Sunday, December 16, 2018

More on Greene's "A Campaign of Giants" Vol. 1

Every once in a blue moon I get a note from the author of a reviewed title. Last week, A. Wilson Greene nicely emailed me about an issue he had with my highly positive review of his most recent book A Campaign of Giants - The Battle for Petersburg, Volume 1: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater (2018) and with how I encapsulated his views on Meade in a later interview with Meade biographer John Selby. It turns out that my summary characterization of Greene's views on Meade at Petersburg are not exactly in line with the author's true feelings or intentions. Indeed, they are much opposed. I always welcome comments from anyone about the reviews on the site, so I invited him to leave a comment on the review page or better yet put together a rebuttal of sorts that I could publish as a standalone post where more people would see it.

Not getting a response either way, I think my obligation ends there but I'm not really comfortable leaving it at that. Many readers tend to want to box authors and biographers into pro and anti camps, and I didn't want to have my review construed by anyone in the opposite way that the author intended. That said, I stand by everything that I wrote in the review (which was published eight months ago), as it represents my honest impression of the accumulated arguments presented in the book.

So, what can I say? I'm not going to block quote from a private email, but I think I can appropriately try to encapsulate Greene's objections. Apparently, my impression that Meade had outlived his usefulness as an effective army commander by the end of the period covered in the book is not at all the view that Greene wanted to convey. He doesn't see any of the failures and mistakes committed during the initial offensives as singularly attached to Meade but rather liberally shared among the rest of the theater's high command. Greene by no means self-describes himself as a Meade "detractor."

I think that's a good overview of what he shared with me, and I'll link to this on both the original book review and the Selby interview.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Booknotes: On Duty in the Pacific Northwest during the Civil War

New Arrival:
On Duty in the Pacific Northwest during the Civil War: Correspondence and Reminiscences of the First Oregon Cavalry Regiment edited by James Robbins Jewell
(UT Press, 2018).

When regular army troops stationed in the Far West departed to points east at the outbreak of the Civil War, it was largely California volunteers that picked up the slack. Garrisoning key posts and keeping tabs on both internal dissent and potentially hostile tribes, they ranged all across the West's vast expanses, including the Pacific Northwest. Published primary source accounts of their service in the region are few, and by far the best-known is Royal Bensell's edited journal All Quiet on the Yamhill: The Civil War in Oregon (1959). But Oregon raised troops of their own, too, and James Robbins Jewell's new collection of wartime letters written by Oregon volunteers titled On Duty in the Pacific Northwest during the Civil War: Correspondence and Reminiscences of the First Oregon Cavalry Regiment is now available as part of UT Press's classic Voices of the Civil War series.

From the description: "From 1862 to 1865, twenty-six hundred miles away from the seat of the federal government in Washington, DC, the First Oregon Volunteer Cavalry Regiment offered aid to the Union cause in the American Civil War. The First Oregon Cavalry confronted a host of complex challenges unseen by their counterparts serving in a more traditional role in the East. Their battles were more often with Native Americans—and often more concerned with their own status in the territory than with the Civil War rending the nation—while searching for pro Confederate spies and sympathizers. However unsung during the war, the regiment carried out their responsibilities successfully, managing to expedite the development of the Pacific Northwest in the process."

Jewell's edited collection also represents the closest thing we currently have to a 1st Oregon regimental study. "Complete with a series of reminiscences and excerpts from memoirs by First Oregon Cavalry officers and soldiers, On Duty in the Pacific Northwest during the Civil War is the first collection of primary source materials from soldiers serving in this Far Western territory. Jewell’s first-rate collection enables readers to step directly into the Pacific Northwest of the early 1860s and experience the Civil War from a different perspective." I've been waiting all year to get my hands on this title, and it looks great. Expect a review fairly soon.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Review - "The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War" by Aaron Sheehan-Dean

[The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War by Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Harvard University Press, 2018). Hardcover, 15 photos/illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:358/480. ISBN:978-0-674-98422-6. $35]

The question of whether the American Civil War was a limited conflict still connected to Enlightenment ideals of military restraint and non-targeting of civilians or was an early version of modern total war remains much debated today. Less concerned with weighing in one way or another on that particular issue, Aaron Sheehan-Dean's The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War is primarily interested in examining the modulating interaction that existed between the many social, military, and political factors that exacerbated Civil War violence and the range of enemy responses that deescalated those very same volatile situations that threatened to spiral out of control. According to the author, in this 'calculus of violence' moral and physical restraint ultimately won out, but not without considerable stretching and violations of the rules of war by both sides.

For some time now, cracks have regularly appeared in the traditional interpretation that Civil War violence and destruction increased along a linear path, with mid-1862 being the tipping point between abandonment of limited war (or conciliatory) objectives and the earnest application of hard war. Sheehan-Dean agrees with those that have more recently argued that hard war style human violence and property destruction existed from the very beginning of the conflict. His alternative characterization of escalating violence as unevenly distributed (in both human and geographical terms) and progressing in fits and starts with periodic pull back (even during the latter years of the war when most assume peak violence to have occurred) much better fits the collective impression gained from the widest reading of the current literature.

Clay Mountcastle and Daniel Sutherland, both astute and influential scholars of the irregular Civil War, would certainly approve of Sheehan-Dean's assigning guerrilla warfare a prominent role in the amplification of Civil War violence. In the author's view, the Confederate government's early acceptance and even encouragement (or at least lack of active discouragement) of guerrilla warfare doomed vast areas of the South and Border States to lawlessness and exposed civilians (guilty and innocent alike) to harsh and frequently disproportionate Union reprisal measures. But it could have been much worse, and the author persuasively credits federal retaliation policies, or just the threat of same, for providing a reasonably effective braking mechanism to the violence. Banishment, imprisonment, bond & oath taking requirements, and other non-lethal measures were also employed to effect, particularly in the breaking up of guerrilla support networks. The personalized nature of guerrilla violence created intense emotions and desires for revenge, and it is also perceptively noted in the book that institutional procedures and the non-instantaneous nature of nineteenth century communications created delays in response that usefully doubled as cooling off periods.

As the study shows, both sides attempted to use various moral and legal considerations to elevate the justness of their own cause and diminish the enemy's, while at the same time ignoring their own excesses and ethical failings (often for same or similar offenses). Guerrilla warfare can serve as a good example of this. It is somewhat unfortunate that the author characterizes the war's guerrilla conflict as distinctly Confederate when in truth pro-Union (or anti-Confederate) guerrillas operated in contested areas with similarly muted official opposition. During the war, many Union commanders sanctioned irregular forces whose actions closely mirrored those so vehemently condemned when committed by the enemy. Placing such a strong degree of blame for the guerrilla crisis on Confederate government officials also seems only partially valid, as many of the worst actors operated in areas outside of the Confederacy itself (ex. in Missouri and Kentucky) or committed depredations in enemy occupied or isolated places beyond practical reach. In a true people's contest, as the American Civil War arguably was, it would be hard to imagine guerrilla warfare not arising within occupied rear areas or isolated districts regardless of official government policy. One of the primary reasons individuals joined guerrilla outfits was to avoid being placed under any kind of regimented control, and it is unlikely that such men would have listened to any edicts from far off Richmond or feared suppression from a vastly overstretched Confederate Army. Rather than just critiquing the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862 on the grounds of how the law sanctioned and promoted a highly inadvisable, illegal, and unjust mode of warfare while also cynically providing legal cover for those same bad actors, one might reasonably also see it as a good faith (if tragically naive) attempt to exert governmental order and regulatory oversight over a problem already getting out of hand. The book also fails to mention that the Act was repealed by the Confederate Congress in February 1864.

Emancipation, the Union Army's employment of black troops (the vast majority of whom were freed slaves), and the Confederate response to those decisions all joined guerrilla warfare as factors that significantly exacerbated the scale and intensity of Civil War violence. Like the guerrilla war, large-scale black enlistment directly contributed to heated debates within and between the warring sections over who could decide the status of lawful vs. unlawful combatants. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that widespread abuses and unlawful killings would occur when Confederate troops inculcated with servile insurrection fears encountered black soldiers assumed to have been placed into Union ranks for the very purpose of sparking mass slave uprisings and race war. From the Confederate perspective, these men were illegitimate enemies not subject to treatment under the laws of war. However, Sheehan-Dean sees this argument of inevitability as a false assumption, and cites several international examples of colonial armies putting ex-slaves in their ranks to fight against their former masters, acts that apparently did not produce violent objections of the kind seen during the American Civil War. Unfortunately, not enough contextual details are presented to properly assess the appropriateness of the comparison. Regardless, Union retaliatory measures, both real and threatened, helped ensure that black flag warfare would not be the rule whenever Confederate troops encountered black Union regiments on the battlefield, though unlawful mistreatment of black POWs continued to be routine.

Violent slave rebellion easily had the greatest potential to comprehensibly devastate the South and result in civilian casualty levels similar to those produced by contemporary Civil Wars like the Taiping Rebellion in China. That nothing of the kind occurred during the American Civil War came as a true surprise to the strongest critics, north and south, of emancipation and black enlistment. Like other scholars, Sheehan-Dean sees slaves as having been more concerned with gaining freedom than revenge. He also concurs with the view that the tenets of Christianity instilled into slaves over generations very likely had a restraining effect.

Discussed here are just some of the most significant ingredients to Civil War violence's toxic brew. Of the remaining factors discussed at some length in the book, one of the most interesting is the author's positive assessment of the role of the nation-state. Rightly and wrongly, the reputation of the modern nation-state and the nationalism associated with it took a severe hit in the aftermath of the bloodbaths of the twentieth century. However, Sheehan-Dean convincingly argues that the construct of the nation-state and all the idealized aspirations that went with it (including a desire for acceptance in the international community of nations) had salutary restraining effects on both sides during the American Civil War. Though lacking formal recognition, it's undeniable that the Confederacy created a functioning democratic nation-state in the midst of war, which was an unusual achievement for the rebelling side in historical civil conflicts of similar scale. Attaining the status of an internationally recognized and respected nation-state was important to both sides, and democratic nationhood's institutional checks and balances, accountable law and order systems, open lines of communication, and desire to appear morally upright in the eyes of the rest of the world all combined to restrain the kinds of ultraviolent excesses typically seen during civil wars.

It should also be mentioned that the author is clearly not ingenuous when it comes to assessing the laws of war and their positive restraining effects. He certainly recognizes that the laws of war were often bent and manipulated by each side, both to justify their own questionable conduct and to attempt to restrict the enemy's employment of tools and tactics of proven use against them. Moral malleability also occurred hand in hand with self-serving legal and political machinations. One of the best examples provided in the book is the war's transformation of much of the North's pacifist abolitionist element into one of the conflict's most radical proponents of unrestrained violence against enemy combatants and civilians.

In presenting the material, Sheehan-Dean does a fine job of melding his own research with a well-selected synthesis of the best existing scholarship. With some notable exceptions (for example, his insistence that the bombing of the military depot at City Point by Confederate saboteurs represented one of the war's worst atrocities), the author generally avoids channeling readers toward starkly black and white conclusions, instead inviting them to pass their own judgment. One might argue that he applies the just vs. unjust label a bit too freely in the book, but it cannot be expected that authors to be equivocal on everything, nor should they be.

It is popular to say that in war violence tends to take on a life of its own with consequences unforeseen by anyone, but Sheehan-Dean's study effectively reminds us that deliberate decisions made by the human actors in the drama are at least as important in shaping that violence, and likely more so. As terrible as the reality of the American Civil War was to both civilians and combatants, The Calculus of Violence shows that the conflict held great potential to in many ways become far more devastating.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Booknotes: The Great Battle Never Fought

New Arrival:
The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign, November 26 – December 2, 1863 by Chris Mackowski (Savas Beatie, 2018).

Though Jeff Hunt's planned trilogy bridging the gap between the Gettysburg and Overland campaigns will eventually cover it, the Mine Run Campaign portion of that period hasn't received a major standalone study since Graham & Skoch's 1987 treatment for the H.E. Howard series [Mine Run: A Campaign of Lost Opportunities, October 21, 1863-May 1, 1864]. Mine Run has received recent atlas coverage from Bradley Gottfried, and with Chris Mackowski's new book The Great Battle Never Fought the Emerging Civil War series of handy overviews has now addressed both of the autumn 1863 Meade vs. Lee campaigns in Virginia.

Widespread gratefulness and appreciation for the great victory at Gettysburg was quickly replaced by harsh criticism of Meade's generalship over the ensuing months when he proved unable to force Lee into a decisive battle on the enemy's home ground. From the description: "Smaller victories, like those at Bristoe Station and Rappahannock Station, did little to quell the growing clamor—particularly because out west, in Chattanooga, another Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, was once again reversing Federal misfortunes. Meade needed a comparable victory in the east. And so, on Thanksgiving Day, 1863, the Army of the Potomac rumbled into motion once more, intent on trying again to bring about the great battle that would end the war. The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign, November 26-December 2 1863 recounts the final chapter of the forgotten fall of 1863—when George Gordon Meade made one final attempt to save the Union and, in doing so, save himself."

The volume exhibits the typical presentation of the series, with a profusion of maps, photographs, and period artwork illustrations. Publisher Ted Savas's afterword explores his role in rediscovering and preserving the Payne's Farm battlefield, the fighting on that ground being a major focus of Mackowski's narrative. There is a detailed 10-stop driving tour, which also incorporates the 11-stop Payne's Farm walking trail. In addition to that there are two appendices. The first traces the origins of the Culpeper National Cemetery and the second looks at the high command reorganization of the Army of the Potomac that took place prior to the beginning of the 1864 campaign season.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Book News: Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign

After General Beauregard evacuated Corinth at the end of May 1862 and took the unauthorized health leave that led to his dismissal, the Confederate high command and general military situation in the West was in such disarray that there were fears of the front's imminent collapse. However, Braxton Bragg's elevation to command and his aggressive offensive movements turned western momentum on its head. Although his bold campaign into Kentucky failed to achieve satisfactory results, the western theater as a whole stabilized and the Confederates regained a strong military presence in Middle Tennessee. As much as it pains me to say that anything published in the 1990s can feel dated already, given the significance of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign it's surprising that no new single-volume campaign history has emerged to replace James Lee McDonough's War in Kentucky: From Shiloh to Perryville (1994).

Before he passed, Kenneth Hafendorfer completed and published a two-volume military history of the Kentucky Campaign. Unfortunately, I could find no good information online about it beyond his daughter's efforts to sell the set online [here] at a price too rich for my blood. Presumably, the books serve as something of the physician-historian's magnus opus, incorporating his extensive previous work on Perryville, Richmond, and Confederate mounted operations into a fully realized campaign narrative.

But getting to the news matter at hand, one of the upcoming volumes from UT Press's excellent Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series will address the campaign. Along with the Spruills, Lawrence Peterson is already a veteran of the format and his Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign: The Twenty-Seven Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation is currently scheduled for a May 2019 publication date. The series is well established at this point, but it's pretty clear that some campaigns are better fits than others in terms of supplying large numbers of strategic and operational level decisions conducive to intriguing analysis and discussion. I believe that that 1862 Kentucky Campaign would be one of the better candidates and I'm looking forward to seeing Peterson's treatment.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Booknotes: All Because of a Mormon Cow

New Arrival:
All Because of a Mormon Cow: Historical Accounts of the Grattan Massacre, 1854–1855 edited by John D. McDermott, R. Eli Paul, and Sandra J. Lowry (OU Press, 2018).

So many U.S.-Indian conflicts arose from small incidents that quickly escalated into tragic open warfare. In August 1854, near Fort Laramie, a Lakota man was accused of killing a cow belonging to a Mormon emigrant. On the 19th, Lt. John Grattan and thirty men (twenty-nine soldiers and a civilian interpreter) arrived at the Indian camp to make the arrest. Tensions boiled over during the encounter, and the soldiers fired into the camp, killing a chief. In response, the angry Lakota turned on Grattan's command and massacred them. This incident sparked the First Sioux War, which lasted until 1856. Indecisive in its results, peace between the sides would be only temporary, and much larger and bloodier conflicts would follow.

In All Because of a Mormon Cow: Historical Accounts of the Grattan Massacre, 1854–1855, editors John McDermott, Eli Paul, and Sandra Lowry bring together "all known contemporary accounts of the Grattan fight and its immediate aftermath" (xii). From the description: "Where previous accounts of the Grattan Massacre have made do with limited primary sources, this volume includes eighty contemporary, annotated accounts of the fight and its aftermath, many newly discovered or recovered from obscurity. Recorded when the events were fresh in their narrators’ memories, these documents bring a sense of immediacy to a story more than a century and a half old. Alongside the voices heard here—of the Indian leaders Little Thunder and Big Partisan, of Mormons from passing emigrant trains, and of government officials charged with investigating the massacre, among many others—the editors include a substantial and thorough introduction that underscores the significance of the Grattan Massacre in all its depth and detail." According to the editors, the accounts of the Lakota leaders mentioned above have never been published before in their entirety, and prior studies have overlooked many of the valuable firsthand writings from Mormon emigrants that can be found in this collection.

Among the Grattan Massacre perspectives anthologized in the book are those from military officers, traders, emigrants, civilian travelers, Indian leaders, an interpreter, and a mail carrier. Arranged in chronological order, each account is preceded by editorial commentary. The book's introduction also contains a fairly lengthy, scholarly overview of the incident itself.

All Because of a Mormon Cow is the first of two planned volumes. Spanning many postwar decades, the second book will contain later accounts of the massacre, both "reminiscent and reflective." In evaluating the different character of retrospective accounts written long after the incident in question, the upcoming volume will also look closely at "the nature of oral history and Indian testimony, their strengths and weaknesses, and the mechanisms for recording and remembering the Plains Indian Wars" (xiii).

Sunday, December 9, 2018

2018 Civil War book awards list

Tom Watson Brown Award:
Andrew F. Lang for In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America (LSU). (review)

A.M. Pate Award:
(TBA soon)

Albert Castel Book Award:
Timothy B. Smith for Grant Invades Tennessee: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson (Kansas). (review)

Dan and Marilyn Laney Prize:
Gordon C. Rhea for On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864 (LSU). (review)

Richard Barksdale Harwell Book Award:
Brian Steel Wills for Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War (Kansas). (review)

Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History:
Andrew E. Masich for Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861-1867 (Oklahoma). (review)

Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize :
Edward L. Ayers for The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (Norton).

Wiley-Silver Prize:
Matthew E. Stanley for The Loyal West: Civil War & Reunion in Middle America (Illinois).

Douglas Southall Freeman History Award:
(TBA)

Nevins-Freeman Award:
Greg Biggs for ??

Barondess/Lincoln Award:
Elizabeth Brown Pryor for Six Encounters With Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and it's Demons (Viking).

Jefferson Davis Award:
(TBA)

Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award:
(TBA)

Founders Award:
(TBA)

Avery O. Craven Award:
Edward L. Ayers for The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (Norton).

General Basil W. Duke Literary Award:
(TBA)

CWBA Book of the Year::
(TBA)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Booknotes: Ironclad Captains of the Civil War

New Arrival:
Ironclad Captains of the Civil War by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland, 2018).

With now nine thick tomes under his belt documenting the naval men, machines, and their operations along the western waterways, Myron Smith certainly ranks among the most knowledgeable and accomplished historians of the Civil War's brown water navies. His newest book, and second biographical reference guide to his credit (the other being Civil War Biographies from the Western Waters), is Ironclad Captains of the Civil War.

From the description: "Based on the Official Records, biographical works, ship and operations histories, newspapers and other sources, this book chronicles the lives of 158 ironclad captains, North and South, who were charged with outfitting and commanding these then revolutionary vessels in combat. Each biography includes (where known) birth and death information, pre- and post-war career, and details about ships served upon or commanded." Images of most (if not all) officers are included, as are many photographs of the vessels they commanded.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Book News: The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846–1876

Military and civil strife in the Rio Grande River Valley during 1861-65 have been explored in a number of useful books from historians Jerry Thompson, Stephen Townsend, Stephen Dupree, Michael Collins, James Irby, and others. The most recent works have placed more emphasis on the transnational and cross-cultural aspects of the border region's involvement in the Civil War, with analysis often extending both long before and well after the war years. The newest entry in the historiography, The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846–1876 (TAMU Press, Jan 2019), agrees with its predecessors that "(t)o understand the American Civil War in Texas also requires an understanding of the history of Mexico."

Edited by Christopher L. Miller, Roseann Bacha-Garza, and Russell K. Skowronek, the book "focuses on the region’s forced annexation from Mexico in 1848 through the Civil War and Reconstruction. In a very real sense, the Lower Rio Grande Valley was a microcosm not only of the United States but also of increasing globalization as revealed by the intersections of races, cultures, economic forces, historical dynamics, and individual destinies."

Miller, Bacha-Garza, and Skowronek are also the authors of Blue and Gray on the Border: The Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail, which should be released any day now by the same publisher. It's advertised as "a densely illustrated travel guide featuring important historical and military sites of the Civil War period." A close companion to that guidebook, The Civil War on the Rio Grande "provides the scholarly backbone to a larger public history project exploring three decades of ethnic conflict, shifting international alliances, and competing economic proxies at the border." I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing both titles.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Booknotes: This War Ain't Over

New Arrival:
This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America
  by Nina Silber (UNC Press, 2018).

From the description: "The New Deal era witnessed a surprising surge in popular engagement with the history and memory of the Civil War era. From the omnipresent book and film Gone with the Wind and the scores of popular theater productions to Aaron Copeland's "A Lincoln Portrait," it was hard to miss America's fascination with the war in the 1930s and 1940s."

Nina Silber's This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America "deftly examines the often conflicting and politically contentious ways in which Americans remembered the Civil War era during the years of the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. In doing so, she reveals how the debates and events of that earlier period resonated so profoundly with New Deal rhetoric about state power, emerging civil rights activism, labor organizing and trade unionism, and popular culture in wartime."

More: "At the heart of this book is an examination of how historical memory offers people a means of understanding and defining themselves in the present. Silber reveals how, during a moment of enormous national turmoil, the events and personages of the Civil War provided a framework for reassessing national identity, class conflict, and racial and ethnic division." The book suggests that the New Deal period was the "the first time Civil War memory loomed so large for the nation as a whole."

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Review - "The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi" by Timothy Smith

[The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi by Timothy B. Smith (Savas Beatie, 2018). Hardcover, 13 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxiv,315/369. ISBN:978-1-61121-428-4. $32.95]

To mask his bold amphibious landing of the main army below Vicksburg, General U.S. Grant ordered a number of diversionary operations over a wide geographical area. Conducted across from and above Vicksburg as well as in North Mississippi, all played important roles and were successful beyond expectation. The most famous and most substantial of these movements was Col. Benjamin Grierson's cavalry raid down the length of Confederate Mississippi. Launched from LaGrange, Tennessee on April 17 and concluding two weeks later at Baton Rouge, Louisiana on May 2, Grierson's Raid damaged enemy railroad tracks and destroyed trains and depot facilities, but its most telling feature was the mass confusion sown in the rear of General John C. Pemberton's Vicksburg defenders, who were concentrated along the east bank of the Mississippi. With Confederate attention temporarily reoriented to the east, the raid helped open a critical time window for Grant's army to land on the Mississippi shore unopposed and consolidate a bridgehead.

Grierson's Raid has been examined in a number of magazine articles, essays, and book-length secondary works over the years. Ed Bearss detailed the operation in his Vicksburg Campaign trilogy and the raid has also been covered more recently in a pair of short works—Tom Lalicki's Grierson's Raid: A Daring Cavalry Strike Through the Heart of the Confederacy (2004) and Roughshod Through Dixie: Grierson’s Raid 1863 (2010) by Mark Lardas. The most popularly known (and oldest) treatment is Dee Brown's Grierson's Raid, which hasn't aged well since its 1954 release and in reality never upheld scholarly standards in the first place. Happily, military historian Timothy Smith's The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi fulfills the need for a full-length study that meets the demands of modern scholarship.

In some ways, former music teacher Benjamin Grierson was a curious choice to lead the brigade-sized raiding force that consisted of the 6th Illinois, 7th Illinois, and 2nd Iowa cavalry regiments with an attached battery. Prior to the 1863 raid that made him instantly famous, Grierson was a relatively quiet wartime figure who only distinguished himself in a series of minor cavalry actions at the head of the 6th Illinois, none of which approached the scale, complexity, importance, length, and danger of the great Mississippi mounted operation. It seems he was selected primarily on the basis that no other immediately available cavalry officer was trusted as much as Grierson was by both generals Grant and Stephen A. Hurlbut, the latter a corps commander in Grant's army and head of the Memphis district of occupation. Exactly why this was so isn't entirely clear. Grierson would certainly repay with interest the confidence placed in him by his superiors.

The book documents well the above mentioned diversionary expeditions, all of which served Grant's purposes but also immeasurably eased the initial passage of Grierson himself. As Smith shows, the two small movements from Memphis combined with a larger operation east out of Corinth opened a gaping hole in the already thin Confederate defenses of North Mississippi, an open doorway that Grierson was perfectly positioned to exploit. That the raiders were able to penetrate deep into Mississippi with no significant resistance demonstrated to all that the state's defensive arrangements lacked any real depth.

Smith's minutely detailed narrative, which follows the course of the raid on a day-by-day basis, really gets to the heart of what made Grierson such an effective cavalry raider. He moved fast and employed active deception and diversion to great effect. Even though most civilian residents along the raid route felt themselves far from the fighting front and did not expect to see enemy soldiers of any kind, it still remains rather impressive that Grierson was able to convince so many Mississippians in so many places that his men were Confederate cavalry. He also availed himself of the services of many friendly residents and guides as he passed through counties with sizable pro-Union populations, and their contributions to his success should not be underestimated.

Over an exhausting two-week period, Grierson also was able to consistently keep a clear head when confronted with a series of very stressful and fluid situations. With enemy forces finally closing in with dangerous numbers after he damaged the vital rail link between Vicksburg and Meridian, his flexible state of mind constantly weighed the benefits vs. risks of all possible escape options. These options ranged from (1) swinging back north (the preferred route of General Hurlbut, who feared losing his best cavalry to another district command) to (2) moving southwest to link up with Grant near the Mississippi River to (3) continuing directly south to shelter within Union lines at Baton Rouge. Recognizing that returning to Tennessee was by far the most dangerous option (especially for tired men and horses) and meeting up safely with Grant would have required exceptional timing that was deemed too risky, Grierson's choice to head for Baton Rouge was likely the most logical option, even though it had dangers of its own due to the heavy presence of Confederate troops at Port Hudson.

In addition to the main force constantly feinting in different directions to confuse any pursuers, Grierson also sent out a constant parade of detachments varying in size from individuals to an entire regiment (Edward Hatch's 2nd Iowa Cavalry). Either looping back to the main force or returning all the way back to friendly lines in Tennessee, all of these actions (in addition to hitting ancillary infrastructure targets) helped keep the Confederates in the dark as to the location and intentions of the main body of Union raiders at any given moment. Smith properly praises the leadership shown by the officers that led Grierson's detachments, all of whom did their jobs to near perfection and at great risk to themselves. Fortunately for all involved, casualties were also light to non-existent.

Clearly, Grierson was aided by an ineffectual Confederate response, which consisted primarily of hastily raised state troops and small regular detachments, none of which managed to strike Grierson (or any of his detachments) with enough strength or surprise to seriously endanger the mission. In assessing the response, Smith is more charitable toward Pemberton than most other writers have been, his critique taking into account the full range of the Confederate commander's responsibilities at the moment and the limited resources (particularly in mounted troops, which were necessarily concentrated in the north) available. Even so, the net was tightening considerably by the time Grierson reached southern Mississippi, and safe haven in Union-controlled Louisiana proved to be an invaluable 'get out of jail free' card. The raid was impressive by any measure, but Grierson clearly benefited immensely from the fact that he and his men did not have to return to their original starting point in the face of mounting opposition.

It is popularly repeated in the literature that Grierson's Raid drew upwards of 20,000 Confederate soldiers or all types to the interior (away from the Mississippi River border counties) and afforded Grant a critical five-day window in which to land his army and consolidate his beachhead. Smith confirms the last point, but the former contention is left underdeveloped and only mentioned in passing. It's a long-held claim that probably deserved a fresh reappraisal in the book.

Many readers will readily recognize the cinematic/literary origins of the book's title. Neither John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959) nor the Harold Sinclair novel of the same name that spawned the movie are discussed at any length in Smith's study; however, this represents no great missed opportunity as the intersection of history, novel, and movie has already been thoroughly examined by Neal Longley York in his 2001 book Fiction as Fact: "The Horse Soldiers" and Popular Memory.

As one might anticipate given the past record of both author and publisher, The Real Horse Soldiers is well stocked with maps and illustrations. Also manifest in Smith's prior scholarship is deep research into primary sources, and this expectation is also met here in full. This exhaustive and engrossing study is the history of Grierson's Raid that's been long overdue. It is as notable a contribution to the wider Civil War cavalry literature as it is a newly essential component of the Vicksburg Campaign bookshelf. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Booknotes: Visual Antietam Vol. 1

New Arrival:
Visual Antietam Vol. 1: Ezra Carman’s Antietam Through Maps and Pictures: Dawn to Dunker Church by Ezra Carman, ed. and illus. by Brad Butkovich (Historic Imagination, 2018).

Only recently published, Ezra Carman's Antietam manuscript is one of the most celebrated accounts of any Civil War battle written by a participant. Carman, who led the 13th New Jersey (Gordon's Brigade/Williams's Division/ Twelfth Corps) as its colonel during the 1862 Maryland Campaign, solicited accounts of the battle from both Union and Confederate veterans and created an extensive history of the battle that holds up well to this day.

Brad Butkovich's Visual Antietam series (a planned three volumes) publishes the Carman manuscript again, but while others have focused on extensive annotation of the document itself this time the greatest emphasis is placed on creating visual reader aids (maps and photographs) directly tied to Carman's writing. Visual Antietam Vol. 1: Ezra Carman’s Antietam Through Maps and Pictures: Dawn to Dunker Church "contains sixty-three (63) images, both period and modern, allowing the reader to see the battlefield today and as it was only days after the battle. Twenty-six (26) original maps intricately detail troop movements that fateful morning." Covering the initial phases of the battle, the maps consist of highly detailed renderings of the natural and built landscapes upon which the small-scale troop movements and positions of both sides are dutifully traced. If you're unfamiliar with the author, I've discussed some of Butkovich's earlier work (see links here) where he's displayed considerable mapmaking and history writing talents.