Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Theater of a Separate War" progress report

Normally, when the early stages of a book disappoint me as much as those of Thomas Cutrer's Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865, I simply cast the whole thing aside and move on to greener pastures. I have plenty of other reading options and a regular reviewing schedule to keep. On the other hand, since I've played up the anticipation level for this particular title several times on the site already, I feel rather obligated to comment on my unexpectedly negative experience.

First off, it is shocking that an academic press of UNC's sterling reputation would release a manuscript in the kind of dire state found here. Along with a host of other typos, proper names are misspelled everywhere in Theater of a Separate War. The editorial staff also failed to address rampant repetition. In two instances, there are even entire passages reproduced word for word (or close to it) while separated in the narrative by only a short space. This is a huge book with an immense cast of characters, many of whom most likely remain quite obscure to the more general interest Civil War reader, and it behooves the author of a survey history to take care while introducing (and reintroducing) individuals. Theater does not do a good job of this. For example, at one point the book offers a series of quotes from a Union soldier who is only identified by last name. Not recalling who this guy was, I learned from the index that he was introduced (and last mentioned) nearly a hundred pages earlier! Meanwhile, many other individuals have their identities established and reestablished in paragraphs located only a page (or less) apart.

In big-picture terms the narrative is fine, but attention to detail below that level is very spotty. Here are just a few examples from the Missouri-Kansas sector. The book erroneously claims that, after General Lyon's victory at Boonville, he transported his army all the way back to St. Louis before continuing his Missouri campaign in early July. Later on, in the context of the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Cutrer correctly notes how badly outnumbered Lyon's small, Springfield-based army was by the combined Confederate, Missouri, and Arkansas forces hovering nearby, but only two paragraphs later writes that Lyon's command was superior in numbers to the allied enemy armies. In reference to James H. Lane's nebulous Civil War military appointment, the author more than once muddies the waters by resurrecting Lane's Mexican War rank from Indiana and applying it to 1861. And on the subject of the Kansas "Red Legs," they certainly weren't called that because they wore scarlet pants. I know condensing vast amounts of material often results in oversimplification, but this is more than that.

The above objections and observations represent just a sampling from the first few chapters of a 450+ page narrative. Even after such a limited reading, the sheer number of problems add up to a level that seriously strains the study's overall credibility. I don't know if the book gets better as it progresses (you see that sometimes), but I may not still be with it to find out. Unfortunately, my hopes that this book might serve as the standard introduction to the Civil War west of the Mississippi—and perhaps even inspire a fresh crop of enthusiastic T-M students and readers along the way—appear to be dashed.

[Update: a revised paperback edition of the book was published in 2023. Alas, improvements were minimal. Ultimately, neither version can be recommended.]

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review of Grasso, ed. - "BLOODY ENGAGEMENTS: John R. Kelso’s Civil War"

[Bloody Engagements: John R. Kelso’s Civil War by John R. Kelso, edited by Christopher Grasso (Yale University Press, 2017). Hardcover, maps, photo, notes, appendices, chronology, index. 264 pp. ISBN:978-0-300-21096-5. $35]

In 1861, Buffalo, Missouri (Dallas County) schoolteacher John Russell Kelso embarked on an incredibly varied and eventful Civil War career, and his memoir reveals much about the irregular conflict in the southwest part of the state. Kelso's "Auto-Biography" disappeared at the time of his death in 1891, but an important part of it covering his life story up to 1863 (copied in Kelso's own hand) was discovered and survives. It is the Civil War sections of this manuscript copy that historian Christopher Grasso has edited for release as Bloody Engagements.

Though hazy on dates and tainted throughout by heavy doses of immodesty, Kelso's highly descriptive writings nevertheless offer valuable firsthand views of a host of lesser-known wartime events that occurred in Missouri and Arkansas. His frightening portrait of life behind the lines in a rural Ozark county, with each side's adherents alternately preying upon the other, is an especially revealing one [no stranger to stealing from enemy sympathizers, Kelso would have his own house and farm destroyed by vengeful neighbors]. Many of the narrative's gaps and deficiencies are ably remedied in Grasso's footnotes, which also regularly temper Kelso's flightier claims with accounts of the same events from other sources.

As his memoir demonstrates at great length, Kelso served the Union cause in many different capacities. Although, like many fellow pro-Union Missouri residents, Kelso joined a Home Guard regiment, his personal motivations appear to have been primarily ideological (vs. localist) in nature. In the summer of 1861, while operating in the countryside against secessionists, Kelso and his Dallas County Home Guard comrades missed the Battle of Wilson's Creek.

Kelso soon after enlisted in the 24th Missouri Volunteer Infantry. He and his regiment initially conducted antipartisan sweeps in the SE Missouri "Bootheel" and guarded bridges from enemy raids. As with Wilson's Creek before, the October 21 Battle of Fredericktown was fought without him. The 24th then joined General Samuel Curtis's Army of the Southwest for the winter campaign into SW Missouri and NW Arkansas that would lead to the Battle of Pea Ridge, which Kelso also missed after being detached from his unit in February for recruitment duty back in Missouri.

Being both trustworthy and familiar with the Missouri Ozarks region, Kelso was frequently detached by Curtis for solo scout/spy missions behind enemy lines in SW Missouri. According to his own accounts, these were thrilling escapades replete with daring acts of deception and narrow escapes that in the end successfully produced valuable intelligence for his superiors. However, the narrative doesn't provide any specific examples of Kelso's information shaping his commander's planning.

In March 1862, Kelso took up arms in yet another unit, when he and his recruits (with Kelso appointed first lieutenant) were transferred into the 14th Missouri State Militia cavalry. The federally-sponsored MSM regiments were vital to suppressing guerrillas and maintaining Union control over the state, yet their actions during the war, along with the men and units involved, remain only sparsely recognized in the published literature. Thus, Kelso's extensive writings of this particular period of his Civil War service represent a very valuable firsthand record of the 14th's leadership and contributions to the Union war effort in Missouri. In addition to documenting a number of 1862 patrols conducted by his MSM unit in Missouri and Arkansas, Kelso recounts in great detail the 14th's combat history, which included an embarrassing rout at Neosho on May 30, a victory at Ozark on August 1, and a successful August 4, 1862 skirmish at Forsyth (for the last, Kelso was not present but includes a copy of his captain's AAR). Kelso also describes at length what he witnessed of the January 8, 1863 Battle of Springfield, where he led a mounted flank guard detachment east of the town.

Kelso's narrative is highly informative regarding the concealment, deception, ambush, surprise, and shock tactics employed by both sides during irregular and counterirregular operations in the Missouri countryside. The depths of violence and contradiction inherent to the state's unconventional war also grimly emerge. At one point, Kelso hotly opposes the cynical plundering and sexual misconduct of his fellow officers of the 14th, but he also freely admits earlier to robbing and threatening civilians himself, even going so far as to deliberately murder an unarmed old man and seriously wound a young boy inside their home.

At the rear of the book, Grasso appends to the memoir narrative the texts of two Kelso speeches, as well as an unfinished late-life work (titled Government Analyzed) that questions the war and the part Kelso played in it. According to Grasso, Kelso became a self-described "anarchist" in the years before his death, and the rhetoric contained in many of the bizarre passages in Analyzed seem to support this radicalized outlook [ex. "This war is known to have been the result of a vast conspiracy of the capitalists of Europe and of America" (pg. 207)]. Though the memoir ends abruptly, the book's biographical chronology finishes Kelso's Civil War story, which was highlighted by further irregular service in Missouri, election to the House of Representatives in 1864, and brevet promotion to colonel.

Editor and publisher are to be applauded for bringing to print a military memoir of Civil War Missouri that represents both the conventional and unconventional aspects of the conflict as uniquely as this one does. Bloody Engagements is highly recommended. Grasso is also working on a Kelso biography, and this volume's fascinating insights into the Union officer's controversial life certainly heightens the anticipation level for it.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Booknotes: Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

New Arrival:
Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought (Oxford Univ Pr, 2017).

The first of its kind, this new study examines the life of Frederick Douglass through the lens of the women he encountered during his lifetime. In his public and private lives, the famous abolitionist "relied on a complicated array of relationships with women: white and black, slave-mistresses and family, political collaborators and intellectual companions, wives and daughters."

Author Lee Fought "begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career.

Continuing from the description: "Fought examines Douglass's varied relationships with white women—including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing—who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women's movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally. She also considers Douglass's relationship with his daughter Rosetta, who symbolized her parents' middle class prominence but was caught navigating between their public and private worlds. Late in life, Douglass remarried to a white woman, Helen Pitts, who preserved his papers, home, and legacy for history."

Monday, April 24, 2017

Five books on the Burnside Expedition

1. "A Succession of Honorable Victories": The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina
by Richard A. Sauers (1996).
If you're going to read one book on the Burnside Expedition, this one is it. It details  from inception through the end of the first half of 1862 the entire Union operation that seized much of tidewater North Carolina. Its centerpiece is the literature's finest account of the March 14, 1862 Battle of New Bern. Regrettably, the book is long out of print and commands a pretty hefty price on the secondary market. Its quality also makes you wish Sauers authored more military history titles.
2. The Old North State at War: The North Carolina Civil War Atlas
by Mark A. Moore, with Michael Hill and Jessica A. Bandel (2015) [review].
The highest quality maps (by far) created for the Burnside Expedition reside in this atlas, along with a solid supporting narrative.
3. The Battle of Roanoke Island: Burnside and the Fight for North Carolina
by Michael P. Zatarga (2015) [review].
For the campaign to be a success, Confederate-held Roanoke Island needed to be captured and the supporting Confederate "Mosquito Fleet" neutralized. Zatarga's coverage of the February 7-8, 1862 period that encompassed the Union landings on the island and the battle that secured its surrender is arguably the best available.
4. The Siege of Fort Macon by Paul Branch (rev. 2002).
Beginning in the 1980s, Branch's account of the Union capture of Ft. Macon has been revised and expanded, and in the process was transformed from pamphlet to full-length book. I believe the latest iteration is the 2002 revised edition (10th printing). Well-stocked with maps and other illustrations, it recounts in great detail the story of the month-long reduction of Fort Macon during March-April 1862.
5. Richard Gatlin and the Confederate Defense of Eastern North Carolina
by James L. Gaddis, Jr. (2015) [review].
Though the study is largely biographical in nature, those seeking further insights into the failures of Confederate command, resource allocation, and defense arrangements for eastern North Carolina during 1861-62 will find Gaddis's slim history useful reading.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Owens & Ramsey interview with ECW

Today is World Book Day so check out the 5-part ECW interview with Marc Ramsey of Owens & Ramsey Historical Booksellers. Of course, it's just one guy's perspective of the business, but the interview covers an interesting array of topics. Here's the link to Part One, and you can go from there. Count yourself fortunate if you live in a part of the country that can support a brick and mortar Civil War wonderland like that one. I miss the days of going into a bookstore and actually finding something to take home with me.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Booknotes: A Field Guide to Gettysburg, Second Edition

New Arrival:
A Field Guide to Gettysburg, Second Edition: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People by Carol Reardon & Tom Vossler (UNC Press, 2017).

Although it doesn't feel like it has been that long, it's already been four years since the first edition of A Field Guide to Gettysburg was published. Since then, authors Reardon and Vossler have put out A Field Guide to Gettysburg, Second Edition Expanded Ebook: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People that I haven't seen, as well as an Antietam guide of great merit that has been reviewed here on the site. The new print version of the Second Edition "will lead visitors to every important site across the battlefield and also give them ways to envision the action and empathize with the soldiers involved and the local people into whose lives and lands the battle intruded."

More from the description: "Divided into three day-long tours, this newly improved and expanded edition offers important historical background and context for the reader while providing answers to six key questions: What happened here? Who fought here? Who commanded here? Who fell here? Who lived here? And what did the participants have to say about it later? With new stops, maps, and illustrations, the second edition of A Field Guide to Gettysburg remains the most comprehensive guide to the events and history of this pivotal battle of the Civil War." I hold these Reardon and Vossler guides in very high regard.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review of McKnight & Myers, eds. - "THE GUERRILLA HUNTERS: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War"

[The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War edited by Brian D. McKnight & Barton A. Myers (Louisiana State University Press, 2017). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, reading list, index. Pages main/total:384/419. ISBN:978-0-8071-6497-6. $49.95]

Simply from the title, readers of The Guerrilla Hunters might justifiably expect an anthology specializing in those individuals and units engaged in Civil War counterguerrilla operations1, perhaps accompanied by discussions of the complex wartime milieu within which they operated, but that isn't really the case with the sixteen essays presented by contributing editors Brian McKnight and Barton Myers. Instead, chapters address a very diverse range of topics under the general umbrella of the irregular Civil War.

One of the healthy debates among Civil War guerrilla scholars revolves around categorizing the various irregular actors. Some, like Robert Mackey2, have taken their cue from Francis Lieber to closely define and stratify irregulars, while others, including Daniel Sutherland3, argue for much more flexible definitions. Among other more general observations, Brian McKnight's Guerrilla Hunters chapter explores the connections between the conventional and unconventional wars in Appalachia, with many individuals and groups freely moving back and forth between both worlds. Brian Steel Wills investigates the scholarship's continuing mischaracterization of Nathan Bedford Forrest (who consistently deprecated guerrillas as a whole throughout the war) as a guerrilla leader himself, while also noting that Forrest's contemporary enemies often intentionally mislabeled him as a guerrilla in an attempt to impugn the controversial cavalryman's conventional service. In his article studying the irregular war in Loudoun County (Va.), Scott Thompson examines the motivations (which combined both ideological and localist motives) and operations of three units [the Federal Independent Loudoun Rangers, the Confederate Army's 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, and John Mobberly's offshoot pro-Confederate guerrilla band] representative of Mackey's irregular categories. As with many other groups considered in the volume, the nature of their service encompassed both irregular and counterirregular warfare capacities. Another contributor, Adam Domby, finds the need for new definitions to describe individuals for whom existing categories seem unsuited. Domby argues powerfully that Confederate deserter John Gatewood, who often killed and plundered indiscriminately and never attempted to cooperate with or aid Confederate forces in any way, was the kind of pathological criminal for whom even bushwhacker status cannot apply. According to Domby, Gatewood's attempt to leverage the complete breakdown of social order and public institutions in late-1864 North Georgia into the expansion of his own personal dominion over the populace makes him most akin to the modern "warlord."

An emerging aspect of guerrilla scholarship has been the growing use of digital technology in various forms, including the mass digitization of manuscripts and genealogical databases along with the development of community and geographical mapping software for interpreting the information. Aaron Astor's chapter cites the importance of recently created digital resources of all types in his project to identify "Tinker Dave" Beaty's pro-Union guerrilla band and study the group's 'social network.' In other publications, Joseph Beilein has used quantitative tools to study guerrilla logistics networks in Missouri, and Andrew Fialka has plotted guerrilla incidents using "spatiotemporal" mapping in order to discover recognizable patterns amidst presumed chaos4. Here, Fialka continues his work in a chapter titled "A Spatial Approach to Civil War Missouri's Domestic Supply Line." Using conventional sources and digital technology, this essay maps guerrilla attacks, Confederate households, and Union occupation(s) in space and time as a tool for exploring their interrelationships (in particular, for the period before and after the issuance of the infamous Order No. 11). The project gathered valuable insights into the cause and effect nature of the irregular war itself, while also offering a more systematic analysis of the vast body of available anecdotal evidence.

Some good faith attempts to utilize guerrilla warfare for positive military results backfired badly for both sides during the war. Most scholars agree that the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862 rebounded to terrible effect on the Confederate home front and broadly undermined their war effort. Barton Myers offers support for this view, while also looking specifically at a number of petitions sent to the Confederate government by those seeking to join partisan service. In addition to tracing efforts by Union authorities to combat the uptick in guerrilla violence in northern Kentucky that occurred after emancipation and other hard war measures were implemented in the state, Stephen Rockenbach discusses the consequences of President Lincoln's generous amnesty program, a policy that allowed large numbers of enemy combatants to resettle behind Union lines and destabilize the Border State home front.

Lisa Tendrich Frank is critical of the moral restraint model of the relationship between Union soldiers and southern civilians popularized by Mark Neely and especially Mark Grimsley in his highly influential study The Hard Hand of War (1995), instead arguing that perhaps the Union war on enemy households, in particular those headed by adult females, was to a large extent fought outside accepted historical boundaries of conventional conflict and should be more generally regarded as part of the irregular sphere of warfare. It's an interesting criticism of the current consensus, but it's too bad Frank didn't go more into what this alternate view could or should mean to Civil War guerrilla studies or the wider scholarship going forward.

In an extension of his earlier work in Extreme Civil War5 (2016), Matthew Stith places the natural environment at the forefront of his look at guerrilla and counterguerrilla warfare in the Trans-Mississippi. The most underdeveloped theater's unique diversity of terrain, weather, and natural cover made the environment a guerrilla ally and a guerrilla hunter's foe (at least until the latter learned to similarly exploit the surroundings). Stith also appropriately notes the result of this brutal unconventional warfare on the built environment, with property improvements reverting back to wilderness and transforming prosperous citizens into starving refugees on a mass scale.

The Civil War's guerrilla conflict also extended to the country's inland waterways, and Laura June Davis's chapter recounts the actions of pro-Confederate 'boat burners' with ties to St. Louis and who operating up and down the Lower Mississippi destroying enemy shipping. She also profiles the historiographically elusive river guerrillas themselves, and her upcoming book on the shadowy topic is much anticipated.

Joseph Beilein, one of the newest authorities on guerrilla culture (see note 3), highlights the permissive insobriety of bushwhacker society, and how it affected behavior in the field as well as the relationship between leaders and their men. Beilein marks the winter of 1863-64 (a time during which large numbers of Missouri bushwhackers raised hell for an extended off-season in Texas), as a transition period after which the twin pursuits of violence and alcohol became almost completely unrestrained when the bands returned to Missouri.

Larkin Skaggs, the lone guerrilla that got separated from his comrades during the 1863 Lawrence Raid and who was killed by the angered townspeople and his corpse mutilated, is most often treated as a historical footnote, but he is front and center to Matthew Hulbert's fascinating essay, which looks at the life and legacy of Skaggs in the context of competing historical guerrilla memories of the raid. It's interesting that the writer chooses to characterize Lawrence as a series of massacres, including single-person events like the death of Skaggs, which leads to a more intimate interpretation that he feels makes the Lawrence mass killings fit better into the accepted guerrilla warfare narrative.

Of course, those Union soldiers with the most sustained exposure to irregular warfare were those serving on occupation duty. According to Andrew Lang, occupation was the primary experience of one-third of all men that served in the federal army during the war, and this shattered their romantic ideal of the American citizen-soldier who fights a well-defined enemy with honorable restraint, defeats the opposition without harming civilians, and goes home. Instead, Union soldiers found themselves watching over a hostile population for years on end and engaging in a devolving household war of punishment and revenge. Out of all the essays in the book, this one perhaps most closely aligns itself with the book's title theme, as it focuses on the behaviors, attitudes, language, and tactics of the Union's counterguerrilla war and how all these factors drastically reshaped the early volunteer's naive views on how the conflict would and should be fought.

In the final essay, Earl Hess compares and contrasts the Civil War's guerrilla conflict with nineteenth and twentieth century guerrilla wars in other parts of the world. In it, he maintains the debatable view expressed in prior works that the irregular war was a strategically insignificant sideshow6, the domain of harried local commanders for whom guerrilla fighters were only one of many concerns. Citing the influential recent work of Charles Esdaile7, perhaps the chapter's most interesting aspect is its discussion of the many parallels drawn between the 1861-65 irregular war in the South and the 1808-14 Spanish Uprising of the Napoleonic Wars.

The volume also provides a wealth of reading suggestions for those wishing to dive deeper into the topic of irregular warfare. One can find helpful recommendations both in the chapter notes and in the "reader's bibliography," which compiles a large selection (new and old) of books and articles.

With their variety of themes, topics, research methodologies, and expanded geography, the essays collected in The Guerrilla Hunters comprise a very revealing snapshot of the increasingly impressive current state of the scholarly literature pertaining to the unconventional Civil War. Contributors also identify clear areas for improvement [ex. just the fact that the 'Confederate guerrilla vs. Union counterguerrilla' paradigm so deeply pervades the volume shows us that much more work needs to be done on the other guerrilla war, the Union one]. As Daniel Sutherland notes in the afterword, these essays represent a step in the right direction toward a better synthesis of guerrilla studies into general histories of the Civil War, but we still have some distance to go.

1 - Some examples of successful Union counterguerrilla units (including those pulling double duty with the conventional war) are Blazer's Scouts, the 2nd Colorado Cavalry, and a number of Missouri State Militia regiments.
2 - The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865 (2004). Worthy of notice is how very recent the phenomenon of the serious academic study of Civil War irregular warfare has been.
3 - A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (2009).
4 - See Bushwhackers: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri (2016) and The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth (2015), the last co-edited with fellow Hunters contributor Matthew Hulbert.
5 - Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier (2016).
6 - Hess develops his contrasting view of the strategic impact of the guerrilla conflict in The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (2012). One wonders whether Daniel Sutherland regrets using the term "decisive" when describing the guerrilla war's role in Confederate defeat. Some critics still seem needlessly stuck on that perhaps ill-chosen adjective. Taken as a whole, the much more nuanced arguments contained in A Savage Conflict suggest fruitful areas of common ground in the 'sideshow' vs. 'decisive' debate.
7 - Fighting Napoleon: Guerrillas, Bandits and Adventurers in Spain, 1808-1814 (2004).

  • Foreword NOE
  • Guerrilla Warfare's Place in the History of the American Civil War MCKNIGHT & MYERS
  • Partisan Ranger Petitions and the Confederacy's Authorized Petite Guerre Service MYERS
  • The Power of Shadow and Perception in the Appalachian Theater MCKNIGHT
  • Nathan Bedford Forrest and Guerrilla War WILLS
  • Home Rebels Amnesty and Anti-guerrilla Operations in Kentucky in 1864 ROCKENBACH
  • Hunting Guerrilla Social Networks ASTOR
  • The Irregular War in Loudoun County Virginia THOMPSON
  • Reconsidering Guerrilla Leader John Gatewood DOMBY
  • The Union War on Women FRANK
  • Guerrilla Warfare and the Environment in the Trans-Mississippi Theater STITH
  • Irregular Naval Warfare along the Lower Mississippi DAVIS
  • Whiskey Wild Men and Missouri's Guerrilla War BEILEIN
  • Larkin M. Skaggs and the Massacres at Lawrence HULBERT
  • A Spatial Approach to Civil War Missouri's Domestic Supply Line FIALKA
  • Challenging the Union Citizen-Soldier Ideal LANG
  • Civil War Guerrillas in a Global Comparative Context HESS
  • Afterword SUTHERLAND

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

2015-2016 Founders Award

Congratulations to Jane Johansson for being the newest recipient of the Founders Award, which "recognizes excellence in the editing of primary source documents related to the origins, life, and legacies of the Confederacy and the Civil War." Her book that earned the biennial prize is Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier (2016). Even though the amount of original research that goes into edited manuscripts frequently exceeds that of many narrative histories, the category as a whole is still most often discounted when it comes to award season, so it's entirely appropriate that the Founders Award was created to specially recognize such work.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Booknotes: Locomotives Up the Turnpike

New Arrival:
Locomotives Up the Turnpike: The Civil War Career of Quartermaster Captain Thomas R. Sharp, C.S.A. by David L. Bright (Author, 2017).

Most readers have surely read at least something about the Confederates dragging captured B&O locomotives up the Shenandoah Valley early in the war for use elsewhere. I seem to recall the operation being the object of some amount of controversy, too, with claims put forth that the event never occurred. Anyway, the man tasked with the job was a Virginia railroad superintendent named Thomas R. Sharp, and Bright's Locomotives Up the Turnpike is the first book-length study of the topic.

From the description: "Sharp hired dozens of men and hundreds of horses and wagons to haul the rolling stock south on the Valley of Virginia Turnpike, from Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry to Winchester to Strasburg. Seventeen locomotives and well over 100 cars were hauled over the country roads to intersections with the Manassas Gap Railroad and the Virginia Central Railroad, then on to Richmond."

The book also documents Sharp's later career. "By the summer of 1863, Sharp had been assigned to be the superintendent of the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad, a critical road in the supply chain supporting Richmond and the main Confederate army. Later, Sharp was given responsibility for coordinating the railroad transportation of all of central and western South Carolina. As Gen. Sherman approached, in 1865, Sharp assisted in the evacuation of Columbia, and then worked to improve the railroads between Charlotte and Salisbury, N.C."

Four appendices are included. The first addresses the doubters, the second the question of a similar event that might have occurred at an earlier time, and the third describes in detail the locomotives saved. The last appendix comprises a series of manpower rosters of those that served under Sharp during his various wartime assignments. Original cartography and full-color artist renderings of six locomotives were created by Andrew Hall for the volume. On a related note, the author also runs the Confederate Railroads website.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Booknotes: Theater of a Separate War

New Arrival:
Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865
by Thomas W. Cutrer (UNC Press, 2017).

Even though I am not very familiar with Cutrer's entire body of work (I would guess that he's best known in Civil War circles for his Ben McCulloch biography), this was a highly anticipated title for me. "In this comprehensive military history of the war west of the Mississippi River, Thomas W. Cutrer shows that the theater's distance from events in the East does not diminish its importance to the unfolding of the larger struggle." No one has attempted this kind of project before. "Theater of a Separate War details the battles between North and South in these far-flung regions, assessing the complex political and military strategies on both sides. While providing the definitive history of the rise and fall of the South's armies in the far West, Cutrer shows, even if the region's influence on the Confederacy's cause waned, its role persisted well beyond the fall of Richmond and Lee's surrender to Grant."

I was asked for my thoughts on the severe rating given the book at the link above. One of my unwritten rules is to not read serious comments on books I plan on reviewing myself until after I've posted my own review on the site, but the unexpected savaging meted out to Theater had me curious enough to make an exception. It should be mentioned to those unfamiliar with the writer [unlike many online reviewers, he uses his real name so you can easily find it yourself] that he and his regular writing partner have published a number of excellent articles on the Civil War in the T-M theater together, so he's no crank. It's unclear from the long list of sins of omission and commission how much of the book he's actually read outside his own area of expertise, but the global 1/5 star rating seems unduly dismissive. The partial review raises legitimately troubling concerns, but I still plan on reading the thing and judging for myself its overall merits.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review of McCluney - "THE YAZOO PASS EXPEDITION: A Union Thrust into the Delta"

[The Yazoo Pass Expedition: A Union Thrust into the Delta by Larry Allen McCluney, Jr. (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2017). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:100/121. ISBN:978-1-62585-839-9. $21.99]

When faced with the daunting task of capturing fortified Vicksburg, U.S. Grant basically had four options (or some combination of them) to choose from in order to get at the Hill City. The first approach, an overland advance, failed and was (prematurely?) discarded from further consideration, and a direct amphibious assault on the city's riverfront was never seriously countenanced. That left marching the army down the right bank of the Mississippi River and crossing either above or below Vicksburg and attacking its landward defenses from behind. The last choice, one of the riskiest, was eventually tried and succeeded beyond expectations, but it was preceded by a number of operations launched north of Vicksburg, all of which sought to take advantage of the many navigable waterways of the Yazoo delta. Larry Allen McCluney's The Yazoo Pass Expedition: A Union Thrust into the Delta examines one of the most promising attempts.

Beginning with the breach of the levee at Yazoo Pass in February 1863, an amphibious expedition jointly led by Brigadier General Leonard Ross (later superseded by BG Isaac Quinby) and navy Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith took advantage of a succession of rivers that fed into each other—first the Coldwater, then the Tallahatchie, and finally the Yazoo (which was formed by the confluence of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha rivers a short distance north of Greenwood, Mississippi)—to penetrate the delta. Progress was slowed by tough environmental conditions, enemy obstructions, and also arguably by over-caution. In the end, Union forces could not overcome Confederate Major General W.W. Loring's well-placed and well-manned defenses located in the Greenwood bend (most prominent of these being Fort Pemberton), and the movement was eventually abandoned in April.

The operational treatment in the book may not be as detailed as the one found in the first volume of Ed Bearss's classic Vicksburg trilogy, but McCluney's brisk narrative provides a fine overview of the Yazoo Pass Expedition. For many authors, employing lengthy uninterpreted block quotes from the source material is a bit of a lazy way to write history, but McCluney's keen selections add significant participant insights that are intimately tied to the narrative. Maps, photographs, and other illustrations thickly populate the pages and add both appealing flavor and useful information. Regardless of the ship's prior fame, the volume's inclusion of so much background history of the Star of the West (one of the vessels sunk in the river by the Confederates for use as a navigation obstruction) represents a questionable use of already limited space, but the key elements of the expedition history are left adequately covered.

Typically, Union combined army-navy operations conducted with this degree of disparity in manpower and firepower did not end well for the Confederates, but the book convincingly argues that strong Confederate leadership and planning from General Loring (who put in a peak performance at Ft. Pemberton) combined with an atypically sluggish naval component on the Union side (the ill Watson Smith should have been replaced much earlier) doomed the Union venture to failure. Loring and his engineers quickly took advantage of local knowledge of the ground and placed their fortifications where the earthworks would be above the river, command all approaches, and be largely invulnerable to infantry attack. If you're looking for a popular-style, standalone narrative of the Yazoo Pass Expedition, this is the first and only one available in book-length format, but it's also a pretty good one.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Booknotes: U.S. Colored Troops Defeat Confederate Cavalry

New Arrival:
U.S. Colored Troops Defeat Confederate Cavalry: Action at Wilson's Wharf, Virginia, 24 May 1864 by Edwin W. Besch (McFarland, 2017).

On May 24, 1864 at Wilson's Wharf in Virginia, the 1st and 10th USCT regiments under General Edward Wild, with the support of the U.S. Navy, repulsed an attack by General Fitzhugh Lee's Confederate cavalry. "This book describes the action in detail and in the larger context of the history of black U.S. servicemen, including the British recruitment of runaway slaves during the Revolutionary War, the black Colonial Marines who joined the British in torching Washington in the War of 1812, and the South's attempts to enlist slaves in the final months of the Civil War." The wider issue of black service (civilian vs. military) in the Confederate Army is also discussed in the volume.

The book concludes with a supplemental chapter on the archeological work being done at Fort Pocahontas. A pair of appendices discuss casualty figures from the battle. The bibliography suggests extensive manuscript research and the casting of a suitably wide net over other primary and secondary sources.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Booknotes: Fighting Irish in the American Civil War and the Invasion of Mexico

New Arrival:
Fighting Irish in the American Civil War and the Invasion of Mexico: Essays edited by Arthur H. Mitchell (McFarland, 2017).

"This collection of essays examines the involvement of Irish men and women in America's conflicts from 1840 to 1865." There are eighteen scholarly essays in total. The pair of Mexican War chapters in Part I address those Irish soldiers that fought on the American and Mexican sides, the latter including the men of the (in)famous San Patricio battalion.

The great majority of contributions (16 in total) are Civil War related and are contained in Part II. In this section, essays explore groups, movements, and individuals from both sides. Chapters discuss the Irish of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston, along with Irish women and the relationship between the Irish and African Americans in the U.S. Also covered are motivations for fighting in the Civil War and the Fenian movement. Biographical pieces on Judge Charles Daly of New York, the Mahans (Dennis Hart and son Alfred Thayer), the 10th Minnesota's Christopher Byrne, Charleston Bishop Patrick Lynch, and other Confederate figures like Irish nationalist and Richmond newspaper editor John Mitchel and famous Irish-American military officers Patrick Cleburne and Dick Dowling. Looks like a suitably diverse collection.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Booknotes: Lincoln's Lieutenants

New Arrival:
Lincoln's Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac by Stephen W. Sears (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

Lincoln's Lieutenants is "a multilayered group biography of the commanders who led the Army of the Potomac." More from the description: "The high command of the Army of the Potomac was a changeable, often dysfunctional band of brothers, going through the fires of war under seven commanding generals in three years, until Grant came east in 1864. The men in charge all too frequently appeared to be fighting against the administration in Washington instead of for it, increasingly cast as political pawns facing down a vindictive congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War. ... President Lincoln oversaw, argued with, and finally tamed his unruly team of generals as the eastern army was stabilized by an unsung supporting cast of corps, division, and brigade generals."

Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants was published in three relatively thick volumes, but Sears's Lincoln's Lieutenants makes do with one tome of around 900 pages. With his earlier Peninsula, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg books, Sears has already covered large patches of ground relevant to Lieutenants, and it makes me wonder how much critical reevaluation (vs. cut-paste integration) of his earlier work went into this new one. The bibliography is fairly modest for a volume of this great scope. At the very least, I plan to read the text up through the end of 1862 to see if anything grabs me.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of Green - "MCCLELLAN AND THE UNION HIGH COMMAND, 1861-1863: Leadership Gaps That Cost a Timely Victory"

[McClellan and the Union High Command, 1861-1863: Leadership Gaps That Cost a Timely Victory by Jeffrey W. Green (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2017). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:185/214. ISBN:978-1-4766-6573-3. $35]

As we all know, the campaign and battlefield leadership abilities of various famous Civil War generals remain topics of earnest debate in the literature, but Jeffrey Green's McClellan and the Union High Command, 1861-1863 aims further up the chain of command to address theater-level strategy, specifically why the Union juggernaut failed to achieve early victory in the East. The popular villain of this period remains General George B. McClellan, but Green convincingly sees the Union high command derailed by the failings of a much broader group of military and civilian leaders, whose undefined roles and clashing ideologies, aims, egos, and ambitions rendered rapid success elusive.

The book's first chapter capably covers the parallel military traditions that existed during the antebellum republic. On one side was a professional military establishment governed by the science of war (later embodied by West Point and its graduates) and leading a small regular army. Existing at the same time, and frequently operating in direct opposition to the assumptions of military professionalism, was the traditional American democratic distrust of standing armies. From this viewpoint, during national emergencies the country would rely on an expansible army of militia and volunteers, as well as the natural genius of citizen-generals to lead them. As seen by the development of the Third System of American defense policy, both traditions would be maintained side by side through much of the first half of the nineteenth century.

As the following chapter shows, the above military traditions would immediately clash during the Civil War and contribute mightily to Union high command dysfunction. In an atmosphere of intense mutual distrust, Radical Republican elements of the political leadership chastised the Democrat-heavy military establishment for being too soft on the enemy. They would lobby powerfully for what would later be known as "hard war," while the Lincoln administration and the army would initially see eye to eye on a more conservative military policy of conciliation. This contentious milieu worked against consistent and coherent military planning.

The binding theme of Green's study revolves around the repeated violation by all parties involved (president, cabinet, lawmakers, and generals alike) of the integrity of the chain of command, the consistent unity and integration of which was necessary for the Army of the Potomac to function both in field and as the instrument of the civilian leadership and policy makers. General McClellan repeatedly bypassed General in Chief Winfield Scott to confer with Lincoln directly and failed to appreciate that his high-profile job had a significant political component that could not be safely deflected. Worse, Lincoln himself constantly went around the chain of command and, in doing so, created a toxic environment that meant army officers of all ranks felt themselves free to approach him directly without conferring first with their immediate superiors. As the book well demonstrates, this bore bitter fruit when the generals of William B. Franklin's Left Grand Division (Franklin himself and generals Smith, Cochrane, and Newton) conspired against army commander Ambrose Burnside and directly approached the president seeking Burnside's ouster. Lincoln also allowed Joseph Hooker, no stranger to intrigue himself, to skip communication with General in Chief Henry Halleck and report to the president directly, which created obvious problems in the military chain of command. The president also constantly interfered in field operations (to the army's great detriment on the Peninsula and in the Shenandoah in 1862), and had a almost irrational opinion over what was required to safeguard the capital. Senate and House Radicals sought the removal of those generals deemed insufficiently aggressive or loyal, and the prosecution of Democrat-generals like Charles Stone and Fitz John Porter created a fearful and mistrusting officer corps that some argue was rendered extra-cautious by such malignant threats from above. All of these factors made it impossible for the Army of the Potomac to operate in an efficient manner during the first half of the war.

Green does remind us, though perhaps not forcefully enough in the book, that simple institutional and individual actor inexperience could often explain high command disruption just as readily as willful malice and naked ambition. All occupants of the chain of command, from the commander in chief down to the lowest ranking general, were learning highly complex jobs on the fly (most without the benefit of any particularly useful precedent). Given that so many Civil War leaders were essentially defining their roles in a near vacuum, serious mistakes on the scale of those that occurred were likely inevitable events.

Getting back to McClellan specifically, historians generally acknowledge that Lincoln's interference hamstrung McClellan's army on the Peninsula to some degree or another, but they still assign the vast preponderance of responsibility for the defeat to the general's mishandling of military operations. Green compellingly resets the scale to apportion more equitable blame between the army commander and the civilian leadership.

The author's statements in the conclusion that "(t)he failure of the Peninsula Campaign also demonstrated that fighting offensively in the East was the wrong strategy" and, in this, "both Lincoln and McClellan had got it wrong" (pg. 184) are both curious in that Green himself concedes earlier in the book that political realities (especially given the close proximity of opposing capitals) made active offensive operations in the Virginia theater imperative. Green is also a bit inconsistent on the issue of waging a conservative war as being "unrealistic" and never able to lead to victory. Beyond being a classic case of arguing backward from a known result to speculate on an untried unknown, it also unduly discounts the immense political pressures placed on Lincoln, especially in regard to his war effort's critically important loyal proslavery Border State constituency, to adopt a more limited approach to the war in the early period. Perhaps the greatest drawback of Green's analysis is its lack of recognition that the other side also had 'something to do with it'. The book's insightful enumeration of the Union cause's self-defeating "leadership gaps" is certainly instructive, but it might also be true that the highly motivated and well-led Army of the Northern Virginia was a contributing factor at least as important to Union failure to achieve victory during the first two years of war.

To what degree Green's argument collection enters into promised 'new areas' of debate will likely depend on the background of the reader. None are entirely original to the point that well-read students will not recognize existing related observations and discussions in print, but, as with all in-depth examinations of complicated questions, there are always individual differences when its comes to arrangement and weight of factors involved. Admirably avoiding the tired but still popular narrative of a brilliant Lincoln who created early on the conditions and formula for military success in the East only to have a series of promising commanders fail him until he 'found a general' in U.S. Grant, the book demonstrates an uncommon appreciation of the complexity of sources behind the Union high command's startling dysfunction during 1861-63. Green's ultimate conclusion that an ineffective high command was the primary factor among many in the Union's failure to achieve early victory in the East is compelling in many ways. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Lee's Tigers Revisited

For a long time, Terry L. Jones's Lee's Tigers (1987) has been the standard study of the Louisiana contribution to the manpower of the Army of Northern Virginia. It was certainly groundbreaking at the time and was also reissued in paperback format in 2002. From the description: "Lee's Tigers is the first study to utilize letters, diaries, and muster rolls to provide a detailed account of the origins, enrollments, casualties, and desertion rates of these soldiers. Jones supplies the first major work to focus solely on Louisiana's infantry in Lee's army throughout the course of the war."

Jones himself remains active on message boards, both dispensing knowledge and soliciting information. The result of his sustained research and curiosity is a brand new book Lee's Tigers Revisited: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia (LSU, Sept 2017). It "dramatically expands and revises his acclaimed history of the approximately 12,000 Louisiana infantrymen who fought in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia." If simple page count (296 in the paperback reprint vs. 544 in Revisited) is an accurate representation of such things, dramatic expansion in the new edition appears to be no exaggeration.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Five books on the United States Colored Troops Civil War experience

1. Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 by William A. Dobak (2011).

Cornish's The Sable Arm (1956) is a pathbreaking classic and Trudeau's Like Men of War (1998) might be most widely recognized, but Dobak's comprehensive book is arguably the best military history of the USCT contributions to the Union war effort. It ably discusses federal emancipation and recruitment policy, with the bulk of the study covering USCT organization and operations in all theaters while also extending its military treatment into Reconstruction.

2. Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory by Linda Barnickel (2013).

Surrendering black troops could often expect a grim variety of responses from their Confederate foes, from POW status (sometimes accompanied by hard labor) to reenslavement to execution. Fort Pillow is, of course, the most notorious large-scale killing of USCT soldiers taken in the act of surrendering, but like events of differing scales occurred on other fields, and Barnickel's study of Milliken's Bend ranks among the best examinations of those battles in which black troops figured most prominently.

3. Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War's First African American Combat Unit by Ian Michael Spurgeon (2014).

The next three recommendations cover unit studies of USCT regiments that fought in those Civil War fronts where black military contributions were most significant. The 1st Kansas (later 79th USCT) was the first black regiment to see combat (at Island Mound in Missouri) and fought in the Trans-Mississippi borderlands for the rest of the war, along the way suffering tremendous losses at Poison Spring in 1864.

4. Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash (2008).

Ash's book is a fine primer on the Sea Island experience, the Port Royal Experiment, the freedmen soldier partnership with eastern abolitionists, and lesser-known USCT operations conducted along the South Atlantic coastline.

5. The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster by James K. Bryant II (2012).

The 36th was a late-1863 USCT unit redesignation of the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry. The regiment participated in numerous raids in Virginia and North Carolina, and was one of the USCT regiments that figured most prominently at the Battle of New Market Heights (Richmond-Petersburg Campaign) in late September 1864. Bryant spent much of his academic training and career studying this unit, and it shows in the depth and quality of the history and roster.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Theater histories

Thomas Cutrer's Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865 was just released a bit earlier than scheduled. If it proves to meet expectations, we'll now have useful up-to-date survey histories for each of the three major theaters of war. The other two I would highly recommend are The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi [review] from Earl Hess and the much more concise The Civil War in the East: Struggle, Stalemate, and Victory [review].