Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Coming Soon (April '22 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for APR 2022:

Bonds of War: How Civil War Financial Agents Sold the World on the Union by David Thomson.
Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War Era by Sarah Purcell.
All for the Union: The Saga of One Northern Family Fighting the Civil War by John Simpson.
James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior by Robert Conner.
True Blue: White Unionists in the Deep South during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Clayton Butler.
Riders in the Storm: The Triumphs and Tragedies of a Black Cavalry Regiment in the Civil War by John Warner.
The 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry: From Gettysburg to Appomattox by Britt Isenberg.
Love and Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss by Angela Esco Elder.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet and Innovative Military Strategy in the Civil War: The Most Misunderstood Civil War General by F. Gregory Toretta.
Civil War Settlers: Scandinavians, Citizenship, and American Empire, 1848–1870 by Anders Rasmussen.

Comments: The first two books in the list are out already. Of the Jayhawker (un)holy trinity of Lane, Montgomery, and Jennison, only Lane has one or more modern, full-length biography [though there are unit histories of Lane's Kansas Brigade (see Benedict's Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane) and Jennison's Seventh Kansas Cavalry (see Starr's Jennison's Jayhawkers) that have significant biographical content on their leaders], so Conner's book should fill in a part of that gap. There are a pair of Longstreet studies with similar themes coming out this year, and it appears that Toretta's will cross the finish line first.

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.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Booknotes: Fortress Nashville

New Arrival:
Fortress Nashville: Pioneers, Engineers, Mechanics, Contrabands & U.S. Colored Troops by Mark Zimmerman (Author-Zimco Pub, 2022).

Books often refer to Civil War Washington as being the most fortified city in the western hemisphere during that period of time, but Nashville wasn't far behind in hosting a massive complex of forts that served as both protection and major deterrent. Secured from attack, the Tennessee state capital was the primary forward base of the Army of the Cumberland, but the city's role also expanded into becoming a critical supply and logistical center for the Union Army's entire western theater war effort.

Mark Zimmerman's Fortress Nashville: Pioneers, Engineers, Mechanics, Contrabands & U.S. Colored Troops "explores every facet of the Federal infrastructure built in Nashville and Middle Tennessee so that armies under Grant, Thomas, and Sherman could capture Chattanooga and Atlanta and march to the sea. Topics explored include the Pioneer Brigade, the First Michigan Engineers, U.S. Military Railroads, fortification technology and design, military hospitals, army depots and garrison towns, and the Confederate river forts and fortifications associated with the epic Battle of Nashville. A 40-page section explores the building and design of Fort Negley, an iconic stone fortress that survived periods of neglect only to become one of the major Civil War and Civil Rights attractions of the South."

Like many other administrative centers across the occupied South, Nashville also became a locus of emancipation and army enlistment. More from the description: "A unique fort of star-bastion design, Fort Negley became the symbol of hope for enslaved persons as it provided protection, opportunity, and freedom. As the war progressed, African-American men became laborers and then soldiers for the Federal Army, which transformed pro-Confederate Nashville into a massive military base."

Jam packed with maps, line drawings, charts, photographs (both period and modern), and artwork to go along with Zimmerman's detailed text, I don't know of any other single volume that includes this much information about the Nashville fortifications and their role in the war. The material isn't annotated, but the author does include a source discussion and bibliography. The volume looks like a promising addition to the home reference library that might be placed alongside something like B.F. Cooling's Mr. Lincoln's Forts.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Review - "William Barksdale, CSA: A Biography of the United States Congressman and Confederate Brigadier General" by John Douglas Ashton

[William Barksdale, CSA: A Biography of the United States Congressman and Confederate Brigadier General by John Douglas Ashton (McFarland, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,256/307. ISBN:978-1-4766-8374-4. $39.95]

Confederate brigadier general William Barksdale is best known to Civil War students for leading a stalwart defense of the streets of Fredericksburg in December 1862 and conducting a fierce charge against the Union left at the Battle of Gettsyburg on July 2, 1863. Under Barksdale's leadership, his Mississippi Brigade earned a reputation as one of the best formations in the Army of Northern Virginia, excelling in both defensive and offensive roles. Until now, this deserving politician-general has received no full-length biography, making John Ashton's William Barksdale, CSA: A Biography of the United States Congressman and Confederate Brigadier General the first attempt at filling that void.

Though born on a farm in Tennessee, it was in Mississippi that William Barksdale made his name and fortune. Ashton traces Barksdale's social and political rise in his adopted state, which was achieved through a combination of formal education, drive, and wise investing. Barksdale entered the law, edited a newspaper, and eventually entered the planter class. Coinciding with all that were political ambitions, and Barksdale served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1853 to 1861. Those eight years in the House were among the most socially and politically turbulent in the nation's history (obviously), and Barksdale developed a well-earned reputation as a staunch and vocal defender of States' Rights and slavery who was willing to back up his beliefs with physical violence.

Building on earlier work from others, Ashton's research dispels the notion still held by many that Barksdale was a participant in the infamous caning of Senator Charles Sumner. Of course, that did not preclude his involvement in other political brawls and near brawls during one of which his wig was knocked off his head to all-around amusement. In a number of places in the text, Ashton objects to Barksdale being labeled a "fire-eater," instead preferring the term "southern radical." The distinction might seem like splitting hairs, but most fire-eater definitions do attach a long-term commitment to secession that Barksdale, though otherwise extremist in his political views, seems to have lacked.

Though Aston's effusive defense and praise of Barksdale's character and actions will probably not resonate with readers who would see the most historically significant parts of Barksdale's life (ex.  radical proslavery politician, secessionist, and Confederate general) as having a much more complicated legacy, far less likely a source of contention is the author's equally enthusiastic appreciation of Barksdale's development as a military leader. After Mississippi's secession, Barksdale's political prominence in combination with his quartermaster experience during the war with Mexico led to his appointment as quartermaster general of the state's militia. However, combat leadership was Barksdale's true calling, and he was soon appointed colonel of the 13th Mississippi. In tracing Barksdale's leadership and conduct at First Manassas, Edward's Ferry/Ball's Bluff, and the Peninsula Campaign (the Seven Days battle at Savage's Station in particular), the author's detailed narrative of events clearly demonstrates that Barksdale adapted very well to increased responsibilities during his rise from relative military novice to brigadier general. Barksdale followed up that early promise with a very strong performance in the Maryland Campaign at both Maryland Heights near Harpers Ferry and in the West Woods at Antietam. All of the battlefield accounts presented in the book are supported by excellent maps.

There was only one big, notable hiccup in Barksdale's climb. It occurred early in the war and was potentially fatal to his budding military career. On one occasion he became belligerently intoxicated and abused his men. This led to his arrest, but he was afforded a second chance that he maturely grasped. Confederate president Jefferson Davis helped save his friend by delaying the court of inquiry for an extended period of time during which Barksdale was able to repair his leadership reputation and relationship with his men. Thereafter, according to Ashton, Barksdale took great pains to credit those below him in his official reports. In turn, the men of the brigade appreciated the high level of care that Barksdale devoted to their welfare.

Ashton offers justifiably high praise for Barksdale's determined defense of Fredericksburg on December 11, 1862 when the general's tactical arrangements in the town stymied the Union crossing for some time and affected the course of the battle by significantly delaying the Army of the Potomac's deployment across the Rappahannock. Barksdale's brigade was also tasked with defending the town during the next great campaign. Pushed off the heights above Fredericksburg in what proved to be the sole black mark in what was otherwise a great Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Barksdale became embroiled in a feud with Jubal Early over who bore the most responsibility for the event. History has attached little blame to Barksdale personally for his brigade's withdrawal in the face of insurmountable odds on that day, and Ashton concurs with that assessment.

During the late afternoon of July 2, 1863, Barksdale led one of the most renowned charges of the war against the Union left flank south of Gettysburg. In a war with numerous noteworthy brigade-level attacks detailed in just as many exhaustive histories, its questionable whether Barksdale's mile-long assault was "unparalleled" in the annals of the war, but the charge was by any measure an exceptional feat of arms. The Mississippi Brigade smashed all in its path before finally being halted by enemy reinforcements and stiffened resistance near Plum Run, where Barksdale was mortally wounded and captured. Ashton agrees with those who argue that even more would have been achieved by the assault had corps commander James Longstreet and division commander Lafayette McLaws better coordinated the attack and Wofford's Brigade supported Barkdale's as intended.

A detailed account of Barksdale's last hours is provided, as is the story of the general's delayed posthumous journey to his final (albeit unmarked) resting place in a family plot. Though the war affords a multitude of examples of well-respected officers promoted beyond their capacity, Ashton seems very confident that Barksdale, had he lived, would have eventually been appointed to head the division (especially given the rocky relationship between McLaws and Longstreet).

A common complaint about biographers is how often they become overly enamored with their subject, crossing the line between critical detachment and unreserved advocacy. You do frequently gain that impression from the tone and content of Ashton's analysis, but the key considerations of Barksdale's Civil War career as a fighting officer are notably well presented and convincingly defended. Primarily on the strength of its military biography aspects, William Barksdale, CSA is recommended reading for those wishing to explore the life and career of one of the Army of Northern Virginia's highest performing brigadier generals.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Booknotes: A Military History of Texas

New Arrival:
A Military History of Texas by Loyd Uglow (Univ of N Texas Pr, 2022).

As one of the North American continent's most frequently contested domestic and international borderlands, Texas has a long history of conflict that's fit for a modern synthesis designed to be read by a broad audience. A Military History of Texas "provides the first single-volume military history of Texas from pre-Columbian clashes between Native American tribes to the establishment of the United States Space Force as the newest branch of the nation’s military in the twenty-first century." In it, author Loyd Uglow "ties the various engrossing aspects of Texas military history into one unified experience."

From the description: "Chapters cover topics of warfare in Texas before the Europeans; Spanish military activities; revolutions against Spain and then Mexico; Texas and Texans in the Mexican War; ante- and post-bellum warfare on the Texas frontier; the Civil War in Texas; the Texas Rangers; border warfare during the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920; Texas and the world wars; and the modern military in Texas."

The Civil War section (Chapter 8 in the book), as just one part of a sweeping narrative, forces some selective emphasis but looks to be a solid overview. Major subsections of it cover international border clashes, the 1861-62 New Mexico Campaign, the Union blockade of the state's Gulf coast, conflict with Southern Plains tribes along the state's sparsely populated western frontier, the 1864 Red River Campaign, and the late-war struggle over control of the mouth of the Rio Grande. The following chapter addresses Reconstruction and the return of the US Army to the front lines of border and domestic frontier security.

The chapters also integrate Texas military history with other events and global history. More from the description: "Brief explanations of military terminology and practice, as well as parallels between Texas military actions and ones in other times and places, connect the narrative to the broader context of world military history." A Military History of Texas should "find a welcome place in the collections of amateur or professional military historians, devoted fans of all things Texan, and newcomers to military history."

Friday, March 18, 2022

Booknotes: The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War

New Arrival:
The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War: Historians Tackle the Conflict’s Most Intriguing Possibilities edited by Chris Mackowski and Brian Matthew Jordan (Savas Beatie, 2022).

How wars and their great events might have turned out differently is something every military history reader contemplates at one time or another. In the course of those thoughts: "Possibilities unfold. Disappointments vanish. Imaginations soar. More questions arise. “What if...” can be more than an exercise in wistful fantasy. A serious inquiry sparks rigorous exploration, demands critical thinking, and unlocks important insights."

The Civil War certainly has its share of popular 'what if' considerations. The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War, edited by Chris Mackowski and Brian Matthew Jordan, looks at fourteen. Included are two chapters exploring what ifs of the Shiloh and Antietam battles. Others concentrate on particular generals (ex. what if Jackson had not been mortally wounded at Chancellorsville, what if Longstreet had looped around the Union left at Gettysburg, and what if Lee had attacked at the North Anna or decided to disperse his army into guerrilla bands instead of surrendering in 1865). Several are Lincoln related (ex. what if the president had made different Army of the Potomac command appointments and what if he had not been assassinated). Jefferson Davis's loyalty to Braxton Bragg is also reconsidered, as are British intervention in the conflict and what might have happened had Sterling Price been successful in Missouri in 1864. Preceding all of this is a lengthy general introduction by Peter Tsouras that delves into what makes good alternate history writing.

More from the description: "Each entry focuses on one of the most important events of the war and unpacks the options of the moment. To understand what happened, we must look with a clear and objective eye at what could have happened, with the full multitude of choices before us. “What if” is a tool for illumination. These essays also explode the assumptions people make when they ask “what if” and then jump to wishful conclusions." The Stonewall Jackson piece is especially focused on that last point.

However, it should be reiterated that the central purpose of the essays in this collection is not to create comprehensive alternate history scenarios (that would be beyond their scope). Instead they serve as "an invitation to ask, to learn, and to wonder, “What if...?”" I skimmed over the Price Raid chapter to get a sense (at least through one example) of how that plays out. As stated in the description, the essay writer does not imagine a detailed course of events through which Price might have actually seized control of Missouri but rather offers context of circumstances, decisions, and events prior to and during the operation before contemplating what impact a successful campaign might have had.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Review - "First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero" by Meg Groeling

[First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero by Meg Groeling (Savas Beatie, 2021). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix section, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xviii,219/325. ISBN:978-1-61121-537-3. $29.95]

On the morning of May 24, 1861 (the day after Virginia voters ratified secession) Colonel Elmer Ellsworth led his Union volunteer regiment, the Eleventh New York "Fire Zouaves," across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. and into the streets of Alexandria. Accompanied by the First Michigan, the 11th quickly secured the northern Virginia town, and the troops set about cutting telegraph communications southward. Ellsworth, seeing the large Confederate flag (an early version of the Stars and Bars) flying atop the Marshall Hotel, took a small group of men and rushed to the rooftop, hauling down the banner and dragging it down the hotel steps. The hotel's secessionist proprietor, James Jackson, awakened by the commotion and angered by the intrusion, grabbed his shotgun and shot Ellsworth through the heart before being in turn shot dead by 11th NY Pvt. Francis Brownell. The event, occurring in the opening moments of the war and before such bloodshed became the order of the day, shocked the president and the public, and Ellsworth's death vaulted him into fallen national hero (even martyr) status. Col. Ellsworth's youth, his "Zouave Fever" fame, and his close relationships with the Lincoln family and White House circle together suggest an interesting and notable life worthy of a full-length biography. However, it is apparently the case that Meg Groeling's 2021 volume First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero is the first of its kind in terms of alignment with modern biographical standards, preceded only by Ruth Painter Randall's dated work Colonel Elmer Ellsworth: A biography of Lincoln's friend and first hero of the Civil War (1960).

With her subject dying before the war even began in earnest, Groeling's antebellum-weighted book is by default an atypical Civil War biography. Ellsworth came from a modest background without established connections, and Groeling documents in thorough and sympathetic fashion Ellsworth's struggles to find his way in the world (though the author frequently notes that his family circumstances were not as precarious as they've been made out to be by others in print or even by Ellsworth himself). Store clerk and law office copyist employment provided him with a subsistence income, but it was military matters that fired Ellsworth's passion. That did not please his fiance's parents, who wished their prospective son-in-law to have a more stable career.

Though Ellsworth certainly had patrons that helped him along at various crossroads moments in his life journey, the book presents his story in ways consistent with the "self-made man" tradition of myth and reality, though the heights reached were comparatively modest. Of course, the pre-Civil War story of Ellsworth's life is most closely bound to his famous connection with 1850s "Zouave Fever," and Groeling provides a very thorough history of his local militia company associations and his leadership/promotional roles in the Zouave cultural phenomenon. Her detailed account of Ellsworth's extended northern tour with his Zouave drill team is revealing as to the impact such militia company membership and public performances had on the social and political culture of northern communities both large and small. Unfortunately for Ellsworth, his time in the limelight did not translate into a sustainable living, and he felt forced to return once again to the law practice sphere that he disliked so much.

Ellsworth's move to Springfield, Illinois got him introduced to Abraham Lincoln, and the pair quickly struck up a personal and professional friendship. Though, as Groeling maintains, it is impossible to discern exactly how Ellsworth endeared himself so much and so quickly to the elder Lincoln, who had no shortage of sons of his own, but the young law clerk seems to have had the manners, youthful charm, and charismatic nature that enabled him to quickly win over young and old alike. Through detailing Ellsworth's lesser-known supporting role in the 1860 Republican national convention and his successful job in managing crowd control during President-Elect Lincoln's triumphant train tour from Springfield to Washington, Groeling significantly expands our knowledge of Ellsworth's behind-the-scenes contributions to Lincoln's figurative and literal paths to the presidency. With promise of an important government post in hand, Ellsworth arrived in the nation's capital in 1861 with bright hopes.

Hoping to have a major part in organizing the Union armed forces, Ellsworth developed a plan to manage militia integration into the national army, but (as one might have predicted) it wasn't going to fly that an organizational position as high as that would be given to a political nonentity in his early twenties. Armed only with a presidential letter of introduction, a frustrated Ellsworth instead traveled to New York and quickly raised a regiment of firemen eventually designated the 11th New York and nicknamed the "Fire Zouaves." Press coverage of this rowdy bunch somewhat stained Ellsworth's leadership reputation in some circles, though Groeling argues that much of the disciplinary problems were exaggerated.

Though the story of Ellsworth's death is very familiar, at least in a general sense, to Civil War readers, Groeling's thorough examination offers as detailed a recounting of events as one might wish. Interestingly, an oft-repeated part of the story involves Ellsworth's determination to remove the Marshall House flag as having been rooted in a constant complaint from Lincoln about its defiant presence. Though a mere flag flying across the Potomac driving a very busy executive mansion to distraction doesn't really sound like Lincoln, one of Groeling's footnotes also suggests the possibility that the flag was not even visible from the White House. Another part of the story, Brownell's bayoneting of the already dead Jackson, might also be questioned, as Groeling notes that the autopsy report did not mention finding any bayonet wounds on Jackson's body. Groeling's discussion of the aftermath of Ellsworth's death, from his funeral to his short life being commemorated in art, music, marches, and poetry, supports the traditional notion that the colonel's death (which clearly hit the Lincoln family hard) was deeply felt on a national level before being subsumed soon after by the war's escalation. Though obviously an admiring biographer, Groeling does not shy away from criticisms where warranted, and she offers a very sound critique of the the ill-advised manner in which Ellsworth conducted himself and his small party at the Marshall House. Though written with the benefit of hindsight, her suggestions regarding how the fatally impetuous Ellsworth might better have handled the situation are sound.

Readers should by no means skip the volume's richly informative appendix section, which is packed with an abundance of fascinating material. In addition to looking at the controversy surrounding the 11th New York's performance at First Bull Run, a substantial biographical summary of the life of Ellsworth killer James Jackson is provided as well as insights into what happened to fiance Carrie Spafford, avenger Brownell, and the confiscated flag. The immense size of the Marshall House flag itself might be used to question the validity of some of the anecdotes related to it.

Though unabashedly celebratory, Groeling's narrative is never uncritical and is clearly supported by exhaustive research. First Fallen is unquestionably the new standard history of Elmer Ellsworth's life, his impact on popular antebellum martial culture, his close association with Abraham Lincoln, his tragic death, and his status as the first martyr to the Union cause. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Booknotes: Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana

New Arrival:
Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History by Gene Eric Salecker (Naval Inst Press, 2022).

Epic disasters have always been subjects of popular interest and recognition, but I've often wondered how deeply knowledge of the Sultana tragedy has penetrated beyond our Civil War sphere. "The Sultana was a sidewheel Mississippi steamboat carrying almost two thousand recently-released Union prisoners-of-war back north at the end of the Civil War. At 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the boat was seven miles above Memphis, her boilers exploded. Almost 1,200 people perished in the worst maritime disaster in United States history."

The most highly regarded book-length Sultana histories are those written by Gene Salecker and Jerry Potter in the 1990s, with Salecker's  Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865 (1996) arguably the standard work on the subject. Salecker's ongoing research has now produced a brand new study, Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. More from the description: "Almost every author who has written about the Sultana has relied on the words of a few survivors or referred to the works of previous authors to get their story. Advancing the scholarship," Salecker "has visited the National Archives in Washington, DC to comb through the handwritten transcripts of the three investigative bodies that looked into the disaster or poured over the handwritten testimony from the court-martial trial of Capt. Frederic Speed, the only person tried for the overcrowding of the vessel."

Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana "covers this disaster in detail and dispels the many myths that have been connected to the Sultana for too long." Not a revised edition of the 1996 study, this volume begins anew by freshly examining a greatly expanded body of primary source materials. "After almost twenty-five years of continued research on the Sultana, and all those involved in the disaster, Salecker has gleaned unparalleled knowledge into every aspect of the disaster. His research, covering the National Archives, and thousands of pages of newspapers from around the world and government documents, including pension records and service records, has allowed Gene to tell the story of the Sultana as completely as possible."

I have vague childhood memories of my grandmother mentioning the Sultana every once in a while (we had direct descendants who had the misfortune of being on that terrible last voyage), but I regretfully never asked her about any family stories. I did find their names in Salecker's index, so I'm looking forward to finding out more.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Various Things

1. In an earlier post of this kind [here] I passed along some news regarding a pair of upcoming Civil War histories of southern railroads. In it I expressed my hopes for similar book-length attention be paid to the Memphis & Charleston. Helpful reader Curt T. recommended that I check out Paul Harncourt's The Planter's Railway: Excitement and Civil War Years (1995). I dug a little further and found that the author also has another more recent (and, in this case, still in print) M&CRR title under his belt, 2005's Biography of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, Revised Edition. Even though Google Books tells me that the 2005 book is a revised edition of a 2000 volume of the same title that was released by a different publisher, I would imagine that the newer books, if not direct descendants of The Planter's Railway, at the very least share a lot of content with the 1995 volume.

2. A huge list of upcoming Savas Beatie titles recently dropped. Crowded around a few placeholder dates, the list offers a good idea of what might be coming out over the next few years. I'll just mention a few of the many that caught my eye. The one I am looking forward to most is The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command, a frequently cited 1970s work from historian William Geise that has remained unpublished since then but will thankfully be released in print through SB and editor Michael Forsyth. The publisher is also launching the Savas Beatie Battles & Leaders series, the first two volumes (as far as I can tell) being Eric Wittenberg's Destined to Fail: The Johnson-Gilmor Cavalry Raid around Baltimore, July 10-13, 1864 and Chris Mackowski's The Battle of Jackson, Mississippi, May 14, 1863. There are many more standalones, series titles, and reprints that will be talked about in the future. One of the best ways to track them is to subscribe to the publisher's newsletter.

3. There's been a very noticeable fall off in the Civil War output of quite a few publishers that used to regularly send me titles. Thankfully, some others are moving in the opposite direction. Notable among them is University of Tennessee Press, which continues to expand the number and range of its Civil War publications. Their Spring '22 catalog has a whopping seven Civil War titles in it. Five to ten years ago, I would not have expected their catalog lineup to include a book like Stuart Brandes's Yankee Commandos: How William P. Sanders led a Cavalry Squadron Deep into Confederate Territory. In addition to new Voices series contributions and a pair of Critical Decisions series volumes covering the 1862 Shiloh and Maryland campaigns, there's a southern newspaper history (Stephen Davis and Bill Hendrick's The Atlanta Daily Intelligencer Covers the Civil War), and even a Gen. Daniel Donelson biography!

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Book Snapshot: Brigades of Antietam

Following the 2002 publication of Brigades of Gettysburg, author Bradley Gottfried became a certified Antietam guide and, by his own admission, transferred his focus to that battle. Modeled on that earlier work, Brigades of Antietam: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Antietam (hardcover, 488 pages, $44.95) is a collaborative effort between Gottfried (who serves as contributor and volume editor) and a long list of Antietam battlefield rangers, official guides, and volunteers [Claire Affinito, Brian Baracz, Matthew Borders, Mac Bryan, James Buchanan, Lucas Cade, Jason Campbell, Tom Clemens, Robert Gottschalk, Laura Marfut, Sharon Murray, Kevin Pawlak, Martin Pritchett, Gary Rohrer, Jim Rosebrock, William Sagle, J.O. Smith, Joseph Stahl, and Steven Stotelmyer].

Presented in descending order through the full infantry and cavalry orders of battle [corps>division>brigade] from both armies, each section includes a command sketch and a brisk summary of the formation's maneuvering and fighting. Coverage encompasses the entire 1862 Maryland Campaign, and, where appropriate, each treatment is further subdivided by event (ex. Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, Antietam, and Shepherdstown). With brief quoted phrases and passages from first-hand accounts judiciously incorporated throughout, unit narratives exhibit both description and analysis. Brigade entries also include a header consisting of regimental composition, brigade strength, and brigade casualty figures. The numbers data was obtained from the appendix section of Scott Hartwig's To Antietam Creek.

Endnotes and bibliography indicate that the contributors consulted a wide range of source materials. In addition to reliance on the O.R. there is heavy use of authoritative book-length published sources (ex. classic Carman through new-classic Hartwig campaign accounts and a host of unit histories, biographies, memoirs, letter collections, etc.) along with manuscript, newspaper, and web research. The book's twenty maps are borrowed from Gottfried's Maps of Antietam (2012).

A product of a wide range of shared expertise, Brigades of Antietam looks to be a highly useful reference book. It is the first publication of the Antietam Institute, a new non-profit organization that I referenced a short time ago in an earlier post [see here]. For those wondering about the artillery, a volume addressing the long arm (Jim Rosebrock's Artillery Units of Antietam) is currently scheduled for release sometime later this year.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Review - "Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers" by John Sacher

[Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers by John M. Sacher (Louisiana State University Press, 2021). Hardcover, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,204/280. ISBN:978-0-8071-7621-4. $45]

It is undeniable that conscription's centrality to the Confederate war effort was fully matched by the amount of controversy the measure engendered within all segments of Southern society. That has led to all manner of claims about conscription's role in Confederate demise at home and in the field. Enacted in its initial form in April 1862, the Conscription Act was the legislation that perhaps most exposed the ideological differences between pro-Confederate nationalism and States' Rights localism, and its exemption and substitution stipulations led to heated charges of presumed class favoritism from politicians, soldiers, and civilians alike. The debate over conscription endures among historians tasked with its interpretation. Did conscription save the Confederate Army in 1862 (when it arguably faced dissolution in the face of the impending enlistment expirations of the twelve-month volunteers who formed the army's core) and sustain it throughout a long and bitter conflict, or was conscription a failure that betrayed States' Rights ideals and destroyed home and fighting front morale from within? Given this 'big topic' status, scholars and casual readers alike might be surprised to learn that, until now, only one comprehensive history of Confederate conscription exists in the literature, Albert Burton Moore's Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy (1924). A fresh reappraisal of this important subject, John Sacher's Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers recounts the history and evolution of Confederate conscription, critically engages with all the major historiographical arguments (both classic and more recent) surrounding it, and presents well-supported conclusions that reshape our understanding.

Passed on April 26, 1862, the first Conscription Act made all white males in the Confederacy aged 18 to 35 eligible for military service. It kept existing soldiers in the ranks and, by way of some compensation, allowed new officer elections. Well cognizant of the need to balance home front producers with fighting front shooters, the act, as mentioned earlier, provided rules for purchasing substitutes and obtaining draft exemptions. An added benefit was the flood of new recruits who immediately volunteered as a way of escaping the considerable stigma of being labeled a conscript. The constitutionality of the act, what it said about the courage and patriotism of southern men of fighting age, and the dangers it raised regarding the centralization of power were all hotly debated issues. It was also recognized that the hurried nature of the first act meant that the law would require subsequent revision, the first round of which took place when congress reconvened in the fall. As Sacher relates, though the idea of state quotas was raised by States' Rights advocates as preferable to any compulsory national law, what conscription's critics did not offer was a comprehensively laid out alternative for keeping southern armies up to strength and expanding them for future needs.

The most infamous of the late-1862 revisions was what came to be called the "Twenty Negro Law." The law is often alleged, then and today, as proof of egregious class favoritism, but Sacher effectively argues that multiple issues were involved and maintains that the law's underpinnings continue to be misrepresented in an overly reductive manner. The timing of the debate that produced the law (October 1862) firmly establishes the proposed exemption as both a slave control measure in response to the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and a necessary (if unpopular) balancing tool between the needs of the home and fighting fronts. Further, the exemption only applied to plantations that did not have a non-draft eligible male in residence, so the assumption that a plantation owner could readily gain an exemption for a son or overseer is a popular misconception. Though records are incomplete, the author's research across several states where data is available clearly demonstrates that only a tiny percentage of total exemptions were given to overseers (who had to prove on the job experience). According to Sacher's findings, up to 95% of all planter households across the Confederacy did not receive an overseer exemption. Of course none of that stifled opposition and contributing to the law's 'bad look' was its perceived lack of sufficient concern for the most straitened families on the other end of the wealth spectrum.

Sacher's detailed description of the interpersonal, local, state, and national-level challenges faced by conscription officers on a regular basis is highly illuminating, as are as his insights into the elements of the investigative process employed by the most conscientious bureau appointees. Often plagued by vague direction from above and possessing dated policy information, these men implemented a system that could never perfectly balance the needs of the army versus the home front. Though corruptive influences certainly were present in the process, it is effectively maintained that conscription officers on the whole were not heartless bureaucrats but those that took their difficult duties seriously and performed as best they could under enormous pressures (and in some place even under lethal threat).

The impact of conscription and conscription law on the unit-level fighting efficiency of Confederate armies is largely beyond the scope of this study. However, a few issues are briefly discussed. Officers of all ranks, Robert E. Lee most prominent among them, criticized the first act's provisions regarding new officer elections, as it was alleged (with much justification) that those elections too often threw out highly capable junior officers who were regarded as disciplinarians in favor of lax populists of dubious competence. In Reluctant Rebels, historian Kenneth Noe effectively refuted the stereotype of later enlisters as less effective soldiers who were more eager to desert the colors, and here Sacher finds no compelling evidence to support similar assumptions regarding Confederate conscripts.

According to Sacher, a pattern emerged that conscription became less efficient the more west one looked, especially after the twin defeats of Gettysburg and Vicksburg suddenly increased the desperation level when it came to needing more men. In particular, the Army of Tennessee attempted to seize control of conscription from the civilian authority assigned to it by national policy and law. As Sacher and others amply demonstrate, it was in military-managed conscription that the much-maligned general Gideon Pillow shined and contributed most to the Confederate war effort. In areas previously canvassed by conscription officers, Pillow as able to ruthlessly round up many thousands of replacements (he claimed 12,000 in a single month and 18,000 more in another two month period in late 1863, but records apparently don't exist to evaluate those rather lofty numbers). Legalities aside, the main contrast between civilian and army-managed conscription was the former's mandate to balance fighting and home front manpower allocation and the latter's single-minded aim of filling out army ranks regardless of the consequences. In the end, War Department prerogatives won out, and Pillow was reassigned, leaving history to wonder what might have happened if the infamous political general had been allowed to expand his notable conscription efforts to more states rather than abandon his program altogether.

As for the 1863 congressional elections being a referendum on conscription and its class inequities, Sacher's perceptive analysis of election results finds clear evidence that winning candidates, many of whom were returning veterans, did not call for conscription's repeal nor did they offer an alternative. However, they did pledge to address class-related objections raised by their constituents. This part of Sacher's analysis seems convincing, but it does not clearly mention how many of the races described in the book provided voters with true choices between candidates holding diametrically opposed views on conscription (though we can probably safely assume there were more than a few). Nevertheless, these findings do provide more support for the book's main theme that conscription, though imperfect and a constant source of strong and varied criticism (the Twenty Negro Law exemption still being the most common wellspring of dissent), was not such an odious policy that opposition to it played a primary role in destroying popular support for the war effort.

Even more than the previous year, the tweaks the Confederate Congress made to conscription over the winter of 1863-64 pushed the imbalance between home and fighting front priorities even further toward the military by widening age eligibility, eliminating substitutes, making principals liable for conscription, and sharply reducing exemptions. Additionally, the much-hated Twenty Negro Law was abolished, replaced with the new "Fifteen Field-Hand Law" that required a large proportion of farm/plantation production be set aside for the government, families of soldiers, and the poor. It was felt that eliminating exemptions altogether (and presumably improving manpower allocation through more efficient government-supervised detailing) was a step too far for lawmakers, so congress settled on a combination of the two. That detailing would be at the sole discretion of the executive branch troubled many. However, as it had earlier, this newly revised system of conscription continued to survive legal challenges through state supreme courts that never denied to the Richmond government the broad powers deemed necessary to raise and maintain Confederate armies. The spirit of debate over conscription continued into the fall of 1864 and through the following winter, during which the conflict between military and civilian management of conscription caught fire again. This time legislative critics finally achieved their goal of abolishing the Conscription Bureau (but not conscription itself); however, Richmond fell shortly after the change was implemented, rendering the whole matter moot.

While reading this book one gains a mounting sense of the author's frustrations regarding the incomplete, inconsistent, and often contradictory nature of surviving conscription records. Such non-rectifiable deficiencies render it all but impossible for even the most dedicated scholar to arrive at reliable data-driven conclusions regarding conscription's overall numbers and efficiencies. Virginia and North Carolina archives offer the best quantitative resources for scholars to use, but Sacher very persuasively shows how dangerous it can be to extrapolate too broadly from them. Some points of interest do emerge, however. As one example, the fact that only 200 overseer exemptions were granted in Virginia over the course of the entire war challenges assumptions regarding class protections. A major source of author frustration is not being able to come up with a suitably reliable number of total substitutions (his best estimate being 20-30,000 across the entire Confederacy over the course of the war). According to Sacher, existing data does not lend itself toward supporting the idea that conscription stripped so many military-age white men from the home front that it led directly to catastrophic collapse.

Strongly opposing the view that conscription was a popularly reviled war measure that eroded the Confederate war effort from within, Sacher's research strongly suggests that conscription was instead widely accepted by critics and supporters alike as a wartime necessity. With so many examples of grudging acceptance to draw upon, the author warns against today's observers falling into the popular trap of too often equating vocal criticism of conscription in theory and/or practice as an act withdrawing loyalty and support for Confederate war aims and independence. Forming what does seem to be a more accurate representation, Sacher effectively contextualizes conscription as an evolutionary progression that was constantly reevaluated and changed on the basis of military, economic, and class concerns raised by broad constituencies of citizens, soldiers, government officials, and elected representatives. Conducted under the exigencies of war and more responsive than dictatorial, it was a law that, flawed as it was, in many ways involved the democratic process working as designed. The author's suggestion that we should replace the popularly accepted broad-brush historiographical presentation of conscription as the most hated legislation produced by the Confederate Congress to its "most debated" law is highly worthy of consideration.

Conscription's effectiveness is also a source of much debate. Clearly, conscription did not save the Confederacy's armies from being destroyed in the field, and Sacher raises serious doubts (with all other factors unchanged) that any perfecting adjustments could have changed that result. That's not to say that defeat was inevitable from the start (no one wishes to fall back on that interpretation), just that the result was largely in the hands of their Union opponents. The new standard history and analysis of Confederate conscription, this fine new study is worthy of the highest recommendation.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Booknotes: U.S. Civil War Battle by Battle

New Arrival:
U.S. Civil War Battle by Battle by Iain MacGregor (Osprey, 2022).

"This attractively packaged gift book" is a pocket-sized intro to Civil War battles from Sumter to Appomattox. Long-time Osprey Publishing editor Iain MacGregor's U.S. Civil War Battle by Battle "tells the story of 30 of the most significant of these battles. These include some of the most famous clashes, such as the battles of Gettysburg and the Fredericksburg, which resonate through American military history, but also the less well known, such as the battles of Brandy Station and Cedar Creek." Around three pages of text and illustration are devoted to each battle, the selections overall offering a reasonable balance between east and west. Even the 1861 Battle of Lexington in Missouri is included!

Best known for their original map paintings, photos, and art plates of various war-themed objects, Osprey has been in business of providing illustrated popular military history titles since the late 1960s. While this 5" x 7.5" pocket book does not include any maps from the publisher's archive, it does reproduce many of the classic battle scenes, ship, weaponry, uniform, and accoutrement illustrations found in other volumes.

Though it's certainly not written as a children's book, this title's best use might be as a gift to curious youths, done with the hope of passing on to the next generation the Civil War history seed that took firm root in all of us.