Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Review - "A Bloody Day at Gaines' Mill: The Battlefield Debut of the Army of Northern Virginia, June 27, 1862" by Elmer Woodard

[A Bloody Day at Gaines' Mill: The Battlefield Debut of the Army of Northern Virginia, June 27, 1862 by Elmer R. Woodard, III (McFarland, 2019). Softcover, 19 maps, photos, illustrations, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,229/293. ISBN:978-1-4766-7357-8. $39.95]

It's no great secret that the military historiography of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and its Seven Days series of battles remains strikingly underdeveloped. Available campaign overviews, among them works from Stephen Sears, David Martin, Joseph Cullen, and most recently Rudolph Schroeder, all leave significant room for improvement. Overall dissatisfaction with depth and scale reaches similar levels with the existing Seven Days studies from Clifford Dowdey, Judkin Browning, and Douglas Crenshaw. Only Brian Burton's Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles (2001) satisfies on most levels. When it comes to standalone battle studies, there are few titles worthy of mention and most Peninsula Campaign battles, large and small, still have no books devoted to them at all. With existing coverage limited to articles and chapter collections contained within more general works like those mentioned above, Elmer Woodard's A Bloody Day at Gaines' Mill: The Battlefield Debut of the Army of Northern Virginia, June 27, 1862 represents the most ambitious attempt to date at creating a truly comprehensive micro-scale history of the signature battle and dramatic turning point of the Seven Days. While the effort is laudable and most welcome, the results are a bit mixed.

Beginning his study in June 1862, Woodard gets right to the action, largely dispensing with the established traditions of introducing officers, major or minor, with short biographies and providing extensive background coverage of events and strategies leading up to the battle. The author does at length map out the road network north and west of Gaines' Mill, detailing along the way the converging approach marches of Stonewall Jackson's Valley Army and each element of Robert E. Lee's attack wing of his heavily reinforced Army of Northern Virginia.

In setting up the following day's epic clash, the text offers constructive overviews of the June 26 Battle of Beaver Dam Creek and the staged Union withdrawal to the high ground overlooking Boatswain's Creek in front and the Chickahominy bridges to the rear. The book's description of the midday picket battle that developed along Powhite Creek is well done and properly credits the action there for contributing to the main battle's onset being delayed until mid-afternoon. General Lee's original assumption of the enemy's main line of defense being behind Powhite Creek caused him to develop an initial attack plan that misread enemy intentions. By the time the true location of Union general Fitz John Porter's ably situated Fifth Corps was fully appreciated by Lee the only option available to get at the enemy before nightfall was a costly frontal attack.

The author's portrayal of Jackson as very active at the front and in constant communication with Lee offers a counterpoint to those that believe Jackson to have been uncharacteristically indolent and perhaps already showing early signs of the mental and physical exhaustion that many believe to have finally overwhelmed the general at White Oak Swamp. A better explanation for his "lateness" to Gaines' Mill might be a combination of factors classic to the 'friction of war' (ex. guide misunderstandings leading to route errors, staff incompetence, and typical problems coordinating widely dispersed columns). At least some confusion and delay will arise when an enemy army presents itself in completely unanticipated fashion. Technically, the author is correct that Jackson was not "late" given that men under his command were present with and directly supported A.P. Hill's initial assault, but Arnold Elzey's Brigade was just the vanguard of Richard Ewell's Division and the bulk of the Valley Army was still stacked up to the rear when Hill's Light Division was repulsed with heavy loss.

Though perhaps exaggerated in its degree of import, Woodard's historiographical complaint over previous Seven Days writers carelessly using 1864 maps of the Gaines's Mill/Cold Harbor area to describe 1862 events represents a valid concern. In the book, Woodard and cartographer Hal Jesperson construct a detailed topographical map (see pg. 61) of the battlefield that the author feels best fits the historical record. Offered in the text are a series of rather vivid descriptions of the geographical extent and militarily-relevant physical properties of those terrain features that figured most prominently in the battle. Several are given nicknames (ex. "Zouave Hill" and "Griffin's Woods") that remind readers of their close association with particular fighting units.

The Gaines' Mill battle concentrated large numbers of combatants on a very narrow front with terrain that frequently fragmented attacking formations. Adding to the modern chronicler's difficulties in sorting out the sequence of events are the inherent inexactitude of mid-nineteenth century time stamping and the fact that the battle consisted of a series of heavy attacks carried out over a short period of time between roughly 3-4 p.m. and nightfall. Nevertheless, the author is keen to wade in with his own version of how the battle played out. Though understandably focusing somewhat more on the attacking Confederates, the battle narrative exhibits a good faith effort on the part of the author at presenting both sides of the action. Generally speaking, attention to small-unit detail is evenly spread among both armies, and Porter's defensive arrangements are very clearly and comprehensively laid out for the reader in both maps and text.

When reading Woodard's uniquely detailed account of the fighting at Gaines' Mill, one is immediately struck by the size of the gaps that exist in earlier accounts (including Burton's). Whatever the accuracy of the interpretation in places, the battle narrative fills in those gaps with a reasonably coherent narrative of events that plausibly recalls the timing, sequence, and extent of the series of Confederate attacks that eventually overwhelmed the Union defenses. In the main, Woodard is more concerned with providing his own version of events than pointing out interpretive differences with other authors, though there is certainly some of that. Rather than focusing once again on the famous breakthrough moment of Chase Whiting's Division, the author elects instead to emphasize how the joint efforts of Whiting's Division, Archer's Brigade, three brigades (Pickett's, Pryor's, and Wilcox's) from Longstreet's Division, and some independent-acting regiments together created an irreparable breach in the Union line during a half-hour period between roughly 6:30 p.m. and 7.

Some readers will view with disfavor the author's decision to fragment his chapter narratives by breaking up the text into numerous action subsections (most often by military unit or formation), though their arrangement is sensible enough. While non-traditional in form, the content of Woodard's account of the battle is conventional in the sense that its backbone is formed by the O.R. and the text is richly supplemented with quoted passages from firsthand accounts written by participants of all ranks. Though it's difficult to get an overall sense of the breadth of research when the source list is not subdivided by category, the bibliography seems substantial enough (with some notable deficiencies, in newspapers for example) and might fairly be described as adequate but not exhaustive.

With some elements of the study, accepted practices are more radically altered. In an attempt to facilitate a more organized means of tracking temporary, ad-hoc collections of regiments formed from fragmented brigades, the author created for narrative purposes his own artificial brigade-equivalents (calling them "battle groups"). Many readers might find this well-intentioned innovation helpful, but one suspects that those more fully accustomed to sorting out complex battle lines will find the addition of another org layer (especially a non-historical one) an unnecessarily heavy-handed intervention. Undoubtedly, reactions will vary. Though harmless, other aspects of Woodard's writing are more oddly idiosyncratic. Examples include the author's ahistorical designation of Lee's offensive as "Operation Chickahominy," and his labeling of Union and Confederate brigadier generals as 'Brigadier X' in the modern British fashion. He also frequently applies his own colorful nicknames to the military geography (ex. coining the stretch of Union defensive line where the decisive breakthrough eventually occurred "The Wall of Death").

Other things are more distracting. Added to a number of typos, scattered errors, and some repeated passages are more potentially troubling areas. For example, a limited sampling of the book's references revealed a striking number of sloppy mistakes. While their substance does not raise serious alarm bells along the lines of mishandling of sources, one can only hope that similar lack of attention to detail did not extend to more important areas of the author's research and writing. More explicitly objectionable is the author's tone in places. Even though the book engages an admittedly weak historiography, the author's collective disparagement of the existing literature is a bit over the top, and his derisive comment about prior Gaines' Mill authors all being "eggheads" has no useful place in a serious historical study. Thankfully, once the reader gets beyond the preface a different and much-improved authorial attitude and tone are evidenced.

The book's cartography is a major strength, and the author is to be commended for making it a priority. Operational and tactical maps are plentiful in number and generous in both unit and terrain detail, though space and/or source limitations often forced a mixing of military scaling between regiments and brigades/"battle groups." Multi-sourced orders of battle are present in the appendix section, and they refreshingly include regimental strength and loss data (though the notes rather surprisingly do not reference Leon Tenney's pioneering research). The OB material is enhanced on the Union side with battery compositions along with weapons information for select infantry units.

The definitive study of this battle is yet to be published, but A Bloody Day at Gaines' Mill represents a step forward in more than enough ways to make it worthy of at least qualified recommendation. Among all existing Gaines's Mill treatments, this one is without peer when it comes to providing readers with a comprehensive interpretation of the entire course and flow of the battle at the small-unit level. It will be very interesting to compare Woodard's version of events to R.E.L. Krick's much anticipated study, if or when that one ever gets completed and published.

7 comments:

  1. Drew: Thanks for this (as always) thorough, insightful, and balanced review. I've only skimmed my copy but concur with most of your points based on what I've read. The maps are indeed a plus (subject to the following issue): I find the "battle group" device especially annoying and unhelpful. That generally applied in WWII to units that were "ad hoc" rather than permanent/long-term, but that were expressly designed and organized as distinct units for a combat. The Peiper Kampfgruppe (of Malmedy notoriety) was an example. Here, the author imports this into the narrative to cover the inevitable commingling of units during fluid fighting - something which happened in a number of ACW battles which nonetheless have been capably narrated by reputable authors without importing this artificial and confusing contrivance. The ambiguity is compounded by a traditional OOB in an Appendix.

    As you suggest, the definitive treatment awaits (hopefully) publication by Bobby Krick of the fruits from his career-long interest in Gaines's Mill - possibly in conjunction with Frank O'Reilly's long-awaited Malvern Hill project. At that point maybe this crucial seven-day span will start receiving the treatment which it deserves.

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    1. Thanks, John. You do have to wonder if we'll get a similar floodgates effect like the one that is happening with Atlanta once one or both of those finally gets published.

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  2. While we're at it, it would be nice to get an expanded and updated version of Steven Newton's book on Fair Oaks (just to move this beyond the Seven Days).

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  3. Drew and John: Last month I once again had the opportunity to ask Bob Krick (the elder) how things were coming along with Bobby's magnum opus. He replied that he was copy-editing the book for Bobby, and had just finished chapter 14 dealing with the assault of Pickett's brigade. Bob said that Bobby was actually done with the writing. I neglected to ask if anything had been arranged with a specific publisher yet.
    -Phil LeDuc

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    1. Thanks for the update, Phil, and for your persistence in getting the latest scoop!

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    2. I want to read his book before shuffling off this mortal coil! Consider it a bucket list item!

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    3. Phil: That's great news. Supposedly Frank O'Reilly may be giving an update on his Malvern Hill project at an event next month (based on my searching around on the internet).

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