Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review of Crenshaw - "THE BATTLE OF GLENDALE: Robert E. Lee's Lost Opportunity"

[The Battle of Glendale: Robert E. Lee's Lost Opportunity by Douglas Crenshaw (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2017). Softcover, 8 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, name index. Pages main/total:122/173. ISBN:978-1-62619-892-0. $21.99]

The actual number of books specifically devoted to the 1862 Peninsula Campaign is highly discordant with the scale and significance of the event. On the military front, the Civil War Sesquicentennial came and when without any related major contributions. However, with Gaines's Mill and Malvern Hill works supposedly on a path to publication, the dearth of Peninsula and Seven Days battle studies may finally begin to be adequately addressed. So far, the best treatment of the Seven Days period is Brian Burton's Extraordinary Circumstances (2009), its title a clever word play on Robert E. Lee's famous quip "(u)nder ordinary circumstances the Federal Army should have been destroyed." Probable outcomes of the Seven Days series of battles remain debatable to this day (and subject to quite a bit of hyperbole), but an argument can be made that the Union army's most vulnerable moment in the campaign occurred on June 30. The chief clash on that day is the subject of Douglas Crenshaw's The Battle of Glendale: Robert E. Lee's Lost Opportunity.

Crenshaw recounts well the events leading up to the battle from both perspectives. His narrative follows the movements of each of the major converging Confederate columns — those of Jackson, Huger, Magruder, Longstreet-Hill, and Holmes — and describes how each arrived at the front on the 30th in fine position to theoretically inflict a killing blow on a widely strung out Army of the Potomac. Alas, like so many other Civil War operations relying on close coordination and timing along a broad front, this one also utterly failed to achieve the desired result. The many reasons put forth then and later as to why only one Confederate column of less than 20,000 men (the divisions of James Longstreet and A.P. Hill) out of nearly 70,000 available troops launched a full scale attack are given due consideration in the book. These oft mentioned speculations include Stonewall Jackson's physical and mental exhaustion, poor staff work at Lee's HQ, order confusion, and too much dead weight in the Confederate high command (especially in the persons of Holmes and Huger). One might add to the list the Army of Northern Virginia's newness and top to bottom operational inexperience at this early stage in the war. On the Union side are similarly conventional command criticisms, the most important of these being George McClellan's absence from the battlefield and his failure to appoint a temporary overall commander in his stead.

The author's detailed account of the Glendale battle is a well crafted one. The Confederates launched a powerful sequence of assaults, but they were narrow, uncoordinated thrusts with at best only two or three brigades in action simultaneously. Generals of all levels of experience struggled throughout the conflict with division and corps sized tactical offensives, and, perhaps in recognition of this, Crenshaw doesn't unfairly hold Longstreet and Hill's piecemeal attacks on the 30th to a higher standard. As the book shows, rough terrain also played a key role in dissipating the strength of the Confederate onslaught. One of the most memorable parts of Crenshaw's battle narrative is his blow by blow recounting of the back and forth fighting that swirled around the front line Union batteries in the center. This section very vividly evokes the brutality of Civil War close range infantry vs. artillery combat.

The Confederate attack at Glendale landed directly on one of the campaign's most battered units (George McCall's First Corps division of Pennsylvania Reserves). However, unlike their attackers, the Union defenders were able to rely on eager voluntary assistance from both flanks (to the right and left of McCall, the Third Corps divisions of Phil Kearny and Joe Hooker) as well as more distant parts of the long, thin Union line that stretched from White Oak Swamp all the way to Malvern Hill. In this instance, lower level initiative and inter-corps cooperation adequately compensated for the lack of a guiding hand at the top.

Six of the book's eight maps are devoted to the various phases of the brief but violent Glendale battle. Detailed terrain rendering and small scale unit placements and movements are strong features of all of them. There are some occasional odd quirks, though. For example, a few isolated regimental actions described in the narrative are not depicted on any map, and some singular regimental maneuvers shown on the maps are not specifically accounted for in the text.

Crenshaw is level-headed when discussing the 'what-might-have-been' nature of the Glendale battle. To many observers (including, most famously, Lee himself), Glendale represented a golden opportunity to bag the Army of the Potomac. Perhaps with the oft repeated mantra about the near impossibility of destroying major Civil War field armies in mind, the author more soberly views the breaking of McClellan's army into pieces, with very heavy losses to the cut off portions, as a very achievable result. One might argue with sound reasoning that the Army of Northern Virginia was never better positioned to deliver a catastrophic blow to its nemesis, but it could also be maintained with equal force that the unseasoned early-1862 version of Lee's army was the one least prepared to exploit such an opening.

Overall, Crenshaw's book is a far better value than the only other standalone Glendale study (published in 2011), and its battle narrative rivals in quality that of the relevant chapters from Burton's campaign history. In addition to providing a more than satisfactory level of battlefield detail and analysis, The Battle of Glendale also presents a sound contextual understanding of Glendale as a moment of decisive possibility during the Seven Days.


  1. Hi Drew, thanks for this review. We are working with Doug on a new project, so your positive review of his work is encouraging for us.

  2. Drew: Another good review. I just finished the book and fully concur. The author has done a great job within the space limitations. I was surprised at how completely he was able to cover this battle at the tactical level while still going into detail on related elements such as Stonewall's White Oak Siesta. He gave appropriately short, and dismissive, treatment to McClellan's faulty command arrangements, the bizarre decision to place McCall's battered division at what clearly would be a crucial ANV objective, and Mac's indefensible abandonment of the battlefield.

  3. Interesting. I'm in the market for a good book on Glendale and the previous work really didn't measure up well.

    Regards McClellan, does it follow the Sears psychodrama narrative or does it follow the primary record, complete with McClellan moving divisions in response to the attack?

    Does it note Franklin as quitting his position against orders? Does it identify BF Dew's house as McClellan's command post during the battle?

    1. The scope of books from this publisher are limited by design so don't expect anything approaching definitive status. It does employ the shorthand version of McClellan's movements as popularized by Sears. The focus is really just on Glendale itself, and it does a solid job of detailing the battle.

      RE: "Does it note Franklin as quitting his position against orders? Does it identify BF Dew's house as McClellan's command post during the battle?"

      Maybe on the first (I don't recall) and surely a no on the second.


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