Monday, April 21, 2014

Rafuse: "MANASSAS: A Battlefield Guide"

[Manassas: A Battlefield Guide by Ethan S. Rafuse (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). Softcover, maps, illustrations, appendices, source notes. Pp. 253. ISBN:978-0-8032-3643-1 $21.95]

Ethan Rafuse's Manassas: A Battlefield Guide is the first title since 2008 to appear from Nebraska's This Hallowed Ground series, which has proved to be an excellent alternative to the U.S. Army War College guides published by University Press of Kansas and Tennessee's stylistically similar brethren. Where the War College guides want the reader to view the battlefields primarily through the eyes of participants, the Hallowed Ground titles rely on authorial interpretation.

For those unfamiliar with the series, the traditional automobile tour stop organization is used, with each site intended to be visited in a sequence roughly corresponding to the historical course of the battle. Each stop is divided into five steps:

Directions - driving and walking instructions to the stop (still no GPS coordinates).
Orientation - tells the viewer where to face, while also pointing out key terrain features.
What Happened - brief narrative of events that unfolded at or near the stop.
Analysis (Optional) - further insight into the "why"s of what occurred in the preceding What Happened section, along with command decision evaluation.
Vignette (Optional) - eyewitness accounts of events and/or personages involved. For Manassas, Rafuse does include unusually lengthy Vignette sections but they can be safely skipped if the visitor is pressed for time.

Both the 1861 (FBR) and 1862 (SBR) battles are combined in the volume. The grounds associated with the most significant fighting are well covered: Stone Bridge, Matthew's Hill, Stone House, Henry Hill, Chinn Ridge, and Sudley Church for FBR and SBR's Brawner Farm, Railroad Cut, Groveton, Buck Hill, Warren's defeat, Chinn Ridge and Henry Hill. Rafuse designed the main tour to be completed in around eight hours, with minimal walking, but there are many excursions for those with more time available and ability to walk the ground. For FBR, the optional tours cover the campaign and Jackson's stand at Henry Hill, though the latter can scarcely be regarded as optional. Taking up a large part of the book, the SBR campaign excursion is even more extensive than the one for the 1861 battle, with stops at Cedar Mountain, the Rapidan River, Remington, Freeman's Ford, Jeffersonton, Bristoe Station, Mayfield Fort, and Thoroughfare Gap. A two-stop Chantilly side tour is also included.

One thing among many the series does exceptionally well is provide just the right amount of informational depth. The What Happened and Analysis sections are detailed enough to foster meaningful tactical study yet brief enough for readers to feel that they're taking in the sensory experiences of the battlefield more than the pages of a book. Rafuse's text is also broad enough to provide new readers with a generally cohesive understanding of the campaign and battle. Appropriate to touring guide narrative, the author takes a largely neutral approach to the various controversies surrounding each battle, leaving the more adamant stances to the specialized monographs.

With one appearing every few pages and appropriate in scale (regimental for FBR and mostly brigade for SBR), the maps in Manassas are very good at showing troop positions at each tour stop, their movements superimposed upon the modern landscape. The elevation contours are helpful, but one wishes that historical terrain features like tree lines could also have been included. This minor complaint aside, the maps are one of the best properties of the book, and the series as a whole. In contrast with similar publishing endeavors that suffer from cost cutting over time, the cartography in the This Hallowed Ground series has maintained, and in many ways steadily improved, its quality.

One might argue that the Manassas battles merit separate treatment, but, given how much literal common ground exists between the two, a single volume seems entirely appropriate. Plus, visitors from afar will appreciate the ability to seamlessly kill two birds with one stone. Rafuse's Manassas ranks among the best tools for touring the Second Bull Run campaign and battlefield and for the first battle it is without peer among traditionally formatted guide books.

More CWBA reviews of UNP titles:
* Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 (Bison)
* The Enemy Never Came: The Civil War in the Pacific Northwest (For Caxton Press)
* The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s (for Caxton Press)
* Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War
* Antietam, South Mountain, and Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide
* Counter-Thrust: From the Peninsula to the Antietam
* Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign
* The Peninsula & Seven Days: A Battlefield Guide
* Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road


  1. Drew: Another good, thorough review. One thing I've noticed in both Rafuse books in this series is the excellent coverage of campaign tour options. A lot of ground is effectively and efficiently dealt with in those sections.

    1. Thanks, John.

      I agree with you about the campaign features. I was pleasantly surprised how many pre-battle SBR sites were in there. Did the Spruill guide have anything like it?

    2. Drew: The Spruill book covers Thoroughfare Gap but does not deal with Cedar Mountain, Chantilly, etc. Rafuse does good service by working in those locations. Some relatives are visiting Antietam and I've strongly recommended the Rafuse guide to that field because of the Harpers Ferry/South Mountain material.

  2. Thank you, Drew, for your VERY generous, thoughtful, and impressively quick (I just got my copies of the book last week!) review. I agree with your implied complaint that more volumes in this series have not come out (and the desire for GPS coordinates, though I hope my directions were clear and accurate enough to render them unnecessary) in recent years. Brooks shares your feeling on that point and has told me he would like to see at least Fredericksburg-Chancellorsville and Wilderness-Spotsylvania volumes come out before the series is brought to an end. (I know, I know, there are a lot of other campaigns that it would be great to see guides for too.) But with the Antietam and Manassas volumes, plus a guide in the War College series on Richmond and Petersburg coming out later this year, I am afraid his hopes that I can contribute further in the series will probably fall victim to guide burn-out on my part.

    I would be remiss, though, if I did not caution readers that while I did my best on the directions to help readers negotiate the at times aggravating road network in Northern and Central Virginia, they should also be aware that my best efforts in this regard are subject going forward to the whims of VDOT.

    Thanks again.


    1. Hi Ethan,
      Anything related to FBR goes to the top of the pile!

      Personally, I could take it or leave it when it comes to GPS coordinates, but I like to at least mention their inclusion (or omission) in my guide reviews as I've noticed an increasing number of book buyers express quite a desire for them.

      No one would blame you for feeling 'guide burn out'. About the infrequency of releases, I imagine that it's more difficult to recruit historians to write guide books like these than it would be for other monograph series.


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