Friday, June 28, 2019

Favorite near-misses

How about a little fun Friday discussion about "classic" Civil War books that you like already but would love to see get a newly 'revised and expanded' edition treatment that would elevate it from being merely good to something greater. The following criteria will be used.

The book has to be:
• 20+ years old
• not surpassed by another title since original publication
• already generally regarded as a "major" work on its subject matter

I'm sure I could think of others but one I frequently come back to is Steven Newton's The Battle of Seven Pines, May 31-June 1, 1862 (1993), originally published by H.E. Howard as part of their Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series. Improved editions of a number of books from that hit-and-miss series have been released in recent years by Savas Beatie, The History Press, and others. Newton's Fair Oaks/Seven Pines coverage is the only book-length study of that major episode of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign that's worthy of note (there's an Osprey overview and a 2011 McFarland title that doesn't do the battle justice). I've read Newton's book several times (but not recently), and it's always struck me as an adequate treatment that would benefit from a general clean up as well as an all-around fleshing out of detail. A new set of maps would raise its value significantly, too.

So what gets your vote? Please add it to the comments section. I look forward to reading them.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Coming Soon (July '19 Edition)

*NEW RELEASES* scheduled for July 2019:
The Great Partnership: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Fate of the Confederacy by Christian B. Keller.
Washington Roebling's Civil War: From the Bloody Battlefield at Gettysburg to the Brooklyn Bridge by Diane Monroe Smith.
Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy by John D. Schaff.
Colonels in Blue-Missouri and the Western States and Territories: A Civil War Biographical Dictionary by Roger D. Hunt.
John C. O'Neill: Union Army Officer, Irish Republican Raider of Canada by Thomas Fox.
Pinkertons, Prostitutes and Spies: The Civil War Adventures of Secret Agents Timothy Webster and Hattie Lawton by John Stewart.
Lee's Body Guards: The 39th Virginia Cavalry by Michael C. Hardy.
Carl Schurz, German-American Statesman: My Country Right or Wrong by Peter T. Lubrecht.

Comments: I am looking forward to seeing what Keller has to say about the Lee-Jackson relationship and all that that entailed for the Confederate war effort. The latest volume of Colonels in Blue interests me very much as it will likely contain a higher proportion of lesser-known officers than any other installment in the series. Finally, does North Carolina know that Michael Hardy is cheating on them with Virginia?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Booknotes: John George Nicolay

New Arrival:
John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow by Allen Carden and Thomas J. Ebert (UT Press, 2019).

Given John Nicolay's enormous significance to both the Lincoln White House and historiography, I was surprised to learn that no scholarly biography of the president's influential secretary has been published before now. In terms of existing standalone works, my admittedly shallow search only revealed a 1949 biography (Lincoln's Secretary: A Biography of John G. Nicolay) written by daughter Helen Nicolay. Released this month, Allen Carden and Thomas Ebert's John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow seeks to fill in this gap.

From the description: "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 [born Johann Georg Nicolai in Essingen, Rhineland-Palatinate] 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."

More: "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."

I have an author Q&A lined up for July.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Booknotes: Faces of Union Soldiers at Antietam

New Arrival:
Faces of Union Soldiers at Antietam by Joseph Stahl and Matthew Borders (Arcadia Pub & The History Pr, 2019).

"The Battle of Antietam, fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland, was the bloodiest day in American history, with more than twenty-three thousand dead, wounded and missing." Joseph Stahl and Matthew Borders's Faces of Union Soldiers at Antietam "invites the reader to walk the routes of some of the units on the field through the stories of thirty-six individual soldiers who fought on that day. The images of the soldiers in this work, many of which have never been published before, give faces to the fighting men at Antietam, as well as insight into their lives." Borders is a park ranger at Monocacy National Battlefield and Stahl is a retired defense analyst who is currently an Antietam/Harpers Ferry battlefield guide and volunteer. 

Chapters are oriented around the major sectors of the Antietam battlefield (i.e. Cornfield, East Woods, West Woods, Sunken Road, Burnside's Bridge, and "Final Attack"), and each includes a well-chosen battle map borrowed (with permission, of course) from Gottfried's atlas. Accompanying each soldier CDV image (presented front and back) is a brief essay exploring the Antietam experiences of both individual and regiment. There is also frequent commentary in the text addressing details from the photograph itself, focusing mostly on grooming, uniform style, buttons, headgear, etc.

A lengthy appendix reproduces all of the available O.R. battle reports from the units referenced in the book. Notes, bibliography, and index round out the volume.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Review - "Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign: The Twenty-One Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation" by Larry Peterson

[Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign: The Twenty-One Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation by Larry Peterson (University of Tennessee Press, 2019). Softcover, 34 maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:xx,262. ISBN:978-1-62190-472-4. $29.95]

All Command Decisions in America's Civil War series titles have substantial campaign elements1, but Larry Peterson's Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign: The Twenty-One Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation is the first to shift the focus from a single major battle to an extended campaign consisting of multiple large-scale clashes. In this case, the book follows the course of the Atlanta Campaign from December 1863 through September 1864. This higher level approach involves more decision-making at the national and departmental levels, but the structural format of the analysis remains the same.

For those unfamiliar with the series (the rest of you can skip this paragraph), the basic definition of a "critical" decision as established by creator Matt Spruill remains consistent among now several contributors. It can be articulated as an apex decision that shapes "not only the events immediately following it but also the events from that point on" (xii). Analysis of critical decisions progresses through five areas with the subheadings Situation, Options, Decision, Results/Impact, and Alternative Decisions and Scenarios. The initial and typically the lengthiest section, Situation describes the state of affairs at a key crossroads moment in the campaign. It provides readers with the background information necessary to recognize and evaluate the decision Options (two to four in number) that immediately follow. The historical Decision is then outlined very briefly before the Results/Impact section recounts what happened and shows readers how those events shaped the rest of the battle and beyond. The Situation and Results/Impact sections frequently reference earlier decisions in a meaningful way, providing further evidence and vivid reminder that truly critical decisions have cascading consequences over a long campaign. Optional in previous volumes, every critical decision has an Alternative Decisions and Scenarios section in this book and each delves into reasonable alternative history conjecture(s) based on interesting choices not made. Photographs and twenty original maps accompany the decision analysis.

As was the case with the earlier battle-oriented installments, a broad range of decision types are involved, classified here as "strategic, operational, tactical, organizational, personnel, and logistical" (xii). As mentioned above, lower level tactical decisions feature far less prominently in this campaign study. As seems appropriate, Atlanta Campaign critical decisions were made exclusively by army commanders and above (previous volumes frequently featured corps, division, and even brigade-level decision-making). Of the twenty-one critical decisions, ten are tactical, four personnel related, three strategic, two organizational, one operational, and one logistical in nature. Six were made at the national level by Lincoln (1), Davis (3), and Grant (2); ten by Sherman at the departmental level; and five at army command level by McPherson (1), Johnston (3), and Hood (1). One might interpret the 17:7 disparity between Union and Confederate critical decisions as indicative of a campaign dominated by bold Union initiative matched against a more passive Confederate reactive approach.

These kinds of books don't lend themselves to conventional reviews so just a few examples will be taken from the book's critical decision analysis for brief discussion. This should offer prospective readers at least some sense of what to expect. Collectively, the six national decisions serve as ample reminder that high-level decisions made during the planning process often go a long way toward deciding the outcome of military campaigns before the fighting even starts. President Davis's decision to place General Joseph E. Johnston at the head of the Army of Tennessee, an act celebrated by many within the army, created the command match-up perhaps least favorable to Confederate hopes: a passive, risk-averse general (Johnston) versus an aggressive commander wedded to the indirect approach and well equipped to carry it out (Sherman). In terms of options, Davis could have chosen (1) a replacement for Bragg from among the Confederacy's short list of full generals, or (2) promoted a capable corps or division commander. Though he briefly entertained giving the job to General Hardee (who declined it), Davis felt himself constrained to follow option 1 and choose either Johnston or Beauregard. Of course, the choice was Johnston, whom Davis considered the lesser of those two evils, and the result was a disastrous Fabian strategy that failed to even slow let alone arrest Sherman's progress. In his alternative scenario discussion, Peterson is somewhat sympathetic of Davis's narrow mindset in that the author also finds a dearth of Confederate lieutenant generals suitable for major army command. He does mention some promising candidates, among the very short list Richard Taylor, but for some reason maintains that their then current positions made transfer unfeasible. The whole decision process is a signal reminder of how unnecessarily inflexible Davis was in selecting candidates for army command. It also highlights the Confederate high command's utter failure to both identify and groom promising young officers for higher military office. This contrasts sharply with what the Union Army was able to do so successfully with Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and others.

Sherman's critical decision to order General McPherson to take the Army of the Tennessee on a wide flanking march around the Confederate left and seize the railroad at Resaca promised great results right off the bat, but McPherson's own critical decision to pull back into Snake Creek Gap after the lightly defended town was within his grasp remains the subject of enduring controversy. McPherson's orders from Sherman allowed for two options: (1) advance through the gap and seize Resaca, cutting Johnston off from Atlanta; or (2) pull back to the gap and await reinforcements if heavy resistance was encountered. McPherson's decision to return all the way back to Snake Creek Gap after achieving an insignificant break in the railroad line north of Resaca is commonly considered one of the great 'lost opportunities' of the war. In the alternative scenario in which McPherson recognizes the weakness of the Resaca defenders and captures the town, the author sees Johnston as having only three options in response: attack, retreat, or surrender. Only the middle option seems likely. Most later observers consider McPherson's occupation of Resaca as tantamount to forcing Johnston to surrender (or at the very least lose most of his army as an effective fighting force), but Peterson reminds those taken to such exaggeration that an eastern escape route, though more difficult to traverse, was indeed available. He even provides a map of a possible line of retreat. However, even if the Confederate army survived it would have been in a very tight place after having been forced to concede both the railroad and the inside track to Atlanta to Sherman's still very fresh army group.

The final example is also the last critical decision made during the campaign. After John Bell Hood was forced to evacuate Atlanta after his Jonesboro defeat, Sherman had two options: (1) pursue Hood's beaten army, or (2) withdraw back to captured Atlanta for well-earned rest and needed refit. Peterson sees Sherman's decision to rest as the most practical option. It resulted in Hood's army breaking contact and getting away without further harm, but one could argue that at this late stage of the campaign Atlanta itself (rather than the Army of Tennessee) had become the more pressing target. Atlanta and the weighty political rewards reaped by its conquest were already fairly won. At least for the moment, Hood could wait. Interestingly, Peterson does not figure Sherman's greatly weakened cavalry arm into the pursuit calculations. He also curiously did not incorporate how that came to be in any of his earlier critical decision discussions. As we know, Sherman sent his mounted forces off on long-range raiding operations that resulted in the destruction of a large proportion of his available cavalry.

Extensive driving tours are a main feature of series titles, and this one follows a 14-stop route between Chattanooga and Jonesboro. Each stop is usefully integrated into the main text's critical decision analysis. Detailed driving directions, 14 modern road maps, and numerous excerpts from historical accounts and official reports supplement the discussion. While the series overall does a fine job of maintaining format consistency, it should be mentioned that the rest of the volumes do not follow the Spruill titles (Stones River and Second Manassas) in offering additional detailed tactical maps in the tour section. Orders of battle, notes, bibliography, and index round out the volume.

The unique format of the Command Decisions in America's Civil War series continues to foster a disciplined approach to military decision analysis that promotes useful reflection and reconsideration of supposedly settled history and opinion2. Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign also successfully demonstrates that the established series format can be readily adapted to focus on more extensive military operations encompassing a string of major engagements. Recommended.

1 - The first four volumes in the series cover the Stones River, Second Manassas, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga battles. Similar to this one, another campaign installment has also been recently released for the 1862 Kentucky Campaign. As for whether the series format is better suited for battle vs. campaign topics, I would reserve judgment/opinion until there are more examples of the latter.
2 - The series is broadly effective in countering arguments that the critical decisions evaluated within are frequently self-evident in nature and their analysis conventional.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Booknotes: Antietam National Battlefield

New Arrival:
Antietam National Battlefield by Kevin R. Pawlak (Arcadia Pub, 2019).

Arcadia's Images of America series volumes are a mainstay of bookstores everywhere. Not so much anymore, but I used to also see them regularly in drugstores and even supermarkets. Focused on local history of all possible kinds, the books convey that history through captioned contemporary photographs supplemented with images of historic lithographs, maps, and other illustration types. The series is populated with many titles having Civil War connections, the latest being Antietam National Battlefield guide Kevin Pawlak's Antietam National Battlefield.

From the description: "Approximately 110,000 soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies fought along the banks of Antietam Creek in the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. In 12 hours of fighting, approximately 23,000 men fell, either killed, wounded, or missing, forever scarring the landscape around the town of Sharpsburg. Established as the Antietam Battlefield Site in 1890, Antietam National Battlefield became a National Park Service landmark in 1933. The park grew from 33 acres in the 1890s to encompassing over 3,000 acres today. Some of the Civil War's most recognizable landmarks now sit within its boundaries, including Dunker Church, Bloody Lane, and Burnside Bridge. The events that occurred across the fields and woodlots around Sharpsburg and along Antietam Creek bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to Antietam National Battlefield every year."

Compiled "from the collections of Antietam National Battlefield Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the United States Army Heritage and Education Center, private collections, and more," the photographs and illustrations document the Antietam battle, battlefield, cemetery, memorials, monuments, and 150 years of commemoration events. There's also a Postcards of America supplement.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Booknotes: Treason on Trial

New Arrival:
Treason on Trial: The United States v. Jefferson Davis by Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez (LSU Press, 2019).

In one of those odd quirks of coincidental timing, a curious relative asked me how much is known about why Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were not tried by the U.S. government for treason just as, unbeknownst to him, John Reeves's The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee was being released and advance word of Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez's Treason on Trial: The United States v. Jefferson Davis was just coming out. I am especially looking forward to reading the latter.

From the description: "In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, federal officials captured, imprisoned, and indicted Jefferson Davis for treason. If found guilty, the former Confederate president faced execution for his role in levying war against the United States. Although the federal government pursued the charges for over four years, the case never went to trial. In this comprehensive analysis of the saga, Treason on Trial, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez suggests that while national politics played a role in the trial’s direction, the actions of lesser-known individuals ultimately resulted in the failure to convict Davis."

That's an interesting take. I would guess that if Civil War readers as a whole were required to come up with a 30-second elevator speech on the issue the vast majority would suggest strategic political expediency as the primary force behind the collapse of the case against Davis. More: "While Icenhauer-Ramirez agrees that politics played a role in the case, he suggests that focusing exclusively on that aspect obscures the importance of the participants. In the United States of America v. Jefferson Davis, preeminent lawyers represented both parties. According to Icenhauer-Ramirez, Lucius H. Chandler, the local prosecuting attorney, lacked the skill and temperament necessary to put the case on a footing that would lead to trial. In addition, Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had little desire to preside over the divisive case and intentionally stymied the prosecution’s efforts. The deft analysis in Treason on Trial illustrates how complications caused by Chandler and Chase led to a three-year delay and, eventually, to the dismissal of the case in 1868, when President Andrew Johnson granted blanket amnesty to those who participated in the armed rebellion."

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Booknotes: Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign

New Arrival:
Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign: The Twenty-Seven Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation by Larry Peterson (UT Press, 2019).

This is the sixth installment (and third from author Larry Peterson) in University of Tenneseee Press's new and interesting Command Decisions in America's Civil War series, which has been releasing titles at a almost blinding clip since the 2018 publication of the first volume. With Gettysburg and Wilderness/Spotsylvania entries in the upcoming F/W catalog, the series is showing no signs of slowing down.

From the description: "By early 1862, Union forces had won successive victories in the emerging Western Theater of the American Civil War. Forts Henry and Donelson had fallen, handing control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to the US Navy; the siege of Corinth had ceded rail lines to Union control; and New Orleans, the Confederacy’s prized port, had been captured by Admiral Farragut. The Kentucky Campaign was meant to reverse Confederate fortunes and recapture the Bluegrass State for the Confederacy. Though the Rebels won a tactical victory at Perryville and successfully drew Union forces away from northern Alabama and middle Tennessee, their ultimate retreat would leave Kentucky in the hands of the Union Army for the remainder of the war."

Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign: The Twenty-Seven Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation joins Peterson's previous volume (Atlanta) in marking a momentary series shift in format to higher-level coverage of longer campaigns (notice the subtitle shift in volumes 5 and 6 from "Battle" to "Operation"). The book "introduces readers to critical decisions made by Confederate and Union commanders throughout the heartland contest. Rather than offering a history of the Kentucky Campaign, Larry Peterson hones in on a sequence of critical decisions confronting commanders on both sides of the clash to provide a blueprint of the campaign at its tactical core. Identifying and exploring the critical decisions in this way allows students of history to go from a rudimentary sense of the 'what' of warfare, to a mature grasp of 'why.'"

As is the case with all of the books in the series, this one has an extensive driving tour appendix specifically focused on the decisions explored earlier in the text. There are also orders of battle for both sides.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Review - "The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864" by Hampton Newsome

[The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864 by Hampton Newsome (University Press of Kansas, 2019). Hardcover, 18 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,329/478. ISBN:978-0-7006-2746-2. $34.95]

With use of its port facilities, rail network, and productive farmland coveted by both sides, eastern North Carolina was an early target for Union land and naval forces. Nevertheless, interest on their part in turning newly-won coastal enclaves into bases for major inland operations against vulnerable enemy lines of communication soon cooled considerably. After the 1862 Burnside Expedition swept through the area and occupied all key points lining the coast, neither side prioritized the region. Largely stripped of troops over and above those needed for garrison duties, a sort of regional military stalemate existed throughout the war's middle period, interrupted only by the occasional raid. The military literature generally follows suit, providing thorough coverage of 1862 and 1865 events but only paying spotty attention to the years in between. However, as oddly occurs with some frequency in the Civil War literature, a very long period of neglect has been punctuated recently by a small but noteworthy burst of activity. Beginning in 2015, the beautiful to behold and astoundingly useful The Old North State at War: The North Carolina Civil War Atlas brought exceptional map coverage and much needed perspective to 1864 events in the eastern part of the state. This was followed by James White's New Bern and the Civil War (2018), a slim volume documenting the several 1863-64 Confederate attempts to capture and reoccupy the region's most strategically significant town. Examining in unprecedented depth and detail the 1864 Confederate winter-spring offensive in eastern North Carolina, a partially successful campaign that featured a stunning Confederate triumph at Plymouth and two failed attempts to capture New Bern, is Hampton Newsome's new book The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 18641.

Newsome begins with an excellent discussion of the military and political reasons behind why an early-1864 campaign in eastern North Carolina was deemed important by the Confederate high command, including Robert E. Lee (who was always loath to part with troops needed for his epic struggle with the Union's premier field army). With the main armies in Virginia still in winter quarters, what began in North Carolina as a small-scale Confederate roundup of deserters was converted into a major campaign to regain home ground long lost to the enemy. On the political front, it was hoped that major military success in eastern North Carolina might boost the reelection chances of war governor Zebulon Vance, diminish Unionist resolve, and counter increasing demoralization among Confederate supporters who felt neglected by the Richmond government. The lack of a strong response to a major raid conducted the previous year by Union general Edward Wild's "African Brigade" made the pro-Confederate populace feeling unprotected by the government and slavery in the state increasingly insecure. In addition to raising civilian morale and support for the war, the capture of New Bern and other major Union-held posts along the rivers and sounds would also open up vast areas of the state once again to Confederate commissary agents. By 1864, this was a pressing consideration.

Newsome provides extensive coverage of the five major components of the Confederate winter-spring offensive: (1) the failed February 1864 attack on New Bern (which was followed by the controversial hangings at Kinston), (2) Ransom's Raid, (3) the storming and capture of Plymouth, (4) the reoccupation of Washington, and finally (5) the second aborted attempt to seize New Bern in May. The multi-pronged land and naval attack on New Bern in February was department commander George Pickett's operation. It involved a complicated and highly ambitious plan that relied on close coordination, surprise, and river support from daring naval officer John Taylor Wood's small boat force. As Newsome's detailed account reveals, none of those elements succeeded to the extent required to achieve victory. Surprise was lost immediately by a determined Union defense of the  Bachelor Creek blockhouse and picket line while Wood's impressive capture of USS Underwriter was negated by the necessity of destroying it after the vessel proved immune to all efforts at getting it underway. A minor victory at Newport Barracks also could not be exploited. The whole operation is reminiscent of other failed Confederate attempts to capture Union river posts that were strongly defended, heavily fortified, and closely supported by the navy (ex. Helena in Arkansas and Fort Butler in Louisiana), and the author is appropriately aware of the many challenges Pickett's operation needed to overcome in order to have any chance of complete success. Of course, every military failure seeks out a scapegoat and allegations of timidity on the part of Virginia general Seth Barton served that requirement well. In retrospect, it seems highly doubtful that Barton and his brigade could have overwhelmed the strong forts and water barriers on their front and forced a general Union surrender, but others at the time seemed to believe otherwise. As overall commander, General Pickett was also held responsible, and his star sunk even further in the minds of many when he orchestrated a mass hanging of Union prisoners who had previously deserted from the Confederate Army (more on this below).

After the New Bern operation failed to achieve the desired results, a brigade-sized Confederate foraging raid was launched from Weldon. Ranging back and forth across SE Virginia and NE North Carolina, Ransom's Raid (February 24 - March 7) accumulated a massive commissary haul. As Newsome astutely notes, its consequences were more than material in nature. The renewed military  presence on ground long occupied by the enemy also demonstrated that Confederate forces were no longer willing to simply concede the loss of territory. On a grimmer note, Ransom's trail also symbolically passed through areas featured in Wild's Raid and still regularly patrolled by black Union troops, and instances of no quarter fighting near Suffolk (where the Confederates clashed successfully with a detachment from the 2nd US Colored Cavalry) presaged what would follow at Plymouth.

Though his actions would be overseen first by George Pickett and later by P.G.T. Beauregard, the key figure in the 1864 campaign in North Carolina was Robert F. Hoke. For the Plymouth attack, he would be in charge of a major operation for the first time, and his stunning victory there would earn him promotion to major general. Newsome's highly detailed account of the entire operation is well researched and thorough, easily the new standard treatment. Several chapters address the planning and execution of the movement against heavily fortified Plymouth. The final outfitting of Hoke's naval support, the CSS Albemarle, is also detailed in the book. In addition to being strongly defended and amply fortified, Plymouth had established rearward defenses facing the water approaches. To secure Plymouth's fall, many things had to go right on the Confederate side. Through the author's keen analysis of events, the Plymouth chapters reveal Hoke's strengths as a battlefield tactician and a Confederate capacity for combined operations rarely seen during the war. At Plymouth, Hoke was able to firmly manage all of his subordinate formations in the heat of battle. When any part of his attack plan bogged down, he instinctively redirected the focus of the assault without losing control of his men or the tempo of the battle. This uncommon flexibility resulted in a devastating Confederate breakthrough on the more rugged but less-fortified Union left that swept through the town itself and captured the defenders from the rear. The haul in prisoners, supplies, and equipment was immense, and Hoke's North Carolina campaign was far from finished.

The next target was Washington, which was also surrounded by a substantial and well-defended network of fortifications. Though the Pamlico River town was far from an easy target, it was nevertheless evacuated (and substantially burned in the process) before Hoke arrived. This bloodless capture placed New Bern yet again in Confederate gun sights. This time around hopes were high that things would turn out different with added support from the navy. However, the ironclad CSS Neuse was still aground in its namesake river and the refitted Albemarle was turned back in Albemarle Sound during the lesser-known May 5 naval battle on Batchelor's Bay. Concurrent events in Virginia also conspired to derail Hoke's plans, as the opening of the Overland Campaign led to the staged recall of Hoke's borrowed brigades. Though some accounts written by the Union defenders lament their weakness in the face of looming attack, the much-reduced Confederate force had little realistic chance of taking New Bern under those circumstances and the operation was abandoned.

The book's coverage of the Kinston hangings and later allegations regarding a "massacre" of white North Carolina Unionists (derisively termed "Buffaloes") and black troops after the capture of Plymouth highlight intractable wartime disagreements over which classes of soldiers would be deemed legitimate combatants by both sides and thus subject to standard POW treatment. As one would expect, Union forces maintained that Confederate deserters and black soldiers became entitled to all the rights and protections of regular soldiers once they formally donned the blue uniform, but many Confederates in positions of authority disagreed. General Pickett saw the hangings of deserter Buffaloes captured at New Bern as both just punishment and useful tool of intimidation, but the author notes that even some in the ranks of the Confederate Army were sympathetic with deserter protests that the army had been unfaithful, even deceitful, toward those men when it came to honoring their original terms of enlistment. According to many Confederate rank and file soldiers, the condemned men deserved less than capital punishment and the fact that it was a prominent Virginian meting out the harsh military justice rankled Tar Heel Confederates almost as much. On the matter of the Plymouth controversy, Newsome defers without much in the way of extensive further commentary to the now classic 1995 North Carolina Historical Review article by Jordan and Thomas2, which concluded that perhaps fifty men were killed either during the act of surrender or after capture.

Throughout the book, Newsome's narrative is supported by an excellent set of maps (18 in number) that allow readers to readily visualize military movements and events at all scales. The usefulness of the series of tactical maps for Plymouth and the two New Bern operations is particularly noteworthy. In The Fight for the Old North State, Newsome certainly adds to his reputation as an indefatigable researcher. Text, notes, and bibliography indicate both extensive original manuscript research as well as thoughtful synthesis of the available secondary literature. Readers appreciative of the high-level research and narrative interpretation skills displayed in Newsome's earlier military study Richmond Must Fall will find the same qualities here3.

Though the 1864 Confederate offensive in North Carolina failed to seize New Bern—the crown jewel of Union military posts in the department—Newsome builds a persuasive case that the operation was mostly successful when viewed in the broadest sense. It raised Confederate morale in the state, had the desired effect of chilling the ardor of Buffaloes, temporarily undermined the state's peace party movement, and likely contributed at least in some way (though the author readily admits how much so is impossible to know) to the reelection of pro-war Governor Vance. Though a complete inventory of material gains is impossible to compile from available records, it does seem likely that supplies seized both during the campaign and after the reopening of large areas of the North Carolina countryside to Confederate commissary agents met the urgent needs of the fighting forces in Virginia over the coming weeks and months. The campaign also marked Robert Hoke as a rising young star in the east, although, as Newsome acknowledges, the young general had his critics after he resumed a subordinate role under Lee for the rest of the year in Virginia.

In a narrative that details battlefield events and analyzes their military, political, and social contexts in equal measure, The Fight for the Old North State is an excellent history of an understudied late-war offensive that was a rare (though qualified) Confederate success. While racial and political violence were certainly not new to 1864, Newsome's account of the campaign also usefully portrays it as a clear, early demonstration that the coming year's increasingly frequent confrontations between the most volatile combinations of battlefield combatants would be characterized by rising levels of lethal violence. Highly recommended.

1 - Juanita Patience Moss's Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina (April 17-20, 1864): The Last Confederate Victory is flawed but worthy of mention as the only book dedicated to that battle. Like Newsome, the author largely points to Jordan and Thomas for authority regarding massacre claims.
2 - Jordan, Weymouth T., Jr., and Gerald W. Thomas. "Massacre at Plymouth: April 20, 1864." North Carolina Historical Review 72,2 (April 1995). Newsome's limited discussion of same suggests that he is in general agreement with the findings of Jordan and Thomas.
3 - Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864 (Kent State University Press, 2013). This work forms a key part of the recent renaissance in Petersburg Campaign studies.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Booknotes: "Too Much for Human Endurance"

New Arrival:
"Too Much for Human Endurance": The George Spangler Farm Hospitals and the Battle of Gettysburg by Ronald D. Kirkwood (Savas Beatie, 2019).

Basing itself upon "a massive array of firsthand accounts," Ronald Kirkwood's "Too Much for Human Endurance": The George Spangler Farm Hospitals and the Battle of Gettysburg "re-creates the sprawling XI Corps hospital complex and the people who labored and suffered there—especially George and Elizabeth Spangler and their four children, who built a thriving 166-acre farm only to witness it nearly destroyed when war paid them a bloody visit that summer of 1863." Seeking to relay a broad perspective, the personal stories of "nurses, surgeons, ambulance workers, musicians, teenage fighters, and others" are presented.

More than one hospital was established on the farm. "In addition to including the most complete lists ever published of the dead, wounded, and surgeons at the Spanglers’ XI Corps hospital, this study breaks new ground with stories of the First Division, II Corps hospital at the Spanglers’ Granite Schoolhouse."

The Spangler Farm's place in the battle itself is also discussed by Kirkwood. His book "establishes the often-overlooked strategic importance of the property and its key role in the Union victory. Army of the Potomac generals took advantage of the farm’s size, access to roads, and central location to use it as a staging area to get artillery and infantry to the embattled front line from Little Round Top north to Cemetery Hill just in time to prevent its collapse and a Confederate breakthrough."

Accompanying the main narrative is a tour of the modern Spangler Farm. The six-part appendix section includes a collection of surgeon biographies, orders of battle for the Eleventh Corps and army artillery reserve, a discussion of the contested whereabouts of the 2nd Conn. Lt. Battery, a Spangler Farm patient roster, and an interment list.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Booknotes: Union Sharpshooter Versus Confederate Sharpshooter

New Arrival:
Union Sharpshooter Versus Confederate Sharpshooter: American Civil War 1861–65 by Gary Yee (Osprey, 2019).

Part of Osprey's Combat series, Gary Yee's Union Sharpshooter Versus Confederate Sharpshooter "assesses the fighting techniques, armament, and combat record of the Union and Confederate sharpshooters who clashed in battles and sieges throughout the American Civil War." 

More from the description: "During the American Civil War, the Union and the Confederacy both fielded units of sharpshooters. Sometimes equipped with firearms no better than those of their infantry brethren, they fought in a manner reminiscent of Napoleonic-era light infantry. Siege warfare placed a premium on marksmanship and the sharpshooter became indispensable as they could drive artillerymen from their guns. They could also become expert scouts and, for the Confederacy, impressive raiders--one raid netted almost 250 prisoners. Initially, Union marksmen enjoyed the upper hand, but as the Confederates began raising and training their own sharpshooters, they proved themselves as worthy opponents."

Among its other features, the book presents three case studies that explore "the role played by sharpshooters in three bloody clashes at the height of the American Civil War--the battle of Fredericksburg, the siege of Vicksburg, and the siege of Battery Wagner." The book contains the dense collection of photographs, illustrations, maps, and original artwork that those familiar with Osprey titles of all types know and come to expect.

A trained gunsmith with a background in institutional firearms curation, Yee has considerable knowledge of the subject matter at hand. Though I haven't read it (I recall my review copy request being ignored, but I don't hold grudges!), I believe his 2009 book Sharpshooters 1750-1900: The Men, Their Guns, Their Story is pretty well regarded.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review - "Morris Island and the Civil War: Strategy and Influence" by C. Russell Horres

[Morris Island and the Civil War: Strategy and Influence by C. Russell Horres, Jr. (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2019). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. Pages main/total:112/144. ISBN:978-1-4671-4173-4. $21.99]

Beginning with the Confederate bombardment and reduction of Fort Sumter in April 1861 and ending at the moment when Union siege batteries finally fell silent after the city of Charleston fell to General Sherman's advancing army in February 1865, Morris Island, South Carolina is one of those rare patches of ground that was involved in active military operations for nearly the entire span of the Civil War. This eventful history is the subject of C. Russell Horres's Morris Island and the Civil War: Strategy and Influence.

At the time of the Civil War, Morris Island, a barrier island with approximately three-quarters of a mile of water separating its northern tip from Fort Sumter, was less than four miles in length and approximately 1,200 yard across at its widest point. Because Sumter was well within the range of siege artillery placed there, Morris Island was continuously occupied throughout the war.

In a brisk narrative, Horres offers readers a fairly comprehensive overview of Morris Island's role in the conflict. The aforementioned Sumter crisis is recounted as are the island's contributions to the imposing array of batteries aimed at the fort in the harbor. After Sumter was forced into surrender with the assistance of the Morris Island guns, fortification efforts on the island switched to the seaward defenses. Disagreements arose quickly within and between Confederate military and civilian authorities on how best to defend Charleston and its harbor. These internal conflicts, which involved many generals and politicians over the course of the war, and how they affected Morris Island's defenses in particular are the subject of significant attention in the book.

In summer 1863, Union forces launched a major army-navy operation aimed at capturing Charleston. An amphibious landing on the south end of Morris Island was well executed, but the subsequent assault on the main Confederate position at Battery/Fort Wagner was turned back with heavy losses. This failed attack, of course, included the 54th Massachusetts. The book then describes the Union siege operations that eventually forced the Confederates to evacuate the island entirely.

The new masters of Morris Island then inaugurated the longest sustained bombardment of the entire war. Employing the latest siege gun technology, Union batteries repeatedly shelled Fort Sumter and the city of Charleston itself, reducing the former and much of the latter into rubble but failing to force their surrender. This 1863-65 pounding by massive projectiles only ceased when General Sherman's weakly opposed Carolinas Campaign approached Charleston from the landward side and forced the Confederates to abandon the city and its defenses.

Entire volumes, including Stephen Wise's excellent history of the 1863 harbor campaign and Chris Phelp's study of the bombardment of Charleston, have been devoted to many of the events serially highlighted in the book. Others such as James Hagy's Folly Island study and Patrick Brennan's account of the failed Union attack at Secessionville have addressed in great detail many closely associated topics mentioned in the book. Rather than incorporating large amounts of fresh information or exploring wartime Morris Island in unprecedented new detail, Horres provides a big-picture synthesis that is comprehensive in nature.

There is a tendency among authors of books of this type to overestimate the significance of their chosen subjects, but Horres joins many contemporary critics in questioning the wisdom of both sides in expending so much effort, lives, and treasure in the fight over Morris Island. In fairness though, this critical interpretation is largely formulated through the lens of hindsight. No one at the time could have predicted with certainty that Fort Sumter and the rest of the harbor fortifications could have held out under the rain of fire that they were subjected to for years on end. As Horres notes, the rapid reduction of Fort Pulaski in 1862 weighed heavily in the minds of both Union and Confederate strategists. The shocking event fostered widespread worry among Confederate authorities in Charleston over the range and offensive power of rifled siege artillery. At the same time, the success bred Union overconfidence in artillery technology quickly triumphing over fixed defenses.

However, as many other writers and historians have also maintained, Horres does see Morris Island as strategically influential in raising the national profile and acceptance (both within the military and among the general public) of black troops. While progress was made, the author does cite the mixed messages obtained from a post-campaign survey sent to commanders on the island seeking their impressions of black troop performance. The fact that some of the responses reinforced old prejudices and stereotypes (ex. black soldiers were less steady than white veterans under fire but were capable of more work and less subject to disease in the southern climate) showed that there was still work to be done and acceptance would be a process not a revelation.

Well formulated to carry out the local history mission of the publisher while also offering historiographical engagement, Morris Island and the Civil War provides readers with a finely told, highly accessible, and well-rounded discussion of the island's wartime history and significance.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Booknotes: Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard

New Arrival:
Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard: Longstreet, Sickles, and the Bloody Fight for the “Commanding Ground” Along the Emmitsburg Road by James A. Hessler & Britt C. Isenberg (Savas Beatie, 2019).

The stream of Gettysburg-related titles that Savas Beatie puts out on a yearly basis is unmatched by any single publisher. Aside from the ECW series titles, I believe their most recent Day 2 book was Schultz and Mingus's The Second Day at Gettysburg: The Attack and Defense of Cemetery Ridge, July 2, 1863 from 2015. Now the action moves south from Cemetery Ridge to Sickles's Salient with Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides James Hessler and Britt Isenberg's Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard. From the description: "The historiography of the battle’s second day is usually dominated by the Union’s successful defense of Little Round Top, but the day’s most influential action occurred nearly one mile west along the Emmitsburg Road in farmer Joseph Sherfy’s peach orchard. Despite its overriding importance, no full-length study of this pivotal action has been written until now."

Of course, the Peach Orchard was situated atop the famous high ground that Union general Dan Sickles found so irresistible to occupy. The forward movement of his Third Corps placed it beyond close supporting distance on either flank and directly in the path of Longstreet's two attacking divisions. "What followed was some of Gettysburg’s bloodiest and most controversial fighting. General Sickles’s questionable advance forced Longstreet’s artillery and infantry to fight for every inch of ground to Cemetery Ridge. The Confederate attack crushed the Peach Orchard salient and other parts of the Union line, threatening the left flank of Maj. Gen. George Meade’s army. The command decisions made in and around the Sherfy property influenced actions on every part of the battlefield. The occupation of the high ground at the Peach Orchard helped General Lee rationalize ordering the tragic July 3 assault known as “Pickett’s Charge.”"

Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard: Longstreet, Sickles, and the Bloody Fight for the “Commanding Ground” Along the Emmitsburg Road "combine(s) the military aspects of the fighting with human interest stories in a balanced treatment of the bloody attack and defense of Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard." The book includes 26 detailed maps of all kinds supported by a collection of useful modern viewshed photographs. Hessler already discussed at length Sickles's controversial decision to form his Third Corps defensive line at the Peach Orchard sector in his award-winning 2009 book Sickles at Gettysburg, and the issue is briefly reexamined in Chapter 2.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Author Q&A: Thomas Crowl and "Opdycke's Tigers in the Civil War"

Author Thomas Crowl joins us to talk about his latest book Opdycke's Tigers in the Civil War: A History of the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which was just published earlier this month by McFarland. According to his website bio, Crowl is a "retired veterinarian and an independent scholar with a lifetime interest in the Civil War and Ohio history. He has two ancestors in the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He has published articles in the Ohio History Connection's Timeline magazine, History magazine and Man at Arms. He has published one book, Murder of a Journalist, with Kent State University Press."

CWBA: Thank you for coming on to the site to talk about Opdycke's Tigers. The book description notes that your book is the first history of the 125th Ohio to be published in more than 120 years. What got you interested in the regiment, and why do you think it took this long for someone to take on the task of being its modern chronicler?

TC: My initial interest came about years ago when I discovered that I had two ancestors who served in the regiment. Subsequently, new primary source material—letters and diaries—has become available in recent years that was not available to Captain Clark when he wrote the first history in 1895. In general, I think historians today view the Civil War and its participants in a more balanced way than was possible in the 19th century. Regimental histories in general require considerable effort to write. Every battle requires examination and there are many characters to research. Writers of regimental histories are motivated not by profit, but by passion.

CWBA: How extensive is the available source material?

TC: There is probably an above average amount of this material available for the 125th Ohio when compared to other Union regiments. There is more material available today than was accessible 120 years ago. For the 125th, there are multiple diaries, field notebooks, letters, newspaper articles, and even other regimental histories that offer good source material. Some of this material has been published; more is available privately, in reference libraries, and online.

CWBA: Your introduction reminds us that Emerson Opdycke was only a captain in the 41st Ohio before organizing the 125th and becoming its colonel. Presumably, he would have needed some political connections to carry that off. How did he manage it?

TC: Colonel Opdycke was not lacking in self-confidence and he wasn’t bashful about promoting himself. He was acquainted with Ohio governor David Tod and close to state senator turned general Jacob Cox. Newspaper editors in his hometown of Warren, Ohio knew him and promoted him. Opdycke even managed to get the notorious General William “Bull” Nelson to give him a letter of recommendation.

CWBA: It is also revealed in the intro that the unit did not reach its full complement of companies, officers, and men until January 1864. What particular challenges did the regiment experience with recruitment?

TC: The trials and tribulations of recruiting are well documented in the book. In brief, there was no great horde of eager recruits for regiments in 1862 and 1863 to draw from. Most of those men who wanted to be in the army were. Furthermore, the threat of a military draft, both at the state and national levels, caused many eligible men to adopt a 'wait and see' attitude. Public opinion was just beginning to shift from one of leaving the decision to enlist to the individual to one of expecting eligible men to rally to the flag. The Emancipation Proclamation shifted the Union war aim from preserving the Union to freeing the slaves and this proved unpopular in southern Ohio, further dampening recruiting. And lastly, the peace Democrats—Copperheads—were strong in Ohio and active during this period agitating against federal enlistment.

CWBA: Broadly speaking, how did the rank and file of the 125th differ from earlier waves of Union volunteers?

TC: The soldiers in the 125th Ohio were a mix of veterans—mostly from three-month regiments and a few mustered out for medical reasons—and raw recruits. Overall, they were a less idealistic, more realistic group of men with a better notion of what to expect as soldiers. The veterans among them were invaluable in assisting the recruits as they learned the art of soldiering.

CWBA: How did the men feel about Opdycke?

TC: Emerson Opdycke was certainly an above average volunteer officer especially considering his scant education and unremarkable prewar career. His men, in general, respected his personal bravery, concern for their welfare, intelligence, and leadership skills. His detractors in the regiment and beyond could point to Opdycke’s quick temper, significant ego, and grudges when accusing him of being a martinet. Yet the 125th Ohio was a respected and reliable regiment because of him and despite his faults, and his men came to appreciate that he was a colonel who led from the front.

CWBA: The better-officered regiments often took on the best characteristics of their leaders. Was this the case with the 125th?

TC: Yes. Colonel Opdycke’s personal courage, dedication, hard work, and discipline were traits he infused into the 125th Ohio, and they helped to ensure the regiment’s success.

CWBA: The 125th’s first big battle was Chickmauga (quite an introduction to major Civil War combat!). Can you briefly describe where and how they earned the “Tigers” moniker there?

TC: During the morning of September 20, the 125th’s division commander, General Thomas Wood, ordered Colonel Charles Harker’s brigade to charge into Dyer’s cornfield in an attempt to blunt the Confederate breakthrough. Before all of Harker’s men were in position, Wood sent the 125th and another regiment charging into the enemy. The 125th Ohio followed Opdycke forward and surprised the rebels. Harker’s brigade succeeded in temporarily halting the Confederate juggernaut while a defense was organized on Snodgrass Hill. General Wood, who had few happy memories of the 20th, later wrote: “It was the heroic conduct of the 125th Ohio Infantry during the entire Battle of Chickamauga, but especially on the 20th, that induced me to give the regiment the sobriquet ‘Opdycke’s Tigers’…”

CWBA: Of course, the regiment was also involved in Opdycke’s famous charge at Franklin in late 1864. Are there any other key moments in other major western theater battles where the 125th found themselves playing a prominent role in the fighting?

TC: In addition to the charge at Franklin, the 125th Ohio was active at Chickamauga in Dyer’s field and on Snodgrass Hill. The regiment was among the first to the summit of Missionary Ridge. During the Atlanta campaign, they seized a foothold on the north end of Rocky Face Ridge, led one of the Kennesaw Mountain assault columns, and formed part of the flank of Newton’s division that repulsed General Hood’s assaults at Peachtree Creek. Prior to the Battle of Franklin, the 125th, as part of Opdycke’s brigade, formed the rearguard of Schofield’s army during the perilous retreat from Spring Hill to Franklin.

CWBA: That's a record worthy of interest. Are there any other features of your book that you’d like to mention in closing?

TC: Opdycke’s Tigers in the Civil War is first and foremost a regimental history of an Ohio infantry regiment in the Army of the Cumberland and as such will appeal to those interested in the battles for Chattanooga, East Tennessee, Atlanta, Franklin and Nashville. It offers a look at the experience of Union soldiers at the regimental level, in battle and in camp, in the western theater of the war. For researchers, there is a full bibliography and a regimental roster. Opdycke’s Tigers had a distinguished record in the war and deserve to have their history presented to 21st century readers.

CWBA: They certainly do. Thanks, Thomas.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Booknotes: Confederate "Tales of the War" in the Trans-Mississippi, Part Five

New Arrival:
Confederate "Tales of the War" in the Trans-Mississippi, Part Five: 1864-1865 edited by Michael E. Banasik & Brenda F. Banasik (Camp Pope Publishing, 2019).

If I were to compile a list of my favorite Civil War book series (maybe I should do that), Camp Pope's Unwritten Chapters of the Civil War West of the River would be on it. Edited by Michael Banasik (later joined by Brenda Banasik), it is an essential collection of annotated and richly enhanced primary source material covering a great multitude of events spanning the entire war. The capstone to Vol. VII is Confederate "Tales of the War" in the Trans-Mississippi, Part Five: 1864-1865.

As mentioned before on the site, the five-book set transcribes in full and exhaustively annotates a series of St. Louis Missouri Republican newspaper articles that were first introduced in 1885 and released over a two-year period. Inside the books "a total of 89 pieces on the Trans-Mississippi Civil War by 52 different authors have been gathered together, which probably constitutes the greatest single collection of primary material ever assembled on the Trans-Mississippi to date."

Part Five "deals with operations on the Mississippi and White Rivers; the Confederate Exodus to Mexico and the murder of General M. M. Parsons; Sterling Price's 1864 Missouri Raid; and irregular operations during the war." As expected, the book continues the tradition of assembling incredibly valuable source and reference materials of all kinds in the appendix section. The forthcoming review will discuss those goodies at greater length, but suffice it to say for now that the section includes over 200 pages of documents, biographies, extended commentary, and extensive strength, loss, and order of battle information for the 1864 Missouri Expedition.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Booknotes: Opdycke's Tigers in the Civil War

New Arrival:
Opdycke's Tigers in the Civil War: A History of the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry by Thomas Crowl (McFarland, 2019).

The 125th Ohio is one of those fighting moniker regiments that you are surprised to find lacking a modern unit history. Thomas Crowl's Opdycke's Tigers in the Civil War "is the first full-length history of the regiment in more than 120 years."

One of the Union Army's later-forming three-year regiments, the 125th Ohio was mustered in during October 1862. Commanded by Col. Emerson Opdycke, the Ohioans performed rear area tasks during most of their first twelve months of service. It was during their first major battle at Chickamauga that they earned their "Tigers" stripes. From the description: "Charging into Dyer's cornfield to blunt a rebel breakthrough, the Buckeyes pressed forward and, despite heavy casualties, drove the enemy back, buying time for the fractured Union army to rally. Impressed by the heroic charge of an untested regiment, Union General Thomas Wood labeled them 'Opdycke's Tigers'."

The Tigers also fought in numerous other western theater campaigns over the duration of the conflict. Four chapters in Crowl's book cover the Chickamauga Campaign, three more the operations around Chattanooga and Knoxville, and six discuss the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. The irascible Opdycke is perhaps best known for his epic charge at Franklin that helped quash the threat of a major Confederate breakthrough in the center, and that campaign in Tennessee gets extensive coverage as well.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review - "Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah: Major General Franz Sigel and the War in the Valley of Virginia, May 1864" by David Powell

[Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah: Major General Franz Sigel and the War in the Valley of Virginia, May 1864 by David A. Powell (Savas Beatie, 2019). Hardcover, 8 maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,212/245. ISBN:978161121435. $29.95]

For the upcoming spring 1864 campaigns, the Shenandoah Valley and southwestern Virginia both figured prominently in Union strategic planning in the eastern theater. While General Franz Sigel's defeat at the May 15 Battle of New Market was the period's most noteworthy military event, other columns were involved in the opening stages of what was a theater-wide Union advance. Originally, General-in-Chief U.S. Grant envisioned a three-pronged attack on the Confederate left flank in Virginia, with Sigel occupying more of a supervisory role while lower-ranking officers of Grant's choosing (generals E.O.C. Ord and George Crook) led the main columns at the fighting front. Ord would assemble a division-sized force in Beverly, West Virginia and strike southeast across the mountains toward the logistical hub of Staunton in the Shenandoah. At the same time, Crook's roughly 10,000 infantry and cavalry were to move south through the West Virginia interior and cross into Southwest Virginia with the dual mission of cutting the railroad near Dublin and burning the vital New River Bridge. The two independent strike forces would then unite with Sigel's Winchester column in the Upper Shenandoah (presumably around Staunton), disrupting the regional Confederate supply system and directly threatening the left of General Lee's army, which would presumably be locked in its own death struggle with the Army of the Potomac. Unfortunately for U.S. hopes of achieving decisive results, a command shake up and lack of resources necessitated a scaled-down operation, the result being that only two of the three planned columns (Sigel's and Crook's) actually took the field. Crook got off to a fine start. He swiftly defeated all opposing forces in his path, winning a significant victory at the Battle of Cloyd's Mountain and succeeding in both breaking the railroad and burning New River Bridge. However, Crook got spooked deep behind enemy lines and retreated after these considerable accomplishments, rendering their value fleeting and stranding Sigel in the Valley. Even if Sigel had won a victory at New Market, his command, which was already greatly diminished by numerous rear area detachments, would most likely have been too weak to exploit it.

Coverage of these events in the existing literature is actually quite good. The opening months of the campaign are well-documented in Richard Duncan's Lee's Endangered Left: The Civil War in Western Virginia, Spring of 1864 (1999). Of course, the New Market battle has received excellent modern treatments from William C. Davis and most recently Charles R. Knight. Knight's Valley Thunder (2010) has set the new standard for New Market studies. Crook's victory at Cloyd's Mountain has also received book-length treatment in the form of Howard R. McManus's The Battle of Cloyds Mountain: The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad Raid April 29 - May 19, 1864 (1991). Unfortunately, that study is long out of print and obtaining a copy on the secondary market can be a spendy proposition. Comprehensively recounting the opening stages of the campaign, but with added emphasis on Union strategic planning and execution, is David Powell's fine new book Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah: Major General Franz Sigel and the War in the Valley of Virginia, May 1864.

In addition to providing background information, the opening paragraph of the review broadly summarizes the scope of Powell's study. The historiography of the operation and the perspectives of both sides are duly addressed, but the deepest effort is reserved for strategic and operational analysis of the Union campaign. As the title suggests, the primary focus is on leadership and command, and these elements of discussion are the book's greatest strength. Those seeking the most in-depth tactical account of the New Market battle would be best advised to consult Knight's Valley Thunder from the same publisher, but Powell's own summary is more than adequately detailed in its service of the book's command analysis theme. Stressing collective failure, the narrative does a fine job of demonstrating that Sigel's considerable flaws were far from the only (and arguably not even the most significant) factor behind the operation's failure to meet its goals. The veteran response of Confederate forces to the Union incursion is not discounted, but Powell's examination reveals a series of top to bottom Union misjudgments and displays of incompetence that together went a long way toward dooming this initial stage of the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign.

Starting at the very top, General Grant is justifiably admonished for expanding the scope of the operation but failing to allocate enough troops to give all three columns the resources to complete their assigned tasks. He also inexplicably allowed Ord a last-minute transfer out of the department that threw the entire campaign off track. All of Grant's backdoor machinations aimed toward ensuring that Sigel would personally command as few troops in the field as possible backfired, which also fueled unnecessary resentment in the already touchy general.

Readers who wonder why Ord was repeatedly rewarded by Grant with favored status throughout the war will gain further bewilderment from Powell's account of the general's grossly unprofessional conduct. As mentioned above, Ord arrived at Beverly to find conditions there not to his liking. Instead of dutifully following orders and putting his less than ideal command in the best shape possible for fulfilling its important role in the three-part general advance, Ord asked to be relieved and transferred elsewhere. As a result, the Beverly column was dissolved. Why Grant, who never hesitated to shelve generals who did not meet his expectations of duty, immediately approved the last-minute transfer (and not only didn't punish Ord put gave him additional plum command assignments over the ensuing year) is inexplicable beyond reasons of blind favoritism.

Powell presents a pretty sound case that General Sigel's performance in the Shenandoah demonstrated solid strategic sense and at least serviceable operational capability. The German-American officer simply could not manage a battlefield, which required flexible thinking and calm, decisive responses to evolving circumstances. The author responds to criticisms related to the pace of Sigel's advance up the Valley by citing the need to establish and sustain lengthening lines of communication. He also maintains that a more measured rate of advance actually aided Crook by drawing Confederate forces northward, though no evidence is provided to show that that benefit was more than incidental. In terms of further criticism, the book cites Sigel's general tendency to mix up units and disperse his forces too widely in the face of the enemy. Powell opines that Sigel's gravest error made on the New Market battlefield was the counterattack he ordered late in the contest that broke up what was a fairly stable defensive line on Bushong Hill. This view is persuasive, as that ill-advised action clearly initiated the breaking up of the army, which the Confederates took complete advantage of in driving Union forces from the field in disorder.

Sigel's subordinates also made more than their fair share of blunders. Hungarian emigre general Julius Stahel comes across as mostly competent in the Civil War literature, but his performance during the New Market operation was abysmal. Sigel welcomed General Stahel's addition to his command and appointed him chief of staff. Unfortunately, Stahel also chose to remain in command of the cavalry and, even worse, micromanage his regiments from the top. Powell's New Market account reveals the general's battlefield judgment to be just as flawed as his organizational oversight. Just as Sigel did off to his immediate right, Stahel ordered an ill-timed and ill-managed charge that completely disordered his already shaky cavalry and directly led to its complete rout. In the same battle narrative, some lower ranking Union commanders who had difficulty following orders (ex. Brig. Gen. Augustus Moor and Col. George Wells of the 34th Massachusetts) are also subjected to the author's astutely critical pen.

Though most of his attention is directed toward the Union side, Powell does assess Confederate generalship, too. It could be argued that John C. Breckinridge remains one of the more overlooked political generals on either side, and Powell gives the Kentuckian high marks overall. That said, salient criticism is leveled at the length of delay involved in Breckinridge's decision to begin his attack at New Market. The charge that the overall strategic situation demanded immediate engagement is reasonable, but it is also the case that hasty attacks frequently resulted in disaster during the Civil War. Breckinridge's calculated but ultimately false hope of fighting a defensive battle that could then be turned into a successful counterstroke might well have stemmed from carefully considered experience. Even so, it could be argued with good reason that Breckinridge still waited too long before commencing his assault.

Conventional criticism and praise are also offered for some Breckinridge subordinates. Col. George Edgar's excellent tactical performance at New Market has long been appreciated by historians and the wisdom of General John D. Imboden's decision to take his Northwestern Brigade across Smith Creek and out of the main battle is again questioned. While the initiative displayed by Imboden was not necessarily misplaced, his basing his maneuver on the mere assumption that the rain-swollen creek would be fordable somewhere behind Sigel is certainly open to criticism. In the end, Imboden and his cavalry were out of position when needed most during the post-battle pursuit.

Of course, many of Powell's critical assessments remain eligible for further debate, but it can't be maintained that his conclusions lack supporting evidence. Overall, complaints about the book are few in number. A wish list might include a couple more New Market maps to better depict the battle's flow. Also, Crook's victory at Cloyd's Mountain has a size and significance that arguably make it deserving of more detailed attention than the few paragraphs of coverage it's given in the book. Those content quibbles aside, the central departure from the overall high quality of the study involves the deeply flawed presentation of the finished manuscript. Riddled with punctuation mistakes, missing words, misspellings, and more, the text should never have been published in such an unpolished state.

However, those frustrating editorial issues should not deter anyone from gaining an appreciation of Powell's insightful contribution to the late-war military historiography. Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah should be regarded as essential reading for those wishing to explore the reasons why federal forces failed to fully achieve their objectives during the early stages of 1864 operations in western Virginia and in the Shenandoah Valley.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Booknotes: Marketing the Blue and Gray

New Arrival:
Marketing the Blue and Gray: Newspaper Advertising and the American Civil War by Lawrence A. Kreiser, Jr. (LSU Press, 2019).

Just like today, Civil War newspapers survived on a combination of subscription and ad revenue. While newspapers and their practices have been studied in numerous contexts, their marketing feature has been consistently neglected until now. Lawrence Kreiser's Marketing the Blue and Gray is "the first full-length analysis of Union and Confederate newspaper advertising." During the war, papers "marketed everything from war bonds to biographies of military and political leaders; from patent medicines that promised to cure almost any battlefield wound to “secession cloaks” and “Fort Sumter” cockades. Union and Confederate advertisers pitched shopping as its own form of patriotism, one of the more enduring legacies of the nation’s largest and bloodiest war."

As one would expect from a scholarly study, the book examines the topic on a much deeper level than simple product and service promotion. The author "argues that the marketing strategies of the time show how commercialization and patriotism became increasingly intertwined as Union and Confederate war aims evolved. Yankees and Rebels believed that buying decisions were an important expression of their civic pride, from “Union forever” groceries to “States Rights” sewing machines. He suggests that the notices helped to expand American democracy by allowing their diverse readership to participate in almost every aspect of the Civil War. As potential customers, free blacks and white women perused announcements for war-themed biographies, images, and other material wares that helped to define the meaning of the fighting."

Given the great proliferation of newspapers and their high level of collective readership, media marketing also "helped readers to become more savvy consumers and, ultimately, citizens, by offering them choices. White men and, in the Union after 1863, black men might volunteer for military service after reading a recruitment notice; or they might instead respond to the kind of notice for “draft insurance” that flooded newspapers after the Union and Confederate governments resorted to conscription to help fill the ranks. Marketing the Blue and Gray demonstrates how, through their sometimes-messy choices, advertising pages offered readers the opportunity to participate―or not―in the war effort."

Monday, June 3, 2019

Booknotes: Targeted Tracks

New Arrival:
Targeted Tracks: The Cumberland Valley Railroad in the Civil War, 1861-1865 by Scott L. Mingus, Sr. and Cooper H. Wingert (Savas Beatie, 2019).

In terms of strategic importance during the Civil War, the Cumberland Valley Railroad does not rank alongside the Baltimore & Ohio, Memphis & Charleston, Mobile & Ohio, and the like, but it was a regionally important transportation asset that was attacked by Confederate forces on multiple occasions between 1862 and 1864. Its wartime history is told in Scott Mingus and Cooper Wingert's Targeted Tracks: The Cumberland Valley Railroad in the Civil War, 1861-1865.

I had to refresh my memory of where exactly this railroad ran through southern Pennsylvania and thankfully the book has a good map tracing its course from Hagerstown, Maryland to Harrisburg. Just beyond the capital it branched off in two directions. Several cities and towns of well-known Civil War import lie along this Cumberland Valley pathway, including Chambersburg and Carlisle.

From the description: "Because of its proximity to major cities in the Eastern Theater, the Cumberland Valley Railroad was an enticing target for Confederate leaders. As invading armies jostled for position, the CVRR’s valuable rolling stock was never far from their minds. Northern military and railway officials, who knew the line was a prized target, coordinated—and just as often butted heads—in a series of efforts to ensure the railroad’s prized resources remained out of enemy hands. When they failed to protect the line, as they sometimes did, Southern horsemen wrought havoc on the Northern war effort by tearing up its tracks, seizing or torching Union supplies, and laying waste to warehouses, engine houses, and passenger depots."

As mentioned before and strongly implied by the title, Confederate forces recognized the logistical significance of the CVRR and made several attempts to damage it over the course of the war. "The line was under direct threat by invading Confederates during the Antietam Campaign, and the following summer suffered serious damage during the Gettysburg Campaign. In 1864, Rebel raiders burned much of its headquarters town, Chambersburg, including the homes of many CVRR employees. The railroad was as vital to residents of the bustling and fertile Cumberland Valley as it was to the Union war effort."

Targeted Tracks "is grounded on the railway’s voluminous reports, the letters and diaries of local residents and Union and Confederate soldiers, official reports, and newspaper accounts. The primary sources, combined with the expertise of the authors, bring this largely untold story to life."