Friday, June 28, 2013

Beck: "COLUMNS OF VENGEANCE: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864"

[Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864 by Paul N. Beck (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). Cloth, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:269/329. ISBN:9780806143446 $34.95]

Numerous studies have been written about the 1862 Santee Sioux uprising in Minnesota, but far less attention has been paid to the subsequent U.S. army Dakota plains campaigns conducted with the intention of securing the frontier and inflicting further punishment on the bands that committed the atrocities. Unfortunately, as Beck demonstrates, the military incursions into the Dakotas served mainly to inflame those Sioux not present during the atrocities committed in Minnesota. Some, like the Yanktonais, were even peacefully disposed toward the whites. The army's desire for vengeance combined with a mixing of friendly and hostile bands (the latter the minority) within large, extended buffalo hunting camps led to several battles, the result of which was the ignition of a wider plains war.

Paul Beck's Columns of Vengeance is a survey history of these punitive campaigns. After conveying the necessary background information about causative events in Minnesota, the book launches into a swift moving account of the two-pronged offensive led by brigadier generals Henry Hastings Sibley and Alfred Sully. The battles [Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, and Stony Lake for Sibley and Whitestone Hill for Sully] are briefly, but ably, described, most in just a few pages of text. Sully's 1864 expedition, with its big battle at Killdeer Mountain, had the additional mission of safeguarding the transportation routes to the gold fields of Montana, a wish that was only partly fulfilled. Beck is largely correct to assert that the punitive expeditions, especially the first one, were organized and fought along Civil War lines, rather than what we would later consider 'Indian fighting'. The 1863 columns were slow moving, with a large infantry component as the hammer, supported by cavalry and artillery. By contrast, the main body of Sully's 1864 punitive expedition was all cavalry (the attached infantry was used to garrison forts established along the way). This force composition was closer to what would come later, but its mobility was still hampered by foot artillery and supply trains.

The existing work most comparable in military content and scope to Beck's is Micheal Clodfelter's The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865 (1998)*, but what sets Columns of Vengeance apart is the manuscript research. Beck was able to incorporate far more personal accounts from the common soldiers into his narrative. In addition to relating their experiences, a variety of motivations are also displayed. Some thirsted for vengeance while others just wanted the campaign to be over with so they could fight their 'real' enemy, the Confederates down south. Several writers considered the expeditions a complete waste of time, lives, and money, with the military presence supported mainly by those wishing to enrich themselves on government contracts.  A variety of tribal sources were also used.  On the down side, it is a shame that only two general overview maps (one for each expedition) were included in the book, with no battle maps at all.

With its unprecedented integration of firsthand accounts written by those who fought in the ranks, Columns of Vengeance is a uniquely valuable addition to the 1862-65 Dakota War literature.  However, the question of whether Beck's work replaces Clodfelter's as the standard single-volume subject study does not have a clear cut answer. With their different emphases and complementary strengths and weaknesses, both are essential reading.

* - Oddly enough, Beck's bibliography does not list Clodfelter's book.

More CWBA reviews of OUP titles:
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

More Georgia 1864 battle studies

Given the quality of Brad Butkovich's current book, the recently reviewed The Battle of Pickett's Mill: Along the Dead Line, reading that he's at work on an Allatoona Pass study is welcome news. With Scaife's older volume covering the October 1864 battle notable for its exceptional cartography rather than its text, there's certainly room for something more thorough.

On the pre-capture of Atlanta front, early next year we'll see The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Sortie, July 20, 1864 by Robert Jenkins (Mercer UP, Jan '14).  This will be the battle's first book length treatment.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Civil War Interactive

I missed the April 2013 announcement that Civil War Interactive founder and operator Joe Avalon was shutting down his site after 16 years.  Now, it appears he's back [link] after getting some of his health concerns addressed.  CWi was one of the first sites to provide comprehensive information about Civil War related news, reviews, and events on the budding Internet, and Joe is deserving of our thanks also as an early supporter of the Civil War blogging world.  Best wishes on your recovery, Joe.

Monday, June 24, 2013

When the Wolf Came

None of the existing survey histories of the Civil War in the Indian Territory appeal to me much, making news of the upcoming release of When the Wolf Came: The Civil War and the Indian Territory (Univ of Ark Press, Nov '13) quite welcome. Author Mary Jane Warde's work is unknown to me, although her George Washington Grayson and the Creek Nation caught my eye before.

Booknotes IV (June '13)

New Arrivals:

1. Arkansas Late in the Civil War: The 8th Missouri Volunteer Cavalry, April 1864-July 1865 by David E. Casto (The History Pr, 2013).

Casto's study covers the 8th's efforts to secure northeast Missouri from guerrillas as well as regular forces under Jo Shelby.

2. Civil War Pittsburgh: Forge of the Union by Len Barcousky (The History Pr, 2013).

An overview of the city's Civil War experience, its industrial and armaments industries, and the role of its citizens in the fighting. Something of a popular history alternative to Fox's more in-depth works.

3. Surviving Andersonville: One Prisoner's Recollections of the Civil War's Most Notorious Camp by Ed Glennan, edited by David A. Ranzan (McFarland, 2013).

Edward Glennan (42nd Illinois) was an Andersonville prisoner from March to November 1864. His memoir of his eight months of hell there, as well as time spent in Virginia prisons and a parole camp in Maryland, is presented here, with editor Ranzan's introduction and endnotes.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Butkovich: "THE BATTLE OF PICKETT'S MILL: Along the Dead Line"

[The Battle of Pickett's Mill: Along the Dead Line by Brad Butkovich (The History Press, 2013). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:163/205. ISBN:978-1-62619-042-9 $21.99]

After decades of profound neglect, a steady number of battle studies associated with the 1864 Atlanta Campaign have been published in recent years. The latest of these is Brad Butkovich's The Battle of Pickett's Mill: Along the Dead Line. Though his previous books have dealt with miniatures gaming, the author is clearly a keen student of the standard elements and structure of modern Civil War battle narrative.

The book opens with a brief summary of how the armies came to fight over Pickett's Mill, Creek, and Road on May 27, 1864, with William T. Sherman's army group crossing the Etowah River and striking cross country, only to be met by Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee at Dallas and New Hope Church. All the while, the reader is introduced to the corps, division, and brigade commanders that would meet at Pickett's Mill. The battle itself was the result of an attempt by George Thomas to turn the exposed Confederate right, interposing a force between Johnston and his rail communications. The operation was assigned to O.O. Howard, who massed one of his own Fourth Corps divisions under Thomas Wood and Richard Johnson's Fourteenth Corps division beyond the presumed right flank of the enemy. The attack was met and repulsed by Patrick Cleburne's infantry division, the cavalry division of John Kelly, the mounted brigade of W.Y.C. Humes, and a pair of reinforcing infantry brigades led by Edward Walthall and William Quarles. Butkovich conveys to the reader in great detail both the terrain difficulties (supported by a nice set of modern photographs) and the movements of each regiment. A multitude of participant accounts are also woven into the narrative.  The post-battle section of the book describes the plight of the wounded, the operational consequences of the Union defeat, and the current physical state of the battlefield. With encroaching development often the most worrisome issue for those seeking to preserve Civil War battlefields, the primary threats to Pickett's Mill have been natural ones, from devastating flooding to pine beetle infestation.

The author reserves high praise for the brigade and divisional level generalship exhibited by the Confederates, with Cleburne skillfully extending his right to meet Howard head on and inflict terrible losses. The Confederate dismounted cavalry screen also proved unusually adept at thwarting the Union infantry thrust astride both sides of Pickett's Mill Creek. In stark contrast to the Confederate response, the Union operation was bungled badly. The author rightly faults Howard and Wood for not coordinating the attack. Each of Wood's brigades (first Hazen, then Gibson and Knefler) attacked independently, and Scribner's brigade of Johnson's Division was stymied by the dismounted cavalry. Nathaniel McLean's Twenty-Third Corps brigade, Howard's connection with the rest of the army, completely failed in its mission to divert Cleburne's attention from Howard's main attack on the Confederate right. With Union losses approaching 1,600 men and Confederate casualties something less than 650, Pickett's Mill was a costly battle given its small size. The Confederate victory also forced Sherman to redirect his turning effort to the other flank, opposite Dallas.

Butkovich clearly understands the critical importance of useful cartography to any good battle study. To that end, he's created a very good set of tactical maps for this book. Containing all the unit position and terrain information one might wish for, they are excellent representations of each phase of the battle.  The author's wargaming background also undoubtedly influenced the book's heightened attention directed toward tactical formations in the text and numbers data in the order of battle appendix.  On the down side, there are a few too many typos, especially early on, and the thinner than expected bibliography makes one wonder if it is a selective listing rather than a full accounting of sources used. Regardless, The Battle of Pickett's Mill is easily the fight's best published treatment to date.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Booknotes III (June '13)

New Arrivals:

1. The Battle of West Point: Confederate Triumph at Ellis Bridge by John McBryde (The History Pr, 2013).

A book length account of a February 1864 Meridian Campaign battle fought between the opposing cavalry forces of Nathan Bedford Forrest and William Sooy Smith.

2. Co. Aytch, or a Side Show of the Big Show: A New Edition Annotated and Edited by Philip Leigh by Watkins and Leigh (Westholme, 2013).

A new annotated and illustrated edition of Sam Watkins's classic memoir.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Smith: "RETHINKING SHILOH: Myth and Memory"

[Rethinking Shiloh: Myth and Memory by Timothy B. Smith (University of Tennessee Press, 2013). Cloth, 14 maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:176/212. ISBN:978-1-57233-941-5 $38.95]

Rethinking Shiloh: Myth and Memory is a collection of nine previously published essays by Timothy Smith, in recent times a prolific contributor to the body of published historiographical analysis of the Shiloh battle and battlefield. His reexaminations of what happened at Shiloh have resulted in a number of revisionist conclusions and his investigations into how the battle has been taught and remembered have informed us why certain parts of the battle have received disproportionate attention over the years. Smith is also a scholar of the park system's establishment, and his work specifically on Shiloh National Military Park has been prodigious. Elements of all of these areas of interest are present in the chapters of Rethinking Shiloh.

The compilation kicks off with a real jewel, the best article length terrain analysis of a Civil War battlefield I've come across in the literature. Everyone knows the natural landscape plays a role in every battle, but, in this Tennessee Historical Quarterly article, Smith explains how the terrain around Pittsburg Landing [especially the topography and the orientation of the river, creeks, and streams] determined the course, location, nature, and timing of each stage of the battle. He makes a strong case that the ground was the most important single factor in determining Union victory and Confederate defeat, even plausibly suggesting the possibility that its qualities and restrictions made Confederate victory on April 6 impossible.

A trio of other THQ articles are also present. In one, the story of the families who lived on the battlefield is told. Obviously, the battle itself was devastating to both dwellings and improvements, but Smith argues that their treatment at the hands of the U.S. government in the post-war period was generous. With the establishment of the park, land was purchased at higher than market value (with only three plots seized through condemnation). In addition, those that wished to stay were allowed to do so at miniscule rents and were provided with jobs during the New Deal era. Another chapter examines these New Deal works projects in more detail, noting that, although the river damming, road building, facilities construction, and archaelogical work modernized the park and brought a measure of increased prosperity to the region, they also permanently altered the historical landscape of the battlefield in a negative fashion, especially along the riverbank. The final THQ piece looks at the development and legacy of the park visitor orientation film, Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle. Its creation is an interesting tale in itself, but Smith is also cognizant that its Hornet's Nest-centric content, presented to millions of Shiloh visitors between 1956 and 2012, played a key role in promoting the primacy of that segment of the battlefield in the popular imagination.

On the subject of the Sunken Road fighting, regular Smith readers will know that he believes the Hornet's Nest sector has received far too much credit as the deciding factor in the battle, and two essays in the volume directly address this. The first, originally published in The Shiloh Campaign (SIUP, 2009), traces the ascendancy of the Hornet's Nest school of thought through the efforts of veterans that fought there and invested patrons, the most influential being 12th Iowa soldier and Shiloh park historian David W. Reed. Smith also tries to impress upon the reader that fiercer combat with higher casualty rates occurred on other parts of the battlefield, with the sunken road front something of an afterthought to the two main Confederate drives on each side. The second essay, an enhanced version of an earlier Civil War Times article, addresses the hero status of Hornet's Nest defender Benjamin Prentiss. While acknowledging the general's personal bravery, Smith finds Prentiss largely undeserving of his elevated status. Prentiss lied about ordering the early morning reconnaissance that discovered the enemy advance [Everett Peabody was the officer that did so] and actually commanded only a small proportion of the troops engaged. The vast majority were led by W.H.L. Wallace, who was killed in the waning moments of the fighting, leaving Prentiss to surrender the lot. Smith finds it odd that the surrendering general received legendary status while Wallace is largely forgotten, a happenstance in stark contrast to other battles with celebrated martyrs. The author also finds fault in the manner in which Prentiss freely imparted useful battlefield intelligence under questioning. According to Smith, Prentiss is not a hero, just the fortunate beneficiary of effective self-promotion and of the general ascent of the Hornet's Nest interpretation in both official and unofficial circles. The author's careful reevaluation of the record surrounding the Sunken Road/Hornet's Nest is both laudatory and convincing revisionism, but the tone of the corrective sometimes veers dangerously close to being a dismissive one. I don't think anyone should get the impression that the fighting was relatively unimportant, because, while I would agree that it was highly unlikely Grant's Last Line would have been penetrated if Wallace and Prentiss had simply withdrawn with the rest of the army, the stand clearly disrupted the Confederate advance in a major way at a time late in the day when each minute was precious. With the benefit of hindsight, it is also certainly debatable whether the loss of 2,200 men as prisoners was worth whatever was gained by the Union army from the all too literal "hold at all hazards" sacrifice.

The chapter originally published in the third volume of UT Press's Confederate Generals in the Western Theater series takes a look at the death of Confederate Army of the Mississippi commander Albert Sidney Johnston. Questions surrounding whether Lew Wallace was lost and moved too slowly are answered ('no' to both) in another expanded CWT piece from 2008.  It relates the results of an experiential approach to historical investigation, one involving retracing the route using research and modern technology and then walking it to compare the time element. Finally, the Shiloh fates of a number of Mississippi secession convention members are discussed in an article from Hallowed Ground magazine.

Rethinking Shiloh has more discretionary value to those already owning the books, magazines, and journal volumes in question, but those Shiloh students who will be encountering this material for the first time are well advised to add this compilation to their collection. In addition to its thoughtful criticism of how the big questions surrounding the battle have been remembered by both popular and academic audiences, several essays dwell on fascinating little-known aspects of the Shiloh park and battle.

More CWBA reviews of UTP titles:
* Ruined by This Miserable War: The Dispatches of Charles Prosper Fauconnet, a French Diplomat in New Orleans, 1863-1868
* The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee
* To the Battles of Franklin and Nashville and Beyond: Stabilization and Reconstruction in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1864-1866
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 3: Essays on America's Civil War
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War
* 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

Sunday, June 16, 2013

New military history book prize

Last week, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation announced the creation of a new book prize, the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History, one that carries a substantial cash reward of $50,000. The list of judges is an international one and competition among world conflicts will be fierce, but American Civil War authors need not completely despair of their chances, as the foundation president has penned a Grant volume and there's a VMI professor in the panel whose seat is named after Henry King Burgwyn.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ballard: "GRANT AT VICKSBURG: The General and the Siege"

[Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege by Michael B. Ballard (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013). Hardcover, photos, maps, notes, index. Pages main/total:185/209. ISBN:978-0-8093-3240-3 $32.95]

Following a good general overview of the Vicksburg campaign through the two failed May assaults on the Confederate fortifications and the decision to resort to siege operations, the middle three chapters of Michael Ballard's Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege read like a series of essays. The first reassesses the historiography of Grant's famous Yazoo bender, while the other two address in turn Grant's controversial relationship with Third Corps commander John McClernand and his response to intra-army racial violence among Trans-Mississippi military posts and contract plantations. The final section reverts back to narrative form, summarizing the conduct of the siege, the dispositions made to ward off Joseph E. Johnston's hovering relief army, and Vicksburg's ultimate surrender. The study is annotated, but lacks a full bibliography.

Given the brevity of Grant at Vicksburg, it is no surprise that the vast range of military events associated with the siege of Vicksburg on both sides of the Mississippi River receive only summary treatment. Though the material is ably presented, readers familiar with the article literature and similarly themed sections of Ed Bearss's Unvexed to the Sea will not find their knowledge and interpretation of the military aspects of the campaign appreciably enhanced. A differing interpretation of Ballard's is his characterization of Grant as being excessively nervous, bordering on panicky at times, about the threat of Johnston's army.  At the time of the Vicksburg Campaign, Johnston's pattern of non-aggression was still in its infancy, and many in the Union high command, including Grant, shared a high opinion of the Virginian's military ability.

The "essay" parts are really the strength of the book. In the first piece, Ballard effectively questions the veracity of Sylvanus Cadwallader's influential account of Grant's drunken bender while on an inspection trip up the Yazoo River, coming to the conclusion that it was a fabrication and chastising a long list of writers, biographers, and historians who have accepted the story uncritically in their own writings.

Relations between white and black soldiers serving in close proximity in Louisiana during the campaign is the subject of another in depth investigation. A particularly incendiary incident [also detailed in another recent publication, Linda Barnickel's Milliken's Bend (LSU Press, 2013)] involved the whipping by black soldiers of white 10th Illinois Cavalry Private John O'Brien, who was guilty of brutally assaulting black civilians. Given the attitudes of the time, the punishment raised more attention than the original crime. Ballard credits Grant with ordering that white and black soldiers be accorded equal treatment and non-combatants be better protected, with follow up sometimes lacking due to the prioritization of the siege and an indifferent army bureaucracy.

Ballard's picture of McClernand's generalship is a fundamentally positive one. His case overall is strong, although he glosses over the Illinois politician's controversial Champion Hill performance. The author notes that Grant and McClernand seem to always have brought out the worst in each other. McClernand's scheming and abrasive, self-aggrandizing personality annoyed Grant and the other corps commanders, but the fact that Grant placed him in important positions at various points during the campaign cannot be entirely explained away by convenience of map position. Ballard points out several instances when Grant was overly critical of minor transgressions and command prerogatives exercised on the part of McClernand, incidents that would certainly have been allowed to pass without comment if committed by Sherman or McPherson. The point raised of whether the offending address was an "official" document of the kind specifically forbidden to be published is another interesting subject for debate. Undoubtedly, McClernand was his own worst enemy, but Grant's own actions toward him were often those consistent with a petty personal vendetta.

Not devised as a definitive scale treatment of the Vicksburg siege, Michael Ballard's Grant at Vicksburg provides a thoughtful overview of Grant's military mindset during the operation, as well as a series of astutely analyzed micro-examinations of incidents, policies, and command relationships associated with the general and the siege. There's certainly more than enough material challenging conventional wisdom to make the study worthy of recommendation.

More CWBA reviews of SIUP titles:
* The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865
* The Chattanooga Campaign
* Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artificial Limbs
* An Illustrated Guide to Virginia's Confederate Monuments
* The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General
* The Chickamauga Campaign
* Chicago's Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War
* The Shiloh Campaign

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

American Indians and the Civil War

A Sesquicentennial partnership between the NPS and the AIANTA has produced a booklet of essays titled "American Indians and the Civil War".  I don't know about the depth of the articles, but the table of contents looks interesting, and the sub-$10 price will make it accessible to large numbers of park visitors.  Apparently, it will become available sometime this month, either at national park visitor center bookstores or online through

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Mackowski & White: "CHANCELLORSVILLE'S FORGOTTEN FRONT: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863"

[ Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863 by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White (Savas Beatie, 2013) Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:363/431. ISBN:987-1-61121-136-8 $32.95 ]

While Gettysburg has entire books devoted to smaller and smaller segments of the great battle, even to the extent of documenting the conflict over a single farm, Chancellorsville struggles to get much coverage at all, let alone similar micro-historical treatment. However, this imbalance has now been favorably altered with the appearance of the first full length account of the actions of General John Sedgwick's left wing of the Army of the Potomac during the campaign, entirely appropriate given that Uncle John fought essentially an independent series of battles east of Chancellorsville. Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White's Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front offers readers easily the best available military history of the battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church.

The activities of the main body, under the direct control of army commander General Joseph Hooker, are ably recounted by Mackowski and White, providing context for newer readers and a refresher course for those already familiar with the campaign and the timing of events. A common theme throughout is poor communications, a product of both lines of communication length (a faulty telegraph system and a 25 mile courier route) and unclear content. In the latter case, Hooker kept his plans close to the vest, with only army chief of staff Daniel Butterfield fully informed. Instructions to corps commanders were parceled out on a need to know basis, not an ideal policy in the case of Sedgwick, who possessed a reputation for following orders but not for initiative. Thus, Sedgwick was both isolated and starved of clear direction, except for a series of orders that arrived during the heat of battle and were often vague, outdated, and non-situationally aware.

All of the movements and events associated with Sedgwick's augmented VI Corps command are admirably analyzed and detailed in Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front. While the book's overall focus shades more toward the Union perspective, the responses of their Confederate foes [primarily Jubal Early's reinforced division, Cadmus Wilcox's brigade, and a number of late reinforcements] are fully represented. Mackowski and White's largely regimental level battle narrative is at a scale that will please the great majority of readers drawn to books of this type.

Before describing the brief but bloody Battle of Second Fredericksburg, much attention is directed toward the initial river crossings below the city. As with many other aspects of the campaign, miscommunication made the bridging operation by no means a smooth one. However, abundant north bank Union artillery made it impossible for the Confederates to take advantage of any temporary confusion. The entrenched positions of Early's men, approximately 10,000 soldiers spread thinly over 7 miles, and the terrain problems imposed upon any attacking force are clearly laid out. The authors make note of the narrow-front columnar formations employed by many of Newton's assault regiments as being something of a progenitor to the breakthrough tactics later used by the army at Spotsylvania and Petersburg, but it's unclear if they were a major factor in capturing the heights. Either way, Sedgwick's cautious exploitation of his victory allowed the bulk of Early's division to escape unscathed to the south, where they could operate on the Union left flank.

While acknowledging the benefits of hindsight, the authors are critical of Sedgwick's caution at several points in the campaign. His two hour pursuit delay after capturing Fredericksburg, with the intention of bringing Brooks's fresh division to the advance, is perhaps the most egregious of these. Even so, Mackowski and White make a strong case that Confederate General Cadmus Wilcox deserves far more credit for delaying Sedgwick than he's ever been accorded by Chancellorsville lore. On his own initiative, Wilcox brought his brigade to Fredericksburg and blunted the breakthrough behind the town. He also selected Salem Heights as the proper rallying point for checking the Union advance, occupying the center position at Salem Church with reinforcements in the form of Lafayette McLaws's division and Mahone's brigade extending the Confederate line north and south. The authors detail how this force crushed Brooks's division and threw Sedgwick back on the defensive. Just how well crafted the defense was, with the five brigades positioned on the reverse slope of the height with the added benefit of an intervening wood to neutralize Sedgwick's massive edge in artillery, probably deserves even more acclaim than the book gives it. The slightly concave shape of the line also facilitated the concentration of converging fire upon the Union regiments entering the wood.

Overall, the book's leadership assessments comprise fair critiques of the generals of both sides. Wilcox's role as unsung hero of the battle has been mentioned already, and a reasonable balance is drawn between criticism of Sedgwick's excessive caution and the consequences of a poor communications setup between Hooker's headquarters and his own. Early was placed in a difficult position throughout, but performed his duties well. He averted a near disaster by quickly reoccupying the Fredericksburg position after a member of Lee's staff mistakenly ordered him to abandon it [although perhaps he should have refused all along]. Early also arranged his retreat from Fredericksburg with skill, preserved his division as a fresh fighting force and falling back in the correct southerly direction. This last action allowed him to reoccupy Marye's Heights in the confusion after the Union defeat at Salem Church and substantially increase the danger to Sedgwick's Banks Ford salient. Complaints are mainly tonal in nature. One might argue that some of the criticisms of Howard expressed in the book are outdated and it becomes a bit tiresome to yet again see McClellanism dredged up in some form each time the subject of slow movement and cautious leadership is raised.

As one has come to expect from this publisher, the quality of the maps more than meets expectation, although it would have been nice to see more than one for each battle and a few more to bridge some of the gaps that have no map associated with them (e.g. Wilcox's first blocking position). Appendix materials include orders of battle, numbers and casualty tables, a post-war sunken road history, and a list of Medal of Honor recipients.

Far more than a mere esoteric supplement to existing works on the campaign by Bigelow, Sears, Furgurson, etc., Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front is a completely original and essential part of the literature. It is highly recommended.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Booknotes II (June '13)

New Arrivals:

There was no doubting that a stream of Gettysburg books would be arriving this month and next.

A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People by Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler (UNC Pr, 2013).

The preview from a while back.  My positive impression has not changed.

I also received an advanced copy of The Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia from the publisher. I've been waiting for a history of this fight for a long time, and skipped on the Quarstein title in anticipation of the Savas Beatie publication. It looks like I won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Keehn: "KNIGHTS OF THE GOLDEN CIRCLE: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War"

[Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War by David C. Keehn (Louisiana State University Press, 2013). Hardcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:197/315. ISBN:978-0-8071-5004-7 $39.95]

Emerging onto the national scene during the summer of 1859, the semi-secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle had lofty goals. With their expansionist plans put on hold by the election of a Republican president in 1860, David Keehn's Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War argues that the KGC's leaders and members were guiding forces in taking several southern states out of the federal union, with key roles in seizing forts and arsenals and providing manpower for the Confederacy's provisional army.

Originally conceived as a brotherhood of individuals seeking both protection of southern rights within the U.S. and slaveholding hegemony over the troubled Americas (the "Golden Circle" referring to Central America and the Caribbean), the KGC's first target was northern Mexico. The leadership took great pains to distance itself from the filibuster tradition, publicly avowing that its members would comply with the neutrality laws, so much depended on invitation from Mexican sympathizers. When expected cooperation from the Juarez government was not forthcoming, the entire project fizzled.  It's unclear what would have happened in the unlikely event that Mexican KGC support materialized, as there's no indication that funding or manpower expectations were ever met.

With Lincoln's election in 1860, the KGC's focus quickly switched gears toward supporting secession and arming for defense. Keehn's study focuses specifically on Knight activities in Texas, Virginia, and Kentucky. According to the author, the KGC largely disappeared from the scene when its members were absorbed into the Confederate army. Differing with previous historians and contemporaneous Union propaganda, Keehn believes that the anti-administration Order of the American Knights (OAK) and the later Sons of Liberty that spread throughout the Midwest and Border States during the second half of the Civil War should really be considered new entities, with their own rituals and goals, rather than offshoots of the KGC. The final section of the book discusses the possibility of KGC involvement in the various Lincoln kidnapping and assassination plots, but arrives at no firm conclusions.

While a great many Civil War era studies mention the KGC, insights into its founder are distinctly lacking, making Keehn's extensive biographical treatment of George Bickley one of his most valuable contributions. The author was also able to uncover documents detailing the organizational structure of the KGC (composed of three steps or "degrees" -- military, financial, and leadership -- the latter the most secretive) and some of its rituals. The picture of Bickley that emerges out of Keehn's research is that of a persuasive public speaker and tireless promoter who over time acquired a reputation as a bit of a shyster.  He also proved unable to guide any undertaking to a successful result.  His Mexico venture utterly failed as did all attempts to keep the military wing of the society under his personal command.  A KGC convention instead elected to disperse authority to the individual "castle" leaders, leaving Bickley essentially powerless.  During the war, he was arrested by U.S. authorities, his statements while under confinement increasingly erratic. Released in October 1865, he died two uneventful years later.

One of the book's primary themes is Keehn's contention that the scope of KGC influence and operations has been badly underestimated in the current historiography. He contends that the KGC was a guiding force in Texas's secession movement and in sweeping Virginia's secessionist minority into power. The problem with this argument is the lack of convincing documentation or even knowledge of who was or was not a KGC member. With all of Keehn's great work in synthesizing the current scholarship and uncovering new sources (especially newspapers), the volume contains essentially no manuscript material from either leaders or rank and file members that specifically address KGC activities, a situation not surprising given the secretive nature of the group. To persuasively promote the idea of the KGC as a prime mover in the secession movements of at least two states, one must provide evidence of plans and actions derived directly from the group and its hierarchy. There's little to none of this in the book. The fact that the KGC chose to disperse authority to local castles instead of creating some kind of central command structure itself would seem to preclude any kind of coordinated campaign.

Even if one finds a central argument of the study to be ultimately unconvincing, Knights of the Golden Circle remains a work of tremendous worth. More work remains to be done, but it is clearly the deepest examination of the origins and activities of the KGC to date, the 'go to' subject history for some time to come. Undoubtedly, the boldness of Keehn's assertions will spark a lively conversation among academics in the field. Whether or not other scholars will take up Keehn's challenge to delve even deeper is difficult to predict given the lack of attention in the past, but he's certainly provided the building blocks for many future efforts.

More CWBA reviews of LSUP titles:
* Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory
* Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict Between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland
* Granbury's Texas Brigade: Diehard Western Confederates
* The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States Versus Lee, 1861-1883
* Confederate Guerrilla: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
* Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security
* War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
* Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865
* Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
* Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War
* John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal
* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Booknotes (June '13)

New Arrivals:

1. The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader: An Eyewitness History of the Civil War's Greatest Battle by Rod Gragg (Regnery History, 2013).

An illustrated (w/ maps, photos, prints, sketches, etc.) collection of Gettysburg first person accounts.

2. The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses: Synopses, Orders of Battle, Strengths, Casualties, and Maps, June 9 - July 14, 1863 by J. David Petruzzi and Steven Stanley (Savas Beatie, 2013).

I love books like this. I don't know how commercial they are, but it would nice if this could be the beginning of a series similar to the S-B campaign atlases.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Some promising fall titles

Unlike spring, the fall titles from the university presses (so far) aren't really doing it for me. Savas Beatie, however, has a nice looking lineup according to their June newsletter.  It includes Bradley Gottfried's next atlas series title The Maps of the Bristoe Station and Mine Run Campaigns. They also have the first in-depth study of General Hooker's post-Fredericksburg reorganization and revitalization of the Army of the Potomac planned with Albert Conner and Chris Mackowski's Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac’s “Valley Forge”. Finally, it's been so many years since I've corresponded with Kentuckian Don Rightmyer about a book project he was working on that I'd forgotten about it completely. Torn: The Civil War in Kentucky must be it. Don's also done a lot of work compiling a Civil War Kentucky bibliography as well as a camps & forts register, and the description mentions that both will be included in the volume.

Now, if only these advanced dates will be met. I swear I've been waiting for a constantly pushed back Big Bethel since April 2012!