Sunday, October 26, 2014

Veit: "A DOG BEFORE A SOLDIER: Almost-lost Episodes in the U.S. Navy's Civil War"

[A Dog Before a Soldier: Almost-lost Episodes in the U.S. Navy's Civil War by Chuck Veit (Author, 2010). Softcover, 22 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 198 pp. ISBN:978-0-557-37497-7 $21.50]

At this point, most serious students of the Civil War should find it difficult to imagine Union victory without the U.S. Navy, with the nautical arm's matchless proficiency at a seemingly endless list of direct action and support roles. However, through his living history interactions with thousands of period enthusiasts over the years, Chuck Veit, President of the Navy & Marine Living History Association and active landing party reenactor, certainly can speak with some authority when he claims to encounter little of this appreciation during his presentations.

Veit's book A Dog Before a Soldier: Almost-lost Episodes in the U.S. Navy's Civil War is a valuable compilation of both new and previously published articles covering specific topics that even seasoned readers may not have encountered before, though the larger themes are familiar.

"Episode" summaries:
  • First Battle of Shiloh (March 1, 1862) - A Union landing party with close support from timberclad gunboats went ashore to destroy Confederate field guns situated above Pittsburg Landing. The Confederates declared victory after pushing the smaller Union detail back to their boats, but the naval presence prevented the Confederates from erecting a permanent battery position. 
  • Civilian rams on the James River (March 1862) - This article recalls a needlessly desperate and badly conceived plan to employ civilian rams to destroy the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads. The whole snafu was indicative of early war growing pains and jurisdictional confusion.
  • Appomattox River Raid (June 26-28, 1862) - Lost in the general turmoil of the Seven Days was another failed Union operation, this one an ill-planned naval raid up the Appomattox River to cut the Richmond & Petersburg R.R. at the Swift Creek and Petersburg trestles. Lessons in joint operations would be quickly learned.
  • Naval cattle drive (October 1862) - Confiscating a herd of 1,500 head of cattle crossing the Mississippi River above Donaldsonville (La.), the Union navy conducted a remarkable cattle drive down the east bank to friendly lines at New Orleans, securing valuable fresh beef for the Union commissary. A good example of the naval branch's versatility and initiative.
  • Fort Butler (June 28, 1863) - Covered pretty well in a number of books and articles, the Union defense of Fort Butler isn't really an "almost-lost" Civil War event like many of the others, but Veit's account is among the best. He also clears up some points of lingering confusion in a persuasive manner. Fort Butler serves to highlight the almost unassailable security that the navy was able to provide fortified Union river enclaves, posts which even if taken by attacking Confederates could not be held by them. 
  • Battle at Japan's Shimonoseki Straits (July 16, 1863) - This successful ship to shore (and to a lesser degree ship to ship) engagement is among the better known events covered in the book, but it does well illustrate the U.S. Navy's global reach even while in the midst of Civil War. 
  • Deloges Bluff (April 26, 1864) - One of many running engagements fought being retreating Union naval vessels and pursuing Confederate land forces during the Red River Campaign, the encounter at Deloges Bluff illustrated both the vulnerability of thin skinned gunboats to massed small arms fire and light artillery and the ability of the Union navy to navigate extremely difficult environments. 
  • Pitch Landing raid (December 4, 1864) - Pitch Landing, a major Confederate gathering point for supplies in eastern North Carolina, was the target of a successful army-navy raid. It's a textbook example of the type of 'death by a thousand cuts' operation that the navy came to excel in conducting anywhere within a day's march of a navigable body of water. 
  • Grinnell scout mission (March 4-12, 1865) - This chapter tells the story of a small navy team that set out from Wilmington to reach Sherman with dispatches and news of the port city's fall. It also serves as a reminder of how vital the navy was in sustaining army lines of communication for commands cut off from direct land routes.
All of the chapters are solid mini-narratives, each well documented.  Sources used are fairly limited in scope but well selected and effectively utilized.  The maps, original and often highly detailed visual renderings of the action described in the text, are exceptional in number and quality. A small collection of artwork and photographs are also present in the book, among the latter a very rarely seen image of Fort Butler.  For a self-published book, outside of a few minor flaws, the presentation is quite professional, better than many traditionally published works.

Beyond being quality accounts of lesser known events worthy of more attention, Veit's episodes also comprise a fine group of samples representative of the wide range of naval operations conducted during the Civil War.  With examples drawn from all three major theaters of war as well as the Pacific, geographical diversity is another strong point. With the "lost" or "forgotten" label so often cynically overused as a marketing tool in history publishing, it is refreshing to encounter a book that actually holds true to the promise.

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