Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 A. M. Pate, Jr. Award in Civil War History

There are more Civil War book awards than you can shake a stick at, but the Pate Award, administered by the Fort Worth Civil War Round Table, is the one I hold most dear. It is the only award that exclusively considers Trans-Mississippi theater scholarship (my own primary area of reading and research interest), but I also have a personal connection to it, serving in a non-voting advisory capacity to the committee head. The last is something that I am very happy to continue to do.

This year's winner, the award's 20th recipient, is William L. Shea for his 2023 biography Union General: Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West (Potomac). The honor is without a doubt richly deserved. You can read my thoughts about the book here in my 1/12/23 review. Congratulations, Bill!

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Coming Soon (January '24 Edition)

Scheduled for JAN 20241:

The World Will Never See the Like: The Gettysburg Reunion of 1913 by John Hopkins.
Here's a Letter from Thy Dear Son: Letters of a Georgia Family During the Civil War Era ed. by Edward Pulliam.
Decisions at Forts Henry and Donelson: The Twenty One Critical Decisions that Defined the Battles by Hank Koopman.
The Union Army 1861–65 (1): The Regular Army and the Territories (Men-at-Arms #553) by Ron Field & Marco Capparoni.
With Hot Lead and Cold Steel: American Civil War Wargaming Rules (Osprey Wargames #32) by Arthur van der Ster.

Comments: Dec-Jan have been very light this time around. The Gettysburg reunion book is already available.

1 - These monthly release lists are not meant to be exhaustive compilations of non-fiction releases. They do not include reprints that are not significantly revised/expanded, 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, December 27, 2023

Booknotes: The Boys of Diamond Hill, Second Edition

New Arrival:

The Boys of Diamond Hill: The Lives and Civil War Letters of the Boyd Family of Abbeville County, South Carolina (Second Edition) ed. by J. Keith Jones (McFarland, 2024).

From the description: "In 1861, brothers Daniel and Pressley Boyd left their farm in Abbeville County, South Carolina to join the Confederate army. William, Thomas and Andrew soon followed, along with brother-in-law Fenton Hall. During the Civil War, they collectively fought in almost every theater of the conflict and saw firsthand every aspect of soldier life--from death and illness to friendly fire and desertion. By war's end only Daniel survived."

The war produced misery and tragedy to countless families, of course, but the toll it took on the Boyd family (losing four out of five sons) was especially tremendous. Richard McCaslin's introduction also mentions the both Daniel and his father did not live long past war's end.

You might recall that this title was originally published in 2011. Since then, descendants have continued to stay in touch with editor J. Keith Jones, providing him with enough additional background, wartime, and postwar information to more than justify a new edition. More from the description: "this updated edition includes 30 never before published letters, along with new research revealing additional family background and undiscovered information about the fates of the Boyd brothers and other family members." These new additions and their value are discussed by Jones in the second edition's new introduction.

The wartime correspondence is organized into yearly chapters. Each letter is prefaced by contextual commentary ranging in length from a single sentence to numerous paragraphs, and chapter notes are located near the rear of the book. Keeping all the volume's intertwining family connections straight can be challenging, and the family tree data in the first appendix helps in that regard. The second appendix consists of rosters of the companies in which the letter writers served. Regiments include the 1st South Carolina Rifles, 6th South Carolina Cavalry, 7th South Carolina Infantry, and 19th South Carolina Infantry. Some letter fragments are included in the final appendix.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Booknotes: The Abolitionist Civil War

New Arrival:

The Abolitionist Civil War: Immediatists and the Struggle to Transform the Union by Frank J. Cirillo (LSU Press, 2023).

Nineteenth-century abolitionism in the United States operated under two general stripes: immediate and gradual. The more radical of the two sub-groups, immediatists sought instant freedom and civil rights for enslaved persons while gradualists, no less committed to the same end, nevertheless deemed it safer, more broadly acceptable, and far less economically, socially, and politically disruptive to achieve emancipation across a more measured time scale.

Though immediatists failed to achieve broad support (and drew much opposition) across the country throughout the antebellum period, the prospects of a long Civil War provided them with a golden opportunity to press their cherished goals upon a more amenable northern body politic.

From the description: "The astonishing transformation of the abolitionist movement during the Civil War proved enormously consequential both for the cause of abolitionism and for the nation at large." Focused on that process, Frank Cirillo’s The Abolitionist Civil War "explores how immediate abolitionists contorted their arguments and clashed with each other as they labored over the course of the conflict to create a more perfect Union." Though emancipation was successfully achieved during the war and secured through constitutional amendment, the other principal goal of the immediatists, full civil rights for blacks, would be long deferred.

As outlined in Cirillo's introduction, the book explores three central themes. One, it "extends the story of immediatism deep into the Civil War and beyond, fleshing out its true nature as a morally nationalistic, ideologically multifarious, and politically dynamic movement." Two, it "demonstrates how interventionists during the first half of the war helped bring about a Union policy of military emancipation that had seemed far from inevitable." Finally, the study "explores the unintended but disastrous repercussions of their intervention during the second half of the war, as abolitionism stunted its power to secure further, lasting change beyond formal emancipation" (pg. 4).

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

2023 - The CIVIL WAR BOOKS and AUTHORS Top Ten Year in Review

1. I DREAD THE THOUGHT OF THE PLACE: The Battle of Antietam and the End of the Maryland Campaign by D. Scott Hartwig (Johns Hopkins).

Was there really any other choice? In addition to being an unmatched microhistory of Antietam, Hartwig's book is quite simply one of the greatest Civil War battle studies ever written. "Magisterial" and "definitive" are two of the most overused labels in the reviewing world, but both can be applied here without any fear of intellectual embarrassment. By any measure, I Dread the Thought of the Place surpasses all previous attempts to chronicle the entire battle in a single volume. Pair it up with its 2012 companion To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign from September 3 to September 16 and you also have the best Maryland Campaign history at your fingertips. Kudos also go to JHU Press for publishing both books in unabridged glory. [For complete thoughts on this profoundly excellent title, visit the full Site Review (9/28/23)].

The Rest of the Year's TOP TEN (in no particular order)

[Reminder: It has become increasingly the case that a large proportion of any given year's best titles are 4Q releases. Because there isn't enough time to review all of them by December, such books become eligible for the following year's list (thus the reason why there are one or more 2022 books in this compilation).]

2. Small but Important Riots: The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville by Robert F. O'Neill (Potomac).

O'Neill's book, an extensive reworking of the author's older work on the same topic, is the best treatment of this early stage of the Gettysburg Campaign. That's great, but the reason the book is on this list is because it's also one of the very best examples of how to write a detailed study of Civil War mounted operations [for more comments, see the full 4/18/23 Review].

3. Agents of Empire: The First Oregon Cavalry and the Opening of the Interior Pacific Northwest during the Civil War by James Robbins Jewell (Nebraska).

Far West unit studies are exceedingly rare, and Jewell's groundbreaking narrative history tells the important yet neglected story of a volunteer Civil War regiment that carried out numerous important duties in the Pacific Northwest while the main fighting raged elsewhere on the continent [see the full 6/15/23 Review].

4. Sand, Science, and the Civil War: Sedimentary Geology and Combat by Scott Hippensteel (Georgia).

Another informative and original study from Hippensteel that draws useful and interesting connections between geological science and Civil War military history [see the 5/9/23 Review].

5. I Am Fighting for the Union: The Civil War Letters of Naval Officer Henry Willis Wells ed. by Robert M. Browning, Jr. (Alabama).

Greatly enhanced through Browning's editing and expert Civil War naval affairs knowledge, the Wells letters offer readers uncommon insights into the leadership and experiences of Union blockading squadron vessels that operated at numerous stations up and down the Atlantic seaboard from Virginia to Florida. [see the 6/23/23 Review].

6. The Governor's Pawns: Hostages and Hostage-Taking in Civil War West Virginia by Randall S. Gooden (Kent St).

Given the overall scale involved, Civil War hostage-taking deserves more attention in the book-length literature. Gooden's study offers an in-depth examination of the wartime seizure of civilian hostages by Union authorities in West Virginia and explores the practice's legal, political, and social ramifications. It also appropriately situates hostage-taking within its historical context and discusses the ways in which the hostage experience shaped the postwar lives of the victims. [see the 6/7/23 Review].

7. Conflict of Command: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Politics of War by George C. Rable (LSU).

With most Civil War studies of this topic primarily focused on the military frustrations and disagreements that eventually dissolved the Lincoln-McClellan partnership, Rable refreshingly redirects attention toward the many internal and external politics-based issues that also played a profound role in driving the relationship toward failure. [see the 11/27/23 Review].

8. Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (Kansas).

The sequence of events described and analyzed in this book comprise arguably the toughest phase of the long 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign for an author to make interesting to prospective readers (casual or otherwise), but Smith succeeds in spades. It's a great setup to the next installment covering the furious series of engagements that ultimately decided the campaign's outcome [see the 12/4/23 Review].

9. Artillery of Antietam: The Union and Confederate Batteries at the Battle of Antietam by James A. Rosebrock (Antietam Inst).

As I never tire of pointing out, comprehensive reference books never get enough love during award season or in the assembly of year-end recommendations. Rosebrock's exhaustive compilation is a shining example of the category's best. [see the 12/11/23 Review].

10. Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862 by Victor Vignola (Savas Beatie).

In terms of standalone book-length publications, the 1862 Peninsula Campaign still possesses an oddly extensive collection of neglected battles. Vignola not only fills in one of the larger holes in that grouping but does it with admirable thoroughness. [see the 12/15/23 Review].

*** See also the 2023 Honorable Mentions ***

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The 2023 title I didn't get around to reading but most wish I had

Say what you will about the decline of certain categories of Civil War books and the rise of others, it is an unvarnished truth that there is simply never enough time to read everything you want to read. Add to that the processes of noodling over a book's content and then writing and editing a review (none of those go swiftly for me), and even more good stuff through necessity passes to the wayside unread. I guess this post is something of a 'Regret of the Year' award, an appreciation of a big one that got away.

I think I have a good radar for promising material, and back in February when I was putting together my Booknotes entry for Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant's Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (Oxford, 2023) it seemed clear that the authors' work, heavy on quantitative research and analysis, has much to say about revising and improving our understanding of underage Civil War soldiers along with a number of societal themes surrounding them. It's a major study, a hefty tome with beyond typical headspace demands, and at the time I just felt that my personal level of enthusiasm for learning about the topic couldn't match the scale of time investment required. Perhaps someday.

I am happy for the authors, though. I haven't heard of any awards yet, but reviews have been very positive and a number of historians gave it 'best of' 2023 consideration.

Monday, December 18, 2023

2023 Year in Review - Honorable Mentions

It's that time again, time to revisit my favorite titles of the year. You can read my full thoughts on each recommendation by clicking on the review link provided. Really, any of these 2023 Honorable Mentions could have made the upcoming CWBA Top Ten list:

Union General: Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West by William L. Shea [1/12/23 Review] (Potomac).

As a major Union commander in the war fought west of the Mississippi River, Curtis finally receives the modern full-length biography that he has long deserved. The book also offers possible answers to questions regarding why the Union high command, in the middle of 1862, essentially sidelined into desktop service one of the nation's most aggressive and successful field commanders of the early-war period.

July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta by Earl J. Hess [3/30/23 Review] (Kansas).

July 22 is the latest in a long line of top-notch battle histories from one of the field's most talented and prolific military historians. Highly detailed and full of insightful reflection and analysis, this particular Earl Hess offering ranks as the deepest examination of its subject to date.

From the Mountains to the Bay: The War in Virginia, January-May 1862 by Ethan S. Rafuse [2/28/23 Review] (Kansas).

As a single-volume overview of the war in Virginia during the first half of 1862, this is as good as it gets. I would welcome some manner of follow-up, perhaps a natural ending point being the conclusion of the Battle of Second Bull Run, but I've yet to encounter any news on that front or really any indication that such as thing was ever in the cards.

The Civil Wars of General Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army - Volume I: Virginia and Mississippi, 1861–1863 by Richard M. McMurry [3/9/23 Review] (Savas Beatie).

I still lament the author's choice to largely exclude the 1861-62 period of the war in Virginia as not being applicable to his study's primary themes (and I would love to have read McMurry's opinion of Johnston at Seven Pines), but there is a lot of insightful material in the book regarding Confederate high command dysfunction in the West. I am greatly looking forward to Volume II.

Friday, December 15, 2023

CWBA Milestone: Book Review #1,000!

Today's post also marks the publication of the site's 1,000th full review. Cue the balloons and fireworks. I guess I don't have much more to say about it. At least in the short term, the future holds pretty much the same as before. While it's becoming more challenging to produce content (sadly, the number of submissions seem to decline now with every passing year), I remain motivated to keep curating what does come my way. Thanks to all the readers, patrons, authors, and publishers who have supported the site over the years. I hope you still find it worth your while to keep coming back.

Review - " Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862 " by Victor Vignola

[Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862 by Victor Vignola (Savas Beatie, 2023). Hardcover, 13 maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, appendix section, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvii,227/286. ISBN:978-1-61121-682-0. $34.95]

With nearly 12,000 casualties stemming from fighting that raged at Fair Oaks and Seven Pines from roughly 1pm on May 31, 1862 to around 11am on the following day, the sharp clash just east of Richmond between elements of three Union corps and the Confederate army led by General Joseph E. Johnston was by any measure (and especially by early-war standards) a major battle. Even so, its comparatively meager coverage in the military history literature remains a baffling state of affairs to most students of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Mostly consigned to chapters inside wider campaign-scale works such as Stephen Sears's To the Gates of Richmond, the only modern standalone study is Steven Newton's slender H.E. Howard series volume, The Battle of Seven Pines, May 31-June 1, 1862. While Newton's more than three decades old book is still regarded as a capable overview, it was only able to devote one very brief chapter to the heavy May 31 fighting that occurred north of the Richmond & York River Railroad and between Fair Oaks Station and the Adams House. Moving far beyond that spare chronicling of those events is Victor Vignola's groundbreaking new study Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862, which devotes its primary attention to that far less understood and appreciated part of the May 31-June 1 battlefield.

Vignola's book cites a number of strong reasons behind limited coverage of the battle in both scholarly and popular publishing. Walking the ground is rightly considered an important part of gaining a deeper understanding of any battlefield, but Richmond's modern development of Seven Pines-Fair Oaks precludes that possibility. Additionally, precious few Confederate official reports were submitted, some of that a function of many key leaders becoming casualties. In addition to being almost immediately overshadowed by the events of the Seven Days and the rise to prominence of Robert E. Lee, the battle also lacks a cohesive historical memory. With Confederate partisans understandably focusing on the Seven Pines part of the battlefield, where the southern forces had their only successes (albeit at very high cost), and Union sources trumpeting their unwavering defensive stands at the Adams House on May 31 and around Fair Oaks Station on June 1, the naming of the battle flips back and forth depending upon who is asked. In his February 1863 testimony to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Union Second Corps commander Edwin V. Sumner, the highest-ranking hero of the Fair Oaks fighting front, even tried to claim that "Seven Pines was a separate battle" from his own.

Though, for the pivotal events of May 31, the main focus of Vignola's study is on the fighting north of the railroad, combat in the Seven Pines sector of the battlefield is strongly summarized. Supported by maps, all of the context necessary to understand the full breadth and scale of the day's fighting is well provided. In discussing what happened in the Fair Oaks/Adams House sector at the micro-tactical level, the book offers readers for the first time ever a thorough picture of the ground upon which the battle was fought, a highly detailed account of the fighting at regimental scale, and deep analysis of the decision-making involved at multiple command levels. Confederate colonel Micah Jenkins's impressive assault down the railroad toward Fair Oaks Station, well recognized by historians of the battle, is described at length, its consequences being an exploitable breach in the Union defense and isolation of a demi-brigade sized contingent of Union brigadier general John Abercrombie's command around the Adams House.

What the Confederates did not realize at the time of Jenkins's success was that major reinforcements, two divisions of General Sumner's Second Corps, were already on the way. With a strong assist from rising waters that greatly narrowed the fighting front by effectively shielding from attack most of the western approaches to the battlefield, these fresh troops and artillery support joined with Abercrombie (and division commander Darius Couch) in transforming the Adams house rise into an unflankable position and raised artillery platform that together strongly resisted a series of ferocious, if disjointed, Confederate assaults. The resumption of battle planned by the Confederates (now under Major General Gustavus W. Smith after Johnston's wounding in action) for June 1, which did not unfold as planned and sputtered out by approximately 11am, is meticulously recounted in the text as are the extensive rearrangements of the Union defenses designed to finally achieve a continuous front. The top-notch maps in Vignola's book, a massive upgrade over the simple computer-aided drawings found in Newton's much older study, display all the unit and terrain information that modern readers demand.

In setting the scene, Vignola does a remarkably thorough job of explaining the weather challenges that affected both sides. His text paints a vivid picture of herculean Union efforts required in order to successfully pass infantry and artillery through the flood-widened Chickahominy bottomlands. The heavy rains that produced the high water and deep mud that hindered Sumner's reinforcements also affected Confederate movements and tactics. They were unable to bring forward artillery support and, as mentioned earlier, the flooded stream on their left funneled their infantry attacks against the well-defended Adams House position onto a very narrow front. The author seems very confident that had Johnston's battle plan been properly executed catastrophic damage would have been inflicted upon the Union corps positioned south of the river. That's debatable. Given the degree to which ground conditions were so non-conducive to offensive operations and the depth of the Union defenses behind General Casey's Division, one might still be reasonably skeptical of results grand enough to relieve the capital.

The "contrasts in command" of the book's title refers to the stark differences in leadership, initiative, and coordination displayed by the opposing sides. Of the Confederate high command, only D.H Hill, who led the Seven Pines assault, receives praise for his performance. Johnston is credited for a sound battle plan that should have worked but is at the same time appropriately criticized for utterly failing to properly oversee its execution. Most strident criticism is reserved for the abysmal performance of Major General James Longstreet. Essentially tasked by Johnston with tactical direction of the battle (but without written orders!), Longstreet immediately and drastically altered the overall plan without consulting his superior, was a prime instigator of the horrific traffic jam that delayed the battle's onset for many hours, and got only a fraction of the army's available brigades into action on the 31st. He then exaggerated his role in the May 31 fighting, sending a profoundly misleading message to Johnston at 4pm that only furthered confusion. As was the case on this and so many other Civil War battlefields, the competence and hard-hitting heroics of Confederate leadership at the brigade and regimental levels could not overcome misdirection from above. Vignola's narrative demonstrates that common truth in spades.

By contrast, Union initiative and leadership at Fair Oaks, from top to bottom, was superb, and it came from generals not considered among the army's best. Without any prodding from McClellan, Sumner had his command ready to cross the river at a moment's notice and, in getting to the battlefield, did everything humanly possible to overcome the aforementioned obstacles nature placed in his way. Vignola argues persuasively that Fair Oaks was Sumner's best day of the Civil War (and one might say the same for the generally luster-free careers of Couch and Abercrombie). Though assisted by both nature and being the defensive side, overall tactical direction from Union commanders was arguably flawless, shrinking the battlefield into a manageable box swept by brutal infantry and artillery cross-fire action. Union dispositions channeled all of the Confederate attackers into a veritable killing ground.

The most interesting part of the appendix section is Vignola's fleshing out of his already profoundly negative assessment of General Longstreet's performance during the battle. Unmoved by any of the latter-day accolades and defenses directed toward Longstreet's long Civil War career, the author is clearly brothers in arms with the elder Krick when it comes to not being a fan of the general. Throughout the book, Vignola repeatedly utilizes strongly censorious adjectives to describe Longstreet's character and conduct during this battle and beyond. Whether or not one agrees with the author's generalized commentary on Longstreet's Civil War career, the appendix leaves the open-minded reader with a powerful, point by point analysis of Longstreet's deceptions and misconduct during and after the Fair Oaks-Seven Pines battle. Even at this early stage of the war, Longstreet was already, in the author's viewpoint, routinely "insolent," "insubordinate," and angling for independent command. To facilitate the last, the general was more than willing to disregard orders. The appendix convincingly argues that what transpired at Fair Oaks-Seven Pines was clearly not a "misunderstanding" between Longstreet and Johnston but rather willful action on the part of Longstreet to alter a battle plan with which he did not agree. The author also clearly determines that Major General Benjamin Huger, an easy target already under a cloud after evacuating Norfolk earlier under orders, was unjustly scapegoated by both Johnston and Longstreet for the miscarried battle. One enduring question is why the reputation-obsessed Johnston, in asking General Smith to omit the pages most damning of Longstreet from his official report and colluding in the victimization of Huger, directly shielded from criticism the very man most responsible for mucking up his own battle plan. There are a number of possibilities to explore, but a definitive answer escapes us.

There are still a number of yawning gaps remaining in standalone study of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign's stock of battles, Glendale/White Oak Swamp, Gaines' Mill, and Malvern Hill among them, but one of the largest and most significant voids in our pre-Seven Days understanding of the campaign has now been finally addressed in strongly satisfactory fashion by Victor Vignola in his impressive debut Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862. It is highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Booknotes: Confederate Privateer

New Arrival:

Confederate Privateer: The Life of John Yates Beall by William C. Harris (LSU Press, 2023).

Appropriately enough, given the great disparities in scale and significance between them, the vast bulk of the Civil War literature associated with the irregular war is devoted to land fighting. However, there were certainly a number of daring individuals primarily associated with irregular waterborne activities who achieved some notoriety during the conflict. One of those persons is John Yates Beall.

In yet another odd coincidence of a sudden appearance of two new books covering the same previously neglected topic, a pair of Beall-related studies were published during this current catalog season. I haven't had the chance to read either yet (and this one arrived just a few days ago), but it appears that Harris's book is more traditional biography while Ralph Lindeman's study is more focused on operations. I could be wrong, that's just my initial impression.

William Harris's Confederate Privateer "is a comprehensive account of the brief life and exploits of John Yates Beall, a Confederate soldier, naval officer, and guerrilla in the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes region. A resident of Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), near Harpers Ferry, Beall was a member of the militia guarding the site of John Brown’s execution in 1859. Beall later signed on as a private in the Confederate army and suffered a wound in defense of Harpers Ferry early in the war. He quickly became a fanatical Confederate, ignoring the issue of slavery by focusing on a belief that he was fighting to preserve liberty against a tyrannical Republican party that had usurped the republic and its constitution."

While today's readers more widely associate Beall with the Great Lakes region, he cut his nautical guerrilla teeth in the East. More from the description: "Limited by poor health but still seeking an active role in the Confederate cause, Beall traveled to the Midwest and then to Canada, where he developed an elaborate plan for Confederate operations on the Great Lakes. In Richmond, Beall laid his plan before Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory. Instead of the Great Lakes operation, Mallory authorized a small privateering action on the Chesapeake Bay. Led by “Captain” Beall, the operation damaged or destroyed several ships under the protection of the U.S. Navy. For his part in organizing the raids, Beall became known as the “Terror of the Chesapeake.”"

As the war itself intensified, and the scale and aspirations of irregular activities expanded along with it, punishments meted out to captured clandestine agents and guerrilla raiders became correspondingly harsh. Caught up in that evolution, and not surviving it, was Beall. More: "After Union forces captured Beall and his men, the War Department prepared to try them as pirates. But Secretary of War Edwin Stanton backed down, and Beall was later freed in a prisoner exchange. Organizing another privateering operation on the Great Lakes, Beall had some early successes on the water. He then hatched a plan to derail a passenger train transporting Confederate prisoners of war near Niagara, New York, but was captured before he could carry out the mission. The Union army charged Beall with conspiracy, found him guilty, and executed him."

"Based on exhaustive research in primary and secondary sources and placed in the context of more extensive Confederate guerrilla operations,"...Harris's Confederate Privateer "offers a new view of paramilitary efforts by civilians to support the Confederacy."

Monday, December 11, 2023

Review - " Artillery of Antietam: The Union and Confederate Batteries at the Battle of Antietam " by James Rosebrock

[Artillery of Antietam: The Union and Confederate Batteries at the Battle of Antietam by James A. Rosebrock (Press of the Antietam Institute, 2023). Hardcover, 28 maps, chapter notes, appendix section, bibliography, index. 442 Pages. ISBN:979-8-218-18099-7. $44.95]

Perhaps more than any other major Civil War battlefield of comparable size, Antietam was made for artillery. With expansive sight lines across vast swaths of the battlefield, rifled artillery (especially the heavier Union guns deployed on the heights across Antietam Creek) had ample opportunity to enfilade defenders, smash counterattacks, and significantly disrupt both lateral enemy redeployments and reinforcements rushing forward. Countless Confederate accounts spoke of their inability to escape the reach of federal guns. The power of the long arm at Antietam was so pronounced that Curt Johnson and Richard Anderson, taking their cue from Confederate artillery battalion colonel S.D. Lee's famous description of the battle, titled their classic study of the subject Artillery Hell. But the terrifying effects of flying solid shot and shell at Antietam weren't all one sided. As detailed most recently, and arguably more vividly than anywhere else in the literature, inside Scott Hartwig's monumental history of the battle, I Dread the Thought of the Place, there were several desperate moments at Antietam when (in the absence of available infantry reserves) scratch concentrations of Confederate artillery were indispensable to holding the line.

Though it has stood as the standard reference work on the subject for decades, it is nevertheless true that Johnson and Anderson's Artillery Hell is quite limited in scope. You certainly can't say that about NPS certified battlefield guide James Rosebrock's Artillery of Antietam: The Union and Confederate Batteries at the Battle of Antietam, which provides military historians and artillery enthusiasts with all the information they could possibly want. Released by the Antietam Institute's publishing arm, this is the artillery companion to 2021's Brigades of Antietam.

According to the foreword, Rosebrock's book examines 135 batteries in total (72 Confederate and 63 Union). However, the volume does not have defined sections for each battery. This might appear odd at first to readers but, upon reflection, is appropriate to the org progression precedent set by its aforementioned infantry and cavalry companion volume edited by Bradley Gottfried. Being the book structure's lowest-level order of battle scale presented in standalone fashion, narrative and data sections are created for Union divisional and corps (unattached and reserve) artillery and, for the Confederates, artillery battalions and army reserve formations. For those seeking information about a single battery of interest, it takes little enough effort to tease that out of the higher order section of the book in which it belongs. The index helps in that regard as well.

Artillery of Antietam is a thick, 8.5" x 11" hardcover with double-column text. In overview fashion, Union corps and Confederate Wing sections summarize artillery organization, engagement, and casualties on the various battlefields (in addition to Antietam and Shepherdstown, the artillery fighting at Harpers Ferry and the South Mountain passes are covered). More intensive examination begins at the divisional artillery, reserve, and battalion levels. In those parts of the book, component batteries are introduced (with battery composition, strength, and loss data provided at the top) and followed throughout the 1862 Maryland Campaign. With information drawn from a large and diverse research body of primary and secondary source materials (all documented in the chapter notes), descriptive text in regard to battlefield positioning and fighting experiences is impressively thorough and vividly enhanced through seamless integration of abundant participant quotes and perspectives. Suitable attention is paid to the battlefield context of each battery's contributions, and the highlights are well summed up in each section's concluding recap.

Grouped together near the front of the book are 28 maps created specifically for this volume. According to the cartographer's note, these are the product of cross-referencing map data from historical maps with modern aerial photography and surface scans. Utilizing that process to both pinpoint period features and assist in brushing out postwar changes, the end result is an 1862 Antietam landscape, presented at a self-described "high level of precision," upon which to place the batteries. The maps are time stamped and also include nearby infantry units for additional context.

Enhancing the main text's already tremendous reference value is a substantial appendix section. It houses full artillery orders of battle for both sides, strength and casualty tables for each battery, armament tables for each battery, and a reproduction of Army of the Potomac artillery chief Henry Hunt's Sept. 12, 1862 order instructing his subordinates how to better manage their commands.

James Rosebrock's Artillery of Antietam is a perfect example of the type of grand-scale reference tome that readers and researchers dream about, but rarely get, for their favorite topics. This is a must-have new addition to every serious Maryland Campaign bookshelf.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Another couple western theater titles on my early-2024 Want List

A few weeks ago, I posted my top ten list of most highly anticipated titles slated for release during the first half of next year (if you missed it, you can find the list here). As anticipated, more notices have trickled in, and I'd like to single out two more upcoming books that look to be right up my alley.

Much like what Myron Smith continues to do for gunboats on the western waters, fellow McFarland author Dennis Belcher is doing for the western theater cavalry. With his earlier work largely focused on the leaders, units, and campaigns of the Army of the Cumberland's mounted arm, Belcher switches gears a bit (though the two areas of study do intertwine) with his next book The Cavalry of the Army of the Ohio: A Civil War History. Currently scheduled for an April '24 release (though that may change), the book begins with an examination of the "Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee" cavalry units attached to the Army of the Ohio. It then follows them throughout their late-1862 amalgamation into the Army of the Cumberland and subsequent return to a reconstituted Army of the Ohio. Campaigns and battles covered in the book will include "Camp Wildcat; Mill Springs; the siege of Corinth; raids into East Tennessee; the capture of Morgan during his Great Raid; and the campaigns of Middle Tennessee, Perryville, Knoxville, Atlanta, and Nashville."

For students of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, all eyes are currently scanning the not-too-distant horizon for the first volume of David Powell's much-anticipated series, but it will very likely be worth their while to spare some time for Robert Jenkins's new contribution The Cassville Affairs: Johnston, Hood, and the Failed Confederate Strategy in the Atlanta Campaign, 19 May 1864 (Mercer, FEB '24). Preceding Earl Hess's fine coverage of the same events by a few years, the amount of detail contained in Jenkins's two-volume study of the period encompassing the aftermath of Kennesaw Mountain through the Battle of Peach Tree (or Peachtree if you prefer) Creek is unsurpassed. Hopefully, the types of editing and presentation concerns raised in my reviews of those earlier titles [here and here] have been addressed throughout the process of putting this fresh effort together. Arguments surrounding alleged missed opportunities by the Confederate leadership at Cassville (those associated with both the infamous aborted attack and the demoralizing decision to retreat without a battle) continue to this day, and it will be interesting to read Jenkins's take on the whole matter. According to the description, the book "promises to change our understanding of the events surrounding the Cassville controversies and close the gap in its history."

Monday, December 4, 2023

Review - "Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863 " by Timothy Smith

[Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2023). Hardcover, 20 maps, photos, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxiii,394/549. ISBN:978-0-7006-3566-5. $49.95]

Celebrated western theater Civil War historian Timothy Smith's extraordinary Vicksburg Campaign series is conventional in terms of having a chronologically arranged narrative structure; however, its release sequence has been anything but conventional. Published by a different press and not officially part of this series are two excellent full-length studies from Smith that cover events intimately tied to the campaign. Both Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg (2004) and The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi (2018) are still the best the field has to offer on those topics. Smith's ongoing University Press of Kansas series began where Champion Hill left off and after the Battle of Big Black River Bridge with 2020's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863. That one was immediately followed, naturally enough, by The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863 (2021). Sticking to a furious pace of one series installment per year, Smith then backtracked to the very beginning of the campaign with Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862 (2022). Now, in 2023, we have Smith's Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863. The fifth and final piece of the puzzle, The Inland Campaign for Vicksburg: Five Battles in Seventeen Days, May 1-17, 1863, is scheduled for release in early 2024.

Beginning after the semi-disastrous outcome (from the Union perspective) of the Chickasaw Bayou and Mississippi overland approaches to Vicksburg, Bayou Battles for Vicksburg's narrative encompasses a four-month interval that witnessed the federal army and navy triumph at Arkansas Post along with a series of more disappointing ventures, including the Vicksburg Canal, the Yazoo Pass Expedition, Steele's Bayou, and the Lake Providence bypass route. The months of stalemate finally ended with the navy's running of the Vicksburg batteries, the right-bank march of Grant's army to a point well south of Vicksburg, the inconclusive bombardment of Grand Gulf, and the long-awaited crossing of the mighty Mississippi in force. All of the above events were covered at some depth in the pages of legendary historian Edwin C. Bearss's classic Vicksburg Campaign trilogy, but Smith's new study, which benefits from a far more expansive primary source research base along with a richer secondary literature, is the first standalone study of an up and down period of the campaign that ultimately concluded in a major turning point.

The battle for Arkansas Post has never received a book-length treatment of its own, but it has been recounted reasonably well in the aforementioned Bearss trilogy and, most recently, was the subject of some insightful and creative analysis inside Eric Michael Burke's 2022 unit history Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863. Smith's text provides another solid recounting of how the combined Union army and naval forces under the overall direction of ambitious political general John C. McClernand defeated and captured an overmatched but scrappy group of fort defenders. Though the Confederates were able to stymie the initial round of infantry assaults made against their entrenched positions, the scales of victory decisively turned in favor of Union forces when white flags surprisingly appeared in the middle of the Confederate line and quickly spread. Like all previous investigators, Smith was not able to uncover the originator of the unauthorized surrender action that rendered continuation of the battle impossible. The victory, complete as it was and with a large prisoner haul, was nevertheless sharply criticized by Grant as being an unwanted diversion from the main theater effort against Vicksburg, though his anger quickly cooled upon being informed that Sherman was the primary idea man behind the operation. As a supplement to this part of the book, orders of battle for both sides are included in the appendix section.

Arkansas Post indeed served as a momentary morale boost that removed a threat to Grant's river-borne logistics and supply network, but it still left the army in an uncomfortable position camped amidst the swamps, bayous, and ox-bows populating the low ground across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. Instead of returning to Memphis and beginning anew, a Sherman-preferred redirection that Grant deemed politically and personally unacceptable (the public, press, and government would see any retrograde as a clear defeat), Grant and his advisors instead conceived a series of operations aimed at bypassing the Vicksburg guns in some manner and finding a safe place above or below the Hill City for a river crossing. All of these canal digging and army-navy riverine/bayou explorations ultimately failed. Critics, especially without the benefit of hindsight, might be forgiven for interpreting the period as three months of floundering, but Grant's more numerous admirers have come to deem them creative "experiments." Grant later justified the actions of those three months as primarily aimed toward keeping the troops active (regular and purposeful exercise being deemed physically and psychologically beneficial to the men's health) and giving them something to do until the seasonal high water receded enough for the region's roads to become usable again. As the research of Smith and others have revealed, however, Grant's attitude toward those experiments at the time was clearly more confident and hopeful as to their possible results. That said, Smith also does point to documented evidence from the early months in the year indicating that Grant at that time already favored the southern approach that he and his army would eventually take. Smith sees Grant's series of projects as low-risk ventures that consumed comparatively few resources and held reasonable potential (though he does concede that Steele's Bayou was a near disaster for the naval forces assigned to it). While Burke's aforementioned Fifteenth Corps study revealed very heavy non-combat losses suffered by Sherman's command over the extended period covered in Smith's study, far more than would have occurred had the corps been camped upon higher and drier ground, disease isn't a significant part of the book's cost versus benefit analysis of Grant's bayou operations. Smith's descriptions of the militarily relevant topography of the massive Yazoo Delta and the expanse of levee-enclosed low ground opposite Vicksburg are excellent, and his detailed recounting of canal digging and inland waterway operations in those areas is the best of any collective discussion of those events. Smith's explanations of the difficulties and range of possible results involved in those operations along with why each effort failed are similarly insightful.

As April came and flood waters receded enough for resumption of large-scale ground movements, Grant finally settled upon the essentially irreversible decision to march down the Louisiana bank of the Mississippi and ferry his army across the river. It was clear to all involved that once Admiral Porter ran his vessels past the Vicksburg defenses they could no longer return upriver to their former posts. It has often been curious to some, historians and enthusiasts alike, why Grant chose McClernand, his least trusted corps commander, to lead this intricate and critically important forward movement. The simplest explanation is that his divisions were best positioned for the task and he was enthusiastic about the plan while both McPherson's and Sherman's units were more scattered across the landscape. The author doesn't take much stock in the suggestion that Sherman's placement last in the marching line might have been related to his being the new campaign plan's principal doubter, favoring instead the idea that Grant needed someone he could entirely trust to lead the independent diversion up the Yazoo that was a major part of the overall operation. Plus, like McClernand's units, Sherman's men were best positioned for the task set before them. Just as important, Grant would also be present to personally oversee McClernand's leading movement, lessening any potential danger. Regardless of the whys, Grant quickly found reason to become irked with McClernand, who failed to properly dispose of his sick during the march, botched ration distribution, and was held chiefly responsible for the confusion and delays that attended the river crossing. Given the novelty and unprecedented scale of the cross-river passage, McClernand might reasonably be forgiven the last, but the other complaints reinforced common criticisms among professional officers that the general did not devote proper attention to the care of his men. Regardless, the landings were completely successful and McClernand's command pressed inland and seized the vital high ground before the Confederates could react. It was a significant triumph that inaugurated a new stage in the campaign. Twenty in number, map coverage of the movements and battles referenced earlier is comprehensive and in terms of detail level offered spare yet serviceable.

Though the Union perspective mostly dominates the narrative, the book does address well the Confederate high command's internal and external challenges along with its decision-making failures. In the previous volume, Smith raised the issue of a consequential weakness in Confederate commander John C. Pemberton's generalship, mostly hidden in the twin successes of the Chickasaw Bayou and Mississippi Central operations. However, at this stage of the campaign that nascent flaw in military cognition and decision processing achieved full flight. When given time, Pemberton directed military movements and concentrations very effectively, but when the tempo of enemy operations increased the decisiveness and competency of his decisions correspondingly fell. That's certainly not a limitation found only in Pemberton, but it would prove fatal to Confederate hopes of holding Vicksburg from April 1863 onward. The known southward march of a large number of Union troops down the Louisiana side of the river beginning in mid-April, the April 16-17 passage past Vicksburg of a large proportion of Porter's fleet, and the bombardment of Grand Gulf on April 29 were events that Pemberton, still headquartered in Jackson, was aware of, but he allowed his attention to be utterly consumed by the diversionary cavalry raid led by Col. Benjamin Grierson through the heart of Mississippi. Through his examination of sources related to Pemberton's daily activities, Smith identifies a critical period (between April 24 and April 28) during which Pemberton micro-managed the response to Grierson's incursion and devoted far less than needed attention to Grant's activities across the river and below Vicksburg. In the process, Pemberton stripped the river defenses of their already inadequate cavalry screen in the effort to waylay Grierson and, in terms of coordinating a response on the Mississippi River front, generally took his eye off of what Grant's main body was doing before and during the April 30 crossing, which was completely unopposed. Confederate reinforcements directed toward Grant's spearhead were too late in arriving and too few to make a difference.

Smith also heavily criticizes Pemberton's immediate superior, General Joseph E. Johnston. Ever the pessimist, Johnston did not feel that his western theater command could adequately defend the Mississippi Valley and Tennessee fronts at the same time, and sought advice from Richmond as to which was deemed most important by the government. Though President Davis refused to come down decisively on the matter of which front, if it truly came down to it, might be sacrificed for the other, Johnston prioritized his attention toward Tennessee. In the process, he stripped Pemberton's command of most of its mounted forces, leaving the Mississippi commander without adequate eyes and ears along the state's northern border as well as its long Mississippi River shore line. Pemberton's numerous complaints about being left blind and immobile largely fell upon deaf ears, and the lack of cavalry was dearly felt during the confused responses to Grierson's Raid and Grant's April movements.

Bayou Battles for Vicksburg ends with the impending clash at Port Gibson, and for that we must await publication of the next volume in the series. Smith is persuasive in observing that this four-month period is well worth standalone study as strong evidence of Grant's increasing willingness to take calculated risks using decidedly unconventional approaches that could leave his army without secure lines of communication in the traditional sense. It's a matter of opinion, but the failed canal projects and bayou expeditions of January through March might also be viewed as options that had to be explored before the far riskier kinds of decisions made in April, when a truly momentous campaign inflection point occurred, could be countenanced.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Booknotes: Soldier of Destiny

New Arrival:

Soldier of Destiny: Slavery, Secession, and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant by John Reeves (Pegasus Bks, 2023).

This is a focused Grant biography that appears rather unique in its main theme. Unfortunately, there isn't an introduction to provide a more detailed summary of the narrative thrust, but the table of contents reveals that the period of Grant's life and career covered in the book begins with his resignation from the army in 1854 and ends with his promotion to lieutenant general in March 1864. The text is divided into three parts: "Fort Humboldt to Galena (1854-1860)," "Galena to Shiloh (1860-1862)," and "Shiloh to Washington, DC (1862-1864)."

Though the book is obviously not intended to be a detailed description and analysis of Grant's campaigns, it nevertheless "reveals that Grant always possessed the latent abilities of a skilled commander—and he was able to develop these skills out West without the overwhelming pressure faced by more senior commanders in the Eastern theater at the beginning of the Civil War. Grant was a true Westerner himself and it was his experience in the West—before and during the Civil War—that was central to his rise."

Presumably, the volume's "redemption" angle is connected to Grant's Old Army exit from the service under a cloud, his unsuccessful run of civilian pursuits, his association (an outgrowth from his wife's side of the family) with slavery, and the religious/ethnic bigotry infamously displayed in his General Orders No. 11. Among those (and perhaps more), the slavery theme appears to be most prominent.

More from the description: "From 1861 to 1864, Grant went from being ambivalent about slavery to becoming one of the leading individuals responsible for emancipating the slaves. Before the war, he lived in a pro-slavery community near St. Louis, where there were very few outright abolitionists. During the war, he gradually realized that Emancipation was the only possible outcome of the war that would be consistent with America’s founding values and future prosperity. Soldier of Destiny tells the story of Grant’s connection to slavery in far more detail than has been done in previous biographies."

According to Reeves, "Grant’s life story is an almost inconceivable tale of redemption within the context of his fraught relationships with his antislavery father and his slaveholding wife. This narrative explores the poverty, inequality, and extraordinary vitality of the American West during a crucial time in our nation’s history. Writers on Grant have tended to overlook his St. Louis years (1854-1860), even though they are essential for understanding his later triumphs."

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Coming Soon (December '23 Edition)

Scheduled for DEC 20231:

Our People Are Warlike: Civil War Pittsburgh and Home-Front Mobilization by Allen York.
Silent Cavalry: How Union Soldiers from Alabama Helped Sherman Burn Atlanta—And Then Got Written Out of History by Howell Raines.
The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, from the Gettysburg Retreat Through the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 by Adolfo Ovies.
Thunder in the Harbor: Fort Sumter and the Civil War by Richard Hatcher.
Southern Black Women and Their Struggle for Freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction ed. by Karen Cook Bell.

Comments: I've been looking forward to Hatcher's Sumter book for a long time. With the author serving as the site's NPS historian for decades, the match between writer and topic should be a perfect fit.

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

Monday, November 27, 2023

Review - " Conflict of Command: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Politics of War " by George Rable

[Conflict of Command: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Politics of War by George C. Rable (Louisiana State University Press, 2023). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibligraphy, index. Pages main/total:xii,336/488. ISBN:978-0-8071-7977-2. $49.95]

As revealed through every passing year's crop of Civil War books, the troubled relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and Army of the Potomac commanding general George B. McClellan continues to be a source of never-ending controversy and vigorous finger pointing. In seeking to explain McClellan's inability to capture Richmond in 1862 and later on in that year destroy Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in Maryland, a dominant narrative quickly emerged that was subsequently adopted in the historiography with only fringe deviations ever since. Through popular and highly influential modern works authored by the likes of James McPherson and Stephen Sears to more specialized studies such as those from John Waugh [Lincoln and McClellan: The Troubled Partnership between a President and His General (2010)] and Chester Hearn [Lincoln and McClellan at War (2012)], the man dubbed at the time the "Young Napoleon" is largely presented as an exasperating and ineffectual foil to the president's genius. In contrast, George Rable's Conflict of Command: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Politics of War promises a more equitable consideration of why the Union Army's eastern fortunes in 1861-62 fell so far short of expectations. Indeed, Rable's new study, to borrow a phrase from another Civil War title, finds plenty of blame to go around in its predominant focus on damaging political influences.

Exposure to the traditional Lincoln-McClellan narrative is pervasive, but, just in case, the following should suffice as a brief summary of some relevant parts of it. In this understanding of events, Lincoln presents McClellan's army with all the men and resources needed to defeat anything the Confederates might possibly throw against it on the way to capturing Richmond. At the risk of creating powerful enemies within his own party, the president also generously shielded McClellan from political attacks by Republican radicals. Developing over time, through both careful book study and his own considerable intellect, into a competent military strategist in addition to being a political genius, Lincoln doled out sound advice that McClellan consistently refused to follow. Employing both carrot and stick, Lincoln could not get an increasingly paranoid McClellan, who constantly inflated enemy numbers as an excuse for further delay, to move aggressively forward as circumstances demanded. When he did finally advance, McClellan's maddeningly cautious, scientific approach to operations led to unsatisfactory results in Virginia and Maryland. Finally, Lincoln had enough of the general's "slows" and relieved McClellan from command on November 5, 1862.

Of course, the most obdurate McClellan supporters, then and now, would beg to differ. In their view, Lincoln and most of his cabinet quickly came to operate at cross-purposes with their man. By withholding critical reinforcements at critical moments, constantly undermining McClellan's authority and position within the army (ex. by removing him from his general in chief duties, allowing dissident officers to bypass the chain of command, appointing as corps commanders senior officers who opposed his plans, etc.), and even repeatedly questioning his loyalty, McClellan's government critics fostered crippling disunity around and within the army and left the general without the tools necessary to ensure success on the Peninsula. In the minds of the general and his supporters, McClellan also never received the accolades due him for his achievements in Maryland, where he quickly restored the fighting capabilities of the eastern army after the Second Manassas debacle and expelled Confederate forces from state after defeating them at South Mountain and Antietam. McClellan's removal soon after the victory at Antietam was only the final blow of a long partisan political persecution.

There are elements of truth in both perspectives, a powerful common thread being the role politics played in driving the Lincoln-McClellan high command alliance toward failure. Indeed, this is Conflict of Command's primary theme. Using an admirable mix of sources, including a fairly prodigious amount of manuscript research, Rable's study, by way of combining judicious synthesis with the author's own original research, explores how partisan politics seeped into every aspect of the Lincoln-McClellan relationship as well as every other important facet of the conduct of the war in the East over the roughly year and a half period during which McClellan was the nation's towering military figure. At least at the level of seriousness each deserves, all of the issues and charges referenced above (and more) are critically addressed by Rable. Along the way, the author consistently declines to come down hard on one side of the blame game or the other. Instead, Rable exposes readers to a diverse host of key perspectives (from politicians, military officers, soldiers, common citizens, elites of society, and newspaper editors), assessing their observations through multiple angles. The strengths and weaknesses of charges and claims directed by those individuals for and against McClellan and the president are presented dispassionately. In a welcome break from the norm, Rable's narrative distinctly lacks the type of heavy-handed analytical guidance common to works discussing this topic.

In the beginning, it could be reasonably assumed that ideological and political differences between moderate Republican Lincoln and War Democrat McClellan were not wide enough to preclude a successful working relationship. However, as we all know, the partnership soured over a period of months under intense political pressure for the army to advance and McClellan's resistance toward doing so until campaign preparations met his entire approval. As one example of the range of political subjects addressed by Rable, divisive fallout from the relentlessly partisan newspaper war (bitterly fought both independently and through proxies) conducted by political factions in support of "hard war" policies versus more conservative approaches is traced in illuminating fashion. Cabinet machinations and their effects on both the Lincoln-McClellan relationship and the overall progress of the war in the East comprise another theme integral to the author's political analysis. At the center of much of the intrigue, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is easily the most striking individual of the cabinet bunch. As a bit of shorthand regarding what to expect as the reader, it's likely being fair to all involved to say that Rable's Stanton is closer to William Marvel's Stanton than he is to Walter Stahr's Stanton. In what was often a three-way war of wills, forceful Radical Republican attempts (through individual efforts as well as through more collective means such as the infamous Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War) to shape national war policy, promote military leaders of their choice, and remove leaders that did not fit their ideology (like McClellan) are another common theme. In contrast to how well Lincoln played the political game, McClellan proved largely tone-deaf to the necessity, especially in democracies at war, of maintaining a working relationship with the political leadership. He was similarly naive in believing that army affairs could and should be left to the professionals without political input or interference. At critical intervals in the book, Rable also follows the evolution of the eastern army's standpoint on the government and commanding general's linked management of military affairs. Of course, there were no scientific polls available at the time to gauge with any quantitative precision how the soldiers felt about the feuding between the general and the administration, but Rable effectively mined the sources to at the very least come up with a good representation of the range of convictions and opinions held by the fighting men.

In attempting to determine whose shoulders should bear the greatest burden of responsibility for the failed Peninsula Campaign and presumed incomplete victory at Antietam, many might be tempted to judge General McClellan's prodigiously documented and endlessly debated weaknesses as an army commander sufficient alone to outweigh the effects of political interference. However, Rable isn't terribly interested in attempting to apportion blame for what happened in the field as a result of military decisions. In the book, Rable does not revisit at any great depth the well-worn debates over strategic, operational, and tactical matters related to the relevant campaigns in Virginia and Maryland. Clearly, it's partly motivated by recognition that those topics (at least at the high command level) have already been exhaustively thrashed out in the literature, and perhaps one might speculate that Rable also did not feel his own views sufficiently fresh and different enough to merit adding another contributing data point to an already long list of them. Regardless, the conscious tactic effectively serves to remove a reader's temptation to fall back on old military-dominant explanations and arguments. By placing the "politics of war" front and center and pushing more nuts and bolts military matters into the background (though always keeping the latter under consideration in light of their important political consequences), Rable succeeds in forcing readers to fully confront and consider the reality that fractious political attitudes and actions impacted the eastern campaigns of 1862 in fundamental, and all too often detrimental, ways. It's very well done.

McClellan's final relief from command in November 1862 did nothing to stop the ceaseless political and press attacks on his character and war record, so much was its feared in those circles that McClellan might reappear in an important military command. Rable does a fine job of describing that relentless partisan atmosphere. Even so, as many scholars have conceded and Rable reaffirms, McClellan maintained significant popular appeal among Army of the Potomac officers and soldiers. The author seems to agree with those who argue that much of that support level was based on the widespread perception that McClellan prioritized the conservation of soldier lives much more than his rivals did. Arguably, the twin disasters at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville that followed McClellan's relief seemed to vindicate some of the claims made by the general's champions inside and outside the army. On the other hand, searching critics would cite the failure to completely root out "McClellanism" (whatever they might have defined that to mean) as being the principal factor behind the defeats endured by the nation's premier army after Little Mac's departure.

Rable's study offers insightful commentary on the presidential election of 1864, too. Especially after the sharp upturn in Union military fortunes by the time the 1864 election season rolled around, the peace platform that was already an albatross around presidential candidate McClellan's neck figured to doom the Democratic ticket beyond remedy. As Rable ably relates in the book, the Republican press and political machine (aided by their allies on the other side of the aisle) very effectively maintained in the minds of voters an assured equivalency between a McClellan victory and a dishonorable peace without reunion. Nothing McClellan did or said could alter that damning perception. In addition to decrying the fact that McClellan allowed his name and reputation to be attached to the widely despised peace platform, it also seems that many of the soldiers who still loved him could not, on a basic level, forgive him for becoming a politician himself, that detested class of corruptible citizen that many of those same Democrat soldier-voters held chiefly responsible for McClellan's own defeats and final removal.

By any estimation, the Lincoln-McClellan high command partnership that quickly turned adversarial was an abject failure. Obviously, George Rable's Conflict of Command is not the first book to explore and appreciate the role partisan politics played in souring the relationship and harming the nation's war effort in its principal theater during the first eighteen months of the war, but a strong argument can be made that Rable's expansive approach to the topic has resulted in the best articulated and most complete treatment to date. As an explanatory force, it creates a strong political interpretation of the period worthy of standing alongside the more traditional military one. Reading between the lines, it's pretty clear that Rable joins the majority in favoring Lincoln's path over McClellan's, but one never gets the sense that he's being distinctly unfair to either man when it comes to characterizing their actions in a political context. That more open-minded approach to an area of study dominated by critically one-sided analysis is refreshing.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Booknotes: Contrasts in Command

New Arrival:

Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862 by Victor Vignola (Savas Beatie, 2023).

As is the case with a number of 1862 Peninsula Campaign battles, it's been a long wait for a fresh study of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines to appear. The last substantial treatment, a slim volume, was authored by Steven Newton and published back in 1993 by H.E. Howard. It's still a fine book, but Peninsula Campaign students have been craving something more comprehensive for a very long time. Thankfully, Victor Vignola has stepped in to fill the void. His Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862 is the first of two planned volumes, this one (obviously) focusing on the fighting around Fair Oaks and the upcoming one centering its attention on Seven Pines.

From the description: "Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan marched his Army of the Potomac up the Virginia Peninsula during the early spring of 1862 and placed his inexperienced IV Corps at the tip of the spear south of the flood-prone Chickahominy River. McClellan’s opponent Joe Johnston took the opportunity to strike and crafted an overly complex attack plan for his Virginia army to crush the exposed corps. A series of bungled marches, piecemeal attacks, and a lack of assertive leadership doomed the Southern plan. One of the wounded late in the day on May 31 was Johnston, whose injury led to the appointment of Robert E. Lee to take his place—a decision that changed the course of the entire Civil War."

Thirteen fine-looking maps supplement the text. The appendix section reexamines three topics/issues related to the battle, the one that will undoubtedly interest the most readers being the author's detailed assessment of Longstreet's level of responsibility for Johnston's battle plan unraveling. There seems to be a fairly substantial amount of Seven Pines material (and three maps associated with it) included for necessary contex.

Vignola's book is not just about added detail, it also promises fresh views and interpretations. The author's "use of primary and archival sources, many of which have never been used, helped craft a wholly original tactical and leadership study that directly challenges conventional accounts." As we all know, the ground upon which Fair Oaks/Seven Pines was fought has been poorly preserved, hindering its stature among Virginia Civil War battlefields. However, it looks like Vignola's work has also led to "the acquisition of a significant parcel of land by the American Battlefield Trust," which is always a nice bonus.

I am greatly looking forward to reading this book as well as its future companion.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Booknotes: Fighting for a Free Missouri

New Arrival:

Fighting for a Free Missouri: German Immigrants, African Americans, and the Issue of Slavery edited by Sydney J. Norton (Univ of Mo Pr, 2023).

Directly challenging Missouri's native-born, proslavery majority on ideological, social, and political grounds, heavy German immigration into the state during the years leading up to the Civil War rapidly transformed Missouri society. Those differences helped set up an epic factional clash during the Civil War between Missouri's antislavery radical minority (among whom the Germans figured very significantly), the state's proslavery Unionist majority, and Confederate sympathizers.

From the description: "This collection of ten original essays (with a foreword by renowned Missouri historian Gary Kremer), relates what unfolded when idealistic Germans, many of whom were highly educated and devoted to the ideals of freedom and democracy, left their homeland and settled in a pre–Civil War slave state." Glancing through the text, it looks like many essays encompass both pre-war developments and wartime activities, and the final essay, written by a sociologist playwright, explores the ways in which German abolitionists of old inspired her own current work.

Prominent individuals, some well-known and others less commonly recognized by readers of Civil War-era topics, are a major part of many essays. More from the description: "Fleeing political persecution during the 1830s and 1840s, immigrants such as Friedrich Münch, Eduard Mühl, Heinrich Boernstein, and Arnold Krekel arrived in the area now known as the Missouri German Heritage Corridor in hopes of finding a land more congenial to their democratic ideals. When they witnessed the state of enslaved Blacks, many of them became abolitionist activists and fervent supporters of Abraham Lincoln and the Union in the emerging Civil War."

The contributors to editor Sydney Norton's Fighting for a Free Missouri: German Immigrants, African Americans, and the Issue of Slavery collectively "explore the Germans’ abolitionist mission, their relationships with African Americans, and their activity in the radical wing of the Republican Party."

Monday, November 20, 2023

Ten Most Highly Anticipated Titles (first half of 2024)

With publishing schedules for the first six months of next year largely solidified by now, let's look at some of the titles that have caught my eye the most. The following ten books are listed in rough chronological order of release, though dates are always subject to change.

1. The Old War Horse: The USS Benton on Western Waters, 1853-1865 by Myron Smith (McFarland).

I am glad my earlier assumption, that Smith's 2022 book After Vicksburg: The Civil War on Western Waters, 1863-1865 was the author's final word on the topic of the inland naval war conducted in the West and Trans-Mississippi theaters, has proved false.

2. The Army under Fire: The Politics of Antimilitarism in the Civil War Era by Cecily Zander (LSU).

Nineteenth-century Americans held a range of views (and suspicions) regarding the necessity of maintaining a standing national army and a professional officer corps to lead it. Zander's exploration of those debates, specifically focused on the Civil War period, sounds like something that might be up my alley.

3. Massacre at St. Louis: The Road to the Camp Jackson Affair and Civil War by Kenneth Burchett (McFarland).

Trans-Mississippi military, even military-adjacent, coverage has dried up almost completely over recent years. I thought Burchett's earlier study of the Battle of Carthage was very worthwhile, and I am very keen on reading what he has to say about this other important Missouri 1861 event.

4. The War That Made America: Essays Inspired by the Scholarship of Gary W. Gallagher ed. by Janney, Carmichael, and Sheehan-Dean (UNC).

This anthology promotes fresh scholarship connected to lines of inquiry associated in some manner with Gary Gallagher's long career in teaching and publishing. I've always liked Gallagher's work, even when I disagree with it, and I also respect his willingness to openly challenge certain aspects of scholarly trends currently in vogue among the younger generation of Civil War historians.

5. The Inland Campaign for Vicksburg: Five Battles in Seventeen Days, May 1-17, 1863 by Timothy Smith (UP of Kansas).

Of course, this volume (the finishing stroke to Smith's monumental Vicksburg Campaign series) was always expected, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that its release was only months away. I haven't even had the chance to finish the latest entry (Bayou Battles for Vicksburg) yet!

6. Texas Coastal Defense in the Civil War by William Fox (History Pr).

Another title that might help salve some of my disappointment over the recent dearth in T-M coverage.

7. The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism by Eichhorn & Campbell (LSU).

A number of recent books have effectively situated the social, military, and political aspects of the ACW within regional/hemispheric as well as global contexts. The description attached to this upcoming contribution to that body of scholarship suggests a very multi-faceted approach to the topic.

8. Garden of Ruins: Occupied Louisiana in the Civil War by J. Matthew Ward (LSU).

With its state capital, primary city of New Orleans, and large swaths of key territory all seized by Union forces by the spring of 1862, Louisiana experienced one of the war's longest and most extensive military occupations and was an important testing ground for wartime reconstruction. Ward's upcoming occupation history is high on my list of must-reads.

9. The Atlanta Campaign - Volume 1: Dalton to Cassville, May 1-19, 1864 by David Powell (SB).

The volume and consistency of output from Civil War authors such as Earl Hess, Timothy Smith, and David Powell has been something to behold. Entire forests have been cleared, replanted, and cleared again to fuel the insatiable demand for paper. The latest Powell project, his biggest yet, is a multi-volume history of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, and the first volume is currently scheduled (fingers crossed) for next spring.

10. The Battle of Dranesville: Early War in Northern Virginia, December 1861 by Ryan Quint (SB).

As mentioned here on more than one occasion, my eastern theater interests have always centered around the early-war period up through the end of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Quint's book is right in there.