Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review - "Tempest over Texas: The Fall and Winter Campaigns of 1863–1864" by Donald Frazier

[Tempest over Texas: The Fall and Winter Campaigns of 1863–1864 by Donald S. Frazier (State House Press, 2020). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustration, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:v,451/513. ISBN:978-1-933337-83-8. $39.95]

Throughout its run, the "Louisiana Quadrille" series from Donald Frazier has clearly and effectively stressed the deeply intertwined nature of the Louisiana and Texas fronts during the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi theater. Confederate forces defending those states were always heavily outnumbered by their Union army and navy foes, sometimes almost overwhelmingly so, but the Confederates were nevertheless able to exploit both geography and interior lines to contain Union advances and quite often achieve stunning victories. In addition to being a major element of General Richard Taylor's small army, the hard-riding Texans of General Tom Green's cavalry and equally hard-marching Texans of General John G. Walker's infantry division ("Walker's Greyhounds") would play major parts in western Louisiana's defense. On the other side, the general lack of Union success largely stemmed from an inconsistency of effort as part of an overall lack of prioritization of the theater. Volume One Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861-January 1863 (2009) touched upon operations in both states, but the following two books (2011's Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February - May 1863 and 2015's Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi) focused strongly on Civil War events in Louisiana. Blood on the Bayou ended with the Union capture of Port Hudson in July 1863 and the redeployment of General Nathaniel Banks's bloodied but victorious Army of the Gulf to the Lafourche District of SW Louisiana. The Confederate mass surrenders at Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson combined with the costly failed assault on Union-fortified Helena (all occurring over a six-month period) left many Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi Department demoralized and in disarray. How Union forces might best exploit those gains made during the latter half of 1863 (and perhaps even inflict killing blows to the newly isolated Confederate state governments of the Trans-Mississippi) while also thwarting French designs in Mexico is the major theme and starting point of Frazier's fourth volume in the series, Tempest over Texas: The Fall and Winter Campaigns of 1863–1864.

Given how strongly geopolitical concerns guided the planning and conduct of military operations in the Trans-Mississippi during the period covered in the book and beyond, it is appropriate that Frazier begins his study in 1863 Mexico, where a Civil War raged between the government of Benito Juarez and a French Army-backed monarchist faction that would eventually install Austrian archduke Maximilian as emperor. While the U.S. government could do little about France's flagrant disregard of the Monroe Doctrine at the time, "planting the flag" somewhere in Texas would at least offer symbolic support for Juarez and a sharp warning against further French designs. A Union lodgment on the Rio Grande would also disrupt the cross-border cotton trade that did so much to sustain the Confederate war effort in the Trans-Mississippi. The question for the Union high command was how best to achieve those limited goals while also addressing other strategic concerns on both sides of the Mississippi.

Generals Grant and Banks favored an immediate advance upon Mobile, but President Lincoln and General in Chief Halleck wanted to the use the momentum gained from Vicksburg and Port Hudson to clear out the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department from the Arkansas Valley to the Gulf. Who would win this debate was obvious. As Frazier describes them, initial plans for sweeping the Trans-Mississippi were big, with General Frederick Steele advancing from Helena to capture Little Rock and hold the Arkansas River Valley, General John Stevenson striking west from Vicksburg along the railroad to Monroe, General Marcellus Crocker capturing Trinity from his Natchez base, General Francis Herron securing the banks of the Mississippi north of New Orleans against Confederate blockade efforts, and General William Franklin invading Texas directly by sea via Sabine Pass. Fort Beauregard was abandoned at Crocker's approach, and the book covers in some detail the against-all-odds Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass. Steele's highly successful Arkansas campaign is not covered as it is beyond the geographical scope of the series, but Frazier cites the surprising Union defeat at Chickamauga in September as the key factor in the Union high command's scaling back of their most ambitious plans for the Trans-Mississippi. Though large formations were called away, Banks was allowed to keep the Thirteenth Corps to replace the loss of the department's many 90-Day regiments. This redirection of Union resources away from the Trans-Mississippi is a little appreciated consequence of the Chickamauga Campaign that Frazier explores at some length in the book.

The Confederates were also active, with Frazier documenting their efforts to suppress the many pro-Union/anti-Confederate jayhawker bands of SW Louisiana that prowled the swamps and forests between Opelousas and the Sabine River. This section is a fresh contribution to the study of the guerrilla conflict in Louisiana, a fine accompaniment to other published work documenting the irregular war in other regions of the state (ex. Christopher Pena's detailed examination in Scarred by War of guerrilla actions in the Lafourche region over the final two years of the war).

The next major Union operation in the theater would come to be known as the Texas Overland Expedition of 1863. Though a pair of good books have already been written about this topic, David C. Edmonds's full-length Yankee Autumn in Acadiana (1979) and Richard Lowe's slim overview The Texas Overland Expedition of 1863 (1998), Frazier is the first author to comprehensively address the close relationship between the autumn campaign's Texas and Louisiana fronts (neither of which can be properly understood in the absence of the other) .

Beginning in mid-September 1863, General Franklin reassembled the Nineteenth and Thirteenth army corps for a renewed advance up Bayou Teche. Covering his right flank would be General N.J.T. Dana's division based at Morganza on the Mississippi River. The Confederates did not have the manpower to directly oppose Franklin, but they had the means to strike hard at targets of opportunity and Frazier details the September 29 Battle of Sterling's Plantation (or Bayou Fordoche) that mauled Dana's command. Mid-October found Franklin near Opelousas after a series of skirmishes with the Confederate cavalry forces of generals Tom Green and James Major. In early November, Dana's Division (after recuperating in New Orleans from its fight at Sterling's Plantation) sailed from Louisiana for the mouth of the Rio Grande. There, Dana set up his base on Brazos Santiago and later captured Brownsville on November 5.

Around the same time, General Franklin, without clear directions from Banks and seeing no purpose in advancing further, fell back toward Vermilionville. The Confederates saw another opportunity to strike back, and Tom Green inflicted a sharp defeat on the isolated Union rear guard at Bayou Bourbeau on November 3. Meanwhile, Banks, who was content with the diversionary effect of Franklin's presence in SW Louisiana, arrived in Texas to command in person, with the Thirteenth Corps reinforced and now commanded by General C.C. Washburn. After Franklin, still without explicit instructions from Banks, reached New Iberia and dug in there, the pursuing Confederates passed to the north and planted batteries on the west bank of the Mississippi River between Port Hudson and the Mississippi/Louisiana border. They would remain there from late November through early December, wreaking havoc on vulnerable shipping before withdrawing inland.

With Dana holding firm on the Rio Grande, Washburn moved up the Texas coastline, seizing the Mustang and Matagorda barrier islands and forcing the abandonment of Corpus Christi and Fort Esperanza. Houston and Galveston were then threatened by further advance up the long, narrow Matagorda Peninsula. At that point, Washburn paused for three critical weeks seeking reinforcements. Those weeks also gave the Confederates vital breathing room to reinforce there own forces and improve already strong fortifications blocking Washburn's path. Instead of providing Banks and Washburn with more resources, Halleck instead withdrew his support for the entire Texas operation in favor of a new overland advance up the Red River in Louisiana. Disappointed, Union forces withdrew from Texas shores, leaving only a token force to oversee the Rio Grande. Sensing the writing on the wall, Banks reluctantly added his own support to the new operation, which will be addressed in the final volume of the series.

Frazier's overall portrayal of Banks in the book is more sympathetic than most. Somewhat reminiscent of Grant's juggling of forces between the Richmond and Petersburg fronts in 1864-65, Banks sought local advantage through distracting the enemy on one end of a long line (in Banks's case, one that stretched hundreds of miles between the Mississippi and Rio Grande rivers) while striking on the other. How well he did this is open to debate (the book is arguably not critical enough of how much Banks kept Franklin, his principal subordinate, confused and in the dark regarding the overall goals of the fall 1863 campaigning season), but Frazier presents the Massachusetts politician-general as performing reasonably well while at the mercy of a fickle War Department that seemed to give and withdraw support on a whim.

As was the case in the other series volumes, Frazier's impressive research encompasses manuscript archives, government documents, newspapers, and published sources of all kinds. The result is a campaign narrative rich in both high command and ground-level perspectives. Though some of the maps might have included more unit placement information for increased clarity, the book's cartography coverage is quite thorough overall. With so many operations in Texas and Louisiana during this period conducted at or near the same time, it can take some extra effort on the part of the reader to keep the relative timing of them all straight, but the author probably organizes his treatment as well as can be done within the narrative format.

Numerous existing works collectively address the war in the Trans-Mississippi between the July 1863 fall of Port Hudson and the launching of the 1864 Red River Campaign, but Tempest Over Texas is a complete original in presenting and interpreting all of these interconnected military and political events as a cohesive whole. Though some historians continue to regard the Trans-Mississippi as an insignificant sideshow, the bulls-eye was squarely placed on the Gulf states of the Trans-Mississippi West at various times during the war and all of Frazier's books are essential reading for those seeking to understand when and why that was the case. We now look toward the fifth and final volume in the series with equal parts anticipation and regret that it will soon be all over.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Booknotes: Storming Vicksburg

New Arrival:
Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863 by Earl J. Hess (UNC Press, 2020).

With now three scholarly books, an essay anthology along with a pair of full-length battle studies, addressing the topic (all published within the last 16 months), the May Vicksburg assaults are no longer "most overlooked phase of the Union campaign." The first to arrive in 2019 was the Civil War Campaigns in the West series volume The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863. This was followed in January of this year by Timothy Smith's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, and now we have Earl Hess's Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863.

In Storming Vicksburg, Hess addresses "the time period from May 18 to May 25, 1863, when Ulysses S. Grant closed in on the city and attempted to storm its defenses. Federal forces mounted a limited attack on May 19 and failed to break through Confederate lines. After two days of preparation, Grant's forces mounted a much larger assault. Although the Army of the Tennessee had defeated Confederates under John C. Pemberton at Champion Hill on May 16 and Big Black River on May 17, the defenders yet again repelled Grant's May 22 attack. The Gibraltar of the Confederacy would not fall until a six-week siege ended with Confederate surrender on July 4."

The reasons why the assaults failed so badly have been discussed ever since those fateful days in May that ushered in the siege phase of the campaign. Hess's work on answering those questions "reveals how a combination of rugged terrain, poor coordination, and low battlefield morale among Union troops influenced the result of the largest attack mounted by Grant's Army of the Tennessee." That is interesting that the author sees poor Union morale as a factor in their defeat as it is most commonly believed that the combination of Confederate demoralization after a series of battlefield defeats and high Union morale bolstered by the results of that same string of battles was a prime reason why Grant was confident that one more big push would cause the Vicksburg defenders to crumble. As I mentioned in my review of The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863, one of Parker Hills's essays suggested that there was evidence that many of the rank and file soldiers in Grant's army expressed  reservations about continuing the assaults after May 19, but little documentary support was offered. Perhaps Hess found that support in his exhaustive letter and journal research.

More from the description: "Using definitive research in unpublished personal accounts and other underutilized archives, Hess makes clear that events of May 19–22 were crucial to the Vicksburg campaign's outcome and shed important light on Grant's generalship, Confederate defensive strategy, and the experience of common soldiers as an influence on battlefield outcomes."

Monday, September 21, 2020

Booknotes: A Volunteer in the Regulars

New Arrival:
A Volunteer in the Regulars: The Civil War Journal and Memoir of Gilbert Thompson, US Engineer Battalion edited by Mark A. Smith (UT Press, 2020).

For decades now, University of Tennessee Press's prolific Voices of the Civil War series has published a broad range of primary source material written by civilian observers and military participants. The newest volume, A Volunteer in the Regulars: The Civil War Journal and Memoir of Gilbert Thompson, US Engineer Battalion, certainly ranks among the most unique entries in the series.

From the description: "At the outbreak of the Civil War, Massachusetts native Gilbert Thompson joined the regular army, which assigned him to the engineer battalion, a unit that provided critical support for the Union military effort in building bridges and roads and surveying and producing maps. While serving, Thompson kept a journal that eventually filled three volumes. The author’s early education in a utopian community called Hopedale left him well read, affording a journal peppered with literary allusions."

After the war, Thompson wrote a memoir of his service that is also integrated into the volume. "Once the war ended, Corporal Thompson added some postwar reflections to create a unified single volume, which editor Mark A. Smith has carefully arranged so that the reader can clearly distinguish between Thompson’s contemporary accounts and his postwar reminiscences." I think the editor's decision to present passages from the memoir separate from and directly below the corresponding journal entries was the best way to facilitate side-by-side reader comparison of how Thompson covered/perceived events during the war and how he remembered them later on.

The volume is profusely illustrated with a pair of modern maps and a host of hand-drawn maps created by Thompson. Also included are dozens of Thompson sketches and finished artwork along with a collection of contemporary photographs. More from the description: "An accomplished artist and topographer, Thompson illustrated his journals, adding depth to his narrative with portraits of key figures, drawings of ordinary scenes such as soldiers playing chess, and sights of the war. Additionally, he collected photographs both during and after the war, many of which are included."

Support units, along with the men who led or served in them, are receiving more attention in the literature these days, and the Thompson journal/memoir is a significant contribution to this small but growing body of scholarship. More: "Thompson’s wartime musings and postwar recollections have much to offer. Few diaries contain glimpses into the workings of a highly specialized unit such as the engineer battalion, and Thompson’s skills in depicting daily camp life in both words and pictures provide a distinctive look at the Union Army during the Civil War as well as an insightful look into the human condition."

In addition to compiling and arranging the Thompson source material that runs well over 300 pages, Smith contributes a volume introduction and epilogue along with over 100 pages of extensive explanatory footnotes. Thompson's writings encompass military engineering experiences and duties spanning the 1862 Peninsula Campaign through the Siege of Petersburg so there is a great deal of information inside the book that will interest students of eastern theater operations.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Book News: Meade at Gettysburg

Even though George Gordon Meade won a hard-fought defensive victory at Gettysburg and led the Army of the Potomac for the duration of the war, he's still generally regarded as a fairly middling army commander (with historian and future Meade biographer Jennifer Murray being a rare voice in rating Meade extraordinarily high). Meade was accorded little time to bask in the glory of his Gettysburg triumph before being subjected to harsh criticism for his allegedly dilatory pursuit of Lee's crippled and encumbered army. Major studies of the Gettysburg retreat published over the past fifteen years have improved Meade's performance rating over that phase of the campaign, but it is those three hot days in July wherein the Meade defenders still find little opposition toward their man (though it's my understanding that Guelzo's Gettysburg study granted Meade only faint praise at best).

The author of one of those aforementioned retreat studies, Kent Masterson Brown, will soon present Civil War readers with his own assessment of Meade at Gettysburg. Scheduled for a June 2021 release by UNC Press, Brown's Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command "draws on an expansive archive to reappraise Meade's leadership during the Battle of Gettysburg. Using Meade's published and unpublished papers alongside diaries, letters, and memoirs of fellow officers and enlisted men, Brown highlights how Meade's rapid advance of the army to Gettysburg on July 1, his tactical control and coordination of the army in the desperate fighting on July 2, and his determination to hold his positions on July 3 (e)nsured victory."

As expected, Brown's examination does not stop there but continues through the pursuit to the Potomac. In those sections, "Brown argues that supply deficiencies, brought about by the army's unexpected need to advance to Gettysburg, were crippling. In spite of that, Meade pursued Lee's retreating army rapidly, and his decision not to blindly attack Lee's formidable defenses near Williamsport on July 13 was entirely correct in spite of subsequent harsh criticism. Combining compelling narrative with incisive analysis, this finely rendered work of military history deepens our understanding of the Army of the Potomac as well as the machinations of the Gettysburg Campaign, restoring Meade to his rightful place in the Gettysburg narrative."

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Edwin Cole Bearss (1923-2020) - A Great American Life

Like everyone else, I was greeted yesterday morning with the sad news of Ed Bearss's passing. Unfortunately, I will have to leave the more personalized stories and memoriams to others as I never had the distinct honor of spending any time with him (or even tagging along on one of his legendary tours). Nevertheless, he had a great impact on shaping my own Civil War path.

With the possible exception of his 3-volume history of the Vicksburg Campaign, it is probably safe to say that Bearss's great many written contributions tend to get overshadowed a bit by his towering public persona (both in person and on screen), his extreme generosity in helping colleagues and causes, his unmatched tour guide career (it's been said that he regularly spent up to 200 days a year on the road), and his utterly indispensable role in preserving Civil War places and objects for posterity. His work on the written page had a profound influence from afar on cultivating my own Civil War interests. Even though I've lived west of the Mississippi my entire life, like nearly everyone else my Civil War reading started with the eastern theater. However, an early encounter with Bearss's books on Wilson's Creek and the 1864 Camden Expedition along with his series of journal articles published in Arkansas Historical Quarterly and elsewhere made me a Trans-Mississippi student for life. His work, often in conjunction with Warren Grabau, on the Vicksburg campaign and his lead involvement in the discovery, raising, and preservation of the USS Cairo sparked similarly strong interests in Vicksburg and in the many other inland waterway operations conducted during the Civil War. Indeed, so many of Ed's written contributions (including his major work on Petersburg) would stand for many decades before being addressed again at anything approaching similar levels. Other topics he wrote about years ago have never been looked at in any additional depth since, and his map studies and monographs created during his long NPS career remain invaluable foundational research tools. It's quite a body of work.

Ed Bearss. Marine. Public Historian. Author. Preservationist. Battlefield Guide extraordinaire. By all accounts a life well lived. Even though U.S. flags across the country will not be flown at half-staff in honor of this great American's lifelong public service, they certainly are in the hearts of everyone in the Civil War community.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Review - "Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War" by Lauren Thompson

[Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War by Lauren K. Thompson (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). Hardcover, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xviii,168/231. ISBN:978-1-4962-0245-1. $55]

The best documented and most commonly cited episode of Civil War fraternization with the enemy occurred around Fredericksburg, Virginia during the long winter months following the December 1862 battle. Though the practice was strongly disapproved of by officers of all ranks, common soldiers of both sides frequently engaged with each other along the picket lines to exchange both friendly conversation and various items of want or need. The first major standalone study of the topic, Lauren Thompson's Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War examines at length what fraternization consisted of, under what circumstances it occurred, and why it was so important to soldiers otherwise engaged in the grim business of killing each other on the battlefield.

To answer those questions Thompson broadly consulted the published literature of the Civil War common soldier (to include classic works from Bell Wiley, Gerald Linderman, and James McPherson, along with more recent ones by Earl Hess, Jason Phillips, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Joseph Glatthaar, Lorien Foote, and others) and delved into the archives to collect as many wartime participant accounts as possible. By her own count, the author was able to compile several hundred written examples from all theaters and time periods of this latter group of source material. This in-depth combination of primary and secondary sources has produced a solidly representative and richly detailed description and analysis of the practice.

Obviously white Union and Confederate soldiers fraternized for any number of individual reasons, but Thompson's study collectively organizes their motivations into two useful categories: fraternity and resistance. Off the battlefield, soldiers sought relief from danger and restoration of mind and body. According to Thompson, they often achieved this in camp through peer-group "recreational" activities. On both sides, complaints about the war itself and how common soldiers were treated in the army were often directed toward politicians and generals rather than the rifle-toting private across the way, so fraternal feeling among soldiers of the same side could be readily extended to an enemy speaking the same language and sharing similar social customs, religious beliefs, institutions of republican government, and national heritage. American society was then and still is the most individualistic among the great nations of the world, and Civil War soldiers also fraternized as a form of personal resistance against what they perceived to be the army's most obnoxious anti-democratic hierarchies and behavioral strictures. As has been abundantly documented in the literature, volunteer-soldier defiance of military discipline took many forms, including straggling and unauthorized foraging/plundering, and this study joins others in persuasively adding fraternization to that list.

As is made clear in the book, the primary requirement needed for widespread fraternization to occur was a lengthy period of close contact between enemy armies. Such conditions occurred during long winter encampments (such as the aforementioned 1862-63 Fredericksburg situation), sieges, and late-war campaigns of continuous close-quarter combat (ex. the 1864 Atlanta and 1864-65 Richmond-Petersburg campaigns). When opposing picket and battle lines remained in close proximity for extended periods of time, men became accustomed to the front-line routines of the enemy and could devise ways to meet in safety while also keeping out of sight of their officers. Though not specifically addressed, the increasingly wide application of "hard war" policies that magnified soldier and civilian suffering as the war progressed did not seem to have had much effect on either side's willingness to fraternize.

What was exchanged during fraternization varied from simple conversation and witty banter to any number of trade items. Most famously, there was the exchange of southern tobacco for northern coffee, but soldiers also traded for food, clothing, blankets, and other needs and wants. In recognition of how poorly off so many Confederates were, sometimes things like a bit of food were simply given away. Commiseration over homesickness, disliked officers, and prospects for peace was very common, but generally absent from these meetings was discussion or debate surrounding more divisive issues such as the causes of the war, emancipation, and the conditions under which actual peace could be either extended or accepted. Generally avoiding any conflict beyond playful ribbing, fraternization was a stress reliever that focused on commonalities of the soldier experience.

Due to the information contained inside, the exchange item that got fraternizers in the most trouble with their officers was newspapers. Given the closed bubbles both sides lived within, information written by the other side was eagerly sought and greedily consumed. Enemy newspaper articles were scoured for military news, political developments, and civilian attitudes toward the war. Soldiers could be severely punished for exchanging newspapers. One convicted Union soldier was even condemned to death, though his sentence was commuted to hard labor for the duration.

Ceasefires were another significant facet of the fraternization exchange. This was particularly noteworthy during sieges, with Vicksburg providing for the general literature many examples of soldiers agreeing not to fire at each other and to warn the other side when shooting was ordered to resume. Such agreements could be both formal (ex. officers agreeing to a specified period for burying the dead) and informal. As the work of Thompson and others have suggested, it was the localized, informal arrangements made between common soldiers that kept the incessant firing inherent to siege operations from becoming unbearable to those in the trenches. Thus, forms of fraternization such as this could also be appropriately regarded as acts of self-preservation.

Finally, the book offers a fruitful discussion of the role fraternization anecdotes (in veteran speeches, articles, and memoirs) played in fostering postwar reunion. As part of a war chronicle that emphasized common valor and sacrifice among white veterans over divisive issues such as causation, slavery, and black civil rights, Civil War fraternization stories and myths became an integral part of the popular reconciliationist narrative. In effectively weaving together the wartime history of fraternization with its significant role in remembrance, Friendly Enemies is a major contribution to the scholarly literature of the common Civil War soldier.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Booknotes: Fighting for Citizenship

New Arrival:
Fighting for Citizenship: Black Northerners and the Debate over Military Service in the Civil War by Brian Taylor (UNC Press, 2020).

From the description: "Civil War–era African Americans recognized the urgency of a core political concern: how best to use the opportunity presented by this conflict over slavery to win abolition and secure enduring black rights, goals that had eluded earlier generations of black veterans."

As Brian Taylor's Fighting for Citizenship: Black Northerners and the Debate over Military Service in the Civil War demonstrates, black leaders were divided on the answer to that question. "Some, like Frederick Douglass, urged immediate enlistment to support the cause of emancipation, hoping that a Northern victory would bring about the end of slavery. But others counseled patience and negotiation, drawing on a historical memory of unfulfilled promises for black military service in previous American wars and encouraging black men to leverage their position to demand abolition and equal citizenship. In doing this, they also began redefining what it meant to be a black man who fights for the United States.

More from the description: "These debates over African Americans' enlistment expose a formative moment in the development of American citizenship: black Northerners' key demand was that military service earn full American citizenship, a term that had no precise definition prior to the Fourteenth Amendment. In articulating this demand, Taylor argues, black Northerners participated in the remaking of American citizenship itself—unquestionably one of the war's most important results."

Friday, September 11, 2020

Booknotes: A War State All Over

New Arrival:
A War State All Over: Alabama Politics and the Confederate Cause by Ben H. Severance (Univ of Ala Press, 2020).

With much of the more recent Confederate home front literature focusing on Unionists and resistance from both anti-Confederate civilians and slaves, Ben Severance's A War State All Over: Alabama Politics and the Confederate Cause reminds readers that the preponderance of the leadership and common citizenry of most Confederate states, including Alabama, possessed considerable unity of purpose and willingness to sacrifice. Severance's book "argues that Alabama’s electoral and political attitudes were, in their own way, just as unified in their support for the cause of southern independence. To be sure, the civilian populace often expressed unease about the conflict, as did a good many of Alabama’s legislators, but the majority of government officials and military personnel displayed pronounced Confederate loyalty and a consistent willingness to accept a total war approach in pursuit of their new nation’s aims. As Severance puts it, Alabama was a “war state all over.”

Using election data as a means of assessing popular support for the war after a series of military disasters in the Confederacy's western theater left Alabama itself open to invasion by the conflict's middle period, Severance's research finds Alabamians mostly steadfast in their devotion. The book "examines the state’s political leadership at multiple levels of governance—congressional, gubernatorial, and legislative—and orients much of his analysis around the state elections of 1863. Coming at the war’s midpoint, these elections provide an invaluable gauge of popular support for Alabama’s role in the Civil War, particularly at a time when the military situation for Confederate forces was looking bleak. The results do not necessarily reflect a society that was unreservedly prowar, but they clearly establish a polity that was committed to an unconditional Confederate victory, in spite of the probable costs."

More from the description: A War State All Over "focuses on the martial character of Alabama’s polity while simultaneously acknowledging the widespread angst of Alabama’s larger culture and society. In doing so, it puts a human face on the election returns by providing detailed character sketches of the principal candidates that illuminate both their outlook on the war and their role in shaping policy."

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Review - "Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War" by Frank Ofeldt

[Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War by Frank A. Ofeldt III (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2020). Softcover, map, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total:136/140. ISBN:978-1-4671-4596-1. $21.99]

Even among seasoned Civil War readers, the Amelia Island, Florida port city of Fernandina is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, or Norfolk. At odds with its undeserved obscurity is the fact that Fernandina was a significant Atlantic trade center that had its own Third System fortification, and both sides had big plans for the place during the Civil War. For the upstart Confederacy, Fernandina's protected deep-water port facilities made it an excellent candidate for blockade-running haven. It was also the eastern terminus of the Florida Railroad, an important transportation network that spanned the entire width of the state between Cedar Key on the Gulf and Amelia Island on the Atlantic. For the Union side, Fernandina was perfectly situated as a naval base and coaling station for supporting the U.S. Navy's South Atlantic and Gulf blockading squadrons. Possession of Fernandina also meant that Union forces would deny the Confederates free access to Cumberland Sound and the entire river system (most importantly the St. Marys River) of the Florida-Georgia border region. Jacksonville, Florida could also be directly threatened by any land and naval force based on Amelia Island. Clearly the topic is deserving of modern study, and Amelia Island's role in the war is given substantial book-length treatment for the first time in Frank Ofeldt's Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War.

Recognizing its value, the Confederate military rushed both men and heavy guns to Amelia Island in 1861. Fort Clinch's existing north shore defenses were improved, and new earth and sand batteries at other vulnerable points nearby were established. Eventually over 3,000 Confederate troops were stationed on the island, representing almost two-thirds of the entire manpower strength available to the C.S.A.'s Department of Middle and East Florida. Ofeldt, a park service specialist at Fort Clinch and a leading expert on its history, offers readers a highly detailed account of the Confederacy's desperate effort to make both fort and island defensible before the combined land and naval might of the U.S. could be directed toward it. Alas, even with the heavy troop commitment and mounting of several dozen heavy guns, ammunition was in short supply and the island's military commander deemed it indefensible. With permission from department commander Robert E. Lee, the island garrison and much of the civilian population were evacuated in March 1862, with the last trains leaving just as a massive Union fleet was passing through Cumberland Sound and approaching the Fernandina river front.

Union forces held Amelia Island for the rest of the war. In the book, Ofeldt describes the occupation and further improvements made to Fort Clinch by the Union garrison. Also recounted are the various raids conducted from the island into the Florida interior, the object of these movements being supply and resource gathering as well as recruitment/impressment of any able-bodied slaves that remained after most were evacuated by their owners. It was this area that witnessed some of the earliest deployments of black combat troops in the field. Over the course of the war, a number of USCT regiments (in whole or in part, mostly the latter) contributed garrison troops to Amelia Island. After the war ended, many of these troops permanently settled on the island, joined by returning Confederate veterans and civilians as well as northern opportunists eager to purchase bargain-priced properties seized during the conflict. According to Ofeldt, Fernandina prospered in the immediate postwar period mainly through the timber export industry. While many areas of the South suffered catastrophic losses of their most valuable wood lands, vast stands of NE Florida's virgin timber apparently escaped the voracious fuel requirements of the competing armies.

In addition to providing an excellent narrative summary of Amelia Island's Civil War history, the book also possesses considerable military reference value for those researching this lesser-known coastal front. The worth of this feature is most apparent in Ofeldt's meticulous charting at regular intervals of garrison unit information and placements of men and guns on the island. There is some room for improvement. In addition to an index, some original maps [though the book is heavily illustrated overall, only a single archival map, albeit a good one, is included] were needed to better support the text's detailed descriptions of military operations (as well as the island's defensive improvements). But these are relatively minor complaints. Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War is by far the best treatment available of the Civil War years on Amelia Island. In broader terms, anyone with an interest in learning more about the Civil War in Florida, the early-war deployment of black troops in the Deep South, and the Union blockade of the South Atlantic coastline will profit greatly from reading this slim but densely informative volume.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Book News: Radical Sacrifice

For his actions at Second Bull Run, Union major general Fitz John Porter was arrested, court-martialed, and dismissed from the service. Modern opinions on Porter run the gamut, but when it comes to the merits of the actual case against him it's probably safe to say that nearly everyone (even those that believe Porter's exit from the war to have been no great loss to the service) can concede that Porter got a raw deal. Much has been published about the case, but I am not aware of the existence of any major modern biography that examines Porter's entire life. However, William Marvel's upcoming Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter (UNC Press, March 2021) might be just that. As I've mentioned before, I am an admirer of Marvel's writing. His body of work consistently contains bold challenges to accepted wisdom that are always interesting whether you agree them or not.

Judging actual narrative thrust through marketing descriptions has its pitfalls, but Marvel appears to hold Porter's military contributions in high regard. From the description: "Porter and his troops fought heroically and well at Gaines's Mill and Malvern Hill. His devotion to the Union cause seemed unquestionable until fellow Union generals John Pope and Irvin McDowell blamed him for their own battlefield failures at Second Bull Run."

The book argues that Porter's downfall was less about his own actions and more the result of a Radical Republican purge of a McClellan ally in the army high command. More from the description: "As a confidant of the Democrat and limited-war proponent McClellan, Porter found himself targeted by Radical Republicans intent on turning the conflict to the cause of emancipation. He made the perfect scapegoat, and a court-martial packed with compliant officers dismissed him for disobedience of orders and misconduct before the enemy. Porter tenaciously pursued vindication after the war, and in 1879 an army commission finally reviewed his case, completely exonerating him. Obstinately partisan resistance from old Republican enemies still denied him even nominal reinstatement for six more years."

We'll have to wait for the table of contents to appear before knowing how much of Porter's early life is covered in the book, but the concluding sentence suggests the possibility of a comprehensive biography. "Reexamining the relevant primary evidence from the full arc of Porter's life and career, Marvel offers significant insights into the intersections of politics, war, and memory."

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Booknotes: An Immigrant Story

New Arrival:
An Immigrant Story by Kenneth E. Burchett (Amity America, 2020).

Published back in 2012, Kenneth Burchett's The Battle of Carthage, Missouri: First Trans-Mississippi Conflict of the Civil War highlighted in part the indispensable roles German immigrant soldiers played in securing most of Missouri for the Union by the summer of 1861. Since then, nineteenth-century German immigration to Missouri has remained a focus of the author's research and writing. In this vein is his latest book, An Immigrant Story.

From the description: "Over the course of four decades until his death in 1866, Henry Schaumann was a laborer, craftsman, mechanic, and housewright, a person who built and repaired houses. He knew life as a husband, father, and citizen at different times in two countries. ... Little is known of his youth, except that he was born in Hildesheim, Germany, and spent time at Clauen, near Peine, a small village not far from Hildesheim."

Like tens of thousands of other German immigrants to the United States, Schaumann sought opportunity out west, eventually settling in Missouri. His Civil War service was comparatively brief. In October 1861, Schaumann enlisted in the Union Army as a private in Company A of the First Missouri artillery regiment. A year later, he suffered an accidental injury that led to a discharge and one-half disability pension.

Part Two of the book is a detailed chronology of the pension cases of Shaumann and his widow. Extensively annotated, the text is supported by a number of transcribed documents along with a multitude of maps, photos, and other illustrations. In addition to being an immigrant story, the volume shines light upon the frequent struggles of Civil War veterans and their families to obtain federal pensions for injuries and wounds suffered during military service.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Review - "Vicksburg Besieged" by Woodworth & Grear, eds.

[Vicksburg Besieged edited by Steven E. Woodworth & Charles D. Grear (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Hardcover, 6 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. Pages main/total:xi,182/200. ISBN:978-0-8093-3783-5. $29.50]

It is the plan of SIU Press to publish five Vicksburg volumes in total for their Civil War Campaigns in the West series. So far three have been released, the first two being 2013's The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29–May 18, 1863 and 2019's The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863. The newest addition, Vicksburg Besieged, addresses a diverse selection of topics related to the six-week siege of the Hill City. Along with series co-editors Steven Woodworth and Charles Grear, contributors to the book's eight essays are Andrew Bledsoe, co-writers Scott Stabler & Martin Hershock, Jonathan Steplyk, Justin Solonick, John Gaines, and Richard Holloway.

Bledsoe kicks off the anthology with a thoughtful reevaluation of U.S. Grant's oft-maligned staff and its effect on the Union army's conduct of the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign. Bledsoe accurately contextualizes the makeup of the Grant staff within the all too common Civil War practice of assembling command staffs in which personal relationships (friendships, business associations, political allies, etc.) and loyalty were valued higher than both military experience and demonstrated technical competence. There were notable exceptions (among them the able John A. Rawlins and James H. Wilson), but there was still a great deal of dead weight in the Grant staff by mid-1863. This burdened Grant himself with tasks and responsibilities that should have been borne by junior staff members. Though keen headquarters observer Charles A. Dana believed the army was not run nearly as efficiently as it could have been during the campaign with a more competent staff, it is the measured judgment of Bledsoe and others that Grant himself picked up the slack effectively (there being little evidence that staff deficiencies had an appreciably negative effect on army operations). One wonders to what degree these additional stresses (Grant later complained about how much the additional hands-on effort required during the Vicksburg Campaign taxed him) might have influenced Grant's later decision to adopt the two-headed command structure in the East in 1864-65, the relative strengths and weaknesses of which are still much debated today.

Stabler and Hershock's chapter addresses failed Confederate attempts during the siege phase of the Vicksburg campaign to capture Union outposts situated along the west bank of the Mississippi (specifically, the positions at Milliken's Bend, Young's Point, and Lake Providence). The recent literature (especially Linda Barnickel's Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory) has for the first time expansively addressed the major contributions of recently organized black Union troops to the successful defense of those places. Much has also been written about the positive effect the USCTs stationed there had in influencing more favorable opinions (both inside and outside of the Union Army) regarding their general usefulness as soldiers and fighting ability on the battlefield. All of these points are well summarized and reinforced in the essay. It could be argued, however, that the writers overstate how much Trans-Mississippi actions meant to Union victory in the campaign that late in the game (as opposed to much earlier when fighting there could have had a quite significant impact). By June, Grant's logistical network was no longer dependent on holding the Louisiana side opposite Vicksburg. Even if the Confederates captured the west bank outposts that month they had no means of holding them against the might of the Union Navy, which was also well positioned above the below the city to interdict any appreciable resupply and evacuation scenarios.

Jonathan Steplyk, drawing upon his own research in Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat, evaluates here the siege craft role of sharpshooting and how it played an important part in Union success. His work comes to conclusions similar to those put forth in Justin Solonick's 2015 book Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg. With little to choose between the two sides when it came to shooting skills and weaponry, Union ascendance on the firing line was primarily achieved through sheer numbers and the practically limitless amount of ammunition Grant's excellent logistics apparatus provided. The daily stream of casualties combined with the psychological impact of constantly being under the gun wore down Confederate morale and readiness while also providing daytime cover for advancing Union saps. Mass suppressive fire along the line also freed up Union artillerymen to go about their duties without being constantly harassed by Confederate sharpshooters. The cumulative effect was decisive.

Steven Woodworth's evocative contribution captures the sights, sounds, and activities of nighttime during the six-week siege. Shell and mortar fire were round the clock occurrences, and it was during moonlit nights when Union forces were able to most quickly advance their siege works. Woodworth attributes the many examples of Confederate passivity in the face of Union working parties (even those that closely approached the city's ramparts) to increasingly fatalistic demoralization among the defending rank and file.

Taking some of its content from the author's aforementioned study Engineering Victory, Justin Solonick's chapter examines the Union mine explosions of June 25 and July 1 that collectively wrecked the Third Louisiana Redan but failed to facilitate a breakthrough. In addition to describing the mining operation from start to finish, Solonick also discusses the role of Seventeenth Corps chief engineer Andrew Hickenlooper in the design, planning, and oversight of the mine detonated on June 25 (a subordinate apparently handled the second, smaller mine explosion that was not accompanied by an infantry attack). Though the Confederates effectively sealed off the breach, Solonick suggests that the prospect of additional mine explosions in conjunction with an expected all-out attack (Grant did indeed have one planned for July 6) from the Union army's advanced siege approaches—several of which could produce jumping off points only yards away from the defenders—likely had some influence on Pemberton's decision to surrender.

Vicksburg civilians abandoning their homes for makeshift caves dug into the banks of nearby cliffs and gullies for protection against constant Union naval and land bombardment has easily become the most popular image of how noncombatants experienced the siege. John Gaines discusses this aspect of the siege as well as the shortages of food and supplies that ensured surrender sooner rather than later. Gaines makes a good point that Grant's strategy of attacking the Vicksburg rear first, a movement that cut off the rail line and all roads leading into the city, had the significant added effect of both pushing refugees from the countryside into the defenses and blocking city residents from evacuating. Though incidental to Grant's military goals, the vastly increased burden this action placed on Vicksburg's meager food stockpiles clearly benefited the besiegers.

One essay in the collection, viewed through the lens of Louisiana soldiers, addresses the topic of Confederate general Joe Johnston's Army of Relief. In it, author Richard Holloway recounts the experiences of Louisiana soldiers (in particular, the 19th Louisiana infantry and the Washington Artillery) who arrived in Jackson, Mississippi by early June as reinforcements for Johnston's command. There they joined Johnston's slow advance toward Vicksburg, retreated back to Jackson when news arrived of Vicksburg's surrender, and fought in the July 12 rear guard action that covered the second evacuation of the capital that conclusively ended the long campaign.

Finally, Charles Grear explores how Trans-Mississippi Confederates viewed the loss of Vicksburg. An extension of his earlier work in Why Texans Fought in the Civil War to Arkansas and Louisiana (but not Missouri) Confederate soldiers, Grear's chapter comes to the conclusion that Vicksburg was by far the most significant event affecting the fighting will of Trans-Mississippi soldiers on both sides of the river. According to Grear's research, Trans-Mississippi recruits in general, as residents of the most recently settled southern states, were motivated to fight far from their homes by the desire to protect the extensive family and friend networks they left behind. These Texas, Arkansas, and western Louisiana volunteers supported fighting on both sides of the Mississippi as a pragmatic means of keeping their own homes safe from imminent danger. While disasters at New Orleans, Arkansas Post, Helena, and other places seriously impaired the fighting morale of Trans-Mississippi troops, it was Vicksburg that proved to be the demoralizing event of the highest order. In its profound effect on convincing so many Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana soldiers that faraway service no longer protected their own homes and immediate family members, Vicksburg sparked an unprecedented wave of desertions. While many deserters returned to the service by joining local units west of the Mississippi, many others simply left the ranks for good. Historians and casual students alike love to argue about turning points, and Grear's findings strongly suggest that for a great number of Trans-Mississippi soldiers Vicksburg was not only a turning point but a breaking point.

Topically diverse in addressing matters on and off the battlefield (mostly the former), Vicksburg Besieged is another solid entry in the ongoing Civil War Campaigns in the West series and a notable contribution to our understanding of the still relatively understudied siege phase of the Vicksburg Campaign.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Blue & Gray Magazine Phase II

Even though Blue and Gray no longer circulates as a bi-monthly magazine, it has stayed in the game in a limited capacity by offering some free downloads to stranded subscribers while also keeping their store open selling back issues and the occasional reprint. However, yesterday they announced a new initiative that they are calling "Phase II" of the magazine. It involves bringing back select OP material as new on-demand paperback publications.

The first in the new series is “A Wilderness of Woe”: The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White. Subscribers might recall that this was one of the early digital downloads. In addition to the annotated feature article and "General's Tour" complete with photographs, orders of battle, and maps, the book will also include a pair of previously published articles by Thomas Gilbert and Elizabeth Roberson. From the description: Gilbert's "“Mr. Grant Goes to Washington,” first published in 1995, covers the general’s visit to Washington, D.C., in March 1864 to meet President Lincoln and receive his promotion to commander of all United States armies. The other, titled “Gentle Annie Goes Home,” also a 1995 publication, describes the personal problems and heartbreak that weighed upon Robert E. Lee as he prepared for a showdown with Grant."

No news yet regarding what other Phase II projects are in the works.