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.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Booknotes: Stories from the Antietam Campaign

New Arrival:

Stories from the Antietam Campaign: A Historical Remembrance by Jimmy Keenan (Author, 2023).

Stories from the Antietam Campaign describes itself as "a collection of random articles related to the Confederate Army’s invasion of Maryland in September 1862." As explained by author Jimmy Keenan in his prologue, the Antietam article forms found in this book were directly inspired by the "short stories/vignettes that were interspersed among the articles" presented in Civil War Times Illustrated's Gettysburg commemorative magazine from the 1960s. Keenan's Stories contains forty such pieces.

Chapters explore a wide range of Antietam-related topics. More from the description: "The book’s Introduction starts with a summary of the entire Antietam Campaign. The following chapters are an assortment of short stories and vignettes. These essays include the legend of Barbara Fritchie along with the author’s theory regarding Robert E. Lee’s Lost Order. In addition, any questions about the location of McClellan’s headquarters during the Battle of Antietam are cleared up by the general’s own words. The fall of Harper’s Ferry, along with other events from this pivotal time in American history, are included in this Civil War anthology."

Maps, photographs, drawings, and other illustrations are sprinkled throughout. Article length varies, with the forty pieces plus introduction and epilogue spread among 350 pages of main text. Many chapters contain additional commentary in the form of an "Author's Note." At the end of each article, readers will find a source list and chapter notes.

Friday, November 17, 2023

2023 Civil War book award winners list

Dan and Marilyn Laney Prize:
Jeffry Wert for The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle (UNC) [site review].

Richard Barksdale Harwell Book Award:
Jeffry Wert for The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle (UNC) [site review].

A.M. Pate Award:
William Shea for Union General: Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West (Potomac) [site review].

Albert Castel Book Award:
(This is a biennial prize awarded on even-numbered years)

Wiley-Silver Prize:
David Thomson for Bonds of War: How Civil War Financial Agents Sold the World on the Union (UNC).

Fletcher Pratt Award:
Victor Vignola for Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862 (SB) [site review].

Tom Watson Brown Award:
R. Isabela Morales for Happy Dreams of Liberty: An American Family in Slavery and Freedom (Oxford).

Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History:
Elizabeth Leonard for Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life (UNC).

Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize:
Co-Winners: Jonathan White for A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House (Rowman & Littlefield) and John Meacham for And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle (Random House).

Douglas Southall Freeman History Award:
Stephen Davis and Bill Hendrick for The Atlanta Daily Intelligencer Covers the Civil War (UTenn).

OAH Civil War and Reconstruction Book Award:
Dale Kretz for Administering Freedom: The State of Emancipation after the Freedmen’s Bureau (CNA).

The Edwin C. Bearss Book Award:
Hampton Newsome for Gettysburg's Southern Front: Opportunity and Failure at Richmond (Kansas) [site review].

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Booknotes: Final Resting Places

New Arrival:

Final Resting Places: Reflections on the Meaning of Civil War Graves edited by Brian Matthew Jordan & Jonathan W. White (UGA Press, 2023).

From the description: Final Resting Places "brings together some of the most important and innovative scholars of the Civil War era to reflect on what death and memorialization meant to the Civil War generation―and how those meanings still influence Americans today."

In obvious ways, this volume reminds me of the 2019 book Civil War Places: Seeing the Conflict through the Eyes of Its Leading Historians (UNC Press), edited by Gary Gallagher and Matthew Gallman, itself inspired by the pair's 2015 book Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War (UGA Press). In those books, contributors were invited to consider, through both professional and personal perspectives, the significance of the topic at hand, in their cases selected places and favorite photographic images. This volume, edited by Brian Matthew Jordan and Jonathan W. White, returns to the place theme, in particular Civil War-era graves and associated memorials.

More from the description: "In each essay, a noted historian explores a different type of gravesite―including large marble temples, unmarked graves beneath the waves, makeshift markers on battlefields, mass graves on hillsides, neat rows of military headstones, university graveyards, tombs without bodies, and small family plots. Each burial place tells a unique story of how someone lived and died; how they were mourned and remembered. Together, they help us reckon with the most tragic period of American history." The volume, handsomely presented (often in color) and printed on thick, glossy paper stock, is heavily illustrated with photographs and other illustrations.

In the book, twenty-eight chapters covering the same number of gravesites, the most afar located in Brazil, are organized into three main sections: "Common Soldiers and Sailors," "Generals and Their Steeds," and "Civilians." As noted in the introduction, each essay "features a leading scholar meditating on the long shadows cast by the Civil War dead." Each writer was encouraged to "tell compelling stories that take us to unexpected places." In doing so, contributors were further invited to "embrace the tool of autobiography if they felt it appropriate" (pg. 2).

As one example, William C. Davis's chapter takes readers to the side-by-side gravesite of Confederate general Gabriel Wharton and his wife Nannie. Their wartime marriage (made closer in many ways by the war's shared crises), family life, and postwar life are recounted. On a personal level, Davis relates that his own great-great-grandfather fought and died as a private in Wharton's regiment, the 45th Virginia, and Davis taught at the university that Wharton advocated for during his life. Additionally, Davis's own wife has connections to properties once owned by Nannie's family (the Radford's). Thus, in more than one way, Davis feels that the Whartons are connected across time to his own life and marriage.

As further explained in the introduction, Final Resting Places: Reflections on the Meaning of Civil War Graves has two main themes. The first is the "power of place," and the second surrounds the enduring power of gravesites to serves as prisms "through which successive generations have viewed and understood the conflict" (pg. 9). The symbolism of both, of course, often evolves over time. Overall, Jordan and White "hope that taken together, the pieces presented here invite further reflection on the personal and political consequences of our nation's defining conflict" (pg. 11).

Monday, November 13, 2023

Booknotes: Anatomy of a Duel

New Arrival:

Anatomy of a Duel: Secession, Civil War, and the Evolution of Kentucky Violence by Stuart W. Sanders (UP of Kentucky, 2023).

When I think of Civil War duels, ones actually carried out and properly conducted under the agreed upon rules of the time, the only affair that immediately comes to mind is the fatal September 1863 encounter in Arkansas between Confederate generals John S. Marmaduke and Lucius M. "Marsh" Walker. Wikipedia lists a dozen other Confederate duels. It has been suggested that there were no Civil War duels between Union officers, but Stuart Sanders's Anatomy of a Duel: Secession, Civil War, and the Evolution of Kentucky Violence examines one fought between a Union officer and a civilian.

From the description: Though American dueling tradition essentially disappeared in the North long before the outbreak of the Civil War, the deadly practice remained a part of Southern culture. "During the Civil War, two prominent Kentuckians―one a Union colonel and the other a pro-Confederate civilian―continued this legacy by dueling. At a time when thousands of soldiers were slaughtering one another on battlefields, Colonel Leonidas Metcalfe and William T. Casto transformed the bank of the Ohio River into their own personal battleground. On May 8, 1862, these two men, both of whom were steeped in Southern honor culture, fought a formal duel with rifles at sixty yards." In the exchange of fire, Casto fell dead. Metcalfe continued to serve in the Union Army.

Sanders is interested in more than just the story of a single duel. Anatomy of a Duel "examines why white male Kentuckians engaged in the "honor culture" of duels and provides fascinating narratives that trace the lives of duelists." Situating the Casto-Metcalfe duel within its proper cultural and political context, Sanders's narrative "explores why, during a time when Americans were killing one another in open, brutal warfare, Casto and Metcalfe engaged in the process of negotiating and fighting a duel. In deconstructing the event, Sanders details why these distinguished Kentuckians found themselves on the dueling ground during the nation's bloodiest conflict, how society and the Civil War pushed them to fight, why duels continued to be fought in Kentucky even after this violent confrontation, and how Kentuckians applied violence after the Civil War."

Friday, November 10, 2023

Booknotes: My Dearest Lilla

New Arrival:

My Dearest Lilla: Letters Home from Civil War General Jacob D. Cox edited by Gene Schmiel (U Tenn Press, 2023).

Of the Civil War's so-called 'political generals,' Ohio's Jacob Cox clearly forged one of the most impressive military resumes. He also made major contributions to the war's historiography.

From the description: "Jacob D. Cox experienced more facets of the Civil War than most officers: by land and sea, in both Western and Eastern Theaters, among the inner political circles of Ohio and Washington, DC, in territories hostile and friendly, amidst legal conflicts both civilian and military, and in the last campaigns in Tennessee and North Carolina. The Union general capitalized on his experience by penning his two-volume Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, one of the war’s finest memoirs and arguably the best by a nonprofessional soldier, as well as Atlanta and The Battle of Franklin, both definitive studies for nearly a century."

Readers might recall Gene Schmiel's Cox biography based on the author's dissertation and published by Ohio University Press back in 2014 [see my review]. In gathering source material, Schmiel "learned of a cache in the Oberlin College archives of 213 letters Cox wrote to his wife, Helen, during the war. Schmiel recognized these documents as a ready resource for Cox as he wrote his histories, and many stand as first drafts of Cox’s analyses of the military and sociopolitical events of the day." Fast forward to today, and those letters have now been published as part of University of Tennessee Press's Voices of the Civil War series under the title My Dearest Lilla: Letters Home from Civil War General Jacob D. Cox.

Glancing through the letters, their characterization as "first drafts" of Cox's important postwar writings seems quite apt. For letters between husband and wife, they are rather unusually detailed when it comes to describing and discussing military operations. In addition to providing a useful introduction that impresses upon readers the significance of the Cox correspondence and also a brief afterword, Schmiel organizes the letters into eight chapters, each chapter having introductory and, where appropriate, bridging narrative for added context.

More from the description: "Helen Finney Cox (her husband affectionately referred to her as “Lilla”) was a mother of six and the daughter of Oberlin College president Charles Finney. These intimate and insightful wartime letters show both the fondness Cox had for his spouse and his respect for her as an intellectual equal. To Helen, the stoic, introverted statesman revealed—as he did to no one else—his inner thoughts and concerns, presenting observant, lucid, and informative reports and analyses of the war, his changing life, and his ambitions. This collection illustrates the life of a Gilded Age Renaissance man as he made the transition from untested soldier to respected general and statesman."

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Booknotes: Boy General of the 11th Alabama

New Arrival:

Boy General of the 11th Alabama: John C.C. Sanders and Company C in the Civil War by Donald W. Abel, Jr. (McFarland, 2023).

From the description: "In the spring of 1861, John Caldwell Calhoun Sanders, a 21-year-old cadet at the University of Alabama, helped organize a company of the 11th Alabama Volunteer Infantry. Hailing primarily from Greene County, the 109 men of Company C, "The Confederate Guards," signed on for the duration of the war and made Sanders their first captain. They would fight in every major battle in the Eastern Theater, under Robert E. Lee."

You might be wondering from the title, Boy General of the 11th Alabama: John C.C. Sanders and Company C in the Civil War, where greatest emphasis is placed in the volume, on Sanders biography or company history. From my admittedly only cursory glance through the text, it looks like much more the latter. For a full-length modern regimental history, author Donald Abel recommends Ronald Griffin's The Eleventh Alabama Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War [also published by McFarland, in both hardcover (2008) and paperback (2012) editions]. In this study, the battle history of the "Confederate Guards" is recounted at length by Abel, supported by numerous detailed maps and abundant photographs.

Ultimately, Sanders himself, though he experienced a meteoric rise in rank and responsibility for such a young man, suffered a tragic fate. More from the description: "Leading from the front, Sanders was wounded four times during the war yet rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming one of the South's "boy generals" at 24. By Appomattox, Sanders was dead [he was killed in action at Globe Tavern on August 21, 1864] and the remaining 20 men of Company C surrendered with what was left of the once formidable Army of Northern Virginia."

In addition to the narrative history, Abel includes a company roster and a set of extensive individual profiles. The latter biographical compilation fills over 85 pages and is accompanied by a multitude of grave site photos as well as other images.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Review - " Lincoln and California: The President, the War, and the Golden State " by Brian McGinty

[Lincoln and California: The President, the War, and the Golden State by Brian McGinty (Potomac Books, 2023). Hardcover, photos, illustrations, chronology, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xviii,185/264. ISBN:978-1-64012-606-0. $34.95]

Given that Abraham Lincoln was a westerner himself and the first president from a new political party dedicated in large part to halting the introduction of slavery to the emerging states and territories of the Great Plains, Mountain West, Far West, and Desert Southwest regions of the country, it should come as no great surprise that he developed a deep interest in California's affairs. Indeed, a range of intertwining connections between president and state, both personal and political, are the focus of Brian McGinty's latest book Lincoln and California: The President, the War, and the Golden State.

Lincoln never visited California, but, of course, many of his associates and other contemporaries did emigrate there for the opportunities the new state offered in the areas of economic advancement and realization of political aspirations. The book highlights a number of friends, acquaintances, and like-minded individuals who helped Lincoln become president and expand fledgling Republican party influence and power in the American West. Many of those men also supported the administration's war aims throughout the conflict along with the president re-election in 1864. A common thread in the book is Lincoln's mutually beneficial personal friendship with Edward Baker, who, although he would be a U.S. Senator from Oregon, did much to promote the Union cause and Lincoln himself in California. Baker's battlefield death in 1862 was a heavy blow to Lincoln. As another example, an entire chapter demonstrates how the steady stream of wartime dispatches from journalist Noah Brooks, the Washington correspondent for the influential Sacramento Daily Union, buttressed the Union cause in California by effectively raising awareness of vital national issues and persuasively promoting Lincoln, Republican policies, and the war itself. McGinty also recounts Lincoln's utilization of his presidential power to appoint ideologically aligned federal judges. More generally, Lincoln's patronage appointments were used to gain the loyalty and trust of leading citizens and essentially reshape the political landscape of California (which was heavily Democratic prior to Lincoln's presidency).

McGinty clearly shows that Lincoln, though consumed by running the war effort closer to home, still kept his ear to the ground when it came to California issues that needed to be addressed at the executive level. He eagerly signed a bill introduced by California ally John Conness that offered permanent protection to the Yosemite Valley and involved his administration in land grant matters. Lincoln clearly recognized the economic importance of California's extractable mineral wealth and intervened in land and rights disputes that he felt vital to the country's interests.

The text also offers readers a solid general appreciation of California's substantial contributions to winning the Civil War. The state's gold mines and mineral processing played a major part in financing the conflict with the Confederate South. Additionally, California's Union Army volunteers shielded those critical activities and kept potential native and pro-Confederate uprisings in check. While the book duly notes the role of the famed "California Column" in repelling Confederate incursions in the Desert Southwest and permanently securing U.S. interests there, more emphasis could have been placed on the full scale of the protective mantle assumed by the state's volunteer regiments. In the U.S. Army's absence during the Civil War years, California regiments were parceled out to key posts in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West, and they conducted offensive operations against tribal enemies deemed most dangerous to settlers, overland communications, and burgeoning emigrant trails.

While McGinty's presentation is largely celebratory, issues surrounding Indian policy and Lincoln's historical place in it do give the author significant pause. Opinions expressed in the literature vary, but it might be fair to conclude that McGinty's views on the matter are largely compatible with those summarized most recently by Michael Green in the latter's 2021 book Lincoln and Native Americans. Ultimately, we can all agree that we'll never know whether Lincoln, with a second term (if he had lived to fulfill it) undoubtedly consumed with Reconstruction issues and concerns, would have followed through with his solemn promise to profoundly reform the government's involvement in Indian affairs.

McGinty ends the book with a concise survey of Lincoln remembrance in the state, which included statuary, attachment of Lincoln's name to public institutions, and the creation of the impressive Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands. The other end of the spectrum is addressed with brief mention of recent (2018 and beyond) misguided iconoclastic upswells that the author rates as satisfactorily met and defeated.

Written in a style appealing to popular audiences while also possessing the full trappings of modern historical scholarship, Brian McGinty's informative survey of the many Civil War-era connections between the Golden State and the nation's 16th president effectively combines content and approachability. Along the way, Lincoln and California also appropriately highlights more generally the state's significant contributions to Union victory.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Booknotes: Longstreet

New Arrival:

Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South by Elizabeth R. Varon (Simon & Schuster, 2023)

Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's storied Civil War career has received a great deal of positive attention during the past few years. Over that brief interval, a pair of books from Cory Pfarr (here and here) defend the general's Gettysburg record and another pair of book-length studies from Harold Knudsen and F. Gregory Toretta argue for a renewed appreciation of the ways they feel Longstreet exceeded his Civil War peers in forward military thinking. Elizabeth Varon's Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South is of an entire different vein, concentrating its efforts on another major aspect of the general's controversial life path.

Longstreet's Civil War activities are duly addressed in Varon's book, but those sections fill just over a quarter of the narrative. Instead, as the title suggests, her study more closely focuses on the ex-Confederate general's postwar actions.

In Varon's estimation, Longstreet's decision to join the Republican party after the war and support many of its Reconstruction policies "was the most remarkable political about-face in American history." From the description: "After the war Longstreet moved to New Orleans, where he dramatically changed course. He supported Black voting and joined the newly elected, integrated postwar government in Louisiana. When white supremacists took up arms to oust that government, Longstreet, leading the interracial state militia, did battle against former Confederates. His defiance ignited a firestorm of controversy, as white Southerners branded him a race traitor and blamed him retroactively for the South’s defeat in the Civil War."

Longstreet has been the subject of several biographies (most notably the modern ones from Jeffry Wert and William Garrett Piston), but this new study is promoted as "the first to give proper attention to Longstreet’s long post-Civil War career."

Friday, November 3, 2023

Booknotes: Bayou Battles for Vicksburg

New Arrival:

Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (UP of Kansas, 2023).

I was very pleased by yesterday's arrival of Tim Smith's newest volume in his Vicksburg Campaign series. In addition to being an important part of that ongoing project, Bayou Battles for Vicksburg also represents "the first book-length examination of Ulysses S. Grant’s winter waterborne attempts to capture the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi."

From the description: "The dawn of 1863 brought a new phase of the Union’s Mississippi Valley operations against Vicksburg. For the first four months, Union attempts to reach high and dry ground east of the Mississippi River would be plagued by high water everywhere, and the resulting bayou and river expeditions would test everyone involved, including the defending Confederates."

More: "The accepted strategy up to this point in the war was aligned with the principles of the Swiss theorist Antoine-Henri Jomini, whose work was taught at West Point, where commanders on both sides of the conflict had been educated. But Jomini emphasized secure supply lines and a slow, steady, unified approach to a target such as Vicksburg, and never had much to say about creeks, rivers, and bayous in a subtropical swamp environment. Grant threw out conventional wisdom with a bold, and ultimately successful, plan to avoid a direct approach and rather divide his forces to accomplish multiple goals and to confuse the enemy by cutting levies, flooding whole sections of watersheds, and bypassing strongholds by digging canals far around them." With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes easier to accept Grant's series of "experiments" as inventive parts of a larger successful plan, but at the time there were certainly moments of potential disaster. The stunning level of triumph that crowned the campaign, with the capture of both the targeted strategic town and its entire defending army, can dissolve a lot of regrets incurred along the way.

Bayou Battles for Vicksburg "details each of the Union attempts to reach high ground east of the Mississippi River." Even though those operations have been examined in depth before in a variety of publications, including Bearss's pioneering trilogy, this new book-length account "includes fresh research on the Yazoo Pass and Steele’s Bayou expeditions, Grant’s canal, and the Lake Providence effort. Smith weaves several simultaneous Union initiatives together into a chronological narrative that provides great detail on the Union’s successful final attempt to get to good ground east of the Mississippi." The volume's significant coverage of the Arkansas Post operation, which still lacks a definitive-scale treatment, adds even more value to Smith's in-depth study. Twenty maps supplement the text.

On a more whimsical note, I noticed that the board covering of this particular volume is an exact match of in-state rival Kansas State's purple school color. Perhaps there is an infiltrator in Kansas's production/design department.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Booknotes: A History of Putnam County, West Virginia in the Civil War

New Arrival:

A History of Putnam County, West Virginia in the Civil War by Philip Hatfield (35th Star Pub, 2023).

Strategically situated along a major invasion route into western Virginia (the Kanawha River Valley) and sitting between Charleston and Point Pleasant, Putnam County, Virginia was practically destined to become a Civil War battleground.

From the description: "Accessible transportation routes on the James River and Kanawha Turnpike (modern U.S. Route 60) and the Midland Trail (modern State Route 34), as well as the Kanawha River, made it easy for military and partisan guerrilla forces to traverse the countryside. This subjected residents to frequent raids, harassment, theft, and even murder. Four battles occurred in Putnam County during the war, at Atkeson’s Gate, Hurricane Bridge, Scary Creek, and Winfield, along with numerous smaller skirmishes and raids."

Utilizing a variety of primary sources (including substantial manuscript research), Philip Hatfield's hefty new volume A History of Putnam County, West Virginia in the Civil War presents those military events and more in detail, supplemented by numerous archival maps and modern originals. The volume is also heavily illustrated with photographs and drawings. An appendix section contains rolls for companies presumably raised in the area.

Putnam County sons entered the ranks of Union and Confederate fighting forces in nearly equal numbers. More from the description: "(I)t is estimated that 52% of the white male population served in the Confederacy and 48% in the Union Army." In that way and others, "(t)his otherwise peaceful, agrarian county of western Virginia epitomized the embittered fratricidal struggle America faced during the Civil War. Many former neighbors, friends, and families found themselves mortal enemies in 1861."