Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Review - "The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863" by Timothy Smith

[The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2021). Hardcover, 19 maps, photos, illustrations, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxvii,537/751. ISBN:978-0-7006-3225-1. $45]

Of the three standard histories of the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign—Ed Bearss's The Vicksburg Campaign (3 Vols, 1985), Warren Grabau's Ninety-Eight Days: A Geographer's View of the Vicksburg Campaign (2000), and Michael Ballard's Vicksburg: The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi (2004)—Bearss's third volume by a wide margin covers the military aspects of its static phase in greatest detail. Though A.A. Hoehling's Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege (1969) was an early attempt at presenting the story of the siege in the words of its participants, modern book-length treatments of the siege itself are mostly just a recent phenomenon mainly spearheaded by Southern Illinois University Press, with Ballard's Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege (2013)1 being an episodic examination of the topic and Justin Solonick's excellent Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg (2015)2 focusing closely on the historical context and mechanics of siege warfare as practiced during the campaign. Most recently, the slender volume Vicksburg Besieged (2020)3 was published as part of SIUP's Civil War Campaigns in the West essay anthology series, and it is also useful. However, Timothy Smith's new book The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863 marks the publication of the first truly comprehensive narrative history of the six-week siege of the Hill City fortress.

In what has become a hallmark of Smith's work, research for this study is firmly grounded in primary sources with a strong emphasis on original archival research. Indeed, the bibliography lists hundreds of manuscript collections housed in repositories located all across the country. All of this material is used effectively to create a rich (and at nearly 550 pages quite lengthy) narrative full of diverse perspectives, from the ground-level eyewitness accounts of private soldiers, low-ranking officers, and affected civilians on up to those of the top-level military and political decision-makers of both sides.

Smith's The Siege of Vicksburg picks up where his previous book The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863 (2020)4 left off, with the end of active field operations and the beginning of siege operations. The tools, features, and strategies of siege warfare, for both besieger and besieged, are discussed, as is life in the trenches, day and night, for both sides. The physical and psychological effects of constant bombardment as well as many other forms of privation and danger imposed by the siege upon civilians trapped within Confederate lines are examined. Day to day conduct of the siege, with Union forces digging multiple approaches and ultimately mining the enemy forts while Confederate forces struggled with stopping them through countermining and other measures, is addressed at length. The many vital roles assumed by the US Navy in bombarding the city, patrolling the waterfront, keeping Grant's army abundantly supplied, ferrying reinforcements to the front, and even contributing to the land batteries, are all duly documented and fully appreciated for their collective impact.

Volume III of the Bearss trilogy examined each of the thirteen siege approaches in standalone sections totaling around one hundred pages. Even more extensive detailing and mapping of all of those approaches probably ranks high on the wish lists of many readers of this book, but Smith instead provides more representative coverage. However, he does selectively go into more depth on two of the major approaches (Logan's and Ewing's). The Union approaches as a whole are mapped from a bird's-eye perspective of the entire line surrounding Vicksburg, but those two, the former leading to the June 25 and July 1 mine explosions on Third Louisiana Redan and the latter culminating in Stockade Redan mining and countermining operations near the conclusion of the siege, are closely detailed in the text and supported with a pair of good maps. Smith would undoubtedly agree with historian Jonathan Steplyk5 and others that the near limitless amounts of ammunition supplied to Union sharpshooters and cannoneers during the siege, combined with Confederate strictures on unnecessary firing, had a collectively suppressive effect that had a major impact on southern inability to slow the pace of many of the Vicksburg siege approaches. The view advanced by some that Confederate units not countering Union saps with sustained fire of their own (even when that kind of ammunition expenditure was encouraged from above) represented a sign of collapsing morale among many defenders does not appear to be hold much stock with Smith, who does not directly address the matter.

The study confirms earlier work regarding inadequate numbers of engineering officers in Grant's army hampering progress of siege operations. That deficiency made some areas move forward faster than others and also resulted in a wide variance in quality of works along the front. Smith, like others, also notes that General McClernand's Thirteenth Corps siege front in particular lagged behind the other two corps, attributing that slower pace to the general's lack of professional military experience and knowledge of military engineering. Headquarters exasperation over Thirteenth Corps progress likely contributed in some way to bringing Grant's long-standing determination to relieve McClernand to a boil, though obviously the commanding general found McClernand's violation of army regulations prohibiting publication of official reports without permission to be a better excuse for getting rid of him. That well-known episode is also addressed in the book.

After Grant invested Vicksburg with a line of circumvallation, he immediately set out to construct an outward facing line of countervallation. This Siege of Alesia-type arrangement was effective in both tightly hemming Pemberton inside the Vicksburg defenses and strongly keeping General Joe Johnston's relief army a safe distance away. Grant's efforts at securing the Mechanicsburg Corridor northeast of Vicksburg (Johnston's only really viable avenue of approach to Grant's rear) as well as the Big Black River crossings directly east of Vicksburg are recounted in far more detail than Johnston's relief efforts, as meager as they were in energy and threat level. Johnston and his actions mostly hover at the periphery of the narrative before finally coming into play at the end. Like most historians of the campaign, Smith castigates Johnston's 'do-nothing' attitude along with his stubborn unwillingness to assume his responsibility as the senior officer in the theater when it came to planning and coordinating either a relief effort or a breakout attempt. The author's view that Johnston's belated early-July advance to the Big Black with his entire command was likely just a cynical show of force intended to forestall expected criticism of his inability to prevent Vicksburg's fall is an opinion difficult to refute based on the general's defeatist behavior and attitude up to that point. One might wish, though, that Smith had delved more into the realistic options available to Johnston earlier in the siege during the brief window of opportunity that existed between the topping off of Johnston's troop levels and the arrival of overwhelming Union reinforcements. In his own defense, Johnston was likely correct that Pemberton mostly doomed himself by heeding the president's order to hold Vicksburg over Johnston's order to evacuate before becoming invested, but, as the author maintains, doing nothing at all was entirely unacceptable whatever the slim chances of success. Confederate efforts aimed at relieving Vicksburg from the west side of the Mississippi are beyond the scope of Smith's study, though they were addressed at length in Bearss's study and also to a lesser extent Grabau's. This book ends with the July 4 surrender of Pemberton's army, the paroling of the defenders, and the immediate reaction far and wide to that decisive end to the campaign. It does not continue on with extensive looks at any of the major post-Vicksburg actions such as General Sherman's second "Siege" of Jackson, though interested readers can be referred to existing coverage of those events from authors Bearss/Grabau6 and Jim Woodrick7.

Smith agrees with Solonick that Vicksburg essentially fell to General Grant's digging before general starvation actually forced a surrender. No one can know with any degree of certainty if the big attack prepared for July 6, which would have been touched off by massive mine explosions and launched from parallels in many places almost touching Confederate outer ditches, would have been the complete success supposed by many. However, there seems little doubt that that prospect, combined with the overall deterioration in the fighting condition of the defenders through constant frontline duty, short rations, and disease, weighed heavily in the minds of Pemberton and his division commanders. According to Smith, by the time of the surrender Pemberton still had around five days of rations squirreled away in reserve for any possible breakout attempt. In his recent book Civil War Supply and Strategy (2020)8, Earl Hess came to the conclusion that Pemberton's inability to stockpile vastly more supplies in Vicksburg represented a particularly egregious failure of leadership, and it would have been interesting to get Smith's opinion on that matter, too.

The siege operation that captured Vicksburg is clearly an expansive enough topic to easily fill several large books, yet it is difficult to imagine another author matching the level of comprehensiveness displayed in Smith's single-volume treatment. The Siege of Vicksburg will unquestionably come to be regarded as the standard history of the concluding phase of the campaign. Already the author of major works covering the Battle of Champion Hill, the two Vicksburg assaults, and now the siege, Smith is currently in the midst of researching and writing an epic campaign series that will fill in the remaining gaps and provide readers with an exhaustive new military history of the entire operation from start to finish. Given the superlative quality of Smith's existing work, there is every expectation that this ambitious project, when finished, will rank among the Civil War literature's enduring classics.

Titles referenced above (with review links, if available):
1 - Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege by Michael B. Ballard (SIU Press, 2013).
2 - Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg by Justin S. Solonick (SIU Press, 2015).
3 - Vicksburg Besieged edited by Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear (SIU Press, 2020).
4 - The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (UP of Kansas, 2020).
5 - Both Steplyk's chapter in Vicksburg Besieged and Solonick's Engineering Victory credit the high-volume, suppressive effects of Union sharpshooting for progressive deterioration of defender morale and fighting readiness.
6 - The Battle of Jackson May 14, 1863, The Siege of Jackson July 10-17, 1863 and Three Other Post-Vicksburg Actions by Edwin C. Bearss and Warren Grabau (Gateway Press for Jackson Civil War Round Table, 1981).
7 - The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi by Jim Woodrick (The History Press, 2016).
8 - Civil War Supply and Strategy by Earl J. Hess (LSU Press, 2020).

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Booknotes: Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy

New Arrival:
Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso by Christopher Grasso (Oxford UP, 2021).

From the description: "A former Methodist preacher and Missouri schoolteacher, John R. Kelso served as a Union Army foot soldier, cavalry officer, guerrilla fighter, and spy. Kelso became driven by revenge after pro-Southern neighbors stole his property, burned down his house, and drove his family and friends from their homes."

Kelso's "Auto-Biography," the surviving part of it up to 1863, was recently edited by historian Christopher Grasso and published by Yale University Press. That book, 2017's Bloody Engagements: John R. Kelso’s Civil War, also won the following year's A.M. Pate Award. Grasso's Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso, with its le CarrĂ©-inspired title, is the first full biography of a "complex figure and passionate, contradictory, and prolific writer."

Kelso certainly had an eventful life expressed through wide-ranging interests and ideological drives. More from the description: "During Reconstruction, Kelso served in the House of Representatives and was one of the first to call for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Personal tragedy then drove him west, where he became a freethinking lecturer and author, an atheist, a spiritualist, and, before his death in 1891, an anarchist."

It seems that personal conflict of all kinds was integral to his existence. "The Civil War remained central to his life, challenging his notions of manhood and honor, his ideals of liberty and equality, and his beliefs about politics, religion, morality, and human nature. Throughout his life, too, he fought private wars--not only against former friends and alienated family members, rebellious students and disaffected church congregations, political opponents and religious critics, but also against the warring impulses in his own character."

Grasso's treatment of "Kelso's life story offers a unique vantage on dimensions of nineteenth-century American culture that are usually treated separately: religious revivalism and political anarchism; sex, divorce, and Civil War battles; freethinking and the Wild West." That's quite a combination.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Coming Soon (October '21 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for OCT 2021:

Rebel Correspondent by Steve Procko.
The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad by David Smithweck.
Rites of Retaliation: Civilization, Soldiers, and Campaigns in the American Civil War by Lorien Foote.
The Cacophony of Politics: Northern Democrats and the American Civil War by Matthew Gallman.
To Address You as My Friend: African Americans' Letters to Abraham Lincoln edited by Jonathan White.
Voices of the Army of the Potomac: Personal Reminiscences of Union Veterans by Vincent Burns.

Comments: The Procko book is out already, and the Booknotes entry for it will appear soon. It's funny how quickly October went from the first or second busiest month for Civil War releases to mostly a placeholding reservoir for early publication dates. By the time the spooky season actually arrives, the shortlist of survivors is akin to a battle line that took a buck and ball volley at ten yards.

1 - These monthly release lists are not meant to be exhaustive compilations of non-fiction releases. They do not include non-revised/expanded reprints of previously published books, special editions not distributed to reviewers, and digital-only titles. Works that only tangentially address the war years are also generally excluded. Inevitably, one or more titles on this list will get a rescheduled release (and they do not get repeated later), so revisiting the past few "Coming Soon" posts is the best way to pick up stragglers.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Booknotes: Civil War Witnesses and Their Books

New Arrival:
Civil War Witnesses and Their Books: New Perspectives on Iconic Works edited by Gary W. Gallagher & Stephen Cushman (LSU Press, 2021).

In 2019, LSU Press published Gary Gallagher and Stephen Cushman's Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts. That essay collection reexamined the enduring influence of a number of men and women whose Civil War writings reached eager readers through a number of fiction and non-fiction forms, including histories, novels, journals, memoirs, and biographies. Intended audience is always an important factor in considering these historically significant writings, and Gallagher and Cushman's new companion volume Civil War Witnesses and Their Books: New Perspectives on Iconic Works, also "features the voices of authors who felt compelled to convey their stories for a variety of reasons. Some produced works intended primarily for their peers, while others were concerned with how future generations would judge their wartime actions. One diarist penned her entries with no thought that they would later become available to the public."

Eight essays explore the works of five men and three women. Freshly reassessed in them are General Longstreet's memoir From Manassas to Appomattox; Henry Wilson’s three-volume The History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power (1872-77); Phoebe Yates Pember’s narrative of her time as a Chimborazo Hospital nurse; the "origins and substance" of McClellan's Own Story; Maria Lydig Daly's Diary of a Union Lady 1861–1865; John Billings’s Hardtack and Coffee; Elizabeth Bacon Custer’s series of memoirs of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and western Indian Wars (1885-1890); and, finally, Lee staffer Walter Taylor's seminal influence on Confederate history and memory through his books Four Years with General Lee (1877) and General Lee, His Campaigns in Virginia, 1861-1865, With Personal Reminiscences (1906).

More from the description: Civil War Witnesses and Their Books "shows how some of those who lived through the conflict attempted to assess its importance and frame it for later generations. Their voices have particular resonance today and underscore how rival memory traditions stir passion and controversy, providing essential testimony for anyone seeking to understand the nation’s greatest trial and its aftermath."

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Booknotes: William Barksdale, CSA

New Arrival:
William Barksdale, CSA: A Biography of the United States Congressman and Confederate Brigadier General by John Douglas Ashton (McFarland, 2021).

From the description: "An aggressive and colorful personality, William Barksdale was no stranger to controversy. Orphaned at 13, he succeeded as lawyer, newspaper editor, Mexican War veteran, politician and Confederate commander." In addition to possessing a civilian background common to so many Civil War volunteer generals, Mississippi's Barksdale also practically lived the stereotype of the southern Fireater. "During eight years in the U.S. Congress, he was among the South's most ardent defenders of slavery and advocates for states' rights. His emotional speeches and altercations--including a brawl on the House floor--made headlines in the years preceding secession. His fiery temper prompted three near-duels, gaining him a reputation as a brawler and knife-fighter."

Unlike so many other political generals, however, Barksdale earned a more than solid record as a combat commander to go along with his violent off-the-battlefield exploits. "Arrested for intoxication, Colonel Barksdale survived a military Court of Inquiry to become one of the most beloved commanders in the Army of Northern Virginia. His reputation soared with his defense against the Union river crossing and street-fighting at Fredericksburg, and his legendary charge at Gettysburg."

John Douglas Ashton's William Barksdale, CSA: A Biography of the United States Congressman and Confederate Brigadier General is the "first full-length biography" of the general and "places his life and career in historical context." The first six chapters cover Barksdale's prewar life and career. The rest of the volume recounts Barksdale's military career, first as colonel of the 13th Mississippi at First Bull Run and Ball's Bluff/Edward's Ferry and then as commanding general of the Mississippi Brigade (he replaced General Richard Griffith, who was mortally wounded on June 29 during the Seven Days) until his own death from wounds suffered on July 2 at Gettysburg. His actions as brigade commander during the rest of the Seven Days, the 1862 Maryland Campaign, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg are addressed in some detail in the volume, all supported by an excellent set of maps. The bibliography is impressive-looking in its depth and variety of sources listed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Various book-related news items

1. Gene Salecker is a major figure in keeping the history of the Sultana steamboat disaster alive. In addition to being an avid artifact collector, he is the historical consultant for the  Sultana Disaster Museum of Marion, Arkansas and is the author of the best regarded (I believe) book on the topic, 1996's Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865. Twenty-five years later, Salecker has taken advantage of all of the source material that has emerged since then and created a new history titled Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. This is not a revised anniversary edition but an entirely new study. I've been told that it, among many other things, provides a lot of new evidence that the tragedy's death toll is lower than previously thought. Like his earlier book, this one will be published by the Naval Institute Press and is currently scheduled for a March 2022 release.

2. A short while ago I favorably reviewed "We Gave Them Thunder": Marmaduke’s Raid and the Civil War in Missouri and Arkansas by William Garrett Piston and John Rutherford, which was officially released in August in paperback. I've now learned that there is also a Special Library Limited Edition for those who want a hardcover copy. It's a thick book that's worth the format upgrade.

3. Award-winning biographer Elizabeth Leonard (her book Lincoln's Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky shared the 2012 Lincoln Prize) has now set her sights on another major Union figure, one even more controversial. Scheduled for an April 2022 release from UNC Press, Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life "chronicles Butler's successful career in the law defending the rights of the Lowell Mill girls and other workers, his achievements as one of Abraham Lincoln's premier civilian generals, and his role in developing wartime policy in support of slavery's fugitives as the nation advanced toward emancipation." The book "also highlights Butler's personal and political evolution, revealing how his limited understanding of racism and the horrors of slavery transformed over time, leading him into a postwar role as one of the nation's foremost advocates for Black freedom and civil rights..."

4. Also from the new UNC Press catalog is Jeffry Wert's The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle (May 2022). The brutal mass brawl there is considered by many to have been the war's largest-scale and most terrible example of sustained, close-contact fighting. Wert's book "draws on the personal narratives of Union and Confederate troops who survived the fight to offer a gripping story of Civil War combat at its most difficult." There's no doubt that the book will be more than just description, and I will be interested to see what insights Wert's account might have to contribute to our ongoing investigation of the nature of Civil War combat.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Review - "Decisions of the Seven Days: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battles" by Matt Spruill

[Decisions of the Seven Days: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battles by Matt Spruill (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Softcover, 23 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:xvii,229. ISBN:978-1-62190-674-2. $29.95]

With the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia heavily reinforced to its peak fighting strength, the series of battles fought outside Richmond from June 25 to July 1, 1862 (the "Seven Days") were collectively epic in scale. Spatially and temporally close enough together to arguably be regarded as a single running battle, the costly nature of these actions was stunning by early-war standards, with over 20,000 Confederate losses weighed against over 16,000 Union casualties. The vast differential in killed and wounded (a much higher proportion of Union losses were in battle prisoners and scooped up stragglers, all eligible for later exchange) was not what the Confederate high command had in mind for their offensive, which was designed to destroy all or part of the Army of the Potomac. Nevertheless, the strategic results of the campaign, which transferred the theater's active front from the gates of one capital to the other, significantly altered the course of the war in the East.

The standard history of the Seven Days is Brian Burton's now two-decade old study Extraordinary Circumstances. That critical week of fighting between the well-matched armies of Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan is now the subject of the latest volume in University of Tennessee Press's Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series. Supplementing Burton's fine narrative account of the campaign, Matt Spruill's Decisions of the Seven Days: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battles uses the well-honed critical decision system developed for the series to go from describing and analyzing "what happened" during a particular event to answering the question of "why did it happen, or what caused it to happen?"

For the uninitiated, the series defines a critical decision as one that is "of such magnitude that it shaped not only the events immediately following, but also the campaign or battle from that point on" (xiv). More about this (including the full range of decision categories) can be read in the following CWBA reviews of earlier Spruill series entries linked here and here.

Spruill's sixteen critical decisions of the Seven Days are distributed among four key time intervals: "Before the Battles" March 17-June 15, 1862 [6], "Mechanicsville and Gaines' Mill" June 26-27 [3], "White Oak Swamp and Glendale" June 29-30 [4], and "Malvern Hill and Retreat" July 1 and Beyond [3]. While the June 25 battle at Oak Grove is understandably not involved in a critical decision and arguably lacked much in the way of meaningful impact, it remains a bit odd that the reader is not given notice of it in the book. Three of the decisions are strategic, four are operational, eight tactical, and one (Confederate president Jefferson Davis's decision to appoint Lee to lead the Army of Northern Virginia) personnel related. Nine are Confederate decisions and seven Union, a balance perhaps indicative of the campaign's back and forth shuffling of opportunities for seizing the operational initiative.

In Decisions of the Seven Days, analysis of each critical decision closely follows the standard organizational format developed for the series. Discussion proceeds through five subheadings—Situation, Options, Decision, Result/Impact, and Alternate Decision/Scenario. The first and typically the lengthiest section, Situation describes the state of affairs at a crossroads moment in the campaign or battle. It provides readers with the background information necessary to recognize and evaluate the decision Options (in this case, two to four in number) that immediately follow. The historical Decision is then outlined very briefly before the Result/Impact section recounts what happened and how those events shaped the rest of the battle and beyond. The Situation and Result/Impact sections quite often reference other decisions in a meaningful way, further reminding readers of their interconnectivity and the cascading consequences of critical decisions made earlier. Not present for every decision, the optional Alternate Decision/Scenario section delves into alternative history conjecture based on choices not made.

For the purposes of the review, we'll look at one decision from each of the four groupings. Having six of sixteen decisions in the pre-Seven Days period serves as yet another reminder that the course and outcomes of major campaigns are greatly affected by the top-level decisions that precede them by days, weeks, or months. In this example, that involved the critical decision of the Lincoln administration to divert General Irvin McDowell's large First Corps from its movement to join McClellan and instead redirect it to the Shenandoah Valley in an attempt to trap Stonewall Jackson's small army there. It's a common observation among wags, and even otherwise thoughtful historians, that sending McDowell to McClellan would not have mattered because he wouldn't have done anything with it anyway, but Spruill sagely points out that McDowell's presence north of Richmond alone would have imposed tremendous challenges to an enemy earnestly seeking to avoid a siege. Such a movement, by both greatly extending and massively strengthening the Army of the Potomac's right, would have rendered infeasible Lee's most favored plan (that being a turning movement against the enemy's only open flank). McDowell's march south would interpose his large command between Jackson and Lee, preventing a junction advantageous of maneuver similar to the combined effort undertaken historically. Of course, as the author correctly observes, that alternative decision would not have guaranteed Union victory, but it would have unquestionably led to a very different continuation of the campaign. How Jackson might have been used in that situation is interesting to reflect upon.

From the second group, the decision surrounding McClellan's next course of action after his defeat at Gaines's Mill is one of the rare four-option discussions. Both of the first two retreat options, toward the then current forward supply base of White House Landing or further down the Peninsula to Fort Monroe, would involve recrossing the Chickahominy River in the face of an aggressive enemy. McClellan's historical choice of a rapid retreat to the James River was safer, but the road network formed choke points of potential usefulness to the enemy. The final alternative, that of launching an all-out offensive toward Richmond while the bulk of Lee's army was temporarily isolated north of the Chickahominy is the big 'What If' of the campaign that has been endlessly debated ever since that time. Arguably, it is too often presented as a sure thing leading to the fall of Richmond, but it is clear to the author (and nearly everyone else) that it was a lost opportunity that McClellan, rendered entirely defensive-minded by Gaines's Mill, never really seriously considered. That it would have involved a commitment of the army to an assault on a fortified city without first having secured a new line of supply and communications is a matter worthy of some consideration, although it should be said that McClellan had already set in motion contingency plans for a change of base prior to the Seven Days.

The third decision involves Robert E. Lee's critical decision over where to use his reserve, General John B. Magruder's command, to best effect during the June 29-30 fighting period. By the 30th, McClellan's army occupied a long, and in places somewhat thin, line stretching from Malvern Hill to White Oak Swamp. On the other side, Lee's army had three divisions (James Longstreet's, Benjamin Huger's, and A.P. Hill's) converging on McClellan's center at the Glendale crossroads and Theophilus Holmes's division marching down the River Road toward the steep western face of Malvern Hill. Magruder was his reserve and Lee had to decide which attack it would back up, Glendale or Malvern Hill. In the author's view this was a critical decision that would greatly impact the fighting on June 30th, a day of combat that some consider to have been Lee's best opportunity to cripple or destroy the Army of the Potomac. Initially ordered to support Holmes, an act that violated the principle of war dictating that the reserve should be used to support operations along the main axis of attack (in this case, the assault on the Union center), Magruder ended up, through a series of orders that sent his men marching and countermarching about, influencing events on neither part of the field. In Spruill's judgment, Magruder could have had a decisive impact on the Glendale battlefield, though the fact that Huger never got into the action there already significantly lessened the chances of achieving a major break in McClellan's line there.

The 'July 1 and beyond' period decision sampled here examines the order from army general in chief Henry Halleck to evacuate the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula and bring it back to the US capital front. Weighing the three options of (1) remaining north of the James to renew the advance on Richmond, (2) crossing the army to the south side of the James and attacking Richmond's lifeline through Petersburg, and (3) ordering McClellan to evacuate his army from the Peninsula and return to the Washington front, the section cogently summarizes the advantages and disadvantages each option held for continuing the campaign in Virginia for the balance of the season. While the first two options both required levels of command and movement coordination hitherto absent from operations in the East if resumption of the campaign against Richmond was to continue, the third option clearly conceded the initiative to Lee, who took full advantage of the opportunity to attack John Pope's Army of Virginia during its brief period of isolation. On paper, this can be regarded as one of the worst decisions of the war, but that must be balanced against the complete absence of trust and confidence that existed by that time between the Lincoln administration and the commander of its top army.

The volume's over two-dozen maps are mostly brigade and division scale. While that lack of small-unit detail present in the author's other books might disappoint some readers, the higher scale does fit within the level of decision-making addressed in the study. As is the case with all series volumes, an extensive driving tour (complete with orientation, documentary support in the form of official reports, and context specifically tied to the decision analyses explored in the main body) is provided along with orders of battle for both armies.

In Decisions of the Seven Days, Matt Spruill once again demonstrates a keen eye for identifying and exploring the type and character of critical decisions that shaped the course of Civil War campaigns. The Seven Days possesses perhaps more than its share of grand lost opportunities that have been heatedly debated over the past century and a half. McClellan's controversial decision to retreat after Gaines's Mill and questions surrounding June 29-30 being Lee's greatest opportunity to destroy the Army of the Potomac comprise two of the war's greatest 'what-if' moments, and Spruill handles those and more with well-informed and admirably level-headed understanding. Recommended.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Booknotes: The Horse at Gettysburg

New Arrival:
The Horse at Gettysburg: Prepared for the Day of Battle by Chris Bagley (Gettysburg Pub, 2021).

From the description: "Horses are unique because they are flight animals; equines are prey not predator. Yet, from the earliest recorded histories we see these animals used as implements of war. At Gettysburg, these animals were used as mounts for officers, staff, couriers and cavalry. Some were used by the artillery, while others the often-mundane task of pulling supply wagons and ambulances. They required sound handling skills and a great deal of attention to keep them healthy. Sources often quote the number of horses present and the number lost, but there is more to their story. These animals were prepared for battle like the armies who fought here."

With abundant color photography, Chris Bagley's The Horse at Gettysburg introduces readers to the breeds and colorations of the horses used by both armies. It then discusses horse procurement, training, and care before moving on to an equine-oriented narrative of events from the Pennsylvania campaign before, during, and after the Battle of Gettysburg. Illustrations comprise a great multitude of monument and landscape photographs along with numerous period artworks, all reminders of the key role horses assumed in nearly every aspect of nineteenth century military support and conveyance.

More from the description: "The field, terrain features, chaos of battle, weather and the distinct attributes of the horse are utilized to reveal a narrative that provides a unique perspective of this battle as well as many of its monuments."

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Booknotes: Bulldozed and Betrayed

New Arrival:
Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876 by Adam Fairclough (LSU Press, 2021).

The 1876 Hayes vs. Tilden presidential race is clearly one of the most contested and controversial national elections in our history. "Examining the work and conclusions of the Potter Committee, the congressional body tasked with investigating the vote," author Adam Fairclough’s Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876 "sheds new light on the events surrounding the electoral crisis, especially those that occurred in Louisiana, a state singled out for voter intimidation and rampant fraud."

More from the description: "The Potter Committee’s inquiry led to embarrassment for Democrats, uncovering an array of bribes, forgeries, and even coded telegrams showing that the Tilden campaign had attempted to buy the presidency."

Of course, the election is most infamous for the 'corrupt bargain' that sent Hayes to the White House in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederacy, a deal that essentially ended Reconstruction. More: "Testimony also exposed the treachery of Hayes, who, once installed in the White House, permitted insurrectionary Democrats to overthrow the Republican government in Louisiana that had risen to power during the early days of Reconstruction."

I don't know much about this topic, so it's unknown to me if this is the first study to most specifically look at the part of Louisiana, one of the four states involved with the 20 disputed electoral votes, in all this.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Booknotes: The River Batteries at Fort Donelson

New Arrival:
The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862 by M. Todd Cathey & Ricky W. Robnett (McFarland, 2021).

The celebrated Union winter 1861-62 campaign up the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers that seized forts Henry and Donelson has received a number of full-length treatments, the latest and best authored by Timothy Smith, but The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862 is the first standalone study of the artillery defenses that did their job so well during the initial phase of the Union army and navy's combined assault on the fort.

From the description: "Unprepared for invasion, Tennessee joined the Confederacy in June 1861. The state's long border and three major rivers with northern access made defense difficult. Cutting through critical manufacturing centers, the Cumberland River led directly to the capital city of Nashville. To thwart Federal attack, engineers hastily constructed river batteries as part of the defenses that would come to be known as Fort Donelson, downstream near the town of Dover. Ulysses S. Grant began moving up the rivers in early 1862. In last-minute desperation, two companies of volunteer infantry and a company of light artillerymen were deployed to the hastily constructed batteries. On February 14, they slugged it out with four City-class ironclads and two timber-clads, driving off the gunboats with heavy casualties, while only losing one man."

Authors Todd Cathey and Ricky Robnett detail the construction of the Confederate batteries, the garrison units who manned them, and the military actions they participated in. The text is supported by numerous maps and illustrations. The appendix section offers a collection of biographies of men associated with the river batteries, casualty lists for both sides, and an ordnance inventory table for Jan-Feb 1862. A quick perusal of the bibliography reveals a wide selection of primary and secondary sources.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Booknotes: Lincoln and Native Americans

New Arrival:
Lincoln and Native Americans by Michael S. Green (SIU Press, 2021).

Michael Green's Lincoln and Native Americans is the latest volume from SIU Press's Concise Lincoln Library, which is an extremely prolific series that "brings together expert scholars to elaborate on the life, times, and legacy of Abraham Lincoln." As mentioned before on the site, the library's collection of compact, tightly focused books "brings fresh perspectives to well-known topics, investigates previously overlooked subjects, and explores in greater depth topics that have not yet received book-length treatment."

In the introduction, Green reminds us that David Nichols's Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics (1978) remains the only full-length treatment of the subject but notes that that classic work (which is certainly due for an update) does not tell us much about the time before Lincoln was elected president. Green's own "evenhanded assessment explains how Lincoln thought about Native Americans, interacted with them, and was affected by them."

Though it's far too easy to get away with criticizing past national leaders for not having the priorities we might wish them to have had during period of intense crisis, Lincoln clearly "was not what those who wanted legitimate improvements in the lives of Native Americans would have liked him to be." To be fair, though, the author maintains that Lincoln "revealed none of the hatred or single-minded opposition to Native culture that animated other leaders and some of his own political and military officials. Lincoln did far too little to ease the problems afflicting Indigenous people at the time, but he also expressed more sympathy for their situation than most other politicians of the day."

More from the description: "At best, Lincoln’s record is mixed. He served in the Black Hawk War against tribes who were combating white encroachment. Later he supported policies that exacerbated the situation. Finally, he led the United States in a war that culminated in expanding white settlement. Although as president, Lincoln paid less attention to Native Americans than he did to African Americans and the Civil War, the Indigenous population received considerably more attention from him than previous historians have revealed." ... "In addition to focusing on Lincoln’s personal and familial experiences, such as the death of his paternal grandfather at the hands of Indians, Green enhances our understanding of federal policies toward Native Americans before and during the Civil War and how Lincoln’s decisions affected what came after the war. His patronage appointments shaped Indian affairs, and his plans for the West would also have vast consequences."

The book's final chapter "weighs Lincoln’s impact on the lives of Native Americans" and also engages in some 'what-if' analysis of how things might have been different had Lincoln not been assassinated at the beginning of his second term in office.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Booknotes: A Scottish Blockade Runner in the American Civil War

New Arrival:
A Scottish Blockade Runner in the American Civil War: Joannes Wyllie of the Steamer Ad-Vance by John F. Messner (Whittles Pub, 2021).

The research on Civil War blockade running has made it abundantly clear that the venture could be immensely profitable for shrewd investors and ambitious seafaring entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic, with most vessels crewed by British subjects. John Messner's A Scottish Blockade Runner in the American Civil War: Joannes Wyllie of the Steamer Ad-Vance documents a notable example from the northern reaches of the United Kingdom.

From the description: "Born in 1828 near Kelso in the Scottish Borders, Wyllie went to sea as an apprentice seaman in 1852 and quickly rose through the ranks. By 1862 he had gained his masters certificate in Liverpool, and there he took command of his first vessel, the Bonita. He sailed for Nassau, then a booming port involved in running contraband through the Union blockade of the Confederate States, at that time fighting in the American Civil War. Sailors from Britain rushed to man these vessels as great fortunes could be made if a successful run was made into a Confederate port."

More: "On the return journey, two agents of the State of North Carolina, Thomas Crossan and John White, were travelling to Britain on the orders of Governor Zebulon Vance to purchase ships to run the blockade. This set Wyllie's career as a blockade runner on course. White and Crossan arranged the purchase of the Clyde-built paddle steamer Lord Clyde and, just five months after docking in Liverpool as commander of the Bonita, Wyllie took command of the Lord Clyde, (cleverly) renamed the Ad-Vance. He was aboard from the start of the vessel's new career until her capture in September 1864."

As long as they were smart enough not to arm their vessels or attempt to fight their way through the blockade, captured runners would eventually be released to try again. That was the case with Wyllie. "Two more commands of blockade runners followed; he was captured again and then evaded the American authorities through an ingenious, and at sometimes unbelievable, escape to Scotland." After the war, Wyllie briefly returned to the sea before finally settling into a more terrestrial occupation as a Scottish farmer.

The book offers "(t)he most comprehensive history of the Ad-Vance ... from the day she left Glasgow until her capture off the Carolina coast." In researching the project, Messner explored archives located in multiple countries including Australia, Ireland, Canada, Bermuda, the UK, and the United States. Being abundantly illustrated with photographs, archival illustrations, maps, and color plates, the volume is aesthetically attractive as well. There's a great variety of documentary extras, data tables, ship histories, and more in the appendix section, too. Nice looking book.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Review - "Hell Comes to Southern Maryland: The Story of Point Lookout Prison and Hammond General Hospital" by Gottfried & Gottfried

[Hell Comes to Southern Maryland: The Story of Point Lookout Prison and Hammond General Hospital by Bradley M. Gottfried & Linda I. Gottfried (Turning Point Pub, 2018). Paperback, photos, illustration, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:115/136. ISBN:978-0-0692128640. $13]

Its coastal breezes thought to have been healthful for the recovery of sick and wounded patients, Point Lookout, Maryland was confidently selected by US Army medical authorities for construction of a massive military hospital complex early in the Civil War. The first patients arrived in August 1862, and the facilities began to take Confederate wounded as well the following year. However, Point Lookout soon became more than just a hospital. After the exchange system broke down new POW camps were needed and construction of what would become the military prison at Point Lookout was ordered in summer 1863. Unfortunately, the location on a narrow spit of land where the Potomac River meets Chesapeake Bay proved to be less than ideal for housing military prisoners in tents and taking care of hospital patients in open-air structures. Summer and winter temperature extremes caused suffering for prisoner and patient alike, but particularly for the former group. It also didn't help that nearby wetlands were perfect breeding grounds for disease-vector mosquito populations.

The topic of Civil War POW camps and the multitude of issues surrounding the responsibility for the high death tolls and preventable suffering within both Union and Confederate facilities remain hotly debated today. Though major studies of Point Lookout already exist, Bradley and Linda Gottfried's concise Hell Comes to Southern Maryland: The Story of Point Lookout Prison and Hammond General Hospital is remarkable for its comprehensive range of topics addressed as well as its evenhanded tone and nature. Much of the general hospital material is concentrated in the first chapter, with most of the balance of the book focused on the POW camp. Even though the main narrative runs little over one hundred pages in length, its scope encompasses camp leadership; food, shelter, and medical treatment quality; prison discipline and punishments; prisoner living conditions; camp defenses and associated military actions; the effects of overcrowding and disease on prisoner health; differing conclusions regarding the prison death toll; camp remembrance and preservation; and more. As is the case with many works intended for a popular audience, attribution is not fully realized. While specific sources of their information are commonly disclosed in the main text, the authors did not footnote their material. Additionally, the volume's bibliography is more of a collection of recommended reading and not a complete list of sources consulted.

In their discussions of the many topics referred to above, the authors provide multiple firsthand perspectives from all sides of each issue (ex. from prison authorities, a US Sanitary Commission report, and the prisoners themselves). Of particular focus in the book, due to its detail, is the highly critical November 1863 report composed by Dr. William Swalm of the US Sanitary Commission, presumably an impartial critique of the conditions present at the camp that was nevertheless harshly repudiated by Union prison authorities. The authors perceptively raise an important point regarding the dangers of globally describing or condemning the living conditions at Point Lookout by simply pointing to the situation there at a single point in time. The truth was that practices and regulations were always in flux, and shortages, abuses, and policies noted at one time by observers were not necessarily present at another. Retaliatory measures in Union prisons created in response to reports of abuses in southern prisons as well as prisoner-friendly policies (ex. the ability to receive packages from family members) were always coming and going. Though logistical problems sometimes interfered with prison management at Point Lookout, the frugality of prison bureau administration officials (ex. in issuing condemned army tents to prisoners and severely limiting blanket and wood supplies even in winter) also had a profound effect on the supply side of prisoner food, clothing, fuel, and shelter provisions.

As the Gottfrieds frequently demonstrate in their book, conditions at Point Lookout often pointed toward problems endemic to the prison camp system as a whole. A general lack of consistency was a hallmark of prisons. For example, the authors clearly would agree with the conclusion of David Keller's recent Civil War prisons study that a major mismanagement factor common to nearly all POW camps was constant turnover in leadership and guard units. Camp commandants and guard regiments were barely acclimated to their required duties (and the prisoners themselves used to their expectations) at Point Lookout before they were transferred elsewhere and replacements brought it to begin anew the steep learning curve process of doing a difficult job no one was trained to perform. The result was a notable lack of continuity in the areas of prison management, camp improvements, and overall prisoner treatment and care.

Well cognizant of the degree to which the widespread death and suffering present in Civil War POW camps still evokes strong emotions in readers and writers alike, the authors succeed in their mission of creating an introductory history of Point Lookout that is also dispassionate in nature, though the value of their work could have been improved through proper and more thorough source citations. While the result is a measured evaluation of the genesis and nature of prisoner suffering as well as the degree of official responsibility for deficiencies and neglect involved in managing the overcrowded prison there, the higher conclusion that nearly every aspect of the prison system could have, and should have, been handled better is something to which everyone can agree.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Booknotes: The Record of Murders and Outrages

New Arrival:
The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction by William A. Blair (UNC Press, 2021).

From the description: "After the Civil War's end, reports surged of violence by Southern whites against Union troops and Black men, women, and children. While some in Washington, D.C., sought to downplay the growing evidence of atrocities, in September 1866, Freedmen's Bureau commissioner O. O. Howard requested that assistant commissioners in the readmitted states compile reports of "murders and outrages" to catalog the extent of violence, to prove that the reports of a peaceful South were wrong, and to argue in Congress for the necessity of martial law. What ensued was one of the most fascinating and least understood fights of the Reconstruction era—a political and analytical fight over information and its validity, with implications that dealt in life and death."

Based on in-person bureau agent interviews throughout the former Confederacy, the official Records Relating to Murders and Outrages eventually reached thousands of pages and recorded between "5,000 and 6,000 crimes" that took place postwar in both rural and urban environments by 1868. According to Blair, this documentation of those events had a strong influence on Reconstruction policy and debates. As one example cited in the introduction, the records "helped slow the timetable for readmission of states, especially Georgia" (pg. 3). While the documents have been used by other Reconstruction historians as source material, the author notes that The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction marks the first history solely devoted to their creation and impact.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Booknotes: Worthy of a Higher Rank

New Arrival:
Worthy of a Higher Rank: The 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign Journal of Colonel Joseph Thoburn, Commander, First Infantry Division, Army of West Virginia by Scott C. Patchan (35th Star Pub, 2021).

Though far outnumbered in Civil War armies by lawyers turned volunteer colonels and generals, there were enough fighting physicians of similarly high rank to be noticeable, and one of the best was West Virginia's (by way of Ireland, Canada, and Ohio) Colonel Joseph Thoburn. "Based primarily on his 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign journal, this biographical work [Worthy of a Higher Rank: The 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign Journal of Colonel Joseph Thoburn, Commander, First Infantry Division, Army of West Virginia] provides significant insight on this period of the Civil War, as well as background on an important field commander of the Union Army who was a physician from Wheeling, West Virginia."

During the 1864-65 campaigns, casualties reached such levels in all ranks that many officers were thrust into positions several grades above their actual rank. Thoburn was certainly one of those officers, eventually leading a division while still only a colonel. His diary covers many key battles and operations of the 1864 Shenandoah campaigns, including New Market, Piedmont, and General David Hunter's Lynchburg raid while serving as a brigade commander, and, after being appointed a division commander, the battles of Cool Spring and Second Kernstown. The diary ends on August 7 just after the arrival of General Philip Sheridan to take command of the Army of the Shenandoah.

Himself the author of several essential works related to the Valley campaigns, Scott Patchan assumes the editing role here with gusto. In addition to contributing a general introduction to the diary, Patchan's writing frames each of the book's six chapters with essential context, all of which is annotated. He's also stocked the pages with excellent maps, numerous historical photographs, a set of modern battlefield viewsheds, and numerous other illustrations.

A large section of the book is devoted to addressing the gap between August 7 and Thoburn's mortal wounding at Cedar Creek on October 19. Patchan reproduces two letters from Thoburn to his wife that cover events from Sheridan's Valley Campaign. In one the colonel mentions that he plans to start a new journal (alas no evidence of its existence has been found). The text of Thoburn's official reports for the period are also included, expertly shepherded along for the reader by the editor's bridging text. In three parts, the appendix section contains a small collection of letters from Thoburn's First West Virginia regiment, Thoburn's Piedmont battle report, and a collection of historical accounts of Thoburn's death.

This looks to be a very valuable resource for those seeking fresh information on the Shenandoah campaigns along with the life and Civil War service of Col. Thoburn. Going the extra mile, the scholarly presentation of the material by editor Scott Patchan is both extensive and visually appealing.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Booknotes: Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General

New Arrival:
Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General by Frank P. Simione, Jr. and Gene Schmiel, with E.L. Schneider (Authors, 2021).

Though unquestionably a major figure in the mobilization of the Union war effort in the East as well as a prominent army and corps-level commander during the 1861-62 fighting there in Virginia, Major General Irvin McDowell still lacks a comprehensive biography. There are several reasons for that gap's continued existence, the most salient one being that the general apparently did not leave behind much in the way of personal papers that have survived, or been found yet if they exist.

From the description: "Irvin McDowell was a major actor in the Civil War for a short, but critical time, and his life history deserves to be told and remembered. Like so many others, he was caught up in that national calamity. He was a dutiful, dependable, and diligent military officer. But perhaps unlike some others, early in the Civil War he was called upon to perform duties which, in retrospect, may have been beyond his capacity and only served both to enhance his peculiarities and shine light on his shortcomings."

Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General "is the first attempt to make the journey of searching for Irvin McDowell and trying to understand him and his role in the Civil War era via a full-length biography." The book is a self-published effort, and co-author Gene Schmiel freely admits that it is intentionally limited in scope. The narrative, which runs a bit over 250 pages in length, is at its core an analytical synthesis of information found in published primary and secondary sources (a deep dive into the archives being an undertaking left to others, perhaps by someone inspired in part by reading this book).

With coverage of McDowell's early life and pre-Civil War career contained in the first chapter and a very brief summary of his postwar activities found in the final chapter, the text's overwhelming focus is on examining the general's conduct during the early-war eastern campaigns from First Bull Run through Second Bull Run. Also explored is the general's role as a key witness for the prosecution during the Fitz John Porter trial that followed Pope's defeat. I'm looking forward to reading it. I'll have to tag Harry on this one, too.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Review - "Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command" by Kent Masterson Brown

[Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). Hardcover, 13 maps, photos, illustration, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:375/488. ISBN:9781469661995. $35]

Having the benefit of expansive knowledge gained from an all-embracing and continually revised Gettysburg literature, today's Civil War students reserve nearly universal praise for how General George Gordon Meade conducted himself over the short week between his appointment to command the Army of the Potomac and the final repulse of the enemy on the third and final day of the great battle. At the time, however, views on the campaign's results as a whole were mixed and the honeymoon afforded Meade by his Gettysburg victory was very short lived. Lincoln himself made no effort to conceal his dismay over the pursuit from Gettysburg not resulting in the capture or destruction of most of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Meade's star faded further over the next six months, as the series of campaigns fought in Virginia between the two main armies over that period failed to net any further progress toward Union victory in the East. Never fully trusted by the administration, Meade would remain in command of the Army of the Potomac, but he would be placed under Grant's direct supervision during the subsequent Overland and Richmond-Petersburg campaigns of 1864-65. Unfortunately for Meade, the exalted outcomes of that long and bloody string of events (the capture of Richmond and the surrender of Lee's army at Appomattox) were popularly attributed to Grant and Meade's own key role further pushed into the shadows.

However, over the past few decades a number of book-length studies of military operations from Gettysburg through Appomattox have significantly enhanced our knowledge of Meade's direction of the war's principal Union army from mid-1863 onward through the end of the conflict. The effect has been a fairly significant raising of Meade's command profile along with greater appreciation of the full scope and range of his accomplishments. The latest contribution to that growing body of literature is Kent Masterson Brown's impressive Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command, a new tome that exhaustively details and analyzes the general's operational and tactical-level judgment and actions during the 1863 Pennsylvania Campaign.

As every student of the campaign knows, Meade originally intended for his army to occupy the strong natural line around Pipe Creek that fulfilled the requirements of his orders to cover Washington and Baltimore, and all of his logistical arrangements were devoted to that, but historiographical controversy still surrounds assignment of credit or blame for how and why the main fighting instead took place well to the north at Gettysburg. Brown disagrees with both Edwin Coddington and Harry Pfanz that Meade left it up to Reynolds whether to bring on a general engagement at Gettysburg. He also takes issue with Stephen Sears over the matter of Reynolds not receiving instructions (he clearly did) and finds baseless what he sees as Allen Guelzo's characterization of Reynolds as being "reckless and insubordinate" (pg. 101) in forcing a fight at Gettysburg. The author most completely aligns himself with Meade scholar John Selby's contention that the First Corps movement to Gettysburg was primarily an information gathering mission seeking to find answers to questions regarding the current locations of Lee's corps and what their aims might be. All of the evidence presented in the book closely supports that most highly persuasive interpretation of what Meade intended Reynolds to do, act as an advance guard to force Lee to reveal his cards.

The debate over General Daniel Sickles's controversial decision to advance his Third Corps all the way to the Emmitsburg Road has raged ever since July 2, and Sickles has defenders on the matter. Brown shares the position of those who maintain that the move was both inadvisable and a clear act of insubordination. However one sees the effect of the Peach Orchard salient fighting—as needless sacrifice or, on the other extreme, taking the steam out of Longstreet's assault and even saving the Union left—the forward repositioning of Third Corps is generally considered to have exceeded the traditional latitude given corps commanders. In the author's view, as well as that of many others, Sickles disobeyed the substance and spirit of Meade's order to form a line with the Third Corps right connected to the Second Corps left and the Third Corps left anchored on Little Round Top. Sickles's final line fulfilled neither directive (though one might tortuously argue that each flank of Sickles's meandering salient ended at least in the general neighborhood of where Meade directed).

While Meade displayed considerable operational skill under pressure during the time between his appointment to command and the outbreak of battle at Gettysburg, he also, according to Brown, exhibited a high level of tactical ability on July 2, when he personally guided the army's response to the heavy Confederate attack that crushed the Third Corps's exposed salient. Unlike previous Army of the Potomac commanders, Meade gambled heavily in stripping other threatened parts of the field (arguably he risked too much on the far right and ended up owing much to General George Greene's determined defense of Culp's Hill against heavy odds for staving off disaster) to quash Longstreet's attack through sheer weight of men and guns. Meade's personal direction of the fight on the left, where he ordered into action elements of every corps in the army, saved the day in Brown's view, albeit at an unavoidably horrendous human cost.

With the knowledge that Lee's lines of communication and supply were far longer than Meade's and infinitely more precarious, many readers can be forgiven for scoffing at the author's assessment of the severity of Meade's supply situation when viewed relative to the enemy's. However, as exhaustively detailed in Brown's earlier book, Lee's army, through its thorough foraging efforts throughout the campaign, was abundantly supplied with food and animal fodder in comparison to Meade's men and horses, who were receiving inadequate amounts of both by the July 1-3 fighting. The condition of the animals was most concerning. This was due to roads south from Gettysburg being deemed insecure as well as the supply depots at Westminster, which were served by the Western Maryland Railroad and designed to supply the nearer Pipe Creek Line not the forward position at Gettysburg, being inadequate to the task until a herculean effort by military railroad chief Herman Haupt and others finally managed to push an influx of food and forage on to Gettysburg by July 4.

Most writers who have examined the post-battle situation and pursuit are satisfied with Meade spending the rainy 4th resting and refitting his army and then pausing to see what Lee's next move would be. If Lee embarked on a general retreat (an action Meade needed to know, not assume, was happening), Meade would, as best practices dictated, pursue on a parallel path as a direct pursuit through the mountains would achieve little. Brown's excuses for Meade's operational starts and stops during the pursuit, which revolve around the author's determination that Meade needed to make sure his movements still covered Baltimore and Washington in a way that ensured that Lee could not effectively double back and advantageously regain the offensive, will not entirely convince every reader to have been a necessary precaution. On the other hand, the author's confident conclusion that an all-out assault on the Williamsport defenses had only the barest chance of success and high probability of disaster is entirely persuasive. In fact, the substance of that view, in direct opposition to the Lincoln administration assertion at the time that success was practically ensured if only the army attacked, is the current consensus.

Meade critics have frequently latched onto the general's series of high command meetings as evidence of weakness and indecision, but Brown raises several relevant objections to the most uncharitable characterizations. As Brown observes, Meade was thrust into army command unexpectedly and at midstream, so it is reasonable that he would consult with his top generals with some frequency during those critical two weeks of marching, battle, and pursuit. The author's suggestion that Meade, after already having a course of action in mind, used those meetings more as an effective way to gauge how much enthusiasm and teamwork he could expect from his corps commanders seems like a valid piece of the puzzle. Brown's portrayal in the book of the character of Meade's war councils is often more fair-minded and nuanced than others that have gained prominence in the literature.

Brown frequently analyzes Meade's decision making in the context of the influential writings of Carl von Clausewitz (and to a lesser extent Baron Jomini's). This is done effectively (perhaps best during the discussion of Meade's deployment of First Corps toward Gettysburg as his advance guard) and mainly to show how often Meade's actions were driven by classic tenets of that western military tradition as taught by West Point theoretical successor Dennis Hart Mahan. Meade clearly paid attention in class more than some other Civil War generals.

The author is evidently a great admirer of Meade's character and generalship as displayed during the Gettysburg campaign, and in the book he is distinctly unafraid to challenge a host of more negative assessments that exist in the historiography. Refreshingly, Brown's aggressive, yet still respectful, objections to many of the critical opinions and interpretations contained in major popular works are discussed in the main text rather than being relegated to footnote commentary. Employing reasoned interpretation backed up by primary evidence, Brown's generally favorable defense of Meade's actions offers strong counterpoints to both long-accepted dogma and more recent critiques.

Centered on exhaustive description and analysis based on intensive primary source research, the picture that emerges in Meade at Gettysburg is of an army commander highly skilled in both the operational art of war (the primary sphere of the army commander) and tactical-level battlefield management. Immediately thrust into army command during the middle of a major campaign, Meade, by instinct and training, calmly sifted through intelligence reports and confidently managed his new command's marching orders while also displaying remarkable powers of adaptation when his initial plan of operations was ruined by events at Gettysburg outside his control. During the July 2 fighting, Meade skillfully and decisively shifted forces across the battlefield, often risking the safety of one part of his line to ensure that a critical breakthrough was avoided on another. This was yet another display of the general's powers of improvisation under pressure when the actions of a key subordinate (in this case Sickles on the left) upset his carefully arranged dispositions. Notably, during the course of the battle he also put all of his corps into the fight, leaving no questions to posterity regarding the holding back of reserves. Finally, his army crippled by casualties, suffering from shortages of food and forage, and still bound by previous orders to cover the capital, gamely pursued the enemy's retreating army. In the end, Meade's decision to not risk the moral and military gains from his recent Gettysburg victory by launching his army across open ground against Lee's formidable line of fortifications covering Williamsport and Falling Waters was, with the benefit of modern knowledge and hindsight, undoubtedly the correct course of action.

While the book presents a strong argument for renewed appreciation of Meade's command leadership during the Gettysburg Campaign, how high Meade ranks among Civil War army commanders as whole remains as issue much more open for debate. Though constrained by administration limits as to possible lines of advance, the only opportunity Meade had to independently conduct his own campaign from start to finish—the season of fall operations in Virginia that spanned the period between the end of the Gettysburg Campaign and the winter encampment preceding the Overland Campaign—lacked any distinguished accomplishments (although Jeffrey Hunt's recent multi-volume history of those events does finds much that is positive in Meade's generalship). How Meade would have fared without Grant's oversight of the reorganized and replenished Potomac army during the 1864-65 campaigns is a grand question mark that no one can answer with any degree of certainty. Opinions likely differ, but even Meade-friendly readers of modern studies of the war's post-Gettysburg campaigns in the East can still certainly be left with the overall impression that the general was perhaps not up to the job of dealing the finishing stroke to enemy resistance in the theater. What is less open to debate, not least due to fine studies like this one from Kent Masterson Brown, is that the great victory at Gettysburg was a timeless achievement that will forever be associated with George Meade and that came at a momentous point in the war.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Booknotes: The Union Blockade in the American Civil War

New Arrival:
The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment by Michael Brem Bonner & Peter McCord (UT Press, 2021).

From the description: "Throughout the war, Lincoln’s blockade and attempts to breach it touched nearly every aspect of the war effort. The Union prevented crucial material from reaching Confederate forces, while blockade runners smuggled hundreds of thousands of guns to rebel armies. No other military campaign lasted as long or had as many long-term consequences on the outcome of the Civil War." Undeniably, the scale of the blockade and the amount of resources devoted to it were incredible. "Covering more than three thousand miles of Southern coastline and employing the services of 100,000 sailors, the blockade was a massive undertaking largely dictated by two Atlantic powers: Great Britain and the United States."

Michael Bonner and Peter McCord's The Union Blockade in the American Civil War "build(s) on the extensive scholarship of the blockade and incorporate(s) previously unexamined British primary sources to deliver a fresh analysis of the Union blockade, blockade-running, and a reassessment of the blockade’s effectiveness. Their multifaceted study reassesses several key aspects of a “critical component of Union strategy,” including diplomatic and legal issues and the significance of the Confederacy’s reliance on European supplies to sustain the war effort." With the 'works cited' list populated entirely with published primary and secondary sources, it appears that the book is of the synthesis variety.

Finally, "(t)he authors present statistics showing that the blockade was not nearly as effective as is commonly believed; moreover, its successes against steam-powered blockade runners actually decreased as the war went on." It will be interesting to see how the writers present this kind of raw numbers information, as many commonly cited statistics (ex. the percentage of runners that safely made it into port over a certain interval) often neglect the bigger picture. For example, if 99 out of 100 blockade runners are successful that looks bad for the blockaders but unmentioned in that analysis are the thousands of ships that might have entered southern ports over that same period had the blockade by its very existence not extinguished ordinary trade. There are many other considerations as well. The description touts "diversity and comprehensiveness of coverage," so I'm looking forward to reading the entirety of this reassessment.