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."


  1. Wow, Tim Smith is a machine. I still need to catch up on his Vicksburg works.

  2. I am reviewing the book for Civil War News and am about halfway through. It is very interesting and long overdue. I'm looking forward to finishing it and publishing the review which in virtually every way will be positive, which should come as no surprise to anyone.

  3. Excellent book! Highly recommended! I actually met Tim on the Shiloh battlefield the day he received the final artwork and design for the cover.

    Bill Gurley

  4. I concur with what everyone has said. Not surprisingly, Tim's analysis is clear, insightful, and persuasive.

  5. I was lucky to meet him at Shiloh battlefield in '01 at the Hornet's Nest. Such a nice guy. Has to be along with Earl Hess one of the most productive Civil War author of all time (and best).

  6. I was always hoping somebody would take the mantle from Roland!


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