Tuesday, October 31, 2017

New Bern and the Civil War

Overall, the Burnside Expedition to North Carolina in 1862 has received more than satisfactory literature coverage. However, considering how many smaller actions have received book-length treatments, it is a bit curious that the campaign's largest field battle by far, the March 14, 1862 Battle of New Bern, has not been accorded the same kind of standalone study. Even so, given how well the battle is covered by Richard Sauers in his classic campaign history "A Succession of Honorable Victories": The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina (Morningside, 1996) this omission ranks relatively low on the disappointment scale.

That said, New Bern and the Civil War by Jim White will be published next February as part of THP's prolific Civil War Series. The book description seems to indicate a strong focus on the two battles fought at New Bern, Burnside's victory referenced above as well as the failed Confederate attempt to retake the town in early February 1864 (Wiki summary). As far as I know, no book has been written about the second battle either.

In terms of writer background, White (according to his bio "a retired educator, principal and college professor") has authored books on Portsmouth Island and New Bern history, including Portsmouth Divided: The Civil War on Portsmouth Island (which I've never heard of before now but will try to seek out sometime). Beyond it representing one of the terra firma borders of Okracoke Inlet, I'm not sure if I've read much about Portsmouth Island in a Civil War context before, so that one might be interesting, too.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Booknotes: Looking for Lincoln in Illinois

New Arrival:
Looking for Lincoln in Illinois: A Guide to Lincoln's Eighth Judicial Circuit
by Guy C. Fraker (SIU Press, 2017).

During good stretches of his long legal career, Abraham Lincoln famously traveled the Eighth Circuit in Illinois. Eighth Judicial Circuit historian Guy Fraker's Looking for Lincoln in Illinois "directs readers and travelers through the prairies to the towns Lincoln visited regularly. Twice a year, spring and fall, Lincoln’s work took him on a journey covering more than four hundred miles. As his stature as a lawyer grew, east central Illinois grew in population and influence, and the Circuit provided Lincoln with clients, friends, and associates who became part of the network that ultimately elevated him to the presidency."

The introduction "(p)rovides a brief history of the Circuit and an overview of its development, and summarizes the role of the Circuit in Lincoln's career." Monuments celebrating the Circuit dot the landscape that Lincoln traveled, and the introduction describes these as well.

The rest of the book is a tour guide of the entire Circuit route in four chapters. Presented within are detailed driving directions and brief historical introductions to various courthouses, legal offices, hotels, historic buildings, old roads, museums, and other "wayside exhibits" of all kinds (dozens in each chapter). The volume itself is of sturdy construction with thick, glossy pages that should hold up to repeated use in the field. The book's also full of period and modern photographs and other illustrations, along with road maps tracing the tour route from start to finish.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Wilson's Raid

With excellent studies of the 1865 army clashes in North Carolina and Virginia, the lesser-known Stoneman's Raid, and more, the war's final campaigns have been well documented in the recent and near recent Civil War literature. There's even been a rather grand study of a small engagement in Georgia that one author believes deserving of "last battle" fame. However, oddly enough, the best treatment of one of the most famous events of that period, Wilson's Raid, remains James Pickett Jones's 1976 classic Yankee Blitzkrieg. While good, that book certainly leaves room for improvement.

This winter, The History Press will publish Russell Blount's Wilson's Raid: The Final Blow to the Confederacy (Feb, 2018). Volumes from the publisher's Civil War Series range in character from popular overviews to quite impressive specialized studies. I'm not familiar with Blount's body of work (I had a copy of his New Hope Church book at one time but never got around to reading it) but will be interested in checking out this particular one when it comes out.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review of Richter - "THREE CHEERS FOR THE CHESAPEAKE!: History of the 4th Maryland Light Artillery Battery in the Civil War"

[Three Cheers for the Chesapeake!: History of the 4th Maryland Light Artillery Battery in the Civil War by Rick Richter (Schiffer Publishing, 2017). Hardcover, map, photos, illustrations, appendices, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:132/240. ISBN:978-0-7643-5262-1. $34.99]

The Confederate's Army's Chesapeake Artillery (4th Maryland Light Artillery battery) was formed on January 1, 1862, its members drawn largely from the city of Baltimore and adjacent bay counties. The product of a failed effort to form another Maryland infantry regiment, the 4th battery came late to the recruiting game and was chronically short of men along with being poorly equipped initially. Nevertheless, the unit fought well from Cedar Mountain through Appomattox, earning many plaudits along the way. Rick Richter's Three Cheers for the Chesapeake! is the first full history of the unit, enhanced with an extensively detailed roster of the 145 men that fought with the battery.

Before Richter, the most commonly cited receptacle of 4th Maryland knowledge was William Goldsborough's 1900 classic book The Maryland Line in the Confederate Army, which was assembled from secondary sources as well as personal interviews and correspondence with veterans. According to Richter, primary sources are very few when it comes to the Chesapeake Artillery. The largest collection of letters (those of Sgt. James P. Williams) is located at UVA's Special Collections Library. The Ward Family Papers at the Library of Congress hold the letters of Capt. William D. Brown and Pvt. John Hooff, which are useful but few in number. The Compiled Service Records of Maryland soldiers are another rich resource. These are different as a body from many other CSRs in that they contain more information than most in terms of supporting documentation, because Maryland Confederates, unlike those bound by conscription law, could apply for a discharge from the Confederate Army after three years. Other important sources are the post-war articles of Pvt. Jacob Cook and Pvt. Christopher Lynch's invaluable direct contributions to Goldsborough's book.

Presented either as block quotes or integrated into the main narrative itself, all of the above primary sources form the backbone of Richter's service history of the battery. Due to the aforementioned Chesapeake source limitations, gaps in firsthand coverage are frequent but are acceptably addressed by the author's adroit use of Union accounts as well as those written by Confederate compatriots from nearby units on the line. Initially assigned antiquated guns (save a single 3-inch ordnance rifle), the unit fought well at the battles of Cedar Run, Second Bull Run, and Harpers Ferry, in the process getting its armament upgraded with a pair of rifled gun replacements. Heavy losses in horseflesh made the battery miss Antietam, but the 4th was in action at First and Second Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the fall 1863 campaigns in Virginia, the Overland Campaign, the 1864-65 Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, and Appomattox.

Throughout the book's series of campaign and battle discussions, Richter uses the available sources well to pinpoint with as much precision as possible the battlefield actions, deployment locations, and movements of the battery. Individual acts of bravery and casualties are also diligently tracked. Through the words of the men themselves, the author also relates the experiences and many challenges of army life in camp and on the march. At less than 120 pages, the service history narrative is relatively brief but never feels overly condensed.

The volume appropriately devotes a greater degree of detail and attention to two of the most defining moments in the battery's Civil War service. On July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg, the unit suffered for its cherished possession of modern rifled guns, when it was smashed at range along with much of Latimer's artillery battalion atop Benner's Hill. The very heavy losses in officers and men incurred that day, combined with the limited access to replacements that plagued Border State Confederate units in general, meant that the already characteristically understrength battery never again would be able to man a full complement of guns. The battery similarly sacrificed itself just outside Petersburg on April 2, 1865, when a detachment from the 4th was surrounded and overwhelmed during the intensely spirited yet doomed Confederate defense of Fort Gregg. On both occasions, those present from the battery suffered 41% casualties.

Along with a service history, the better Civil War unit studies also examine demographic patterns and perform at least some attempt at exploring the range of enlistment and fighting motivations. Richter's book certainly fulfills those expectations. When compared with Joseph Glatthaar's figures for the Army of Northern Virginia as a whole, some interesting unit characteristics for the 4th Battery emerge. The average age of a Chesapeake artilleryman was 18 months younger than those manning other ANV batteries. Compared to the rest of the ANV, the Chesapeakes were more literate and had a far higher proportion of skilled artisans, professionals, and other white-collar workers versus farmers. The unusual youth movement of the 4th meant lower levels of personal wealth, along with a lower percentage of married men and fathers. The slaveholding percentage among the Chesapeakes (personal and household) was only half that of the rest of the ANV. The author convincingly attributes this striking difference to the battery's Border State residence, overall youth, early-career financial means, and marked urban representation.

But what of the later enlisters that historian Kenneth Noe described so well in Reluctant Rebels? According to Richter, the only jarring difference between the early and later enlisters (each group representing roughly half of the battery's total manpower) was a drastically reduced valuation of property among the later enlisters, suggesting that it was the early enlisters that were most concerned with property protection. This situation is the inverse of Noe's findings for the Confederate Army as a whole, but the ultimate meaning behind the difference is left to the reader to decide.

So why join the Confederate Army? Like many other youths in both sections, there were undoubtedly those that enlisted in the Chesapeake Artillery for opportunity and adventure. It also seems most likely that the majority shared many elements of conservative, proslavery culture and politics with citizens of Upper South states like neighboring Virginia. Numerous individuals also fled Maryland to avoid federal persecution of their families.

The extensive appendix section adds significant additional value to the book. In it are discussions of myths and misuses of sources as regards to the battery, a deeper look at the 4th's actions at Second Bull Run, and a more in-depth examination of the unit's Gettysburg casualties. Other parts address in detail unit strength, losses, desertion issues, and battery armament in total and at particular times during the war.

The battery roster that Richter was able to compile is particular impressive. Like most unit rosters, it's fundamentally based on CSRs, but it is also "supplemented with census records..., court-martial records, casualty lists, contemporary accounts, veteran reminiscences, burial records, newspaper articles, family histories, and the records of the Maryland Line Confederate Soldiers' Home" (pg. 163). Richter clearly did his homework here and the resulting amount and range of biographical information is much greater than that found in the typical Civil War unit roster.

Maps are the book's great obvious deficiency. Inside, there are no modern maps of any of the battles (only one period drawing of the August 27, 1862 fighting at Kettle Run-Bristoe Station). While the narrative provides acceptable orientation for veteran readers steeped in the knowledge of eastern theater campaigns, a map series showing unit location(s) on the various battlefields using the best available evidence should be regarded as essential rather than optional.

In combining a solid, informative service history with an illuminating demographic/motivational analysis and arguably definitive roster, Rick Richter successfully brings together in Three Cheers for the Chesapeake! the three central elements of the modern Civil War unit study. Not only is this the first and only comprehensive history of the 4th Maryland Light Artillery, but it also ranks high among modern Confederate battery studies in general.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Booknotes: The Blue & Gray Almanac

New Arrival:
The Blue & Gray Almanac: The Civil War in Facts & Figures, Recipes & Slang
by Albert Nofi (Casemate, 2017).

It seems that Al Nofi has had a number of different careers, but regular Civil War readers might know him best as the trivia columnist for the now defunct North & South magazine. His latest book, The Blue & Gray Almanac, appears to be an extension of that kind of work. It "tells the story of the American War through a range of insightful essays, anecdotes, and facts." Indeed, some content that first appeared in N&S is reproduced in this new book, as is some previously published material from StrategyPage (an online military affairs journal for which Nofi serves as a contributing editor).

Subject matter coverage is broad in Almanac, with chapters covering secession, the armies, the naval war, war & society, the generals, finance & corruption, various "naughty bits," the soldiers, and Civil War medicine. The text is fully annotated, and numerous tables, photographs, and other illustrations are spread throughout.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Booknotes: The Afterlives of Specimens

New Arrival:
The Afterlives of Specimens: Science, Mourning, and Whitman's Civil War
by Lindsay Tuggle (Univ of Iowa Pr, 2017).

This is the kind of completely unexpected arrival that always makes doing the work on this website fresh and interesting. I hadn't come across Lindsay Tuggle's The Afterlives of Specimens before in my scanning of publisher Fall/Winter catalogs or other sources.

Part of the University of Iowa Press's Iowa Whitman series, the book "explores the space between science and sentiment, the historical moment when the human cadaver became both lost love object and subject of anatomical violence. Walt Whitman witnessed rapid changes in relations between the living and the dead. In the space of a few decades, dissection evolved from a posthumous punishment inflicted on criminals to an element of preservationist technology worthy of Abraham Lincoln's martyred corpse. Whitman transitioned from a fervent opponent of medical bodysnatching to a literary celebrity who left behind instructions for his own autopsy, including the removal of his brain for scientific study."

Adequately describing this book for a Booknotes entry seems difficult, the title and subtitle suggesting a rather complicated interdisciplinary approach. If you're really interested, I would recommend reading the "Structure" subsection of the book's introduction (which is available at the link above using the Look Inside! function). It summarizes well the themes and content of the volume's five chapters.

Tuggle's manuscript also seems tangentially related to another book I reviewed just last month, Richard Reid's Recollections of a Civil War Medical Cadet. Like this one, Reid's book drew connections between body specimen collection, army surgeon Dr. John H. Brinton and the origins of the Army Medical Museum, and Walt Whitman itself. More from the Afterlives description: "Grounded in archival discoveries, Afterlives traces the origins of nineteenth-century America’s preservation compulsion, illuminating the influences of botanical, medical, spiritualist, and sentimental discourses on Whitman’s work. Tuggle unveils previously unrecognized connections between Whitman and the leading “medical men” of his era, such as the surgeon John H. Brinton, founding curator of the Army Medical Museum, and Silas Weir Mitchell, the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. Remains from several amputee soldiers whom Whitman nursed in the Washington hospitals became specimens in the Army Medical Museum."

Sunday, October 22, 2017

CWBA book fund appeal

Civil War Books and Authors has always worked best when review copy sources are as diverse as possible and the number of new release arrivals great enough to allow me a consistently large pool of candidates from which to choose. This has worked fairly well for a long time. However, things suddenly changed beginning in 2016. The overall number and sources of titles sent me last year steeply decreased over previous levels (even after taking into account the expiring Sesquicentennial) and 2017 has been even worse, making it much more difficult to find enough personally interesting reviewing options to keep to my prolific schedule (which I think is a vitally important feature of the site).

Oddly enough, while support from publishers has disappointingly dwindled over the past two years, the number of visitors to the site has sharply increased over the same period. 2016 was my biggest year ever in terms of visitor numbers, and 2017 is shaping up already to shatter that figure by a wide margin.

Of course, I deeply appreciate the solid core of publishers that do continue to regularly send me copies of their new releases. I also am very thankful for the ad sponsorships and affiliate sales that have padded the CWBA book fund over the years of its existence (please continue to do so!), but alas those sources are also trending downward.

So what is the point of all this? Well, I decided to do something that I've never wanted to do and that is to ask the readers directly for support in the form of donations to the CWBA Book Fund. Bloggers, podcasters, website operators, and other content providers seem to prefer Patreon campaigns these days, but I decided to go with direct donations through PayPal. If you're willing to contribute, press the donation button below (or in the sidebar to the main page) and go from there. You do not need a PayPal account to participate, and any amount would be appreciated.



(Note: Donations are not tax deductible)

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Civil War Missouri Compendium

Because of my interest in their subject matter and the non-regularity of their appearance on the market, Civil War Missouri books always catch my eye when they pop up on lists of upcoming titles. For a while, I puzzled over the content and mysterious subtitle of Joseph W. McCoskrie Jr. and Brian Warren's The Civil War Missouri Compendium: Almost Unabridged (Hist Press, November 2017), but now that a description and limited preview are available we at least have a better idea of what's inside.

The publisher describes it as "a chronological overview of more than three hundred of the documented engagements that took place within Missouri's borders, furnishing photos, maps, biographical sketches and military tactics." The sample pages from the first chapter remind me of an updated version (with some added twists) of Carolyn Bartels's The Civil War in Missouri Day by Day, 1861 to 1865, which was first published by Two Trails in 1992 with at least one more edition following it over the years. When I get a copy, I'll report back on my findings.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Booknotes: Civil War Memories

New Arrival:
Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United States since 1865
by Robert J. Cook (Johns Hopkins UP, 2017).

Robert Cook's Civil War Memories "is the first comprehensive account of how and why Americans have selectively remembered, and forgotten, this watershed conflict since its conclusion in 1865.

In four chapters charting the emergence of "four dominant narratives," Part One of the book "explains why the Yankee victors’ memory of the "War of the Rebellion" drove political conflict into the 1890s, then waned with the passing of the soldiers who had saved the republic. It also touches on the leading role southern white women played in the development of the racially segregated South’s "Lost Cause"; explores why, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the majority of Americans had embraced a powerful reconciliatory memory of the Civil War; and details the failed efforts to connect an emancipationist reading of the conflict to the fading cause of civil rights."

Part Two covers the modern era, among other things drawing connections between Civil War memory and the cinema, the Centennial and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the current heated debate over Confederate symbols and monuments. The book is written "for a wide audience and designed to inform popular debate on the relevance of the Civil War to the racial politics of modern America(.)"

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review of Waters & Brown - "GABRIEL RAINS AND THE CONFEDERATE TORPEDO BUREAU"

[Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau by W. Davis Waters and Joseph I. Brown (Savas Beatie, 2017). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, chapter notes, appendices, bibliography, index. 162 pp. ISBN:978-1-61121-350-8. $16.95]

Published in 1965, Milton Perry's Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare became the standard modern overview of the Confederate military's development and use of underground and underwater mines (or "torpedoes" in the jargon of the day) during the Civil War. Much more recently, historian Herbert Schiller has edited two important contemporary works for publication. Released together as Confederate Torpedoes: Two Illustrated 19th Century Works with New Appendices and Photographs, Schiller's 2011 book reintroduced modern readers to the technical manual authored by Confederate Torpedo Bureau head General Gabriel Rains along with Union Army engineer officer Peter Michie's astute assessment of the enemy's "infernal machines" titled Notes Explaining Rebel Torpedoes and Ordnance. Published last year, Mark Ragan's Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War explores at length the wartime exploits of the Singer Secret Service Corps, a large part of whose activities were devoted to mine warfare. Reference books, one example being Civil War Heavy Explosive Ordnance: A Guide to Large Artillery Projectiles, Torpedoes, and Mines (2003), have also addressed the topic. The newest contribution to the literature, W. Davis Waters and Joseph I. Brown's Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau, centers on the man many consider to be the father of modern mine warfare.

At around eighty pages in length, the main narrative's treatment of the life and career of Gabriel Rains before, during, and after the Civil War is necessarily broad stroke in nature. An 1827 graduate of West Point, Rains throughout his army service applied his engineering education to his natural inventiveness. He first experimented with land mines ("subterra shells") while fighting the Seminoles in Florida, but it would be during the retreat from Yorktown in 1862 that his creations would create widespread controversy. To cover the vulnerable rear of the Confederate withdrawal movement up the Peninsula, Rains mined the roads and their explosion killed and injured Union soldiers, sparking outrage at the use of devices deemed by many to lie outside the boundaries of civilized warfare. Initially, even Confederate generals opposed the use of land mines, but the defensive technology had high-level support (including the solid backing of President Davis) and Rains was allowed to continue his work.

In 1863, Rains was appointed head of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau while also holding the post of Superintendent of Conscription. It was noticed in the capital that Rains's conscription duties were largely left to deputies, leaving later observers (and author Waters himself) to ponder the possibility that the conscription department assignment was bureaucratic cover for Rains's primary job of managing secret torpedo experimentation and production. Soon, Rains's services were in the high demand for city and harbor defense, and the book summarizes well his 1863-65 assignments to various key strategic points across the Confederacy, including Jackson, Mobile, Charleston, Savannah, and Richmond. Unmentioned, however, are any interactions that Rains might have had with other Confederate 'infernal machine' developers (like the Singer Secret Service Corps mentioned above).

As the book notes, late-war desperation quickly dissolved most moral qualms in the South over the use of mines on land (their marine employment seems to have drawn fewer complaints from both sides), and Waters & Brown make a strong case that mines became an invaluable component of integrated defense systems in the Confederacy. Confederate torpedoes are most famous for sinking capital ships (like the City-Class ironclad Cairo on the Yazoo River and the monitor Tecumseh at Mobile Bay), but the book makes it clear that land mines came to be routinely deployed as sentinels and raid deterrents late in the war, especially useful when available manpower was overstretched to the breaking point at key places like Richmond and Petersburg in 1864-65. The mere threat of mines often slowed attackers long enough for reinforcements to arrive and the more faint-hearted were turned away altogether.

The book offers good general descriptions of the types of weapons that Rains oversaw, the best known being subterra shells, barrel torpedoes, the submarine mortar battery, and the dart grenade. Rains also invented a contact primer for these devices that was safe to handle yet suitably sensitive for practical application. More detailed descriptions and analyses of the Rains weapons and inventions are made available in modern mine warfare specialist Joseph Brown's Chapter 7 analysis. Several reference lists and additional documents can also be found in the appendix section.

Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau is an effective primer (no pun intended) on the history of the Confederate mine service and the godfather role assumed by General Rains, who clearly deserves significant credit for the delayed fall of numerous southern cities essential to maintenance of the Confederate war effort. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Booknotes: Three Cheers for the Chesapeake!

New Arrival:
Three Cheers for the Chesapeake!: History of the 4th Maryland Light Artillery Battery in the Civil War by Rick Richter (Schiffer Mil Hist, 2017).

Three Cheers for the Chesapeake! is a heavily illustrated roster-history of the Confederate 4th Maryland Light Artillery ("Chesapeake Artillery") battery. Detailing the unit's service in the eastern theater with the Army of Northern Virginia, the narrative history portion of the book runs 120 pages. There are also numerous appendices (looking at numbers & losses, armaments, myths, desertions, and more) and a well-researched roster of the 145 men that served with the unit.

From the description: "Illustrated with previously unpublished photos, letters, documents, and diary entries, the untold story of the Chesapeake Artillery comes to light. Comprised chiefly of men who lived near the shores of its namesake bay, the Chesapeake Artillery was the last Confederate battery organized from the state of Maryland. It was also by far the smallest, with barely more than half the average enrollment of other Maryland batteries in the Confederate army. Despite its size, the unit was frequently cited for its bravery and efficiency, including by Stonewall Jackson."

Monday, October 16, 2017

Booknotes: Wars for Empire

New Arrival:
Wars for Empire: Apaches, the United States, and the Southwest Borderlands
by Janne Lahti (Univ of Okla Pr, 2017).

Janne Lahti is a Finnish historian who's developed a keen interest in culture and warfare in the American Southwest, joining a number of recent colleagues studying borderlands conflicts. Earlier this year, his edited collection of biographical profiles titled Soldiers in the Southwest Borderlands, 1848–1886 was released, and he already has another title out that also operates in the same geographical space.

Wars for Empire: Apaches, the United States, and the Southwest Borderlands describes and analyzes the decades-long war between the U.S. government and the Apache Indians. In it, Lahti "offers a new perspective on the conduct, duration, intensity, and ultimate outcome of one of America's longest wars."

From the description: "Centuries of conflict with Spain and Mexico (ed.: and intertribal warfare?) had honed Apache war-making abilities and encouraged a culture based in part on warrior values, from physical prowess and specialized skills to a shared belief in individual effort. In contrast, U.S. military forces lacked sufficient training and had little public support. The splintered, protracted, and ferocious warfare exposed the limitations of the U.S. military and of federal Indian policies, challenging narratives of American supremacy in the West. Lahti maps the ways in which these weaknesses undermined the U.S. advance. He also stresses how various Apache groups reacted differently to the U.S. invasion. Ultimately, new technologies, the expansion of Euro-American settlements, and decades of war and deception ended armed Apache resistance."

More: "By comparing competing martial cultures and examining violence in the Southwest, Wars for Empire provides a new understanding of critical decades of American imperial expansion and a moment in the history of settler colonialism with worldwide significance."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Battle of Lewisburg

I like what 35th Star Publishing has been doing lately, in particular their full-length treatments of underexplored yet significant Civil War West Virginia military events. Last year, they released the first book to fully address the 1862 campaign in the Kanawha Valley. Its author, Terry Lowry, has contributed a great number of original (and still unsurpassed) military volumes to the literature of Civil War West Virginia, and The Battle of Charleston and the 1862 Kanawha Valley Campaign impressed me with its depth and expansive range.

Within the past week, 35th Star has released another study of a little-known West Virginia campaign and battle titled The Battle of Lewisburg: May 23, 1862. Readers of the H.E. Howard series of Virginia unit roster-histories and battles will recognize Lewisburg author Richard L. Armstrong as the man behind several volumes. Of them, I've only read his Battle of McDowell book, but it was long ago and I don't recall much about the experience. The link above does offer a little taste of what's inside the Lewisburg book, and it looks quite promising. Hopefully, my copy is the mail already or will be sometime soon. It will definitely get reviewed on the site. I've long hoped that someone would come along and write about this battle. If I recall correctly, years and years ago Eric Wittenberg announced his intention to do a Lewisburg study but nothing came of it.

For those not familiar with the battle, here's a link to a summary article originally published in the journal West Virginia History (Oct 1958), and you can go [here] to sift through a collection of O.R. reports related to the battle. For a really short overview, go here.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Booknotes: The Election of 1860

New Arrival:
The Election of 1860: A Campaign Fraught with Consequences by Michael F. Holt
(UP of Kansas, 2017).

In standalone studies and in innumerable essays and book chapters, legions of authors and historians have offered their take on the 1860 election, and one might argue that no other presidential election has been scrutinized as much as the one that led to the first Republican president, southern secession, and Civil War. But there's certainly always room for another interpretation, especially when it comes from one of our most esteemed historians of the American political experience of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Michael Holt's The Election of 1860 "disrupts th(e) familiar narrative with a clearer and more comprehensive account of how the election unfolded and what it was actually about. Most critically, the book counters the common interpretation of the election as a referendum on slavery and the Republican Party’s purported threat to it. However significantly slavery figured in the election, The Election of 1860 reveals the key importance of widespread opposition to the Republican Party because of its overtly anti-southern rhetoric and seemingly unstoppable rise to power in the North after its emergence in 1854. Also of critical importance was the corruption of the incumbent administration of Democrat James Buchanan—and a nationwide revulsion against party." Holt's corruption angle seems to be the one most de-emphasized by (or left out of) other studies of the election.

More from the description: Holt "explores the sectional politics that permeated the election and foreshadowed the coming Civil War. He brings to light how the campaigns of the Republican Party and the National (Northern) Democrats and the Constitutional (Southern) Democrats and the newly formed Constitutional Union Party were not exclusively regional. His attention to the little-studied role of the Buchanan Administration, and of perceived threats to the preservation of the Union, clarifies the true dynamic of the 1860 presidential election, particularly in its early stages."

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of Wittenberg - "WE RIDE A WHIRLWIND: Sherman and Johnston at Bennett Place"

[We Ride a Whirlwind: Sherman and Johnston at Bennett Place by Eric J. Wittenberg (Fox Run Publishing, 2017). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:179/298. ISBN:9781945602030. $19.95]

As is the case with the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, recent times have witnessed the rapid expansion of books written about the 1865 Carolinas Campaign. The two related volumes authored by Mark Bradley—Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville (1996) and This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place (2000)—clearly stand out from the rest in terms of offering the best narrative account of this final phase of the war in the western theater. In his new book We Ride a Whirlwind, Eric Wittenberg (the author of his own fine contribution to the campaign literature, 2006's The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign) has wisely avoided duplicating Bradley's effort. While Wittenberg does begin with two chapters of background material, the primary focus of his study is the three meetings between generals William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston, the result of which was the surrender of much of the remaining Confederate forces in the field.

In the three chapters discussing the surrender negotiations, Wittenberg maps out who was present, what was said, and what proposed agreements and documents resulted from the meetings. While the practice of filling Civil War books with full-document transcriptions is all too often a hallmark of lazy writing and interpretation, it is more helpful here because motivations were badly misconstrued at the time and the wording of the early agreement hammered out in the second meeting caused an uproar in the North among newspaper journalists and the political leadership in Washington.

As the book shows, during the second meeting at Bennett Place, General Sherman, who was not aware of Lincoln's earlier letter to Grant strongly reminding the general to negotiate with Lee on military grounds only, inserted many political agreements into his Bennett Place convention with Johnston. With the Washington leadership already in a frenzy over the assassination of the president, this presumption by Sherman caused further outrage among his military and civilian superiors. Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton quickly nullified the agreement, but they also overreacted and harshly rebuked Sherman in a very open and public manner that profoundly embarrassed and angered the victorious war hero. Sherman's famous snubbing of Stanton at the Washington parade of armies is covered in the book, as is the general's flat refusal of old friend Halleck's olive branch. Sherman was unmoved by friendly suggestions that his shabby treatment at the hands of the government, as outrageous as it was, should be at least partially forgiven by appreciating the cabinet's raw emotions at the time.

Clearly, Sherman overstepped his authority no matter how much he felt his actions were in line with the stated wishes of Lincoln, and the general's written defense of his actions (which is very well outlined in the book, with much supporting documentation and interpretation in an appendix) remains unconvincing. However, one tends to agree with Wittenberg (along with the Sherman partisans) that the demeaning blowback inflicted on Sherman was also indefensible.

With the prior convention rejected, the third Bennett Place meeting attempted to reach a final agreement, but Sherman and Johnston quickly reached an impasse. Sherman then turned to his second-in-command, General Schofield, who promptly offered his own solution and composed the final documents that were agreed upon by both parties. As Schofield later wrote, his role in the matter seemed destined to be glossed over by history, but Wittenberg's book gives him proper recognition.

Robert E. Lee is often singled out (by Jay Winik and others) for nobly quashing all entreaties to disband his army into small guerrilla groups instead of surrendering in 1865. In We Ride a Whirlwind, Wittenberg maintains that General Johnston deserves just as many accolades on this point, perhaps even more so given that Johnston's command was not surrounded at the time of surrender or even in direct contact with the enemy. The practical temptations to disperse would have been even greater in Johnston's situation. In the author's justifiable view, Johnston did the right thing to end the fighting when he did and should be remembered for it.

The book's appendix section is very extensive. In addition to orders of battle for both sides, there are lengthy documentary treatments of Sherman's defense of his rejected convention (as mentioned above), Confederate cabinet discussions over whether to surrender or fight on, and Confederate general Wade Hampton's attempts to avoid surrendering. The volume also contains an interesting epilogue on Bennett Place and its preservation history.

For all the reasons mentioned above, We Ride a Whirlwind is a useful tool for studying and understanding the finer points of the great surrender that occurred in North Carolina in April 1865. It persuasively argues that Bennett Place, where Johnston surrendered far greater numbers of fighting men than Lee did earlier, deserves to be regarded as a capitulation event more level in status to Appomattox than history has generally portrayed it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Booknotes: Shades of Green

New Arrival:
Shades of Green: Irish Regiments, American Soldiers, and Local Communities in the Civil War Era by Ryan W. Keating (Fordham UP, 2017).

This is the latest volume from Fordham's The North's Civil War series, which "explores Northern society and its role in a broadly defined Civil War era, stretching from the antebellum development of the North to the aftereffects of the conflict in the postbellum period." The series "focuses on both the Northern homefront and the Union military, following Northern soldiers and sailors to battlefields and occupation duty throughout the South." The Union's ethnic soldiery have always been a prominent part of the series, and Keating's Shades of Green examines another aspect of Irish immigrant soldiers and society in the Civil War era.

From the description: "Drawing on records of about 5,500 soldiers and veterans, Shades of Green traces the organization of Irish regiments from the perspective of local communities in Connecticut, Illinois, and Wisconsin and the relationships between soldiers and the home front. Research on the impact of the Civil War on Irish Americans has traditionally fallen into one of two tracks, arguing that the Civil War either further alienated Irish immigrants from American society or that military service in defense of the Union offered these men a means of assimilation. In this study of Irish American service, Ryan W. Keating argues that neither paradigm really holds, because many Irish Americans during this time already considered themselves to be assimilated members of American society." The theme of alienation vs. assimilation seems to be a popular one among current scholars, with a number of historians also applying it to their studies of German-American Civil War soldiers.

More: "With a focus on three regiments not traditionally studied, the author provides a fine-grained analysis revealing that ethnic communities, like other types of communities, are not monolithic on a national scale. Examining lesser-studied communities, rather than the usual those of New York City and Boston, Keating brings the local back into the story of Irish American participation in the Civil War, thus adding something new and valuable to the study of the immigrant experience in America’s bloodiest conflict."

"Throughout this rich and groundbreaking study, Keating supports his argument through advanced quantitative analysis of military-service records and an exhaustive review of a massive wealth of raw data; his use of quantitative methods on a large dataset is an unusual and exciting development in Civil War studies." A quick glance through the text reveals widespread use of this approach.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Booknotes: Georgia's Civil War

New Arrival:
Georgia's Civil War: Conflict on the Home Front by David Williams (Mercer UP, 2017).

This is the third entry in Mercer's home front series State Narratives of Civil War. I didn't get to the Mississippi book, but I did read and review the Florida volume from Tracy Revels and liked it well enough.

It appears that a major theme of the book will be the connections between home front issues and heavy desertion in the ranks, and how this manpower disaster hastened overall Confederate defeat. Other questions addressed include:

 "Why were Southerners divided on secession? How were the foundations for those divisions laid in the Antebellum South? Why did Confederate leaders impose a draft? Why did so many Southerners call the conflict a rich man's war? What impact did resistance by enslaved people have on the war effort? What was the impact of women's attitudes and actions? Why was the Confederacy unable to feed itself adequately? And, finally, what impact did all this have on the war's course and outcome?"

Friday, October 6, 2017

Booknotes: Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau

New Arrival:
Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau by W. Davis Waters and Joseph I. Brown (Savas Beatie, 2017).

As he demonstrated on the Peninsula in 1862, Gabriel Rains wasn't the greatest field general, but to his credit as well as for the wider benefit of the Confederate armed forces he (like Joseph R. Anderson) had another particular set of skills that would be found more useful instead. Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau tells the story of the general's other more important Civil War career.

From the description: Rains "invented three mines: the “subterra shell” (land mine), the keg torpedo, and the submarine mortar battery (both naval mines). After the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862, he served the Confederacy in two ways, Superintendent of Conscription and Commander of the Torpedo Bureau. He and his men mined the roads around Jackson and the harbors of Mobile, Savannah, and Charleston. His naval mines sank many ships and were more effective than heavy guns." "In 1864, at the request of President Jefferson Davis, he mined the principal roads leading into Richmond as well as the lines around Fort Harrison."

The book has roughly 100 footnoted pages of Rains biography and military service narrative. There are many photographs included, as well as numerous drawings of the many land and marine devices that Rains developed for the Confederacy. A number of lists and documents are also included in the appendix section.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review of Rhea - "ON TO PETERSBURG: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864"

[On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea (Louisiana State University Press, 2017). Cloth, 19 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:345/464. ISBN:978-0-8071-6747-2. $45]

Gordon Rhea's Overland Campaign series has rightfully earned the praise of professional historians and Civil War enthusiasts alike. It is by far the fullest military treatment of the brutal six-week showdown in Virginia between Union and Confederate heavyweights U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee during spring 1864. Between 1994 and 2002, four series volumes were published by LSU Press—The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864; The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864; To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864; and Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864. All exhibited in abundance the qualities of deep research, meticulous attention to detail, sound analysis, and engaging narrative that quickly made the series a favorite among a wide range of Civil War readers. But, for a long time, one piece was missing—the fifth and final volume. Fifteen years have passed since the release of Cold Harbor, but On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864 was finally published this summer. Those readers long wondering if or when they were ever going to see the series finished will be gratified to find it quite apparent that the extended delay did not entail any kind of faltering effort level on the part of the author. On to Petersburg is every bit as good as what came before it.

After Union assaults at Cold Harbor during the first days of June ended in bloody defeat, General Grant ordered a brief operational pause to ponder his options. In the meantime, never one to let his men be completely idle, Grant directed that the army continue to press forward against Lee's fortified lines by regular approaches. According to Rhea, execution was haphazard and largely ineffective. Left to the enterprise of local commanders, and results were decidedly mixed, with some officers achieving parallel trenches as close as forty yards from Confederate lines while many others made no progress at all. While this was disappointing, the Overland Campaign as a whole undoubtedly served the Army of the Potomac well as a laboratory for developing the tools of siegecraft that would be put to good use in coming months.

Once Grant decided to resume his then quite familiar Overland Campaign maneuver of sliding the Army of the Potomac south and around the Army of Northern Virginia's right flank, he drew in his own right by stages and extended the federal left to the Chickahominy River. Seeking targets of opportunity, Lee's army dutifully conformed to these movements. Rhea's narrative recounts these preparatory arrangements, along with several reconnaissance in force missions and other skirmishes fought between the lines, in some detail.

In setting the Army of the Potomac in motion toward the Chickahominy crossings, Grant had once again seized the initiative. Furthermore, his continued strategy of applying simultaneous multi-directional threats to Confederate resources and lines of communications in the theater would also bear significant fruit in coming days and weeks. As Rhea shows, Lee, in response to both the alarming military situation in the Shenandoah Valley and General Sheridan's cavalry raids on the central Virginia railroads, was forced to first detach Breckinridge's infantry division then the entire 2nd Corps along with two of his three cavalry divisions to address these threats. This left Lee's much diminished command (already badly outnumbered beforehand) with no realistic options beyond shadowing Grant's movements. The stage was now set for one of the war's most celebrated operational maneuvers.

The book's discussion of the planning and execution of Grant's famous change of base to the south side of the James River and the initial assault on Petersburg is more than satisfactorily detailed. In Rhea's analysis of these events, evenly measured criticism and praise are applied to Grant's actions and Lee's reactions.

Disengaging an entire army from the front in a safe and orderly manner is a difficult undertaking, especially when opposing trench lines are as close as they were at Cold Harbor, and Rhea justifiably praises the well-honed professional skill displayed by Grant and his subordinates in this regard. Rhea also admires the smooth operational coordination that went into the Union army's mass movement to the James, which consisted of four corps and their logistical apparatus traveling by parallel roads, a single corps (the 18th) transported by water to Bermuda Hundred, and the remaining cavalry all the while aggressively screening the army's strung out columns and keeping Lee in the dark as to Grant's intentions. However, the author also notes that the movement's implementation was not perfect, and the consequences were significant. The army trains were unduly delayed at the Chickahominy, but it was the poor management of the bridging of the James (ironically the most celebrated event of the entire operation) that disrupted Grant's timetable most. The construction engineers did well, but the fumbled assembling of bridging materials from above led to a critical delay of as much as eight hours, and that lost time contributed to the failure to capture Petersburg by coup de main.

Robert E. Lee has been heavily criticized for his alleged slow response to Grant's crossing of the James. However, Rhea correctly observes that Lee's small army had to remain at all times between Grant's army and Richmond. With the Army of Northern Virginia critically weakened by detachments and the bulk of its eyes and ears away contending with Sheridan's raiders, Lee could not afford, with the limited information available to him at the time, to uncover the direct approach to the Confederate capital by passing heavy reinforcements south. Even after concrete news reached him of the Union crossing of the James, Lee had no way of knowing if Grant was throwing his entire army or only a small part of it across to the south bank.

On the other side, Rhea properly chides Grant for failing to impart to his subordinates their assigned roles in the upcoming Petersburg operation. Before leaving White House Landing or at any time during the water journey to Bermuda Hundred, the commander of 18th Corps, William F. "Baldy" Smith, was not informed by Grant or anyone else that he was to spearhead the June 15 attack on Petersburg. It wasn't until he had already arrived at Bermuda Hundred and dispersed his men to their camps that he received his orders to cross the James early the next day and attack the Cockade City. This absolves Smith for his late start on the 15th, but Rhea is especially generous in giving Smith the benefit of the doubt when it came to delaying the assault on Petersburg's Dimmock Line until late in the day, and only after Smith was informed for the first time that afternoon that Winfield Scott Hancock's 2nd Corps would be available for support. Apparently, Smith found the outer defense line stronger and better manned than he was led to believe (even though he put enemy numbers at only 3,000 after his personal afternoon reconnaissance mission), and Rhea feels that Smith's hesitancy was a reasonable reaction to finding enemy trenches bristling with cannon and supported by a thin yet active infantry line. The author was rather impressed with Smith's dispositions when he did finally attack late in the day. Deployed in a heavy skirmish formation well suited to attacking an enemy defense line heavy on artillery but light on infantry, the Union attackers rolled over the defenders before darkness and confusion ended their advance. While certainly not decisive in action, the Smith of Rhea's study is also not the overcautious blunderer found in much of the literature.

Rhea's treatment of the much-maligned Hancock of June 15 is similarly sympathetic. The long bridge delays on the James were not Hancock's fault, and he was not even told 2nd Corps was meant to participate in the actual attack on Petersburg until late in the day. When Hancock's men did finally join Smith, a successful night attack on Petersburg was not predestined. Confederate reinforcements had arrived by then, and there was the added obstacle of city streets and buildings to navigate. Perhaps in the end Rhea is too easy on the duo (especially in his rescuing of Smith), but his views do serve as a signal reminder that nothing is easy in war, and, when it comes to victory on the battlefield, there's no such thing as a sure thing.

Instead of the Petersburg operation's traditional villains, Smith and Hancock, Rhea is hardest on Grant and his failure to coordinate the attack. With corps from both the James and Potomac armies involved, Grant himself was the natural choice to make certain from the beginning that Smith and Hancock knew their roles individually and also what to expect from each other, and he completely dropped the ball on both counts. Rhea's opinion that Grant's management of the campaign between June 4 and June 15 was brilliant only to fall apart catastrophically at the end is difficult to refute.

Indeed, likelihood was high that the unusual command arrangement in the eastern theater was in some measure responsible for the clumsy end to the Overland Campaign. Having Grant direct events personally in the field while retaining Meade as head of the Army of the Potomac has been a frequent source of criticism, then and now. The Grant-Meade command relationship added an extra layer of unwieldy military bureaucracy that increased the probability of high command confusion, delay, and friction, and it expressed itself in negative ways throughout the Overland Campaign. On the other hand, Grant supported the arrangement as it freed him from the time sink and mental stresses of day-to-day operation of the Army of the Potomac and allowed him more time to devote to strategy. Grant obviously felt that the positives outweighed the negatives, but Rhea seems to agree with the opinion of most observers that the command arrangement was a poor one overall, and possibly June 15 provided no better illustration of this.

The individual involved in the June 15 battle who perhaps has not received the just praise of history, either in this book or generally, is Henry Wise. The oft-ridiculed Confederate political general put in his best performances of the war at Petersburg, when twice (first on June 9 and again on June 15) he held Petersburg against great odds. On June 15, one might argue that his active defense of the city played no small role in convincing Baldy Smith that the Confederate defenses were stronger than they really were.

In Rhea's final estimation, both commanding generals had mixed levels of success during the Overland Campaign but nevertheless performed well overall. Rhea repeatedly lauds Lee's defensive fighting skills, and the author also obviously admires Grant's innate resiliency and determination along with the general's operational creativity and flexibility. If anyone can be judged the "winner" of the Overland Campaign, Rhea gives the slight edge to Grant while at the same time conceding that the answer largely depends on how one defines winning and losing. In Rhea's view, Grant, by immobilizing Lee's army in trench works and permanently seizing the initiative, "came closest to realizing his overall strategic goal." It's a reasonable conclusion. Other interpretations are certainly possible, and the fact that the Overland Campaign was immediately followed by ten months of siege warfare, a development desired by neither general, clearly complicates how one views the results of May and June in terms of winners and losers.

As stated before, in On to Petersburg, Gordon Rhea's research and battle narrative skills are as impressive in their display as they've ever been. In this era of ever-dwindling map budgets, the volume also manages to retain the series's commitment to the essential truth that strong cartography is a vital element of all serious military history publications. In every way, On to Petersburg has been well worth the long wait and is a fitting end to a series destined to become an all-time classic.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Booknotes: The Strange Journey of the Confederate Constitution

New Arrival:
The Strange Journey of the Confederate Constitution and Other Stories from Georgia's Historical Past by William Rawlings (Mercer UP, 2017)

The Strange Journey of the Confederate Constitution "is a collection of seventeen articles and essays on topics in Georgia and Southern history." These chapters span 1783 to 1930 and cover a great variety of subject matter. 

From the publisher's description: "Individual chapters are arranged by era and cover subjects ranging from The Great Yazoo Fraud of the 1790s, to Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Treasure of the 1860s, to the Reign of Terror visited by the Ku Klux Klan in Macon of the 1920s. While academic, the book's varying topics are aimed at readers with a general interest in the intriguing and often convoluted history of the South. Some articles focus on events, others on people (e.g. Gutzon Borglum or Eli Whitney), and still others on more controversial topics, such as the place of The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind in modern society."

More: "The author's writing style is one that promotes relaxed recreational reading, treating each topic as an unfolding story as the chapter progresses. As a bonus to those interested in research and writing about historical subjects, the Appendix contains advice in the form of "A Short Practical Guide to Historical Research for Writers."

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Booknotes: Suppliers to the Confederacy - Volume III

New Arrival:
Suppliers to the Confederacy - Volume III: British and European Imported Quartermaster Goods, Artillery and Other Ordnance by Craig L. Barry & David C. Burt (Booklocker.com, 2017).

Suppliers to the Confederacy - Volume III is actually the fourth volume of Barry and Burt's "Suppliers to the Confederacy" series of reference guides. The books examine "imported arms and accoutrements as well as uniforms and other clothing ranging from socks and nipple wrenches to sea-coast artillery; all with detailed photos and the full histories of the men and the British and Irish firms that supplied it all." Volume III "contains 279 B/W photos, diagrams and illustrations on 534 pages and the text is supported by over 430 footnotes."

The description gives a pretty thorough rundown of what's inside: "This new title is an in-depth study on the Confederate Quartermaster Bureau and includes the story of its first QM-General, Colonel Abraham Myers. This first chapter goes on to tell how in 1863, General Alexander R. Lawton superseded him to become the new Quartermaster General and of his subsequent efforts to turn around the ailing department to the benefit of the troops suffering through lack of adequate clothing and shoes. Chapter Two provides new studies of all the types of imported clothing and sundries, including sewing thread, cloth, shirts, trousers and greatcoats from Great Britain. Chapter Three deals with all fifteen of the British and European button manufacturers and suppliers with pictures of all the various buttons supplied to the Confederate navy, artillery and infantry. Chapter Four is a study of imported hats, blankets, shoes and even socks supplied through the Quartermaster Department to the men in the field. And finally Chapter Five deals with imported British and Austrian artillery and their ammunition, the Whitworth rifle and telescopic rifle scope, and the P1854 Austrian musket."

I reviewed the third book in the series last year [click here to read it].

Monday, October 2, 2017

Author Q & A - Richard White on "The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896"

I am joined by Richard White to discuss his new book The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, which is the newest addition to Oxford University Press's venerable Oxford History of the United States series.

From his author bio: Richard White "is Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, and "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West."


DW: As part of the celebrated Oxford History of the United States series, one might reasonably suppose that the Reconstruction period and the Gilded Age would be covered in separate volumes. What inspired you to treat the two eras together in a single study?

RW: The inspiration was Oxford’s, but I came to agree with it. The two eras overlap in time, and the latter stages of Reconstruction are clearly part of the Gilded Age. It is very hard to argue that Tom Scott’s funding of Southern railroads and interventions in Southern politics, for instance, were not central to both Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Similarly, it was the scandals of the Lincoln and Johnson administrations as well as the Grant administration that inspired Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to name the period the Gilded Age. Politically, it is impossible to understand the Gilded Age without its connection to the Civil War and Reconstruction. The North during Reconstruction tried to reshape the nation in its image, but the irony was that the North itself was changing from a largely homogenous, Protestant, and rural region to a diverse, multicultural, urban and industrial area.


DW: What were the defining characteristics of the “Gilded Age”?

Richard White
RW: The Gilded Age took its name from the corruption of the period and the rise of great fortunes that underlined the growing inequality of the era. Unlike some scholars, I do think the age was remarkably corrupt, and inequality was certainly growing. Immigration and industrialization—central facets of the period—produced diversity but also inequality on a scale that the country had not seen outside of slavery. The great paradox of the period was that the attempts to deal with corruption and inequality also made it an era of reform. The Knights of Labor, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Farmers’ Alliance, the Greenbackers, the Populists, and much more emerged during the Gilded Age. I would argue that antimonopolism became the dominant political movement of the period.


DW: In what ways do your views, as expressed in your book and in the previous question, differ from the popular conception of the period?

RW: The theme of my book is how Northern Republicans set out to create a country in the image of the antebellum North—in effect a nation composed of so many replicas of Lincoln’s Springfield –and ended up creating a very different nation. Chicago—urban, industrial, and multicultural—was a world they had not imagined but one that they helped create. I see the period as the great age of the Midwest. It, rather than the Northeast, dominated the country politically and increasingly industrially, although not financially.

I have stressed the role of government and rejected the view that this was a period of laissez-faire and limited government. The government actively intervened to shape the economy through the tariff, subsidies to railroad corporations, the Homestead Act, and more. It was the government that intervened to break strikes and protect capital. As newer work in history and political science has shown, we miss the power of government in the United States during this period because we think it should look like a European state, and it doesn’t. The laws granted the government great powers, but it lacked the administrative capacity to implement them. The army, which was small, was often the only reliable institution officials had for administering laws. The United States instead relied on fee-based governance—the paying of bounties, fees, and the granting of subsidies to private parties to enforce laws and enact policies. This produced the corruption, inefficiency, and popular resentment so central to the era.

I have made the home the core concept of my book and the period. Individualism, either in the form of a Horatio Alger hero or Social Darwinism, did not define the Gilded Age. The home determined who counted as a man, a woman, and a citizen. As the era went on, not only reformers but also industrialists like John D. Rockefeller stressed cooperation (although they differed on the meaning) rather than individualism. A novel such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward captured these Gilded Age views. It was a very American product.

I have also tried to cut through the long argument about whether the triumph of capitalism and industrialization raised living standards over the nineteenth-century by using the demographic data compiled and analyzed by economists and demographers to argue that it did not. Economic statistics on the household level are very unreliable, but we have better information on lifespan, health, height, and other demographic markers. To generalize broadly, Americans grew shorter, sicker, and did not live as long as their ancestors. Their children died in shocking numbers, and work was incredibly dangerous. All of this indicates that life for most Americans was growing worse, not better.


DW: One might readily draw connections between the Civil War’s national mobilization of human and material resources and the mass industrialization of the Gilded Age. What other major features of the Gilded Age could the Civil War be considered to have been instrumental in accelerating?

RW: The Civil War amounted to a second American Revolution, and the republic that emerged from it was different than the nation that entered the war. The great political goal of Reconstruction was to create a homogenous citizenry that gave male citizens, black and white (but not Chinese or Indian), a uniform set of rights guaranteed by the federal government. Governments could, and did, still discriminate on the basis of gender. The attempt to create this homogenous citizenry ignited many of the battles of the Gilded Age. Until the very end of the century, whose side you were on during the Civil War framed political allegiances. The war’s legacy was apparent in most political campaigns.

The influence of the Civil War went well beyond political allegiance. In a way historians have now recognized, pensions for Union veterans and eventually their families created the first American social welfare system. By the end of the century, it was the largest in the world.

Finally, it was the Civil War that allowed the Republican Party to enact tariffs and railroad subsidies, pass the Homestead Act, create a national banking system, and more. All of these things shaped the Gilded Age economy and the industrialization of the United States.


DW: The American South is often viewed as having been largely left out of the Gilded Age’s economic expansion in favor of more concentrated levels of development in the North and West. Is this popular shorthand an overgeneralization?

RW: The South certainly developed differently, but it was very much part of the Gilded Age economy. By and large, it did not share in the federal subsidies for infrastructure and transportation, but the corruption of Southern governments during Reconstruction resulted, in part, from an attempt by the states to enact similar subsidies. The end of slavery was a triumph of social justice but a terrific, if temporary, economic blow to the South. The South’s attempts to create other forms of coerced labor shut it off from immigration and investment. It became, as Gavin Wright has put it, a low-wage region in a nation known for comparatively high wages. Fee-based governance (think of revenuers and the leasing of prisoners) was very much part of Southern politics and the economy. The South remained central to the larger economy. Cotton was the nation’s critical export, and the inflow of gold that it brought was critical to the financial system. Although it remained a region of unskilled labor with a relatively undiversified economy, the South was growing at rates comparable to other sections by the 1880s, but, of course, it started from a much lower base.


DW: In what manner did the Gilded Age fulfill the promises of Reconstruction and in what ways did it fail?

RW: The great hope of Reconstruction was the creation of a homogenous citizenry of both black and white people. In the South, this involved the legal and civil equality of freedpeople. The attempt was a noble one, but, by and large, it failed. There were islands of black freedom and autonomy but most did not endure. Black political activism hardly vanished, but it was forced into narrower channels. Jim Crow and disenfranchisement marked the failure of Reconstruction. The North also hoped to establish independent black homes. Here the record is more mixed. The black home became the target of terrorists in the South. Attacks were meant to show that freedmen could not be men, because they could not protect black women and children. These attacks did immense damage, but the black home persisted and freedpeople refused to submit to gang labor. But even this success was partial as Southerners used debt and criminal sentences to create a new source of coerced labor. Nor did the hopes for education and development in the South for either poor black people or whites achieve success.

The Gilded Age in the West did fulfill, in part, the aims of the Greater Reconstruction at the expense of Indian peoples, Mexican Americans, and Chinese. It turned Indian country into American states and territories. It facilitated the removal of Indian peoples from vast tracts of land in a way we would now call ethnic cleansing. It integrated the West into the larger American economy. What it failed to do, outside of the Middle Border, was to create the desired free labor landscape of prosperous small farms in the West.


DW: Of course, this next question is pure alternative history speculation. In your opinion, how different (if at all) might the second half of the nineteenth-century turned out had Lincoln not been assassinated in 1865?

RW: I don’t think the broad contours would have changed. Like other politicians, Lincoln did not anticipate the ways immigration, industrialization, and urbanization were going to change the country. Nor would another term for Lincoln have affected the corruption of the period. The Lincoln administration achieved levels of corruption that approached those of the Grant Administration. The Indian wars would have been fought with or without Lincoln. Reconstruction might have proved more successful, but I think this would have had less to do with Lincoln’s moderation compared to the Radicals and more to do with the possibility that he would have kept troops in the South longer than Johnson did.


DW: Was there significant party realignment on a national level during the Gilded Age? Did partisanship intensify or moderate over the period?

RW: Partisanship remained high despite arguments of liberals that only character and ability should govern political choices. There were three major shifts in party strength. The first two went in favor of the Democrats. The first came in 1874 with the reaction against Grant’s response to the Panic of 1873. The second came with the end of the Reconstruction governments in the South and the success of Southern Redeemers at suppressing the black vote. Taken together, these developments created a balance between the two parties so that most of the period after 1874 was one of divided government and stalemate. It is important to remember that if black people had been able to retain the vote, this would have been a period of overwhelming Republican dominance. The final realignment comes in the 1890s when the Republicans survived the Populist uprising and created a working class and business coalition that dominated the country until the Depression. The Democrats attained national power only when the Republicans fractured. The shift came not so much because existing voters changed their loyalties but rather because new voters trended very heavily toward the Republican Party.


DW: What was it in particular about the year 1896 that led you to use that date as your point of demarcation between the Gilded and Progressive eras?

RW: The first reason is that the election of 1896 cemented the political realignment that would dominate the country until the Great Depression. The second is that only after 1896, as antimonopolism shaded into progressivism, were many of the reforms championed during the Gilded Age achieved. The struggles that defined the Gilded Age became muted. The third is that the Spanish American War lies largely outside the narrative that I have pursued. It can be seen as the extension of the kind of colonialism the United States pursued in the West, but there were real differences, and so 1896 seemed to be a good place to end the narrative.


DW: Thanks once more to Prof. White for taking part in the interview. Again, readers, the book is The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896.