Thursday, October 6, 2022

Booknotes: Soldiers From Experience

New Arrival:
Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863 by Eric Michael Burke (LSU Press, 2022).

The regiment will always be king of the unit history category of Civil War publishing, but coverage of army corps histories above and beyond their involvement in single campaigns or battles is certainly on the upswing of late (though it is somewhat curious that the run has been so far exclusively Union). Darin Wipperman has authored a First Corps study, and he also has a Ninth Corps book on the way. Additionally, Savas Beatie has published James Pula's two-volume study of the Eleventh Corps along with the first of Chris Bryan's planned two-volume examination of Twelfth Corps.

In addition to getting away from the Army of the Potomac, Eric Michael Burke's Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863 also adopts a unique interpretive slant. From the description: Burke's study "examines the tactical behavior and operational performance of Major General William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth US Army Corps during its first year fighting in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. Burke analyzes how specific experiences and patterns of meaning-making within the ranks led to the emergence of what he characterizes as a distinctive corps-level tactical culture. The concept―introduced here for the first time―consists of a collection of shared, historically derived ideas, beliefs, norms, and assumptions that play a decisive role in shaping a military command’s particular collective approach on and off the battlefield." All of this "introduces a new theoretical construct of small unit–level tactical principles wholly absent from the rapidly growing interdisciplinary scholarship on the intricacies and influence of culture on military operations."

The following passage from the description offers a glimpse into the many factors the author believes were involved in creating a distinguishing corps-level culture: "Burke shows that while military historians of the Civil War frequently assert that generals somehow imparted their character upon the troops they led, Sherman’s corps reveals the opposite to be true. Contrary to long-held historiographical assumptions, he suggests the physical terrain itself played a much more influential role than rifled weapons in necessitating tactical changes. At the same time, Burke argues, soldiers’ battlefield traumas and regular interactions with southern civilians, the enslaved, and freedpeople during raids inspired them to embrace emancipation and the widespread destruction of Rebel property and resources. An awareness and understanding of this culture increasingly informed Sherman’s command during all three of his most notable late-war campaigns."

As referenced earlier, Burke's unit history, in being "the first book-length examination of an army corps operating in the Western Theater during the conflict," also has a regional flavor distinct from other Union corps studies. The book also "sheds new light on Civil War history more broadly by uncovering a direct link between the exigencies of nineteenth-century land warfare and the transformation of US wartime strategy from “conciliation,” which aimed to protect the property of Southern civilians, to “hard war.”"

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