Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review of Sledge - "THESE RUGGED DAYS: Alabama in the Civil War"

[These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War by John S. Sledge (University of Alabama Press, 2017). Cloth, map, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:237/280. ISBN:978-0-8173-1960-1. $34.95]

Alabama's Civil War history has been explored in numerous popular and scholarly books and articles. Art Bergeron, Chester Hearn, Jack Friend, Sean O'Brien, and many others have looked at wartime Mobile and the 1864-65 land and sea campaigns that closed the bay and eventually captured the port city itself. The major cavalry raids that penetrated the state during the war have also been well covered in the literature. Robert Willett's history of Streight's Raid has not been surpassed, and additional studies by Rex Miller (Croxton's Raid), James Pickett Jones (Wilson's Raid), and David Evans (Rousseau's Raid, as part of his larger study of Atlanta Campaign mounted operations) have held up well over time. The 1862 Union occupation of North Alabama and the infamous "Sack of Athens" have also been the topics of fine books by Joseph Danielson and co-authors George Bradley and Richard Dahlen. Most recently, an essay anthology edited by Kenneth Noe and a pair of studies by Christopher McIlwain have offered multi-faceted examinations of Alabama's Civil War and Reconstruction histories.

With the above earlier works in mind, the intention of John Sledge's These Rugged Days was to gather together in a single volume an integrated popular overview of Civil War events (primarily military ones) that occurred within the confines of Alabama's borders. In the book, lengthy chapters recount the blockade of Mobile, the 1862 Union advance across northern Alabama (including the Athens incident), Abel Streight's disastrous 1863 mule-mounted raid, Lovell Rousseau's 1864 cavalry raid, the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay, James H. Wilson's 1865 campaign that applied the coup de grace to Alabama's industrial heartland, and (also in 1865) General E.R.S. Canby's irresistible finishing stroke at Mobile itself.

As a writer, Sledge possesses an appealing gift for evocative prose, his picturesque writing style well suited to drawing in both casual readers and more serious students of Civil War Alabama. His narrative generally follows the top commanders, but it also generously incorporates pithy excerpts from the diaries and letters of common soldiers and civilians from all parts of the state.

In terms of source material used, the book synthesizes the published literature (including many of the titles mentioned in the first paragraph above) in an informed manner, but the author also did some primary research in archives and examined numerous newspapers. The text is annotated, and when multiple sources are cited in a single note at the end of a paragraph (a common yet frequently confounding practice) the author very helpfully includes in parenthesis a brief phrase from the text that explicitly matches source to particular passage. The volume is less generous to the reader when it comes to maps and illustrations. In particular, the absence of any military maps is painfully noticeable.

Though These Rugged Days is mainly focused on military events by design, the first two chapters discuss the social and political dimensions of the secession crisis and point out the existence of significant pockets of resistance in the state (in particular, the Unionists of North Alabama). The agricultural and industrial importance of Alabama to the Confederacy also comes across strongly in the text. While quotes from the diaries and letters of Alabama women are present throughout, the home front and its perils and privations largely exist in the background. Similarly, how the war affected the institution of slavery in the state and the popular reaction to emancipation go mostly unexplored, with Alabama's large slave population mentioned primarily in the refugee context.

These Rugged Days does not aim to be comprehensive state history, and as long as one accepts its relatively narrow center of interest there's quite a bit to admire in its wide ranging overview of the Civil War campaigns and raids conducted inside Alabama. Nearly all readers will possess at least a passing familiarity with Admiral Farragut and Mobile Bay, but many will be surprised at the scale of fighting elsewhere in a state commonly considered to be one of the war's backwaters. Sledge's engaging writing style also hearkens back to that of Foote and Catton, a quality that will undoubtedly broaden the volume's appeal.

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