Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review - "Mark Twain's Civil War: 'The Private History of a Campaign That Failed'" by Benjamin Griffin, ed.

[Mark Twain's Civil War: "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" edited by Benjamin Griffin (Heyday Books, 2019). Hardcover, photos, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography. Pages:viii,185. ISBN:978-1-59714-478-0. $25]

The growth of humorist Mark Twain's fame during the latter half of the nineteenth century was accompanied by increased public interest in exactly what he did during the Civil War. To serve this wider curiosity as well as offer something different to their "Memoranda on the Civil War" series readership, the editors of The Century magazine solicited an article from Twain, which was published in 1885 under the title "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." The mixed reception was clearly not what Century editors Clarence Buel and Robert Underwood Johnson (and likely Twain himself) expected and controversy ensued. Happily for today's audience, the full story behind Twain's fictionalized account of his brief Civil War service can now be found in Benjamin Griffin's fascinating new study Mark Twain's Civil War.

In June 1861, in response to the growing military crisis in Missouri, Mark Twain left his job as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot and joined the pro-southern Missouri State Guard. A fanciful portrait of his fortnight spent as a soldier, Twain's "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" told the story of the Ralls County Rangers in a humorous manner that mixed fact with fiction. While numbering only a handful of men, the Rangers dutifully elected officers (Twain was the outfit's second lieutenant) and generally bumbled around the countryside west of Hannibal with no real sense of purpose and even less discipline. By the end of two weeks, many of the Rangers had had enough of soldier life and half of them (including Twain) abandoned the cause. Like many other conflicted men who sought to sit out the rest of the war by going out West, Twain joined his brother in California and Nevada. The rest is history.

Mark Twain Project editor Benjamin Griffin's lengthy introductory essay does a very fine job of placing Twain's Missouri war service in its proper historical context. Twain's relationship with The Century magazine is also informatively explored, as is the public's reception of Twain's contribution to the magazine's celebrated series of diverse firsthand accounts later collected in the four-volume Battles & Leaders of the Civil War (1887-1888). Griffin's illuminating introduction, supported by his footnotes and additional explanatory endnotes, represents the scholarly literature's best effort at teasing verifiable truth from Twain's always-changing personal story of that elusive fortnight. Indeed, all such interpretive efforts are hampered by the fact that precious few accounts were written by Twain associates or the people he encountered in the field. Twain also intentionally muddied his own waters by altering the names of persons and places. Making the best of those limitations, Griffin's diligent research effectively uses what documents are available to sort through fact and fiction, exploring what can be known or inferred regarding Twain's motivations and also identifying or making educated guesses about the persons, places, and events of "The Private History."

One of the most interesting aspects of Griffin's investigation is his exploration of the public reaction to Twain's tale. Griffin astutely notes that the nature of Twain's account (which included bushwhacker-type irregular warfare) opened him up to public criticism from both ends of the sectional spectrum. In addition to his very public postwar repudiation of the Confederate cause, Twain's wartime desertion could not have endeared himself to all Confederate veterans (including some of his fellow rangers) and their supporters, many of whom suffered greatly during the war. On the other side, many pro-Union veterans and civilians were incensed to discover that Twain had been a "guerrilla" (southern irregular fighters of all kinds were commonly lumped into the same category as the most notorious bushwhackers). Twain's weak claim that his service merely represented a youthful indiscretion also held little weight with many Union veterans who were officers entrusted with real life and death responsibilities at ages less than Twain's 24. That Twain's tale included his own participation in the nighttime ambush and killing of an unarmed rider only further fueled the flames. Even the story's eloquently expressed regret and sorrow for the incident failed to move many critics.

The book's inclusion of the full text of "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" (along with its original maps and illustrations) is also accompanied by a pair of very insightful appendices. The first, a transcription of a Twain speech in front of a Hartford, CT military organization, well illustrates the differing versions of his Missouri service that Twain presented during his lifetime. Even more interesting is the second appendix. It is famed Confederate spy and mail runner Absalom Grimes's account of his Ranger service with Twain, first published in the St. Louis Missouri Republican's "Tales of the War" series [Sidenote: The Grimes article was intentionally left out of the 1861 volume of Camp Pope Publishing's edited collection of "Tales of the War" articles due to its having been published elsewhere. This was an unfortunate editorial decision, as having another annotated version of Grimes's account might have been useful for purposes of comparison]. In the "Tales" article, Grimes points out the many errors he believes Twain to have committed to print while also offering his own account of the period that additionally reveals the real names behind Twain's fictionalized ones. Interestingly, Grimes categorically disputes Twain's story of the nighttime killing of the unarmed man, asserting that the only living thing shot by the Rangers during the fortnight was a horse under similar circumstances. Griffin's own research uncovered no corroborating evidence of Twain's version of the shooting event, judiciously concluding that we will likely never now the truth. Largely because of this part of Twain's story, the Century editors considered "The Private History" so controversial that they didn't include it in the first edition of B&L.

For those interested in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" along with an investigation into its publication, historical context, and veracity that possesses the highest degree of scholarly merit, Mark Twain's Civil War is the new standard. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Book News: Obstinate Heroism

If a good survey history encompassing all the major Confederate surrenders that ended the military conflict from Appomattox to Indian Territory has been written, it escapes my mind. Most recently, Perry Jamieson's 2015 study Spring 1865 attempted something of the kind, but it was incomplete and awarded the lion's share of attention to events east of the Appalachians. An upcoming book that looks like it might fit the bill is Steven Ramold's Obstinate Heroism: The Confederate Surrenders after Appomattox. Recognizing the thoroughness by which the Appomattox surrender has already been documented and analyzed, Ramold's own scholarly efforts are primarily directed toward the "tens of thousands of soldiers (still) under arms (post-Appomattox), in three main field armies and countless smaller commands scattered throughout the South."

The nature of the post-Appomattox surrenders could also be quite different. "Although pressed by Union forces at varying degrees, all of the remaining Confederate armies were capable of continuing the war if they chose to do so. But they did not, even when their political leaders ordered them to continue the fight. Convinced that most civilians no longer wanted to continue the war, the senior Confederate military leadership, over the course of several weeks, surrendered their armies under different circumstances."

More from the description: "Gen. Joseph Johnston surrendered his army in North Carolina only after contentious negotiations with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Gen. Richard Taylor ended the fighting in Alabama in the face of two massive Union incursions into the state rather than try to consolidate with other Confederate armies. Personal rivalry also played a part in his practical considerations to surrender. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith had the decision to surrender taken out of his hands—disastrous economic conditions in his Trans-Mississippi Department had eroded morale to such an extent that his soldiers demobilized themselves, leaving Kirby Smith a general without an army." According to Ramold, in contrast to the more "tidy" Appomattox, it was often the case that the laying down of arms elsewhere in the Confederacy "was a messy and complicated affair."

Monday, December 9, 2019

Booknotes: Remembering Dixie

New Arrival:
Remembering Dixie: The Battle to Control Historical Memory in Natchez, Mississippi, 1865–1941 by Susan T. Falck (UP of Mississippi, 2019).

From the description: "Nearly seventy years after the Civil War, Natchez, Mississippi, sold itself to Depression-era tourists as a place “Where the Old South Still Lives.” Tourists flocked to view the town’s decaying antebellum mansions, hoopskirted hostesses, and a pageant saturated in sentimental Lost Cause imagery."

In Remembering Dixie: The Battle to Control Historical Memory in Natchez, Mississippi, 1865–1941, author Susan Falck "analyzes how the highly biased, white historical memories of what had been a wealthy southern hub originated from the experiences and hardships of the Civil War. These collective narratives eventually culminated in a heritage tourism enterprise still in business today. Additionally, the book includes new research on the African American community’s robust efforts to build historical tradition, most notably, the ways in which African Americans in Natchez worked to create a distinctive postemancipation identity that challenged the dominant white structure."

More: "Using a wide range of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sources―many of which have never been fully mined before―Falck reveals the ways in which black and white Natchezians of all classes, male and female, embraced, reinterpreted, and contested Lost Cause ideology. These memory-making struggles resulted in emotional, internecine conflicts that shaped the cultural character of the community and impacted the national understanding of the Old South and the Confederacy as popular culture."

How the city's Civil War-era history is presented today is examined in the epilogue. Also at the back of the book is a pretty extensive historical guide to Natchez's antebellum homes, complete with a collection of photographs depicting how each place appeared to visitors during the 1930s.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Booknotes: Rebels in Repose

New Arrival:
Rebels in Repose: Confederate Commanders After the War by Allie Stuart Povall (Arcadia Pub & The Hist Press, 2019).

From the description: "The irascible Jubal A. Early, Robert E. Lee's "bad old man," went to Canada after the war and remained an unreconstructed Rebel until his death. Lee became president of Washington College and urged reconciliation with the North. Braxton Bragg never found solid economic footing and remained mournful of slavery's demise until his own, when a heart attack took him in Galveston. The South's high command traveled dramatically divergent paths after the dissolution of the Confederacy. Their professional reputations were often rewritten accordingly, as the rise of the Lost Cause ideology codified the deification of Lee and the vilification of James Longstreet."

Allie Povall's Rebels in Repose: Confederate Commanders After the War "shares the stories of nineteen of these former generals, touching briefly on their antebellum and wartime experiences before richly detailing their attempts to salvage livelihoods from the wreckage of America's defining cataclysm." Generals P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Bell Hood, Joseph E. Johnston, James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee, and naval officer Raphael Semmes get their own standalone chapters. Research is primarily in published works, including standard biographies and biographical reference books; however, just glancing through notes and bibliography, there are some notable omissions in those areas (among them, the Forrest biography by Wills and Miller's Hood biography). Briefer treatments of ten others (generals Ewell, Gordon, Hampton, D.H. Hill, Fitzhugh Lee, S.D. Lee, Pickett, Kirby Smith, Wheeler, and Stand Watie) are collected in the final chapter.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Review - "General Hylan B. Lyon: A Kentucky Confederate and the War in the West" by Dan Lee

[General Hylan B. Lyon: A Kentucky Confederate and the War in the West by Dan Lee (University of Tennessee Press, 2019). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,222/296. ISBN:978-1-62190-487-8. $47]

Brigadier General Hylan Benton Lyon's Confederate Army career embraced all three service branches, but he would achieve his greatest success and notoriety as a cavalry brigade commander under Nathan Bedford Forrest. A fresh treatment of a deserving figure, Dan Lee's General Hylan B. Lyon: A Kentucky Confederate and the War in the West offers readers the first comprehensive military biography of Lyon.

Though his American antecedents hailed from Vermont, by the time of his birth near Eddyville, Kentucky in 1836 Hylan Benton Lyon's family was firmly established in slaveholding business and farming pursuits at a level that nearly placed them in the planter class. An 1856 graduate of West Point, Lyon's first posting was with the 2nd U.S. Artillery, where he saw action against the Seminoles before being transferred out west to Fort Yuma. Not long after that, his unit was sent to Washington Territory to engage hostile tribes wreaking frontier havoc there.  At the end of the Coeur D'Alene conflict, Lyon was assigned to escort a military road construction project connecting the territory to the Missouri River. By the time he returned to Kentucky in 1860, war was looming and Lyon apparently had few qualms about resigning his commission and becoming a Confederate officer.

Lee's account of Lyon's Civil War career is thorough and engaging. The level of detail found in the study's rather good campaign and battle coverage is satisfactory, with the most telling flaw being a complete lack of map support (the two provided are just area maps of little value). Lyon first raised an infantry company, which was soon converted into an artillery company (what would become later known as Cobb's Battery). As was the case with so many other promising artillery officers, rank and promotion were best achieved in the other branches, and Lyon soon left the artillery. As a field grade officer in the infantry, Lyon first saw major action at Fort Donelson. After parole and reorganization, he was appointed colonel of the 8th Kentucky infantry regiment. Distinguishing himself during the early stages of the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign (particularly at Coffeeville), Lyon managed to escape Grant's closing ring and temporarily led mounted troops in the area until the second fall of Jackson, whereupon he was transferred yet again, this time to Joseph Wheeler's command in East Tennessee. Lyon worked in a staff position under General Wheeler until finally joining Forrest as a brigade commander in Abraham Buford's division. At Brice's Crossroads, Tupelo, Johnsonville, and other places, all events well covered in the text, Lyon's battlefield performance earned Forrest's respect and frequent commendation.

In one area—the treatment of black military prisoners, Lee does try to draw a meaningful connection between Lyon's antebellum Old Army and Civil War Confederate Army experiences. During the punitive campaign in Washington Territory, Lyon witnessed the execution of captives on the order of General George Wright. The moral disgust felt and expressed by Lyon over that episode briefly led him to consider leaving the army altogether, and the author suggests the possibility that that feeling of disillusionment likely informed Lyon's own relatively benign treatment of the Confederate Army's most despised enemy in uniform.

Lyon's first real opportunity to prove himself as a general in a truly independent capacity would only come in late 1864, when he was placed at the head of a new administrative post in western Kentucky. There he was tasked with recruiting new troops, harassing Union occupation authorities, and paving the way for General Hood's ambitiously planned movement to the Ohio River. To this end, Lyon conducted the operation he is perhaps best known for, the roughly month-long raid into Kentucky from Paris, Tennessee that caused considerable disruption and material destruction in the Union rear. While otherwise conventional, the salient feature of Lyon's winter raid was his destruction of a number of Kentucky courthouses, acts that he justified through their use as enemy barracks and military strongpoints.

To his credit as a critical biographer, Lee, though high overall on Lyon's military performances in subordinate roles, finds disturbing flaws in Lyon's independent leadership during his infamous "Courthouse Raid." Even though Civil War armies regularly targeted public buildings used for military purposes and Lyon permitted all records to be removed before firing the courthouses, Lee condemns Lyon's path of destruction as having placed an unreasonable burden on the affected communities. Harsher assessment is reserved for the fact that Lyon did not make an effort to fulfill one of his primary objectives, to get the region's gristmills at full operation in anticipation of Hood's movement into the state. In Lee's judgment, Hood's crushing defeat in Middle Tennessee cannot mitigate the fact that Lyon failed to procure the supplies he was ordered to accumulate for Hood's use in the event of the army's arrival. The author also faults Lyon's side visits to his family for injecting personal, non-military objectives into the raid, with one trip in particular placing a large part of his command (along with the overall success of the mission) in jeopardy.

In early 1865, Lyon participated in the Confederate Army's failed attempts to block Union raids into the Deep South. After the losses of Selma and Tuscaloosa in Alabama, Lyon returned to Tennessee, where he learned of Robert E. Lee's Appomattox surrender. The book also briefly discusses Lyon's postwar life. Determined to evade arrest and escape the country, Lyon made it to Mexico. After a brief foreign exile, he returned to Kentucky, obtained a pardon, and regained some level of economic prosperity. Perhaps bringing a theme of his public service full circle, he even became a leading prison reformer. A single term as a state representative was the limit of his state-level political aspirations, but on the local level he was serving as the mayor of his hometown when he passed away in 1907 at the age of 71.

Though he did complete an unpublished autobiography late in life, Lyon seems, in the author's estimation, to have been a reluctant writer. Citing the general's many missing reports (particularly for most of 1863) and nondescript official writing, the author laments the relative dearth of wartime documents written from Lyon's own perspective. However, as evidenced by the quality of his biographical narrative, Lee works around the problem well enough using other sources.

Dan Lee's General Hylan B. Lyon does a fine job of integrating its subject's significant and frequently peripatetic Civil War service into the larger narrative of the conflict in the western theater. The study also satisfactorily fills in another gap in the literature's biographical coverage of low to middle ranking Confederate generals.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Book News: War and Peace on the Rio Grande Frontier, 1830–1880

The inaugural volume of University of Oklahoma Press's New Directions in Tejano History series, Mexican historian Miguel Ángel González-Quiroga's War and Peace on the Rio Grande Frontier, 1830–1880 appears to complement as well as share a number of themes with another borderlands study, Andrew Masich's award-winning Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861–1867 (2017). Whereas Masich's book focused on the Upper Rio Grande region's interrelated 'civil wars' of the early to mid 1860s, González-Quiroga's study is more sweepingly broad, embracing five decades of international conflict and cooperation "(s)panning the Anglo settlement of Texas in the 1830s, the Texas Revolution, the Republic of Texas , the US-Mexican War, various Indian wars, the US Civil War, the French intervention into Mexico, and the final subjugation of borderlands Indians by the combined forces of the US and Mexican armies."

Certainly, both authors recognize the "parallel worlds" of the borderlands, with its "well-documented violence fueled by racial hatred, national rivalries, lack of governmental authority, competition for resources, and an international border that offered refuge to lawless men" balanced by "coexistence and cooperation among Mexicans, Anglo-Americans, ... Native Americans, African Americans, and Europeans."

More from the description: In his book, González-Quiroga "draws on national archives, letters, consular records, periodicals, and a host of other sources to give voice to borderlanders’ perspectives as he weaves their many, varied stories into one sweeping narrative. The tale he tells is one of economic connections and territorial disputes, of refugees and bounty hunters, speculation and stakeholding, smuggling and theft and other activities in which economic considerations often carried more weight than racial prejudice." Look for it in March 2020.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Booknotes: Living by Inches

New Arrival:
Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons by Evan A. Kutzler (UNC Press, 2019).

Differences of opinion remain when it comes to assessing how much malice played a role in how POW camps were administered by both sides, but everyone can agree that Civil War prisons were places that no one wanted to stay in for very long. A great many books have been written about Civil War prisons (both Union and Confederate) and the POW experience, but Evan Kutzler's Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons certainly adopts a unique focus and direction. 

It is "the first book to examine how imprisoned men in the Civil War perceived captivity through the basic building blocks of human experience--their five senses. From the first whiffs of a prison warehouse to the taste of cornbread and the feeling of lice, captivity assaulted prisoners' perceptions of their environments and themselves." Particular chapters address the prison psychology of night, the smells of Civil War prisons, the common plague of lice, noise, and hunger.

Much more than a descriptive study, the book also closely examines how sensory perceptions affected the prisoners' minds and physical well-being. Kutzler "demonstrates that the sensory experience of imprisonment produced an inner struggle for men who sought to preserve their bodies, their minds, and their sense of self as distinct from the fundamentally uncivilized and filthy environments surrounding them. From the mundane to the horrific, these men survived the daily experiences of captivity by adjusting to their circumstances, even if these transformations worried prisoners about what type of men they were becoming."

Monday, December 2, 2019

Book Snapshot: Rhode Island's Civil War Dead

With seemingly inexhaustible research and writing interests in the Rhode Island Civil War experience, Robert Grandchamp is rapidly becoming a leading authority on the subject. His eight related books include several unit studies, an edited letter collection, an annotated bibliography of Rhode Island sources, and an introductory history of the state's contributions to the war effort. The newest addition to this body of work is Rhode Island's Civil War Dead: A Complete Roster (McFarland, 2019).

During his twenty years of researching Civil War Rhode Island topics, Grandchamp strongly suspected the most commonly cited figures for Rhode Island military deaths (William Fox's 1,321, Harold Barker's unsourced 1,685, and the state monument committee's 1,727) were all much too low. Using the official state roster as a base, the author consulted service and pension records in the National Archives and visited "every town hall, cemetery, and archive" in the state (regardless of how small of a state Rhode Island is, that's quite the dedicated effort). Those local, ground-level efforts in town records and gravestone inscriptions, supplemented by regimental histories, diaries, and letters, uncovered "scores" of additional fatalities that occurred either during the war or were directly related to war service. The figure finally arrived at is 2,217 soldiers and sailors (out of 23,236 men who served), accompanied by humble acknowledgement that the true number of deaths will never been known for certain.

Directly following the introductory chapter and brief methodology discussion is the complete roster of the dead. Organized by unit [generals and staff, one Detached Militia regiment, seven volunteer infantry regiments, three heavy artillery regiments, three cavalry regiments (plus one independent squadron), nine artillery batteries, hospital guards, regular army and navy, and finally those that served in the volunteer forces of other states] and arranged alphabetically, roster information includes name, rank, company, residence, circumstances and date of death, and interment site. Where applicable, grave numbers are also added.

An appendix table helpfully lists total fatality numbers (in battle and by other causes) for each regiment. In addition to a name index, chapter notes and an annotated bibliography can be found at the rear of the book. For certain, this is a valuable reference tool for anyone researching Rhode Island Civil War genealogy and history.