Monday, August 19, 2019

Review - "Union Sharpshooter Versus Confederate Sharpshooter: American Civil War 1861–65" by Gary Yee

[Union Sharpshooter Versus Confederate Sharpshooter: American Civil War 1861–65 by Gary Yee (Osprey Publishing, 2019). Softcover, maps, photos, sidebars, drawings, original artwork, notes, bibliography, index. 80 Pages. ISBN:978-1-4728-3185-9. $22]

Part of Osprey's Combat series matching historical battlefield opponents, Gary Yee's Union Sharpshooter Versus Confederate Sharpshooter describes and assesses the "fighting techniques, armament, and combat record" of Union and Confederate sharpshooters across the various theaters of war. In creating the study, Yee, who is a gunsmith, firearms museum curator, and author of the well-received 2009 book Sharpshooters 1750-1900: The Men, Their Guns, Their Story, brings both practical and documentary knowledge to the table.

Fitting as much information as possible into Osprey's long-standing format of compressed history, Yee skillfully introduces readers to Union and Confederate sharpshooter recruitment, organization, training, weapons, tactics, and coordination. Union forces were the first to organize specialized sharpshooter regiments (i.e. Hiram Berdan's 1st and later 2nd USSS), though they were misused on the firing line and suffered high attrition. Many other regiments and battalions on both sides were sharpshooters in name only, having the same training and performing the same basic roles as standard line units. During the Civil War period the term "sharpshooter" was broadly applied, encompassing those engaged in a range of activities from skirmishing (with or without specialized training) to what we would today call sniping. Though addressing the former, Yee's short study focuses more on the latter.

Yee primarily blames lack of foresight on the part of the commanders of both sides for the fact that it would be the late-war period before the combat value of using specialized sharpshooter formations on the skirmish line was fully appreciated. The height of their development would be seen on the Confederate side during the 1864 campaigns in the East, with the ANV's employment of brigade sharpshooter battalions (coordinated on divisional scale) that possessed considerable offensive punch to go along with their screening and recon roles. The author briefly discusses these attempts at using elite specialists to dominate the space between opposing lines of battle, but, as mentioned before, is primarily concerned with sniper weapons, tactics, and roles.

Through three case studies well selected for their theater and situational diversity (Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Morris Island), Yee effectively demonstrates in the book how snipers became prized by both sides for their ability to create noteworthy mayhem on the battlefield. While sharpshooters certainly could not win battles on their own, they could suppress batteries, inflict highly disproportionate casualties, and seriously hamper enemy battlefield activities of all kinds. They were also sources of constant fear and stress to enemy soldiers already mentally and physically taxed by their regular duties.

At Fredericksburg, Confederate marksmen firmly ensconced in buildings and cellars picked off Union engineers trying to bridge the Rappahannock River. Union attempts to match them were hindered by their own artillery fire, and the result was a delay in crossing significant enough to allow further perfection of the Confederate defenses west and south of the city.

With the siege lines so close together at Vicksburg, both sides employed sharpshooters to good effect. Though Confederate sharpshooters had an effect on harrying the Union siege approaches, their opponents, larger in number and supplied with practically endless ammunition, gradually gained the upper hand. Yee also cites the exceptional efforts of Indiana's Henry "Coonskin" Foster and the sniper tower he built and used to deadly effect during the static siege.

Though Union sharpshooter fire aided their gaining an initial lodgment on Morris Island, the battlefield addition of Whitworth rifle armed Confederate snipers (who could hit targets at extreme range) made life hell for Union artillerymen and those working on the siege approaches. This small group of sharpshooters could not stop but did appreciably slow the pace of the siege (which stretched to two months before the island was lost, allowing plenty of time for the Confederates to reorient the harbor defenses toward the new threat).

In supporting the text, the book contains the usual dense collection of photographs, illustrations, maps, and original artwork characteristic of all Osprey titles. Yee's book is a well organized and informative summary of the ways sharpshooters (and snipers in particular) impacted the Civil War battlefield and developed a combat effectiveness vastly disproportionate to the tiny numbers employed.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Booknotes: "Gettysburg: Kids Who Did the Impossible!"

New Arrival:
Gettysburg: Kids Who Did the Impossible! by Gregory Christianson (Savas Beatie, 2019).

Gettysburg: Kids Who Did the Impossible! is a book designed to spark in young people an interest in the Civil War, and what better setting than that little town in Pennsylvania about which most of us have heard a few things.

From the description: "Gettysburg was one of the most important battles of the entire Civil War, and author Gregory Christianson brings it to life through breathtaking photographs, extraordinary watercolors, and exciting true-to-life stories. This is the perfect platform for “story guides” Liam and Jaden (the lad and lass gracing the cover) to celebrate Gettysburg’s young heroes—kids who defied age and inexperience to serve their town, country, and fellow human beings far beyond common valor."

Packed with old B&W photos, modern color images, and artwork (watercolors from Tom Rutherford and the paintings of Dale Gallon), the heavily illustrated book has a lively presentation that should appeal to its intended audience. "This remarkable and wholly unique presentation has something for everyone: single-page introductions for each day of the battle and lots of “have-to-know” facts, all wrapped in a photographic essay of the Gettysburg battlefield as you’ve never seen before."

Friday, August 16, 2019

Booknotes: Star Spangled Scandal

New Arrival:
Star Spangled Scandal: Sex, Murder, and the Trial that Changed America by Chris DeRose (Regnery History, 2019).

New York Congressman and Civil War major general Daniel E. Sickles is famous/infamous for two things: (1) his murder of his wife's lover and consequent acquittal using the then novel plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, and (2) his unauthorized rearrangement of the Union far left flank on Day 2 of Gettysburg that resulted in his own corps and parts of the rest of the army being chewed to pieces. Much has been written about the the latter (that's an understatement), but those interested in the topic would be well-advised to pick up a copy of James Hessler's Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg (2009) or the more recent book Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard: Longstreet, Sickles, and the Bloody Fight for the “Commanding Ground” Along the Emmitsburg Road that Hessler co-authored with Britt Isenberg (2019). The latest reexamination of Congressman Sickles's shooting of Philip Barton Key and the subsequent murder trial is Chris DeRose's Star Spangled Scandal: Sex, Murder, and the Trial that Changed America.

From the description: "It is two years before the Civil War, and Congressman Daniel Sickles and his lovely wife Teresa are popular fixtures in Washington, D.C. society. Their house sits on Lafayette Square across from White House grounds, and the president himself is godfather to the Sickles’ six-year-old daughter. Because Congressman Sickles is frequently out of town, he trusts his friend, U.S. Attorney Philip Barton Key—son of Francis Scott Key—to escort the beautiful Mrs. Sickles to parties in his absence. Revelers in D.C. are accustomed to the sight of the congressman’s wife with the tall, Apollo-like Philip Barton Key, who is considered “the handsomest man in all Washington society… foremost among the popular men of the capital.” Then one day an anonymous note sets into motion a tragic course of events that culminates in a shocking murder in broad daylight in Lafayette Square."

More: Author DeRose "uses diary entries, letters, newspaper accounts, and eyewitness testimonies to bring the characters to thrilling life in this antebellum true crime history" of events that "sparked a national debate on madness, male honor, female virtue, fidelity, and the rule of law."

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Review - "British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War" by Joseph McKenna

[British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War by Joseph McKenna (McFarland, 2019). Softcover, maps, photos, drawings, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,191/216. ISBN:9781476676791. $49.95]

Joseph McKenna's British Ships in the Confederate Navy (2010) examined British-built Confederate warships that cruised the oceans as commerce raiders while also shining light on the large proportion of British citizens that crewed those vessels. His new book British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War offers readers an in-depth look at the British maritime industrial firms, businesses, investors, and individuals who participated in and profited from the immensely lucrative illicit trade with the Confederacy.

As all Civil War readers are doubtlessly aware, the lure of quick profits from blockade running and the textile industry's need for southern cotton taxed official British neutrality throughout the war. Though private firms (the largest and most well known being Fraser, Trenholm & Co., the Liverpool subsidiary of John Fraser & Co. out of Charleston) and even the state and Richmond governments were directly involved in blockade running, it was British-owned and crewed vessels that comprised a substantial majority of the ships that passed through the U.S. blockade of southern ports.

In addition to relating numerous standalone adventure stories of ships and men who braved the dangerous passage, the book also provides some more macro-level discussions of the process, risks, and rewards of blockade running. A selection of cargo lists (and their values) presents readers with a good general impression of the scale and variety of essential military arms, ammunition, and supplies that were imported during the war. The evolution of blockade running, particularly in the construction of vessels particularly designed for the task, is also discussed at some length. Even though ships routinely evaded the blockade throughout the conflict, the ever tightening cordon established around the southern coastline did force prospective runners to switch from using huge, slow bulk transports to a new generation of low, swift, narrow beam, and shallow draft vessels that were difficult to spot let alone stop.

Though Confederate representatives and their foreign business collaborators went to great lengths, at least on paper, to remain clandestine, the book abundantly documents how U.S. consular officials and their spy networks throughout Europe and the Caribbean were able to quickly identify potential runners and compile accurate cargo lists and drawings of ships. It was a remarkably effective bureaucratic system, but catching the vessels at sea was another matter entirely. Given the near impossibility of maintaining secrecy, runners needed ever more creative ways of circumventing the "continuous voyage" doctrine of established blockade law. Describing this process, the book provides an informative chapter on how blockade running firms employed a variety of devious transshipment strategies to prevent seizure of their cargoes (even to the extent of using northern ports to disguise port to port continuity in sending goods between European and Confederate ports!) .

McKenna also examines Confederate bonds as funding source and object of speculative investment. With the borrowed money to be repaid in cotton after the war ended, foreign investment in Confederate cotton bonds was high risk-high reward (thus the appeal to speculators). In addition to tracing the changing value and attractiveness of these bonds over the course of the war, the book discusses the 1864 Confederate law aimed at eliminating contract fraud and waste by centralizing foreign purchasing through only two Confederate government agents—one for the army (Caleb Huse) and one for the navy (James Bulloch). By all estimates, this measure and the later commercial act that banned importation of most luxury items and forced blockade runners to set aside half of the cargo space for the government were imposed far too late.

In addition to gleaning information from previously published works, McKenna (a librarian and resident of Birmingham, England) also wades deeply into British diplomatic, trade, and newspaper archives to get at information not readily available to U.S.-based researchers. Among the results are a pair of comprehensive descriptive registers of British firms that built blockade runners and British ships (arranged alphabetically) that ran the blockade during the war. The author also uncovered the real names of several captains of blockade runners who used aliases. McKenna found that many of these men were Royal Navy officers inactive or on leave, who wanted to turn a quick profit without endangering their professional careers or causing further diplomatic rows with an already thoroughly annoyed U.S. State Department. The author also usefully reminds readers that British vessels and crews always had to remain completely unarmed, as any hostile measures taken, even in self-defense, would be construed as acts of piracy. No one wanted to risk being hanged when the typical treatment of captured foreign officers and crewmen was only a few weeks of detention before release.

Abundantly documenting the activities of British government officials, ship-building firms, investors, captains, and crews, British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War is a useful history and reference guide that appreciably augments our knowledge and understanding of the British role in the exportation and transit of contraband of war. Recommended.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Booknotes: "Lee is Trapped, and Must be Taken"

New Arrival:
"Lee is Trapped, and Must be Taken": Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg: July 4 - 14, 1863 by Thomas J. Ryan and Richard R. Schaus (Savas Beatie, 2019).

The output of the Gettysburg Campaign literature continues to be unrelenting in pace and scope; however, major works covering the retreat (even for the most important events that occurred between the end of the battle and the Confederate escape across the Potomac) have appeared only recently. In 2005, Kent Masterson Brown's Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign was published, to be followed only three years later by Wittenberg, Petruzzi, and Nugent's One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863. Both are excellent. Now we have a third treatment of the period in Thomas Ryan and Richard Schaus's "Lee is Trapped, and Must be Taken": Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg: July 4 - 14, 1863

A third major study within 15 years might appear on the surface to be topical overkill but really we have the best of situations, with each treatment possessing significant complementary features that clearly set it apart from the others. The 2005 and 2008 studies both address the fighting during the retreat at length, but Brown's logistical focus clearly distinguishes it from the purely military coverage of Wittenberg et al. Ryan and Schaus's book also has a unique emphasis, in this case the role of military intelligence. It is additionally positioned as a sequel to Ryan's award-winning Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee's Invasion of the North, June-July 1863 (2015).

From the description: "The long and bloody three-day battle exhausted both armies. Their respective commanders faced difficult tasks, including the rallying of their troops for more marching and fighting. Lee had to keep his army organized and motivated enough to conduct an orderly withdrawal away from the field. Meade faced the same organizational and motivational challenges, while assessing the condition of his victorious but heavily damaged army, to determine if it had sufficient strength to pursue and crush a still-dangerous enemy. Central to the respective commanders’ decisions was the information they received from their intelligence-gathering resources about the movements, intentions, and capability of the enemy. The eleven-day period after Gettysburg was a battle of wits to determine which commander better understood the information he received, and directed the movements of his army accordingly. Prepare for some surprising revelations."

Other aspects of the retreat are featured as well. "Woven into this account is the fate of thousands of Union prisoners who envisioned rescue to avoid incarceration in wretched Confederate prisons, and a characterization of how the Union and Confederate media portrayed the ongoing conflict for consumption on the home front."

More: "The authors utilized a host of primary sources to craft their study, including letters, memoirs, diaries, official reports, newspapers, and telegrams, and have threaded these intelligence gems in an exciting and fast-paced narrative that includes a significant amount of new information." As we've come to expect from SB titles, maps (14 in number), photographs, and other illustrations are interspersed throughout. The appendix section includes transcriptions of some intelligence documents and a short piece examining the relationship between General Meade and the BMI.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Booknotes: Civil War Taxes

New Arrival:
Civil War Taxes: A Documentary History, 1861-1900 by John Martin Davis, Jr.
  (McFarland, 2019).

As we all know, fighting the Civil War was an enormously expensive drain on the public coffers. In his book Civil War Taxes: A Documentary History, 1861-1900 retired tax attorney John Martin Davis provides a comprehensive overview of the tax initiatives each side devised to fund their war efforts.

From the description: "To raise revenue for the war effort, every possible person, business, activity and property was assessed, but projections and collections were seldom up to expectations, and waste, fraud and ineffectiveness in the administration of the tax systems plagued both sides. This economic history uses forensic examination of actual documents to discover the various taxes that developed from the Civil War, including the direct and poll taxes, which were dropped; the income tax, which stands today; and the war tax, which was effective for only a short time."

Roughly speaking, the book is equally divided between narrative text and document images. After a short bit of background history of antebellum federal tax systems, the book dives into the tax history of each year of the war, with alternating US and CS chapters.

The second half of the book consists of 124 photographic images of tax documents, to include receipts, certificates, bonds, licenses, permits, and more. The book's oversize page dimensions (8 1/2" by 11") allow the document images to be reproduced at a size and clarity sufficient to allow readers to make out all the details. With the resized illustrations in so many history books rendering them indecipherable even to those with hawk-like vision, this treatment is a nice touch.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Review - "Life In Jefferson Davis' Navy" by Barbara Tomblin

[Life In Jefferson Davis' Navy by Barbara Brooks Tomblin (Naval Institute Press, 2019). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,240/325. ISBN:978-1-68247-118-0. $54]

Even after taking into account the fact that the total number of sailors who served in the Union and Confederate navies was almost tiny when measured against the millions of soldiers that took the field, comprehensive exploration of what life was like aboard Civil War fighting vessels remains underrepresented in the literature. Less than a handful of Union studies of this type exist, and arguably none of similar scope have been produced for the Confederate side until now with the publication of Barbara Brooks Tomblin's Life In Jefferson Davis' Navy.

With armies prioritized from the start, both navies struggled with meeting their manpower needs. Not surprisingly, the problem was much more acute for the CSN, which basically had to start from scratch. By the time large numbers of sailors could be employed on newly commissioned vessels, many individuals with prior nautical experience were already in the army and authorities there were understandably reluctant to approve transfers. In the early chapters of the book, Tomblin informatively covers the recruitment, enlistment, and induction processes. According to the author's figures, peak strength eventually hovered around 5,000 men. Interestingly, unlike the Confederate Army, the navy had regulations in place that allowed free blacks and slaves to serve on vessel crews (to be employed as pilots, servants, coal heavers, landsmen, and ordinary sailors) as long as the ratio did not exceed 1 to 5. More specifically, the Savannah Squadron capped black service at 5% of total strength. However, in what would become a common theme throughout the book, surviving Confederate naval records are far too incomplete to come to any conclusion on whether the reality ever approached those proportions. Foreign citizens were another source of manpower, particularly for service aboard commerce raiders.

Another chapter discusses the acclimation process of raw recruits into naval culture and shipboard routine. Contemporary observers frequently noted that Confederate ships did not exhibit expected levels of discipline and order. While many of these negative statements were made by Union captives and understandably disgruntled prize ship passengers, Confederates themselves frequently lamented the loose manner in which many of their ships were run and often ascribed the result to the scarcity of proven officers and the high proportion among ship crews of foreign enlistees lacking patriotic motivation.

Most Confederate naval officers keenly recognized the value of maintaining morale through generous shore leave and various kinds of onboard entertainment, and these important ways of relieving crew stress and boredom are highlighted. How discipline was enforced and punishments meted out for offenses large and small are also discussed at some length in the book. While hard numbers are not available for comparison to the U.S. Navy's rate of six percent, desertion did prove to be major problem in the Confederate Navy. The loss of already scarce manpower was not the only negative consequence, too, as deserters proved to be vital sources of information for the enemy.

As one would suspect, disease killed far more Confederate sailors than enemy action, and medical care (both on ship and in naval hospitals established ashore) is another major focus of the book. Once again statistical data is generally unavailable, but anecdotal evidence suggests that officers and sailors suffered and died from the same maladies that affected soldiers on land, with additional problems like scurvy when undertaking especially long ocean cruises.

The experience of naval combat is also addressed in Tomblin's study. A trio of chapters examine Confederate naval actions fought along coastal sounds, rivers, and the deep ocean. Coverage is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather limited to representative sampling of fighting by Confederate ironclads, wooden "mosquito fleets," and commerce raiders. These examples, greatly enhanced by numerous firsthand accounts, offers readers a good sense of the CSN's range of operations. In her consideration of Confederate submarine, torpedo boat, and mine warfare technology, Tomblin also appropriately emphasizes Confederate innovation as a frequently effective countermeasure to overwhelming Union naval might.

Confederate naval personnel manned batteries onshore and later in the war formed infantry units that served alongside their army comrades. These ad-hoc aspects of naval service are covered in the book, as are the travails of captured personnel. Apparently, few POW camp accounts written by Confederate sailors exist, but those that do tell of experiences similar to those of army comrades in the service.

As repeatedly mentioned above, the body of record data that would allow more complex statistical analysis of many important aspects of Confederate naval service is unavailable to researchers; however, through focused archival research and skilled synthesis of the current literature, Tomblin is nevertheless able to piece together a richly expansive portrait of officer and sailor life at sea and on land. A very useful addressing of a neglected topic, Life In Jefferson Davis' Navy is highly recommended.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Booknotes: "May God have Mercy on Us."

New Arrival:
"May God have Mercy on Us.": The Twenty Days of the Cane River Campaign in Louisiana by Weldon Nash, Jr., John Taylor & Mitchel Whitington (23 House Publishing, 2019).

Despite the 1864 Red River Campaign's status as the Trans-Mississippi's largest military operation, the literature's treatment of it remains remarkably lacking in depth. Sure, the topic has been covered in numerous general overview studies from Johnson, Joiner, Robertson, Forsyth, Brooksher, and others, but accounts of both signature battles (Mansfield and Pleasant Hill) still exist only in article or chapter form.

The newly released "May God have Mercy on Us.": The Twenty Days of the Cane River Campaign in Louisiana promises a more in-depth look at a three-week segment of the Red River Campaign that occurred between the conclusion of the fighting at Pleasant Hill and the escape of Banks's retreating army from Richard Taylor's aggressive Cane River "trap." Authored by Weldon Nash, Jr., John Taylor, and Mitchel Whitington, the book recounts the action on a day-by-day basis, the main feature being the controversial Battle of Monett's Ferry.

From the description: "Most give the Battle of Monett's Ferry only a paragraph or two in the overall affair, if that. In reality, the entire Cane River episode of the war lasted for almost a month and included a myriad of confrontations from minor skirmishes to all-out battle, a near-mutiny on the side of the North, a struggle for ships to escape down the Red River, and a wave of wanton destruction through what is now Natchitoches Parish. This book brings together all the elements of the war that took place along the Cane River in Louisiana in the spring of 1864. Whenever possible, the story is told in the words of the people who actually lived it the soldiers and officers through their diaries, letters, and journal entries."

The narrative portion of the book runs around 115 pages and is profusely illustrated with photographs and previously published maps. Detail level appears middle range. The bibliography consists of published sources of various types and a few primary sources made available online.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Book News: Major General Joseph King Fenno Mansfield

Many Civil War readers will likely hesitate before taking on an 800+ page biography of a Civil War general who was killed at the head of his corps during the opening moments of his first real battle, but JKF Mansfield had a long and distinguished military career before his fateful encounter at Antietam. A very highly regarded engineer and officer in the Old Army, Mansfield oversaw the construction of major coastal fortifications early in his career and was repeatedly promoted during the war with Mexico. Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, he partnered with Joseph E. Johnston for an extensive inspection tour of U.S. Army posts (if you're interested, there's a great book about it titled Texas and New Mexico on the Eve of the Civil War: The Mansfield & Johnston Inspections, 1859-1861).

Mansfield was leaned on heavily by General-in-Chief Scott with his appointment to head the Department of Washington during the chaotic uncertainty of the war's early months. Scott failed, however, in his quest to reward Mansfield with a major field command. After that, Mansfield served in the relative backwater of SE Virginia before being given command of the Army of the Potomac's Twelfth Corps only days before the Maryland Campaign's climactic battle. I haven't seen the book yet, but all of this will presumably be covered at length in Laurence Freiheit's Major General Joseph King Fenno Mansfield: A Soldier From Beginning to End (CPP, 2019), which is "profusely illustrated with period maps and images" and available now. Having authored an extensive study of cavalry operations in the eastern theater during September 1862, Freiheit is also no stranger to the Maryland Campaign.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review - "The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863" by Woodworth and Grear, eds.

[The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863 edited by Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear (Southern Illinois University Press, 2019). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, notes, index. Pages:xi,133. ISBN:978-0-8093-3719-4. $29.50]

After finally getting his frustrated army across the Mississippi River after a series of failed "experiments" aimed at capturing fortress Vicksburg, U.S. Grant conducted a campaign of unbroken success against his Confederate opponents. By the third week in May, his victorious army found itself opposite the ramparts of the Hill City itself. However, the events of May 19, 1863 brought with them a rude awakening, and the bloody repulse of an even larger attack three days later consigned the final phase of the struggle for Vicksburg to a six-week siege. How those May assaults were conducted, why they failed, and how the Midwestern public viewed the setbacks are topics addressed at length by the five essays in The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863. The book is the sixth release from SIUP's Civil War Campaigns in the West series (formerly the Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series), and it is the second of five planned Vicksburg Campaign volumes*.

The first two essays, both from Parker Hills, discuss the May 19 and May 22 attacks. While some readers will be left wanting more small-unit detail in the assault descriptions, both chapters offer solid overviews of the two events accompanied by incisive criticisms and observations. According to Hills, the key takeaway from May 19 was the danger of conducting a hasty attack without any prior reconnaissance against a prepared position using only a small part of the available force. Grant felt that the attack's risks were justified by the reasonable assumption that the Confederates, who were driven from the field in some disorder at Champion Hill and quickly collapsed at Big Black River when the Union army pressed the fortified bridgehead there, would be demoralized from those thorough defeats and would not vigorously defend their lines. Arguments could be made for and against Hills's contention that on May 19 Grant "struck when he should have probed" (Pg. 21).

Better prepared, the results of the follow-on May 22 attack were nevertheless similarly disastrous, the entire effort a victim of poor coordination, horrendous terrain obstacles, strong earthworks, and determined defenders. While Thirteenth Corps commander John A. McClernand became the convenient scapegoat of that day, Hills's essay argues that his command deserves credit for being the only corps to attack at full strength (25 of 30 regiments went into action) and come anywhere close to fulfilling Grant's orders. The contributions of fellow corps commanders William T. Sherman and James B. McPherson were pitiful by comparison. While suggesting in his memoirs that he regretted the May 22 attack almost as much as Cold Harbor, Grant nevertheless skirted full responsibility and went great lengths to justify his actions using the same laundry list of reasons first raised in his July 1863 report: worries about Joe Johnston's growing relief army, concern over how the summer weather would affect his troops during a siege, the wish to avoid diverting the additional troops necessary for siege operations from the larger war effort, and his claimed knowledge that the troops under his command wanted to try another attack. All were valid considerations on some level, but Hills objects most to the last for its apparent speciousness. Though the chapter provides some evidence that individual soldiers expressed serious reservations about participating in further frontal attacks against Vicksburg's earthworks, one would really have to delve at much greater depth into letter and journal material written between May 19 and 22 to come to any useful conclusion on the matter.

Steven Woodworth's following chapter closely examines the May 22 fighting on McClernand's front, focusing chiefly on the fighting at Railroad Redoubt. It is an excellent account, easily the most detailed micro-level treatment of the various military actions addressed in the book. Concerning McClernand's role directing the attack, Woodworth is much more critical than Hills. Although correctly seeing Railroad Redoubt as the key enemy position on his front, McClernand nevertheless spread his available strength (seven brigades) evenly over all three objectives, assigning two brigades each to Railroad Redoubt, Square Fort, and 2nd Texas Lunette along with one brigade in overall reserve. Woodworth also astutely observes that McClernand further erred by assigning the brigade pairings to different divisions, an order that made command and control unnecessarily more difficult. Differing from the previous essay, Woodworth is much less censorious than Hills regarding both Grant's alleged lateness in dispatching reinforcements (Quinby's Division of McPherson's Corps) and the conduct of Quinby himself. Due to considerations of terrain and distance, it is doubtful that any reinforcements could have arrived at the critical moment. Rather than blaming Grant and Quinby for an alleged lack of timely and effective support, Woodworth emphasizes McClernand's misuse of Quinby's division, which arrived at 4 pm and was promptly broken up. Instead of concentrating the entire division against Railroad Redoubt to exploit the minor lodgement achieved there, one brigade was directed to  reinforce the stalled attacks against all three corps objectives. In line with the consensus of the Grant circle and most historians today, Woodworth maintains that McClernand's exaggeration of his gains as expressed in his urgent dispatches to Grant resulted in a large and unnecessary increase in casualties. In the writer's view, McClernand's failure to confirm the erroneous claims of his subordinate at the redoubt, who had only a limited perspective, before passing the information on to Grant was a serious error in judgment but not a willful attempt to deceive. In the end, Woodworth is persuasive in arguing that the scale of reinforcements necessary to have any chance of achieving a clear breakthrough (something on the order of two full divisions) could not have been marshaled before the Confederates were offered, in turn, ample time to meet them with their own reserves.

Indeed, Confederate reserves were well placed by army commander John C. Pemberton, and Brandon Franke's essay examines the key role Waul's Texas Legion played in ejecting Union troops from their tenuous foothold in and around Railroad Redoubt. The Legion's actions, in conjunction with those of surrounding units, essentially ensured that no breakthrough would be possible on May 22. In addition to providing details about the fighting on that day not present in the Hills and Woodworth essays, the chapter also serves as a fine summary of the Legion's participation in the campaign as a whole.

The final essay from Charles Grear transports the reader from the fighting front to the home front, examining along the way the popular reaction of the citizens of the Old Northwest to the failed assaults at Vicksburg. With those states supplying the vast majority of troops in Grant's army, it should come as no surprise that press attention in the region was focused overwhelmingly on events in Mississippi rather than the next round of bloody campaigning in the East. Predictably, after some initial misgivings the pro-war newspapers emphasized the overall success of the campaign, with the failed assaults simply a temporary setback in the reopening of the Mississippi River to western commerce. On the other hand, the most fervently anti-war Democratic organs decried Grant's indifference (in their view) to the lives of his men in pursuit of the administration's abolitionist war aims. Even so, as the siege progressed, criticism of Grant's conduct of the lengthening campaign would emerge periodically on both sides of the ideological divide. The political reaction to bloody battles with no discernible gain was always going to be variable, but according to Grear the most common public reaction to the failed May attacks was one of support for the soldiers. This was expressed through mass donations of food, supplies, and medical aid to the men serving at the front as well as those languishing in army hospitals.

By nature, subject coverage in essay anthologies is more topically arranged than comprehensive, but the book can still perhaps be criticized for how much the Thirteenth Corps attack on May 22 dominates the overall discussion. McClernand's assault, and even more particularly the fighting at Railroad Redoubt, gets the lion's share of the attention in Hill's second chapter and practically all of it in the Woodworth and Franke essays. This is understandable. However, while the Railroad Redoubt was where Union forces made their deepest penetration on either day and spawned by far the most enduring and interesting questions, one could still argue that the fighting there is overrepresented in the collection. But that's a relatively minor issue. The most significant problem with the book is the inadequate map coverage, even for the mid-level detail presented in most places in the text. In the drawings that accompany the first two essays, no unit below corps level on the Union side and division level for the Confederates is labeled, nor are some of the targeted geographical features prominently mentioned in the text. It gets somewhat better in the following essay but even then there are clear areas of disagreement between map and text. For example, Woodworth talks about the two wings of the 22nd Iowa being widely divided by the attack on Railroad Redoubt yet the accompanying map shows the 21st Iowa as the divided regiment. Also, while the text clearly states that the 77th Illinois formed on the left of the 22nd Iowa the map places them well to the Iowan right.

Those reservations aside, the essay collection offers more than enough useful contributions to the Vicksburg Campaign historiography to make the book well worthy of recommendation. In recent years, SIU Press has become the preeminent publisher of Vicksburg-related military studies, and one looks forward to future volumes from them addressing that still very much open area of study.


* - See also The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29–May 18, 1863 (2013) [CWBA review]. As the title indicates, the earlier anthology addresses the entire campaign leading up to the May 19 and 22 assaults. You can read the full list of planned series titles here. Future Vicksburg volumes will continue with the siege and also backtrack to fill in earlier phases of the campaign.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Booknotes: Lee's Body Guards

New Arrival:
Lee's Body Guards: The 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry by Michael C. Hardy (Arcadia Pub and The Hist Press).

In addition to being headquarters guards for the Army of Northern Virginia, the four companies that made up the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry performed vital service in a staff support role. Michael Hardy's Lee's Body Guards: The 39th Virginia Cavalry tells the story of these men, who were "cavalrymen specifically recruited to serve as scouts, couriers and guides for General Robert E. Lee."

From the description: "Though their battle experiences might pale compared to those of soldiers under J.E.B. Stuart and Wade Hampton, the men of the 39th Virginia served crucial roles in the Confederate army. From the fields of Second Manassas to Appomattox Court House, they were privy to the inner workings of the Confederate high command. They were also firsthand witnesses to the army's victories and triumphs and to its tragedies and trials, from losing Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville to losing the opportunity to win the war at Gettysburg."

The book's treatment of the battalion's service history, which began in Fall 1862 and ended with the Appomattox surrender, runs roughly 90 pages of narrative. Hardy's study also includes a detailed roster (75 pages) organized alphabetically by name.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Coming Soon (August '19 Edition)

*NEW RELEASES* scheduled for August 2019:
The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia's Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield by Adam Petty.
Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam by Steven R. Stotelmyer.
The Meanest and "Damnest" Job: Being the Civil War Exploits and Civilian Accomplishments of Colonel Edmund Winchester Rucker During and After the War by Michael P. Rucker.
Lincoln's Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation by Douglas Waller.
The 16th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War, Revised and Updated by Kim Crawford.
"Lee is Trapped, and Must be Taken": Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg: July 4 - 14, 1863 by Thomas Ryan and Richard Schaus.

Comments: Is this really all there is? I guess so. At least there are some interesting sounding reading options in there. There may be more, but I try to only list titles that I'm reasonably confident will be actually released during the month. Long delayed, it does appear that the Stotelmyer book has a firm August release, as the publisher announced on Twitter earlier this month that it was off to the printer.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Booknotes: General Emory Upton in the Civil War

New Arrival:
General Emory Upton in the Civil War: The Formative Experiences of an American Military Visionary by Robert N. Thompson (McFarland).

There's been quite a bit of attention paid to Emory Upton in the recent scholarly literature. In 2017, University of Oklahoma Press published a biography by David Fitzpatrick (Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer) and two volumes of Upton correspondence written between 1857 and 1881 were released by University of Tennessee Press as part of their Voices of the Civil War series. The editor of the latter project, Salvatore Cilella, also authored a well-received regimental history of "Upton's Regulars" (the 121st NY).

Unlike Fitzpatrick's book and Stephen Ambrose's 1964 biography, Robert Thompson's General Emory Upton in the Civil War: The Formative Experiences of an American Military Visionary seeks to present a detailed, focused account of Upton's Civil War career (during which he commanded units of all three branches) that also explains how those experiences drove his professional desire to reform the army.

From the description: "Considered by many to be the architect of the modern U.S. Army, Union General Emory Upton commanded troops in almost every major battle of the Civil War's Eastern Theater. Witnessing some of the war's bloodiest engagements convinced him of the need for comprehensive reform in military organization, professionalism, education, tactics and personnel policies. From the end of the war to his 1881 death by suicide, Upton led an effort to modernize U.S. military culture. While much has been written about the politics of his reform campaign, this book details his wartime experiences and how they informed his intense fervor for change."

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Review - "War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion" by Thomas Flagel

[War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion by Thomas R. Flagel (Kent State University Press, 2019). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiv,130/184. ISBN:978-1-60635-371-4.$29.95]

Between June 29 and July 4, 1913 well over 50,000 elderly Civil War veterans and thousands of support staff, tourists, and commercial vendors descended upon the small town of Gettysburg for the 50th anniversary reunion of the great battle. What attitudes and thoughts occupied the minds of veterans during the occasion and what the war came to mean and symbolize to American citizens as a whole are topics that have been debated by scholars ever since, especially in recent decades. Recounting the events of the reunion in detail and examining the ways the event shined light on how veterans and other attendees chose to remember the war after the passage of five decades is the subject of Thomas Flagel's War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion.

It would be foolish to try to ascribe a single, overarching motivation to the tens of thousands of veterans who attended the anniversary. Many undoubtedly were imbued with the spirit of sectional reconciliation and shared nationalism, but Flagel's depiction of the reunion does suggest that individual-level reconciliation with what occurred five decades earlier was most pervasive (even for the many veteran attendees who did not fight at Gettysburg). The vast majority of veterans passed over the more formally planned group events (including many political speeches under a scorching sun) to wander around camp, town, and countryside on their own, visiting the sites of their increasingly distant memories and trying to reconnect with comrades. For most, at least according to Flagel, being at Gettysburg and revisiting places of traumatic memory primarily meant reckoning with their own past rather than the nation's as a collective whole.

With few firsthand perspectives of the event available from archival materials and other documents written in the words of the veterans themselves, Flagel turned to newspapers (which are especially prominent in his bibliography) and the reports of the estimated 150 journalists and photographers that attended the reunion. While this might have introduced a layer of distortion in some cases, the author feels that these reports together comprise the best available "oral history" of the 1913 reunion.

In the book, Flagel informatively contrasts the orderly hygiene of the newly constructed veteran's camp with the all too often filthy, disease-ridden nature of Civil War places of encampment. In 1913 there was plenty of fresh, clean, and cool water thanks to ingeniously designed plumbing and storage systems. Government officials set up labs that rigorously tested all food for contaminants and screened every staff member for signs of sickness. Medical care was swift and attentive. All veteran tents were regularly visited by staff to see if anyone needed help. The author cites the army's Spanish-American War experience as the primary stimulant behind these progressive improvements (many of which were undergoing field testing during the reunion itself) in soldier care, but the larger scale and still remembered Civil War experience undoubtedly informed the process to some degree as well.

Another strong theme presented in the narrative was a widespread expression among veterans of gratitude toward the government, who treated them with unexpected solicitude and even extravagance in meeting their needs during the reunion. The entire affair was also a demonstration of organizational competence on the part of the War Department that contrasted notably with their Civil War experiences. For many veterans, especially those who felt increasingly alienated from society in their advanced years, the feeling of appreciation that emerged throughout the proceedings was deeply felt.

Certainly many other individual stories emerge in the text, but Flagel most closely explores the reunion involvement and impressions of four distinctly different Civil War veterans (two from each warring section). Though hardly representative in a statistical sense, they instead represent the range of personal attitudes and motivations that attendees North and South brought to the event and the variety of experiences they had in the veterans camp and upon visiting the old battlefield.

The reunion was a rousing success in a number of ways, but the climax of the affair—the breaking ground ceremony of a great national peace monument that would be accompanied by speeches from the president and other dignitaries—did not come to pass as planned. Congress did not approve the funding of the memorial and President Wilson's reluctant, last-minute decision to attend the reunion resulted in an uninspired speech and only a 45 minute stay. It would be 1938 before the Eternal Light Peace Memorial would be dedicated on Oak Ridge.

In the end, Flagel doesn't exactly demolish competing interpretations of what the event meant to veterans and the nation as a whole, but his alternative contention that the prevailing spirit of the 1913 reunion was highly introspective in nature and its communal aspects more about spontaneously connecting with other veterans than promoting nationalism and reconciliation has considerable merit.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Booknotes: Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy

New Arrival:
Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy by John D. Schaff (SIU Press, 2019).

Schaff's study "highlights Lincoln’s significance in the development of American power institutions and social movement politics." "Using Lincoln’s prepresidential and presidential words and actions," Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy "argues that decent government demands a balance of competing goods and the strong statesmanship that Lincoln exemplified. Instead of relying too heavily on the will of the people and institutional solutions to help prevent tyranny, Jon D. Schaff proposes that American democracy would be better served by a moderate and prudential statesmanship such as Lincoln’s, which would help limit democratic excesses."

More from the description: "Schaff explains how Lincoln’s views on prudence, moderation, natural rights, and economics contain the notion of limits, then views Lincoln’s political and presidential leadership through the same lens. He compares Lincoln’s views on governmental powers with the defense of unlimited government by twentieth-century progressives and shows how Lincoln’s theory of labor anticipated twentieth-century distributist economic thought. Schaff’s unique exploration falls squarely between historians who consider Lincoln a protoprogressive and those who say his presidency was a harbinger of industrialized, corporatized America." I don't know. There's no harm in the attempt, but it might be overly speculative to draw grand conclusions about Lincoln's governing ideology when all we have to go on is a single presidential term overwhelmingly consumed with fighting a horrific civil war.

"In analyzing Lincoln’s approach," Schaff "rejects the idea he was a revolutionary statesman and instead lifts up Lincoln’s own affinity for limited presidential power, making the case for a modest approach to presidential power today based on this understanding of Lincoln’s statesmanship. As a counterpoint to the contemporary landscape of bitter, uncivil politics, Schaff points to Lincoln’s statesmanship as a model for better ways of engaging in politics in a democracy."

Monday, July 22, 2019

Book News: Stephen Davis's two-part John Bell Hood military biography

The Fall/Winter catalogs are out for many publishers, and Stephen Davis's John Bell Hood project is perhaps the brightest news to come out of Mercer University Press's schedule. This coming December they will release Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta: John Bell Hood, the first of two volumes. Only having the brief publisher's description to go on, it appears to be strictly a treatment of Hood's Civil War career and not a full account of the controversial Confederate general's life.

"In this work,..., Hood's rise in rank is chronicled. In three years, 1861-1864, Hood rose from lieutenant to full general in the Confederate army." With the first book taking readers through Sherman's thorough defeat of Hood's army and his capture of Atlanta, that leaves the second book to be devoted entirely to the 1864 Tennessee Campaign. It will be interesting to read Davis's extended take on Hood's tenure in gray. No one will dispute that Hood was one of the best brigade and division commanders in the Confederate Army, but he proved a lackluster corps commander and disastrous army commander.

From the description: "Davis emphasizes Hood's fatal flaw: ambition. Hood constantly sought promotion, even after he had found his highest level of competence as division commander in Robert E. Lee's army. As corps commander in the Army of Tennessee, his performance was good, but no better. Promoted to succeed Johnston, Hood did his utmost to defend Atlanta against Sherman. In this latter effort he failed. But he had won his spurs, even if he had been denied greatness as a general."

Hmm. I'm sure the author will fully develop the context for his argument surrounding the chief source of Hood's downfall, but ambition might alternatively be regarded as a requirement rather than a fatal flaw in any low-ranking officer seeking professional advancement in the thoroughly politicized volunteer armies of the day. And few individuals of any confidence and talent have such perfect self-knowledge as to immediately recognize their peak competence and refuse to risk flying higher. Anyway, I am greatly looking forward to getting a copy of the book when the time comes.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Booknotes: Pinkertons, Prostitutes and Spies

New Arrival:
Pinkertons, Prostitutes and Spies: The Civil War Adventures of Secret Agents Timothy Webster and Hattie Lawton by John Stewart (McFarland).

From the description: "Hattie Lawton was a young Pinkerton detective who with her partner, Timothy Webster, spied for the U.S. Secret Service during the Civil War. Working in Richmond, the two posed as husband and wife. A dazzling blonde from New York and a handsome Englishman, both with checkered pasts, they were matched in charm, cunning, duplicity and boldness. Betrayed by their own spymaster, Allan Pinkerton, they fell into the hands of the dictator of Richmond, the notorious General John H. "Hog" Winder."

I wasn't aware of any examples of Pinkerton intentionally ill-using any of his Civil War operatives. From what I can gather from a little online rummaging, Webster went dark in 1862 after suffering a serious health crisis of some kind (and was being nursed by his partner Lawton). Alarmed by the sudden silence of Webster and Lawton (why they didn't/couldn't send word to their boss, who knows), Pinkerton sent agents Pryce Lewis and John Scully to Richmond to find out what happened. Lewis and Scully were captured, and one way or another the Confederates learned about Webster and Lawton. Upon arrest and conviction Webster was executed and Lawton imprisoned until exchanged. I don't know if author John Stewart uncovered some new evidence of perfidy or condensing the book description resulted in an unintended mischaracterization of Pinkerton's actions. Either way, readers interested in Civil War spycraft might want to check it out.

More: "This lively history, scrupulously researched from all available sources, corrects the record on many points and definitively answers the long-standing question of Hattie Lawton's true identity."

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Author Q&A: Allen Carden & Thomas Ebert on "John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow"

Dr. Allen Carden
Thank you to authors Allen Carden and Thomas Ebert for joining me to discuss their book John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow, which was released last month by University of Tennessee Press. Carden is a professor of history at Fresno Pacific University and is the author of Puritan Christianity in America: Religion and Life in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts (1990) and Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776-1865 (2014). Ebert is a Librarian Emeritus (reference and government documents) and Emeritus Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at California State University, Fresno.

Here are some excerpts from the description to serve as an introduction to their book (or you can just skip down below to the interview itself): "Apart from the president’s family, arguably no one was closer to Abraham Lincoln during his tenure in the White House than John George Nicolay. A German immigrant with a keen intelligence and tenacious work ethic, Nicolay (1832-1901) served as Lincoln’s personal secretary and, owing to the extraordinary challenges facing the White House, became in effect its first chief of staff. His subsequent role as lead researcher and coauthor of a monumental ten-volume biography of the sixteenth president made him the progenitor of Lincoln scholarship.

Thomas J. Ebert
This study represents the first scholarly biography of this self-effacing man so long overshadowed by Lincoln. Drawing on extensive research in the Nicolay Papers, Allen Carden and Thomas Ebert trace Nicolay’s childhood arrival in America to his involvement in journalism and state government in Illinois. Acquainted with Lincoln in Springfield, Nicolay became a trusted assistant selected by Lincoln to be his private secretary. Intensely devoted to the president, he kept the White House running smoothly and allowed Lincoln to focus on the top priorities. After Lincoln’s death, Nicolay’s greatest achievement was his co-authorship, with his White House assistant, John Hay, of the first thoroughly documented account of Lincoln’s life and administration, a work still consulted by historians."


CWBA: To start things off, can you provide a quick summary of Nicolay’s early life up to the time he met the future president?

AC&TE: Nicolay was born in Essingen in the Rhenish Palatinate in 1832. He had a hard childhood as his family emigrated to America in 1837. His mother died when he was seven, his father when he was fourteen. At fourteen, his older brother kicked him out into the world. After working in a mercantile in White Hall, Illinois, he eventually worked for the Pike County Free Press, a newspaper in Pittsfield, Illinois. By age twenty-two, he was the owner of the Free Press and a rising figure in the community. He sold the paper in 1856.


CWBA: How and when did Nicolay first meet Abraham Lincoln?

AC&TE:  According to Robert Lincoln, Nicolay and Lincoln first met when Nicolay was working for Ozias M. Hatch, the Illinois Secretary of State. The two men often played chess together in the large room which also doubled as the State Library in the old capitol building.


CWBA: Why did Lincoln choose Nicolay as his personal secretary?

AC&TE: We believe Lincoln chose Nicolay for his connections to the German American press and to demonstrate in a quiet manner to the German American community that he (i.e. Lincoln) was not a nativist.


CWBA: Do you believe that Nicolay had a significant role in shaping Lincoln’s knowledge of and attitude toward the large German-American segment of the U.S. population?

AC&TE: Nicolay, who could read, write, and speak German, could keep Lincoln informed about the opinions and mood of the German immigrant community and German cultural practices and attitudes. However, Nicolay, whose family lived in rural western Illinois where there were few if any German immigrants, did not identify himself as part of the German immigrant community.


CWBA: Did Nicolay personally participate in the war effort’s ethnic lobbying? Did German-American politicians, military officers, etc. ever attempt to use him as a conduit to the president?

AC&TE: There is no evidence that Nicolay personally participated in ethnic lobbying. Nor would he have likely done so given that he only took cues from Lincoln. However, his German cultural background, his ability to act as translator for Lincoln when necessary, and his ability to socialize with these politicians, military officers, etc. in their native tongue afforded Nicolay the opportunity to glean additional information from them on behalf of Lincoln. Nicolay was very adept at not revealing anything to others while pumping others for information. Nicolay was an important link to the German American community during the war.


CWBA: In the capacity of the president’s private secretary, what were Nicolay’s daily duties in the Lincoln White House?

AC&TE: Nicolay was responsible for oversight of the White House operation, which consisted at various times of John Hay, William Stoddard, Edward Neill, and Charles Philbrick. In contrast to Lincoln’s lack of organizational skills, Nicolay brought in file cabinets, created a filing system, and organized the office routines. He handled important correspondence, sometimes responded on behalf of the President, sat in and took notes on meetings in Lincoln’s office as requested, prepared legal documents, acted as chief gatekeeper limiting access to the President, went on missions on behalf of the President, and did anything and everything to ease the President’s workload. There is no evidence that Nicolay ever revealed the contents of any discussion he had with Lincoln, unless instructed by Lincoln to do so. Then Nicolay would merely repeat word for word what he was instructed to say without interpretation or embellishment.


CWBA: Did Nicolay ever clash with the president over personal or policy matters?

AC&TE: Nicolay had unquestioning loyalty to Lincoln and his leadership and as such would only voice an opinion when asked. Nicolay saw his role as Private Secretary as one where he sought to remain as unobtrusive as possible. His daughter Helen noted that, according to her father, there was never any "red tape” between Nicolay and Lincoln. There is no evidence of any clash between the President and his secretary.


CWBA: What was his relationship with John Hay like? In terms of White House ‘rank,’ was there a pecking order in the duties and responsibilities exercised by both secretaries?

AC&TE: Although Nicolay and Hay were close, life-long friends; shared the same sleeping quarters; had meals together, and were otherwise constant companions; Hay recognized that Nicolay was ultimately 'in charge.' Consequently, the working relationship was cooperative and with a shared responsibility in assisting the "Tycoon," whom they both adored.


CWBA: Did Nicolay maintain any regular personal correspondence that you found especially useful in your research?

AC&TE:  Much that we know about Nicolay in the White House years comes from his correspondence with his fiance Therena Bates back in Pittsfield, Illinois. Unfortunately, we only have his correspondence since he complied with a request from Therena to destroy her letters.


CWBA:  Of course, Nicolay is primarily remembered for the ten-volume biography Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890) he co-authored with John Hay. Can you describe the origins of the project and the research and writing process that went into it (including how Hay and Nicolay divided the work)?

AC&TE:  Nicolay had always wanted to write a biography of Lincoln. He was severely disappointed when Lincoln chose William Dean Howells to write the 1860 campaign biography. A Lincoln biography was discussed with the president before his death. After their return from Europe on diplomatic missions, Nicolay and Hay began working with Robert Lincoln to gain access to the Lincoln papers. The history is based on only verifiable documented facts as Nicolay and Hay declined to include any of their memories without substantiation. Hence, their more intimate conversations with Lincoln, which historians would have valued even more, are lost to us. Each man would take on a series of chapters on a particular topic and then share them with the other for editing and further verification. From their correspondence it is evident that Nicolay, whose sole goal in life was the completion of the Lincoln history, did a significantly larger portion of the writing and editing, including the page proofs.


CWBA:  One might surmise that both biographers were not in complete accord over every aspect of Lincoln’s life. Were there any major areas of disagreement between Hay and Nicolay? And if so, how were they resolved in the final version of their manuscript?

AC&TE:  There is no evidence that Nicolay and Hay had any major disagreements, both being Lincoln men through and through. There is some evidence that one or the other would “tone down” criticisms of individuals. This was done through their conversations either by letter or sometimes in person. A case in point is when Hay got Nicolay to tone down his criticism of Robert E. Lee. Hay wrote Century Magazine editor Richard Watson Gilder that Nicolay thought Lee should be shot as a traitor, an opinion that did not make its way into the history.


CWBA: Families of major historical figures frequently seek some measure of control over biographer access to private documents. How well were Nicolay and Hay able to work with Robert Lincoln? Wanting his father portrayed in the best light possible, did Robert also employ major editorial power over the project?

AC&TE:  Unquestionably, Robert Lincoln was a background presence in the writing of the history. Nicolay and Hay were very conscious that their continued access to the Lincoln papers depended on Robert’s good graces. However, since Nicolay and Hay had the goal of writing political hagiography, a goal shared by Robert, there was little conflict. Some sensitive topics in the Lincoln history were treated gingerly, including Lincoln’s relationship with his father, his love for Ann Rutledge, and the portrayal of the First Lady. In such cases the authors looked over their shoulder, especially in light of Robert Lincoln’s relationship with his own father, the embarrassment to the family that Robert’s mother might have been seen as a consolation prize, and the subject of the erratic behavior and mercurial temperament of Mary Lincoln (who at one time had been committed to an insane asylum by her son).


CWBA: What were the commercial and critical responses to the biography?

AC&TE: The critical reviews were generally positive as Nicolay kept copies of them in his papers. Carl Schurz wrote a particularly positive review. At the initial publication in 1890, there was a strong demand for the history. However, as time went on, subscriptions dropped off. This was due to a number of factors, including a Northern slant to the work and their refusal to go along with the national reconciliation at the time which enshrined the Lost Cause mythology and the Confederate leadership as heroes. They blamed the cause for the war squarely on the planter class and, particularly, slavery. For them, “states rights” had been a Southern code word for “slavery.” Their negative comments on Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee along with a number of other Confederate political and military leaders undoubtedly turned off Southern subscribers who wanted their heroes treated as patriots not traitors. Another factor was the size of the history—ten volumes, 4800 pages—that discouraged a mass audience. There were also criticisms from Northern military men who, in the print media of the day, were still fighting the war and justifying their actions and pointing their fingers at others. Many of these individuals took exception to how their leadership was portrayed.


CWBA: Beyond the published biography, what else did Nicolay do to shape the early Lincoln legacy?

AC&TE: Nicolay devoted his life, his being, to the glorification of Abraham Lincoln. He would give talks on Lincoln, and he was a founding member of Washington’s Literary Society. After the completion of the history, Nicolay and Hay published the first compilation of Lincoln papers. He also prepared notes for another Lincoln book on the president’s personal traits. However, poor eyesight and declining health prevented its publication in his lifetime. His daughter, Helen, published Personal Traits of Abraham Lincoln in 1912 based on her father’s notes. It may be considered a supplement to the history. Helen, in 1902, published a condensed version of the history based on her father’s editing. Helen, through the influence of her father for all things Lincoln, wrote a popular biography of Lincoln, The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln, for young people. The book went through multiple editions. Finally, in 1949, Helen wrote a biography of her father, Lincoln’s Secretary: A Biography of John George Nicolay. The biography, like anything connected with John George Nicolay, has much about the sixteenth president.


CWBA: Thanks for your time gentlemen. Readers, once again, the title is John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow. Check it out.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Book News: The Civil War in the South Carolina Lowcountry

Due to their relative scarcity, any new title covering some aspect of the war along the South Atlantic front is bound to at least attract my attention. Ron Roth's upcoming book The Civil War in the South Carolina Lowcountry: How a Confederate Artillery Battery and a Black Union Regiment Defined the War (McFarland, 2019) looks to be in line with my reading interests.

From the description: "Some of the most dramatic and consequential events of the Civil War era took place in the South Carolina Lowcountry between Charleston and Savannah. From fire-eater Robert Barnwell Rhett's inflammatory 1844 speech in Bluffton calling for secession, to the last desperate attempts by Confederate forces to halt Sherman's juggernaut, the region was torn apart by war."

Recruited largely from the Beaufort County area of South Carolina's Lowcountry, the subjects of Roth's dual history study are the Confederate Army's Beaufort Volunteer Artillery and the U.S. Army's First South Carolina Volunteer regiment (later redesignated the 33rd USCT). While the 1st South Carolina has received significant attention of late, particularly in books from Stephen Ash and John Saucer, the Beaufort Artillery has never received a published treatment on this scale before (at least I am not aware of any in existence). The battery was involved in many understudied actions in the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Review - "Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862" by Gregory Mertz

[Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862 by Gregory A. Mertz (Savas Beatie, 2019). Softcover, 17 maps, 166 images, appendix, orders of battle. Pages:xx,171. ISBN:978-1-61121-313-3. $14.95]

Through now dozens of installments, the Emerging Civil War series has established a winning formula of presenting concise historical narratives (authored mostly by NPS-affiliated individuals well versed in public history) generously supplemented by tour, map, and photograph features. How these constituent elements are arranged is largely up to the author. In general, the historical narrative is presented in standard chronological fashion with the driving/walking tour either offered standalone or integrated piecemeal into each chapter. The appendix section typically addresses a range of associated topics that often rival the main text in their attention-grabbing nature. Gregory Mertz's Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862 is unusual in that it is the tour that drives the narrative rather than the other way around, and the appendix section is limited to a single (though very important) issue.

As mentioned above, touring efficiency is what lies chiefly behind the chosen chapter arrangement. The book begins near Pittsburg Landing with "Grant's Last Line" and moves back and forth chronologically, even alternating between Day 1 and Day 2 events. The execution turns out to be less confusing than it sounds, especially for those readers already familiar with the battle. Novice readers might struggle with grasping the historical sequence of events, though.

Addressing old controversies and the various well-known interpretive traditions, Mertz's overview narrative is simply excellent in its summarization of the current state of the Shiloh battle historiography, among the best short-form treatments available. Descriptive accounts of each stage of the battle are well supported by a fine set of maps drawn mostly at brigade scale. Neither tour nor text address the Confederate approach march or retreat (including the fighting at Fallen Timbers), but, as is the case with book's attenuated appendix section, this is almost surely due to the format's space limitations.

ECW authors are typically grizzled veterans of conducting public tours and creating interpretive programs, and Mertz's well-honed skills in those areas are displayed in the book's seamless integration of battlefield tour and historical narrative. Clear directions and detailed viewer orientation are provided for every numbered driving tour stop and letter-sequenced walking tour stage.

In addition to recounting details of the battle, the author judiciously weighs the strengths and weaknesses of enduring points of contention. While he largely detaches himself from the fray, Mertz does occasionally come down firmly on one debate side or the other. For example, the author joins those that counter critics of Albert Sidney Johnston's leading from the front by citing the need for the Confederate commander to personally inspire his inexperienced army at key moments during the attack. As for the slain Johnston's replacement, while some see Beauregard's chief sin as calling off the Day 1 attack too soon, Mertz more persuasively criticizes the general for pulling back too far during the evening and yielding the best ground for the next day's fighting. Interestingly, the author does not substantively address criticisms of Grant's Day 1 unpreparedness.

In the appendix, contributor Ryan Quint offers a well-balanced assessment of the never-ending Lew Wallace controversy. Agreeing with the current consensus among recent biographers and Shiloh battle historians that Wallace was neither lost nor slow, the writer acknowledges that we'll never know for certain the wording of Grant's disputed order (the sheet of paper being lost to history). Other criticisms remain, however. Wallace's brief stop for a divisional lunch break and even more time lost due to his decision to maintain his original order of march when his column turned around are decisions enduringly open to question (though both could be justified on some level).

This title is one of the best representatives of what ECW series titles strive to achieve in balancing history and tour while also remaining accessible (and interesting) to a wide range of readers. Attack at Daylight and Whip Them has all the hallmarks of being a very useful tool for conducting a self-guided tour of the Shiloh battlefield.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Book News: American Zouaves, 1859-1959

Of course, many unit histories of popular Zouave regiments (mostly Union ones) have been published over the years; however, as far as I know, no one-stop history and reference guide exists out there that addresses the topic as a whole. A fulfillment of that kind of ambition does appear to be the goal of author Daniel J. Miller in putting together his upcoming book American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History (McFarland, October 2019 est.).

From the description: "Drawing on fifty years of research, this volume provides a comprehensive state-by-state catalog of American Zouave units, richly illustrated with rare and previously unpublished photographs and drawings. The author dispels many misconceptions and errors that have persisted over the last 150 years." According to the book page on the publisher's website, the study will contain around 400 images, which would be quite a collection.

Operating under the (mistaken?) assumption that the American Zouave military fad died down before the end of the 1800s, I'm curious about the twentieth-century part of the history indicated by the title. Perhaps Zouave unit designations in state militias endured as a kind of honorary tradition similar to today's 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army. I don't know.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Five books on Civil War Nebraska

1. Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 (2012)
by James E. Potter. [review]
Potter's comprehensive military and political history of Nebraska's Civil War is easily the most significant book ever published on the subject. Initially conceived as a First Nebraska regimental history, the project morphed into a wider study that also examines the late-war and beyond statehood debates at great length. If you're going to read just one book on Civil War Nebraska, this should be it.
2. Marching with the First Nebraska: A Civil War Diary (2007) August Scherneckau, ed.
by James E. Potter and Edith Robbins (trans.).
Over three thousand Nebraskans fought in the Civil War, with the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry (later converted into cavalry) being the unit most recognized for its wartime contributions. Unfortunately, the regiment still has no standalone chronicler, although (as mentioned above) Potter includes a great deal of First Nebraska material in Standing Firmly by the Flag. As far as I know, Marching with the First Nebraska is the only edited letter collection, diary, or journal written by a Nebraska soldier or officer that's ever been published in book format.
3. Massacre along the Medicine Road: A Social History of the Indian War of 1864 in Nebraska Territory (1999) by Ronald Becher.
Though no organized Confederate force ever set foot on Nebraska soil, there were other deadly threats to the population. Based on an exhaustive compilation of firsthand accounts, Becher's book details the bloody summer of 1864 in the Nebraska interior, when Sioux and Cheyenne war parties attacked numerous ranches and way stations located along the vital stretch of continental emigrant trails spanning the territory.
4. Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865, The Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (2009) by David E. Wagner. [review]
Gary Gallagher vehemently disagrees, but I have maintained for the past 15 years on the site that drawing links between period Indian conflicts and western expansion to the Civil War's overall picture is worthy of discussion. The 1865 Powder River War was the last major campaign against native tribes that was conducted fully by Civil War volunteer units. Part of a three-pronged punitive expedition, Cole's wing, having set out from Omaha, spent the most time in Nebraska itself.
5. The Civil War in the Northwest: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas (1960) by Robert Huhn Jones.
I probably wouldn't have included Jones's book if the pickings weren't already getting so thin. Though a classic study, the title oversells its coverage by a wide shot. If I recall correctly, there isn't very much in the way of proportional Nebraska content or focus inside even though it merits first mention in the subtitle.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Review - "An East Texas Family’s Civil War: The Letters of Nancy and William Whatley, May–December 1862" by John Whatley, ed.

[An East Texas Family’s Civil War: The Letters of Nancy and William Whatley, May–December 1862 edited by John T. Whatley (Louisiana State University Press, 2019). Hardcover, 3 maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages:xlviii,150. ISBN:978-0-8071-7069-4. $36.95]

Edited family correspondence is a regular feature of both popular and academic Civil War publishing. However, geographical representation in the literature is far from evenly spread. Certainly, collections of letters passed between wives running rural East Texas farms and their husbands fighting in Arkansas are published very infrequently. Edited by great-grandson John T. Whatley, An East Texas Family’s Civil War: The Letters of Nancy and William Whatley, May–December 1862 offers readers a tragically brief but illuminating early-war window into one Trans-Mississippi Confederate family's intertwining struggles on the home and military fronts.

31-year-old William Whatley numbered among that wave of Confederate "later enlisters" who were the collective subject of historian Kenneth Noe's excellent 2010 study Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861. In justifying leaving his young family behind to fight in the war, Whatley departs somewhat from Noe's general characterization of 1862 recruits as older, married, and more economically secure but much less ideological than the 1861 firebrands. While also citing defense of hearth and home, Whatley's letters frequently remind his wife that he enlisted to defend "southern rights," and it was the duty of every free citizen of a republic to fight for them. He doesn't elaborate on what he believed those rights to be, and how they were directly threatened by the Lincoln administration, but readers can likely assume that his views on those matters were in line with those expressed elsewhere by Confederates of similar social standing.

William was a private soldier in the 17th Texas Cavalry, which spent the latter half of 1862 in central and eastern Arkansas. When the Confederate high command stripped Arkansas of most of its available manpower after the Pea Ridge defeat, Texas troops rushed into the vacuum and helped turn advancing Union forces away from the capital. As an uneasy stalemate settled into the region, William's letters tell mostly of camp and scouting duties. Food was plentiful but arms, clothing, and equipment were in short supply (a common enough problem in the Confederate army as a whole but more so in the Trans-Mississippi). Readers hoping to discover a new ground-level perspective on the battle and Confederate mass surrender at Arkansas Post will be disappointed to find that the letters end well before the climax of the campaign. Whatley actually escaped capture and served out the rest of the war only to succumb to disease in 1866.

Economically situated between the yeoman farmer and planter classes, the Whatleys owned 13 slaves (most of whom were children at the war's beginning) who worked a relatively isolated farm near Caledonia in Rusk County. Female heads of household suddenly confronted with exponentially expanded duties for which they were unprepared is a common theme of the Civil War home front literature. Though her husband was able to offer her emotional support and practical advice from afar, the war left a profoundly stressed Nancy largely on her own to run the farm, conduct business, manage the family's slaves, and raise the couple's four small children. Though there seemed to have been sufficient food to go around, drought instantly threatened the vital corn crop, fodder for poultry and livestock proved inadequate, the slaves became almost unmanageable, and the cotton couldn't get ginned. The overall situation became so dire by late 1862 that home and property were in the process of being abandoned or sold by the time the letters cease, marking a remarkably rapid decline in the family's fortunes.

Before he left, William arranged for a neighbor (a Mr. Martin) to help his wife manage the family's farm, business affairs, and slave labor. Unfortunately, Martin proved incompetent or unwilling to fulfill his promises and was a constant source of anger and anxiety for Nancy. However, as the book's introduction astutely notes, we do only get one side of the story and it's possible that Martin had his hands full with his own family problems caused by the war.

From the content of the letters it seems clear that the Whatley slaves started to resist direction from both Nancy and Martin very soon after William's departure for the war, with senior slave Marshall voicing defiance and frequently refusing to work altogether. With authority of master over slave already breaking down by mid-1862 in an area of the Deep South far removed from the presence of Union troops, sober predictions that societal upheaval attendant to war on this scale would eventually destroy slavery were already coming true.

The extended presence of disease epidemics added another layer of troubles. Talk of measles outbreaks among civilians and soldiers throughout homes, communities, and army camps in East Texas and Arkansas persists in nearly every letter between William and Nancy, and most are filled with numerous death notices among family members, acquaintances, and comrades. Nancy herself succumbed to measles complications in December 1862 while nursing her children, all of whom survived. The fact that measles outbreaks originating in nearby army hospitals were able to race through the countryside and fatally impact families across the region for months on end serves as yet another reminder that current estimates of civilians deaths directly related to the war (all of which are admitted to be unsupported guesswork) are in all likelihood greatly under counted.

In comparison to many other books of this type, footnotes from editor John Whatley are rather sparse in number and detail. However, this apparent deficiency is ameliorated to a large degree by the extensive historical context and family background history contained in both Jacqueline Jones's foreword and Whatley's general introduction. Still, some significant developments raised in the letters (ex. the devastating impact of a screwworm infestation on area livestock) are allowed to pass without editorial comment.

Though some interesting aspects of William Whatley's military service are revealed in its pages, An East Texas Family’s Civil War primarily offers readers a vivid portrait of the many types of additional hardships and trials, in particular those shouldered by women, that the conflict placed upon rural Trans-Mississippi civilians of all economic classes. Recommended.