Monday, January 31, 2022

Booknotes: The Carnage was Fearful

New Arrival:
The Carnage was Fearful: The Battle of Cedar Mountain, August 9, 1862 by Michael Block (Savas Beatie, 2022).

During the early phase of the Battle of Cedar Mountain fought on August 9, 1862, the much-maligned Union political general Nathaniel Banks achieved some surprising success against Stonewall Jackson's advancing corps before being driven from the field. From the description: "Civil War history typically breezes by the battle of Cedar Mountain, moving quickly from the Seven Days’ Battles into the Second Bull Run Campaign, but the stand-alone battle at Cedar Mountain had major implications. It saw the emergence of the Federal cavalry as an effective intelligence collector and screening force. It also provided Confederate Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s first opportunity to save the day—and his first opportunity to raise Jackson’s ire. Within the Federal Army, the aftermath of the battle escalated the in-fighting among generals and led to recriminations and finger-pointing over why the battle was even fought."

Drawing from his background "in developing interpretation for the Cedar Mountain battlefield," author Michael Block provides us with a new history of the battle. His book The Carnage was Fearful: The Battle of Cedar Mountain, August 9, 1862 is the latest addition to the Emerging Civil War series. The usual cornucopia of photos, drawings, and maps are present. Including the driving tour overview, there are ten maps in total. The tour presentation is segmented by chapter, tying it more closely to the narrative. There are seven main stops depicted on the tour map, but multiple sites are incorporated into each one.

The appendix collection consists of four items. The first looks at the relationship between Stonewall Jackson and A.P. Hill, the second offers an account of Jackson's crossing of Crooked Run Ford (highlighting quartermaster John Harman's colorful skills at keeping vehicle traffic moving along), the third talks about controversies that arose over the general orders issued by General Pope, and the last discusses Cedar Mountain battlefield preservation.

Robert K. Krick's Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain is still the gold standard when it comes to histories of this battle, but readers that are interested in the topic but aren't up for tackling that tome should definitely give this one a look. Obviously I haven't read this particular installment yet, but the ECW series generally excels at producing these kinds of alternative options.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Booknotes: Invisible Wounds

New Arrival:
Invisible Wounds: Mental Illness and Civil War Soldiers by Dillon Carroll (LSU Press, 2021).

From the description: Dillon Carroll’s Invisible Wounds "examines the effects of military service, particularly combat, on the psyches and emotional well-being of Civil War soldiers―Black and white, North and South. Soldiers faced harsh military discipline, arduous marches, poor rations, debilitating diseases, and the terror of battle, all of which took a severe psychological toll. While mental collapses sometimes occurred during the war, the emotional damage soldiers incurred more often became apparent in the postwar years, when it manifested itself in disturbing and self-destructive behavior."

Of course, it has always been recognized that the Civil War experience was deeply traumatic on both fighting and home fronts, but, according to Carroll, it wasn't until the 1997 publication of Eric Dean's Shook Over Hell that a scholar seriously addressed in Civil War soldiers what we identify today as post-traumatic stress disorder. Dean's comparison of Vietnam and Civil War veterans argues that members of the latter group indeed experienced much of the same emotional and psychological wounding that the former did. Since then, scholars have examined other medical, social, and cultural aspects of the war's traumas, including amputation, addiction, and suicide.

Carroll self-describes his book as "a hybrid study: part history of medicine, part social history, and part military and institutional history." The first two chapters describe and contrast the military service experiences of white and black Civil War soldiers. The institutional history referenced above is St. Elizabeth's Government Hospital for the Insane, and Carroll uses that place and the experiences of its staff as a way to show how the Union Army attempted to rehabilitate psychologically incapacitated soldiers (around 1,500 entered the hospital during the war itself). With a nod to the 'self-care' concept developed earlier by Kathryn Shively Meier, coping mechanisms of a psychological nature are also explored in the study.

Subsequent chapters examine the postwar lives of Union veterans (white and black) and ex-Confederate soldiers. Also addressed is how poverty, substance abuse, violence, and other challenges affected the families of mentally ill veterans. Finally, returning to St. Elizabeth's, the study looks at how medical professionals diagnosed and treated mental disorders in veterans and discusses how by the 1880s the emerging field of neurology developed a "deepened and more complex view of mental illness" that finally recognized etiologies based more upon science and less upon moral judgments.

In the end, Invisible Wounds provides "a sweeping reevaluation of the mental damage inflicted by the nation’s most tragic conflict."

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Review - "Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862" by Alexander Rossino

[Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862 by Alexander B. Rossino (Savas Beatie, 2021). Hardcover, 9 maps, photographs, illustrations, footnotes, appendix section (A-F), bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiv,262/323. ISBN:978-1-61121-557-1. $32.95]

Pointing out that the existing volume of published Maryland Campaign and Antietam battle literature is second only to that of Gettysburg is stating the obvious, and no one is foolish enough to argue that the subject matter is understudied. However, major avenues of interpretation go in and out of style, evidence (new and old) is routinely being critically reviewed with fresh eyes, and emerging branches of history continue to engage with existing writing in ways little emphasized before or perhaps overlooked altogether. All of those factors and more ensure that coverage of any Civil War military history topic remains ever evolving and never truly settled. Created in that tenor of questioning prior assumptions and crafting alternative interpretations from existing lines of research and reasoning is Alexander Rossino's Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862. Based on primary sources, Rossino's chapters offer clearly different views on a number of topics. Each discussion also displays fruitful engagement with the best and most influential secondary works, notable inclusions being Joseph Harsh's multi-volume treatment of the campaign, the classic Carman manuscript (which has been edited twice for publication since 2008, first by Joseph Pierro in a single volume and soon after in a trilogy from Tom Clemens), and the first volume of Scott Harwig's exhaustive new (and still in-progress) account of the Maryland Campaign. Not another narrative-format history, Rossino's book addresses specific issues and themes related to Lee and his army in Maryland mainly through standalone discussions, though there are some connective threads present.

Confederate reasoning behind launching a late-summer offensive into Maryland in 1862 has been well explored at this point, with many interpretations acknowledging the same list of factors but differing on degree of emphasis. Using contemporary and memoir source evidence from Lee's army, Rossino powerfully argues for renewed weight being placed on Lee's hopes and expectations that his army's presence in western Maryland would lead to a pro-secession uprising and a flood of recruits. Significantly, that recentralization of political goals helps render Lee's overwhelmingly criticized decision to stand and fight at Antietam more understandable, and perhaps more rationally defensible. Lee clearly believed the military and political rewards possible from a great victory on northern soil justified hazarding a pitched battle with a major river at his back. Critics benefiting from hindsight can certainly disagree with that, and many do, but what was behind Lee's motivation to fight behind Antietam Creek is undoubtedly more complex than personal ego, meeting honor's demands, or military hubris (though the general's assumption that McClellan's army was too disorganized and demoralized to threaten the southern army with outright annihilation proved dangerously misplaced). In a lot of ways, Lee's hopes and expectations in Maryland contemporaneously mirrored Braxton Bragg's in Kentucky, though each commander reacted to the disappointing results of their respective high-risk Border State campaigns in very different ways. Given how often the specter of foreign recognition is raised as a possible outcome of Lee winning a major victory on northern soil after his army's triumphal summer campaigns in Virginia, it is curious that questions regarding whether diplomatic possibilities influenced Lee's decision-making in Maryland are left out of Rossino's political analysis, which sticks to the domestic sphere.

The next chapter plots when and where all of the major pieces of the Army of the Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac. Carefully noted are the many differences between the author's interpretations and those of prior writers and historians. Of particular moment are the places in the essay's narrative of events where Rossino's fresh examination of the sources respectfully disagrees with Harsh and Hartwig. In similar vein, Rossino also charts the locations of the camping sites of Lee's army around Frederick, which also differ in many specifics from prior accounts. While not profoundly necessary knowledge needed to gain a better understanding of the campaign as a whole, such details are shown in the book to impact at least one enduring mystery—the one revolving around who lost Special Orders No. 191, exactly where the document was left, and what its carrier might have been doing when it happened. Rossino does not pin down any of that with certainty, but his meticulous analysis of the evidence arguably widens the range of possibilities (or, to think about it a different way, narrows some probabilities).

Rossino is largely correct in arguing that today's writers, partially taking their cue from period accounts written by either mocking Unionists or disgruntled Confederates, place too much emphasis on the hostile reaction of western Maryland's population to the presence of Lee's army and their rejection of southern paper currency in exchange for food, clothing, and supplies. Referencing many examples, the author convincingly reorients the reader toward a more accurate representation of a mixed popular urban and rural reaction to hosting Confederate soldiers, and he notes that many merchants accepted Confederate money willingly. What was clear to everyone at the time, however, was that there would be no significant enrollment of Maryland men into the ranks of Lee's depleted army. Obviously, the pro-Union stance of much of the population had a lot to do with that, but the author persuasively cites the transient nature of the army's presence in the state and its outward appearance as two additional major hindrances deserving of more attention. Rossino could easily have pointed to other examples from the war, such as Sterling Price's temporary stay in western Missouri in the fall of 1861 and Bragg's aforementioned experiences in Kentucky, as proof that proslavery Border States under pro-Union state governments would yield few recruits unless Confederate armies exhibited a proven ability to displace federal military occupation long term. On the other matter, the physically worn down and bedraggled appearance of the average Confederate soldier in Lee's army by September 1862 likely chilled the ardor of many a prospective Maryland recruit. Indeed, Rossino cites several Maryland accounts that linked the state of the individual soldier with that of his cause.

One chapter returns to a recent dispute over the famous photographic image of a dense column of Confederate infantry temporarily halted in the streets of Frederick. In it Rossino offers evidence to support the traditionally accepted September 1862 date over its July 1864 challenger. For example, the direction the column is facing ranks among the more compelling pieces of evidence cited in the essay. Interestingly, there is no mention in the essay of anyone having investigated whether the Rosen dry goods and clothing store (its large business sign prominently displayed in the image) has known dates of operation, though it is nearly impossible to imagine that someone has not done that digging already.

Lee very briefly considered a return to Virginia after South Mountain before changing his mind upon hearing of Harpers Ferry's imminent fall. There is some debate over what Lee considered his remaining options to be, but Rossino argues that the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Lee, from the 15th onward, never seriously explored alternatives beyond concentrating his army for a defensive stand behind Antietam Creek. In response to the question of why Lee (the "King of Spades") then did not entrench his army for the coming onslaught, the author cites the lack of digging tools (supposing that much or most them were sent away with the army supply trains), the rocky soil, and the constant shifting around of formations (along with the late arrival of Jackson) prior to Hooker's opening attack on the morning of the 17th as reasonable answers.

Rossino also reexamines the primary sources to trace Lee's own movements and activities on the 17th. Emphasis is placed on the moments when, after the battle proved to be desperate in nature, Lee personally involved himself in the fighting at the tactical level. As elsewhere in the book, the author carefully notes (in either main text or footnotes) where his interpretations of events and their timing differ from others (for these matters in particular, the writings of Harsh and Carman). The chapter makes a strong case that Antietam should be added to the short list of Civil War battles where Lee dangerously exposed himself at the front in order to stave off disastrous breakthrough. The discussion is also accompanied by an informative series of maps that trace Lee's likely movements throughout the day as well the locations of events described in the text.

As one can readily see from the above, there is no single thread that runs through all of Rossino's chapters; however, it is clear that one of the chief goals of the exercise is to revive the role political objectives held in Lee's mind during the planning stages of the Maryland Campaign and the general's subsequent decision to offer battle at Sharpsburg. The book's in-depth revisitation of this subject will probably leave many readers surprised to learn (if Rossino's characterization of the trend is accurate) the degree to which political considerations have fallen out of favor in recent publications. Rossino also presents a reasonably sound argument for seeing Lee's unwavering decision to make a defensive stand at Antietam not as a foolhardy gesture based on a poor reading of his enemy, but rather as a decision in close alignment with the military and political considerations behind his launching of the campaign in the first place. Casual readers might get bogged down in the drawn-out argumentation involved in some chapters, but those familiar with the campaign's major studies, even if they disagree with some links in the author's chain of analysis, will recognize the formidable nature of Rossino's evidence-based challenges to influential views on a variety of issues related to Lee's army, Lee himself, and the Maryland Campaign as planned and fought.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Coming Soon (February '22 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for FEB 2022:

Day by Day through the Civil War in Georgia by Michael Shaffer.
Gettysburg’s Lost Love Story: The Ill-Fated Romance of General John Reynolds and Kate Hewitt by Jeffrey Harding.
Lincoln and the Fight for Peace by John Avlon.
Cleveland and the Civil War by W. Dennis Keating.
Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln's Vital Rival by Walter Stahr.
A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House by Jonathan White.
The Great "What Ifs" of the American Civil War: Historians Tackle the Conflict’s Most Intriguing Possibilities ed. by Chris Mackowski and Brian Matthew Jordan.
Cedar Mountain to Antietam: A Civil War Campaign History of the Union XII Corps, July–September 1862 by M. Chris Bryan.

Comments: A really slow start for 2022 CW titles, with none received so far beyond the one released early back in December. Looking a little ahead, things should pick up in March. On this short list, the Shaffer book is probably the one that catches my eye the most. I'm usually not into alternate history stuff, but the topics explored in the Mackowski/Jordan-edited book look quite interesting.

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.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Review - "Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country" by Fay Yarbrough

[Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country by Fay A. Yarbrough (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). Hardcover, 10 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:207/280. ISBN:978-1-4696-6511-5. $32.95]

In a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering during July and August 1861, the Confederate government successfully signed alliance treaties with nearly all of the most populous nations of Indian Territory, chief among them the Muscogee (Creeks), Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles. It was a stunning turn of events. Only three decades had passed since the Indian Removal Act of 1830 initiated a mass migration across the Mississippi1, yet those same peoples were willing to risk their prosperous renewal in order to ally themselves with a rebellious new nation founded by the very same Deep South states (in the case of the Choctaw, Mississippi and Alabama) that were instrumental to the process of traumatic displacement. After the recalcitrant Cherokee of the dominant Ross faction and a host of other Indian Territory and Southern Plains peoples and bands finally agreed to alliances of their own later in the year, all of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" had become Confederate allies, though the Muscogee and Cherokee in particular remained violently split. In the century that has passed since the publication of Annie Abel's pioneering work on slaveholding Indian participation in the American Civil War, the motivating factors behind those alliances have been explored in numerous books and articles, but Fay Yarbrough's Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country represents the first book-length study of what was behind that tribal government's earnest participation in the war.

Yarbrough dutifully restates the most commonly cited reasons behind Choctaw willingness to ally themselves with the Confederacy, among them the federal government's sudden abandonment of forts in the region, financial insecurity, Choctaw society's gradual transformation into one bearing significant cultural affinity with the Deep South, and concerns both present and future for the preservation of slavery. Choctaw leaders held justified fears that the federal government's war priorities would cause it to default on the financial parts of its treaty obligations, and the war itself would directly threaten tribal investments held in trust (the greater balance of which was invested in southern states). Over the several generations preceding the American Civil War, the Choctaw's traditional matrilineal social organization and clan culture became heavily altered both legally and socially, gradually taking on many characteristics shared by their white southern neighbors. Associated with that cultural process were gender role reversals. With fewer prospects for war and less dependence on wild game hunting by the early 1800s, Choctaw males took up many of the agriculturally related duties that Choctaw women had typically performed. All of these changes drew the nation closer to the American, and, in more specific ways, Southern agrarian culture and economy. Choctaw laws and government institutions enshrined in their post-Removal constitution also mirrored the American political system in many ways (especially that of the Deep South). Of course, a major element of the aforementioned affinity with southern culture was slavery. The Choctaw had enslaved blacks since the early eighteenth century, and by 1860 slaves represented up to 14% of the Choctaw population in Indian Territory. In the book, Yarbrough discusses similarities and differences between the slave systems of the Choctaw and white South, and she finds clear evidence that the Choctaw defense of slavery (rhetorically, socially, legally, etc.) corresponded in many ways to that of the Deep South.

The author makes her greatest contributions to our understanding Choctaw Confederate motivations by paving new ground in two additional areas, those involving issues of Choctaw sovereignty and masculinity. According to Yarbrough, Choctaw leaders gambled that secessionist and Confederate ideology grounded in localism and States Rights might better preserve their own tenuous sovereignty. Those leaders certainly had good reason to be wary. The presence and strength of militant abolitionism right across the border in Kansas was widely seen as a clear menace, and the Kansas governor himself expressed a desire to expedite the elimination of Indian title to lands in the territory with a view toward creating another free state. Secessionist promoters from Texas and Arkansas also eagerly reminded the Choctaw of William Seward's comments during the 1860 election season that Indian Territory lands should be seized by the government and opened to white settlement. Militant abolitionist threats and those made by the incoming president's right-hand man must have disturbed many Choctaws who were wavering. Generous financial promises along with favorable military and political concessions further made joining the Confederacy a risk Choctaw leaders were willing take. Some have suggested that the Choctaw reluctantly succumbed to outside pressure, but it is clear from Yarbrough's research in Choctaw rhetoric, legislation, and volunteerism that their pro-Confederate enthusiasm was very real and very ardent.

Yarbrough also convincingly argues that reclaiming a lost, or much faded, source of manhood in the form of traditional warrior culture (and all that stemmed from it, including important naming rituals) was a major part in motivating Choctaw men to fight alongside the Confederate Army. Obviously, as one might argue that that end could also have been served by fighting on the other side, this factor went hand in hand with the others outlined above. White settlement of traditional Choctaw lands severely restricted opportunities for Choctaw men to (literally) make a name for themselves through intertribal warfare and successful long-range hunting expeditions, and they were forced to redirect masculine expression through other more peaceful and domestic outlets. The Choctaw were able to preserve some of their martial traditions through the paramilitary organization of light horsemen (an interesting judicial and social policing force that is well documented in the book), though membership in that group was very small. Thus, many Choctaw men leapt at the opportunity to join the first Choctaw and Chickasaw regiment2.

With the notable exception of W. Craig Gaines's groundbreaking history of John Drew's Confederate Cherokee regiment3, the popular and scholarly publication of unit histories continues to overlook the many battalions and regiments sourced from Indian Territory nations that fought for either side. Though Yarbrough's book cannot be thought of as a proper unit history of the First Regiment, Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles (which was organized in the summer of 1861 and led by former Indian agent Col. Douglas Cooper and mixed-blood Choctaw Lt. Col. Tandy Walker), it does provide notable insights. The author's extensive examination of enlistment and service records heavily reinforce the conclusion that Choctaw support for the war was not coerced. With letters and diary sources sparse, the service records and attached notes provide the best available insight into the wheres and whens of Choctaw enlistment. They also help explain absences. Some demographic insights (ex. the average Choctaw recruit was slightly older than the average white Confederate volunteer) can gleaned from those records as well. Even before the treaty with the Confederacy was confirmed, nearly 800 men had volunteered for the regiment, and many hundreds more were added to the rolls during the first half of the conflict. Yarbrough's very brief summary of the regiment's active service over a wide geographical area of operations that included parts of Indian Territory, Missouri, and Arkansas along with her noting of a precipitous drop in enlistment during the second half of the conflict both reinforce the common view expressed in the literature that the July 17, 1863 Battle of Honey Springs, a disastrous Confederate defeat, marked a turning point in home and fighting front morale and support for the war among the allied nations of Indian Territory. Others have suggested that the sharp increase in desertion preceding Honey Springs in May-June 1863 (which was rare before then) was also indicative of growing disaffection among the Choctaw, but Yarbrough offers up a possible, and reasonable, alternative explanation that seasonal crop demands might have had as much or more to do with the exodus from the ranks during that particular time. Regardless, it is made clear in this study that the soldiers of the First Choctaw and Chickasaw were as steadfast as most white Southern volunteers in their adherence to the Confederate cause and willingness to fight for it..

An extension of Yarbough's excellent contribution to the essay anthology Civil War Wests4, the book's final section explores disputes over the Emancipation Proclamation's application to Indian Territory and Choctaw resistance during the Reconstruction period and beyond toward granting full citizenship rights to the nation's freedpeople. That latter process dragged on for twenty years after the end of the Civil War and has restrictions for descendants that to this day spark controversy and legal challenge.

Fay Yarbrough's Choctaw Confederates is an award-worthy feat of research and writing. Its wide-ranging treatment of the Choctaw offers much needed expansion to a literature of Civil War-era Indian Territory that remains disproportionately focused on the Cherokee. Similarly, in the scholarship's discussion of pro-Confederate Indians the Watie faction of Cherokee garners the lion's share of popular and scholarly awareness, and Yarbrough successfully redirects attention toward the native people that proved as a nation to be the most thoroughly Confederate. The book very effectively draws social, cultural, and ideological parallels between the Choctaw state and southern states that seceded from the US, arriving at the undeniable conclusion that the Choctaws were as deserving of the "Confederate" label as, for example, the average Mississippi volunteer. The volume also serves as a major contribution to the study of the black enslavement views and practices of Indian Territory nations. Finally, one can hope that Yarbrough's more broadbrush treatment of military events might spark some future scholar to write a full history of Choctaw military participation in the Civil War as well as the first comprehensive treatment of the First Choctaw and Chickasaw regiment's wartime service. Both would be welcome additions to a Civil War military literature that fully embraces coverage of previously understudied participants but still continues to sideline the profound experiences of Indian Territory nations that fought in the war in notable fashion from the conflict's very beginning.

1 - An often overlooked aspect of the removal treaties such as the one signed by the Choctaw is that individuals were given the option to stay, giving up their tribal sovereignty in exchange for US citizenship and land from the state. In the case of the Choctaw, almost a third of the population elected to remain in Mississippi when the rest of the nation relocated to Indian Territory in the early 1830s. Though outside the boundaries of Yarbrough's research, it would be interesting to read about the experiences of the remaining "Mississippi Band" of Choctaws during the lead-in to the Civil War and learn more about what they did during the conflict.
2 - The Chickasaw are related to the Choctaw by language and culture (and lived among and adjacent to them in Indian Territory), but they successfully resisted outside pressure to become a part of the Choctaw nation and remained independent. Their story, and their relationship as fighting comrades in the First Choctaw and Chickasaw regiment, is touched upon briefly but is generally beyond the purview of Yarbrough's narrative.
3 - Follow the link to read a review of W. Craig Gaines's The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles, Updated Edition (LSU Press, 2017). First published in 1989, this landmark study was reissued in paperback nearly three decades later, unchanged but with a new preface.
4 - See Yarbrough's essay "Dis Land Which Jines Dat of Ole Master's': The Meaning of Citizenship for the Choctaw Freedpeople," in Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States, ed. by Adam Arenson & Andrew Graybill , 224-41 (Oakland, University of California Press, 2015).

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."