Thursday, April 28, 2022

Review - "The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War" by Foote & Hess, eds.

[The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War edited by Lorien Foote and Earl J. Hess (Oxford University Press, 2021). Hardcover, 51 maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:xiv,689. ISBN:978-0-19-090305-3. $150]

The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War is a new addition to the prolific Oxford Handbooks series, the broad aim of which is to "offer authoritative and up-to-date surveys of original research in a particular subject area." Series volumes "give critical examinations of the progress and direction of debates, as well as a foundation for future research." In an essential step toward meeting those lofty goals, contributing editors Lorien Foote and Earl Hess have gathered nearly three dozen colleagues to craft 39 essays charting the military progress of the war. In keeping with one of the major mandates of the series, many of the chapter authors in this volume are leading authorities on the particular topic(s) upon which they write (ex. Brian McKnight on the fighting in Appalachia, Kenneth Noe on the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, Scott Hartwig on the Maryland Campaign, and so on).

It's difficult enough to find the space in a review to discuss at even a basic level each chapter in a standard-sized anthology of eight to twelve essays, but this massive tome encompassing nearly forty entries makes that task impossible, so we'll have to stick with broad strokes. Unlike most general military histories of the war, Foote and Hess's handbook compilation offers a very satisfying mix and balance of coverage across all three primary theaters of war (East, West, and Trans-Mississippi). The chapters are arranged in chronological fashion, and it is not completely out of line to frame the resulting treatment as one of the most comprehensive single-volume military histories of the war, even if it lacks by its very nature a connecting narrative.

Most chapters are centered upon one or more major military campaigns. In addition to more traditional content and interpretation along the lines of leadership, politics, operations, and tactics, each essay incorporates on some level additional "New Military History" topics and themes thrust into the mainstream over the latter part of the past century as well as more recent "War and Society" developments. This integrative approach is most prominently displayed through the vast majority of essays having at least some engagement with emancipation scholarship and its multitude of research branches. A great host of other intersections between more traditional military history and current trends in academic Civil War scholarship—among the latter the literature examining hard war effects in both urban and rural settings, race, the natural environment, gender, class, geography, loyalty, and citizenship—are broadly exhibited. Individual essays as well as the volume's fine general introduction persuasively extol the benefits of the interdisciplinary approach and are encouraging of fruitful directions Civil War scholarship might take in the future. Emphasizing both planned and unplanned elements of connectivity at local, state, and national levels, the collection effectively shows that every campaign to some degree produced lasting reverberations worthy of ongoing study. Critically, through all of this it is made clear to the reader that military history needs to retain its central influence within the expansive modern landscape of Civil War scholarship.

There are a small number of more theme-driven essays in the book (ex. those covering "Bleeding Kansas," the Civil War in Indian Territory, postwar occupation, and the naval blockade of southern ports), but, as mentioned above, a decision was made to construct the great majority of chapters around either a single campaign or multiple campaigns linked together. Though that structuring is very effectively implemented and remarkably thorough, it does mean that some important but more diffuse military topics are perhaps undeservedly relegated to background status. As just one example, while several chapters integrate the unconventional war into the main discussion (one of the better ones is Joseph Beilein's assessment of the war's only significant attempt at officially coordinating the efforts of guerrillas and conventional forces in a major campaign), one might argue on the basis of the huge body of scholarly work built up over the past couple decades that the guerrilla war deserves a chapter of its own. That said, however, in a thick tome already approaching 700 pages in length, a line must undoubtedly be drawn somewhere.

The notes and bibliography placed at the end of each chapter fulfill scholarly requirements and usefully steer the handbook's target audience toward the best candidates for further reading. Also, present in the volume is a sound appreciation of cartography as an essential element of military history presentation. The book's 51 maps, all created by noted Civil War cartographer Hal Jesperson, offer both necessary geographical lessons as well as solid visual representations of the large-scale movements involved in the various campaigns described in the text.

Under the expert guidance of co-editors Foote and Hess, The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War, through its critical engagement with current trends in the military and social history scholarship and its noteworthy identification of topics meriting further exploration, succeeds admirably at fulfilling the challenging mandates of OUP's Handbook series. Those qualities as well as the highly accessible nature of the writing makes this handbook excel as a broadly useful guide to the present state of the Civil War military history literature.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Booknotes: The Chicago Board of Trade Battery in the Civil War

New Arrival:
The Chicago Board of Trade Battery in the Civil War by Dennis W. Belcher (McFarland, 2022).

Organized during the summer of 1862 and serving for the duration, the Chicago Board of Trade Battery (an independent light artillery company sponsored by its namesake) merited on numerous battlefields its reputation as one of the western theater's most renowned Union batteries. Dennis Belcher's The Chicago Board of Trade Battery in the Civil War is the first full history of the unit. The only other publication I came across in my admittedly cursory search is a veteran-authored sketch published in Chicago in 1902 (and a brief skim of Belcher's introduction seems to confirm that).

From the description: "During the Civil War, the battery was involved in 11 major battles, 26 minor battles and 42 skirmishes. They held the center at Stones River, repulsing a furious Confederate attack. A few days later, they joined 50 other Union guns in stopping one of the most dramatic offensives in the Western Theater. With Colonel Robert Minty's cavalry, they resisted an overwhelming assault along Chickamauga Creek." From there, the book "chronicles the actions of the Chicago Board of Trade Independent Light Artillery at the battles of Farmington, Dallas, Noonday Creek, Atlanta, in Kilpatrick's Raid, and at Nashville, and Selma."

Union Army western and Border State unit and formation histories (before now cavalry and infantry) are Belcher's specialization, so this is his first foray into the artillery. Belcher is one of those authors whose work seems to get better and better with each new publication, and the exhaustive nature of this battery history looks to be a real treat for artillery students and enthusiasts. In addition to photographs and other illustrations, there are numerous charts and tables that regularly update organizational matters, losses, and replacements. As is the case with his other books, full-page George Skoch maps of high quality are very generously sprinkled about. Finally, a detailed battery roster and casualty list are also included in an appendix section. I'm looking forward to reading this one.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Coming Soon (May '22 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for MAY 2022:

North Carolina Troops 1861-1865: A Roster, Volume 21: Militia and Home Guard by Brown & Coffey, eds.
The Civil War Abroad: How the Great American Conflict Reached Overseas by Charles Priestley.
The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War: The Struggle for Control of the Nation's Longest Railway by Dan Lee.
The Left-Armed Corps: Writings by Amputee Civil War Veterans by Allison Johnson.
The Lion of Round Top: The Life and Military Service of Brigadier General Strong Vincent in the American Civil War by H.G. Myers.
Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life by Elizabeth Leonard.
The Key to the Shenandoah Valley: Geography and the Civil War Struggle for Winchester by Edward McCaul.
Black Antietam: African Americans and the Civil War in Sharspburg by Emilie Amt.
Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard in the Civil War by Sean Chick.
Unceasing Fury: Texans at the Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863 by Mingus & Owen.

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.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Booknotes: Love and Duty

New Arrival:
Love and Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss by Angela Esco Elder (UNC Press, 2022).

"Between 1861 and 1865, approximately 200,000 women were widowed by the deaths of Civil War soldiers." Predictably, with the conflict's devastating toll (estimated at a quarter or more) on the Confederate population's cohort of military-age males, the dimensions of war widowhood were much broader in the Confederate South. In her book Love and Duty, historian Angela Esco Elder draws upon their "diaries, letters, scrapbooks, and pension applications...—as well as songs, literary works, and material objects like mourning gowns—to explore white Confederate widows' stories, examining the records of their courtships, marriages, loves, and losses to understand their complicated relationship with the Confederate state."

The sheer scale of Confederate widowhood conferred exceptional social, cultural, and political status that was expressed in a variety of ways both during and after the war. According to Elder, this societal influence earned through sacrifice transformed these war widows into significant political actors.

More from the description: "Confederate officialdom championed a particular image of white widowhood—the young wife who selflessly transferred her monogamous love from her dead husband to the deathless cause for which he'd fought. But a closer look reveals that these women spent their new cultural capital with great shrewdness and variety. Not only were they aware of the social status gained in widowhood; they also used that status on their own terms, turning mourning into a highly politicized act amid the battle to establish the Confederacy's legitimacy. Death forced all Confederate widows to reconstruct their lives, but only some would choose to play a role in reconstructing the nation."

Monday, April 18, 2022

Booknotes: Animal Histories of the Civil War Era

New Arrival:
Animal Histories of the Civil War Era edited by Earl J. Hess (LSU Press, 2022).

In creating the unique essay anthology Animal Histories of the Civil War Era editor Earl Hess has assembled a cast of contributors (he describes them as three animal historians with an interest in Civil War history and eight Civil War historians with an interest in animal history) to explore important human/animal interactions during the Civil War period on and off the battlefield. Other elements of the interdisciplinary approach of the volume include animal rights history and considerations of animal agency, environmental history, vegetarianism, and more.

The first essay "describes the use of camels by individuals attempting to spread slavery in the American Southwest in the antebellum period." Of course, absolutely critical to both fighting the war and supporting it on the home front were horses and mules, and the book devotes an entire section to their discussion. From the description: "Horses and mules powered the Union and Confederate armies, providing mobility for wagons, pulling artillery pieces, and serving as fighting platforms for cavalrymen. Drafted to support the war effort, horses often died or suffered terrible wounds on the battlefield. Raging diseases also swept through army herds and killed tens of thousands of other equines."

Another section explores wildlife interactions: "Living and fighting in the natural environment, soldiers often encountered a variety of wild animals. They were pestered by many types of insects, marveled at exotic fish while being transported along the coasts, and took shots at alligators in the swamps along the lower Mississippi River basin." That section also looks at "how smaller wildlife, including bees and other insects, affected soldiers and were in turn affected by them."

Animal consumption is examined in two areas: the "relationships between southern pigs and people" and Civil War meat-eating from a vegetarian perspective. In regard to the former, one might recall some excellent recent work on porcine disease epidemics that radically altered southern soldier and civilian diets.

Much has been written about military mascots, including dogs, and this collection also considers that aspect of canine "service" as well as their exploitation during and after the war. Another postwar-themed piece "focuses on the congressional debate surrounding the creation of a national zoo, while another tells the story of how the famous show horse Beautiful Jim Key and his owner, a former slave, exposed sectional and racial fault lines after the war."

These contributions together "argue for an animal-centered narrative to complement the human-centered accounts of the war," and they enjoin us to better and more fully "recognize and appreciate the animal experience of the Civil War period."

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Review - "Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History" by Gene Salecker

[Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History by Gene Eric Salecker (Naval Institute Press, 2022). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN:9781682477434. Pages main/total:xii,387/509. $39.95]

At roughly 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana, loaded with nearly 2,000 home-bound Union ex-POWs along with paying passengers and crew complement, suffered a sequence of boiler explosions that crippled the ship and set it afire about seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. More than half of the men, women, and children aboard either immediately perished in the wreckage, were drowned in the river, succumbed to hypothermia, or died soon after from their injuries. That horrific toll made the vessel's loss the most costly in human lives of any U.S. waterborne disaster in its history. Speculation as to the cause of the tragedy continues to this day, and its historical memory has been maintained both in scholarly print and through organized efforts of descendants. Much of our firsthand knowledge of the disaster is owed to Chester Berry's 1892 compilation Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, but the first comprehensive modern history, Jerry Potter's The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster, was published a century later in 1992. That groundbreaking study was followed soon after by Gene Eric Salecker's Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865. Those works, extensively grounded in primary sources, left readers in good hands; however, Salecker's research on the topic never ended. By returning to original sources and also examining materials newly uncovered over the past 25 years, Salecker has now produced a fresh study titled Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History.

Utilizing firsthand accounts written by individuals associated with the tragedy (among them survivors, eyewitnesses, military authorities, investigators, and rescuers) along with newspaper articles, government and military service records, and court martial documents, Salecker pieces together a meticulously detailed yet highly involving history of the Sultana tragedy. The entire story unfolds on the page. Beginning with a brief rundown of the 1863-built Sultana's namesake antecedents, the study recounts the Sultana's river career prior to its final voyage, the many machinations involved in it being used as a contract vessel for transporting prisoners, the disaster itself, the extensive nighttime rescue operation, local care of the victims (living and dead), the further life journeys of the survivors, press coverage of the event, the government investigation into the causes of the explosion, the decades-long (and ultimately unsuccessful) quest by survivor groups and their supporters to get the federal government to pay out disability benefits and erect public monuments, and, finally, enduring claims regarding sabotage. The book's disaster narrative displays a great aptitude on the part of the author for composing a remarkably thorough yet highly readable and comprehensible moment-by-moment account of the chaos and mass confusion that occurred on the Mississippi during that terrible early morning in April.

As is the case with many of the world's great catastrophes, the origin of the explosion that mortally wounded the Sultana cannot be definitively traced to a single cause but rather was most likely the result of an unfortunate combination of factors. There appears to be three leading possibilities drawn from both contemporary investigation and Salecker's modern reassessment of the evidence: (1) the grade of iron used in the patch became brittle when repeatedly heated and cooled (this was proved through tests performed much later) (2) the river water introduced into the boilers was very sediment-heavy (the river being at spring flood stage), and (3) the tubular boiler system (a relatively new design) installed in the Sultana and many other river steamboats of the period was unsafe and its internal architecture made the essential maintenance task of thorough sediment cleaning very difficult to perform.

That the Sultana was maintaining a high rate of speed against a flood-stage current is also suggestive of the possibility that the water level in the boilers was dangerously low. After the overloaded, top-heavy vessel (its unstable condition made even more so by the removal of the contents of the cargo hold in Memphis) swept across the current toward the Arkansas side of the river, it would not have taken much hull careening to expose red-hot flues to splashing boiler water, the resulting steam flash instantly raising internal pressure to potentially catastrophic levels. Supporting this hypothesis are confirmed reports that the engineer on duty at the time of the accident had drawn water from the boilers twice just before the first explosion rocked the vessel. Presumably he had thought it safe to do so, his gauge readings (which could be dangerously false due to a commonly known process called "foaming") apparently raising no red flags in the engineer's mind. On the other hand, water at safe boiler levels could also lead to an explosion due to a large leak in the system. For example, if the patch installed at Vicksburg failed the pressure in the previously closed system would drop dramatically, instantly lowering the boiling point of the water contained inside and perhaps causing an explosive energy release in flash steam. In the end, the precise sequence of events will never be known with certainty. Evidence of careening prior to the explosion seems inconclusive, but the location and angle of the boiler explosion (which added to the tragedy by blowing away the pilot house and preventing the stricken vessel from being steered to shore) seems to exonerate the rush-job patch as being the metal weak point that first gave way.

As fatal as the boiler explosions and steam scaldings were to the fate of passengers and crew, the ensuing fire was much worse. A fire-fighting system of specially designed buckets and water barrels existed, but Salecker notes the high likelihood that few of the buckets remained in place (they were used by thirsty soldiers for water collection and by others for waste disposal) and the barrel contents consumed without replenishment. It will forever remain unknown if, as at least one survivor suggested, the fire could have been readily extinguished had enough order been reestablished.

A modest amount of illustrations are included in the volume, but the narrative still asks a great deal of the reader when it comes to creating a mental picture of what happened on the Sultana. While Salecker does provide an adequate layman's description of the boiler system and devotes a good amount of text space to describing the vessel's layout, some blueprint-style design drawings of the Sultana's structure and propulsion system would have helped readers visualize more fully the narrative's exhaustively detailed account of the vessel's destruction and the onboard locations of the multitude of survival stories related in the text. Ending rather abruptly, the book might also have benefited from a concluding summary, however brief, of the author's most central arguments and myth-dispelling conclusions. That said, Salecker clearly assigns faulty boiler design and poor maintenance (and perhaps low water) as the most likely causes of the explosion.

Period accounts hint at no other outcome but that the survivors received the best medical care available. Salecker is also surely correct that the steamboat sinking in such relatively close proximity to a major population center saved hundreds of lives through having both abundant rescue resources near at hand and ample hospital facilities (Memphis was a major base of operations under Union military occupation since 1862). Memphis citizens, Union naval vessels, civilian boat operators, and those living along the flooded riverbanks all set out in darkness to save victims in the river. Once the survivors were safely returned to the city, residents offered medical help and generously met the personal needs of those who lost everything including the clothes on their backs. While such matters can be reasonably regarded as beyond the scope of the study, save some suggestion of a combination of oil and flour being applied to affected areas it would have been interesting to read in more detail about what treatments were involved in the care of the Sultana's most seriously steam-scalded and/or fire burned victims.

Estimates of the total number of prisoners packed onto the steamboat vary to a relatively small degree at this point, and Salecker's extensive research has arrived at a total very nearly equal to the official figure of 1,966. Passengers and crew raised the number aboard to over 2,100 men, women, and children. Arriving at an exact number of perished soldiers, crew, and passengers is nigh impossible, but Salecker, by his own estimate, dedicated three years of research to the matter. In the end, his findings closely correlate with the official postwar investigations. While it seems clear that some number between 1,150 and 1,200 souls perished in the disaster, the author cites an interesting part of the Sultana's cultural legacy as tied to the Titanic. It's unclear at what levels the Sultana disaster story was maintained in popular historical memory by the early 1900s, but immediately after the sinking of the Titanic some in American journalism grasped the opportunity to raise yet again long-discredited Sultana fatality figures of 1,700 to 1,800, as if having the worst maritime tragedy in its history was some kind of contest among nations.

Salecker's extensive look into both domestic and foreign newspaper coverage of the Sultana's demise convincingly dismisses the popular myth that press reporting of the disaster was muted by other wartime events associated with the close of the war (ex. the Appomattox surrender of April 9 and continued news fallout from the April 14 Lincoln assassination). In reality, Sultana coverage was extensive in newspapers throughout the country and quickly spread across the world. Also, contrary to what many have argued, the story did not disappear quickly from the headlines.

As is often the case with exceptional tragedies, government authorities did take steps in the wake of the Sultana sinking to prevent such a thing from happening again. Though more catastrophic tubular boiler explosions on river steamboats were allowed to occur before decisive action was finally imposed, eventually boilers of that design were ordered removed and replaced by reliable older designs. Additionally, new inspection laws were passed and fresh regulations regarding operator licensing and crew training mandated.

Only one individual associated with the tragedy was ever brought to trial, and unfortunately that person, Capt. Frederic Speed, was actually a conscientious officer not at all responsible for the selection of the Sultana and not involved in the government transport corruption and bribery exchange that directly led to the vessel's overcrowded condition. In the book, Salecker recounts at length the entire course of the trial in all its legal malpractice and reckless attempts at scapegoating. Fortunately, the stunning guilty outcome was overturned upon review by the office of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt in Washington.

Even though three separate government investigations into the cause of the Sultana tragedy considered and dismissed the possibility of sabotage, there are still those today who insist that an "infernal machine" such as the infamous coal torpedo was the source of the explosion. Salecker's reinvestigation of the relevant sources conclusively establishes that no primary physical or documentary evidence exists that might even remotely support the possibility that sabotage doomed the vessel. Unfortunate that it is that this allegation still gets bandied about in print and through conspiracy-friendly media programs, Salecker's book should provide readers with all the ammunition needed to decisively counter such claims.

The end result of three decades of intensive primary research, thorough investigation, and deep reflection, Gene Salecker's Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana surpasses all previous coverage of the topic and is clearly poised to become the new standard history of the tragic event and everything that surrounded it. One hesitates to declare any history book to be the last word on its subject, but suffice it to say that this rigorously comprehensive treatment of the Sultana is destined to become an enduring classic among Civil War history studies and waterborne disaster chronicles.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Booknotes: A Failed Vision of Empire

New Arrival:
A Failed Vision of Empire: The Collapse of Manifest Destiny, 1845–1872 by Daniel J. Burge (Univ of Neb Press, 2022).

By its most common modern definition, Manifest Destiny has been a rousing success, with the United States having established from 'sea to shining sea' a unified nation that quickly prospered politically, economically, and commercially into the most powerful country in the world. However, our understanding of that supposed ideology has been significantly challenged for over a century now, and Daniel Burge's A Failed Vision of Empire: The Collapse of Manifest Destiny, 1845–1872 argues that Manifest Destiny, as originally conceived, was neither a unifying ideology nor was it necessarily popular among the great majority of the US body politic.

According to Burge, the consensus definition of Manifest Destiny as understood and disseminated in the 1840s was that the United States was 'destined' to establish its unique form of representative government and principles of economic freedom and opportunity across the entirety of North America, encompassing Canada, Mexico, and Cuba in the Caribbean. Thus, the modern definition marks a reconceptualized, and profoundly pared down, vision of Manifest Destiny that largely ignores the failure of the much more ambitious original one.

Additionally, Manifest Destiny was never a consensus cultural driving force (or policy) behind US expansion but rather was a highly controversial concept consistently debated by critics and proponents. Burge's research leads him to doubt that a majority of nineteenth century Americans thought it was a necessary or even a good idea. From the description: "By examining speeches, plays, letters, diaries, newspapers, and other sources, Burge reveals how Americans debated the wisdom of expansion, challenged expansionists, and disagreed over what the boundaries of the United States should look like." Through "analyzing contested moments in the continental expansion of the United States," Burge's study argues that the ideology of Manifest Destiny as originally conceived was "ultimately unsuccessful."

In summary, A Failed Vision of Empire is the "first work to capture the messy, complicated, and yet far more compelling story of manifest destiny’s failure, debunking in the process one of the most pervasive myths of modern American history."

Monday, April 11, 2022

Booknotes: Identified With Texas

New Arrival:
Identified with Texas: The Lives of Governor Elisha Marshall Pease and Lucadia Niles Pease by Elizabeth Whitlow (Univ of N Texas Pr, 2022)

From the description: Elizabeth Whitlow's Identified with Texas "is the first published biography of Texas Governor Elisha Marshall Pease (1812-1883), presented by historian Elizabeth Whitlow as a dual biography of Pease and his wife, Lucadia Niles Pease (1813-1905). Pease volunteered to fight in the first battle of the Revolution at Gonzales, and he served with the Texan Army at the Siege of Bexar. Pease served in the first three state legislatures after Texas joined the Union in 1845, was elected governor in 1853 and re-elected in 1855, and returned to the governorship as an interim appointee from 1867 to 1869 during Reconstruction. His achievements in all these positions were substantial."

In regard to background information, I don't know much of anything about Pease during the Civil War and Reconstruction, so I'll defer to the trusty Handbook of Texas entry for Governor Pease. Among politically prominent Texas Unionists, Edmund Davis is much better known to Civil War students, even though Pease was a two-term governor in the 1850s. Pease adhered to Unionist principles throughout the war but was badly defeated by ex-Confederate officer and Indian commissioner James Throckmorton in the first gubernatorial election of the Reconstruction period. A leader in the Texas Republican party, Pease was appointed governor after General Sheridan removed Throckmorton from office the following year in 1867. According to the Handbook contributor, Pease clashed with just about everybody (military authorities, fellow Republicans, and ex-Confederates alike) and resigned in 1869, though he remained active in various political causes for many years afterward.

As noted above, Whitlow's book is a dual biography of Gov. Pease and his wife. More from the description: "Lucadia Niles Pease was known as the Governor’s “Lady.” Moreover, her early, independent travel and her stated position as a “woman’s rights woman” in the 1850s, as well as her support for sending a daughter away to college in the 1870s to earn a degree, all serve as markers of her intelligence and the strength of her convictions."

The author's task was aided immeasurably by the large amount of surviving source material, including the "thousands of letters and papers saved by the Pease family and housed in the Austin History Center of the Austin Public Library, as well as in the Governor’s Papers at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission." This volume looks like a useful means of exploring Civil War-era Texas Unionism and the life of a Reconstruction governor.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Booknotes: Hearts Torn Asunder

New Arrival:
Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina by Ernest A. Dollar, Jr. (Savas Beatie, 2022).

Arguably no other individual has been more influential than Mark L. Bradley in shaping our modern understanding of the details and meaning of both the final military operations in North Carolina and the Confederate surrender at Bennett Place. Following Bradley's The Battle Of Bentonville: Last Stand In The Carolinas (1996) and This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place (2000) has been two decades of popular and academic book publishing the totality of which has finally accorded 1865 events in North Carolina their proper historical context and due. Additionally, Bradley's Bennett Place volume did much to spark previously neglected attention toward documenting the conflict's major 1865 Confederate surrenders beyond Virginia's iconic ceremony, and ensuing work from others has done much to revise popular understanding of the war's end as being much more than 'Appomattox and the rest.' Ernest Dollar's Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina now adds another layer to this literature.

From the description: "The war’s final campaign in North Carolina began on April 10, 1865, one day after Lee’s surrender. More than 120,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were still in the field bringing war with them as they moved across the state’s verdant heartland. General William T. Sherman was still out to destroy the South’s ability and moral stamina to make war. His unstoppable Union troops faced General Joseph E. Johnston’s demoralized but still dangerous Confederate Army of Tennessee. Thousands of paroled Rebels, desperate, distraught, and destitute, added to the chaos by streaming into the state from Virginia. Grief-stricken civilians, struggling to survive in a collapsing world, were caught in the middle. The collision of these groups formed a perfect storm long ignored by those wielding pens."

Dollar examines the impact of these events through, among other lenses, our modern understanding of post-traumatic stress's effects on the psyches of both military service members and civilians affected by war's devastation. More from the description: Dollar's Hearts Torn Asunder "explores the psychological experience of these soldiers and civilians during the chaotic closing weeks of the war. Their letters, diaries, and accounts reveal just how deeply the killing, suffering, and loss had hurt and impacted these people by the spring of 1865. Dollar deftly recounts the experiences of men, women, and children who endured intense emotional, physical, and moral stress during the war’s dramatic climax. Their emotional, irrational, and often uncontrollable reactions mirror symptoms associated with trauma victims today, all of which combined to shape memory of the war’s end."

A major theme of the book seems to be that this collective trauma was a driving force behind neglected writing about these events and their wider remembrance. "Once the armies left North Carolina after the surrender, their stories faded with each passing year. Neither side looked back and believed there was much that was honorable to celebrate. Hearts Torn Asunder recounts at a very personal level what happened during those closing days that made a memory so painful that few wanted to celebrate, but none could forget."

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Review - "Suffering in the Army of Tennessee: A Social History of the Confederate Army of the Heartland from the Battles for Atlanta to the Retreat from Nashville" by Christopher Thrasher

[Suffering in the Army of Tennessee: A Social History of the Confederate Army of the Heartland from the Battles for Atlanta to the Retreat from Nashville by Christopher Thrasher (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Cloth, maps, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxiii,266/403. ISBN:9781621906322. $39.95]

Influenced by the broadened thematic coverage and interdisciplinary approach of the so-called New Military History movement that blossomed over the latter decades of the twentieth century, Civil War military history studies had by the 1990s adopted a consensus model of campaign and battle history that successfully blended detailed description and analysis of military decision-making, strategy, and tactics with compelling combinations of army rank and file perspectives along with civilian observations and experiences. The best practitioners of this writing, both avocational and professional, achieved that balance through their use of a wide range of primary sources. The most innovative aspect of that process in source enrichment was a newly dedicated focus on archival research into unpublished soldier and civilian letters, memoirs, diaries, and journal accounts. That said, there will always be room for purposeful work at either end of the wide spectrum encompassing both top-down and bottom-up approaches to Civil War military history. A winning example of this is Christopher Thrasher's Suffering in the Army of Tennessee: A Social History of the Confederate Army of the Heartland from the Battles for Atlanta to the Retreat from Nashville. In it, Thrasher has compiled and organized a massive collection of firsthand accounts (mostly from the junior officers and enlisted personnel of the Army of Tennessee) that primarily serve the volume's creative exploration of one overarching theme, that of 'suffering.'

The ragged, near-starved, ill-equipped, and poorly armed Confederate soldier remains an enduring popular image, but that portrait has been meaningfully challenged in the literature. However, much of the popularized reframing of the myth arguably does not adequately take into account the episodic nature of Confederate Army privation, and its common focus on Lee's army near Richmond often fails to appreciate the vast differences in logistical capabilities and priorities across theaters. Thrasher's examination of suffering both within the Army of Tennessee and alongside its path during the army's final operation as a cohesive formation effectively conveys the many hardships the Confederate rank and file were forced to endure under a brutal mixture of seasonal weather and collapsing logistical support.

Large compilations of firsthand soldier accounts can vividly communicate to today's readers the horror, chaos, and confusion of historical combat on an individual level, but, depending on the skill and intentions of the author, they often fail to convey to those same readers a comprehensible sense of the overall course of a given battle or any kind of sophisticated understanding of the influence of higher command decisions on how and where that fighting unfolded. Thrasher avoids that common pitfall found in military-themed social history by providing solid, well-researched historical background and bridging narratives that together impart strategic, operational, and tactical context in ways that enhance the clarity and meaning of the volume's large collection of quoted primary source documents. In doing so, Thrasher manages to fully achieve his primary goal, that of presenting a "social history" of the Army of Tennessee's 1864 campaign spanning the fighting around Atlanta through the retreat from Nashville, and he does it in a manner that also keeps the reader from losing sight of the larger picture. There's no shortage of books and articles that address in great detail the many controversies traditionally associated with the battles of Decatur, Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville. It is not Thrasher's purpose to wade anew into the modern debates related to those decisions and events, nor does he routinely attempt to definitively take sides in them, but he does provide sufficient background discussion of competing interpretations when it is appropriate and necessary to serve the narrative.

As suggested by the title, the theme of "suffering" runs through the entire text. Confederate soldiers and their white and black Union foes all suffered battlefield horrors, but Army of the Tennessee veterans consistently wrote about the exceptional physical and psychological suffering they experienced during this winter campaign. Army of Tennessee morale, with all its peaks and valleys, is a common source of debate among writers, and Thrasher finds in the words of Army of Tennessee soldiers clear evidence that, for all the concern regarding their reluctance to assault breastworks, offensive action boosted morale even in a clearly declining Army of Tennessee while retreating and static trench warfare, for a variety of reasons, caused it to plummet. Suffering was not limited to soldiers in the field, either. Also noted in the book are the civilians in the path of Hood's army who, regardless of allegiance, suffered greatly at the hands of ravenous soldiers through their having to assume supply burdens imposed upon them by the Confederate military's logistical deficiencies.

In response to the question of why these men were willing to suffer to this extent in service to a sharply declining cause, the simplest and most convincing answer conveyed in their writings was the apparently sincere conviction among the majority that the campaign could achieve important results and the war might still be won. On the other hand, thousands of others less convinced of that voted with their feet, and Thrasher's narrative points readers toward those periods between Atlanta and Nashville when tides of desertion shifted in significant numbers.

Found in the appendix, Thrasher's analysis of the army's September 1864 inspection report finds a high degree of consistency between the army's objectively measured supply shortcomings and the words of the men as written in their letters, journals, and memoirs. Though some objectors arguably overstate their case, the myth of the poorly-armed Confederate has nevertheless been effectively challenged on several fronts, and the inspection report examined by Thrasher confirms that Hood's army was well-armed, at least decently accoutered, and supplied with good quality ammunition when it launched its final campaign as a potent force. On the other hand, those reports, by confirming severe shortages in footwear, clothing, camp equipment, and personal items such as blankets (all of which were needed for any mobile campaign, let alone a winter operation), amplify soldier claims of exceptional suffering that accompanied army service during this particular late-war interval. The classic picture of the 1864 version of the Army of Tennessee as well armed and disciplined yet dirty, ragged, hungry, and ill-equipped is most likely a very accurate one. Some might hope to draw comparisons between Thrasher's book and Joseph Glatthaar's social history of Lee's army, but they really are very different types of studies. There is revealing quantitative data in the appendix that supports the main narrative, but the 'moment in time' quality of this study overseeing the fall-winter 1864 disintegration of the Confederacy's principal western army renders any comparisons to Glatthaar's much more expansive and comprehensive two-volume social history of the Army of Northern Virginia only superficial in nature.

In presenting the voices of a great multitude of individuals rather than a single correspondence collection, journal, or memoir, this volume is an atypical yet still very appropriate addition to University of Tennessee Press's long-running Voices of the Civil War series. An insightful study to be gainfully consulted alongside broader army social history works such as Larry Daniel's Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army, Suffering in the Army of Tennessee is equally useful as a companion volume to the expanding book-length literature of the Atlanta and Tennessee Campaigns of 1864. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Booknotes: Spectacle of Grief

New Arrival:
Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War by Sarah J. Purcell (UNC Press, 2022).

Drew Gilpin Faust's broad study of the Civil War's landscape of death in This Republic of Suffering augured a number of new studies examining the personal and cultural impact of the conflict's death and destruction, among them modern analyses of Civil War suicide, mental illness (including what we would diagnose today as PTSD), amputation, addiction, and more. Historian Sarah Purcell contributes to this growing body of literature with Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War Era. In it, Purcell "examines how the public funerals of major figures from the Civil War era shaped public memories of the war and allowed a diverse set of people to contribute to changing American national identities."

Expansive public funeral events helped the populations of both sections deal with the scale of death wrought by the conflict as well as the loss of important generals and other popular military and civilian figures. From the description: "These funerals featured lengthy processions that sometimes crossed multiple state lines, burial ceremonies open to the public, and other cultural productions of commemoration such as oration and song. As Sarah J. Purcell reveals, Americans' participation in these funeral rites led to contemplation and contestation over the political and social meanings of the war and the roles played by the honored dead. Public mourning for military heroes, reformers, and politicians distilled political and social anxieties as the country coped with the aftermath of mass death and casualties."

To illustrate those themes (which included elements of national reconciliation, memory-building, and unresolved grievances), the book revolves around public funerals conducted before (Henry Clay), during (Elmer Ellsworth and Stonewall Jackson), and after (Robert E. Lee, philanthropist George Peabody, Charles Sumner, Joe Johnston, Frederick Douglass, and Winnie Davis) the Civil War. More from the description: Purcell "shows how large-scale funerals for figures such as Henry Clay and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson set patterns for mourning culture and Civil War commemoration; after 1865, public funerals for figures such as Robert E. Lee, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, and Winnie Davis elaborated on these patterns and fostered public debate about the meanings of the war, Reconstruction, race, and gender."

Friday, April 1, 2022

Booknotes: Bonds of War

New Arrival:
Bonds of War: How Civil War Financial Agents Sold the World on the Union by David K. Thomson (UNC Press, 2022).

While the Confederate experiment clearly failed primarily due to the destruction of its armies on the battlefield, there were numerous contributing factors, a significant one of which was sustained blundering and miscalculation in the area of war finance. On the other side of the equation, the US government handled its own challenging financial strategies with considerable success. I might direct you to Eric Johnson's chapter in Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed (2021) for a succinct yet highly insightful comparison between Union and Confederate financial policies, one element of which was the US's superior funding instrument balance among paper money issuance, bonds, and taxes.

Going into great detail regarding domestic and foreign bond sales during the Civil War is David Thomson's newly released book Bonds of War: How Civil War Financial Agents Sold the World on the Union. From the description: "How does one package and sell confidence in the stability of a nation riven by civil strife? This was the question that loomed before the Philadelphia financial house of Jay Cooke & Company, entrusted by the US government with an unprecedented sale of bonds to finance the Union war effort in the early days of the American Civil War."

Of course, implicit in successful bond sales is the ability to convince buyers of the long-term financial strength (and hopefully economic growth) of the issuer. As the Civil War dragged on, it clearly became the case that Confederate bond sales would be deemed a poor risk by potential buyers while US bonds would be far more secure investments. More from the description: "How the government and its agents marketed these bonds revealed a version of the war the public was willing to buy and buy into, based not just in the full faith and credit of the United States but also in the success of its armies and its long-term vision for open markets. From Maine to California, and in foreign halls of power and economic influence, thousands of agents were deployed to sell a clear message: Union victory was unleashing the American economy itself."

In showing "how the marketing and sale of bonds crossed the Atlantic to Europe and beyond, helping ensure foreign countries' vested interest in the Union's success," the double meaning of the book's title becomes clear. Bonds of War "demonstrates how Europe, and ultimately all corners of the globe, grew deeply interdependent on American finance during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the American Civil War." Financial aspects of the war have gotten some renewed interest of late (just last month a new Chase bio and a study of Union war financing were released), and this volume looks to be an important contribution to that part of American Civil War (and even world finance) history.