Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Review - " A Man by Any Other Name: William Clarke Quantrill and the Search for American Manhood " by Joseph Beilein

[A Man by Any Other Name: William Clarke Quantrill and the Search for American Manhood by Joseph M. Beilein, Jr. (University of Georgia Press, 2023). Softcover, 5 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,210/280. ISBN:978-0-8203-6452-0. $26.95]

A Man by Any Other Name is not a traditional cradle-to-grave biography of a Civil War figure. It might be fair to categorize it as an episodic psycho-biography that seeks to understand its seemingly unknowable subject in deeper ways than those attempted by earlier biographers. Author Joseph Beilein himself labels it an "impressionistic" biography, and I agree with him that, given the established pattern, the volume is a strong fit for the unconventional types of titles often found in Georgia's UnCivil Wars series.

The book does address Quantrill's entire life, from childhood through his death in 1865 at the hands of guerrilla hunters operating in Kentucky during the war's waning moments. However, Beilein's study is less about tracing in detail all of Quantrill's known movements, interactions, and activities [even his eventful and endlessly controversial Civil War career—for that one might still refer to Edward Leslie's The Devil Knows How to Ride (1996)] and more about exploring what made the man tick. In attempting to understand Quantrill's mindset and motivations, including how an antislavery schoolteacher born and raised in Ohio could transform into the war's most infamous pro-Confederate guerrilla fighter, Beilein utilizes an inventive combination of primary source sleuthing, perspectives drawn from gender role studies, and armchair psychology. Where documentary evidence is missing or especially slim, Beilein often raises possibilities through creative conjectural scenarios. Certainly, an informed attempt at getting into the mind of a long-dead historical figure (especially one for whom enlightening primary sources are relatively limited) requires some angled approaches, but Beilein's speculative passages and scenarios can be unexpectedly elaborate in construction. That said, to be fair to the author's source stretching, he does pepper those passages with appropriately placed qualifiers (i.e. maybe, perhaps, likely, probably, etc.).

As the book's title suggests, Beilein finds that Quantrill, as evidenced through his actions, available correspondence, and reactions from others who came into contact with him, was consistently driven to meet the masculine expectations of the period. According to the author, Quantrill was acutely aware of the standards of mid-nineteenth century manliness and attempted, both successfully and unsuccessfully, to meet them. Quantrill was a good student and attempted to find his path in life through a variety of employments, including teacher, long-haul teamster, game hunter, livestock detective, and, briefly, an overseer. In performing those jobs, Quantrill became an acknowledged outdoorsman and skilled handler of firearms. Those sections of the book often contain revealing information not found in other Quantrill publications. The nebulous "confidence man" period of Quantrill's masked life is also discussed, as are enigmatic personal scandals and the different faces Quantrill presented to others to either hide or reveal his intentions. Like other men operating on the frontier, Quantrill thrived on a series of personal transformations, and the book's study of each one of those allows us possible insights into Quantrill's character and political beliefs. However, as Beilein readily admits, that "shiftiness" also leaves us with profound questions about his 'true' identity.

Beilein avoids classifying Quantrill in only black and white terms, rejecting William Connelley's picture of an inhuman fiend and John Newman Edwards's 'knight of the brush' in equal measure. The book traces the evolution of Quantrill's brand of irregular warfare, one in which a sincere initial attempt at adhering to the tenets of civilized warfare (ex. showing mercy to wounded foes and paroling prisoners) devolved into escalating horrors after Union authorities, spearheaded by General Halleck, branded he and his followers as common outlaws.

More broadly, Beilein finds that Quantrill shared a number of traits found in so many other young men who sought to better themselves in the sparsely settled American West, though, unlike Quantrill, most did not use those experiences to become better killers and guerrilla warfare practitioners. Taking Quantrill's frontier-influenced life path as an example, Beilein joins other historians in contextualizing the people and events of Civil War-era Missouri as primarily West-facing.

In the end, I would still recommend Leslie's biography as the go-to Quantrill study for the majority of readers. However, for those with the time and inclination to read more than one book on the subject, Joseph Beilein's A Man by Any Other Name adds to the discussion a new layer of thought-provoking perspectives aligned with current scholarly trends.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Booknotes: Calamity at Frederick

New Arrival:

Calamity at Frederick: Robert E. Lee, Special Orders No. 191, and Confederate Misfortune on the Road to Antietam by Alexander B. Rossino (Savas Beatie, 2023).

One might be forgiven for assuming that Alexander Rossino has already said his piece about Special Orders No. 191 in The Tale Untwisted: General George B. McClellan, the Maryland Campaign, and the Discovery of Lee’s Lost Orders (2023), supplemented by an interesting related essay included inside Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862 (2021), but that is clearly not the case. His newest book, Calamity at Frederick, is the author's full-length examination of the Confederate perspective on the matter, its content complementing the more Union-focused nature of The Tale Untwisted (co-authored with Gene Thorp).

The book promises new insights on a much-studied episode of the Maryland Campaign. From the description: "The loss of Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191 is one of the Civil War’s enduring mysteries. In this meticulous study, Alexander Rossino presents a bold new interpretation of the evidence surrounding the orders’ creation, distribution, and loss outside Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862."

More: Calamity at Frederick attempts to answer a number of questions, "including why General Lee thought his army could operate north of the Potomac until winter; why Lee found it necessary to seize the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry; what Lee hoped to accomplish after capturing Harpers Ferry; where Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana found the Lost Orders; and if D. H. Hill or someone else was to blame for losing the orders. The result is a well-documented reassessment that sheds new light while challenging long-held assumptions."

When it comes to the Maryland Campaign and Antietam, 2023 has already given us a lot to digest, and it's not over yet!

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Booknotes: The Creation of a Crusader

New Arrival:

The Creation of a Crusader: Senator Thomas Morris and the Birth of the Antislavery Movement by David C. Crago (Kent St UP, 2023).

From the description: "More than 175 years after his death, Senator Thomas Morris has remained one of the few early national champions of political and constitutional antislavery without a biography devoted to him. In this first expansive study of Morris’s life and contributions, David C. Crago persuasively argues that historians have wrongly marginalized Morris’s role in the early antislavery movement."

The Pennsylvania-born Ohio senator's name instantly made me think of West Point-trained Indiana militia general Thomas A. Morris (1811-1904), who was associated with Kentucky (the state of his birth) and Indiana, but I couldn't readily discover if there was any familial relation between the two men.

More from the description: According to Crago, Thomas Morris (1776-1844) "was the first member of the US Senate to defend abolitionist positions in that body. Confronted with Southern demands for Congressional action to silence abolitionists and endorse slavery, he asserted that a proslavery interpretation of the Constitution was a distortion of the text. Instead, he argued, the Constitution neither identified people as property nor granted Congress the power to establish slavery in the territories or the District of Columbia. Although far outside the 1830s political consensus, Morris’s ideas were quickly adopted by the nascent antislavery movement and became the cornerstone of antislavery political beliefs."

Ahead of his time, Morris did not, in the end, fare well in party politics. "Ultimately expelled from the Ohio Democratic Party and denied reelection to the Senate, within a decade his ideas would shape the core principles of both the Free-Soil and Republican Parties’ platforms." The Creation of a Crusader "fills an important gap in understanding the early American antislavery movement and sheds light on Morris’s overlooked yet significant influence."

Friday, October 27, 2023

Booknotes: The Political Transformation of David Tod

New Arrival:

The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War by Joseph Lambert, Jr. (Kent St UP, 2023).

From the description: "Before his election to the state’s executive office in 1861, David Tod was widely regarded as Ohio’s most popular Democrat. Tod rose to prominence in the old Western Reserve, rejecting the political influence of his well-known father, a former associate justice of Ohio’s Supreme Court, a previous member of the Federalist Party, and a new, devoted Whig. As a fierce Democratic Party lion, the younger Tod thrilled followers with his fearless political attacks on Whig adversaries and was considered an unlikely figure in the battle to keep the Union intact."

Nevertheless, in replacing incumbent Republican governor William Dennison early on and laboring tirelessly to further prepare his state and its citizens for a long war, Tod proved those doubters wrong. Indeed, Tod's devotion to winning the war was second to none among the West's governors.

More from the description: "Placing the restoration of the Union above all else, Tod eagerly shed his partisan identity to take up the Union cause. As governor, he quickly pledged Ohio’s support to the nation’s leader, President Abraham Lincoln. Tod rallied Ohioans to support the war and equipped scores of physicians and nurses with medical supplies to tend to Ohio’s wounded soldiers. He also had to protect the state’s borders from invasion by developing defenses at home."

In spite of all that, Tod's strong leadership in prosecuting the war during its middle period (his governorship spanned Jan. 1862 to Jan. 1864), during which he also earned the nickname "the soldier's friend," ultimately proved precarious in the face of fickle allies and voters. By the standards of the war's second-half antislavery turn, Tod wasn't deemed radical enough.

More: "Despite his patriotic service, partisan politics and political intrigue denied Tod a second term. Joseph Lambert's The Political Transformation of David Tod "chronicles Tod’s unwavering support for the Union and describes the importance of a politician’s loyalty to country over partisanship." The book is a cradle to grave biography that includes extensive coverage of Tod's life, business pursuits, and political career before and after his wartime governorship.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Booknotes: From the Wilderness to Appomattox

New Arrival:

From the Wilderness to Appomattox: The Fifteenth New York Heavy Artillery in the Civil War by Edward A. Altemos (Kent St UP, 2023).

Trained to serve siege guns and be capable of operating as infantry in a pinch, the Union Army's heavy artillery regiments served a useful purpose in garrisoning key fortresses. Largely spared the costs of years of combat and disease attrition associated with front-line service, by mid-1864 many heavy artillery regiments possessed numbers comparable to the bayonet strength of a late-war veteran brigade. In the eastern theater, these full-strength rear-area units came to be regarded as a critical manpower reserve, even before the horrors of the Overland Campaign were fully revealed. Recounting and assessing the Civil War career of one of these regiments is Edward Altemos's From the Wilderness to Appomattox: The Fifteenth New York Heavy Artillery in the Civil War.

From the description: "In early 1864, many heavy artillery regiments in the Civil War were garrisoning the Washington defenses, including the Fifteenth New York. At the same time, newly minted Union general in chief Ulysses S. Grant sought to replenish the ranks of the Army of the Potomac, and the Fifteenth became one of the first outfits dispatched to Major General George Meade at Brandy Station." The unit joined the Army of the Potomac in March 1864, and Altemos's narrative jumps right into the 15th's immersion into front-line service, which stretched through the Overland Campaign, the Petersburg "siege," and the conclusive drive toward Appomattox. The regiment spent an eventful final two years of service. Among other actions, the list of operations and battles includes the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Harris Farm, North Anna, Jericho Mills, Bethesda Church, Cold Harbor, Globe Tavern, Chappell Farm, the Hicksford Raid, Hatcher's Run, White Oak Road, Five Forks, and Appomattox Court House. 24 maps accompany the text descriptions of those events.

Regimental studies of heavy artillery regiments are uncommon enough as it is, but this publication also explores the immigrant soldier angle. More from the description: "Composed of predominantly German immigrants, members of the Fifteenth not only endured the nativist sentiments held by many in the army, but as “heavies” normally stationed to the rear, they were also derided as “band box soldiers.” The men were still struggling to adjust to their new roles as infantrymen when they experienced combat for the first time at the Wilderness. Despite lacking infantry training and adequate equipment, they persisted."

Altemos concedes that the 15th performed poorly during its first field battle, but officers and men alike proved more than capable of learning their new trade. Indeed, the book "describes how the Fifteenth continued to hone their skills and distinguish themselves throughout the Overland, Petersburg, and Appomattox Campaigns, eventually witnessing the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia." "Drawing on a wealth of previously unmined primary sources," From the Wilderness to Appomattox "pays tribute to the Fifteenth, other heavy artillery regiments, and the thousands of immigrants who contributed to the Union army’s victory."

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Coming Soon (November '23 Edition)

Scheduled for NOV 20231:

The Abolitionist Civil War: Immediatists and the Struggle to Transform the Union by Frank Cirillo.
War on Record: The Archive and the Afterlife of the Civil War by Yael Sternhell.
Anatomy of a Duel: Secession, Civil War, and the Evolution of Kentucky Violence by Stuart Sanders.
When Slavery and Rebellion Are Destroyed: A Michigan Woman’s Civil War Journal ed. by Jack Dempsey.
The Folly and the Madness: The Civil War Letters of Captain Orlando S. Palmer, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry ed. by Thomas Cutrer.
Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South by Elizabeth Varon.
The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West by Timothy Smith.
A Fine Opportunity Lost: Longstreet’s East Tennessee Campaign, November 1863 – April 1864 by Ed Lowe.

Comments: If you'd rather have the paperback version of Anatomy of a Duel, it 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.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Booknotes: Confederates from Canada

New Arrival:

Confederates from Canada: John Yates Beall and the Rebel Raids on the Great Lakes by Ralph Lindeman (McFarland, 2023).

From the description: "Unable to achieve sustained military success in the Civil War, the Confederacy tried a daring strategy in 1864--commando-style raids into northern states from Canada. Taking advantage of the undefended border, rebels hit targets along the Great Lakes, where growing antiwar sentiment was an election-year problem for the Lincoln administration."

While providing a larger perspective on Confederate raiding operations based in Canada as well as the northern peace movement that they hoped to exploit, Ralph Lindeman's Confederates from Canada focuses on the activities of privateer John Yates Beall. Beall, whose Confederate army service was cut short by a serious wound, first turned to privateering along Potomac and Chesapeake waters. Captured there, he was later exchanged, only to transfer his maritime guerrilla activities to the Great Lakes.

In 1864, Beall hatched a daring, if impractical, plan to free Confederate prisoners held at Johnson's Island. The expedition failed, but Beall persisted in his goal of freeing Confederate officers held in the North. Near the end of 1864, he was arrested in New York state, where he planned to attack a train. That was the final straw for U.S. authorities, and Beall's unusual career finally ended in his trial and execution.

According to the description, Beall's Johnson's Island operation is "covered in detail for the first time" in the pages of this book. Lindeman reveals that Johnson's Island was actually a backup undertaken after the original intention to strike the August 1864 Democratic Party convention in Chicago fell through. The book also explores how Confederate raids from Canada strained diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Great Britain. Possible connections between Beall and John Wilkes Booth are examined as well.

Coincidentally, for those who can't get enough of the topic, in just a few days we'll also see the publication of a full Beall biography by William C. Harris. The abrupt 'publishing in twos' phenomenon strikes again.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Booknotes: Civil War Q&A

New Arrival:

Civil War Q&A: A Knowledge Challenge Handbook by Lloyd W. Klein & Eric J. Wittenberg (McFarland, 2023).

Well, I am finally back at CWBA HQ after an extended trip. I should be caught up with emails and comments submitted during my lengthy absence. Hopefully, I didn't miss any (I did catch a couple missives inappropriately mired in the email spam folder). It being October, by past experience a rather busy month for releases, it was a bit surprising to find only two packages awaiting my attention. The first new release, Civil War Q&A, is a Wittenberg collaboration (this time with cardiologist Lloyd Klein) quite different from the rest of his body of work.

From the description: "This Civil War sourcebook organizes the crucial details of the war in an inventive format designed to enhance the reader's knowledge base and big-picture understanding of key events and outcomes. The war's causes, political and economic issues, important (military and political) personalities, campaigns and battles are examined." Other topics address Lincoln speeches/quotations, secrets and spies, medicine, and the Lincoln assassination. The volume is also well illustrated, as "(p)hotographs and maps have been carefully selected to supplement the topic being explored."

The purpose of the book, as stated in the preface, is to challenge the reader "to recall facts and details and to organize them to better understand the larger picture" (pg. 1). More from the description: Situated within the range of topics referenced above, "(n)early 200 reader challenges stimulate reviews of critical moments, with suggested further reading." The answers to those challenges, as revealed in the text, "are intrinsically incomplete and intended only as an introduction and invitation to the reader to further in-depth exploration"(pg. 1).

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Review - " The Key to the Shenandoah Valley: Geography and the Civil War Struggle for Winchester " by Edward McCaul

[The Key to the Shenandoah Valley: Geography and the Civil War Struggle for Winchester by Edward B. McCaul, Jr. (McFarland, 2023). Softcover, maps, photos, appendix section, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,187/234. ISBN:978-1-4766-8398-0. $39.95]
When a town exchanges hands repeatedly during a conflict, it's usually a strong indication that the location itself possesses intrinsic military value or is a critical waypoint of some kind. During the Civil War, both possibilities held true for Winchester, Virginia, which, by historian Edward McCaul's estimate, was either occupied or evacuated an incredible 72 times between 1861 and 1864, the latter year witnessing the final end of major Confederate operations in the Lower Shenandoah Valley.

The author of excellent books covering Civil War artillery fuzes and the early-war naval contest for Memphis, Tennessee, McCaul describes his new study The Key to the Shenandoah Valley: Geography and the Civil War Struggle for Winchester as being a "philosophical history book," which seems like an apt description given the volume's atypically expansive and holistic approach to studying the role of geography in warfare. In it, McCaul moves beyond the most simplistic and limited definitions of geography that don't advance discussion beyond certain fundamentals such as location, distances, and topography. Indeed, the author approaches the topic of geography in the most expansive manner possible, exploring its impact on the grand strategic, strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare. So, in addition to taking into account the natural lay of the land and the purposeful military and civilian "improvements" applied to it, the book folds into its examination of military geography many other aspects such as key natural resources, technology, climate, weather, vegetation, and soil conditions.

In text and maps, McCaul paints a highly informative picture of the topography in and around Winchester. Situated within a bowl of sorts, Winchester was nearly encircled by higher ground that, in order to adequately defend the town, would have required far more troops than either side was willing or able to assign to its permanent occupation. One can readily see why that quality and others contributed to Winchester's extended cycle of occupation and abandonment, but there were clear reasons to occupy it for even a short time. While McCaul rejects the popular impression that the Shenandoah Valley was the true "breadbasket" of Lee's army, the Winchester environs and the rest of the Valley nevertheless were important sources of food and fodder. As most Civil War students know, the town was a Lower Valley road nexus and drew requisite attention from both sides as a key component of the sheltered raid/invasion corridor that the Shenandoah Valley as a whole represented. Any substantial Confederate force that occupied Winchester was in position to either conduct or threaten a raid into Maryland or Pennsylvania, while on the other side a strong Union force occupying the town effectively screened the flank and rear of primary offensive operations overland between Washington and Richmond. In several places (including in a standalone chapter citing numerous examples), the book constructs a strong case that possession of Winchester almost routinely dictated which side held the overall initiative on the Virginia front. That well-supported argument forms one of the volume's most prominent themes.

All six chapters covering the same number of engagements fought in the area surrounding Winchester [First Kernstown (March 22-23, 1862), First Winchester (May 25, 1862), Second Winchester (June 13-15, 1863), Second Kernstown (July 24, 1864), Third Winchester (September 19, 1864), and Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864)] offer perceptive observations of the critical impact of military geography on conducting battle. These focused accounts are additionally supported by numerous high-quality maps, drawings, and modern photographs. Given the overlap in vicinity, one might expect to encounter a lot of repetition in the text, but you mainly see that in each battle chapter's discussion of geography's grand strategic context. There are actually quite a number of considerations unique to each battle. In addition to being a function of differing strategic and operational conditions, contrasting sizes of armies, time of year, and frequently dissimilar directional approaches tended to make each battle rather distinctive in terms of where on the battlefield, and in what ways, topography most strongly shaped tactics. Also shown are the ways in which other aspects of McCaul's wider definition of geography, such as weather events, soil conditions, and technology (ex. macadamized roads and telegraph communications), also conferred tactical features particular to each battle. The clear common thread is that expansive geographical awareness and understanding were something that every successful commander had to take into account as a key element in the decision-making, conduct, and outcomes associated with all battles.

Succeeding chapters move beyond Winchester, and even the American Civil War itself, to more generally summarize the impact of geography on human history and warfare. An important lesson to be drawn from those discussions is that geography and the ways in which technology can be utilized to exploit or mitigate its impact on warfare are something that every high-ranking military and political figure must attempt to realistically comprehend. History teaches us that failure to do so has resulted in innumerable catastrophes.

Returning to the American Civil War, but staying in the realm of more general discussion, two more chapters look at geography's relationships with command decisions (as related to strategy, operations, resources, and army health) and technology (in the form of steam power, railroads, telegraphy, horsepower, and geographically dependent natural resources). In them, readers are usefully reminded of the fact that, while sagacious decision-making and military technology can be used to lessen geography's constraining influences, complete mastery over the many challenges involved can never be fully achieved.

Edward McCaul's The Key to the Shenandoah Valley is an insightful examination of the many geographical considerations both exerted by and imposed upon a single strategically located town during the American Civil War. More generally, the volume also serves as a useful admonition against neglecting geographical study at the top levels of national civilian and military leadership. It is, of course, superficially obvious that all wars are fundamentally impacted by geography, but, as McCaul reminds us, empires have crumbled and innumerable wars have been lost through lack of sufficient understanding of geographical limitations and through overconfidence in means (technological and otherwise) of overcoming them. Fortunately for its future as a reunited country, in terms of the leadership involved and the established and emerging technologies exploited by its armies and navies, the United States managed geography during the Civil War successfully enough to achieve complete victory.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Booknotes: Stay and Fight It Out

New Arrival:

Stay and Fight it Out: The Second Day at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863 - Culp’s Hill and the North End of the Battlefield by Kristopher D. White & Chris Mackowski (Savas Beatie, 2023).

A number of Emerging Civil War volumes have been devoted to major bits and parts of the Gettysburg Campaign and battle, two of them being Kristopher White and Chris Mackowski's coverage of Gettysburg's Day 1 and the second day's fighting on the southern end of the battlefield. Their latest contribution (without co-author Daniel Davis this time), Stay and Fight it Out: The Second Day at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863 - Culp’s Hill and the North End of the Battlefield, continues the pair's Gettysburg series within a series.

From the description: After the events of July 1 and the establishment of the Union army's famous "fishook" defensive position along the high ground below Gettysburg, "July 2 saw a massive Confederate attack against the southernmost part of the line. As the Southern juggernaut rolled inexorably northward, Federal troops shifted away from Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill to meet the threat. Just then, part of the Army of Northern Virginia’s vaunted Second Corps launched itself at the weakened Federal right. The very men who had broken the Union army the day before resolved to break it once again."

The ensuing struggle—every bit as desperate and with stakes every bit as high as the more famous fight at Little Round Top on the far end of the line—imperiled the entire Union position. “Stay and fight it out,” one Union general counseled his peers. The Confederates were all too willing to oblige." Stay and Fight it Out "recounts the often-overlooked fight that secured the Union position and set the stage for the battle’s fateful final day."

Featured actions include artillery dueling between Union batteries atop the heights south of Gettysburg and Confederate guns on Benner's Hill, the fighting at Brinkerhoff's Ridge, and the evening to night assaults on Culp's Hill and East Cemetery Hill. All of that text is supported by maps and numerous period and modern photographs. The appendix section contains a downtown Gettysburg walking tour, a driving tour of Culp's Hill (both of these are accompanied by photographs and, for the space available, are quite extensive) and ends with two essays (one a brief preservation piece and the other a short discussion—with images—of early art and photography associated with the fighting on the hills). As per usual with ECW series installments of this type, the volume concludes with orders of battle and a suggested reading list.