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.


  1. Hi Drew

    Thanks for continuing to provide helpful reviews. I did want to get your opinion on the editing issues that seem to pop up in some Savas Beatie publications. I went back and looked at your latest review for Jeff Hunt's and Erick Wittenberg's books and I didn't see a mention of them, but I've noticed some editing issues in other SB books.

    Is this on the author and publisher or publisher. I really appreciate SB publishing these titles as they may otherwise not be published.

    Do other publishers run into to this issue periodically.


    1. Going from the subset of SB titles that I've read, I think their editing has improved overall during the past few years. I have no idea what their internal process entails so I can't speculate on the source(s) of the inconsistency and why it persists.

      I would answer in the affirmative to your other question. Inconsistency is definitely a wider phenomenon. Not too long ago, UNC published one of the worst edited CW volumes of recent memory.

    2. Also, please remember to sign your comment next time. Thanks!

  2. The author is an outstanding student of the war, and this book contains a number of fascinating and interesting insights. He deserved a better final product

  3. Guys, it falls ultimately on the publisher (me).

    We have several proofreaders we use but when a book is ready, we have to go with the proofer who is available, and can't wait weeks or months for exactly the one we want.

    The Valley book went to a new one from east coast press community highly recommended by reliable folks. Her price was not unreasonable, and I checked her first 10 pages (which she did free as an audition). Other than a couple small things I notified her on, it was very good and I cleared the way.

    But you can't proof the proofer. Some get lazy, some do outstanding work, etc. Nor can we check every correction production makes once they get back the proofers comments or fixes. It is simply impossible to do so for an independent publisher. I sent her your review, by the way, and then I fired her. She apologized and admitted she had a lot of things come up during the process that interrupted her work, but she thought it was, in the end, acceptable. Well, it wasn't.

    We are tracking the mistakes, will correct them for the next printing, and on we go.

    We do our best with the time constraints and finances available. Some books are as close to perfect as possible. Some have flaws. In the end, any mistakes fall to me, not the author.


  4. I think Ted deserves a lot of credit for being so forthcoming about these shortcomings. Kudos. I have the book and look forward to reading it.

    John Sinclair

    1. Ted indeed deserves kudos for "taking the hit." Just as a random "trying to be helpful" thought, in addition to the professional proofer---who likely knows nothing about CW history---give the finished PDF file to a "final reader" you trust, someone who might buy the book. They get a mention in the appropriate intro/preface/whatever, and a signed copy of the book. For most of your offerings, that's reasonable compensation for the work. S-B loses one sale, but gets a better quality product. For a big book, you might have to spread the work among 2-3 folks.

      Just a thought.

  5. Hi Jim

    That's an idea we had tried a time or two, and I might try again. In the past, some folks say they will, but sort of do a light skim, the book is further delayed, and no real issues seems solved. BUT, if someone would truly give it a read, I would be more than happy to give it a whirl once more. The sale is not nearly as important as the product.

    1. That's the major pitfall that I would have predicted. You see the same thing with software beta testing groups. Among the great majority of candidates, the selfless dedication of providing free labor is fleeting.

    2. Yeah, we've had similar bad experiences at my office. You have to find the folks who are reliable, alas, by trial and error. Also, my thinking was that this was a supplementary, not sole, proofing gig. Just typing out loud, so to speak.

  6. Yes, you are also both describing proofreaders and editors. It is the real bane of a publisher's existence. For a while there, Jim, I thought you were volunteering. :)

    1. I've also done it on occasion and certainly would be willing to chip in. I've noticed that I'm much better at doing this with someone else;s work than with my own. Fortunately I have an excellent assistant who's very good at catching typos in briefs before they get filed. Anything I looked at would be off limits for a review by me but the coincidence of the two would be pretty unlikely.

  7. I would volunteer to read over one. I've been writing/proofing in my job for over twenty years, and just counted 69 Savas Beatie titles in my Civil/Revolutionary War book collection.

    Joel Manuel
    Baton Rouge

  8. I've done it for Dave a couple of times, would be willing to consider doing it more.

  9. Joel, etc. please send me an email. Militarybooks at sbcglobal dot net


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