Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Review - "Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863" by Eric Michael Burke

[Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863 by Eric Michael Burke (Louisiana State University Press, 2022). Hardcover, 8 maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,282/350. ISBN:978-0-8071-7809-6. $50]

A handful of new Union Army corps histories have cropped up of late. While these studies largely offer scaled-up versions of conventional approaches to Civil War unit history writing, Eric Michael Burke's Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863 is like no other that's come before it. By tracing the development, originating from both commanders above and junior officers and enlisted men below, of what he calls a corps-level "tactical culture," Burke reveals a Civil War army corps with a distinctive way of war. The definition of tactical culture, and all that is attached to it, is refined throughout the book. Essential components are the "capabilities, skills, predispositions, and assumptions that each regiment, brigade, and division" developed through training and "specific experiences across its distinct operational heritage." Those experiences were "transformed by officers and men into habitual practices, ways of thinking, and webs of meaning that informed their behavior on and off the battlefield" (pg. 50).

Burke argues that the initial training and fighting practices of Morgan L. Smith's Eighth Missouri "American Zouaves" regiment had a germinating impact on the adoption of Zouave tactics at the brigade level from Donelson through Shiloh. From there, a more open order tactical culture eventually spread outward and upward throughout William T. Sherman's Fifteenth Corps, which was formed from disparate elements (including Smith's now divisional command) in December 1862. A combination of factors were behind the origins of the tactical shift and the mechanics of the spread are largely inferred in the text, but the fact that Smith was a clear Sherman favorite might have further greased the adoptive wheel while at the same time reducing potential objections from those in the higher ranks. Given the strong degree through which relatively decentralized training and direct field experiences informed unit tactical culture, one might be justifiably skeptical of a thesis advancing the concept of a Zouave regiment originating a transformation of an entire army corps. At the same time, though, it's not difficult to concede that a society in arms, already primed by antebellum "Zouave Fever" and having a long tradition of irregular and loose order fighting, could be readily influenced by unconventional Zouave tactics. However one might rank the Zouave-specific influence, Burke's battle by battle analysis, as presented in the book, steadily constructs a strong argument that the ways in which the corps experienced battle over the roughly twelve-month period bookended by the battles of Chickasaw Bayou and Chattanooga led to entire formations within the corps rejecting conventional textbook tactics in favor of more ad-hoc and open order variations on their training. Thus, unhappy patterns and results from Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, and the Vicksburg assaults, where the advancing rank and file quickly went to ground in the face of forbidding terrain and enemy earthwork defenses before breaking into smaller, junior officer-led groups employing Zouave-style tactics behind favorable cover, collectively sparked tactical changes that became ingrained habit and a defining element of Fifteenth Corps tactical culture going forward through Chattanooga and beyond.

In both defeat (Chickasaw Bayou) and victory (Arkansas Post) the infantry regiments of Fifteenth Corps failed to successfully assault and breach enemy lines, and Burke sees in the experience of and internal reaction to those events an emerging tactical culture of aversion toward frontal assaults. While many historians frame the Confederate surrender of Arkansas Post as a morale-raising salve to the bloody repulse outside Vicksburg that preceded it, Burke instead emphasizes the very different takeaway message of deep disappointment in army leadership that was expressed at the time by the officers and men tasked with the main assault. Rank and file objections to Sherman's handling of the corps were briefly assuaged by the relatively easy capture of Jackson, Mississippi on May 14, 1863, but longstanding criticisms of their corps commander returned only a week later after the failed May 19 and 22 assaults on Vicksburg. According to Burke, there was no real impetus from any source toward improvement in direct assault capabilities during the main 1862-63 period examined in his book. The men in the ranks blamed their commanders and Sherman on down blamed lack of success on inexperience and lack of discipline among junior officers and private soldiers rather than on faulty leadership and coordination from above. It would take some time before lessons would be learned and Sherman accepted the corps tactical culture both shaped by and forced upon him.

As mentioned above, the two fruitless assaults on the ramparts of Vicksburg, which resulted in high casualties and no gains, revived junior officer and common soldier disapproval of Fifteenth Corps leadership. Though sympathetic to the difficulties of overcoming terrain obstructions and strong fortifications, Burke concurs with the common view that Sherman and those around him continued at Vicksburg to display little tactical creativity and worse coordination. The city would have to taken by siege, the process of which further developed and evolved Fifteenth Corps tactical culture. Modern Vicksburg Campaign historians have credited the swift advancement of Union siege lines, and accompanying inability of the defenders to retard their progress, in large part to enormous expenditures of artillery and small arms ammunition. Burke takes this a step further and marks the siege period as one of being a laboratory for perfecting the corps' infantry and artillery ranging and accuracy, a reinforcement of corps tactical culture emphasizing fire and maneuver over direct assault. After the successful conclusion of the siege, the corps quickly put those well-honed skills to good use, with swarms of sharpshooter fire on the skirmish line and accurate counterbattery fire going some way toward convincing General Joseph E. Johnston, who rarely needed much convincing when it came to retreating, to quickly abandon Jackson's improved earthwork defenses. The return of Union occupation to the Mississippi capital in July 1863, and with it much less interest in proscribing limits to targets of destruction, marked an even more intensified "war in earnest" the second time around. In Burke's analysis, the 'every man his own engineer' experience gained at Vicksburg along with the confidence and competence achieved among junior officers and their charges in areas such as skirmishing and sharpshooting were core elements of tactical culture that significantly offset the inability to breach enemy lines through direct assault.

Over the time period examined in the book, Sherman was not yet the beloved "Uncle Billy" of Civil War legend. Contemporary writings reveal bitter criticisms of Sherman's hasty logistical arrangements that prioritized speed over comfort, with Fifteenth Corps officers and men often accusing those at the top of a pattern of operational mismanagement and corresponding lack of care for the command's well-being. That Sherman's corps lost upwards of an astounding 3,500 soldiers through sickness, discharge, and death over a period of mere months while camped along the Mississippi levees in early 1863 did not endear the commander to his men. On the other hand, while non-combat losses piled up, non-combat operations bore significant fruit. Floundering around the Yazoo bottomlands was unpleasant, but Grant's "experiments" in that highly productive agricultural region provided a way to strike heavy blows against the enemy war effort without resorting to further costly frontal assaults. Indeed, Burke interprets lingering bitterness over Chickasaw Bayou and Arkansas Post attacks as driving forces behind popular support among Fifteenth Corps soldiers for both emancipation (and to a lesser extent black recruitment) and war in earnest by early 1863. Scholars who have written about wartime emancipation and hard war practices among Union armies would certainly agree with Burke that frustration on the battlefield increased support for harsher war measures off the battlefield. Serving as the tip of the Union spear that first penetrated the interior of the Deep South, the part played by the Fifteenth Corps in those events profoundly shaped the formation's evolving tactical culture. Fifteenth Corps activities during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the 1865 Carolinas Campaign are also briefly surveyed in the volume's conclusion, facets of which recapitulate earlier arguments regarding tactical culture as an important factor driving support for emancipation and hard war.

Sherman's Fifteenth Corps gained a reputation, both fair and unfair, for overeager foraging and outright pillaging. In line with previous historians such as Clay Mountcastle, Daniel Sutherland, and others whose research has uncovered the roots of hard war in early-war Trans-Mississippi and Mississippi River Valley operations, Burke finds that the Missouri experiences of many of the regiments in Sherman's command informed a deep mistrust of civilians that extended in multiple directions, including toward a generalized lack of concern for individual property rights. The "area denial" and "resource extraction" operations conducted by elements of Sherman's corps along the Yazoo bottoms and especially later at Jackson, when the prioritization of speed over oversight led to widespread pillaging, did much to establish this controversial aspect of corps tactical culture.

Burke sees things differently than most western theater military historians have when it comes to evaluating Sherman's alleged timidity during the decisive battle that broke the Confederate siege of Chattanooga in late November 1863. Many observers see the lack of Union progress on the left, during which casualties incurred were not matched by appreciable gains, chiefly as the product of terrain and the defensive skills of Patrick Cleburne and his crack Confederate division rather than on Sherman's alleged tactical incompetence. Burke adopts a different approach, crediting terrain constraints as others have done but also interpreting events on the Union left flank as a clear expression of the limits of Fifteenth Corps tactical culture. Operating under the assumption that the topography in his front would not have permitted the type of full-scale assault that many Sherman critics have proposed and that attacking with more men used in that fashion would most likely have just increased the casualty list, Burke finds in Sherman's hesitancy a reasonable (even insightful) reaction to his corps's consistent history of trying and failing to breach well-defended and well-placed enemy works. The author's addendum regarding another part of tactical culture, that of rotating heavily engaged units from earlier fighting into reserve positions (leaving them unavailable for fresh assaults), is a bit less convincing, given that such concerns were often overridden in emergencies. Basically, the argument is soundly advanced that the Chattanooga battle marked Sherman's culminating acceptance of what his command was capable of achieving and what it was not capable of doing.

So what in the end defined the matured tactical culture of Fifteenth Corps? On Page 256 Burke summarizes it, in all of its strengths and limitations, as follows:
"(1) a preference for fundamentally conservative tactical choices (even when assigned less than conservative missions), with an emphasis on the use of artillery and open-order skirmisher "clouds" and sharpshooting details as the main effort in almost all offensive operations, (2) a glaring lack of confidence in the capability of massed bayonet assaults to successfully overcome even modest breastworks, (3) an affinity for indirect over direct maneuver solutions, and finally (4) a strategic preference for long-range maneuver and resource denial over direct armed confrontation with Rebels."

As defined, Fifteenth Corps tactical culture clearly had it drawbacks, with consistent inability to coordinate assaults that could directly carry enemy positions (skirmisher swarms themselves did not  even possess the weight to do so) or stand on the defensive outside of earthworks, but Burke shows how leaders were able to work around them, aligning operational goals toward core strengths. While problematic, past failures of massed assaults did not create an expected crisis of confidence. Quite the contrary, patterns of success on the strategic level, regardless of tactical setbacks, bred immense confidence in achieving ultimate victory. Of course, clearest proof of a truly distinctive corps-level tactical culture requires direct comparison with similar-scale formations from either side, but that brand of extensive exercise is beyond the scope of this volume. However, that's not to say the book is devoid of content exploring differences in tactical culture between Fifteenth Corps elements and other Union Army formations, it's just limited. For example, in his discussion of the Ringgold rear guard battle that ends the book, Burke contrasts in illuminating fashion the very different tactics employed by Fifteenth Corps elements and select post-Chickamauga reinforcements sent to Grant's army group (in this case, Creighton's brigade of western regiments that fought in the East). Neither broke the Confederate line, but the approach of the latter was far closer to the "forbearance" model of conducting attacks using massed formations that were expected to persevere under murderous enemy fire and heavy casualties.

Burke's detailed mini-narratives of Fifteenth Corps battles fought over this period (specifically Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, both Jacksons, the Vicksburg assaults, the Vicksburg siege, Chattanooga, and Ringgold Gap) are so good that one earnestly wishes that standalone campaign and battle history writing of some kind lies in his future. Particularly powerful is Burke's account of the bloody Union repulse at Chickasaw Bayou, his wonderfully vivid descriptions and keen analyses of both terrain and failed assault tactics a strong complement to Timothy Smith's excellent recent account of the battle in 2022's Early Struggles for Vicksburg. The author also notably engages with other elements of recent Civil War military historiography. For example, he agrees with Earl Hess that rifled muskets in the hands of volunteer infantrymen did not have a revolutionary-scale dominating impact on the Civil War battlefield, their overall potential instead deeply restricted by the continent's thick vegetation and rough terrain (though Burke appropriately cautions toward going overboard on those factors). In addition to both historians acknowledging the important role of the rifle on the skirmish line and in sharpshooting, Burke mirrors Hess in arguing that, largely as a function of terrain, short-range "shock" firing predominated over long-range "attritional" fire on the Civil War battle line, though Burke seems more open to further refinement on that issue. Important to this study, Burke presents a strong argument that the strengths of the rifle over the smoothbore musket, particularly when placed in the hands of skirmisher swarms employing organically developed proto-'fire and maneuver' tactics, saw their greatest impact on the offensive rather than defensive side of the infantry battle line. In this way, the rifle served as one of the principal physical tools of Fifteenth Corps tactical culture.

Eric Michael Burke's detailed conceptualization of a distinctive army corps tactical culture offers the Civil War field a truly novel approach to analyzing how and why Civil War formations, large and small, fought the way they did. This is exactly the kind of fresh new study that offers shining proof of the enduring value of military history and the endless possibilities of fresh directions through which to explore it. Soldiers From Experience is so good that one hungers for the same or similar approach be applied to core elements of other Civil War armies. It's unknown if Burke is interested in doing that, but this marvelously inventive study makes any publishing project he might embark upon in the future an object of great anticipation.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Seasonal reminder

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Booknotes: Decisions of the Maryland Campaign

New Arrival:
Decisions of the Maryland Campaign: The Fourteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation by Michael S. Lang (U Tenn Press, 2022).

From the description: The latest volume in the Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series, Decisions of the Maryland Campaign: The Fourteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation "introduces readers to critical decisions made by Confederate and Union commanders throughout the campaign. Michael S. Lang examines the decisions that prefigured the action and shaped the contest as it unfolded. Rather than a linear history of the campaign, Lang’s discussion of the critical decisions presents readers with a vivid blueprint of the campaign’s developments. Exploring the critical decisions in this way allows the reader to progress from a sense of what happened in this campaign to why they happened as they did." With over a dozen installments already published, the format established by this series is a methodologically matured one, and interested parties wondering exactly how a 'critical decision' has been defined and how these studies work can find such information among numerous reviews here on the site.

The series has two recent developments of note. First, Larry Peterson, a frequent contributor, has joined Matt Spruill as co-editor of the series. Second, there has been some impetus of late toward dividing campaign decisions and battlefield decisions into separate studies. With companion volumes covering the 1862 Kentucky Campaign and the Battle of Perryville, Peterson himself was the first to go in that direction. Michael Lang continues in that vein with this book, to be used in either standalone fashion or in conjunction with his earlier Decisions at Antietam: The Fourteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle (2021).

Some critical decisions are impossible to separate from campaign and battle, and Lang notes in the preface that a few of the decisions under consideration are present in both works. Series authors tend to aggregate the decisions in some manner, and here Lang groups his fourteen decisions into three time periods. The period of September 3-13, 1862 encompasses early-campaign decisions (six in number) made by Lee on one side and Halleck/McClellan on the other. The September 14-16 interval, also composed of six decisions, addresses army commander and principal subordinate decisions surrounding South Mountain, Harpers Ferry, and initial contact at Sharpsburg. With the earlier volume covering the battle itself, this book's third period looks at a pair of decisions (one each by Lee and McClellan) made during the three days following the September 17 battle.

The book includes numerous period and modern photographs as well as fifteen maps. As is the case with most series volumes, this one is divided into roughly equal halves between the main critical decision exploration on one side and on the other a combination of detailed touring guide (closely tied to the decision analysis), orders of battle, endnotes, bibliography, and index. Also present are strength and casualty tables for both sides.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Coming Soon (December '22 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for DEC 2022:

Union General: Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West by William Shea.
Small but Important Riots: The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville by Robert O'Neill.
Contemners and Serpents: The James Wilson Family Civil War Correspondence ed. by Theodore Fuller and Thomas Knight.
From Binghamton to the Battlefield: The Civil War Letters of Rollin B. Truesdell by Amy Truesdell.
Letters to Lizzie: The Story of Sixteen Men in the Civil War and the One Woman Who Connected Them All ed. by James Scythes.
The Lion And The Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy by Alexander Rose.
From the Mountains to the Bay: The War in Virginia, January-May 1862 by Ethan Rafuse.
The Eighth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War by William Liska and Kim Perlotto.
Abraham Lincoln and His Times: A Sourcebook on His Life, His Presidency, Slavery and Civil War comp. and ed. by Thomas Ebert and Allen Carden.
Gettysburg!: Fast Facts for Kids and Families by Gregory Christianson.
Gettysburg in Color, Volume 1: Brandy Station to the Peach Orchard by Patrick Brennan and Dylan Brennan.

Comments: The first three titles in this list have been released early. I've already received the book edited by Fuller and Knight [see the 11/22 Booknotes post], and review copies of the Shea and O'Neill books will hopefully arrive within the next couple weeks or so. If the latter sounds familiar to you, it is indeed the latest updating of a classic entry from the H.E. Howard series.

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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Booknotes: Contemners and Serpents

New Arrival:
Contemners and Serpents: The James Wilson Family Civil War Correspondence edited by Theodore Albert Fuller and Thomas Daniel Knight (Mercer UP, 2022).

From the description: Contemners and Serpents "presents letters from the family of Presbyterian missionaries James and Eliza Wilson during the Civil War era. Spanning the period from 1859 to 1877, during which family members lived in Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina, included are letters written by James Wilson, his wife Eliza Griffing Edwards Wilson, their four sons, and their only daughter. The book offers a range of individual voices and relates to the battlefield, the home front, and the eastern and western theaters of the war." The collection contains over one-hundred letters and documents, and eighty-five letters are reproduced in full for this volume.

This publishing project was very long in the making. Seeing their value, USAF Col. Theodore Fuller purchased the documents from the Wilson family estate, arranging the material in rough book form by 1967 but never publishing it. The unfinished book continued to gather dust after Fuller's 1990 passing, until Thomas Knight, a graduate student at the time, was prevailed upon to complete it. Knight conducted further research into the lives and activities (including their missionary work) of the Wilson family, the depth of which can be seen in his footnotes, and updated Fuller's text. Knight also contributes abundant bridging text of his own as well as a concluding chapter detailing postwar lives of the Wilsons.

The unusual family background might offer some unique, or at least equally unusual, perspectives. More from the description: "The Wilsons are an interesting case because the parents were Pennsylvania natives, the children were born and reared in India, and the family spent most of the years between 1834 and 1852 outside the United States. Neither slaveholders nor landowners, the Wilsons had varied approaches to the war, ranging from neutral or pro-Union sentiment to extreme support for the Confederacy."

Through some means or another, all five of the male Wilsons ended up serving in the Confederate Army. Wilson letters come from both the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of Tennessee, and the four brothers fought in almost every major eastern theater battle from 1862-65. Their letters talk about their wartime experiences, "including comments on camp life and assessments of major military and political leaders." Letters to them from home address "local conditions in Tennessee and Georgia during the second half of the war." The saved correspondence also extends into the postwar period.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Booknotes: Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War, The Union Army

New Arrival:
Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army by Adam D. Mendelsohn (NYU Press, 2022).

From the description: "In ways visible and invisible to their fellow recruits and conscripts, the experience of Jews was distinct from that of other soldiers who served in Lincoln’s armies." Adam Mendelsohn's Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army "draws for the first time upon the vast database of verified listings of Jewish soldiers serving in the Civil War collected by The Shapell Roster, as well as letters, diaries, and newspapers, to examine the collective experience of Jewish soldiers and to recover their voices and stories."

The narrative history portion of the book (running just under 225 pages and interspersed with many topical sidebars) "examines when and why [Jewish Union soldiers] decided to enlist, explores their encounters with fellow soldiers, and describes their efforts to create community within the ranks. This monumental undertaking rewrites much of what we think we know about Jewish soldiers during the Civil War." A lot of effort went into materials and presentation. Thick, glossy paper stock gives the book a considerable size to heft ratio and allows the profusion of color illustrations of all kinds (among them photographs of individuals, artifacts, documents, broadsheets, etc.) to be seen in their best light.

As indicated above, Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War was produced in conjunction with the ongoing efforts of The Shapell Roster (2009 to present), a massive scholarly reservoir of documents and material associated with the thousands of Jewish officers and men who served in the Union and Confederate military forces. The "biographical, genealogical, and service-related" information for each individual roster entry is "paired with evocative primary source documents: service records, photographs, affidavits, obituaries, pension claims, personal letters, and a myriad of other sources." The online database contains "nearly 100 searchable fields of data, more than 7,000 soldier records,...and more than 50,000 historical documents."

The Shapell Roster respectfully updates the classic one (the accuracy and methodology of which has long been questioned) that was compiled by Simon Wolf and published in his 1895 book The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen. Mendelsohn's appendix section explores the origins and methodology of the Shappell Roster and presents select aspects of it in creative ways. Appendix 3 breaks down, in maps and numbers, the national origins of Jewish Union soldiers as well as the US states in which they enlisted. By far the greatest number enlisted in New York, followed by Pennsylvania and Ohio. Other data in Appendix 3 includes a compilation of Jewish enlistment numbers by regiment, a numbered breakdown of specialized military occupations, a register of high-ranking Jewish officers (in case you were wondering, the cover photo is of Edward Salomon, a Lt. Col. of the 82nd Illinois), Jewish Medal of Honor recipients, and a list of Hebrew Union Veterans Association members.

As one might have guessed from the title, a Confederate volume will follow this one at an as yet undetermined date.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Review - "The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command" by Geise, ed. by Forsyth

[The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command by William Royston Geise, ed. by Michael J. Forsyth (Savas Beatie, 2022). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography (original and supplemental), index. Pages main/total:xvi,191/227. $32.95]

Even after all the fruitful balancing and reorientation that have occurred over the past three or four decades, it remains abundantly clear that eastern theater Civil War subject matter, with its twin anchors of Antietam and Gettysburg, will always draw the most popular attention and sell the most books. At this point, though, the profusion of biographies and military, social, and political scholarship associated with the West and Trans-Mississippi has made it much more difficult for proponents to argue that those theaters are still profoundly neglected. It was a much different situation in the early 1970s, however, with guerrilla warfare overrepresented in Trans-Mississippi writing and the theater as a whole possessing only a very modest secondary literature of noteworthy status. The 1972 publication of Robert Lee Kerby's Kirby Smith's Confederacy: The Trans-Mississippi South, 1863-1865 was a major event, but a lot of other great material, often in the form of masters theses and dissertations, remained under the radar. Following Kerby by two years was the completion of William Royston Geise's The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861- 1865: A Study in Command. While not a study rivaling the grand scale of Kerby's (but with significant overlap), Geise's unpublished dissertation proved to be an important manuscript cited with some regularity by subsequent specialists. This year, to the delight of many, it has finally been released in print, with supplemental editing by Michael Forsyth, who is, like Geise was then, a retired military officer currently working toward a PhD.

A departmental-level history and analysis, Geise's dissertation does not detail the campaigns and battles fought in Missouri, Arkansas, Indian Territory, western Louisiana, and Texas. The nature, outcome, and significance of those military events are duly noted, but only in the context of their functional, and more critically their dysfunctional, connections to the department's frequently contentious high command system. Two interconnected themes course through the book. The first involves the theater's struggles with unity of command and the second (even after unity of command was formally established) the interminable and self-defeating interpersonal clashes between generals that created command friction at all levels. The latter was not entirely unique to the vast region west of the Mississippi River (ex. the Confederate Army of Tennessee command structure was notoriously dysfunctional), but its debilitating nature was, as Geise amply illustrates, perhaps most ingrained there on a theater level.

Present day readers familiar with the current scholarship's critical evaluations of the panoply of generals presented in this book (among them Edmund Kirby Smith, Ben McCulloch, Albert Pike, Sterling Price, Henry Sibley, Earl Van Dorn, Thomas Hindman, Theophilus Holmes, Richard Taylor, Simon Bolivar Buckner, and "Prince John" Magruder) will find those conclusions, both positive and negative, remarkably harmonious with Geise's now fifty-year-old assessments. This is a function of Geise's informed judgment as well as perhaps his own influence on contemporary historians and future scholars alike.

Editor Michael Forsyth, the author of three book-length studies of 1864 Trans-Mississippi operations in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, judiciously augments Geise's original citations in several noteworthy ways. His own footnote contributions—clearly and carefully separated from the author's original ones by paired backslashes—offer original commentary (the editorial context of which is drawn from up to date developments in the scholarship), modern reading suggestions, and selective highlighting of places in the text through which Geise's work either remains distinctive or was ahead of its time. Forsyth also adds a source list supplement to Geise's own bibliography that reveals to today's readers strong elements of the scholarly growth of Trans-Mississippi Civil War studies.

Geise's early chapters do a fine job of explaining how the lack of command unity in the Trans-Mississippi squandered a narrow window of opportunity for Confederate and allied forces in the region to significantly project influence beyond administrative borders (most critically during the early contest for Missouri). By the time the Trans-Mississippi region was formally reorganized into a Confederate military department in May 1862, the already slim possibility of meaningfully disputing federal control of Missouri (or at least significantly delaying western Union forces securing their Missouri flank, which was a prerequisite to launching major downriver operations into the heart of the Mississippi River Valley) was permanently lost.

Much of the book is devoted to tracing the establishment and evolution of what came to be called "Kirby Smithdom," a massive (though, as Geise reveals, not bloated nearly as much as some have contended) bureaucratic entity that doubled as both military department and parallel Confederate government. Union control of the Mississippi River from mid-1863 onward necessitated the latter. Placed at its head was General Edmund Kirby Smith. With communication from Richmond unreliable, Kirby Smith would act in direct consultation with the governors of Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In fine fashion, these sections summarize Kirby Smith's creation of military and economic bureaus that would, with few exceptions, act in place of Richmond's. Departmental management of the legal and extralegal cotton trade that proved necessary to the economic viability and foreign/domestic purchasing power of the department is critiqued, as are the various top-down initiatives designed to expand native industry of all kinds and promote cooperation between Kirby Smith's department and state officials and chief executives. All of those departmental domains were stamped with both successes and failures, and Geise's overall assessment of Kirby Smith's managerial performance is largely positive. Someone would have to have Kerby fresher in mind than this reviewer does in order to determine how much Geise was influenced by or differed with Kerby's analysis. Direct engagement in the main text is absent and only scattered source notes reference Kirby Smith's Confederacy. In every section of the book, Geise's footnotes refer overwhelmingly to original documents, with only occasional references to secondary sources.

Perhaps the most significant point of criticism involving Kirby Smith's 1863-65 handling of military affairs is the way in which he managed his department's response to twin 1864 federal offensives, the Red River Campaign and Camden Expedition. Critics focus in particular on critical decisions made after the Red River Valley battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. The combined results of those two battles convinced General Nathaniel Banks to order a full-scale retreat of his forces in Louisiana, an action that left General Frederick Steele's smaller federal army isolated at Camden in southern Arkansas. In his command-level discussion of the ensuing counteroffensive, Geise briefly weighs historical arguments for and against concentrating Confederate forces versus either Steele in Arkansas or Banks and Porter in Louisiana. The conclusion that Kirby Smith committed an outright strategic blunder by focusing his pursuit on Steele in Arkansas has reached near-consensus levels of agreement in the literature, but Geise is more non-committal on the matter, rather sympathetic toward Kirby Smith's command conundrum and very doubtful of Banks and Porter's vulnerability to further harm. That last point is a minority view among Red River Campaign historians. Among the authors of book-length studies of the campaigns, Forsyth himself takes the "lost opportunity" school of thought to its most controversial lengths, all the while going about it in a novel way [see his arguments in The Red River Campaign of 1864 and the Loss by the Confederacy of the Civil War (2001) and The Camden Expedition of 1864 and the Opportunity Lost by the Confederacy to Change the Civil War (2003)]. To his credit, Forsyth does not utilize his editorial notes in this volume as a platform to further promote his most unorthodox views at Geise's expense.

As one would entirely expect given the long passage of time preceding publication, the overall freshness and impact of William Royston Geise's The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1861-1865: A Study in Command is to an extent blunted by strong developments in the literature over the five decades following its completion. While the lateness of its publication is to be lamented, the seminal nature of Geise's work and the fact that it's based almost entirely on original sources speaks to its enduring significance. The value added by Michael Forsyth's editing is another clear benefit to finally having this study in print. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Review - "Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield" by Earl Hess

[Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield by Earl J. Hess (Louisiana State University Press, 2022). Hardcover, photos, drawings, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,317/418. ISBN:978-0-8071-7800-3. $50]

The existing body of book-length Civil War artillery literature is relatively small and largely comprised of military hardware inventories and guides. Classics of that category include Warren Ripley's Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War; Hazlett, Olmstead, and Parks's Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War; and The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast, and Naval Cannon by Olmstead, Stark, and Tucker. Those equipment-based reference works remain useful and important, but a wider encompassing study of the organization, officering, crewing, deployment, battlefield operation, and effectiveness of Civil War infantry and cavalry's primary support arm has long evaded interested readers. Thankfully, prolific military historian Earl Hess has elected to step into the breach, his Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield representing the first attempt at conveying a comprehensive interpretation of the topic in a single volume.

In the context of organization, training, technology, and use on the battlefield, the opening sections of Hess's book trace antebellum development of American artillery within established European tradition. The association was not one of linear, hand in hand progress, with Hess noting that the United States lagged behind European counterparts for large parts of the nineteenth century before hurriedly catching up in the period immediately preceding the conflict between North and South. Indeed, the American Civil War would be the first widespread and thorough testing ground of rifled artillery of all calibers. However, with the newly reunited postwar United States quickly returning to its traditionally tiny standing army and impecunious military budgeting, more revolutionary artillery developments (ex. in recoil mechanisms that permitted rapid fire artillery without re-aiming, powerful bursting charges that greatly increased shell fragment dispersal, and more) would primarily be the domain of European armies. According to Hess, it would be the WW2-era before the United States returned to artillery's developmental forefront.

The word "comprehensive" is often too liberally applied to works that aspire to such status, but the overall breadth and depth of Hess's book fully lives up to that advertised promise. Its chapters, well balanced between description and analysis, delve into a wide range of topics, including military hardware (concentrating on the war's three most modern and celebrated smoothbore and rifled pieces, the 12-lb. Napoleon, 10-lb. Parrott, and 3-inch Ordnance Rifle), battery formations and evolutions, leadership, training, crew lifestyle and duties, the firing process, fuzes, projectiles, logistics, layers of higher organization (i.e. artillery battalions and brigades), and appreciation of artillery horses and horse care. Artillery's operational roles on the Civil War battlefield (defensive, offensive, and counterbattery fire) are evaluated, and brief but cogent assessments of how field artillery fared against infantry, cavalry, and field fortifications are provided. Photographs and period manual illustrations assist reader visualization of equipment and formations, while numerous tables organize data in support of various arguments raised in the text. As the book's title suggests, naval weaponry and the big siege guns both lie outside the scope of Hess's examination.

One finds parallels between this book and Hess's prior examination of the impact of rifled muskets on the Civil War battlefield. Hess's research leads him to regard both Civil War shoulder arms and artillery as incremental rather than revolutionary improvements upon Napoleonic-era weaponry. A general lack of user skill and training in range estimation was a critical factor underpinning Hess's argument that rifle-armed battle lines did not realize their full potential in the area of long-range firing with accuracy. Yet Hess does assert in this study that "most gunners could estimate distance visually with consistent accuracy" (pg. 101). The source or sources behind this alleged discrepancy between infantryman and artilleryman is not directly explained, though the author does mention that the artillery, the Civil War armed service's most technical arm, had access to both higher quality recruits and greater leave to replace underperforming unit members. Perhaps artillerymen also had more training in range estimation, more opportunities for target practice, and gained more from field experience due to being better able to see the results of their shots on target.

It was widely recognized at the time that artillery fire needed to be concentrated if it was to operate at peak effectiveness. Controversy over the matter chiefly centered around disagreements over how that concentration of fire was best achieved. A major theme of this book is Hess's dispute with those who have proposed that artillery reorganization into larger formations was a major driving force behind tactical concentration of fire. Confining his evaluation to large battles fought by the main opposing armies in the eastern and western theaters, Hess divides the wartime evolution of artillery organization into two main periods: early-war dispersal (when batteries were individually assigned to brigades and divisions) and mid to late-war concentration (when corps batteries were consolidated in Confederate artillery battalions and Union artillery brigades). In the book, Hess claims that not only was the massing of guns on the Civil War battlefield never perfected by either side but such events occurred during the concentration period with no more frequency than they did during the earlier dispersal phase. He supports those claims with a selective sampling of battles spanning both intervals.

A variety of factors were at play, but, as Hess argues, the most significant explanation was that infantry generals retained tactical control of their command's support arm and jealously guarded that prerogative when it came to deploying the new artillery battalions and brigades. As Hess explains, it made sense that artillery, as a support arm, would need to be under the central control of the officer most responsible for that sector of the battlefield. However, infantry officers and experienced artillery officers frequently clashed over where and how the batteries under their charge should be best used. Thus, individual understanding (or lack of understanding) among infantry generals regarding the proper deployment of artillery along with differing levels of willingness to delegate authority over gun placements were far more responsible than intrinsic organization when it came to factors affecting tactical-level artillery concentration. Hess's overall argument makes sense and rings true, but really driving the point home (and better convincing skeptics) requires a more systematic and thorough presentation of the evidence. Upon arriving at a measurable definition of what one would consider a tactical-level concentration of artillery, it would be fairly straightforward (though time consuming) to track such events over all the major eastern and western theater battles given how thoroughly those contests have been dealt with in modern narrative microhistories and map studies. Outside factors affecting concentration such as terrain and other environmental conditions also have to be taken into account when evaluating those results.

What seems beyond dispute is that the concentration of batteries into higher-level formations did promote demonstrably better administrative maintenance and oversight, appreciably increasing the efficiency of component batteries (though infantry staff were apparently still responsible for supply arrangements). It is interesting to contemplate what further efficiencies might have been achieved had Union artillery general Henry Hunt's repeatedly blocked bids for reform (which included a national artillery bureau and increased autonomy for artillery officers within army orders of battle) been more successful, though Hess is surely correct that Hunt's postwar estimates of squandered performance levels were considerably exaggerated.

Fuzes are another area in which Hess breaks from convention, including the views of acknowledged authorities such as Edward McCaul (the author of 2010's The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War). Due to wide variances in manufacturing technologies, systems, and equipment, along with munitions worker skill, user proficiency, materials quality, and other factors, it's perhaps advisable not to generalize too strongly on the topic of inherent fuze reliability, but popular wisdom nevertheless suggests that U.S. fuzes were considerably more reliable than those of Confederate manufacture. Yet Hess, reasoning through a host of first-hand accounts written by artillery officers and extrapolating from artillery reports, alternatively concludes that fuzes, even the more celebrated design types, were far from reliable in either army. That limitation, combined with a relatively tame bursting charge, rendered long-range shell fire and case shot much less effective than the general literature has suggested. Though experienced readers, upon digesting Hess's compelling analysis, might still hesitate to approve of such general pronouncements regarding fuze reliability, the strength of the evidence provided in the book does materially complicate our understanding of a complex issue full of variables.

This book amply fills a gap long overdue to be filled. Much like Hess himself has expanded the modern scope of Civil War military history publishing through deeply researched examinations of a wide range of interconnected topics (ex. his recent studies of the impact of rifled muskets on the battlefield, army logistical transport, field fortifications, the intersection of supply and strategy, and infantry tactics), one might hope that other scholars and talented artillery enthusiasts might be prompted to create their own original works through engagement with the many expansible facets of this authoritative survey. Critics might quibble with the stridency of some of Hess's challenges to long-held assumptions, but it is always the case that the arguments presented in Civil War Field Artillery are backed by a considerable body of evidence requiring strong reflection. Both reinforcing and reshaping existing interpretations of Union and Confederate artillery, this thought-provoking study is required reading for anyone wishing to gain a broad and nuanced understanding of the role and performance of the long arm on the Civil War battlefield.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Booknotes: Lady Rebels of Civil War Missouri

New Arrival:
Lady Rebels of Civil War Missouri by Larry Wood (Arcadia Pub and The Hist Press, 2022).

In recognition of their integral role in the Civil War's so-called "household war" that raged behind the lines (particularly in those rural areas most torn by guerrilla warfare), Missouri's women have come into sharper focus lately. In his excellent 2020 book Women Making War, Thomas Curran documented the cases of hundreds of Missouri women who found or placed themselves in the crosshairs of Union military authorities. Adopting a more popular-style human interest approach to the same topic is Larry Wood's Lady Rebels of Civil War Missouri.

From the description: "In the border state of Missouri, where Southern sympathies ran deep, women sometimes clashed with occupying Union forces because of illegal, covert activities like spying, smuggling, and delivering mail. When caught and arrested, the women were often imprisoned or banished from the state. In at least a couple of cases, they were even sentenced to death."

Discussing personal stories that the author felt extraneous to his 2016 book Bushwhacker Belles: The Sisters, Wives, and Girlfriends of the Missouri Guerrillas, Wood's Lady Rebels of Civil War Missouri introduces readers to another group of Confederate sympathizers who, in a variety of ways, drew the attention of the U.S. military justice system. Their stores are documented in seventeen chapters, each of which tells the tale of "one woman or one group of women who were closely connected be either kinship or circumstance." These chapters are arranged in the order in which "the women first came into conflict with Union authorities."

Friday, November 4, 2022

Booknotes: Civil War Generals of Indiana

New Arrival:
Civil War Generals of Indiana by Carl E. Kramer (Arcadia Pub and The Hist Press, 2022).

Indiana was a top-five manpower contributor to Union armed forces, ranking just behind fellow Midwest states Illinois and Ohio, but upon seeing this title (Civil War Generals of Indiana by Carl Kramer) I rather struggled to come up with my choice for the quintessential Indiana general. My first thought was Jefferson C. Davis, about whom mixed feelings abound. However, there are others that I might have chosen had I been more aware of their associations with the state.

One of the toughest decisions involved in compiling books like this is choosing which individuals to include. Such a process is far from cut and dried. Nineteenth-century Americans were commonly mobile, and when someone like a Civil War general becomes famous it is often the case that multiple states will claim him as their own. This is certainly highlighted in the description and cover art of this title, with Ambrose Burnside perhaps associated more with Rhode Island than Indiana in the minds of Civil War readers, and Lovell Rousseau with Kentucky.

Nevertheless, Kramer settled upon nearly 120 figures with Indiana ties significant enough for inclusion. In the book, he "provides biographical sketches of every identifiable Indiana general who attained full-rank, brevet, and state-service status in the tragic struggle."

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Review - "A Place of Rest for our Gallant Boys: The U.S. Army General Hospital at Gallipolis, Ohio, 1861-1865" by Christy Perry Tuohey

[A Place of Rest for our Gallant Boys: The U.S. Army General Hospital at Gallipolis, Ohio, 1861-1865 by Christy Perry Tuohey (35th Star Publishing, 2022). Softcover, photos, illustrations, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xv,94/204. ISBN:978-1-7378575-3-2. $18.95]

Though the troops involved on both sides were small by later Civil War standards, 1861 military operations in western Virginia proved strategically significant. The immense territorial gains secured by Union forces during those early months of fighting permitted the foundation of the new state of West Virginia (formally admitted to the federal Union in 1863). Situated near the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, Gallipolis, Ohio was perfectly placed to serve as a forward logistical base. In addition to supporting federal thrusts into the trans-Appalachian counties of Virginia, the river town was also a receiving point for sick and wounded Union soldiers as well as Confederate prisoners. The history of the hospital facility constructed there is the subject of Christy Perry Tuohey's A Place of Rest for our Gallant Boys: The U.S. Army General Hospital at Gallipolis, Ohio, 1861-1865.

The U.S. Army general hospital at Gallipolis complied with regulations that patient wards be of the ridge-vented pavilion style. Period drawings show wards and supporting structures clustered together in close proximity, with parts of the complex arranged in somewhat irregular fashion. Other army general hospitals were more creative in architecture (ex. with ward buildings radiating out from a central hub, like the spokes of a wheel, to facilitate ventilation and staff management), but perhaps the available ground at Gallipolis was only suited to a more stacked approach. While the Gallipolis hospital complex's layout is described along with details of daily operations, the larger focus of the volume is on the human interest stories of staff, volunteers, and patients.

Most chapters revolve around individuals, the book's description of their background and activities being well representative of the duties typically performed by persons filling those hospital roles. Thus readers are introduced to local teacher turned volunteer nurse Hannah Maxon, army surgeon James Bell, hospital steward Joseph Lunbeck, hospital chaplain Charles Blake, contract surgeon George Livesay, and many others. A host of patient stories are also sprinkled about. Some interesting side themes are raised, too, among them the use of army hospitals (such as the one at Gallipolis) as conduits for furloughing convalescents home to vote in vital late-war elections.

The volume is well illustrated with numerous photographs of individuals with connections to the Gallipolis hospital. No photographic images of the hospital itself can be found in the book (and perhaps do not exist), but, as mentioned before, there are several drawings included. Useful reference material is provided in the form of surgeon, staff, nurse, and patient rosters. Compiled from numerous sources, Tuohey's patient list of Union sick and wounded is quite extensive. Research for the book on the whole is based on a diverse collection of primary and secondary sources. The medical history of the Civil War continues to be a burgeoning field, and A Place of Rest for our Gallant Boys offers yet another meaningful contribution to Civil War hospital studies.