Thursday, March 30, 2023

Review - " July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta " by Earl Hess

[July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta by Earl J. Hess (University Press of Kansas, 2023). Hardcover, 27 maps, photos, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvii,313/428. ISBN:978-0-7006-3396-8. $44.95]

When the Confederate Army of Tennessee under new commanding general John Bell Hood was in the middle of launching what was hoped to be a decisive blow against General George Thomas's Army of the Cumberland along Peachtree Creek on July 20, 1864, the eastern approaches to Atlanta became more exposed in the process. Poised to exploit that vulnerability was General James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, which was inching toward the city from that direction with the tiny Army of the Ohio vainly attempting to fill the gap between McPherson's right and Thomas's left. Fortunately for the Confederates, the slow tempo of operations east of Atlanta gave Hood, who failed to do much damage to Thomas's command in his first engagement as an army commander, just enough time to respond to the threat.

Its supporting cavalry detached on a raiding expedition, McPherson's cautious advance eventually reached Atlanta's outer defenses, where heavy skirmishing took place on July 21. The next day, after a long and tiring night march around McPherson's open flank, General William J. Hardee's corps, supported hours later on its left by General B.F. Cheatham's corps, launched a furious assault on McPherson's army. Through the opposition's fortuitous placement of reserves (though relatively small in number, those defenders occupied a strong position well behind the federal left), Hardee's four-division attack made only limited gains against the Army of the Tennessee's flank and rear. Defining events on that sector of the battlefield included the desperate fighting around Bald Hill and the death of McPherson. However, stabilizing one front weakened another, and marshaling reinforcements to aid in the repulse of Hardee's Corps dangerously thinned the Union front line opposite Cheatham's fresher divisions. Benefiting from that, Cheatham's attackers scored a breakthrough against the Fifteenth Corps. Mortal danger was quickly averted, though, as Union lines were swiftly restored through a well-coordinated response from the Army of the Tennessee and its new commander, General John A. Logan. The heavy action east of Atlanta on that day likely resulted in over 10,000 combined casualties and was arguably the most dramatic event of the entire campaign.

Until very recently, most of the 1864 battles fought in North Georgia between Rocky Face Ridge and Jonesboro have not received book-length histories of their own. Albert Castel's classic campaign history, still the best available, offers good information about the July 22 battle, but Gary Ecelbarger's The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta (2010) finally gave it its first full standalone treatment. Now, more than a decade later, we have in Earl Hess's July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta the most comprehensive account of the battle yet published.

Utilizing an expansive research effort typical of his work, Hess creates a very detailed yet readily comprehensible picture of the July 22 battle. No previous account has exhibited this degree of depth when it comes to tactical-level interpretation of the battle. All of that description and analysis is augmented by a very large map set of excellent quality, the professional cartography commissioned for this book being a dramatic improvement over the author's self-drawn output of recent years.

The study's analytical range encompasses tactical, operational, and strategic aspects of the July 22 battle. The author appreciates the boldness and creativity of Hood's indirect approach to dealing with McPherson's threat, yet he also finds clear explanations as to why the ensuing attack on the enemy front, flank, and rear utterly failed to accomplish what it set out to do. It was a plan that promised excellent results on paper, and proved in large degree to be foiled by simple bad luck, but, as Hess notes, it also was representative of its designer's habit of underestimating the human factors involved along with the frictions commonly attached to all major operations. Some have claimed that the July 22 battle significantly disrupted Sherman's timetable, but, as Hess also points out, such arguments ring hollow in light of subsequent events.

On the Confederate side of the equation, a number of factors contributed to Hardee's inability to crush the Army of the Tennessee. Hess cites the great length of front involved, highly disruptive terrain effects (ex. many units had to navigate swampy bottomlands, negotiate a large pond, or thrash through dense thickets before coming to grips with the enemy), and the exhausting night march that preceded the assault. Of the two right-most divisions, the commander of one (General. W.H.T. Walker) was quickly killed and the other was poorly led. Even Patrick Cleburne's celebrated division (justly regarded as one of the army's most cohesive hard-hitters) attacked in largely piecemeal fashion on that day.

Indeed, lack of coordination within and between upper-echelon formations proved to be the bane of the Army of Tennessee's existence throughout the conflict. The consensus opinion among students of that star-crossed army is that its regimental and brigade-level leadership and fighting qualities were the equal of any army on either side, but that high level of competence and efficiency sharply diminished as one progressed up the army order of battle. Hess's views are fully in accord with that general observation, but his analysis of the July 22 battle reveals that, in many cases on that day, even the leadership and cohesion within brigades was losing its edge. Thus the sequence of disjointed, piecemeal attacks conducted by Army of Tennessee brigades on July 22, even though they did end up scoring some notable tactical successes, on the whole did not demonstrate their typical hard-hitting impact or their traditional steadiness on defense when faced with an enemy counterattack. Hess notes that only half of the brigades of Cheatham's corps (formerly Hood's) even made it into the fight. Earlier in the campaign, Hood's first impression of the corps that would eventually be handed to Cheatham was that its fighting quality rated among the lowest in the army. In his recent two-volume military biography of Hood, Stephen Davis strongly contests Hood's assessment, but Hess finds fault rather with Hood's failure to improve the corps during his tenure leading it. Going by the ease with which their gains were stopped and then erased, brigades from Cheatham's Corps in particular seemed more confused than elated by their success.

While Hardee's attack revealed many of the same command and control problems found during Cheatham's, Hess is much less inclined to question the competence of the army's senior corps commander for what happened on July 22. Keeping in mind that an estimated one-third of Hardee's strength was lost to straggling during the long, exhausting night march that preceded the assault, the author seems mostly content to forgive the corps' July 22 woes on the basis of simple exhaustion. Hess also attributes the atypical performance of Cleburne's Division primarily to that factor, its pre-battle exhaustion level heightened further by its involvement in heavy action on July 21. Nevertheless, both Hardee and Cheatham were able to produce moments of crisis for the Army of the Tennessee.

Of course, the other side obviously played an equal part in thwarting Hood's attack on July 22. Hess's narrative draws a very telling contrast between the friction-filled command structure of Hood's army and the Army of the Tennessee's well-oiled machine, which responded to each crisis with alacrity and firm, well-coordinated resolve on all levels. Even the loss of its commander in the middle of the battle, which necessitated a number of high command changes, seemed only minimally disruptive. A microcosm of this can be seen in the story of Mersy's Brigade. The unsung heroes of Hess's account, the brigade played key roles in both repulsing Hardee's flank attack and, on the other side of army's front versus Cheatham's men, pushing back and sealing off the startling enemy breakthrough near the railroad cut.

Recognizing that McPherson cut an inspiring leadership presence and was a more than competent administrator, Hess casts doubt on the very well-liked general's capacity for army-level battlefield command (at least at this stage of the young officer's career). While it didn't help that Sherman ordered his cavalry screen away, McPherson positioned his army for the events of July 22 with less than due diligence. Though the detachment that so roughly discomfited Hardee's two right divisions was expertly placed (and well managed by Grenville Dodge and other generals), the fact remains that the army's open left was far from adequately refused.

While the battle raged, General John M. Schofield, the commander of the Army of Ohio, proposed a major offensive counterstroke to relieve the Army of the Tennessee, but Sherman denied him with the famous, or infamous, quip that he was going to allow his former command to fight it out all by themselves. Oddly, that seems to most often be portrayed as as a positive sign of Sherman's calmness under fire and supreme confidence in the Army of the Tennessee. Hess, on the other hand, joins Schofield and others in the belief that Sherman missed a golden opportunity to perhaps cut off an entire third of Hood's army. How an offensive with that goal might have unfolded, or whether there was enough daylight left to achieve such a decisive result, is not fully explained.

Hess engages with other Atlanta Campaign historians throughout the book, most closely with Gary Ecelbarger, the author of the only other July 22 study that rivals his own in breadth and depth. From a readership perspective, an argument could be made that Ecelbarger's study most enticingly straddles the zone connecting popular and scholarly history, with Hess's book more firmly situated in the latter sphere. Unfortunately, when you title your book The Day Dixie Died critics of that view will tend to focus on that particular interpretive point and perhaps not give the book's other qualities the credit they are due. Indeed, the greatest divide between the two authors lies in their assessments of the strategic impact of the July 22 battle. Ecelbarger believes (at least at the time he wrote the book) that the fight was the campaign's decisive turning point and that it "wrecked the Confederate Army of Tennessee through and through" (The Day Dixie Died, pg. 215). In his view, that outcome rendered the fall of Atlanta inevitable and formed a key cog in the sequence of events leading up to President Lincoln's reelection. Though Hess's objections to that line of interpretation, as expressed in both preface and main text, are perhaps belabored, they do strike one as being more persuasive. In stark contrast, Hess portrays July 22 as a significant yet still just incremental step in a long series of interconnecting military events that formed the Atlanta Campaign. This more cautious approach to interpreting the battle's impact makes more room for the role of contingency and, in light of subsequent events such as the Battle of Ezra Church, strongly contests the notion conveyed by Ecelbarger that Hood's army was essentially wrecked by the end of the July 22 battle. Ezra Church battle histories from both authors (here and here), more similar to each other than their July 22 books, were published back to back in 2015-16, and one wonders if that research and writing process might have altered Ecelbarger's earlier views on the strategic-level significance of July 22.

In addition to his main battle narrative and multi-level analysis of it, Hess veers into many interesting side topics associated with the battle. The book's lengthy account of McPherson's death (an event that in some ways overshadowed popular memory of the rest of the battle) is nicely augmented by further insights into the memorialization of the popular general during and after the war. The saga of the Atlanta cyclorama painting is recounted at some length, that massive art form lauded by the author as being exceptionally accurate in its detailed portrayal of the battle. There are also some brief preservation remarks in the text. Due attention is given to the plight of the battle's wounded and disposition of the slain, too. Unfortunately, according to Hess's research, documentation that might narrow our estimates of Confederate losses (which range from an impossibly low 3,000 on up to an equally unlikely 10,000+) does not exist.

Other substantial writings on this topic, including those already mentioned above, certainly retain their value, but it's fair to say that Earl Hess's July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta possesses more than enough matching and unique strengths to consider it the new standard history of that event. Further narrowing remaining gaps in our understanding of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, this book is another great contribution from one of the masters of Civil War battle history writing.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Booknotes: Decisions at Shiloh

New Arrival:
Decisions at Shiloh: The Twenty-Two Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle by Dave Powell (UT Press, 2023).

From the description: Decisions at Shiloh "introduces readers to critical decisions made by Confederate and Union commanders throughout the battle. Dave Powell examines the decisions that prefigured the action and shaped the contest as it unfolded. Rather than a linear history of the battle, Powell’s discussion of the critical decisions presents readers with a vivid blueprint of the battle’s developments. Exploring the critical decisions in this way allows the reader to progress from a sense of what happened in these battles to why they happened as they did."

This is Powell's second contribution to the Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series (the first, of course, being the Chickamauga installment). Here, he evaluates 22 critical decisions spread over five time intervals: "Before the Battle"; "Morning, April 6"; Afternoon, April 6"; "Afternoon and Evening, April 6"; and "April 7 and Beyond." At this point, CWBA readers will be familiar with the general format, so there's no need to summarize it here yet again. There are eight maps included in the volume. In a departure from the series norm (though, to be honest, I don't recall if the author also did this for Chickamauga), Powell's 19-Stop guidebook section drops the lengthy official report excerpts while keeping the focus on the critical decision associations. To be honest, I rather prefer it this way.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Booknotes: Nashville 1864

New Arrival:
Nashville 1864: From the Tennessee to the Cumberland by Mark Lardas (Osprey Pub, 2017).

A bundle of backlist titles from UK publisher Osprey that stretch back to 2017 just arrived. Going in chronological order, the first is Mark Lardas's Nashville 1864: From the Tennessee to the Cumberland, which is #314 in their Campaign series.

The text follows the prolific publisher's tried and true series formula, with sections covering campaign origins, an event chronology, discussions of opposing high commands and armies (with detailed orders of battle), and opposing plans. Those are followed by a campaign/battle narrative, a look at the aftermath's retreat and pursuit movements, and a brief summary of various battlefield and campaign-related preservation topics.

Of course, the full-color original artworks and maps are the biggest draw of Osprey titles, which are always densely illustrated. Maps of all scales are included. Angled grid-pattern maps (these show aerial photo-style terrain with troop movement overlays) address the battles of Allatoona and Spring Hill along with the Murfreesboro Raid. More conventional line drawing cartography is applied to Forrest's West Tennessee Raid, the action at Columbia, the Battle of Franklin, and the climax at Nashville. The color plates (composed of scenes from Forrest's withdrawal from Johnsonville, the 14th USCT's attack on a Confederate battery at Decatur, and Opdycke's counterattack at the Carter House during the Battle of Franklin) originated in actual paintings that are sold privately. The last of the three stylistically mimics the Centennial-era American Heritage battle maps. In addition to those visuals, nearly every other page has a photograph or some other illustration.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Coming Soon (April '23 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for APR 2023:

Burnside's Boys: The Union's Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East by Darin Wipperman.
We Fought at Gettysburg: Firsthand Accounts by the Survivors of the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry by Carolyn Ivanoff.
John Brown's Raid: Harpers Ferry and the Coming of the Civil War by Gilot & Pawlak.
The Civil War Political Tradition: Ten Portraits of Those Who Formed It by Paul Escott.
The Cannons Roar: Fort Sumter and the Start of the Civil War―An Oral History by Bruce Chadwick.
Germantown during the Civil War Era: A Reversal of Fortune by George Browder.
Colorado in the Civil War by John Steinle.
Sherman's Woodticks: The Adventures, Ordeals and Travels of the Eighth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry During the Civil War by Paul Hodnefield.
The Lincoln Funeral Train by Michael Leavy.
The Civil War Letters of Sarah Kennedy: Life under Occupation in the Upper South ed. by Uffelman, Kanervo, and Smith.
I Am Fighting for the Union: The Civil War Letters of Naval Officer Henry Willis Wells ed. by Robert Browning.
The North Star: Canada and the Civil War Plots Against Lincoln by Julian Sher.
Ulysses S. Grant: A Photographic History by James Bultema.
Black Sailors in the Civil War: A History of Fugitives, Freemen and Freedmen Aboard Union Vessels by James Bruns.

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

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Booknotes: More Than Just Grit

New Arrival:
More Than Just Grit: Civil War Leadership, Logistics and Teamwork in the West, 1862 by Richard J. Zimmermann (McFarland, 2023).

We all know that 1862 was a disastrous year for Confederate military fortunes in the West. Richard Zimmermann's More Than Just Grit: Civil War Leadership, Logistics and Teamwork in the West, 1862 attempts to explain why Union forces were so successful in winning battles and why the Confederate armies struggled so much during that critical year.

Zimmermann goes about his task in a bit of an unconventional manner, examining battles through what he sees as six key "elements of victory" (none of which are specifically tied to tactical-level battlefield generalship). From the description: "With increasing complexity on the battlefield and the enormous growth of American armies, winning or losing depended upon achieving as many of these six critical goals as possible: a clear objective; mobilization of effective lieutenants; a competent staff; seizing and holding initiative; deploying all available resources; and realizing a successful strategic outcome. The more goals achieved, the greater the victory."

The book applies this six-part framework to nine western and Trans-Mississippi battles from Mill Springs to Stones River, the sole clear Confederate victory in the bunch being Richmond, Kentucky. Each chapter is presented in three parts: "(a)n introduction that sets the stage for the contest," "(t)he battle narrative, and "(a)n analysis of the ways in which the six factors" [which are present in every case] "influenced the outcome of the action" (pg. 8). Accompanying the text are maps, a high command flow chart, and a table at the very end summarizing how each commander fared (through an "achieved" or "not achieved" rating) under the six elements of victory.

I like books like this, ones that take a different, systematic-style approach to revisiting well-trodden ground. This will definitely get reviewed on the site.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Booknotes: General Grant and the Verdict of History

New Arrival:
General Grant and the Verdict of History: Memoir, Memory, and the Civil War by Frank P. Varney (Savas Beatie, 2023).

Regular Civil War readers are well aware that the personal and professional relationship between prominent Union generals U.S. Grant and William S. Rosecrans was a tense one that boiled over into outright hostility during the war. It is also recognized that those ill-feelings continued to fester during the decades of historical memory forming that so many veterans actively engaged with through various print outlets. Clearly, in the war of reputations Grant came out on top, but some believe that the victory was in many ways gained through a sullying of truth. Historian Frank Varney explored that topic at great length in his 2013 book (it's hard to believe it's been ten years already!) General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War. In Varney's view, our appreciation of Rosecrans's war record faded, while Grant's soared, primarily because "Grant orchestrated the effort."

From the description: "Unbeknownst to most students of the war, Grant used his official reports, interviews with the press, and his memoirs to influence how future generations would remember the war and his part in it. Aided greatly by his two terms as president, by the clarity and eloquence of his memoirs, and in particular by the dramatic backdrop against which those memoirs were written, our historical memory has been influenced to a degree greater than many realize."

In his new book General Grant and the Verdict of History: Memoir, Memory, and the Civil War, a direct follow-up to General Grant and the Rewriting of History, Varney reveals the complex story behind three other Grant "victims" (Varney believes that word is an appropriate descriptor) of Grant's wartime actions and alleged postwar distortions. The trio of generals are "the brash and uncompromising “Fighting Joe” Hooker; George H. Thomas, the stellar commander who earned the sobriquet “Rock of Chickamauga”; and Gouverneur Kemble Warren, who served honorably and well in every major action of the Army of the Potomac before being relieved less than two weeks before Appomattox, and only after he had played a prominent part in the major Union victory at Five Forks."

In his Verdict preface, the author reflects on the positive and negative reaction among readers to the arguments presented in the Rosecrans volume. While same or similar Grant behavioral patterns identified in the Rosecrans-focused book extend throughout this one, the author does also mention in the new preface that the second book can be fully appreciated without having already read the first.

While Varney's opinion of Grant's greatness has diminished since embarking of this two-volume project, he does retain an appreciation of the general's finer qualities. As expressed in the book's final paragraph, in Varney's view Grant "was in many ways an admirable man, and an excellent—if imperfect—general"...who "compiled an enviable record of achievement." The crux of his study's historiographical fault-finding rather lies in "our willingness to overlook the less admirable things he did: and, most importantly, with the willingness of some historians to take his word for it all" (pg. 207).

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Booknotes: Man of Fire

New Arrival:
Man of Fire: William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War by Derek Maxfield (Savas Beatie, 2023).

In his foreword to Derek Maxfield's newest Emerging Civil War title Man of Fire: William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War, David Powell suggests that there are at least eight Sherman biographies worthy of the name. In the Suggested Reading section of this book, Maxfield offers his own capsule assessment of the qualities and strengths of six of them. Given that background, which includes two recent major works from James Lee McDonough (2016) and Brian Holden Reid (2020), and a vast volume of other works, Sherman's life and military career have obviously been covered in exhaustive detail and in up-to-date fashion. Nevertheless, for those seeking either a quick introduction or a modern refresher course, there is always room for more easily digestible books like Maxfield's.

As the author reveals in the introduction, the book's title refers not to the general's much-debated incendiary hard war practices but rather to his very nature, his "fire-in-the-belly courage, scorching intellect, smoldering passion, and blazing convictions." In those ways, Maxfield's Sherman is a "force of nature." (pg xix) That framework of understanding perhaps mirrors the life-theme approach adopted by Marszalek in Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order.

Infused in typical ECW fashion with numerous photographs, illustrations, and maps, the main narrative plus front matter text runs a brisk 150 pages or so. Added to that is a four-part, multi-authored appendix section that includes a register of Sherman historic sites, an English professor's perspective on Sherman's memoirs, commentary from a Sherman presenter who toured a two-man play with Maxfield's Grant, and an exploration of Sherman historical memory.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Review - " Civil War Torpedoes and the Global Development of Landmine Warfare " by Earl Hess

[Civil War Torpedoes and the Global Development of Landmine Warfare by Earl J. Hess (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023). Softcover, photos, drawings, appendix, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xix,192/270. ISBN:978-1-5381-7428-9. $39]

For a very long time, the standard study of Civil War subterra and underwater mines ("torpedoes" in the language of the time) was Milton Perry's Infernal Machines (1965). However, a number of much more recent studies have expanded our knowledge and appreciation of Civil War mine warfare. Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau (2017) by W. Davis Waters and Joseph Brown provides readers with a focused yet brief study of the man and military organization chiefly associated with promoting and conducting Confederate mine warfare during the Civil War. Herbert Schiller edited and published together in Confederate Torpedoes: Two Illustrated 19th Century Works with New Appendices and Photographs (2011) the historically important manuscripts of Rains (his Torpedo Book being a manual of sorts for mine manufacture and use) and engineer officer Peter Michie (his Notes Explaining Rebel Torpedoes and Ordnance offering a fascinating Union perspective on Confederate mines). Additionally, Mark Ragan's 2015 book Confederate Saboteurs reveals much about the previously enigmatic Texas-based Singer Secret Service Corps that became a major player in Confederate mine warfare. Finally, Kenneth Rutherford's America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War (2020) filled the need for a modern general overview of the topic. That brings us to today. Through more in-depth research and a wider approach to the subject matter, Earl Hess's new history Civil War Torpedoes and the Global Development of Landmine Warfare improves upon previous overview efforts by addressing the subject of landmines through themes of morality, technological innovation, and tactical use while also emphasizing international context.

Its oldest antecedent being the fougasse, underground explosive devices more closely related to those used during the Civil War were first deployed by the Russians during the Crimean War. As Hess details in the book, the Confederates experimented with landmines at Port Royal, South Carolina and Columbus, Kentucky but they first came to broader attention during the Yorktown fighting on the Virginia Peninsula, where the casualties inflicted by torpedoes ignited northern outrage on both home and fighting fronts. There, General McClellan first used Confederate prisoners as mine clearing labor as well.

With Hess detailing at least fifteen significant mine warfare locations from Texas to Virginia, and with Rutherford's book overlapping those to a great degree (there are some smaller events covered by Hess that are absent from Rutherford's study), it appears that there is a pretty strong consensus regarding the actual extent of landmine use during the Civil War years. Well supported by the evidence, Hess and Rutherford both independently arrive at the conclusion that Civil War landmines were tactically insignificant. In none of the examples of mine-impacted battles described in either book were advancing Union forces halted or really even appreciably slowed in ways that could be attributed to Confederate landmines. Contrary to Rains's insistence at the time, landmines also failed to erode enemy fighting morale. Advocates hoped that mines might possess a moral effect that would compensate for their producing less than predicted casualty levels, but Hess's research finds that anger and thirst for revenge, not mass demoralization and fear of moving forward, comprised the most typical response emanating from Union soldiers who encountered mines in the field.

It is very often the case in warfare that the introduction of a new weapon immediately produces moral outrage from the opposing side, with the outcry against the enemy violating the laws of civilized warfare gradually softening as the conflict progressed (often by way of a general adoption). In the context of landmine warfare, Hess finds that that common process did not occur during the American Civil War. Inflammatory language found in press accounts, soldier letters, and military documents consistently demonstrated that Union morality-based revulsion, mine warfare being popularly condemned through such loaded descriptors as "diabolical," "un-Christian," or "uncivilized," remained unabated throughout the conflict. Interestingly, though it seems impossible to really measure, Hess traces the instantaneous and widespread popular reaction against Confederate use of landmines at Yorktown to 1850s cultural priming. During the decade preceding the war, several murder plots involving torpedo-like explosive devices achieved widespread and sensationalistic newspaper attention in the North. In the author's view, those reports deeply informed northern popular opinion when news arrived that landmines were being used as a military weapon by the Confederates. Recognizing their utility, Union forces did experiment with anti-ship mines and specialized methods of wrecking bridges and railroad track infrastructure, but Hess could find no evidence that any of those devices were widely used. Strangely, the 1863 Lieber Code did not specifically address landmines, though Hess reveals that at least one Union general formally protested its absence.

Obviously not intended to be a technical treatise, Hess's study does discuss basic landmine materials, design features, and ignition mechanisms, and it additionally provides a good summary of the variety of mine sizes and uses. Even though reliable contact fuses were eventually made commonplace, Hess shows us that professional debate over the superiority of victim-activated versus electrically activated mine systems extended well into the post-Civil War period. Objecting to Rains's frequently unjustified self-promotion and single-minded obsession with mine warfare, Hess nevertheless gives credit where credit is due. He echoes those who have argued that Rains deserves singular recognition for inventing a very sensitive and reliable fuse primer (perhaps the war's best detonator) and for developing the only systematic doctrine for mine deployment in the field. Nothing like Rutherford's detailed minefield maps are present in this study, but Hess does include a schematic drawing of the innovative mine sowing and marking pattern promoted by Rains.

According to Hess's findings, United States opposition to many forms of landmine use continued well into the post-Civil War period (even through the end of WW1). Nevertheless, aspects of mine warfare remained a regular part of U.S. officer training. In exploring the possibility of Civil War influences on concurrent European landmine development, Hess could find no evidence that peer militaries across the Atlantic, none of which exhibited any qualms about their use, paid any attention to Civil War landmine designs and tactics. In looking at landmine use in South America, Asia, and Africa between the end of the American Civil War and the Great War, Hess found that improvised mines remained the typical form. The global transition to purpose-built and designed landmines occurred during the 1930s. Exactly why landmines were relatively uncommon during WW1 on the Western Front (outside of German booby traps) remains unclear, but Hess reasonably speculates that perhaps they were deemed unnecessary due to an already sufficient defensive firepower (primarily in the form of machine guns and rapid-firing artillery) available to armies during that conflict. One of the reasons cited in the book for the tactical ineffectiveness of Confederate landmines was that there just weren't enough of them (Hess's best low-end estimate from the sources is only around 4,000 devices buried in total). In WW2, landmine warfare truly came into its own, with millions of advanced antipersonnel and antitank devices sown into massively deep and wide minefields closely integrated with other defensive arrangements. In uninterrupted fashion, generalized mine use extended into the Cold War period and beyond. The challenges of their presence remain today in many parts of the world where civilians are routinely victimized, although Hess does point to international signs that there use might finally be winding down.

Its wider value further enhanced through situating its topic within the long history of international landmine development, this impressive study rightfully assumes its place as the new standard history of what proved to be the most controversial weapon and mode of warfare that emerged during the American Civil War. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Booknotes: Burnside's Boys

New Arrival:
Burnside's Boys: The Union's Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East by Darin Wipperman (Stackpole Bks, 2023).

Following on the heels of his First Corps history First for the Union: Life and Death in a Civil War Army Corps from Antietam to Gettysburg (2020), Darin Wipperman's Burnside's Boys: The Union's Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East embarks on a deep dive into another Union corps, this one, while also primarily associated with the war's eastern theater, much more far ranging in its service.

Formally organized in Virginia on July 22, 1862 between the twin turmoils of the Peninsula/Seven Days and Second Bull Run campaign defeats and initially composed of nineteen regiments, a core of seven regiments (the 45th, 50th, 51st, and 100th Pennsylvania, 8th Michigan, 21st Massachusetts, and 79th New York) fought with the corps over its entire history beginning with the antecedent Burnside Expedition to North Carolina. From summer 1862 onward, Ninth Corps soldiers found themselves in Maryland, Kentucky, Mississippi, and East Tennessee before returning to Virginia soil for the war's bloody 1864-65 denouement. The corps did so much traveling, east and west, that one member nicknamed it "Burnside's Geography Class" (pg. xv-xvi).

As the subtitle makes explicit, only the "key points" of Ninth Corps campaigning in the western theater are addressed in this volume, its narrative still a hefty 400+ pages in length. Overwhelming focus is placed on the Maryland and Virginia fronts, where "the bulk of the Ninth Corps' service and combat losses occurred." The book's preface outlines its content as follows:
"The introduction discusses the months immediately preceding the official formation of the Ninth Corps (briefly touching upon the North Carolina expedition). Part One's focus will be on the organization of the Ninth Corps and two early engagements, Second Bull Run and ... Chantilly. The second part of this book covers two weeks of September 1862, from the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac through the evening of September 16. Part Three focuses on one day, the devastating battle along Antietam Creek. Next, two parts discuss the movement to Fredericksburg, the terrible battle there, and the year in the West. Parts Six and Seven detail the last year of the war, when the Ninth Corps sustained horrendous losses back in Virginia. A presentation of the postwar lives of fifteen Ninth Corps veterans concludes the book." (pg.xvi-xvii)

In his earlier book, Wipperman warned readers at the outset to expect some unconventional author views on the First Corps leadership, General Reynolds in particular. There's no similar disclosure here regarding Ninth Corps's much more controversial commander. A large body of primary and secondary sources are listed in the bibliography, including a pretty hefty manuscript research section that undoubtedly feeds the ground-level aspect of the narrative in a way that "vividly reconstructs life—and death—in the Ninth Corps."

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Booknotes: Searching for Irvin McDowell (new edition)

New Arrival:
Searching for Irvin McDowell: The Civil War’s Forgotten General by Frank P. Simione, Jr. & Gene Schmiel (Savas Beatie, 2023).

There's certainly more to the McDowell Civil War story than a big-appetite guy more ferocious than Gallagher's mallet when it came to crushing watermelons and who played a major part in losing two key eastern theater battles at Manassas. However, as anyone interested in the man has been repeatedly informed, the lack of any significant body of McDowell personal papers has long held potential biographers at arm's length. It is unquestionable that he was one of the most important Union figures of 1861-62.

From the description: Major General Irvin McDowell "was a prominent figure during the early months of the Civil War. With so much at stake, he was called upon to lead the Union’s largest Eastern Theater army. Pressed by the media and President Abraham Lincoln to move into Virginia and defeat the Confederates gathering there, McDowell led his neophyte army out to the plains of Manassas and was soundly defeated. McDowell went on to hold an independent command in northern Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign and serve in the Army of Virginia under Maj. Gen. John Pope during the disastrous Second Bull Run Campaign." The general was also a key witness in the infamous Porter court martial trial that followed.

A fresh cache of McDowell papers may or may not emerge (for now we just have "official documents, a few letters, and orders to and from others"). Until such an event occurs, Frank Simione and Gene Schmiel's Searching for Irvin McDowell: The Civil War’s Forgotten General serves as "a reliable and readable synthesis of the man and his career." You might recall that this biographical treatment was self-published just a short time ago under the slightly different title of Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General (2021). You can peruse my review of that version HERE.

If you are understandably wondering whether this new title is a revised and expanded edition or a straight reprint reformatted in the SB style, I've been informed by Gene Schmiel that the former is the case. Indeed, as mentioned before in March's Coming Soon post, according to Schmiel the SB edition is "much enhanced, with considerably more attention to the trials of Porter and McDowell." More detail than that I do not know. The new preface is coy about what differences there are inside. William Marvel's Porter book from 2021 appears in the new bibliography so there is presumably some fresh engagement with that major work.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Review - " The Civil Wars of General Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army - Volume I: Virginia and Mississippi, 1861–1863 " by Richard McMurry

[The Civil Wars of General Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army - Volume I: Virginia and Mississippi, 1861–1863 by Richard M. McMurry (Savas Beatie, 2023). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, footnotes, index. Pages main/total:xxii,326/358. ISBN:978-1-61121-592-2. $34.95]

The personality, character, and leadership flaws of President Jefferson Davis and General Joseph E. Johnston, many of which seriously damaged the Confederate South's bid for independence, are well documented in Civil War history and biography. As part of an Old Army culture justifiably conscious of seniority, Johnston possessed an almost pathological obsession with rank and reputation, treating any professional criticism directed his way as an attempt to personally destroy him. Consuming jealousy also led him to create one-sided rivalries, most notably with fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee. As an army-level commander Johnston was profoundly risk averse, too often unduly pessimistic in outlook, and communicated poorly, when he communicated at all, with his superiors. Reporting directly to Richmond, Johnston, unlike Lee, never found a way to forge a positive working relationship with Davis. He made things worse by associating openly with Davis's emerging political critics, particularly Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas. This was a foolish professional impropriety that Lee studiously avoided.

Equally thin-skinned, President Davis would waste enormous amounts of time and mental energy writing long letters to generals explaining how he was right and they were wrong, with Johnston being on the receiving end of a great many of those scribbling campaigns. An infamous micromanager in military and government affairs best left to subordinates, Davis would then shrink from issuing direct orders to his generals when critically important decisions, those that only the chief executive could meaningfully address, needed to be made. In areas of overlapping responsibility, Davis frequently failed to establish a clear chain of command, often to disastrous effect. Deeply committed to the cause of Confederate military victory and national independence, the president conducted affairs under the fatally naive assumption that all of his generals, without need of any compelling influence from above, would cheerfully cooperate toward achieving those same ends, along the way casting aside any and all personal dislikes and jealousies for the greater good.

Traits such as those above may be merely troublesome in an individual but can become catastrophic in combination when found in a warring nation's commander in chief and leading general. When Davis and Johnston interacted during points of crisis they came together like oil and water, and it was all too often a recipe for military disaster. Historian Richard McMurry's The Civil Wars of General Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army - Volume I: Virginia and Mississippi, 1861–1863, the first of two installments, signally warns against underestimating the significance of personality in war direction.

One thing that needs to be mentioned at the outset is that this volume is not a full military biography of General Johnston's 1861-63 Civil War service, nor is it presented in a typical narrative format. Its organization is more closely akin to a theme-based essay compilation. This less conventional approach is clearly disclosed to potential readers in both the publisher's description and the author's introduction. Readers are also forewarned that the book contains no detailed account or critical analysis of Johnston's military decisions and generalship during 1861-62 in Virginia. That will likely disappoint a substantial set of readers, who may or may not agree with McMurry that those early-war operations "did not become the subjects of major disputes between the President and the general, and they do not tell us very much about Johnston the general or Johnston the man" (pg. xvii). That's an arguable point, as the literature tells us that Davis was greatly dissatisfied with Johnston's uncommunicative nature during both the precipitate retreat from Centreville and the withdrawal from Yorktown to Richmond. As a way to explore the contrasting personalities and leadership qualities of Johnston and Davis the essay-style format works well enough, though overlap, repetition, and constant references back and forth between chapters can become distracting on occasion.

Other controversial Confederate generals (ex. Braxton Bragg and John C. Pemberton) are brought into the discussion of Johnston's 'civil wars,' but Johnston's self-styled rival Robert E. Lee figures most prominently. Indeed, Lee himself takes center stage during several lengthy discourses. The author has a good reason for this. McMurry's Lee acts not as a foil to Johnston (as the latter might suggest) but instead his lingering presence in the study constitutes a rather brilliantly drawn contextual tool designed to show readers how forging an effective professional alliance with the prickly Davis was neither impossible nor gained only through uncontested agreement. Lee's actions, through many of the interpersonal strategies outlined in the text, proved that it was possible to harmoniously communicate with Davis while also frequently getting one's own way when opinions clashed. As McMurry demonstrates at length, Johnston was never willing or able to emulate Lee's far more perceptive and effective people-person path in leader-subordinate interaction.

Like other writers, McMurry traces the first major breach between Johnston and Davis to the administration's summer 1861 submission of its seniority list for the army's five full generals. In what ways misconceptions regarding adapted rules and regulations inflamed their differences are also revealed. Other early-war sources of dissension are also detailed and persuasively analyzed. For example, the book's lengthy presentation of the government initiative aimed at reorganizing the army into state brigades (rather than the mixed-state ones that were already commonly formed) might seem out of place in terms of how much coverage is attached to it, but it serves as a good early example of how disagreements between Johnston and Davis often devolved into lengthy, and frequently petty, quarrels. Here again Lee is insightfully brought into the examination, the contrast between his and Johnston's approach clearly demonstrating that Lee, who agreed with many of Johnston's viewpoints on the matter, was far more adept than Johnston in resolving differences with Davis.

Unlike his near-absent coverage of Johnston's field generalship during 1861-62, where again the author feels the personal and military disputes between Davis and the general were largely inconsequential, McMurry goes into some detail regarding Johnston's mid-war appointment to departmental-level authority in the West, where the general was expected to coordinate the efforts of Bragg's army in Tennessee with those of Pemberton's army in Mississippi. As all Civil War students know, Davis's cordon defense strategy was abandoned after a string of early-1862 disasters in the West, replaced by a new offensive-defensive strategy that emphasized mobility and concentration to leverage the Confederacy's presumed advantage in possessing interior lines. McMurry's coverage of the new strategy, its development, and its major flaws contains one of the sharpest analyses of it that one can find in the Civil War literature. A good idea in theory, the offensive-defensive strategy broke down under Confederate reality. By late-1862 Confederate logistics and communications were already beginning to seriously deteriorate, foiling the quick response that the offensive-defensive strategy required in order to work. As the author outlines, nearly infallible intelligence regarding enemy intentions was also a necessary component, as the strategy required quick victory over the opponent's main effort following by rapid reoccupation of friendly territory lost during the initial concentration effort. Given those limitations, implementing such a strategy on a consistent basis would have been immensely difficult under the best of circumstances. In the author's view, successful application was largely impossible across the vast western theater that was Johnston's new responsibility.

Once again, frank communication between Johnston and Davis was dismal during this period, and the pair set to quarreling over strategy almost immediately. Johnston was never comfortable with his prescribed authority and struggled to obtain an unambiguous directive from the president regarding which front (Middle Tennessee or the remaining Confederate-held stretch of Mississippi River between Vicksburg and Port Hudson) was to be prioritized over the other when push came to shove. Even after Davis was able to meet with Johnston and Pemberton in person in Mississippi to discuss strategy, it was still never made crystal clear to all involved what should be done in the event that a decision needed to be made between evacuating Vicksburg (in the process preserving the army as a mobile force) or holding the town under all circumstances and risking a siege. Worse, Davis further muddied official channels by allowing Pemberton to bypass the normal chain of command and communicate with Richmond directly. That left Johnston without full awareness of Pemberton's situation, and, ruinously, Pemberton interpreted Davis's wishes as requiring that Vicksburg itself be held on to at all costs. One would have thought that after the mass surrenders of Fort Donelson, Island No. 10, and Arkansas Post, western commanders would have been explicitly enjoined by Davis to avoid investment at all costs. The author does credit Johnston with at least attempting to comply with Davis's new strategy, formulating what he calls a "pipeline" arrangement of western theater forces to facilitate rapid rail redeployment. Tragically as it turned out for Pemberton, though, Johnston also stripped Mississippi of most of its mounted forces in order to create a single large cavalry corps that could help cover the vast space between the Mississippi and Tennessee fronts.

After U.S. Grant's army finally landed on the Mississippi River's east bank below Vicksburg and struck inland, coordination and communication between Johnston and Pemberton utterly failed. To Johnston's dismay, as the military situation in Mississippi crumbled under Grant's series of hammer blows (the last two being major routs at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge), Pemberton ignored his immediate superior's direct order to evacuate Vicksburg and save the army. Earlier, Pemberton also disobeyed Johnston's order to strike eastward toward Grant's advancing army, instead embarking on a southern detour and countermarch that left the Mississippi army ill-prepared to fight at Champion Hill [note: for a more sympathetic treatment of Pemberton's actions see David M. Smith's careful editing of the general's own defense of his Vicksburg Campaign conduct, published in 1999 under the title Compelled to Appear in Print: The Vicksburg Manuscript of General John C. Pemberton]. Both generals are subject to criticism during this time. McMurry acknowledges that Johnston, after evacuating Jackson and marching its defenders northeast toward Canton, did a poor job of following up on his earlier order directing Pemberton to march toward him for some undefined combined action against Grant's army. At the same time, in the aftermath of Grant's investment of Vicksburg, the author does not simply dismiss Johnston as wallowing in pessimistic self-pity and going nothing with his growing Army of Relief. Historians agree that Vicksburg itself was impossible to hold at that point, the remaining question being whether it was still possible to somehow save its defending army. Combining his own views with those of other scholars, McMurry impressively outlines the great many levels of geographical, communication, cooperation, and military strength-based challenges that Johnston would have needed to overcome in order to have any chance of breaking Grant's stranglehold on Vicksburg. At this point, even Johnston's harshest critics have to admit that the window of opportunity in which to act with any hope for success, and which essentially closed after Grant received massive reinforcements in June, was almost impossibly narrow given the litany of obstacles faced. In a rare defense, McMurry seems to part ways with most critics, including the most recent chronicler of the Vicksburg siege, when it comes to making an ultimate judgement of Johnston's actions during this period. Where others see a lack of moral courage during a military emergency that required risking the safety of the Vicksburg relief army, McMurry sees justifiable prudence.

One would like to believe that intelligent, dutiful, and devoted men with lofty military backgrounds would always be able to cast aside personal differences in pursuit of a common goal (especially one with so little margin for absorbing costly self-inflicted wounds), but flawed humanity dictates otherwise. Really, it should surprise no one that qualities of personality and character within a nation's military high command can exert a profound influence on victory and defeat. However, the dysfunction between Davis and Johnston, in both its depth and the frequency with which it reared it ugly head during critical junctures throughout the length of the war, is revealed to be a fairly extreme case study of two leaders bringing out the worst in each other. As Volume I ends, the seeds of conflict between Johnston and Davis that were initially sown in Virginia during the war's first year reached such toxic levels by late-1862 through mid-1863 that they contributed mightily to irretrievable disaster on a level that would seriously impact the Confederacy's ability to effectually wage war going forward. Yet even after all this, Davis, believing he lacked suitable alternatives, continued to turn to Johnston to lead principal Confederate field armies in 1864 and 1865. But that awaits us in Volume II, where the full picture detailing how their incompatible natures went a long way toward dooming the South's quest for independence will be completed.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Booknotes: Cherokee Civil Warrior

New Arrival:
Cherokee Civil Warrior: Chief John Ross and the Struggle for Tribal Sovereignty by W. Dale Weeks (OU Press, 2023).

From the description: "The son of a Scottish father and mixed-blood Indian mother, John Ross served the Cherokee Nation in a public capacity for nearly fifty years, thirty-eight as its constitutionally elected principal chief. Historian W. Dale Weeks describes Ross’s efforts to protect the tribe’s interests amid systematic attacks on indigenous culture throughout the nineteenth century, from the forced removal policies of the 1830s to the exigencies of the Civil War era. At the outset of the Civil War, Ross called for all Cherokees, slaveholding and nonslaveholding, to remain neutral in a war they did not support—a position that became untenable when the United States withdrew its forces from Indian Territory. The vacated forts were quickly occupied by Confederate troops, who pressured the Cherokees to align with the South."

Horizons have expanded a bit of late, but, as often mentioned, the Cherokee experience still fairly dominates the scholarship addressing the Civil War in Indian Territory. In the popular literature, the Watie faction opposing Ross, particularly Watie himself, has received more attention. It's about time for a modern reexamination of Stand Watie's place in the war, too, but I've long yearned for a new book specifically focused on Ross's Civil War years. Cherokee Civil Warrior appears to offer just such a thing.

Weeks's study presents the story of Ross and the Civil War "as part of the history of U.S. “Indian policy,” failed foreign relations, and the Anglo-American conquest of the American West." I will also be interested to read the author's opinion of the relationship between Lincoln and Ross. In the book, Weeks "clarifies President Abraham Lincoln’s acknowledgment of the federal government’s abrogation of its treaty obligation and his commitment to restoring political relations with the Cherokees—a commitment abruptly ended when his successor Andrew Johnson instead sought to punish the Cherokees for their perceived disloyalty."

"Centering a Native point of view," Cherokee Civil Warrior "recasts and expands what we know about John Ross, the Cherokee Nation, its commitment to maintaining its sovereignty, and the Civil War era in Indian Territory." Looking forward to learning about it.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Booknotes: Civil War Torpedoes and the Global Development of Landmine Warfare

New Arrival:
Civil War Torpedoes and the Global Development of Landmine Warfare by Earl J. Hess (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

From the description: Earl Hess's Civil War Torpedoes and the Global Development of Landmine Warfare "recounts the use of landmines in the American Civil War from their predecessors before 1861through their legacy in the post-Cold War era. A handful of Confederates pioneered the use of torpedoes, as landmines were commonly called in the 1860s, burying them in front of fortifications, along roads, and as booby traps. Federal troops quickly learned how to deal with them, often using Confederate prisoners to dig them up." Though the devices were used in earlier conflicts, notably during the Crimean War, "(t)he first doctrine of landmine use in global history appeared during the Civil War."

Both being recent studies closely focused on landmines (their submarine variants only lightly touched upon), Hess's study is most similar to Kenneth Rutherford's America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War (2020). Hess's introduction offers a useful literature survey and assessment, his own work claiming improvements over Rutherford in the areas of research and source handling along with global contextualization of landmine development. Four major themes associated with landmines are explored in this book: "(t)hree of them are morality, tactics, and technology, and placing Civil War landmines within the context of global history is the fourth purpose of this study" (pg. xv).

More from the description: "Hess discusses not only the technical and tactical aspects of the Civil War torpedo, but the morality and doctrine that surrounded this weapon in ways that illuminate how modern landmines have shaped international conflicts to our own time. Through intensive research in archival institutions, published primary sources, and technical literature, Hess has created the definitive account of Civil War era landmine warfare within its global context." I am about four chapters in right now and like it a lot so far.