Saturday, August 31, 2019

Coming Soon (Sept '19 Edition)

*NEW RELEASES* scheduled for September 2019:
Iowa Confederates in the Civil War by David Connon.
The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner.
Iron Maidens and the Devil's Daughters: US Navy Gunboats versus Confederate Gunners and Cavalry on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, 1861-65 by Mark Zimmerman.
Untouched by the Conflict: The Civil War Letters of Singleton Ashenfelter, Dickinson College ed. by Jonathan White and Daniel Glenn.
The Hardest Lot of Men: The Third Minnesota Infantry in the Civil War by Joseph Fitzharris.
Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth by Kevin Levin.
The Constitutional Origins of the American Civil War by Michael Conlin.
Lions of the Dan: The Untold Story of Armistead's Brigade by J.K. Brandau.

Comments: As you can see from clicking on the links, many of these September titles are available already. I didn't include it because I don't know the actual title yet, but Lanny Smith will also be finishing up a massive two-volume study of the Union army at Shiloh (one book for each day, almost 1,400 pages in total). The general format will be the same as that found in his Union and Confederate Stones River volumes. I was told to expect copies by the end of the month. Greatly looking forward to poring through those tomes.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Review - "Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy" by Huston Horn

[Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy by Huston Horn (University Press of Kansas, 2019). Hardcover, 6 photos and illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,427/599. ISBN:978-0-7006-2750-9. $39.95]

Episcopal bishop and highly controversial Confederate lieutenant general Leonidas Polk has long been in need of a modern reevaluation. Though a pair of minor biographies primarily concerned with Polk's clerical life were published earlier this century, the standard study remains Joseph Parks's General Leonidas Polk C.S.A.: The Fighting Bishop (1962). Generally speaking, the presentation of Polk in both the popular and scholarly Civil War literature has always been largely negative, with most authors questioning his military competence and work ethic while also condemning his serial acts of alleged insubordination. Seeking a more nuanced and complete treatment of Polk's life and Civil War generalship is Huston Horn's Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy.

With roughly 150 pages covering the period between Polk's West Point enrollment and the beginning of the Civil War, the book is much more than a military biography. While a student at the Academy, he experienced a religious epiphany of sorts that concerned both his family and West Point officials. Soon after graduation, he determined upon a career in the cloth while also embracing the planter lifestyle, splitting time between Tennessee and Louisiana and eventually amassing ownership of hundreds of slaves. Though he briefly attained impressive wealth, at least on paper, his business judgment would prove far from infallible.

While some have questioned Polk's commitment to the cloth, the contrary impression clearly shines through Horn's narrative. In it Polk exhibits an extreme dedication to the development of religious life in Louisiana and other parts of the frontier Trans-Mississippi. Rising from Episcopal priest to bishop, Polk embarked upon extensive proselytizing tours of the region that kept him away from his family for months at a time, all the while suffering from a chronic lung ailment. He added to these burdens a serious educational mission that would eventually lead his to his co-founding of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, a process that was cut short by the outbreak of war. Not allowing occasional doubts regarding the morality and propriety of slavery to alter his course, Polk's actions during this period suggest a support for slavery, secession, and southern nationalism little different in character from that expressed by a great many members of the South's planter class.

Horn's account of the public reaction to Polk's agreeing to don a Confederate general's uniform is interesting in that Polk received criticism from both warring sections. While the northern press could mock the South's bishop-general for their own partisan purposes, even some of Polk's friends and supporters were shocked at the impropriety of a high-ranking clergyman taking on a leading military role in the war. Some likened Polk to a Middle Ages throwback whose actions were antithetical to nineteenth-century values.

Though largely sympathetic, Horn does acknowledge the insubordinate streak in Polk's character that frequently got him into trouble with superiors and later historians. In western Kentucky early in the war, he approved General Gideon Pillow's aggressive plan to occupy Columbus. Whatever one thinks of their joint belief that federal forces were on the cusp of moving en masse into the pro-Union border state and needed to be preempted, such a highly charged military and political move should never have been made without the prior approval of the Davis administration. Throughout the war, Polk was also not reluctant to go above the chain of command and offer unsolicited strategic advice (which often sounded more like lectures) to the president, with whom friendly relations existed. General Braxton Bragg would later complain that Polk always thought he knew better than those placed above him and allowed that mindset to guide his behavior. In those ways, Polk was not unlike many high-ranking Civil War generals.

The repulse of Grant's attack at Belmont in November 1861, which was coordinated by Polk, might have suggested that the general could prove militarily useful. However, Polk had accepted his major generalcy with grave misgivings and after Belmont was still unsure about army service. After having done his duty in weathering the early war emergency in the Mississippi Valley, he tried to resign on at least three occasions. Polk has often been criticized, and appropriately so, for having a one-track mind when it came to the defense of his Columbus fortress, and one might reasonably wonder whether his constant expectation of leaving the army also had any role in his neglect of other important posts.

Readers wanting an exhaustive tactical-scale description and analysis of Polk's actions and whereabouts on every major western theater battlefield will be somewhat disappointed to find that Horn's military assessment is mostly limited to high-level campaign and battle discussion, a course that is largely appropriate to Polk's capacity as corps commander. So in an otherwise lengthy book only a handful of pages each are devoted to Polk's direct role in battles such as Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River.

Though Pillow drove him to distraction early in the war, clearly the most troublesome relationship of Polk's Civil War career was with Army of Tennessee commander Braxton Bragg, who upon multiple occasions accused Polk of disobedience and gross insubordination. Many historians have followed Bragg's lead. Horn, on the other hand, finds room for mitigating factors that, if generally accepted, should somewhat leaven the general opprobrium heaped upon Polk by history. The following are a few prime examples of Polk at his most controversial.

Though Bragg entirely misread the military situation in Kentucky during the close lead-in to Perryville (erroneously believing the small Union column moving on Frankfort was the enemy army's main body), he never forgave Polk for not following his order to quickly attack the opposing force in his front and join the rest of the army at Versailles. A serious disaster might have occurred had Polk obeyed, and most observers are in agreement that Polk acted wisely. Even so, from that point onward the Bragg-Polk relationship, never particularly warm, would grow bitterly antagonistic.

During the Chickamauga Campaign, Polk was ordered to attack General Thomas Crittenden's advancing Union corps on September 13 under the assumption it was near and isolated, and Polk again demurred. Horn is more forgiving of Polk's inaction during this episode than other writers have been, arguing that Crittenden had already turned away from Polk's front and positioned himself strongly behind Chickamauga Creek by the time any coordinated Confederate attack might have reached him.

The Chickamauga myth that Polk was found in an easy chair reading a paper and awaiting breakfast mid-morning on the 20th when his wing should have been conducting a dawn attack on the Union left stubbornly persists as perhaps the most commonly cited example of Polk's ingrained insubordination. However, more recent scholars of the battle (most notably William Glenn Robertson) have determined the story to be a fabrication with outrageous details that grew in the telling. Even Bragg himself contributed to it. The story and its later embellishments are also probably the source of much of the popular perception of Polk being exceptionally slothful in his personal habits. Horn's Polk is an active wing commander who had every intention of launching the ordered dawn attack, only to be thwarted in timing by a series of fog-of-war circumstances and classic D.H. Hill. Nevertheless, the delay in attacking led to Polk's arrest and removal from command.

Polk's first opportunity since 1861 to conduct an essentially independent operation of any size was his handling of the Army of Mississippi during the 1864 Meridian Campaign. Though Nathan Bedford Forrest turned back General Sherman's cooperating cavalry wing under Sooy Smith, Polk did little if anything to even annoy let alone directly oppose Sherman's infantry advance into the Mississippi interior, where Union soldiers wreaked havoc upon the infrastructure. Later, though there were few sources of major complaint with it, Polk's service in Georgia after joining forces with the Army of Tennessee was equally undistinguished before his grisly death at Pine Mountain. There was genuine sorrow in the ranks over Polk's passing, and it brings to mind how highly regarded he was by the Confederacy's western soldiers and many of their generals, even though some among the latter considered him less than attentive when it came to taking care of his command. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of Polk's immense popularity with the common soldier is not examined at any depth in the book.

As for problems with text and presentation, typos and careless content errors appear regularly. As an example of the latter, in the Chickamauga discussion Horn writes that General Thomas commanded the largest "brigade" in the federal army when, as evidenced elsewhere, he clearly knows the difference between brigades, divisions, and corps. While the book is generously sized the same cannot be said for its collection of illustrations, which comprise a meager handful. Far more unfortunate is the complete absence of map coverage of Polk's service in the field.

Leonidas Polk: Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy is easily the best and most comprehensive combined treatment of Polk's ecclesiastical and military careers. Nowhere else will readers find a more detailed, evenhanded, and understanding portrait of Polk as man, father, husband, priest, and general. Horn persuasively presents Polk as a flawed yet dutiful general. While Polk possessed no outstanding command attributes that would place him anywhere near the top echelon of Confederate military leaders, he also was not the hopelessly incompetent and unshakably insubordinate general that has so often emerged from the literature. For anyone seeking the most well-rounded reassessment of Polk's generalship and the insights that might provide into Confederate command relationships and failures in the western theater, Horn's study is essential new reading.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Booknotes: Visual Antietam Vol. 2

New Arrival:
Visual Antietam Vol. 2 - Ezra Carman’s Antietam Through Maps and Pictures: The West Woods to Bloody Lane by Ezra A. Carman and Brad Butkovich (Historic Imagination, 2019).

For many readers, especially Antietam students, Bvt. Brigadier General Ezra Carman needs no introduction, but just in case you do... "Ezra A. Carman is regarded as the father of Antietam historiography. Colonel of the 13th New Jersey Infantry during the battle, he spent the better part of his later life writing a comprehensive manuscript detailing the Maryland Campaign. He also spent a significant amount of effort to build an accurate order of battle, along with the strength of the armies engaged. The result was a detailed and meticulously researched account of the actions in Maryland and Virginia during that fateful September 1862. Adding to this work, he created a series of maps showing the movement and flow of the battle over the course of the day. His work has served as the foundation for much of the following history of the battle. Though written more than a century ago, it holds up to modern scrutiny quite well."

The middle volume of a planned trilogy, Visual Antietam Vol. 2 - Ezra Carman’s Antietam Through Maps and Pictures: The West Woods to Bloody Lane picks up at 9 a.m. on September 17 when Vol. 1 (which covered the preliminary fighting on the 16th through the next morning's action around Dunker Church) left off [click on the link to see my review of Vol. 1]. Format and presentation are exactly the same as before, so you can refer to my earlier review for the details that are all still relevant.

Vol. 2 "contains sixty (60) images, both period and modern, allowing the reader to see the battlefield today and as it was only days after the battle. Fifty-three (53) original maps explain the troop movements during the course of that morning and afternoon."

Monday, August 26, 2019

Booknotes: Bosom Friends

New Arrival:
Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King by Thomas J. Balcerski (Oxford UP, 2019).

Though the Buchanan scholarship has been just a bit more sympathetic of late, Old Buck still tops many 'worst president' lists. Thomas Balcerski's Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King takes a break from concentrating on Buchanan's much-abused presidential tenure to instead closely examine the personal and political friendship the developed between the Pennsylvanian Buchanan and Alabaman King. In the end, his book "discovers one of the most significant collaborations in American political history."

Balcerski "traces the parallels in the men's personal and professional lives before elected office, including their failed romantic courtships and the stories they told about them. Unlikely companions from the start, they lived together as congressional messmates in a Washington, DC, boardinghouse and became close confidantes. Around the nation's capital, the men were mocked for their effeminacy and perhaps their sexuality, and they were likened to Siamese twins."

The book ascribes to both men significant linked roles in the violently divisive politics of the 1850s. "Over time, their intimate friendship blossomed into a significant cross-sectional political partnership. Balcerski examines Buchanan's and King's contributions to the Jacksonian political agenda, manifest destiny, and the increasingly divisive debates over slavery, while contesting interpretations that the men lacked political principles and deserved blame for the breakdown of the union. He closely narrates each man's rise to national prominence, as William Rufus King was elected vice-president in 1852 and James Buchanan the nation's fifteenth president in 1856, despite the political gossip that circulated about them."

Finally, Bosom Friends "demonstrates that intimate male friendships among politicians were—and continue to be—an important part of success in American politics."

Friday, August 23, 2019

Booknotes: Sweet Taste of Liberty

New Arrival:
Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America by W. Caleb McDaniel (Oxford UP, 2019).

Sweet Taste of Liberty recounts the life story and long legal struggle of Henrietta Wood, who was abducted and re-enslaved in 1853 but eventually successfully sued her kidnapper for damages almost a decade and a half after the conclusion of the Civil War.

From the description: "Born into slavery, Henrietta Wood was taken to Cincinnati and legally freed in 1848. In 1853, a Kentucky deputy sheriff named Zebulon Ward colluded with Wood's employer, abducted her, and sold her back into bondage. She remained enslaved throughout the Civil War, giving birth to a son in Mississippi and never forgetting who had put her in this position."

More: "By 1869, Wood had obtained her freedom for a second time and returned to Cincinnati, where she sued Ward for damages in 1870. Astonishingly, after eight years of litigation, Wood won her case: in 1878, a Federal jury awarded her $2,500. The decision stuck on appeal. More important than the amount, though the largest ever awarded by an American court in restitution for slavery, was the fact that any money was awarded at all."

Author Caleb McDaniel's narrative also seeks to draw connections between slavery and the use of convict labor in the post-Civil War South, as "(b)y the time the case was decided, Ward had become a wealthy businessman and a pioneer of convict leasing in the South."

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Review - "Held in Highest Esteem by All: The Civil War Letters of William B. Chilvers, 95th Illinois Infantry" by Pressly & Joiner, eds.

[Held in Highest Esteem by All: The Civil War Letters of William B. Chilvers, 95th Illinois Infantry edited by Thomas A. Pressly, III and Gary D. Joiner (State House Press, 2018). Softcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,149/250. ISBN978-1-933337-71-5. $39.95]

Raised in straitened circumstances in Norfolk, England and orphaned at a young age, William B. Chilvers immigrated to the United States with his aunt and uncle (George and Rebecca Burnham). Settling in northern Illinois with the Burnhams, Chilvers employed himself in carpentry and farming in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War. He enlisted in the 95th Illinois in August 1862. Returning home after the war, he split his time between the Chicago area and Nebraska, permanently settling in the latter with his wife in 1874. Through various government jobs in Plainview and Pierce, Chilvers achieved local prominence (even having a street and city park named after him) and raised a large family. Chilvers's family correspondence covering various aspects of his wartime service and postwar life is the subject of Held in Highest Esteem by All: The Civil War Letters of William B. Chilvers, 95th Illinois Infantry, edited by Thomas Pressly and Gary Joiner.

After an extended period of garrison duty in Tennessee and Mississippi, Chilvers and the 95th first saw major action during the Vicksburg siege. After the Hill City's fall, the regiment went back to rear area duties in and around Vicksburg and Natchez before joining the Red River Expedition in early 1864. Upon the conclusion of that disastrous Trans-Mississippi campaign, the regiment was sent to Memphis and took part in General Samuel Sturgis's sweep through northern Mississippi that ended in crushing defeat at Brice's Crossroads. Chilvers and his unit then crossed the Mississippi River once again for their new garrison assignment to NE Arkansas. Later in the year in response to Confederate general Sterling Price's Missouri expedition, the 95th was shipped to St. Louis and trailed Price through the middle part of the state before turning back and undertaking another long journey back across the Mississippi, this time to Nashville. After participating in the Battle of Nashville and subsequent pursuit of Hood's crumbling Army of Tennessee, the regiment was once again transferred to its familiar haunts in the lower Mississippi. Active campaigning ended with the final assaults on the enemy fortifications protecting Mobile, with Corporal Chilvers carrying the 95th's battle flag over the ramparts of Spanish Fort. For Chilvers, it was the end of an exceptionally winding wartime journey.

In full, the Chilvers correspondence collection comprises 170 letters written between William Chilvers and family members living in Illinois (the Burnhams) and England. Inside the book these are either reproduced in full or excerpted at varying lengths. In addition to inserting throughout the volume numerous photographs and supporting maps, the editors also offer extensively researched bridging narrative that effectively ties together the letters and fills in many coverage gaps.

Judging from the selections of letter material presented, the amount of direct combat experience Chilvers had during the war is unclear. Readers hoping for detailed accounts of Chilvers's far-flung battle service on both sides of the Mississippi will often be treated to tantalizing lead-ins that ultimately lack payoff. For example, in early 1864 Chilvers describes his unit's initial passage up the lower Red River (the 95th's companies were spread across a number of vessels, some serving as sharpshooters) but ends there. His recounting of his unit's participation in the Missouri Campaign later that year ends in a manner similarly abrupt with the regiment boarding transports to St. Louis. There are other examples. The 95th Illinois was positioned in the center of Sturgis's battle line at Brice's Crossroads, but Chilvers eschews chronicling his own personal experiences at the heart of the maelstrom there in favor of lambasting the courage and performance of his fellow white Union soldiers during that terrible defeat and rout. In all these cases, one would have to assume the editors would have included those passages telling 'the rest of the story' if they existed.

With battle details sparse, what is perhaps most remarkable about the Chilvers collection is its contribution to our understanding of how foreign-born soldiers viewed their army service and the Union war effort itself. Chilvers and the Burnhams were all three imbued with strong abolitionist feelings. Unlike many of their fellow Midwesterners, none of the three expressed any reservations toward emancipation being added to Union war aims. Chilvers himself was an early advocate of black enlistment into the army. In his letters, Chilvers sharply condemns the many episodes of both casual and malicious mistreatment of southern blacks by Union soldiers that he witnessed in the field. In some cases, he personally intervened. All in all, Chilvers had few good things to say about his fellow volunteers. According to him, they did not measure up to the discipline and fighting standards of British soldiers, or even their Confederate opponents.

Even though he chose to fight for an adopted country that provided opportunities for personal advancement and security that he never could have obtained as a poor orphan back in England, Chilvers still struggled with issues of national loyalty. In a letter to the Burnhams written in response to rumors of potential war between Britain and the U.S., Chilvers maintained that he was entirely uncertain about which side he would take in any potential conflict.

Chilvers and the Burnhams were Fremont Republicans through and through and favored Lincoln being replaced on the 1864 ticket (Chilvers had few problems with Lincoln himself in terms of ideological alignment but perceived him as a weak, indecisive leader that allowed a corrupt cabinet to run the war effort). With Lincoln support strong on both home and fighting fronts, they found their political stance to be unpopular to say the least. The Burnhams even complained that their neighbors saw them as little better than Copperheads. Chilvers also vented frustration at being lumped into the category of foreign-born mercenary, though it's unclear if nativist prejudice was something he encountered himself in the army or read about in anti-war newspaper editorials.

Effectively contextualized through well-researched notes and text from Pressly and Joiner, the collection of edited correspondence published in Held in Highest Esteem by All offers readers unusual insights into the western war as viewed through the reflective perspective of an immigrant volunteer. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Book News: Tullahoma

Conducted concurrently with two major campaigns (Grant's siege of Vicksburg and Meade's defensive stand in Pennsylvania) that were both approaching triumphal conclusion, William S. Rosecrans's own forward movement in Tennessee on the war's central front (what came to be known as the Tullahoma Campaign) was also dramatically successful. Even so, after driving the Confederacy's principal western army almost entirely out of Tennessee through maneuver rather than heavy fighting, the operation has been doomed to comparative obscurity. Though generally well-known to students of the war, and considered a masterpiece of the operational art by some, literature treatment of the Tullahoma Campaign has been relegated to articles and book chapters along with a single, very brief monograph. However, this will change sometime in the near future when the campaign will finally be given the full-length treatment it deserves in David Powell and Eric Wittenberg's Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that changed the Civil War, June 23 - July 4, 1863 (Savas Beatie, est. 2020).

From the description: "The complex and fascinating campaign included deceit, hard marching, fighting, and incredible luck—both good and bad. Rosecrans executed a pair of feints against Guy’s Gap and Liberty Gap to deceive the Rebels into thinking the main blow would fall somewhere other than where it was designed to strike. An ineffective Confederate response exposed one of Bragg’s flanks—and his entire army—to complete disaster. Torrential rains and consequential decisions in the field wreaked havoc on the best-laid plans. Still Bragg hesitated, teetering on the brink of losing the second most important field army in the Confederacy. The hour was late and time was short, and his limited withdrawal left the armies poised for a climactic engagement that may have decided the fate of Middle Tennessee, and perhaps the war. Finally fully alert to the mortal threat facing him, Bragg pulled back from the iron jaws of defeat about to engulf him and retreated—this time all the way to Chattanooga, the gateway to the rest of the Southern Confederacy."

Given the qualities of exhaustive research, attention to detail, and keen analysis that are characteristic of prior works from both prolific authors, there's no doubt the book will meet high expectations. More: "Powell and Wittenberg mined hundreds of archival and firsthand accounts to craft a splendid study of this overlooked campaign that set the stage for the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, the removal of Rosecrans and Bragg from the chessboard of war, the elevation of U.S. Grant to command all Union armies, and the early stages of William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. Tullahoma—one of the most brilliantly executed major campaigns of the war—was pivotal to Union success in 1863 and beyond." Looking forward to it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Booknotes: The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory

New Arrival:
The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia's Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield by Adam H. Petty (LSU Press, 2019).

During the Civil War and after, Virginia's Wilderness became a legendary place, a thickly wooded forest with exceptionally choked undergrowth that combined to blot out the sun and render disoriented travelers almost instantly lost. Some accounts read like a medieval fairy tale, with Union soldiers substituting for stray children and the Confederates for the monsters lurking in every dark recess in readiness to pounce on the unwary. I'm sure we've all lost count of how many authors continue to assert that the Wilderness somehow evened the odds between the opposing armies during the 1864 Overland Campaign. However, Adam Petty's The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia's Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield, which "tracks how veterans and historians of the Civil War created and perpetuated myths about the Wilderness," offers a "highly revisionist" alternative interpretation.

From the description: "According to Petty, the mythology surrounding the campaigns in the Wilderness began to take shape during the war but truly blossomed in the postwar years, continuing into the present. Those myths, he suggests, confounded accurate understandings of how the physical environment influenced combat and military operations. While the Wilderness did create difficult combat conditions, Petty refutes claims that it was unique and favored the Confederates."

The book examines the Wilderness's place in the war and remembrance of it using a broad perspective. "Unlike previous studies of the Wilderness, this work does not focus on a single battle or campaign. Instead, Petty explores all the major clashes there―Chancellorsville, Mine Run, and the battle of the Wilderness―which allows Petty to observe changes over time, especially regarding the attitudes and actions of generals and soldiers. Yet Petty’s study is not a narrative history of the campaigns. Instead, he reconsiders traditional interpretations surrounding the nature of the Wilderness and how it affected military operations and combat. His work analyzes not only the interaction between military campaigns and environment but also how the memory of that interaction evolved into the myth we know today."

This sounds very interesting, just the kind of thing Earl Hess (who also contributed an enthusiastic jacket blurb for the book) was arguing for in his recent essay advocating the continual expansion of new topics to be examined under the general umbrella of military history.

Monday, August 19, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 16, 2019

Booknotes: Star Spangled Scandal

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 9, 2019

Booknotes: Civil War Taxes

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 5, 2019

Booknotes: "May God have Mercy on Us."

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Book News: Major General Joseph King Fenno Mansfield

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

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