Friday, January 14, 2022

Various book news items

1. Civil War political generals (or "politician generals" as one recent author prefers) came in all stripes, but I am guessing that one of the rarest birds was the West Point graduate who served in the US House or Senate before the war. Maybe there are more, but without researching it or having a better memory I can only think of one. Samuel Ryan Curtis, who graduated from West Point in 1831 and resigned from the army soon after before briefly returning to uniform as a Mexican War volunteer officer, was in his second term as US Representative (R) of Iowa's first congressional district during the secession crisis. In 1861, Curtis resigned his House seat to accept the colonelcy of the Second Iowa and later that year a brigadier general appointment in the Union Army. Though he won laurels as the victor of the Battle of Pea Ridge, was quickly promoted to major general, and went on to lead district and department-level posts in the Trans-Mississippi, Curtis never became of focus of a full biography. For many years it has been known to us that historian Bill Shea was plugging away at a much-anticipated Curtis life and career history, but no concrete news about its actual publication has emerged until now. Scheduled for a November 2022 release from Potomac Books, Shea's Union General: Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West should finally reward the general with the major biographical treatment he deserves.

2. Before historian Timothy Smith recently launched his own multi-volume series, no other Vicksburg Campaign writing project has come close to matching the comprehensive breadth of the classic Ed Bearss trilogy. Rather well detailed in Bearss's books, the Chickasaw Bayou and Mississippi Central components of the late-1862 phase of the Vicksburg campaign, though both large in scale, have not been revisited at comparable depth in any later publication. However, that will change very soon. The history of those operations, due for an update, will be the focus of Smith's next installment Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862 (Kansas, May '22). Ever since Smith made known his plans for this series, this was the volume I have been looking forward to most of all.

3. McFarland has two more southern railroad studies currently scheduled for release in 2022. Things may change, but Walter R. Green's The Nashville and Decatur in the Civil War: History of an Embattled Railroad currently has a May publication window. The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War: The Struggle for Control of the Nation’s Longest Railway from Dan Lee is also supposed to be released this year. Maybe we'll get a wartime history of the Memphis & Charleston RR sometime down the line, too.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Review - "The Laird Rams: Britain's Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923" by Andrew English

[The Laird Rams: Britain's Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923 by Andrew R. English (McFarland, 2021). Softcover, photographs, illustrations, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:v,158/212. ISBN:978-1-4766-8276-1. $45]

While native southern industry clearly possessed a limited but significant capability of converting existing craft into ironclad warships or even constructing such vessels entirely from scratch, Confederate naval planners nevertheless quickly realized foreign sources, particularly the shipyards of Britain and France, would need to be tapped if the southern coastline was to have any chance of being adequately defended. Of course, much attention has been paid to British-built ships purchased by the Confederate Navy such as the commerce raiders CSS Alabama and Shenandoah, but even more formidable ships were funded though ultimately not delivered into Confederate hands. Andrew English's The Laird Rams: Britain's Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923 tells the full history of two such vessels contracted by the Confederacy but seized by British authorities before they could leave the country, the controversial double-turreted ironclads that came to be known as the "Laird Rams."

The biographies and activities of Confederate purchasing agents sent to Europe have been well documented in the very recent Civil War literature. The best man the Richmond government had in Britain, James D. Bulloch, has been the subject of at least two biographies published within the last ten years, and he is the Confederate representative most closely associated with the Laird Rams. English does a fine job of recounting the story of the Laird Rams from the military, economic, and political perspectives of all the primary stakeholders: the Confederate government, the US government, the British imperial government, and the Laird shipbuilding firm. The Laird company very willingly collaborated with Bulloch in trying to keep Confederate ram construction and ownership secret, but both truths were exposed early on and the business deal threatened to cause a major rift in relations between the United States and Great Britain. Though largely willing to look the other way at first, the British government by 1863 was engaged in a great deal of diplomatic back and forth with the US when it came to the fate of the two rams. Finally, after seeing its best interest in avoiding war with the US, British authorities seized both ships in 1864 and arranged for them to be purchased by the Royal Navy.

Throughout the first half of the book, English clearly illustrates the delicate (and often shady) balance struck between the British government's enforcement of its own neutrality laws and policies on the one side and on the other its general lack of willingness to impose itself upon private business dealings. As all of the best works on trans-Atlantic Civil War diplomacy have also noted (and there has been a number of them published in recent years), this study appropriately stresses US superiority over their Confederate rivals when it came to diplomatic appointments, intelligence networking, funding, and cause messaging. As outlined in the book, skillful and unrelenting US pressure in the matter of the rams eventually succeeded, but it is also recognized that their Confederate opponents labored under major diplomatic handicaps. As others before him have done, English traces the ways in which Confederate agents, due to their unofficial status, could never gain access to important diplomatic channels available to their US foes.

The most interesting design features of the ships themselves, which were called Nos. 294 and 295 during construction and HMS Wivern and Scorpion in 1864, are well explained in the book, as are their strengths and weaknesses stemming from the many compromises associated with building warships to specific tasks (ex. to reduce draft for coastal service, the rams were flat-bottomed and thus did not ride or handle well in stormy, mid-oceanic conditions). The author also informatively contrasts the turret design implemented in the Laird rams with that of Ericsson's US monitors. Neither ram fired its guns in anger, so we'll never know how the ships might have fared against the US Navy or against the ships and shore fortifications of any foreign power at war with Britain.

In meticulously documenting the long Royal Navy careers of the Wivern and Scorpion, the second half of English's study convincingly refutes the popular opinion commonly expressed then (by the British government, navy, and press) and now by many modern observers who have taken their cue from the past that the ironclads were "failures." Purchased and designed for harbor defense and for breaking the Union Navy's inner blockade of the Confederate coastline, the ships were never intended to spend the bulk of their service cruising the oceans, so much of the criticisms leveled at their awkward seaworthiness as part of the Royal Navy are rather misplaced. In being assigned the role of port guardian at key locations across world, especially in the Pacific and Caribbean, the ironclads fulfilled an important task by freeing up for active service Royal Navy warships more suitable to patrolling the empire.

Overall, English's narrative very effectively situates the long history of the Laird rams (the Scorpion sank at sea while under tow in 1903 and Wivern was finally scrapped in 1923) within the context of an age of very rapid changes in warship design and technology. During the decades between the launching of the first ironclads and the emergence of steel warships, innovation was so fast paced that basically every vessel could be considered experimental and design features that were state of the art during construction were arguably obsolete by commissioning. Used to seeing readily identifiable ship classes, those who observed any large concentration of Royal Navy ironclads during the decades following the American Civil War frequently remarked about how very different they all looked from each other. The book is very convincing in its thematic claim that the Laird rams should be regarded not as failures but rather as important naval architectural and technological waypoints in the transition between the last generation of wooden ships of the line and the pre-Dreadnought battleships that ushered in the Great War's "castles of steel."

Monday, January 10, 2022

Booknotes: First Fallen

New Arrival:
First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero by Meg Groeling (Savas Beatie, 2021).

Every Civil War reader is familiar with the May 24, 1861 death of Col. Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York "Fire Zouaves" at the hands of an enraged Alexandria hotel owner. Being the first Union officer killed in the conflict immediately vaulted Ellsworth into the ranks of national martyrdom, and his avenger (Pvt. Francis Brownell, who shot and bayoneted to death Ellsworth's killer) achieved a measure of fame of his own. However, while Ellsworth's death is one of the most famous events of the early war period, it's been over sixty years since a full-length biography was published. Meg Groeling's First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero thus stakes claim to being the "first modern biography."

Before his death, young Ellsworth had already achieved a degree of national renown as one of the leading figures of antebellum "Zouave Fever," which he parlayed into command of a 90-Day Zouave regiment. From the description: "Ellsworth and his entertaining U.S. Zouave Cadets drill team had performed at West Point, in New York City, and for President, James Buchanan before returning home to Chicago. He helped his friend and law mentor Abraham Lincoln in his quest for the presidency, and when Lincoln put out the call for troops after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Ellsworth responded. Within days he organized more than 1,000 New York firefighters into a regiment of volunteers."

Indeed, Ellworth's personal relationship with the Lincoln family remains a major part of his historiographical and reader appeal. More from the description: "When he was killed, the Lincolns rushed to the Navy Yard to view the body of the young man they had loved as a son. Mary Lincoln insisted he lie in state in the East Room of the White House."

The older biography referenced above is Ruth Painter Randall's Colonel Elmer Ellsworth: A biography of Lincoln's friend and first hero of the Civil War (1960). As is the case with nearly every Civil War topic updated after such a long period of time, "new information has been found that gives readers and historians a better understanding of the Ellsworth phenomenon and his deep connections to the Lincoln family." "(G)rounded in years of archival research, " First Fallen "examines every facet of Ellsworth’s complex, fascinating life." If you're interested in taking a deeper dive than ever before into Ellsworth's life, this looks like the book for you.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Booknotes: Thunder in the Thickets

New Arrival:
Thunder in the Thickets: Shiloh's Soldiers Speak by Mark Russell Richardson (Author, 2021).

Of course, there are already a healthy number of full-length Shiloh operational and tactical battle histories from which to choose, all worthwhile. However, Mark Richardson's Thunder in the Thickets: Shiloh's Soldiers Speak was not created to compete with those type of works from Sword, McDonough, Daniel, Cunningham, or Smith. Instead, Richardson's book "rehumanizes the combatants of the late American Civil War by recreating Shiloh exclusively through raw excerpts from firsthand accounts and memoirs. Experience the bloody conflict through a tapestry of real-time personal narratives and supporting information drawn only from sources immediately available to frontline troops during the events of April 6–7, 1862."

According to the author's preface, the ground-level perspective presented in Thunder in the Thickets depicts Shiloh as "a contest between individual men," its collection of quotes written by those "personally immersed in the thick of the battle" (and mostly from captain and below). In common cause with the traditional descriptions of Shiloh as a ferociously fought `soldier's battle´ between armies consisting largely of green troops, this book seeks to convey to readers the picture of a desperate battle during which a lack of training and experience was compensated for somewhat by "sheer will and stubborn resolve" on the part of those on the front line.

Officer and soldier quotes are presented in indented, bold-faced paragraphs (with parts consisting of information that could only have been known after the battle excised), and these are connected together by the author's two-part (Union and Confederate) bridging narrative. All of the material is annotated. From a quick glance through the bibliography, it appears that roughly 75 individual accounts were used. The final chapter offers information, where available, about the post-Shiloh lives of the contributing writers.

More from the description: "Not simply another American Civil War history, Thunder in the Thickets: Shiloh’s Soldiers Speak is an entirely unique and innovative exploration of the human experience amid fierce combat."

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Review - "Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War" by Lawrence Lee Hewitt

[Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War by Lawrence Lee Hewitt (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Hardcover, photos, maps, image credits, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:xl,392. ISBN:978-1-62190-483-0. $49.95]

Lawrence Lee Hewitt is the professional historian most closely associated with Louisiana's Port Hudson Campaign. In addition to serving as the first manager of the Port Hudson State Historic Site and authoring one of the best books on the topic (from LSU Press, 1987's Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi)1, Hewitt has been collecting photographic images from the campaign for more than forty years now. The collection has reached such a high content number that Hewitt long believed Port Hudson to be the war's most photographed battlefield before challengers intervened and successfully convinced him otherwise. Still, being the third-most photographed battlefield2 is notable for one of the conflict's less-heralded campaigns, one that remains greatly overshadowed by its celebrated companion operation conducted just up the Mississippi. A great many of these carefully curated images are compiled in the stunning new volume Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War.

The answer to the question of why so many Port Hudson photographs involves many factors, including the operation being the war's longest siege and the battlefield's relatively short distance from New Orleans affording both access to photographers and abundant time for them to perform their laborious work. Hewitt organizes the book chronologically, with sections devoted to the biographies and activities of the six Port Hudson photographers that left their rich collections to posterity. The most notable contributions were made by William D. McPherson and his partner A.J. Oliver. Though initially drawn to the area for commercial reasons, McPherson and Oliver came to be hired directly by Union army commander Nathaniel Banks and were granted wide access to the front to photograph the siege and its aftermath. The author suggests that there might have been ulterior motives behind General Banks's desire to thoroughly and publicly document the operation, and that does seem like a very strong possibility. It has often been said that Banks craved the presidency, and images that powerfully conveyed both the immense strength of the Port Hudson defenses and the general's own successful siege efforts in overcoming them could be very useful to him for future political campaigns.

In a background section that critically informs readers of erroneous captions and common mistakes made (such as horizontal flipping of images), Hewitt provides readers with a very helpful analysis and appraisal of Port Hudson's photographic legacy in the existing literature. Also of interest is the author's discussion of the many trials involved in getting a book like this published. Obviously, a tome containing all of the hundreds of Port Hudson Campaign photos collected by Hewitt could not be affordably printed and priced (especially given the king's ransom demanded by some rights holders for reproduction), the Hewitt graciously credits the team at University of Tennessee Press for successfully negotiating the process and providing him the opportunity to make available a still pretty hefty 173 figures. Some of the originals are in rough shape but are included for details that can be seen and for their historical significance.

The part of the collection that was able to be published is remarkable in its range. In it readers will find numerous CDVs and photographs of individuals and groups along with equally numerous images of officer quarters, unit encampments, hospitals, graves, churches, civilian buildings, soldier barracks, earthworks of all kinds (among them trenches, lunettes, detached works, forts, and siege batteries), battle detritus, both intimate and panoramic views of the riverfront and battlefield landscape, and loads and loads of cannon. Hewitt organizes this assemblage into smaller groups that he in turn identifies and labels on clear maps for reader orientation. Captions are extensively researched and provide both historical context and fascinating discussions of technical and artistic achievements. The latter go far in justifying the merits of the book subtitle's claim regarding the collection's exceptional importance.

Of particular historical noteworthiness are many of the McPherson and Oliver photographs. According to Hewitt, the pair captured the only image we have of a Confederate army surrender ceremony in progress (see Fig. 23). Their work also affords early examples of skillfully executed combination printing and, as the author alleges, attempts at nighttime (or very low light) and time-lapse photography. While the equipment technology of the period did not allow actual movement to be shown without ruinous blurring, Hewitt believes a group of their photos represent the first photographs of troops "engaged" in battle. Photographs in figures 6-11, 13-17, and 19-22 were all taken during the active siege (thus, in Hewitt's estimation, technically "in action"), and Fig. 17 depicts infantry manning a trench cavalier separated from the enemy by only 40 yards. Port Hudson was not the first time black troops saw combat during the war, but the May 27 assault was the first major battle that they participated in, and the book contains a valuable photographic record of the men of the Louisiana Native Guard and where they fought. A photographer also captured images of the Port Hudson school for black soldiers established there.

A sturdy hardcover securely bound in landscape format of roughly 8" x 10" dimensions and printed on heavy, photo-friendly paper stock, the book gets a handsome presentation worthy of its significance. The publisher also deserves a great deal of credit for releasing it at a price point affordable for libraries and individual collectors alike.

Port Hudson should appeal to many readerships. First off, it is an essential new contribution to a Port Hudson Campaign historiography that still lags well behind that of its Vicksburg partner. The book is also a uniquely valuable addition to the libraries of Civil War photography enthusiasts, researchers, and collectors. Additionally, students of Civil War fortifications and artillery will reap major benefits from the volume's rich collection of images along those lines. Very highly recommended.

1- The standard campaign overview remains Ed Cunningham's The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863, which was published in 1963 and remains in print today in paperback format. While Cunningham's classic is very bare bones by today's standards, David Edmonds's The Guns of Port Hudson (2 Vols, 1983-84) is exhaustive by comparison. You can count yourself fortunate to have that long out of print set in your home library, though in the 25 years since I first encountered them I haven't given the pair a second reading to see how well they hold up. From 1986, there's also William Spedale's Where Bugles Called and Rifles Gleamed. After a long gap, more recent developments include a 2012 title from Dennis Dufrene Civil War Baton Rouge, Port Hudson and Bayou Sara: Capturing the Mississippi, content from Donald Frazier's Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi (2015), and Russell Blount's The Longest Siege: Port Hudson, Louisiana, 1863 (2021). I have not read or even seen the Spedale, Dufrene, and Blount books, so I can't comment on any of those. All of this plus Hewitt's books together comprise a pretty solid library, though there remains room for an updated comprehensive treatment along the lines of what Timothy Smith is currently doing for Vicksburg.
2 - According to the author, in conjunction with establishing an unexplained set of rules and discussions with Civil War photography archivists and experts, Chattanooga, with its thousands of battlefield photographs, is the clear winner of the crown. Brandy Station (surprisingly) comes in second place making Port Hudson a very close third, although Hewitt believes that developments subsequent to those determinations might have already pushed Port Hudson past Brandy Station. It would be interesting to hear what other parties have to say about this.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Booknotes: A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky

New Arrival:
A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter edited by John David Smith and William Cooper, Jr. (UP of Ky, 2021).

Eighteen years old at the start of the war, Lexington's Frances D. Peter resided in a divided Border State city. The daughter of US army surgeon Dr. Robert Peter (who worked in the area's military hospitals), she resided in a well to do section of town, her house scarcely a block from that of the secessionist Morgan family that raised Confederate cavalry general John Hunt Morgan. Portions from her 1862-64 diary were published in 1976 under the title Window on the War. Adding a new scholarly introduction along with "more than two hundred additional diary entries, and hundreds of new annotations," John David Smith and William Cooper's A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter represents a major expansion and modernization of the material. Originally published in hardcover in 2000, this is the 2021 paperback reissue (seemingly unaltered). The information provided in the Peter diary and who wrote it are important additions to Civil War local, military, social, and women's history studies.

Beginning in January 1862 and ending in early April 1864, Peter's "candid diary chronicles Kentucky's invasion by Confederates under General Braxton Bragg in 1862, Lexington's monthlong occupation by General Edmund Kirby Smith, and changes in attitude among the enslaved population following the Emancipation Proclamation. As troops from both North and South took turns holding the city, she repeatedly emphasized the rightness of the Union cause and minced no words in expressing her disdain for 'the secesh.'" Like many other Kentucky Unionists, Peter was a stalwart supporter of the war effort. Though she had no use for Peace Democrats, Peters initially opposed many Lincoln administration policies, including emancipation (though she came to accept it by the fall of 1863).

An epileptic who ultimately succumbed to the condition in 1864 (a seizure event that August led to her death at the age of 21), Peter was often confined to her home, though she did receive an excellent local academy education, visited friends, and attended outside events before and during the war. When she was stuck at home, Peter actively sought news and information about the war beyond her window and relied on a combination of northern newspapers and a local network of female friends and acquaintances to provide it. Indeed, the greater focus of her diary is not on family life but rather outside social and war-related events.

More from the description: "Peter's descriptions of daily events in an occupied city provide valuable insights and a unique feminine perspective on an underappreciated aspect of the war. Until her death in 1864, Peter conscientiously recorded the position and deportment of both Union and Confederate soldiers, incidents at the military hospitals, and stories from the countryside." According to Smith and Cooper, the Peters diary also notes examples of the "assertiveness and empowerment of women necessitated by wartime conditions."