Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Review - "The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West" by Timothy Smith

[The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West by Timothy B. Smith (Louisiana State University Press, 2023). Hardcover, 6 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,183/244. ISBN:978-0-8071-8048-8. $39.95]

A tantalizing host of high-ranking officers deemed promising before the Civil War and during its early years were killed in action over the conflict's first half, prompting a corresponding host of 'what-if' conjectures that continue to this day. For example, on the Union side generals such as Nathaniel Lyon and John Reynolds, along with other candidates like Jesse Reno, Philip Kearny, Frederick West Lander, and Isaac Stevens, have been championed by contemporary observers and latter-day writers alike for possessing top-flight leadership potential tragically lost to the cause. On the Confederate side of the equation, alternate history scenarios abound when it comes to Stonewall Jackson, but Albert Sidney Johnston provides another major source of vigorous debate. The Confederate western theater's distinctly underwhelming series of army command appointees, none of whom managed to come close to measuring up to the East's Robert E. Lee, has prompted many to ponder whether Johnston was truly irreplaceable (and the high command was fruitlessly chasing his ghost throughout the balance of the war) or, given the unquestionable results of Johnston's seven-month tenure, the man was simply not up to the job. Johnston's principal biographer, Charles P. Roland, offered a highly sympathetic portrait of his subject in the historian's 1964 classic study Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics, but many of Roland's colleagues have been far less generous. Timothy Smith, the author of numerous works featuring key episodes of Johnston's Civil War career, has now thrown his own hat into the ring. Smith's The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West is the first comprehensive reexamination of Johnston's life and generalship to appear in the now sixty years that have passed since the Centennial-era publication of Roland's biography.

At this point in time, the alleged shortcomings of Albert Sidney Johnston's leadership of the Confederacy's vast Department No. 2 are well grounded in the published literature and widely known among readers and scholars alike. Stuck in California when the war opened, Johnston's journey to the theater of war was a long one. Stopping at Richmond to receive his plum yet extremely challenging assignment, Johnston did not arrive in person to assume command of the western department until September 1861. Critics have condemned his maintaining an overlong forward defensive line held by far too few troops. Indeed, Johnston's inadequately trained, supplied, and armed troops manned a defensive arc that stretched five-hundred miles from the Arkansas-Missouri-Indian Territory borderlands eastward to the wilderness of southeastern Kentucky. That strategic bluff was instantly breached by Union forces operating in the winter of 1861-62, and wider disaster ensued as the western Confederacy's entire northern cordon collapsed. Judging from the nature of his interactions with headstrong generals such as Leonidas Polk, P.G.T. Beauregard, and John Floyd, it has also been claimed that Johnston, in assessing his ranking subordinates, was a poor judge of character and ability, and he was not forceful enough more generally when attempting to get them to carry out his wishes. Citing examples such as Johnston's persistent preoccupation with the Bowling Green position and his front line death at Shiloh, critics additionally allege that the general was unable to properly prioritize the duties and physical location of a department and field army commander.

On the other side of the equation, Johnston's supporters maintain that the general was placed in an almost impossible situation from the very start. In generals such as Polk, Floyd, Gideon Pillow, Felix Zollicoffer, George Crittenden, Sterling Price, and Earl Van Dorn, Johnston was saddled with arguably the worst collection of principal subordinates that any top Civil War general had to contend with when assuming department command. The strategic blunder of violating Kentucky neutrality and occupying Columbus happened in Johnston's absence, only days before he arrived. Johnston's own character and inspirational leadership ability are justifiably praised. At least early on, before a series of disasters prompted widespread fingerpointing, Johnston seemed to uniformly inspire the loyalty of those below him and he importantly possessed the full confidence of the government. Those qualities plus his unwillingness to openly blame subordinates for their mistakes and shortcomings, no matter how grave, has led some to believe he was the right man to keep the theater's notoriously fractious high command together in moments of crisis. Though forced to accept Johnston's culpability as the general in charge when the disasters of 1861-62 occurred under his watch, his most devoted followers nevertheless can still maintain that Johnston, though nearly sixty years of age, might still have had the self-awareness and personal will to learn from the mistakes made during his baptism of fire and conduct affairs in the West with heightened competence if not brilliance (perhaps with an arc similar to Lee's, whose early leadership, command style, and staff work gaffes in western Virginia and during the Seven Days were largely sorted out by the latter part of 1862).

All of the above-mentioned contentions are lined up for informed scrutiny in Smith's book, their strengths and weaknesses judiciously evaluated as the author sees them. An argument can be made that Johnston's tumultuous, event-filled seven months leading the Confederate war effort the West is enough of a record to justify strong opinions. Still, a generous nature can probably find at least some merit in all of the points raised above. In its addressing the important last part of the preceding paragraph, the element of Smith's reexamination that is most fresh and original is his pattern-seeking approach to Johnston's personality and style of action, one that takes the reader on an extended journey through Johnston's early life, interrupted U.S. Army career, his time serving the Texas Republic as high-ranking officer and later Secretary of War, his life-long economic struggles, and his return to uniform during the Civil War. In doing so, Smith finds distinct patterns of personality and behavior that heavily informed Johnston's capabilities as a department and army commander and very likely limited the general's growth potential he had lived. What emerges from Smith's analysis is a man given to extended deliberation over major life moments, those decisions in turn frequently upended through either bad luck or miscalculation. Johnston then attempted to retrieve lost fortune, honor, or professional stature through high-risk acts of desperation. This can be seen through actions such as his failure to avert a duel which nearly killed him, his leaving his young family behind to go to Texas, and his dabbling in large-scale land speculation. Smith's rating Johnston's rush to Texas an act of economic and familial irresponsibility (particularly in regard to the unwise land investment) is a point well taken though perhaps a bit too unmitigated. After all, taking such risks paid off for generations of American men, down on their luck and with few prospects locally, who sought opportunity on the open frontier or in other emerging parts of the country.

In addressing Johnston's brief Civil War career Smith is unquestionably correct in criticizing Johnston's failure to forcefully correct or rein in willful subordinates who were managing dangerous military hotspots poorly. He also instructively cites instances where Johnston's characteristically measured pace of decision-making could be overwhelmed by events. A similar analysis can be found in Smith's assessment of John C. Pemberton, another general who could not keep pace with Grant's aggressiveness. One might argue that Smith's repeated characterization of Johnston's command personality as "meek" borders on being too strong, but it is nonetheless true that Johnston allowed Polk far too much latitude when it came to carrying out orders and did not materially interfere with Beauregard's crafting of a very ill-advised approach march and battle plan for Shiloh. The general certainly did some things right. The concentration at Corinth for an all or nothing offensive gamble aimed at defeating the advancing federal armies in detail is conceded to be the only realistic option available to Johnston. In the end, the author is justifiably of two minds when it comes to Johnston's risky battlefield behavior at Shiloh that led to his death, recognizing both that it was not the proper place for an army commander to personally lead charges but also that the green volunteers that filled most of the regiments in his newly assembled army needed the inspiration that only officers leading from the front could provide. As anyone who has read Smith's other works already knows, the author does not believe that Johnston's untimely death at Shiloh was a key factor behind the failure to crush Grant's army on April 6.

In Smith's estimation, there is nothing in Johnston's handling of tactics, operations, and strategy to suggest high-order military genius, latent or otherwise. While Johnston, had he lived, could likely have maintained the confidence of the Davis administration through his close relationship with the president himself, there seems little reason, in Smith's view, to expect that Johnston's passive, excessively deferential nature could have forged in the West a cohesive, harmonious high command capable of reversing the theater's failing fortunes. Basically, a pattern of outlook and behavior established throughout the first six decades of Johnston's life would have to be shaken up and reorganized on the fly, a prospect the author rates as highly unlikely.

Ultimately, one's opinion of Johnston often depends on the willingness to characterize the general's interrupted career as the Confederacy's top-ranked field commander as either a glass half empty or half full. Timothy Smith's very sobering and convincing portrait of Sidney Johnston's potential makes it very clear that the author deems Johnston unable to grow into the western Lee that the Confederate war effort desperately needed. As the leading current expert on the key events of Johnston's Civil War career Smith's viewpoint expressed in this book carries great weight, its formulation powerful enough that even the general's most ardent defenders might be forced to stop short and reconsider their conclusions. A fascinating reexamination of a controversial general's life and career, one freshly weighted on identifiable personality and behavioral traits rather than on hopeful potential, The Iron Dice of Battle is highly recommended.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Booknotes: Yankee Commandos

New Arrival:

Yankee Commandos: How William P. Sanders Led a Cavalry Squadron Deep into Confederate Territory by Stuart D. Brandes (U Tenn Press, 2023).

From the earliest months of the Civil War, succoring the isolated pro-Union population of East Tennessee was a high priority for the Lincoln administration, which frequently pressed its western generals to send an occupation force into the region. For a variety of reasons, primarily logistical ones, it was not deemed feasible. It was not until the spring of 1863 that a major offensive operation involving the Army of the Ohio under Major General Ambrose Burnside was planned, but even that effort was further delayed by the need to send reinforcements to Grant's army trying to capture Vicksburg in Mississippi. In the meantime, while waiting for the return of his borrowed troops, Burnside ordered a cavalry raid into East Tennessee. The history of that movement is recounted in Stuart Brandes's Yankee Commandos: How William P. Sanders Led a Cavalry Squadron Deep into Confederate Territory.

Though in truth a brigade-sized force (much larger than the titular "squadron"), Sanders's command helped set up Burnside's follow-on invasion for success by gathering intelligence and disrupting Confederate communications surrounding Knoxville. Brandes's book is the first book-length study of the raid. From the description: "In June of 1863, Col. William P. Sanders led a cavalry raid of 1,300 men from the Union Army of the Ohio through Confederate-held East Tennessee. The raid severed the Confederate rail supply line from Virginia to the Western Theater and made national headlines. Until now, this incredible feat has been relegated to a footnote in the voluminous history of the American Civil War."

More from the description: Brandes "presents readers with the most complete account of the Sanders raid to date by using newly discovered and under-explored materials, such as Sanders’s official reports and East Tennessee diaries and memoirs in which Sanders is chronicled. The book presents important details of a cavalry raid through East Tennessee that further turned the tide of war for the Union in the Western Theater. It also sheds light on the raid’s effect on the divided civilian population of East Tennessee, where, unlike the largely pro-secession populations of Middle and West Tennessee, the fraction of enlisted men to the Union cause rose to nearly a quarter."

The Kentucky-born Sanders himself is an interesting historical figure. He was "a cousin of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and his father and three brothers donned Confederate gray at the outbreak of the war." Though the results of the raid contributed to his elevation to higher responsibility in the Department of the Ohio's cavalry leadership, the 30-year old Sanders's promotion to brigadier general was not confirmed by the Senate. Later that fall, in November 1863, Sanders was mortally wounded in action. Knoxville's Fort Loudon was renamed Fort Sanders in his honor, that defensive point being the center of the maelstrom during General James Longstreet's failed attempt to recapture the city.

Ultimately, "(b)y studying the legend of Sanders and his raid, Brandes fills an important gap in Civil War scholarship and in the story of Unionism in a mostly Confederate-sympathizing state."

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Coming Soon (February '24 Edition)

Scheduled for FEB 20241:

Never Such a Campaign: The Battle of Second Manassas by Welch & Pawlak.
Unforgettables: Winners, Losers, Strong Women, and Eccentric Men of the Civil War Era by John Waugh.
Virginia Secedes: A Documentary History by Dwight Pitcaithley.
Adelbert Ames, the Civil War, and the Creation of Modern America by Michael Megelsh.
Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom during the Civil War by Edda Fields-Black.
The Army under Fire: The Politics of Antimilitarism in the Civil War Era by Cecily Zander.
Litchfield County and the Civil War by Peter Vermilyea.
The Fabric of Civil War Society: Uniforms, Badges, and Flags, 1859–1939 by Shae Cox.
Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Kentucky: Volume II - Legacy of the Irregulars by Gerald Fischer.

Comments: It appears that the two SB titles at the top of the list have already been released.

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, children's books, 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.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Booknotes: The World Will Never See the Like

New Arrival:

The World Will Never See the Like: The Gettysburg Reunion of 1913 John L. Hopkins (Savas Beatie, 2024).

From the description: "The 1913 Gettysburg reunion is a story of 53,000 old comrades and former foes reunited, and of the tension, even half a century later, between competing narratives of reconciliation and remembrance. For seven days the old soldiers lived under canvas in stifling heat on a 280-acre encampment run by the U.S. Army. They swapped stories, debated still-simmering controversies about the battle, and fed tall tales to gullible reporters. On July 3, the aging survivors of Pickett’s Division and the Philadelphia Brigade shook hands across the wall on Cemetery Ridge in the reunion’s climactic photo op." That famous image has been reproduced in countless publications.

In addition to the tens of thousands of common soldiers, famous faces also made it to the reunion. More from the description: "Some of the battle’s leading personalities attended, including Union III Corps commander Dan Sickles, who at 92 was still eager to explain to anyone who would listen the indispensable role he claimed to have played in the Union victory. Also present was Helen Dortch Longstreet, the widow of Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who devoted her life and considerable energies to defending the reputation of her general. Both wrote articles from the reunion that were syndicated in newspapers across the country. There was even a cameo appearance by a young and as-yet unknown cavalry officer named George S. Patton Jr."

John Hopkins's The World Will Never See the Like: The Gettysburg Reunion of 1913 contains much in the way of "detail from the letters, diaries, and published accounts of Union and Confederate veterans, the extensive archival records of the reunion’s organizers, and the daily stories filed by the scores of reporters who covered it." Using those sources, Hopkins tells the story of "this extraordinary event’s genesis and planning, the obstacles overcome on the way to making it a reality, its place in the larger narrative of sectional reunion and reconciliation, and the individual stories of the veterans who attended."

Preceded by Thomas Flagel's 2019 study War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion, this is the second book to examine this topic in recent years, both appearing to be of roughly similar depth if not focus. According to a footnote in the preface, Flagel's study appeared just as Hopkins was finishing his own manuscript, so I don't know if this one will directly engage any of Flagel's main themes. In particular, I'm thinking of Flagel's arguments regarding the primary motivation of the veteran participants and that author's determination that expressions of communal introspection were more commonly found at the reunion than were outward expressions of national reconciliation and the like.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Booknotes: The Boy Generals, Vol. 2

New Arrival:

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 (Savas Beatie, 2024).

Author Adolfo Ovies is currently in the middle of a three-part examination of the wartime progression of the cavalry arm of the Army of the Potomac, all viewed through the additional lens of the personal and professional animosity between celebrated "boy generals" George Armstrong Custer and Wesley Merritt, their feuding influencing events. The first volume, The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, was published back in 2021. Beginning with the retreat from Gettysburg and ending with the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign, the second volume "encompasses a period jammed with tumultuous events for the cavalry on and off the battlefield and a significant change of command at the top."

After Lee's battered army managed to safely return to Virginia, "(t)he balance of 1863 was a series of maneuvers, raids, and fighting that witnessed the near-destruction of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade at Buckland Mills and the indecisive and frustrating efforts of the Bristoe Station and Mine Run campaigns. Alfred Pleasonton’s controversial command of the mounted arm ended abruptly, only to be replaced by the more controversial Philip H. Sheridan, whose combustible personality intensified the animosity burning between George Custer and Wesley Merritt."

It seemed that nothing, including the change in overall command of the Army of the Potomac's cavalry and its growing success rate, could ameliorate, let alone heal, the rift between Custer and Merritt. More from the description: "Victory and glory followed the Cavalry Corps during the early days of the Overland Campaign, particularly at Yellow Tavern, where Rebel cavalier Jeb Stuart was mortally wounded. The spirited rivalry between Custer and Merritt took a turn for the worse and at Trevilian Station, the bitterness and rancor permeating their relationship broke into the open and made it into their official reports. Merritt’s elevation to temporary command of the 1st Cavalry Division cemented their rancor." With cavalry action shifting to the Shenandoah, the hard war against the civilian population also intensified, and "(m)uch of this gritty task fell on the shoulders of (Sheridan's)“boy generals.”"

The bibliography contains a diverse range of sources, including newspapers, significant manuscript research, and a large host of published primary accounts and secondary sources. The battle descriptions are supported by 18 detailed maps interspersed throughout. The volume concludes with the August 16, 1864 fight at Guard Hill.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Booknotes: Decisions at Kennesaw Mountain

New Arrival:

Decisions at Kennesaw Mountain: The Eleven Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle by Larry Peterson (U Tenn Press, 2023).

Given how much attention has been paid to it on this site over the past few years, it's readily apparent that I am a fan of this series. A number of installments were published in 2023, the ones with missed coverage being Franklin, 1862 Shenandoah Campaign, and this one, Larry Peterson's Decisions at Kennesaw Mountain: The Eleven Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle.

From the description: "As Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman swept through Georgia in 1864, he fought several small battles against an ever-retreating Gen. Joseph E. Johnston who had replaced the beleaguered Gen. Braxton Bragg as leader of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. After heavy rains slowed Sherman’s advance, Johnston’s army entrenched along the Brushy Mountain line. Hemmed in by the mountains and impassable roads, Sherman noted in his reports to Washington, “Kennesaw is the key to the whole country.” Ultimately, Sherman would outflank Johnston and grind down his army’s defenses with a brazen frontal assault. Federal forces suffered 3,000 casualties compared to Johnston’s 1,000, and yet the Confederate Army of Tennessee was forced to retreat to Smyrna, and continued defeats led to Sherman’s infamous burning of Atlanta in August of 1864."

Like the other volumes in the Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series, this one "hones in on a sequence of command decisions that provides us, retroactively, with a blueprint of" (in this case, the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain) "at its tactical core. Identifying and exploring the critical decisions in this way allows students of the battle to progress from a knowledge of what happened to a mature grasp of why events happened."

You might be wondering how many truly critical decisions were involved in a battle such as Kennesaw Mountain, but the battle-focused series volumes also explore strategic, operational, and tactical decisions made both before and after the main fight. Here, Peterson organizes his eleven-decision analysis into four time intervals. The first (June 14-26, 1864) examines five critical decisions (all Confederate) that preceded the battle. Events related to the Battle of Kolb's Farm (June 21-22) are the subject of the next grouping of three decisions (one Union and two Confederate). A pair of tactical decisions (both Union) are connected with the June 27 Battle of Kennesaw Mountain itself, and the week-long period following the battle gets a single decision analysis (also Union). Nine maps accompany this part of the book.

The main feature of the volume's second half consists of the series-standard driving tour of sites directly related to the decisions examined in the first half. A further ten maps, along with a collection of modern photographs of markers, monuments, and sight lines, are included. The authored tour text is supplemented by extensive excerpts from official reports. All of the material presented in both main text and driving tour appendix is annotated. Orders of battle for both armies are also included.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Booknotes: The Folly and the Madness

New Arrival:

The Folly and the Madness: The Civil War Letters of Captain Orlando S. Palmer, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry edited by Thomas W. Cutrer (U Tenn Press, 2023).

When it comes to new releases, December and January have been pretty bleak months of slippery trips to an empty mailbox. It looks like things are finally looking up, though. Big thanks to the new marketing crew at UTP for reopening the pipeline on their own initiative and additionally offering to send over a number of bypassed titles from last year (several of which are of great interest to me). The first of these to arrive is Thomas Cutrer's The Folly and the Madness: The Civil War Letters of Captain Orlando S. Palmer, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry, the latest entry in the publisher's Voices of the Civil War series.

All of Palmer's letters are addressed to his sister, the pair drawn tighter together by their shared experience of being orphaned at a young age (Orlando was only eleven). From the description: "With a closeness perhaps unique to siblings orphaned young, Orlando and Artimisia “Missie” Palmer exchanged intimate letters throughout their lives. These letters (interspersed with additional letters from Oliver Kennedy, the Palmers’ first cousin) offer a clear and entertaining window into the life and times of a junior Confederate officer serving in the Western Theater of the Civil War."

Orlando was originally from Alabama, near the state's border with Tennessee. Having received a strong education at the Cumberland law school in Lebanon, Tennessee, Palmer, like many others in his situation, sought professional opportunity in emerging areas of the west. For Orlando, that was Des Arc, Arkansas in 1861. Immediately caught up in the national crisis, Palmer enlisted in a local militia company there. More from the description: "Though he initially felt Americans would see “the folly and the madness” of going to war, Orlando enlisted as a private in what would become Company H of the First (later Fifteenth) Arkansas Infantry"

The Voices series typically selects Civil War letters, diaries, and memoirs that are, in some way or another, out of the ordinary. In this case, readers gain insights written by a literate junior officer with access to the higher echelons of Confederate command. Though Orlando told "his sister that he had volunteered “not for position, not for a name, but from patriotic motivation," he "was ambitious enough to secure an appointment as Maj. Gen. William Joseph Hardee’s personal secretary; he then rose to become his regiment’s sergeant major, his company’s first lieutenant, and later captain and brigade adjutant. Soldier letters typically report only what can be observed at the company level, but Palmer’s high-ranking position offers a unique view of strategic rather than tactical operations." Of course, there's more to Palmer's letters than military shop talk, and the value of his sibling correspondence is further "enhanced by his nuanced reflections on courtship customs and personal relationships."

In addition to organizing the letters for publication, Cutrer adds a brief general introduction, abundant bridging narrative, endnotes, and an afterword. The Folly and the Madness "adds depth to the genre of Civil War correspondence and provides a window into the lives of ordinary southerners at an extraordinary time."

Monday, January 15, 2024

Review - "A History of Putnam County, West Virginia in the Civil War" by Philip Hatfield

[A History of Putnam County, West Virginia in the Civil War by Philip Hatfield (35th Star Publishing, 2023). 8.5"x11" softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,222/315. ISBN:979-9889020-0-3. $26.95]

Excellent book-length coverage of Civil War military events in western (later West) Virginia certainly exist, but county histories have proven to be among the best resources for readers wishing to learn more about the Appalachian and trans-Appalachian region's cavalry raids, smaller-scale battles, and guerrilla warfare. Among the more noteworthy volumes are Joe Geiger's Civil War in Cabell County West Virginia, 1861-1865, H.E. Matheny's Wood County, West Virginia, in Civil War Times, John Shaffer's Clash of Loyalties: A Border County in the Civil War (for Barbour County), Jack Dickinson's Wayne County, West Virginia in the Civil War, and a pair from Tim McKinney (The Civil War in Fayette County, West Virginia and The Civil War in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Presented in a similar vein to several of those is Philip Hatfield's A History of Putnam County, West Virginia in the Civil War. Predictably, the most strategically situated counties make for the most interesting reading, and that is certainly the case with Putnam County's action-filled Civil War story. Straddling the Kanawha River (a major pathway for invasion into the West Virginia interior) and geographically located between the key towns of Charleston and Point Pleasant, Putnam County was practically destined to become a Civil War battleground for opposing conventional forces and irregular combatants alike.

Though much of Hatfield's text stresses military events and their impact in the region, his volume does provide some brief background information on the social and economic impact of slaveholding in the county. In-depth examination of Putnam County's place in antebellum divisions between eastern and western Virginians (and the thoughts of current historians on those matters) is beyond the scope of this particular study, but a short discussion of political developments during the run up to secession and the outbreak of Civil War can be found. By the book's estimation, a very slight majority of the county's total number of regularly enrolled soldiers went into the Confederate Army. Much like geography almost guaranteed that the conventional war would land in the laps of Putnam Countians, the roughly even number of men that went into the Union and Confederate armies was highly predictive of intense guerrilla warfare (or household war as some have come to call it) of the kind seen all across the contested Border States.

As mentioned above, battles, skirmishes, and raids form the centerpieces of most chapters. The main event of the 1861 chapter is the federal campaign up the Kanawha River Valley from Ohio, particular attention being paid to the July 17 Battle of Scary Creek. It was a Confederate victory that, given the overall disparity in forces each side could bring to the table, only delayed the inevitable. The text describing the battle is very detailed, a combination of author narrative and extensive block quotes from participant-sourced accounts. Reader preference for or against that stylistic approach is largely a matter of taste. The chapter materially supplements the best single source on the campaign, Terry Lowry's The Battle of Scary Creek: Military Operations in the Kanawha Valley, April-July 1861 (1982, 1998-rev.). Hatfield's entire book is stuffed with maps, photographs, and other illustrations, and a welcome accompaniment to this chapter is its collection of seven full-page maps (two originals and the rest archival) associated with Scary Creek.

After Union forces led by Brigadier General Jacob Cox swiftly occupied the Kanawha River Valley, a period of relative stalemate persisted until pressures elsewhere forced the withdrawal of most federal units from the region. The Confederates seized the opportunity to retake most of the valley, their campaign best documented in another volume from Terry Lowry, The Battle of Charleston and the 1862 Kanawha Valley Campaign (2016). Hatfield's 1862 chapter again richly supplements Lowry's, fleshing out what occurred in Putnam County during the campaign, specifically the "Battle" of Atkeson's Gate, a running skirmish fought near Buffalo. After eastern crises were settled by the results of the Maryland Campaign, strong Union forces eventually returned and retook the valley. Though it is not articulated as such, a common theme of the war in Putnam County and the rest of the Kanawha Valley is that every Confederate "success" proved only temporary, their efforts lacking the strength and logistical support needed for them to possess any significant staying power.

With permanent Confederate military reoccupation essentially out of the question by the end of 1862, cavalry incursions and company-sized conventional and guerrilla-type raids inside Putnam County intensified from mid-war onward. A major event discussed in the 1863 chapter is the March 28 Battle of Hurricane Bridge (also the subject of an earlier standalone study from Hatfield, see here), but many smaller actions are also addressed, including a second attack at Hurricane Bridge. Both the 1863 and 1864 chapters trace the course of escalating irregular warfare and the federal response to it. That inner war was present from the start of the conflict, and the book documents at some length the raising of pro-Union home guard units in the area and their struggles to maintain control of the region. River traffic was also targeted by swift-moving Confederate mounted forces, their largest coup being the onboard capture of Union brigadier general Eliakim Scammon in February 1864. The book's coverage of an October 1864 raid that resulted in a battle fought at Winfield demonstrates that conventional Confederate forces never abandoned their interest in the region either.

Every chapter contains extensive background and Civil War histories of individuals and families closely associated with Putnam County. These are either incorporated into the main text or presented in their own sidebar-style subsections. Emancipation and the controversial West Virginia statehood movement, along with their Putnam County connections, are also discussed at appropriate places in the book. Additional reference material can be found in the appendix section, which contains a series of company rosters.

Philip Hatfield's comprehensive examination of Civil War events in Putnam County, WV and the people involved in them, both military and civilian, is a worthy addition to an already impressive modern library of Civil War West Virginia county histories. Recommended.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Booknotes: The Iron Dice of Battle

New Arrival:

The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West by Timothy B. Smith (LSU Press, 2023).

Given the gravity of the military disasters that occurred under his watch, it is difficult to objectively arrive at a very favorable overall impression of Albert Sidney Johnston's brief tenure as the top Confederate general in the West. His risky forward defense strategy has been oft criticized in the literature. Crushing defeats at Mill Springs, forts Henry and Donelson, and Shiloh (only the last under his immediate personal control) resulted in catastrophic losses in manpower and territory, leaving the Southern position in the western theater in critical condition. Nevertheless, there were glimpses of hope had he lived. Unlike his successors, Johnston possessed the confidence of both the government and the army, and there was always the possibility that he could have learned from his early mistakes. It has also been suggested that Johnston was the western Confederacy's best hope when it came to finding a commanding general who could keep his principal subordinates in line and working toward a common goal. Any of that is pure conjecture, but it still makes the general a tantalizing what-if figure. In The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West military historian Timothy Smith likely sorts through such questions and many more.

From the description: "Killed in action at the bloody Battle of Shiloh, Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston stands as the highest-ranking American military officer to die in combat. His unexpected demise had cascading negative consequences for the South’s war effort, as his absence created a void in adequate leadership in the years that followed." Smith's book "reexamines Johnston’s life and death, offering remarkable insights into this often-contradictory figure."

Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of Johnston's decision-making, the challenges he faced when he took command of the immense Department No. 2 were among the greatest faced by any Civil War general. More from the description: "As a commander, Johnston frequently faced larger and better-armed Union forces, dramatically shaping his battlefield decisions and convincing him that victory could only be attained by taking strategic risks while fighting. The final wager came while leading his army at Shiloh in April 1862. During a desperate gambit to turn the tide of battle, Johnston charged to the front of the Confederate line to direct his troops and fell mortally wounded after sustaining enemy fire."

The leading chronicler of the most significant military events tied to Johnston's Civil War career, Smith is among a very small group of historians best qualified to provide us with a long overdue reassessment of the general's "life, his Confederate command, and the effect his death had on the course of the Civil War in the West." Indeed, Smith's The Iron Dice of Battle is the "first work to survey the general’s career in detail in nearly sixty years."

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Review - " Confederate Privateer: The Life of John Yates Beall " by William Harris

[Confederate Privateer: The Life of John Yates Beall by William C. Harris (Louisiana State University Press, 2023). Hardcover, photos, notes, source essay, index. Pages main/total:x,150/192. ISBN:978-0-8071-8025-9. $45]

Virginian John Yates Beall (1835-1865) remains an obscure historical figure today, even to ardent Civil War readers, but during the war years he was an irregular combatant widely known to newspaper readers of both sections. To southern supporters his exploits as a maritime guerrilla raider and privateer were stirring news, but northerners saw those same activities as mere piracy. Indeed, the Union position regarding Beall's operations along the Great Lakes border between the United States and Canada would, upon his capture and trial by military commission, lead to his hanging in February 1865. The full range of events associated with his life and death are recounted in William C. Harris's slim yet still highly informative biography Confederate Privateer: The Life of John Yates Beall.

Unlike many other Confederate partisan captains, Beall has never reached household name status among Civil War readers. Whatever his postbellum fade from public awareness might be attributed to, it did not stem from a lack of sources. According to Harris, Beall's Civil War career is very well documented. As explained in the volume's helpful source essay, the best single resource, and a key one in the creation of Harris's biographical treatment, is the Beall diary, letter, and 1865 trial transcription collection compiled by friend Daniel Lucas and published under the title Memoir of John Yates Beall. But that's not all, as others associated with Beall's wartime activities also produced valuable publications that further our understanding of the man and the context of his actions.

Beall's stint in the conventional armed forces of the Confederacy was very brief. Though he would return for short spells, Beall's continuous army service essentially ceased after he was shot through the lung at Bolivar Heights in October 1861. The wound required extensive recovery time and, by all accounts, never fully healed. The oddest interlude from Beall's lengthy recuperation was the several months he spent in Iowa operating a mill, observing the war from afar and commenting on its progress in his diary. However, returning to the war was never far from his mind. Though his initial proposal for conducting Great Lakes raiding operations centered around freeing Confederate POWs held at Johnson's Island was rejected by Richmond, Beall still sought to serve the Confederacy through some means. Discharged from the army and newly armed with a naval commission as acting master, he found it through privateering.

Harris's account of the Chesapeake Bay privateering phase of Beall's Civil War career offers a brief yet illuminating window into an aspect of the Confederacy's irregular war vastly overshadowed by those more firmly planted on terra firma. As Harris shows, Beall's series of small-boat operations, conducted with just two tiny sail-supplemented rowboats, brought him instant notoriety. Employing minimal manpower, equipment, and supply expenditures to inflict notable losses upon the enemy (ex. through captured shipping, a lighthouse raid, and cutting an underwater telegraph cable) that in turn drew heavily disproportionate enemy resources in response, Beall's operations demonstrated how small-scale, almost self-sustaining irregular forces could be cost-effective threats to federal waterborne communications and supply lines. In the process, however, the attention Beall and his men drew to themselves in becoming the "Terror of the Chesapeake" proved to be their downfall. The raiding command was ultimately dispersed by large Union forces assembled for that purpose, and in November 1863 Beall himself was captured. Initially charged with piracy, Beall was eventually given POW status, and he was regularly exchanged in the spring of 1864.

Upon release and a brief period of rest, Beall returned to his prior Great Lakes scheming, once again hatching a plan to free the Johnson's Island prisoners from bases in Canada. This time the operation was approved. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the final plan was a complicated one with numerous moving parts and questionable characters involved (all of which Harris explains), and the venture was abandoned after the dramatic capture of the civilian ferry Philo Parsons and the men's refusal to go forward from there with an attack on the U.S. gunboat Michigan. Undaunted by the failure, Beall returned once again to American soil from his Canadian haven, this time with the goal of seizing a passenger train. Not finding the expected Confederate general officer POWs present, the project was abandoned and Beall was soon after arrested in Niagara, New York on his way back to Canada.

Tried by a military commission set up by department commander Major General John A. Dix, Beall was convicted of being a spy and guerrilla saboteur (he was accused of attempting to derail the train) and sentenced to death by hanging. Helped by the fact that no one was killed or seriously harmed during either clandestine operation, an extensive and quite fascinating campaign to commute Beall's sentence from death to life imprisonment was undertaken. One petition was even signed by half of the U.S. House of Representatives and six senators. Even some of the most hardened radicals, among them Thaddeus Stevens, proved to be unlikely allies in the matter. All of this is well explained in the book. In the end, though, Dix's hardline stance prevailed and the swarm of White House lobbyists and visitors could not sway Lincoln's final decision to uphold the verdict. Lincoln, who had a well-earned reputation for dispensing mercy in similar cases, was not disposed toward challenging Dix on the matter and sincerely felt that the government needed to make an example of Beall, one that would dissuade others from any future actions that could threaten the lives of civilians residing far from the fighting front. By way of further explanation, Harris also suggests that the president, even though the trial thoroughly disproved earlier notions that Beall was somehow involved in the plot to firebomb New York, still seemed to associate Beall (who actively opposed the scheme) with those bitterly detested plotters.

It has been argued by both contemporaries and later writers that Beall's execution and Lincoln's refusal to commute it was a contributing factor behind John Wilkes Booth's final determination to end the president's life. The author recognizes the evidence cited in support of that interpretation, but cautions readers against making too much of it, downplaying the relationship and alleged impetus. The pair had met in Charles Town before the war, when both were associated with the militia raised there in response to John Brown's Raid and subsequent trial, but Harris could find no evidence of any further connection, in person or through correspondence.

William Harris's Confederate Privateer serves as a shining example of not every topic requiring 300-plus pages of text for proper, insightful coverage. At "only" 150 pages of principal narrative, Harris's biography demonstrates admirable scholarly economy. In addition to documenting the life of John Yates Beall to much satisfaction, Harris's book offers useful reminders of lesser-known features of the Civil War's continent-wide irregular conflict. The volume also gainfully supplements the already substantial literature surrounding clandestine Confederate operations based in Canada and their three-headed diplomatic complications.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Review - " The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War " by Joseph Lambert

[The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War by Joseph Lambert, Jr. (Kent State University Press, 2023). Softcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,235/319. ISBN:978-1-60635-466-7. $39.95]

Though his widely respected but financially straitened jurist father was a deeply committed Whig, Ohio lawyer, industrialist, diplomat, and politician David Tod (1805-1868) bucked family tradition and from early adulthood onward became an equally faithful Democrat, maintaining that political allegiance throughout the antebellum period. For Tod, however, the outbreak of the American Civil War sparked a sharp and instantaneous rejection of his previous political partisanship. For him it was not a Republican war. Like many other prominent War Democrats, Tod felt that saving the federal Union and the country's experiment in self-government was paramount and could only be achieved through military means. To that end, he offered fulsome support for President Abraham Lincoln's Republican-led war effort. This conversion from partisan Douglas Democrat to (mostly) bipartisan Union Party leader is meticulously documented in Joseph Lambert's The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War. Though a pair of recent studies, William Harris's Lincoln and the Union Governors (2013) and more notably Stephen Engle's Gathering to Save a Nation: Lincoln and the Union's War Governors (2016)1, explore the political actions, relationships, and significance of Lincoln's gubernatorial partners, Lambert's study is the first modern full-length biography of Tod, a single-term war governor often overshadowed by neighboring state executives such as Indiana's Oliver Morton and Richard Yates of Illinois.

Of course, if one wants to develop a primary thesis of "political transformation," a biographer must first construct a clearly understood foundation upon which to build the narrative. In examining at length Tod's social and political upbringing (particularly his discussion of Tod's ideas for state bank reform and his opposition to a national bank) through several chapters, Lambert succeeds in firmly establishing Tod as a loyal Jacksonian Democrat and constitutional constructionist. Tod's actions as U.S. Minister to Brazil (1847-1851) are lauded for improving soured relations between the two countries. It was also where northerner Tod witnessed slavery up close, and the book notes that the extended time spent in Brazil contributed to Tod's evolving views on the subject of human chattel. Evidence shows that Tod, in a shared trait with Lincoln, was clearly antislavery in his general stance toward the institution but not an abolitionist. During the Kansas troubles of the 1850s and the momentous political campaign of 1860, Tod emerged as a solid Douglas Democrat. That would change.

During the secession crisis and opening months of the war, Tod unequivocally trumpeted the cause of Union. Though he had suffered a stroke while stumping for Douglas during the 1860 presidential election, Tod nevertheless vigorously campaigned in favor of Lincoln's militant stance toward the rebellious South. He became an active force in the Ohio branch of the Union Party, a fusion of Republicans and War Democrats. While many fellow Democrats, and even some later historians, interpreted this emergent partnership to be political opportunism on the part of Tod, Lambert could find no evidence that Tod sought the Union Party nomination for governor of Ohio in 1861. Regardless, it was an election he easily won.

Going back to the Union Party nomination process, one might wonder why sitting Republican governor William Dennison, who by all accounts more than ably managed the state's mobilization for war and strongly supported the President, was unseated. Lambert points out that Dennison was hurt by his staid personality, which did not inspire public confidence when matched against Tod's fiery campaign speeches promoting the war and his overall genial enthusiasm. Perhaps even more important, Tod was a moderate on the slavery issue, and it was calculated that that aspect of his political portfolio, in contrast to Dennison's more radical approach, made him more appealing to the broad base of Ohio voters who were antislavery but still wary of abolitionists.

Lambert admits that Tod was a bit overwhelmed by his state commander-in-chief responsibilities at the beginning of his term, and he generously commends Dennison for bequeathing to his successor a well-organized recruitment system and military bureaucratic apparatus. But, as the author also justly maintains, Tod deserves credit for recognizing what and who made it all work, and the new governor commendably resisted the temptation of cleaning house in favor of installing his own leadership/patronage appointments and implementing change for the sake of putting his own stamp on running all aspects of state government. Upon receiving horrifying news of mass casualties incurred during first great battles in the West, one particularly effective state-level leadership response was Tod's distribution of state resources (in the form of money, supplies, medical staff, etc.) to western battlefields through chartered steamships, a proactive and timely approach that cut through red tape, eased the suffering of the wounded, and saved many lives. Through that initiative and others, Tod quickly gained a widespread and justly earned reputation as a devoted friend of the fighting man.

In more ways than one, the book shows how Tod quickly proved to be an able war governor. One of Tod's earliest proposals, though rejected at the time by the state legislature, was the creation of a large standing militia force for internal security and border defense. The author perhaps underestimates the political and fiscal feasibility of a force as large as the one Tod proposed, which would have dwarfed similar state armies such as the neighboring Indiana Legion, but Lambert correctly notes that standing garrisons would have significantly eased security concerns (and public panic) during the 1862 Kentucky Campaign and the mounted raids led by John Hunt Morgan. Even so, when discussing Ohio's response to the approach of Confederate troops during General Bragg's Kentucky incursion, Lambert credits Tod with creating and coordinating an emergency response that was more than up to the demands of the occasion.

In Lambert's view, a key component of Tod's strength as a war governor was his willingness to subordinate state prerogatives for federal ones, principally in the area of recruitment2. In a move that did not sit well with many Democrats, Tod did not directly oppose in theory a proposed federal draft to supplement presumed future shortfalls in state volunteer recruitment, and he also was in line with the administration when it came to jailing opposition newspaper editors and others who publicly sought to discourage enlistment. The book shows that Tod was single-minded in the drive to save the Union and was prepared to temporarily abandoned his previously strict constructionism in order to support nearly any Lincoln administration measure aimed toward achieving that overarching end. According to Lambert, the depth of Tod's political transformation was most profoundly expressed through the speed and strength of Tod's support for the Emancipation Proclamation. This emerged during the northern governors meeting assembled in Pennsylvania around that time. No press were allowed and no minutes were taken, so how individual governors responded during the meeting to the key issues of the war (and how well or badly the administration was handling them) remains open to speculation. Indeed, when it comes to interpreting Tod's commitment to emancipation, the opinions of historians have been mixed. However, in his own research Lambert discovered a revealing interview with one of the attendees following the conference, a governor who had no obvious personal or political motivation to buff up Tod, in which it is unequivocally stated that Tod expressed one of the earliest and strongest affirmations of Lincoln's proclamation.

While Tod remained a popular public figure during his term of office, critics were sharpening their knives, and, as Lambert demonstrates, they would close in from all directions. The fall 1862 elections went badly for Tod's political allies, the inroads made by more conservative Ohio Democrats demonstrating growing discontent with Lincoln's home front policies and his overall management of the war effort. Linked with Tod, that tide contributed to what would be a fatal compromising of the governor's political future. He also made things worse for himself through his own actions. By notably failing to mention emancipation in his January 1863 State of the State address, Tod again opened himself up to old charges stemming from his antebellum political career that he was a two-faced, unprincipled politician. Ohio conservatives attacked him for his support of free speech suppression, arbitrary arrest, and emancipation while Republican allies (always the Union Party majority) increasingly accused Tod of not being radical enough and, perhaps just as important, excessively stingy in rewarding Republicans with vacated government and military appointments. Overall, Lambert's study does an excellent job of tracing what was behind both Tod's meteoric rise and his just as meteoric fall from political grace. Later in his term of office, Tod did finally succeed getting the legislature to pass a law creating a state militia army, but there was not enough time to implement it before Morgan's Great Raid passed through southern Ohio during the summer of 1863.

After losing the nomination for a second term, Tod selflessly campaigned for his replacement, and during Morgan's Great Raid he effectively micromanaged the state's military response. Later that summer, Tod, who had opposed black recruitment earlier in his tenure, finally offered the War Department a regiment drawn from the state's relatively large free black population. Having earlier asked for a postponement of the federal draft in his state, Tod was informed that black soldiers would count toward the state's requested enlistment total. Though it has been suggested that Tod came around to black enlistment only to help forestall draft implementation, Lambert offers a strong counterpoint to the most cynical claims, citing Tod's earnest efforts in equipping and supplying the men, strident requests for equal pay, and affectionate speeches made in their support. As a lame duck governor, Tod continued to work tirelessly toward getting Ohio volunteers into the ranks of the army, and near the end of his term he responded to Confederate threats from Canada by coordinating a strong security screen along the state's Great Lakes border.

An exhausted ex-governor Tod returned home in 1864 to his lucrative coal, iron, and railroad pursuits, but he wasn't entirely done with politics. Campaigning for Lincoln and against the Peace Democrat movement in his home state that year, the still popular Tod was tagged by an appreciative Lincoln for the Secretary of the Treasury cabinet post vacated by Salmon Chase's resignation. Citing continued poor health, Tod graciously declined the honor. Lambert agrees with critics at the time that Tod was a very curious pick given his life-long public opposition to the kinds of financial policies and strategies that Secretary Chase employed so effectively in sustaining the northern economy and war machine. The author agrees that it was best for the country that someone better qualified fill the position, which ultimately went to William Fessenden of Maine, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. This is just one example of how Lambert judiciously weighs the strengths and weaknesses associated with his subject's political life.

For many, the war's end also signaled the end of the Union Party's usefulness, but David Tod felt that he could not in good conscience return to the Democratic Party. Indeed, he felt that it would take at least one additional election cycle before the Democrats could hope to regain their moral standing in the country. Until then, Tod would support the Grant presidency. He came around to supporting black suffrage as well, though he died of a stroke before ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. In the areas of equality, citizenship, and civil rights for freedmen, Lambert deems Lincoln's own transformation on those matters a "spiritual" one in contrast to Tod's more constitution-based, pragmatic, and legalistic one (though some who knew Tod personally believed it more heartfelt than that). What is beyond dispute is that the political transformation of David Tod was weighty, real, and deserving of being remembered as much more than mere shifting with the prevailing political winds.

In the end, Lambert's biography delivers a strong endorsement of the idea that David Tod's historical significance in deftly guiding the war effort of one of the Union's most vitally important states and his earnest support for emancipation transcended his relatively brief time spent in elected office. Bookended by the governorships of William Dennison and John Brough, it was Tod, Lambert argues, who successfully navigated the state through its most challenging trials. A highly recommended study, Joseph Lambert's The Political Transformation of David Tod ably addresses a significant gap in the modern biography of northern war governors, many of whom played critical roles in assisting the Lincoln administration's path to Union victory.

Additional Notes:
1 - Both titles come well recommended. Given the significance of the federal-state partnership to the outcome of the war, it is surprising that Engle was the first historian in seven decades to comprehensively examine the subject of Lincoln's relationships with the state governors. For those who might find the scale of Engle's Gathering to Save a Nation daunting, Harris's more introductory-level study, part of SIU Press's prolific Concise Lincoln Library series, is a fine alternative.
2 - While Lambert's study traces the Civil War career of a western governor, it tends to track the overall progress and state of the Union war effort in a rather eastern-centric manner. In discussing manpower and recruitment issues more generally as background to Tod's influence in Ohio, some arguably misplaced emphasis emerges in the book. For example, the author on more than one occasion assigns to General George McClellan's handling of the Peninsula Campaign primary blame for the mid-1862 manpower crisis that sparked another massive call for volunteers from the states. Administration gaffes, even extraordinary ones such as Secretary Stanton's Spring 1862 suspension of military recruitment all across the North, are minimized as secondary factors or overlooked entirely.