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.


  1. Great interview!

    Looking forward to this book and his future battle studies.

    It's been a while since I read it but I'm pretty sure William Marvel paints a positive picture of Burnside in the Knoxville Campaign in his favorable bio.


  2. Hello Drew

    Thanks very much for the interview. I was hoping you would speak to Mr. Hess.

    I look forward to reading this book. I was also glad to hear that he has a nice list of other projects planned. Really excited about the books on the Georgia Campaign. I had heard at one time he had planned a book on the Georgia Campaign similar to his series on the trench warfare in Virginia.

    Don Hallstrom

  3. Thanks for the interview. I've always been puzzled that this campaign has avoided focused scholarship. It looks like we'll finally get it in the form of this book. I must also salute Earl. Most authors who are this prolific generate skepticism about their depth of research and analysis. I have yet to buy a Hess book which doesn't live up to its promise.

  4. Thanks for a great interview. Hopefully the integration of immigrant stories into the Trans-Miss history will continue.

  5. I certainly hope that Prof. Hess writes studies of the battle at Helena and of Steele's Camden campaign, especially the former. The book he and Bill Shea wrote on Pea Ridge is first rate and sets a high standard for campaign studies.

    Jim McGhee

  6. Professor Hess has long been one of my favorite Civil War historians, and I enjoyed reading your interview with him. I am looking forward to reading all of his forthcoming projects, and, of course, I'm particularly interested in any of his projects relating to the trans-Mississippi.


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