Thursday, July 28, 2022

Booknotes: The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War

New Arrival:
The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War: The Struggle for Control of the Nation's Longest Railway by Dan Lee (McFarland, 2022).

In the Civil War literature, the Memphis & Charleston Railroad is often styled the backbone of the Confederacy's internal transportation network, and the Mobile & Ohio RR, which stretched between Mobile, Alabama and Columbus, Kentucky in 1861 (it would not reach the Ohio River until the 1880s), comprised vital limbs attached to the vertebra of the M&C at Corinth, Mississippi. For those with raised eyebrows over the subtitle of Dan Lee's The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War: The Struggle for Control of the Nation's Longest Railway, he gives the nod to the M&O for its single ownership over its entire length (in comparison to say the M&C, which, according to Lee, was comprised of five independently owned railroad companies at the time of the Civil War).

From the description: "The Mobile & Ohio Railroad was the longest line in the nation when it was completed in spring of 1861--the final spike driven a few weeks after Confederate artillery shelled Fort Sumter. Within days, the M&O was swept up in the Civil War as a prime conveyor of troops and supplies, a strategic and tactical asset to both Confederate and Union armies, who fought to control it."

In recognition of its critical importance, attacking or defending the Mobile & Ohio RR became the objective of armies and cavalry raiders at many points during the war. More from the description: The M&O's "northern terminus at Columbus, Kentucky saw some of the earliest fighting in the war. The southern terminus in Mobile, Alabama was the scene of some of the last. U. S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Newton Knight of the "Free State of Jones" and others battled over the M&O, the Federals taking it mile-by-mile."

Lee's The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War "chronicles the campaigns and battles for the railroad and the calamity endured by the civilians who lived along it."

Monday, July 25, 2022

Booknotes: North Carolina's Confederate Hospitals, Volume I

New Arrival:
North Carolina's Confederate Hospitals 1861-1863, Volume I by Wade Sokolosky (Fox Run Pub, 2022).

Civil War health care and the attitudes and skills of its practitioners have been unfairly impugned for far too long, especially in the popular imagination. Only in recent decades has the medical scholarship achieved great strides in restoring due regard for the professionalism (flawed as it was in many areas) of Civil War surgeons and the wartime management of military hospital systems. One benefit of this growing literature is a better understanding of Confederate hospitals and the unique challenges and pressures they faced. For example, unlike their counterparts in the US, invasion often forced Confederate hospitals to be mobile. Additionally, the Union blockade limited importation of vital medicines and surgical instruments. Having to create a military medical bureaucracy from scratch could be both blessing and curse, and the resource-strapped Confederacy also struggled with logistical, financing, and staffing support of its hospitals. The latest contribution to the growing study of Confederate hospital systems is Wade Sokolosky's North Carolina's Confederate Hospitals 1861-1863, Volume I.

From the description: "This book is an organizational examination of North Carolina's Confederate hospitals and why they existed. The first two chapters provide the reader with a general understanding of the Confederate Medical Department and the military and civilians that were essential in the day-to-day operations of a hospital. The remaining chapters are arranged chronologically and discuss the key military operations and events that occurred in the state or in Virginia that drove hospital requirements." Sokolosky's study also "addresses the human story: the men and women, black and white, who staffed the hospitals."

In the preface, the author notes that his study does not include naval hospitals, the inadequate state of current research being the reason behind that omission. An estimated publication date for Volume II is not provided, but it is revealed that it will "cover the war's final two years, 1865-1865, which includes the major expansion of government-operated hospitals in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and two titanic events: the fall of Wilmington and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's 1865 Carolinas Campaign, both of which stressed the state's hospital system to the brink of failure" (pg. ii).

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Coming Soon (August '22 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for AUG 2022:

The Men of the 16th Massachusetts: A Civil War Roster and History by Aldon C. Ellis, Jr.
Brady's Civil War Journal: Photographing the War 1861–65 by Theodore P. Savas.
Healing a Divided Nation: How the American Civil War Revolutionized Western Medicine by Carole Adrienne.
The Nashville and Decatur in the Civil War: History of an Embattled Railroad by Walter R. Green, Jr.
When Hell Came to Sharpsburg: The Battle of Antietam and its Impact on the Civilians Who Called it Home by Steven Cowie.
Thirteen Months in Dixie, or, the Adventures of a Federal Prisoner in Texas: Including the Red River Campaign, Imprisonment at Camp Ford, and Escape Overland to Liberated Shreveport, 1864-1865 by W.F. Oscar Federhen, edited by Jeaninne Surette Honstein & Steven A. Knowlton.
All Roads Led to Gettysburg: A New Look at the Civil War's Pivotal Battle by Troy Harman.
Gettysburg's Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond by Hampton Newsome.

Comments: Online retailers now list Newsome's book as having an end of September release date. However, the publisher's website still has it coming out in August, so I went with that.

1 - These monthly release lists are not meant to be exhaustive compilations of non-fiction releases. They do not include non-revised/expanded reprints of previously published books, special editions not distributed to reviewers, and digital-only titles. Works that only tangentially address the war years are also generally excluded. Inevitably, one or more titles on this list will get a rescheduled release (and they do not get repeated later), so revisiting the past few "Coming Soon" posts is the best way to pick up stragglers.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Review - "Iowa and the Civil War, Volume 3: The Longest Year, 1864-1865" by Kenneth Lyftogt

[Iowa and the Civil War, Volume 3: The Longest Year, 1864-1865 by Kenneth L. Lyftogt (Camp Pope Publishing, 2022). Cloth, 22 maps, photos, illustrations, chapter notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,513/556. ISBN:978-1-929919-94-9. $40]

Though often thought to be a sparsely populated rural state with only a limited, though earnest, capacity for contributing to the combined Union war effort, Iowa ranked as the 20th most populous state by the 1860 census (just ahead of New Jersey) and put nearly 80,000 men in blue uniform. Geographically confined almost entirely to field service in the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, Iowa's military might contributed heavily to Union victory on countless battlefields. That role was further enhanced by the state's political rank among the stoutest of Republican strongholds. Both of those aspects of Iowa's Civil War and more are explored in the final installment of Iowa historian Kenneth Lyftogt's now completed magnum opus. His Iowa and the Civil War, Volume 3: The Longest Year, 1864-1865 caps off a trilogy that started in 2018 with the publication of Iowa and the Civil War, Volume 1: Free Child of the Missouri Compromise 1850-1862. That well-received book, which was selected as the winner of the A.M. Pate Award, was followed two years later by Iowa and the Civil War, Volume 2: From Iuka to the Red River, 1862-1864.

Though Iowa and the Civil War, Volume 3 addresses the trilogy's shortest time interval (the war's final twelve months), at over 500 pages of narrative it is the thickest tome of the three. It is also arguably the series volume with the heaviest level of emphasis on Iowa's battlefield impact. Two celebrated Iowa infantry brigades fought with the Union's western armies, and a host of scattered regiments (infantry and cavalry) and artillery batteries fought with similar distinction on both sides of the Mississippi River. Their contributions to numerous major late-war campaigns are thoroughly documented in this volume. Iowa leaders and soldiers distinguished themselves in the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign, Price's Missouri raid of 1864, the 1864 Tennessee Campaign, and the 1865 Carolinas Campaign. They were present as well during the final stages of the war in the Gulf states (ex. at Mobile) and in the Trans-Mississippi. As Lyftogt demonstrates, the mounted forces of the western theater maintained a strong Iowa flavor throughout the war, and during the period covered in this book they were highly visible in opposing Nathan Bedford Forrest in North Mississippi, and they comprised similarly prominent elements of James Wilson's strike force during that general's celebrated 1865 raid into the Deep South that gutted the infrastructure of that region.

Ably synthesizing selections from published book and periodical sources, newspapers, and government documents, Lyftogt highlights the role of Iowa leaders and units in the campaigns referenced above. He achieves this by way of a comprehensive war narrative consistently reinforced through quoted passages drawn from firsthand writings of Iowa officers and men of all ranks. The set of maps provided by cartographer Hal Jesperson also frequently point out where on the battlefield Iowa units made their deepest impact.

One can quibble here and there with some of the background details behind the linked campaign summaries that underpin Lyftogt's larger narrative, but the book's collection of campaign, battle, and raid accounts always powerfully conveys the scale and breadth of Iowa's presence on the western battlefields (this is a strength of all three volumes). That presence was widely distributed among all ranks and branches of the service. For example, all three of Iowa's major generals, Grenville Dodge, Francis Herron, and Samuel Curtis, ranked among the West's most accomplished and respected generals. Grant-favorite Dodge in particular is followed very closely in this volume. A host of lesser-ranking Iowa generals and colonels also made a name for themselves in the infantry and cavalry service, among the latter Edward Winslow and Edward Hatch.

As mentioned before, Volume 3 is military-centric; however, due attention is paid to Iowa people, politics, and their roles and reactions to events off the battlefield. For example, the volume relates how the critical Fall 1864 election cycle reaffirmed the state's status as a Republican bastion and supporter of the more radical Union war aims. Nevertheless, party supremacy (all of Iowa's U.S. senators and representatives were Republicans) did not preclude factional strife, and Lyfogt also reveals how internal party differences that emerged during late-war appointments and elections had lasting consequences in Iowa state politics. The book also does a fine job of tying off civilian story threads started in previous volumes (ex. those of Annie Wittenmyer, Peter Melendy, Caroline Kasson, and others).

Kenneth Lyfogt's Iowa and the Civil War trilogy offers a lasting contribution that shines a rare spotlight on a state and citizenry all too often accorded few moments as the center of attention in the larger Civil War military, political, and social history narratives. Recommended.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Booknotes: The Whartons' War

New Arrival:
The Whartons' War: The Civil War Correspondence of General Gabriel C. Wharton and Anne Radford Wharton, 1863-1865 edited by William C. Davis & Sue Heth Bell (UNC Press, 2022).

It's a rare bonus to have both sets of a Civil War correspondence between soldier and home front survive intact. All too often, readers have to infer content of return letters through hints and context found in the one surviving set. There's certainly no need to have to go through that with the material found in the edited collection The Whartons' War: The Civil War Correspondence of General Gabriel C. Wharton and Anne Radford Wharton, 1863-1865. "Between March 1863 and July 1865, Confederate newlyweds Brigadier General Gabriel C. Wharton and Anne Radford Wharton wrote 524 letters, and all survived, unknown until now."

VMI graduate and civilian engineer Gabriel Colvin Wharton was appointed colonel of the 51st Virginia in 1861, having the career misfortune of serving with General John Floyd in western Virginia and later at Fort Donelson in Tennessee. He was still a colonel when engaged mid-war to Anne "Nannie" Radford. They would marry in 1863, and that same year Wharton would be promoted to brigadier general. In spring 1864, Wharton was finally able to leave his backwater SW Virginia stomping grounds and join the Army of Northern Virginia as brigade and later division commander with the Second Corps. His exchange of letters with Nannie begin in March 1863 and end in June 1865 when Wharton was paroled at Lynchburg and returned home.

The great volume of letters (nearly 350 pages worth) explore a host of topics and themes for readers and scholars to examine. From the description: "Separated by twenty years in age and differing opinions on myriad subjects, these educated and articulate Confederates wrote frankly and perceptively on their Civil War world. Sharing opinions on generals and politicians, the course of the war, the fate of the Confederacy, life at home, and their wavering loyalties, the Whartons explored the shifting gender roles brought on by war, changing relations between slave owners and enslaved people, the challenges of life behind Confederate lines, the pain of familial loss, the definitions of duty and honor, and more."

The scholarly editing work of Davis and Bell "guides readers into this world of experience and its ongoing historical relevance" through a general introduction, lengthy contextual chapter introductions and bridging text, an epilogue, and endnotes.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Review - "The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle" by Jeffry Wert

[The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle by Jeffry D. Wert (University of North Carolina Press, 2022). Hardcover, 11 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN:978-1-4696-6842-0. Pages main/total:xiv,200/303. $37.50 ]

On May 12, 1864 near Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia, dense columns of Union infantry from the Army of the Potomac stepped out of the early morning gloom and quickly swamped the defenders of the deep, wide salient that formed the Confederate center. Through this action, which captured most of General Edward Johnson's division and blew a gaping hole in the Confederate battle line, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was threatened with its worst defeat of the war up to that point. However, aided by the confusion and disorganization commonly attendant to even the most successful large-scale attacks, the defenders responded to the breakthrough with alacrity, and reinforcements steadily pushed the intermingled Union assault divisions back. The frightful casualties suffered by both sides during this near restoration of the original line along with the close-contact nature of the fighting itself (especially along the salient's western face that included the infamous "Bloody Angle") led many seasoned veterans of both sides to claim thereafter that the horrors of the fighting on that day were unmatched. Jeffry Wert's aptly titled The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle is the newest account of this terrible battle that followed closely on the heels of the Wilderness fighting of May 5-7.

Most readers of this study will be already familiar with its most formidable book-length predecessors, William Matter's If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania (1988) and Gordon Rhea's The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7–12, 1864 (1997). Both are authoritative narrative histories that contain excellent accounts of the May 12 fighting. Wert's study undoubtedly benefits from a fresh batch of primary sources uncovered during the quarter century that has passed since Rhea's Spotsylvania volume was published, but readers should not go into The Heart of Hell expecting an updated microhistory of every facet of the battle with levels of tactical detail that greatly surpass those found earlier. Instead, what makes Wert's contribution most remarkable (and sets it apart from those earlier works) is the vivid and intensely emotive manner in which it presents the rank and file experience of the no holds barred fighting within the Spotsylvania salient, the pointblank nature of which was unique in scale and duration. Weaving together a strong, blow-by-blow narrative of the fighting with powerfully expressive quotes from innumerable firsthand accounts drawn from exhaustive research in published and unpublished primary sources (most notably in manuscript and newspaper archives), Wert's new history of the bitter struggle within Spotsylvania's bloody salient unfolds primarily from the soldier's perspective and is presented in an evocative writing style that few Civil War military history authors can match. Assisting readers in following the action is a reasonably detailed set of maps scaled at brigade level and above (the narrative not being one that focuses on the movements and positions of every regiment).

Prior to the attack, erroneous military intelligence had led Lee, in anticipation of a general movement of his army, to order the withdrawal of all artillery from the salient. Once that grave error was discovered, the guns were ordered back, but the returning batteries were not in position by the time the blue avalanche struck. This infamous miscalculation on Lee's part and the vulnerable nature of the salient itself are most commonly cited as the primary reasons behind the initial success of the Union attacks, but that can't be the entire story as Confederate trenches were successfully defended on other occasions against steeper odds. Wert's insightful narrative satisfactorily addresses that potential issue by offering readers a persuasive collective argument that the exceptional success of the initial Union assault was the result of an accumulation of factors.

In addition to the lack of artillery support and the salient's bulky projection limiting the capacity of adjacent units to develop overlapping fields of fire against attackers, a heavy morning mist and the large expanse of dead ground immediately north of the salient allowed Union forces to marshal their massive attack columns safe from both harassing enemy fire and prying eyes. Good fortune apparently factored in as well. Confederate positions were not extensively reconnoitered prior to the attack, which is often a recipe for disaster. However, as General Barlow later admitted, his column, which provided the battle's most telling initial blow, managed by sheer luck to discover a perfect line of approach. It has been argued that the other side did themselves no favors, too. The conduct of the unit that found itself Barlow's target on the salient's northeast face, Witcher's Virginia brigade, was accused by some of behaving badly. Wert defends the brigade for being overstretched due to half its regiments being detached for picket duty, but pickets are supposed to prevent overwhelming surprise attacks of the kind that victimized the Virginians and the rest of Johnson's Division. There also appears not to have been enough opportunity for the Confederates to erect obstructions outside the main works.

With Confederate corps commanders James Longstreet wounded, A.P. Hill chronically sick, and Richard Ewell allegedly losing his composure under pressure, it is Lee's direct intervention along with the prompt initiative displayed by his army's division, brigade, and field grade officers that are credited by Wert with sealing off the breakthrough and turning the tide. The high morale, experience, and fighting cohesion in the veteran regiments of the Army of Northern Virginia were instrumental factors behind the counterattack that both rolled back the Union offensive and maintained until nightfall an unwavering front at or near the original line of breastworks and their critically placed earthwork traverses. Impressive as that tactical performance was in staving off disaster, such successes were Pyrrhic in the long term, and the author joins other writers in linking leadership losses produced by such sustained close-range encounters to the crisis of field grade officer attrition in the Army of Northern Virginia that accelerated from the mid-war period onward.

Wert's coverage of the fighting on either flank of the salient, though more summary in nature than his primary account of combat within the salient, further exposes commonly understood shortcomings within the Army of the Potomac's high command. Among corps commanders, only Winfield Scott Hancock receives praise from Wert, and even that is qualified by the general's limitations stemming from his still unhealed Gettysburg wound. Horatio Wright was new to corps command in the army after General John Sedgwick was killed in action, and both Gouverneur Warren and Ambrose Burnside did not perform to General in Chief U.S. Grant and Army of the Potomac commander George Meade's expectations. Both Burnside and Warren were accused by their superiors of being too slow to respond to attack orders and of launching badly prepared piecemeal attacks that were repulsed with heavy loss. Wert also believes that ingrained factors were at play. Agreeing with other assessments regarding the inherent inefficiency of the Grant-Meade dual command system, Wert believes the central reason behind the hesitant performances of some members of the Union high command on May 12 was the lingering influence of General McClellan on the army he was most responsible for creating. That longstanding and still quite popular line of interpretation, which has a lot of historiographical baggage attached to it, will perhaps be too tidy and outdated for some readers.

What does seem inescapably true from a reading of the vast number of personal accounts collected by Wert's research is the exceptional nature of the close combat experience of Spotsylvania. As expressed through their own words, the scale, intensity, and prolongation of up-close bloodletting that occurred in the trenches and traverses of the Spotsylvania salient's western face were seared into the minds of veterans who fought there as being unequaled in their war service. Labeling the contest for the Bloody Angle as "the heart of hell" is no exaggeration. In attempting to come up with a comparable example, only the struggle over the Franklin breastworks comes to mind, but even that cannot match the duration of what occurred at Spotsylvania.

Focusing on the center sector of the battlefield, Jeffry Wert's The Heart of Hell is not a work intended to entirely supplant the major Spotsylvania battle studies that have preceded it. Though its impressive overall battle narrative certainly does deserve top shelf position alongside Matter and Rhea, Wert's study really shines brightest and most uniquely in how deeply it reveals the unforgettable horrors of Spotsylvania that were like no other in the Civil War fighting man's experience.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Jomini vs. Clausewitz in Civil War writing

Though both Baron Jomini (the author of The Art of War) and Carl von Clausewitz (the author of the even more enduringly influential On War) had the Napoleonic Wars as their primary experiential and analytical points of reference, the two theorists are generally presented in the Civil War literature as having opposing views on the operational and strategic direction of armies. On countless occasions, Civil War readers will be told that Jomini favored operations aimed at fixed points of strategic significance while Clausewitz counseled generals toward focusing their efforts primarily on annihilating opposing armies. Presumably, most of these modern writers would concede that that contrast is an oversimplification of more complex theoretical constructs, but you still see it as almost universal shorthand in Civil War publishing.

Yesterday, I wrote about Timothy Smith's Early Struggles for Vicksburg. Right off the bat, Smith describes the period covered in the volume (the overland expedition down the North Mississippi railroads and amphibious assault just north of Vicksburg at Chickasaw Bayou, both abject failures) as a Jominian-style approach of the kind that his boss, US Army General in Chief Henry Halleck, favored. He contrasts that with his view that the indirect approach subsequently employed by Union forces in the campaign (specifically during the long period beginning with the movement down the right bank of the Mississippi and ending with the triumphant Vicksburg siege and surrender) represented an example of Grant's adaptive genius transitioning toward a more Clausewitzian (and less by-the-book) manner of war that, in this case, proved a stupendous success. Smith's assertions prompted me to briefly revisit my own reading of Jomini. I also have a copy of what is considered the best English-language version of Clausewitz's On War (the one edited and translated by Howard & Paret), but it's been sitting on my shelf unread for years.

Back in 2015, curious about how accurately or not Jomini's views have been condensed in the Civil War literature, I read an unabridged 2007 reprint of the 1862 J.B. Lippincott edition of Jomini's The Art of War (see my comments posted here). In it Jomini constantly reminds readers that war is more art than science, and the "rules" of war presented in the book need to be flexibly applied on a case by case basis. Quoting myself in the paragraph third from the bottom: "On the Civil War debate over whether fixed strategic points or enemy armies should be the true target of operations, Jomini believes the proper course to lie in between, with circumstances particular to a given situation affecting the balance."

So where does this wide impression among modern Civil War writers that Jomini was more inflexible on the matter of strategic points than he was in his own words ultimately come from? Is it from the Jomini-influenced writings of nineteenth-century West Point faculty and students [ex. Halleck (in Elements of Military Art and Science), Thayer, or Mahan]? I don't know. Any thoughts?

Monday, July 11, 2022

Booknotes: Early Struggles for Vicksburg

New Arrival:
Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862 by Timothy B. Smith (UP of Kansas, 2022).

First published in the 1980s, the classic Ed Bearss trilogy The Vicksburg Campaign contains many chapters researched and written over prior decades. During my first reading of that great series of books, it was Bearss's coverage of the earliest phases of the campaign that left me most excited at the possibility of future expansion from other authors. It's been a long time coming. The recent resurgence in Vicksburg publishing has still left the campaign's late-1862 interval among its least well covered aspects. General Grant's overland movement down the Mississippi Central Railroad was addressed in general overview fashion a short time ago, and an interesting 2015 self-published book (this one) offers an in-depth look at one of its alleged inflection points. Though rumors of ongoing projects come and go, major Chickasaw Bayou operational histories have been (until now) confined to academic monographs. All that makes Timothy Smith's Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862 a most welcome addition to our bookshelves.

In Early Struggles for Vicksburg (the third of what will become a five volume series through University Press of Kansas to go along with standalone Champion Hill and Grierson's Raid studies published by Savas Beatie), Smith "covers the first phase of the Vicksburg campaign (October 1862-July 1863), involving perhaps the most wide-ranging and complex series of efforts seen in the entire campaign. The operations that took place from late October to the end of December 1862 covered six states, consisted of four intertwined minicampaigns, and saw the involvement of everything from cavalry raids to naval operations in addition to pitched land battles in Ulysses S. Grant’s first attempts to reach Vicksburg."

Exceeding the disappointment levels of the series of failed Grant "experiments" that followed them, the overland and amphibious operations of late-1862 were "disjointed, unorganized, and spread out across a wide spectrum." Abject defeat in both comprised the lowest moments of Grant's eventually triumphant 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign. However, those early Confederate successes and belief that General Pemberton might prove after all to be the right man for the job of defending Vicksburg both proved illusory, as Grant "learned from his mistakes and revised his methods in later operations, leading eventually to the fall of Vicksburg. It was war done the way academics would want it done, but Grant figured out quickly that the books did not always have the answers, and he adapted his approach thereafter."

More from the description: Early Struggles for Vicksburg is "the first comprehensive academic book ever to examine the Mississippi Central/Chickasaw Bayou campaign." In it, Smith "weaves the Mississippi Central, Chickasaw Bayou, Van Dorn Raid, and Forrest Raid operations into a chronological narrative while illustrating the combination of various branches and services such as army movements, naval operations, and cavalry raids." Expansive in scope, the book "covers everything from the top politicians and generals down to the individual soldiers, as well as civilians and slaves making their way to freedom, while providing analysis of contemporary military theory to explain why the operations took the form they did."

Friday, July 8, 2022

Review - "The Chicago Board of Trade Battery in the Civil War" by Dennis Belcher

[The Chicago Board of Trade Battery in the Civil War by Dennis W. Belcher (McFarland, 2022). Softcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:ix,293/389. ISBN:978-1-4766-8391-1. $49.95]

In response to the Lincoln administration's urgent July 1862 call for more volunteers to bolster the Union war effort, the directors of the Chicago Board of Trade sponsored the formation of a new artillery battery. Its ranks were immediately filled with young men employed as clerks by the many Chicago businesses the board was created to promote. The Chicago Board of Trade Independent Light Artillery would go on to earn an enviable reputation across a host of western battlefields. Exhaustive in its detail, Dennis Belcher's The Chicago Board of Trade Battery in the Civil War is the first full-length history of this celebrated artillery company.

In Civil War unit history publishing, battery studies are orders of magnitude less common than infantry and cavalry regimental studies. Based simply on its relative size, an artillery company's potential pool of letter, journal, and memoir source material will always be far smaller than that of any infantry or cavalry regiment. Fortunately for Belcher, more than a dozen Board of Trade battery veterans left behind writings for him to use, four of them quite extensive. Very prominent in aiding the author's day by day tracing of the battery's war service were the Nourse brothers letters, diary, and journal. Their writings were critical to the authoring of an invaluable 1902 sketch history of the unit. The eighty surviving letters of John Fleming proved equally useful. Readers will encounter these names early and often in Belcher's text. While those source materials made Belcher's job much easier, other circumstances conspired to complicate his task. For example, official unit records of the kinds typically housed in the National Archives are very incomplete for this battery, and the Great Chicago Fire destroyed many other sources. The author's successful navigation of those challenges is one of this volume's finest achievements.

By Belcher's own count, the Chicago Board of Trade Battery fought in eleven major battles, twenty-six minor battles, and forty-two skirmishes, and it seems like every one is described at some length in this unit history tome! These events include action from the Stones River, Chickamauga, Atlanta, and Nashville campaigns along with numerous cavalry raids of various scales and consequences. The battery's extensive service across the western theater was capped off in early 1865 with a prominent role in Wilson's Raid.

As a support arm rather than maneuver element, the battlefield impact of a single battery during any major engagement can be difficult to assess. However, the narrative method employed by Belcher goes a long way toward exposing standout elements of the Board of Trade Battery's service.  By providing extensive context in the form of highly detailed battlefield accounts of the activities of higher order units (ex. regiments, brigades, and divisions) the battery fought both with and against, Belcher offers readers a clear and full picture of what was going on around the Board of Trade Battery when it was engaged and, even more important, a very strong sense of where the battery's interventions might have played an significant role in the outcomes of those actions.

The Stones River National Battlefield markers and tour prominently promote the Board of Trade battery's role in bolstering the Union center during the darkest moments of that battle's first day of fighting, and more casual students can be forgiven for thinking that the battery primarily served infantry during the war. However, just months later the battery was converted to horse artillery and served in that cavalry support capacity for the duration of the conflict. As the field's most prominent current historian of the Union cavalry attached to the Army of the Cumberland, Belcher is uniquely positioned to document the Chicago Board of Trade Battery's inextricable links to the western mounted arm's evolution and fighting performance across a vast host of battles, raids, and skirmishes.

Belcher is an author who consistently recognizes that original maps form an essential part of any effective military study, and the follow through on that belief is equally consistent. The full-page operational and tactical-scale cartography commissioned for this battery history excels equally in providing big picture information and in pinpointing the position of the battery itself in the midst of the action on numerous battlefields. More supplementary data and information are placed in the appendix section, where readers can find a detailed battery roster and unit casualty table.

Effectively exploiting existing sources specifically associated with the Chicago Board of Trade Battery while also expertly leveraging outside resources to fill in gaps and address limitations, Dennis Belcher has crafted one of the more impressive Civil War battery histories of recent memory. While the volume might appeal most to artillery researchers and enthusiasts, its exhaustive coverage of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery's central partnership with the Union Army's mounted forces of the western theater should also render it essential reading to all serious Civil War cavalry students.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Booknotes: Yours Affectionately, Osgood

New Arrival:
Yours Affectionately, Osgood: Colonel Osgood Vose Tracy’s Letters Home from the Civil War, 1862–1865 edited by Sarah Tracy Burrows & Ryan W. Keating (Kent St UP, 2022).

Yours Affectionately, Osgood: Colonel Osgood Vose Tracy’s Letters Home from the Civil War, 1862–1865 is the third installment in KSUP's Interpreting the Civil War: Texts and Contexts series. This edited collection is a collaboration between Tracy descendant Sarah Tracy Burrows (who "has compiled this expansive collection from her family’s private papers") and historian Ryan Keating. "Tracy’s letters home follow his journey as a soldier and prisoner of war from his enlistment in August 1862 through the end of the war in May 1865, as Tracy then readjusted to civilian life."

Most of the letters are from Tracy to his widowed mother (the need to care for presumably the reason behind his delayed enlistment), with those letters supplemented by correspondence with other family members as well as Tracy's fiance. Tracy's regiment, the 122nd New York Volunteer Infantry, was mustered into service at the end of August 1862 and saw its first field service during the Maryland Campaign. This was followed by participation in the Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Rappahannock Station, Mine Run, Overland, 1864 Shenandoah, Richmond-Petersburg, and Appomattox campaigns and battles.

According to the editors, the only major correspondence blackouts occurred in two places: during Tracy's imprisonment (and escape) and his regiment's brief period of detached service guarding enemy POWs at Johnson's Island, Ohio. Those gaps as well as Tracy's postwar life are addressed through supplemental primary sources.

The volume's general introduction discusses Osgood Tracy's life before the war, offers a general description of the nature of the letter collection, and provides some background information about a select group of army comrades most frequently mentioned in Tracy's letters. Historian Ryan Keating lends additional context through the volume's extensive chapter introductions and footnotes.

From the description: Tracy's letters "provide a uniquely detailed perspective of everyday life in the Army of the Potomac, adding considerably to the existing literature on the experiences of citizen soldiers in America’s Civil War. A well-educated young man, Tracy offers his opinion on pressing social and political issues of the time, including his definite abolitionist sentiments; ruminates on the Union war effort and its campaigns; and demonstrates his deep commitment to family, as well as his sweetheart, Nellie Sedgwick, back home."

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Booknotes: Colonels in Blue - U.S. Colored Troops, U.S. Armed Forces, Staff Officers and Special Units

New Arrival:
Colonels in Blue—U.S. Colored Troops, U.S. Armed Forces, Staff Officers and Special Units: A Civil War Biographical Dictionary by Roger D. Hunt (McFarland, 2022).

The concluding volume of the Colonels in Blue reference book series, Roger Hunt's Colonels in Blue—U.S. Colored Troops, U.S. Armed Forces, Staff Officers and Special Units: A Civil War Biographical Dictionary "covers Civil War Union colonels who commanded regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops, the U.S. Regular Army, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Sharpshooters." Filling out the rest of the volume are,"(c)olonels who served as staff officers or with special units, such as the U.S. Veteran Volunteer Infantry, the U.S. Volunteer Infantry, the Veteran Reserve Corps and various organizations previously undocumented."

The eighth and last book in the series, the volume caps off Hunt's massive project that provides us with an authoritative collection of "photographs and biographical sketches of that diverse group of motivated citizens who attained the rank of colonel in the Union Army but failed to win promotion to brigadier general or brevet brigadier general."

As is the case with all series volumes, "(b)rief biographical sketches cover each officer's Civil War service, followed by pertinent details of their lives. Photographs are provided for most, many published for the first time. Rosters of the colonels in each category include those promoted to higher ranks whose lives are documented in other works."