Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Review - "The Civil War Battles of Macon" by Niels Eichhorn

[The Civil War Battles of Macon by Niels Eichhorn (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:105/124. ISBN:978-1-4671-4694-4. $21.99]

After the Confederate war industry lost a vast proportion of its Upper South manufacturing capacity early in the conflict, Deep South industrial centers such as the one that existed in Macon, Georgia, assumed ever greater importance. Much of that story, along with a detailed account of wartime life in the city, is addressed in Richard Iobst's extensive 2000 study Civil War Macon: The History of a Confederate City, which has since become the standard work on the subject. The latter sections of Iobst's book recount the 1864-65 fighting that occurred outside the city along with the Union occupation that began in spring 1865, but those skirmishes and the bloodless surrender of Macon during Wilson's Raid are the primary focus of Niels Eichhorn's The Civil War Battles of Macon.

The opening chapter provides readers with an excellent summary of Macon's early settlement and geographical advantages. Eichhorn also traces the city's antebellum-period commercial expansion from a sleepy cotton trade conduit into a significant regional center of industry and transportation. By the time of the Civil War, ironworking enterprises at Macon were collectively producing business and home product lines comparable in diversity to the output of any of the great factories of the North. Following this background summary is a solid history of the city's rapid wartime metamorphosis into a center of military industry, a process of growth and change that led to the establishment of a Confederate armory, arsenal, and laboratory in Macon along with military hospitals and POW facilities.

Succeeding chapters offer solid overviews of the three most significant military events that occurred in and around Macon during the war. Predictably, as Union forces penetrated the very heart of the Deep South in 1864, Macon became an inviting target, and the first close approach to the city took place in late July when General George Stoneman's raiding cavalry briefly skirmished with Macon's defenders before moving away and eventually suffering disaster at the hands of Confederate pursuers. Stoneman's raid awakened Macon's defenders, always a mixed-quality (though often sizable) force of Confederate volunteers, state militia, and local home guards, to the need to construct a more protective ring of earthworks around the city. During Sherman's March to the Sea in November 1864, Macon was once again threatened by Union cavalry. This time the skirmishing outside the city around Walnut Creek was part of a feint (Sherman had no intention to risking casualties in an assault on the city, although he undoubtedly could have, and arguably should have, taken it). That latest repulse, the second in less than six months, emboldened the Macon defenders to launch an expedition of their own. The mostly raw Confederate force struck veteran Union infantry at Griswoldville instead of enemy cavalry and in return suffered grievous casualties. Macon's surrender, which was facilitated by a truce mix-up with the advancing forces of General James Wilson in April 1865, is described in another chapter that also relates the role of Macon-based Union forces in President Davis's capture and arrest. The events above are all presented by Eichhorn in an engaging and informative manner, with research based on a small but reasonably diverse collection of primary and secondary sources, but all of the book's accounts of marching and fighting would have benefited greatly from some dedicated original map coverage. After page-fitting size reduction, the supporting archival map sketches reproduced in the volume to aid the reader are largely inscrutable.

Another lengthy chapter is devoted to a different battlefield of sorts, one over the historical interpretation and memory of Macon's Asa Holt (or "Cannonball") House. It's illustrative of the brand of local mythology commonly attached to surviving antebellum structures with connections to the war. The volume concludes with a critical reassessment of the limited collection of permanent Civil War markers and monuments in and around Macon.

The book does have some drawbacks. Typos are a bit too numerous to escape notice. Though mostly confined to background coverage, some factual errors are easily detected (ex. in the Wilson's Raid chapter the narrative is inconsistent in describing the size and organization of Wilson's command, and it inaccurately summarizes the fighting at Columbus, Georgia as 300 men defeating 3,000 defenders). Once again, the most significant complaint is with the cartography. Overall though, the volume's strengths greatly outnumber its weaknesses.

Niels Eichhorn's study is well worthy of recommendation as a broad-appeal narrative history of Civil War military events in and around Macon. In addition to that, the volume conveys a well-rounded understanding of Macon's role in sustaining the Confederate war effort, and it does so in ways that dovetail nicely with the book's explorations of when and why the city was targeted by Union forces during the latter stages of the conflict.

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