in his later writings, and his journal of the march through the Carolinas is especially vivid. I don't recall mention elsewhere in the literature of the massive forest fires deliberately set by the army to the destroy the naval stores economy so particular to the region. A good account of Bentonville by the private soldier is another highlight from this final period.

One of the best features of Wilson's editing is his lengthy and exceptionally meticulous contextual narrative that weaves its way through the entire book.  Wilson's account of how the Roe papers came into print is extensive, and what the material covers (and what gaps exist) are thoroughly explained up front. In addition to bridging temporal gaps in Roe's writings, these chapters also provide very useful background information and scholarly references to events described by Roe. Wilson also includes other supplemental material like Roe's National Tribune article dealing with the Battle of Valverde. The maps are a mix of original drawings and those reproduced from the O.R. atlas, and they do a good overall job of locating points mentioned in the text and tracing long marches. Wilson also did a fine job of selecting rarely seen photographs and illustrations for the volume.

As a recorder of historical events, Roe was certainly better than average.  Researchers seeking primary source material for the regular army in the Far West at the the outbreak of the war and for the 1864-65 marches and fighting through Georgia and the Carolinas would do well to obtain a copy of this beautifully presented and exquisitely edited book.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

B & G Volume XXVIII Issue #6

David Roth's stewardship of Blue & Gray Magazine is one of the great success stories in Civil War publishing.  After kicking around different formats in the early years, he and his staff settled on a winning formula that has made his magazine unique.  With each passing year, it gets better, ruthlessly weeding out dinosaur features that others might cling to while continuing to improve on the core mission of providing a substantial main article, map set, and touring guide for each issue.  Of course, B&G caters to a very defined audience and isn't for everybody, but, for my money, no popular CW periodical does a better job of delivering on its promises.

Check out the current issue, a revisiting of Stones River.  I haven't had a chance to read the article yet, but the cartography is a thing to behold.