Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review of Mackowski & White, eds. - "TURNING POINTS OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR"

[Turning Points of the American Civil War edited by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. 270 pages. ISBN:978-0-8093-3621-0. $24.50]

Thomas Desjardin's foreword to Turning Points of the American Civil War claims that western culture generally hardwires us to view the course of extended historical conflicts as a continuous buildup of events that eventually reach a culmination point (or turning point if you will) after which the outcome becomes inevitable. At least when it comes to popular thinking about long wars, there certainly does seem to be more than a little truth in this. For World War Two, Stalingrad in the European theater and Midway in the Pacific would be good examples. In the past, the Battle of Gettysburg was popularly viewed as the American Civil War's great turning point, with non-military events like the Emancipation Proclamation becoming more recently in vogue.

However, today's enthusiastic readers and scholars perhaps more appropriately view great periods of history as consisting of an undulating series of momentum shifts associated with a great many turning points rather than a single one overshadowing all the rest. That seems to be the underlying philosophy behind the nine essays collected in this volume, edited by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White.

Robert Orrison's opening essays accords First Bull Run turning point status, not because of the startling Confederate triumph but rather for what occurred in its wake when General George McClellan was brought in to fix the mess. As essentially all previous scholars have done, Orrison values highly the quick turnaround and expansion orchestrated by the young general, who rapidly proceeded to create from scratch a massive and powerfully resilient instrument of war that would eventually achieve total victory in the eastern theater.

Another early Virginia battle serves as the foundation of the next turning point discussed in the book. Domestic politics will always feature prominently when democracies are at war, but James Morgan's chapter appropriately points to Ball's Bluff as the watershed moment (through the subsequent creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War) in the development of counterproductive antagonism and interference between the civilian government and the U.S. military. While the JCCW had its good moments in investigating soldier welfare and ferreting out corruption in war contracts, some modern observers have powerfully argued that the committee's demonstrated willingness to destroy careers on the flimsiest of politically-motivated contexts was responsible in great measure for the Army of the Potomac's seemingly risk-averse behavior.

Moving to the western theater, Gregory Mertz's essay has an interesting take on Albert Sidney Johnston's death at Shiloh, recognizing it not as a chance incident that robbed the Confederacy of victory at that particular battle (as some have argued in the past) but rather an event that robbed the country of a much-needed leader who demonstrated before his death some capability in managing the theater's famously dysfunctional high command. There's also little reason to think that Johnston, who was only four years older than Robert E. Lee, could not have grown further in the capacity of army leader, much as Lee did himself after a troubling baptism of fire.

The aforementioned Emancipation Proclamation is the subject of Kevin Pawlak's contribution. In the chapter, the now typical arguments made about the presidential edict's transformative effects on the war, either immediate or down the line, are reviewed. Also discussed are the many ideological and practical obstacles that were managed by the Lincoln administration and eventually overcome.

According to editor and contributor Kristopher White, Chancellorsville was a turning point in two contrasting ways. While the battle's result could be recognized as the crowning achievement of Robert E. Lee's generalship and showed an army operating at peak efficiency (to say nothing of the combined psychological and morale edge the victory provided), in White's estimation it also best represented the moment of realization that the Confederacy could not afford the kinds of losses incurred by Lee's aggressive style of army leadership. The latter suggestion is well taken, but it also is harsh criticism without the offer of a better winning alternative. Many of Lee's attacks and counterattacks were demonstrably ill-advised, but broad critiques of Lee's casualty rates often fail to take into account situational factors beyond the general's control. The eastern Confederacy faced a vastly superior opponent on a front that lacked depth. No great geographical barriers to Union advance existed, and with opposing capitals so close together there was no ability to trade space for time or to isolate the enemy in the interior. There was also the added disadvantage that Union forces could draw supply via land or sea from practically any point between capitals. Unless the Confederates were willing to accept a siege of Richmond right from the beginning, a politically unacceptable option, the enemy had to be driven back at some point. Given the weapons and tactics of the time, that process would inevitably be accompanied by heavy loss.

Returning to the western theater, Daniel Davis looks at Vicksburg both as an important military victory and as the turning point in launching U.S. Grant's military career and reputation into the stratosphere. The following chapter by Ryan Longfellow also deals with Grant, this time examining the famous moment after the bloody Battle of the Wilderness when the general opted to continue the advance south rather than pull back the army for refit and resupply as all previous commanders in the east had done. This was a clear message to both sides that there would be no turning back this time. On a related note, another scholar who has deeply researched the event recently determined that all accounts of the men in the ranks cheering Grant's pivotal choice were written postwar, casting some doubt on the popular view that the common soldiers immediately recognized and appreciated that a great turning point had come to pass.

Though a more nuanced appreciation of John Bell Hood as army commander has emerged in recent years, Jefferson Davis's July 1864 decision to relieve Joe Johnston mid-campaign in favor of Hood remains controversial. Stephen Davis's essay discusses that turning point using the contextual argument that the change in command resulted in the effective destruction of the Confederacy's primary western field army under Hood's leadership.

Finally, Rea Andrew Redd champions another popular turning point, Abraham Lincoln's victory in the 1864 election, though the writer is clearly sympathetic to the view that the South's bid for independence would very likely have been crushed no matter who the next president turned out to be. In Redd's estimation, Lincoln's victory was really more of a killing blow to an already terminal cause than it was a true turning point. While advocates of the election's decisiveness often seem to forget that the inauguration date was in March and not the January of today, it's impossible to predict in what ways, if any, the demoralizing blow of a Lincoln defeat would have manifested itself in the Union war effort before the next president took office (or how a McClellan victory might have revitalized Confederate morale and determination).

In addition to being thoroughly documented, all of the book's chapters are preceded by an extensive editorial introduction that adds further context to what follows. The essay contributions are also generally well supported with illustrations and maps. There are even QR codes spaced throughout the volume that take to reader to "exclusive online material, additional photos and images, links to online resources," and more. 

Few will raise major objections to the turning point selections contained in the book. It is interesting that none of the contributing authors really went out on a limb. Indeed, the generally familiar nature of their choices means that Turning Points will probably appeal mostly, but certainly not exclusively, to the newer reader end of the audience spectrum. Even so, the book does effectively ask all readers to reconsider at least some of their preconceived notions, and it will undoubtedly prompt all to ponder which turning points they would choose if asked to contribute to a similar project.

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