Monday, November 29, 2021

Booknotes: Their Maryland

New Arrival:
Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862 by Alexander B. Rossino (Savas Beatie, 2021).

With Scott Hartwig's second volume coming soon (maybe/probably next year), I'm not looking to read another narrative history of the Maryland Campaign and Antietam battle. However, I am interested in what's in Alexander Rossino's Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862. Similar in format to Steven Stotelmyer's book from the same publisher, which challenged traditional accounts of General McClellan's role in the operation in five critical essays, Rossino examines seven issues involving "distortions" that "continue to shape modern understanding of the campaign." From the table of contents:
1. Rebel Revolutionary: Did Robert E. Lee Hope to Foment Rebellion in Maryland in September 1862?
2. High Hope for Liberating Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia Crosses the Potomac River, September 4–7, 1862.
3. Four Days on the Monocacy: Confederate Encampments Near Frederick City and the Implications for the Lost Orders Debate.
4. Dreams Dashed on the Rocks of Reality: The Army of Northern Virginia’s Mixed Reception in Maryland.
5. Rebels Photographed in Frederick, Maryland: The Case for September 1862.
6. The Army of Northern Virginia Makes a Stand: A Critical Assessment of Robert E. Lee’s Defensive Strategy at Sharpsburg on September 15–16, 1862.
7. A Very Personal Fight: The Role of Robert E. Lee on the Field at Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862.

The above chapters are supported by nine maps. Additional issues and questions are addressed in the appendix section.

The essay collection "sheds new light on old subjects and reinvigorates the debate on several fronts," and "reveals that many long-held assumptions about the Confederate experience in Maryland do not hold up under close scrutiny."

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Coming Soon (December '21 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for DEC 2021:

My Dear Sara: Civil War Letters 1861-1865 ed. by Robert Adams.
Invisible Wounds: Mental Illness and Civil War Soldiers by Dillon Carroll.
First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero by Meg Groeling.
North Carolina: A Military History by John Maass and Mark Bradley.

Comments: Even after counting some November carryovers, it will be a slim December similar to last year.

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.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Booknotes: The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered

New Arrival:
The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered edited by Charles W. Mitchell and Jean H. Baker (LSU Press, 2021).

From the description: "Today the literature on Maryland's Civil War is vast and scattered. Given its location surrounding Washington, its unique proportion of enslaved and freeborn African Americans, and its circumstances as the site of significant Civil War battles, the state has always attracted historians. Original documents, in archives throughout the nation and in private collections, tell the story of the conflict, as do a number of secondary sources. This book of essays brings together new scholarship based on these sources, hence the title "The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered." Contributors afford new insights on familiar subjects, along with the development of previously unexplored topics."

Edited by Charles Mitchell and Jean Baker, The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered is a major collection of new essays addressing a range of social, military, and political topics spanning the antebellum period through to today. The volume's thirteen essays listed below can be further categorized into two main types. The first is "based primarily on previously unused material and framed by new methods." The second type "provides comprehensive overviews and synthesis to critical episodes in the state's Civil War history."

• Foreword, Adam Goodheart.
• Introduction, Jean H. Baker and Charles W. Mitchell.
• “Border State, Border War: Fighting for Freedom and Slavery in Antebellum Maryland,” Richard Bell.
• “Charity Folks and the Ghosts of Slavery in Pre–Civil War Maryland,” Jessica Millward - "employs new sources in her analysis of how gender shaped the experience of Maryland's enslaved women during the period."
• “Confronting Dred Scott: Seeing Citizenship from Baltimore,” Martha S. Jones - "focuses on the Baltimore courts where blacks continued to assert their rights. Jones's study reveals a previously overlooked aspect of the Dred Scott decision after Maryland's high courts gave blacks standing to sue in state courts."
• “‘Maryland Is This Day . . . True to the American Union’: The Election of 1860 and a Winter of Discontent,” Charles W. Mitchell - "examines the issues and candidates of the 1860 election and the participation of its leaders in the subsequent secession winter, concluding that the election was a harbinger of the state's loyalty to the Union."
• “Baltimore’s Secessionist Moment: Conservatism and Political Networks in the Pratt Street Riot and Its Aftermath,” Frank Towers - "brings together the current scholarship on the Pratt Street riot of April 19, 1861, and discusses the significance of the riot in subsequent events."
• “Abraham Lincoln, Civil Liberties, and Maryland,” Frank J. Williams - "synthesizes material on civil liberties in Maryland during the Civil War."
• “The Fighting Sons of ‘My Maryland’: The Recruitment of Union Regiments in Baltimore, 1861–1865,” Timothy J. Orr - "relying on public records, focuses on the recruitment of Union regiments in Baltimore, a city of divided loyalties; his conclusion speaks to the relationship of the federal, state, and city governments during the war."
• “‘What I Witnessed Would Only Make You Sick’: Union Soldiers Confront the Dead at Antietam,” Brian Matthew Jordan - "goes beyond the familiar descriptions of the battle of Antietam to investigate the reaction of soldiers and civilians to the carnage."
• “Confederate Invasions of Maryland,” Thomas G. Clemens - "analyzes the effect of the critical Confederate invasion of the state leading to the battle Antietam, in which local events had a dramatic effect on our national history."
• “Achieving Emancipation in Maryland,” Jonathan W. White - "investigates a critical episode in the state's history: the contentious process in which the soldiers' vote played a significant role in freeing Maryland's slaves in 1864, even as pro-slavery advocates in the state legislature fought to preserve the institution."
• “Maryland’s Women at War,” Robert W. Schoeberlein - "discusses the ways in which Union and secessionist women crossed traditional boundaries to support their respective wars."
• “The Failed Promise of Reconstruction,” Sharita Jacobs Thompson - "examines the Reconstruction period in Maryland, emphasizing how local circumstances interacted, and in some cases, modified national policies."
• “‘F––k the Confederacy’: The Strange Career of Civil War Memory in Maryland after 1865,” Robert J. Cook - "working within the framework of memory studies, explores the construction and evolution of Maryland's Civil War memories from 1865 to the present day when the subject has entered contemporary politics."

Filling nearly 350 pages of material, this compilation "illuminates the complexities of Maryland's Civil War story, an endlessly fascinating subject that remains a part of our most powerful national memory, defining who we are not only as Marylanders, but as Americans."

Monday, November 22, 2021

Book Snapshot: "The Summer of ’63: Vicksburg and Tullahoma"

Concurrent (though not necessarily coordinated) offensive operations across multiple theaters figured prominently in several of the Civil War's key intervals (ex. the series of Confederate late summer-early fall 1862 advances and the Union Army's massive offensive of spring 1864). Certainly one of the most significant of these confluences of events occurred in the middle of 1863 when large-scale campaigns conducted within all three major fighting corridors—the eastern theater, the Mississippi River Valley, and the western heartland—all resulted in major Union victories. Created as a companion volume to The Summer of ’63: Gettysburg - Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War (2021), Chris Mackowski and Dan Welch's The Summer of ’63: Vicksburg and Tullahoma - Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War (Savas Beatie, 2021) addresses the other two campaigns forming that summer's trio of Union triumphs.

The book's content consists of a potpourri of 39 pieces drawn from the now extensive ECW multimedia archives. Highly variable in length and encompassing both formal and informal styles of presentation (among the latter are some personal journeys written in first person), the collection includes a great range of categories and topics, among them battle history, biography, contemporary poetry, firsthand battle accounts, book chats, interviews, civilian experiences, leader analysis, strategic discussion, memorialization, and transcriptions of tours and speaking events. The theme of Vicksburg and Gettysburg coverage greatly overshadowing that of Tullahoma in both the Civil War literature and the popular imagination (the book was compiled before the publication of David Powell and Eric Wittenberg's Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 - July 4, 1863) is reflected in the volume's own chapter distribution (29 Vicksburg versus 10 Tullahoma Campaign pieces).

With some original contributions added along with transcriptions of audio and visual presentations, the book is not entirely a clip show of previously published ECW material. Blog pieces have also been updated, expanded, and/or annotated for this publication. A selection of favorite chapters includes an appreciation of the Grant-Porter partnership, a deep dive into the story of Abraham (the slave who was allegedly blown into Union lines during the second Vicksburg mine explosion), the story of the 8th Wisconsin's eagle mascot "Old Abe," a good account of the Battle of Liberty Gap, and a look at dying Confederate general John S. Bowen's role in the Vicksburg surrender. The book's lengthy transcription of a live ECW tour of the Vicksburg Campaign (which included a photo of a large structure constructed atop high stilts) also evoked fond memories of my hurried, and probably unwise, side trip to Grand Gulf amid disconcertingly rising Mississippi River waters.

Supplementing the text are numerous photographs and eight maps. The two volumes of The Summer of '63 are part of the new ECW Anniversary Series, and there is another one already in the release pipeline titled Grant vs Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Booknotes: Gettysburg 1963

New Arrival:
Gettysburg 1963: Civil Rights, Cold War Politics, and Historical Memory in America's Most Famous Small Town by Jill Ogline Titus (UNC Press, 2021).

During the middle year of the Civil War Centennial, "(c)ommemorative events centered on Gettysburg, site of the best-known, bloodiest, and most symbolically charged battle of the conflict. Inevitably, the centennial of Lincoln's iconic Gettysburg Address received special focus, pressed into service to help the nation understand its present and define its future--a future that would ironically include another tragic event days later with the assassination of another American president."

In seeking to contextualize the period and its meaning, much of the Centennial scholarship focuses most closely on the concurrent Civil Rights movement but Jill Titus's Gettysburg 1963: Civil Rights, Cold War Politics, and Historical Memory in America's Most Famous Small Town also brings interrelated Cold War social and political tensions to the fore.

Titus sees three major narratives (all "rooted in the anniversary's Cold War context") that came out of 1963 attempts by those in government "to harness the symbolic power of Gettysburg to connect the battle to contemporary struggles to define America's place in the world and the future of black citizenship in the United States." "The first was a states' rights interpretation of the war that branded the intensifying black freedom struggle as a frontal attack on the liberties of white Americans and the political ideals of the nation; the second a conviction that the best way to honor those fallen at Gettysburg was to work for racial justice in the present; and the third a Cold War-themed call to embrace a consensus version of the Civil War past that could help spread American democracy, capitalism, and technology around the world."

More from the description: By studying "the experiences of political leaders, civil rights activists, preservation-minded Civil War enthusiasts, and local residents," Titus "uses centennial events in Gettysburg to examine the history of political, social, and community change in 1960s America." In the end, different groups would "define the meaning of the battle, the address, and the war in dramatically different ways."

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Review - "The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad" by David Smithweck

[The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad by David Smithweck (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, line drawings, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pp 158. ISBN:978-1-4671-4974-7. $21.99]

On August 5, 1864 a US Navy squadron commanded by Admiral David G. Farragut comprised of single and double-turret monitors and wooden warships steamed in parallel columns past the forts guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay and engaged a much weaker defending Confederate squadron. The ensuing action resulted in a complete Union victory, highlighted by the capture of the bay's most powerful Confederate ship, the ironclad CSS Tennessee, and the surrender of the forts. Tragically, however, the first of Farragut's ships to enter the bay, the USS Tecumseh, struck a torpedo and sank so rapidly that 93 crew members could not escape. Presumably, many of those unfortunate souls remain entombed within the sunken wreck to this day.

In order to frame reader expectations regarding David Smithweck's The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad, it needs to be mentioned up front that the volume is very different from the popular-style narrative histories typically released through this publisher. Though there is bridging text and patches of interpretive narrative sprinkled about, the vast majority of the volume's content is comprised of useful reference material in the form of reports, source excerpts, photos, illustrations, drawings, survey notes, and biographies.

The design, construction, deployment, and wartime history of the vessel are very briefly summarized in a pair of chapters only a few pages each in length. Discussed in them are several new design features aimed at addressing flaws made apparent during the original Monitor's active service. The background overview sections, like the rest of the book, are thickly populated with block quotes from firsthand accounts and contain all manner of visual aids of the variety referenced earlier.

Contents are loosely organized as a collection of largely independent chapters related to the ship and the Battle of Mobile Bay. One addresses the topic of torpedoes, noting how singularly unlucky the Tecumseh was given the age of the torpedoes deployed in the bay (these were emplaced as much as two years earlier) and considering how so many others, presumably waterlogged or with corroded mechanisms, failed to detonate during the battle. Another chapter looks at the bay forts (Morgan, Powell, and Gaines), mostly highlighting their weaponry. Perhaps that material was included to provide context for outlier reports that the ironclad was sunk by cannon fire. Eyewitness accounts of the sinking from a variety of shipboard and onshore observers are collected in another section, and some officer profiles and newspaper reports are compiled inside another pair of chapters.

Many readers are probably unaware that Civil War Centennial plans existed to raise the ironclad and display it in all its restored glory at a new Smithsonian-operated Bicentennial Park in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, those highly ambitious plans fell through due to lack of legislative interest and funding. However, before that, the Smithsonian commissioned an extensive survey of the wreck site, and the book includes a fascinating selection of dive notes. The transcribed notes offer a multitude of insights into the process of conducting mid-twentieth century underwater archaeology and ship/artifact preservation. As another good example of archaeology working hand in hand with eyewitness and documentary accounts, the divers found and mapped the battle damage to the hull (which faced upward and at an angle, as the ship rolled over as it sank), and they confirmed that the fatal blow was due to a torpedo. Evidence discovered around the ironclad was highly suggestive of the killing blow having been dealt by a frame torpedo. In another example of archaeological investigation complementing eyewitness history, the position of the rudder confirmed that the ship had veered away from its planned course and into the marked minefield just before it was fatally struck. The notes also insightfully highlight many of the more general challenges to underwater archaeology, namely weather, tides, visibility, and funding.

Before the survey was completed and the hull resealed (but unfortunately not reburied), a number of artifacts were recovered, and these are also pictured and labeled in the book. The results of later surveys, mostly conducted on a monitoring basis, are also summarized. Sadly, evidence of looting attempts (by cutting through the hull) were discovered during surveys performed subsequent to the Smithsonian "Tecumseh Project" of July 1967, and the uncovered hull has suffered some deterioration. Happily, the latest NPS survey from 2019 showed no recent damage.

While a full history of the Tecumseh and its crew prior to its sinking remains to be written, Smithweck's book nevertheless houses an important and often engrossing collection of reference material for students of Civil War naval engagements, ironclad warship technology, and underwater conflict archaeology to consult and appreciate.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Booknotes: After Vicksburg

New Arrival:
After Vicksburg: The Civil War on Western Waters, 1863-1865 by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland, 2021).

No other individual has documented the histories of the men and machines that prowled the West's inland waterways during the Civil War in more detail than Myron Smith. In eight volumes published from 2007 to 2017  (all of which, I believe, have been reviewed on this site over the years), Smith has created a frequently exhaustive record of timberclad, tinclad, and ironclad gunboat operations on western and Trans-Mississippi waters while also assembling for the reader a vast biographical compilation of key figures associated with the subject, both military and civilian. His newest installment, After Vicksburg: The Civil War on Western Waters, 1863-1865, covers the many lesser-known and appreciated actions that occurred after the Union "Brown Water Navy" finally seized control of all three major western rivers—the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and, most notably, the entire length of the Mississippi.

From the description: "This is the first published comprehensive survey of naval action on the Mississippi River and its tributaries for the years 1863-1865. Following introductory reviews of the rivers and of the U.S. Navy's Mississippi Squadron, chronological Federal naval participation in various raids and larger campaigns is highlighted, as well as counterinsurgency, economical support and control, and logistical protection."

Chapters cover military operations along with military and commercial interdiction on both sides of the Mississippi, including 1863-64 actions in the Cumberland Mountains, the Red River Campaign of 1864 in Louisiana, Nathan Bedford Forrest's attacks on river forts in Kentucky and Tennessee, White River actions subsequent to the Union capture of the Arkansas capital, and late-war activities on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. In those chapters, "(t)he book includes details on units, locations and activities that have been previously underreported or ignored." Finally, "(t)he last chapter details the coming of the peace in 1865 and the decommissioning of the U.S. river navy and the sale of its gunboats."

Though the title suggests that this could be the final volume in the informal series, a quick skim through the introduction provides no indication that this is the last of Smith's publishing plans for the topic.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

2021 Civil War book award winners list

Tom Watson Brown Award:
Thavolia Glymph for The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (UNC Press).

Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History:
Thavolia Glymph for The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (UNC Press).

A.M. Pate Award:
Megan Kate Nelson for The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (Scribner).

Albert Castel Book Award:
This is a biennial prize awarded on even-numbered years.

Dan and Marilyn Laney Prize:
H. W. Brands for The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom (Knopf).

Richard Barksdale Harwell Book Award:
Stephen Davis for Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood (Mercer UP).

Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize:
David S. Reynolds for Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times (Penguin).

Wiley-Silver Prize:
Ariel Ron for Grassroots Leviathan: Northern Agricultural Reform in the Slaveholding Republic (Johns Hopkins UP).

Fletcher Pratt Award:
Stephen Davis for Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood (Mercer UP).

Douglas Southall Freeman History Award:
Stephen Davis for Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood (Mercer UP).

OAH Civil War and Reconstruction Book Award:
Thavolia Glymph for The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (UNC Press).

Also, CWBA Book of the Year recognition goes to Lawrence Lee Hewitt for Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War (UT Press).

Friday, November 12, 2021

Booknotes: Choctaw Confederates

New Arrival:
Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country by Fay A. Yarbrough (UNC Press, 2021).

As one of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" of Indian Territory to sign alliance treaties with the Confederacy, the Choctaw found several reasons to commit themselves to that risky military and political realignment, among them their sudden abandonment by the federal government, their cultural affinity with southern society, and concerns of self-interest/self-preservation. The literature of Civil War-period Indian Territory is dominated by Cherokee and Creek studies (especially the former), so the publication of Fay Yarbrough's Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country is notably welcome on that measure alone.

Of course, a major element of the aforementioned affinity with southern culture was slavery. From the description: "When the Choctaw Nation was forcibly resettled in Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma in the 1830s, it was joined by enslaved Black people—the tribe had owned enslaved Blacks since the 1720s. By the eve of the Civil War, 14 percent of the Choctaw Nation consisted of enslaved Blacks."

Across Indian Territory, support for the Confederacy was far from universal, however, and the war deeply divided some tribes and exacerbated preexisting internal factionalism that had its origins in the Removal treaties of previous decades. According to Yarbrough, the Choctaw ranked among the more enthusiastic Confederates. More from the description: "Avid supporters of the Confederate States of America, the Nation passed a measure requiring all whites living in its territory to swear allegiance to the Confederacy and deemed any criticism of it or its army treasonous and punishable by death. Choctaws also raised an infantry force and a cavalry to fight alongside Confederate forces."

Organized in the summer of 1861, the First Regiment, Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles (commanded by former Indian agent Douglas Cooper and mixed-blood Choctaw Lt. Col. Tandy Walker) is the best known unit of Confederate Choctaws, fighting in the Trans-Mississippi theater across a wide geographical area of operation that included parts of Indian Territory, Missouri, and Arkansas. The regiment is also the primary source of Yarbrough's investigation into Choctaw wartime motivations and experiences. Her groundbreaking study "reveals that, while sovereignty and states' rights mattered to Choctaw leaders, the survival of slavery also determined the Nation's support of the Confederacy. Mining service records for approximately 3,000 members of the First Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles, Yarbrough examines the experiences of Choctaw soldiers and notes that although their enthusiasm waned as the war persisted, military service allowed them to embrace traditional masculine roles that were disappearing in a changing political and economic landscape."

In the end, by "drawing parallels between the Choctaw Nation and the Confederate states, Yarbrough looks beyond the traditional binary of the Union and Confederacy and reconsiders the historical relationship between Native populations and slavery."

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Review - "The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment" by Bonner & McCord

[The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment by Michael Brem Bonner & Peter McCord (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Hardcover, tables, appendix section, notes, list of works cited, index. Pages main/total:viii,170/225. ISBN:978-1-62190-670-4. $45]

The literature of the 1861-65 Union blockade of the southern coastline is rich and continues to expand. As just one example of its ever-evolving nature, scholarly examination of the international dimensions of the American Civil War is in high fashion at the moment, and the trend has produced numerous new works on blockade-related diplomacy as well as more in-depth looks at Britain's participation in all aspects of blockade running. The blockade remains a fairly contentious topic, with well-regarded historians lined up on both sides of the debate regarding the its effectiveness and whether it was a decisive factor in Union victory and Confederate defeat. Reexamining those questions, particularly the former, is Michael Bonner and Peter McCord's fascinating new study The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment.

Using the existing published literature as the foundation for their research, Bonner and McCord craft a synthesis history of the blockade and blockade running that is concise yet remarkably thorough for a narrative less than 200 pages in length. Through examining policy and practices as well as the outcomes of particular inciting events (ex. the prewar Vixen and wartime Petrel and Labuan affairs), the authors do a fine job of explaining how all three parties—the belligerent United States and Confederate governments and neutral Great Britain—attempted to manipulate any and all gray areas of international law regarding blockades and neutral shipping rights (as then recently defined in the Declaration of Paris) to their own benefit while at the same time assiduously seeking to avoid creating harmful precedent for present and future conflicts. In striving to escape war with the US while still keeping access to southern cotton (the latter by respecting the blockade but looking the other way when it came to officially endorsing blockade running), the professionalism of the British Empire's diplomatic corps is credited most by Bonner and McCord for avoiding more serious conflict and in best upholding established maritime law. Also discussed are Union blockade strategy and tactics (including how geographical challenges were confronted) along with the evolving naval ship numbers and composition of blockading squadrons. On the Confederate side of the equation, blockade running tactics, new ship designs, cargoes, and technologies are addressed, as are relevant failures in diplomacy and economic policy (ex. King Cotton diplomacy and the early-war embargo). Another chapter offers insights into how Confederate high-seas commerce raiders affected the blockade.

In terms of freshest material, the book shines brightest in its latter third, where all of the arguments regarding blockade effectiveness are reexamined. More than most, Bonner and McCord convey a broad appreciation of the psychological effects of the blockade. The authors argue that the blockade imposed a progressively demoralizing impression of impending doom on the Confederate home front as well as an unavoidably high-profile and dispiriting window into superior Union military might. They base this on a selection of well-known Confederate diaries (with the assumption that letters would offer the same sentiments), but it would be interesting to also consider geography and class as additional factors (the latter from groups less accustomed to imported luxuries). On the Union side, the blockade declaration provided a needed morale boost in the North when news on the war front was less encouraging in 1861.

One of the chief problems in assessing blockade effectiveness, and a large reason why it remains a topic of eternal scholarly debate, lies in the difficulty in establishing a common definition and its parameters. In each discussion, Bonner and McCord weigh competing scholarly arguments and then offer their own assessment. As a corollary to the psychological impact of the blockade, the 'deterrent effect' argument for the blockade's effectiveness is one that does not greatly impress the authors of this study. While acknowledging in passing that the blockade led to an almost immediate cessation of ordinary international and intersectional bulk-shipping trade as well as suppression of sail-powered intercoastal trade, Bonner and McCord find no evidence that blockade had a deterrent effect on those seeking the opportunity to challenge it. However, limiting the research sample to the high risk/high reward players doesn't strike one as a representative enough data pool from which to draw general conclusions regarding the overall deterrence effect. Though conceding the fact that deciding not to engage in an enterprise will always be far less documented than actually doing so, the authors nevertheless cite a year on year increase in the number of steamships that ran the blockade 1861-64 before coming to the conclusion that the "blockade-as-a-deterrent" model will always remain "speculative" (pg. 139). While informative in its way, this section's analysis is arguably the book's least convincing.

In the context of the accepted view that Confederate home industry was inadequate to sustain a modern war machine, the axiom that Confederate armies never lost a battle due to lack of arms and ammunition is commonly cited as a reason to suggest the blockade was ineffective. The authors agree with that general assertion, though one might argue that it is too simplistic and due for a modern reassessment of its own.

On the other hand, proponents of an effective blockade claim that the Union's Navy's efforts in that regard rank highest among those factors that resulted in the wrecking of the southern economy, many sectors of which were import-dependent before the war. The authors of this study certainly agree that the blockade had a contributory effect in creating consumer and industrial goods scarcities that exacerbated pricing inflation, but, like some others, they see domestic actions (chief among them disastrous Confederate fiscal and monetary policies) and other limitations as more significant.

Where the authors of this study make their own greatest contribution to the blockade discussion is in their statistical analysis of effectiveness through quantitative investigation of blockade running attempts, successes, and captures. Employing two authoritative data sets compiled by historians Marcus Price and Stephen Wise, Bonner and McCord gauge blockade interdiction effectiveness over time through twelve three-month "phases" from October 1861 through October 1864 (with the periods before and after deemed outliers). The results are striking in that they directly contradict decades of commonly accepted assumptions that the blockade's efficiency increased over time. This book's analysis demonstrates that blockade efficiency steadily decreased (as a function of number of steamers captured or destroyed divided by total blockade running attempts) from a July 1862 peak of nearly 68% to a wartime nadir of less than 13% for late-1864's phase twelve. Why the blockade was at its least efficient when it was at its peak in terms of numbers and types of ships employed and experience levels of admirals, captains, and crews (and those after most major ports or outlets were captured) is not a topic of extensive conjecture in the book, with the authors simply citing the technological advances in blockade runner design and technology possibly outweighing those other factors. In viewing the blockade as a campaign in its own right, the war's longest and most continuous, the authors also perceptively note the stark contrast in attrition between Confederate army and Confederate blockade-running resources. While the Confederate Army was being progressively ground down from 1862-64, the blockade running part of the war effort was always able to both replace its prodigious losses and augment its fleet with significant year on year increases in blockade-runner total tonnage, with an 1864 peak. Lest one overstate their conclusions, it should also be noted that the authors make clear that their novel observation "does not negate the blockade's overall effectiveness" (pg. 162) or its status as a major contributor to Union victory.

As the authors maintain, all of the above demonstrates how difficult it is to arrive at general statements without some contradiction regarding the effectiveness of the Union blockade of southern ports during the Civil War. That the blockade could be both an important contributor to Union victory (and thus presumed to be effective) but also startlingly ineffective when it came to catching steam-powered blockade runners exemplifies one of the central themes of the book, the argument that gauging effectiveness often depends on how general or specific the question under consideration. The examples cited above along with others unmentioned here lead one to arrive at a more nuanced appreciation of the blockade as both effective and ineffective. Because this debate will always be open to multiple lines of interpretation, it will undoubtedly remain a subject of sustained scholarly publishing, and this new offering from Michael Bonner and Peter McCord is a notable addition that effectively synthesizes, questions, and augments our current understanding.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Booknotes: Myths of the Civil War

New Arrival:
Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories by Scott Hippensteel (Stackpole Bks, 2021).

In Ken Burns's classic television series The Civil War, Shelby Foote told the story of a southern gentleman who was so confident that there would be no war that he offered to wipe up all the blood spilled over secession with his handkerchief. Of course, the man proved to be gravely mistaken, and Foote thought it would be an interesting exercise for someone to calculate how many handkerchiefs it would have taken to absorb the war's true toll in blood. As far as I know, no one has answered the bell on that one, but Scott Hippensteel's Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories employs a scientific approach to arrive at a quantitative assessment of a different group of traditional Civil War observations, claims, and assumptions.

As mentioned before on this site, the book has undergone a title change (the discarded one being The Myth of the Civil War Sniper) that better represents the true breadth of topics examined. From the description: "In the spirit of Robert Adair’s cult classic The Physics of Baseball, here is a book that tackles the long-cherished myths of Civil War history—and ultimately shatters them, based on physics and mathematics. At what range was a Civil War sniper lethal? Did bullets ever “rain like hail”? Could one ever step across a battlefield by stepping only on bodies and never hard ground? How effective were Civil War muskets and rifles? How accurate are photographs and paintings?"

Seven chapters examine the above Civil War tropes and more in three stages of analysis. First, the "oft-repeated historical claim" is defined and detailed. Second, "the background scientific principles are introduced and explained in a nontechnical manner." The third and final section brings the other two together, "studying and discussing the potential reality of the antiquated trope and suggesting alternative and more realistic scenarios" (pg. 5). Count me in.

With this book and his earlier one Rocks and Rifles: The Influence of Geology on Combat and Tactics during the American Civil War (2019), it's clear Hippensteel enjoys using his scientific background to present Civil War history in fresh and very unusual ways. I liked Rocks and Rifles quite a bit and am looking forward to reading this one.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Booknotes: Port Hudson

New Arrival:
Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War by Lawrence Lee Hewitt (UT Press, 2021).

As a former manager of Port Hudson State Historic Site (I didn't realize until now that he was the first) and the author of one of the best books on the campaign (1987's Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi), Larry Hewitt has become synonymous with Vicksburg, Jr. His newest book, Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War, has been long in the making.

After becoming the Port Hudson site manager, Hewitt immediately began collecting photographs, and he "has now brought his four decades of research and collecting together in this book. The quantity, diversity, and in some cases uniqueness of these photos help widen our perspective not only on Port Hudson and the Civil War’s impact on its people and environment, but also on the history of photography."

In keeping with the best practices of modern Civil War photographic studies, this volume includes information about the practitioner (Hewitt has identified six contributors to this collection) as well as the craft of mid-nineteenth century photography. From the description: "Together the six cameramen claimed many “firsts,” including the first-ever photograph of soldiers engaged in battle, first exterior shots at night, and first “composition print.” The collection—arranged chronologically—allows readers to follow the changes in the landscape during and after the siege. The sheer range of subjects represented is impressive. A cotton gin, a grist mill, and a Methodist church—all showing signs of damage—caught the eyes of photographers. At the request of a Union soldier’s mother, there was a photograph taken of his burial site. There is even the only known photograph of a Confederate army surrendering."

Presented in landscape format of roughly 8"x10" dimensions, the pages contain both images and detailed text. By figure numbers, there are 173 photographs in the book. Single photos frequently fill most of the page, and the accompanying captions range in size from a large paragraph to a couple pages of narrative. The text is fully annotated. I'm currently in cram mode for my year-end list, and this one definitely has my attention.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Review - "The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862" by Cathey & Robnett

[The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862 by M. Todd Cathey & Ricky W. Robnett (McFarland, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, tables, appendix section, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,116/186. ISBN:978-1-4766-8590-8. $39.95]

The joint Union army-navy operation up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers that captured two key forts (Henry and Donelson) in February 1862 and opened up vast areas of the Confederate heartland to occupation has been thoroughly addressed through a trio of major modern works from historians B.F. Cooling, Kendall Gott, and Timothy Smith*.  As is the case with any large topic, however, there is always room for augmentation, and Todd Cathey and Ricky Robnett's The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862 is a notable book-length expansion upon an important military facet of the campaign.

Cathey and Robnett's study documents in detailed fashion the site selection, earthwork design, construction, armament, and manning of the Fort Donelson river batteries, which ultimately consisted of a Lower Battery (9 guns) and Upper Battery (3 guns) along with a vacant alternate position located between the two. Confederate civilian and military authorities immediately recognized the necessity of fortifying the banks of both the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, but, as the authors show, disagreements regarding proper location, the lack of theater-level resource allocation and priority, and the incompetent manner in which the Confederate high command addressed the situation all resulted in Fort Henry being built below flood grade and easily captured while the Fort Donelson batteries, even after months of available preparation time, were barely finished before the arrival of Union land and naval forces.

Department commander Albert Sidney Johnston, his attentions firmly focused on forward positions in Kentucky, failed to assign a competent general of high rank to shepherd along the twin river fortifications, and the authors credit a number of competent and energetic junior-ranking military engineers and volunteer company officers (biographical treatments of whom can be found in an expansive appendix at the rear of the book) for getting the river batteries combat ready despite derelict leadership from above. With both officers and men new to heavy artillery service, the three company detachments assigned to the batteries (from Co. A 30th Tennessee, Co. A 50th Tennessee, and the Maury Light Artillery) nevertheless succeeded against all expectations in repulsing USN Flag Officer Andrew Foote's ironclad squadron, which was fresh off a rousing triumph at Fort Henry.

All of the recon and probing actions that preceded Foote's major assault and the main event itself (the February 14, 1862 attack) are meticulously recounted. Unlike other authors, Cathey and Robnett do not directly criticize Foote's tactical decision to advance his fleet to point blank range, which subjected the otherwise well-protected ironclads to plunging fire that was devastatingly effective even from the obsolete 32-lb cannon that comprised most of the river battery armament. Nor do they speculate (as others have) about what might have been the result of the engagement if Foote had instead leveraged his range advantage by pounding the batteries from afar. The Confederates had only two guns that could match the combined range and hitting power of the enemy's bow guns, and the defenders appropriately worried that a prolonged long-distance engagement would expose the fort's two best guns to smothering counterbattery fire. Those worries were not fully put to the test, however, as the battle was fought mostly within the effective range of the 32-lbers. The defenders ended up suffering extremely low casualties considering the hurricane of fire that enveloped their positions, reporting that the closer Foote's ironclads approached the more their shells harmlessly passed over the Confederate works (the not unexpected result of short-range fire directed at a low-profile target atop an elevated position).

The authors point out the notable irony of the battle. Confederate army defenders at Fort Donelson presumed themselves able to handle Grant's small army, but it was feared that the river batteries would be unable to cope with Union ironclads and their firepower. What actually happened was the direct opposite of those expectations, with the raw river batteries scoring a stunning victory while the badly led fort defenders maneuvered themselves into wholesale surrender.

As indicated in the book, the Confederates could draw some positives out of the overall disastrous outcome of the battle. Beyond the disproportionate casualties and heavy damage inflicted upon Foote's ironclads, the invincible aura of the river ironclads was punctured by the victory within the larger defeat at Fort Donelson. Additionally, the fight at the river batteries fully exposed the vulnerabilities of the city-class ironclads for the first time, though both sides benefited from that knowledge.

The entire text is noteworthy for being firmly grounded in primary sources, and the impressive narrative effectively incorporates firsthand accounts throughout. Additionally, the writing is supported by numerous maps, modern and contemporary photographs, historical sketches, and data tables. The lengthy appendix section includes the extensive biographical register mentioned earlier, casualty lists, and a compiled ordnance table of useful reference value.

As a work that both amplifies and significantly enhances the information contained in existing book-length histories of the twin rivers campaign, The River Batteries at Fort Donelson is a highly recommended companion volume. The heavy artillery-phile segment of the Civil War reading audience should also strongly consider adding this fine book to their collections.

* - For a broad appreciation of the entire campaign, read Cooling's Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland (1988), Gott's Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862 (2003), and Smith's Grant Invades Tennessee: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson (2016), the last being the most recent and most impressive of the three major studies.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Booknotes: Josie Underwood's Civil War Diary

New Arrival:
Josie Underwood's Civil War Diary edited by Nancy Disher Baird (UP of Kentucky, 2021).

From the description: "A well-educated, outspoken member of a politically prominent family in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Josie Underwood (1840–1923) left behind one of the few intimate accounts of the Civil War written by a southern woman sympathetic to the Union. This vivid portrayal of the early years of the war begins several months before the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861. "The Philistines are upon us," twenty-year-old Josie writes in her diary, leaving no question about the alarm she feels when Confederate soldiers occupy her once peaceful town."

Edited by Nancy Baird, Josie Underwood's Civil War Diary was first published in hardcover back in 2009, and this new paperback edition is also from University Press of Kentucky. Beginning in December 1860 and ending in September 1862, the diary offers insights into conflicting Border State attitudes and debates over secession and firsthand experiences of both Confederate and Union military occupation, all conveyed through the perspective of a deeply engaged and thoughtful young woman from a Whig-traditionalist Southern Unionist family.

Edited by Baird using a wide variety of sources, the book "offers a firsthand account of a family that owned slaves and opposed Lincoln, yet remained unshakably loyal to the Union. Josie's father, Warner, played an important role in keeping Kentucky from seceding." Holding an Unconditional Unionist position while remaining deeply skeptical of Lincoln's willingness to protect the interests of proslavery supporters of the Union war effort (a very common Border State attitude) did not stop Josie's father, Warner Underwood, asking for and receiving an overseas patronage appointment from the president. Josie's diary ends as the family is preparing to embark for Glasgow, Scotland to begin Underwood's consulship there. Josie herself also personally interacted with the president, and "(a)mong the many highlights of the diary is Josie's record of meeting the president in wartime Washington, which served to soften her opinion of him."

In her diary, Josie "describes her fear of secession and war, and the anguish of having relatives and friends fighting on opposite sides, noting in the spring of 1861 that many friendships and families were breaking up 'faster than the Union.'" As mentioned above, her writing "also brings to life the fears and frustrations of living under occupation in strategically important Bowling Green, known as the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy" during the war." However, the Civil War tearing the nation apart did not entirely consume her attentions, and Josie's "life is also refreshingly normal at times as she recounts travel, parties, local gossip, and the search for her 'true Prince.'" The Underwood diary was utilized as a valuable contributing source in many recent studies, and it is entirely fitting that its reach will be extended even more through this new paperback edition.