Monday, September 25, 2023

Booknotes: Lincoln and California

New Arrival:

Lincoln and California: The President, the War, and the Golden State by Brian McGinty (Potomac Bks, 2023).

Even though Lincoln, like the majority of his fellow Americans of the period, never visited the Far West during his lifetime, its future (especially when it came to resolving the question of slavery) was very much in the minds of the future president and other leaders of his party. According to Brian McGinty, the author of Lincoln and California: The President, the War, and the Golden State, Lincoln even mentioned on numerous occasions a desire to settle his family in the state after the conclusion of his presidency.

McGinty's book "explains the relationship between the president and the Golden State, describing important events that took place in California and elsewhere during Lincoln’s lifetime. He includes the histories of Lincoln’s close friends and personal acquaintances who made history as they went to California, lived there, and helped to keep it part of the imperiled Union." In addition to subject matter mentioned above, the study also addresses the state's economic importance, Lincoln's Indian policy, and Lincoln remembrance in California.

Even though California voters rejected slavery, Confederate dreamers still envisioned that the state might somehow be transformed into a Pacific outpost of a continental Confederacy. Those unrealistic hopes were quashed relatively early in the war, and California, its volunteers spread all across the Pacific Coast, the Mountain West, and the Desert Southwest, ultimately assumed responsibility for many of the important tasks previously assigned to the Regular Army in those regions. That military history is recognized, but it is not a major focus of this particular study.

Lincoln and California "shines new light on an important state, a pivotal president, and a turning point in American history."

Friday, September 22, 2023

Booknotes: Conflict of Command

New Arrival:

Conflict of Command: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Politics of War by George C. Rable (LSU Press, 2023).

Obviously, any attempt at gaining a full understanding of the momentous period between the Union humiliation at First Manassas in July 1861 and the end of the following year's fall campaigning season has to critically examine the complex personal relationships and political dynamics involved in the many important interactions between President Abraham Lincoln, his administration, and Major General George B. McClellan. Knowing that, writers and scholars have scrutinized the 1861-62 Lincoln-McClellan association, in part of in full, inside the pages of innumerable books and articles, and a standard interpretation has emerged, one significantly deviated from only on rare occasion.

From the description: "The fraught relationship between Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan is well known, so much so that many scholars rarely question the standard narrative casting the two as foils, with the Great Emancipator inevitably coming out on top over his supposedly feckless commander." However, in his new book Conflict of Command: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Politics of War, "acclaimed Civil War historian George C. Rable rethinks that stance, providing a new understanding of the interaction between the president and his leading wartime general by reinterpreting the political aspects of their partnership."

In this reinterpretation, the most expansive yet attempted, Rable "pays considerable attention to Lincoln’s cabinet, Congress, and newspaper editorials, revealing the role each played in shaping the dealings between the two men. While he surveys McClellan’s military campaigns as commander of the Army of the Potomac, Rable focuses on the political fallout of the fighting rather than the tactical details. This broadly conceived approach highlights the army officers and enlisted men who emerged as citizen-soldiers and political actors."

More: "Most accounts of the Lincoln-McClellan feud solely examine one of the two individuals, and the vast majority adopt a steadfast pro-Lincoln position. Taking a more neutral view, Rable deftly shows how the relationship between the two developed in a political context and ultimately failed spectacularly, profoundly altering the course of the Civil War itself." Sounds refreshing. The blurb writer agrees that Rable succeeded in being "fair to both men."

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Booknotes: The Key to the Shenandoah

New Arrival:

The Key to the Shenandoah Valley: Geography and the Civil War Struggle for Winchester by Edward B. McCaul, Jr. (McFarland, 2023).

Winchester, Virginia is one of those small, otherwise unexceptional American towns that the Civil War made very well-known to the rest of the country. It is perhaps most recognized by today's readers as one of the war's most fought over locations, exchanging hands a great many times during the conflict. From the description: "During the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was the scene of 326 engagements, many taking place around Winchester. The city was occupied and evacuated 72 times and five major battles were fought in the vicinity, including First and Second Kernstown and Cedar Creek."

Obviously, Winchester's location in the Shenandoah Valley was key to its wartime significance. More from the description: "Geography was a crucial factor in the struggle to control Winchester, which was key to controlling Virginia. Confederate occupation gave them psychological dominance of the central valley and enabled them to disrupt enemy operations. When Union forces prevailed, they dictated the tempo of operations in the region. The decisive Union capture of the city in 1864 foretold the end of the Confederacy." All of this is discussed in Edward McCaul's The Key to the Shenandoah Valley: Geography and the Civil War Struggle for Winchester.

Being a study of how geography influences history, the book is described in the author's introduction as a "philosophical history book," the goal of which is to "give the reader a better understanding of the overall impact geography has had on military actions and more specifically those around Winchester, Virginia" (pg. 1). The text is supported by numerous maps and photographs. I like all of McCaul's previous full-length works, which include books covering early-war Upper Mississippi naval operations and artillery fuzes, so I am looking forward to checking this one out.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Booknotes: Two Counties in Crisis

New Arrival:

Two Counties in Crisis: Measuring Political Change in Reconstruction Texas by Robert J. Dillard (UNT Press, 2023).

From the description: "Commercially prosperous and built on slave labor in the mold of Deep South plantation culture, East Texas’s Harrison County" (its county seat being Marshall, a regional center very frequently mentioned in the Civil War literature) "strongly supported secession in 1861. West Texas’s Collin County, characterized by individual and family farms with a limited slave population, favored the Union. During Reconstruction, Collin County became increasingly conservative and eventually bore a great resemblance to Harrison County. By 1876 and the ratification of the regressive Texas Constitution, Collin County had become firmly resistant to all aspects of Reconstruction." By maps of the state's regions that I've seen online, Collin County is firmly in "North" or "North Central" Texas, so I'm not sure where the West Texas regional location comes from. Perhaps that's an older designation from the period in question.

Political scientist Robert Dillard's study "seeks to investigate social and political change by integrating elements of the political culture genre into a narrative of Reconstruction focused on a case study analysis" of these two "dramatically different" counties. In the author's view, his dual county study of cultural evolution "illustrates how political cultures consolidate themselves, and how the process of achieving unity hinges not upon cultural commonalities between citizens but upon fear, distrust, and hatred of the oppositional culture that seeks to do them harm" (pg. x). According to Dillard, in this case, consolidated resistance was expressed and maintained in ways that hindered the "common good."

More from the description: Two Counties in Crisis "offers a rare opportunity to observe how local political cultures are transformed by state and national events. Utilizing an interdisciplinary fusion of history and political science, Robert J. Dillard analyzes two disparate Texas counties—traditionalist Harrison County and individualist Collin County—and examines four Reconstruction governors (Hamilton, Throckmorton, Pease, Davis) to aid the narrative and provide additional cultural context."

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Booknotes: A Man by Any Other Name

New Arrival:

A Man by Any Other Name: William Clarke Quantrill and the Search for American Manhood by Joseph M. Beilein, Jr. (UGA Press, 2023)

Finally something came in the mail this month. Infamous guerrilla chieftain William C. Quantrill has been the subject of a number of biographies, the most recent of the sound variety (in my opinion, anyway) being Edward Leslie's The Devil Knows How to Ride (1996). As one can readily recognize from its title, Joseph Beilein's A Man by Any Other Name: William Clarke Quantrill and the Search for American Manhood is a new biography with a new theme.

From the description: Before Quantrill became a terror to pro-Union soldiers and civilians in Missouri and Kansas, he "led a transient life, shifting from one masculine form to another. He played the role of fastidious schoolmaster, rough frontiersman, and even confidence man, developing certain notions and skills on his way to becoming a proslavery bushwhacker. Quantrill remains impossible to categorize, a man whose motivations have been difficult to pin down."

That's certainly true, but Beilein gives it a try. More from the description: "Using new documents and old documents examined in new ways," A Man by Any Other Name "paints the most authentic portrait of Quantrill yet rendered. The detailed study of this man not only explores a one-of-a-kind enigmatic figure but also allows us entry into many representative experiences of the Civil War generation. This picture brings to life a unique vision of antebellum life in the territories and a fresh view of guerrilla warfare on the border. Of even greater consequence, seeing Quantrill in this way allows us to examine the perceived essence of American manhood in the mid-nineteenth century."

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Review - " Outwitting Forrest: The Tupelo Campaign in Mississippi, June 22 - July 23, 1864 " by Edwin Bearss, ed. by David Powell

[Outwitting Forrest: The Tupelo Campaign in Mississippi, June 22 - July 23, 1864 by Edwin C. Bearss, ed. by David A. Powell (Savas Beatie, 2023). Hardcover, 6 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,174/191. ISBN:978-1-61121-670-7. $29.95]

Before his stint as a featured commentator on Ken Burns's award-winning Civil War television series vaulted him into wider public recognition and before he became a well-known preservation advocate and legendary battlefield tour leader, the incomparable Edwin Cole Bearss researched and authored a slew of manuscripts and journal articles covering Civil War campaigns and battles fought across all three major theaters. During a time when modern maps, at least detailed ones, were generally neglected, Bearss made them a priority in his work. His magnum opus, a three-volume history of the Vicksburg campaign, has received multiple printings, but other significant book-length studies written during the Park Service historian's early and middle career periods unfortunately languish in unpublished form or were released only in obscure, small-run printings. An example of the latter is his groundbreaking 1969 survey The Tupelo Campaign, June 22-July 23. A Documented Narrative & Troop Movement Maps. However, courtesy of publisher Savas Beatie and editor David Powell, that is no longer the case, with Bearss's Tupelo manuscript, retitled Outwitting Forrest: The Tupelo Campaign in Mississippi, June 22 - July 23, 1864, the latest release from SB's Battles & Leaders series.

Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest's shocking rout of Union general Samuel Sturgis's large combined-arms column at Brice's Crossroads on June 10, 1864 almost immediately caused shaken, yet still determined, Union authorities to fit out another even stronger expedition for a renewed drive into northern Mississippi. Led by A.J. Smith, a well-regarded fighting general, and consisting of a corp-sized infantry element backed by powerful cavalry and artillery forces, this new campaign hit the road less than a month after Sturgis's defeat. That expedition, and its signature battle fought at Tupelo, Mississippi, is the central focus of this study.

Readers familiar with Bearss's style of presentation, spare in language but thorough in intelligibly written operational and tactical narrative accompanied by sound strategic commentary, will find the same in this government-sponsored manuscript. Supported by new maps created at the appropriate scale, the text follows the paths of opposing forces in northern Mississippi across roughly two weeks of marching, skirmishing, and fighting, those sequence of events culminating in a sharply fought battle at Harrisburg/Tupelo on July 14 and a lesser engagement at Old Town Creek the following day. The "Outwitting Forrest" aspect of the book title adopted by the publisher likely refers to Smith's 'stolen march' that resulted in Union forces successfully bypassing Forrest's roadblock established southeast of Pontotoc. Smith's skillful lateral redeployment from Pontotoc to Tupelo successfully fended off multiple Confederate attempts at interdicting the march. As a result, the bluecoats were able to reach the Mobile & Ohio Railroad in force, a goal of the campaign, and establish a strong defensive perimeter around Tupelo. On July 14, Smith's command delivered a bloody repulse to the attacking Confederate cavalry under the direction of department commander S.D. Lee and principal subordinate Forrest. However, after Smith, complaining about dwindling supplies and ammunition problems, abruptly abandoned his campaign and returned to Tennessee, both sides laid claim to overall victory.

Contemporary critics and modern observers alike generally agree that the best use of Forrest's cavalry during this period lay in raiding Sherman's supply lines. Agreeing with that line of thinking, Bearss determines that S.D. Lee's decision as Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana commander to concentrate his considerable mounted forces for the defense of Mississippi instead of using them to operate against the enemy lines of supply and communication supporting Sherman's army group in Georgia was a clear mistake. One can certainly use that (as Bearss does) as an example of Lee lacking strategic vision, but, to be fair, most Civil War department commanders were understandably hesitant to strip the defenses of their own geographic area of responsibility by sending their best troops well beyond departmental boundaries. Strongest criticism might perhaps be more appropriately levied against President Davis and his War Department for declining to intervene, and Bearss's text also condemns Davis's inaction on this matter.

In his usual fashion, Bearss does not inappropriately stretch the documentary evidence in support of taking sides in controversies associated with the battle. After Smith placed his superior command in favorable defensive positions west and south of Tupelo, it was incontestably Forrest-like for that general to want to wait Smith out and then hit the federals after circumstances forced the bluecoats to resume movement. However, Lee was in charge and felt keenly pressured by the situation in his department to attack immediately. As Bearss relates in the book, primary sources are in conflict regarding Forrest's level of enthusiasm for attacking Smith's strong position at Tupelo. Similarly, what motivation(s) lay behind Forrest declining Lee's offer to command all Confederate forces during the battle has been a subject of long debate. Here again, Bearss presents the evidence as he sees it and leaves it to his readers, if they so choose, to engage in speculation. Given the typical result of Civil War cavalry assaulting well-formed infantry, it becomes difficult to imagine any scenario in which Forrest and Lee's outnumbered cavalry could have overcome Smith's veterans compactly positioned behind temporary breastworks and backed by plentiful artillery and strong cavalry on the flanks. Brice's Crossroads provided some precedent in terms of force mix, but the two battlefield situations were very different. Regardless of how one characterizes the high command interaction of Lee and Forrest (who generally got along well together), as Bearss explains, the Confederate attack proceeded in piecemeal fashion and to neither general's credit. The result was a badly directed battle from the Confederate side and a terrible decimation of irreplaceable officers and manpower in four brigades. In the author's view, those brigades permanently lost their offensive capabilities, a significant impact.

Three additional chapters at the rear of the book cover a series of Union diversionary operations in Central Mississippi. Most significantly, General Henry Slocum pushed a division-strength raiding column well beyond the Big Black River (at one point reoccupying Jackson and destroying the rebuilt railroad bridge over Pearl River). In another, General Alfred Ellet conducted an inland expedition into Jefferson and Claiborne counties. All of these early to mid-July raiding operations are described by Bearss in some detail. As the author astutely observes, their significance is primarily attached to their fixing Confederate defenders in place and withholding possible reinforcements for Forrest. Through influencing Lee's determination to immediately attack at Tupelo, those events, especially Slocum's movements, greatly affected the course of events in northern Mississippi. Finally, in fulfillment of his government directive, Bearss concludes the study with his professional recommendations regarding interpretation of the Tupelo site.

David Powell edits the manuscript with a restrained hand, his supplemental footnotes largely confined to providing capsule biographies of a number of general and field grade officers mentioned in the text. Occasionally, additional historiographical context is added, an example of that being some comparisons between Bearss's text and corresponding views and conclusions found in the most thorough and up to date modern treatment of the campaign, Tom Parson's Work for Giants: The Campaign and Battle of Tupelo / Harrisburg, Mississippi, June-July 1864 (2014). Though it would be unfair to compare too closely works researched and written nearly a half-century apart, Bearss and Parson do share a number of opinions and interpretations in regard to the quality of opposing generalship, their decision-making during the campaign, and the overall significance of events that July. Obviously, if you can only read one book on the campaign you have to go with the very impressive Work For Giants, but Parson generously credits Bearss's trailblazing work as having a profound influence on his own. For those who already have Bearss's Forrest at Brice's Crossroads [Morningside (1979, R-1987)], the middle section of which covers the Tupelo Campaign, and are curious about similarities between it and the 1969 manuscript, there are numerous shared elements (i.e. very similarly written passages), but both text and overall coverage are not exactly the same. One notable difference is the absence in the 1979 book of the chapters addressing the Slocum and Ellet raids that, as mentioned before, so strongly influenced Lee's mindset at Tupelo.

A decade ago, Savas Beatie and editor Bryce Suderow made widely available for the first time two volumes of Bearss's previously unpublished Petersburg Campaign writings. Through the continued efforts of SB and now David Powell, in Outwitting Forrest we now have another seminal Bearss study finally achieving general access through wider publication. Hopefully, there's more to come.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Booknotes: Artillery of Antietam

New Arrival:

Artillery of Antietam: The Union and Confederate Batteries at the Battle of Antietam by James A. Rosebrock (Press of the Antietam Inst, 2023).

The depth and scope of Jim Rosebrock's Artillery of Antietam clearly exceeds that of the battle's long-serving standard reference work Artillery Hell: The Employment of Artillery at Antietam, which is fast approaching its 30-year anniversary.

From the description: Rosebrock's study "provides for the first time ever, a comprehensive examination of every Federal and Confederate artillery battery (135 in all), and their commanders, that participated in the Maryland Campaign of 1862. Detailed accounts cover the artillery battles at South Mountain, Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Shepherdstown, Williamsport, and the skirmishes between the Union and Confederate horse artillery batteries during the advance into Maryland."

Saying the battery accounts are "detailed" is no overstatement. The divisional artillery (consisting of 2 or more batteries) unit background and Maryland Campaign service histories for both sides routinely fill a dozen or so 8.5" x 11" double-column pages. The text is researched from a diverse range of primary and secondary sources, including archival materials, newspapers, books, articles, and various online resources.

Supplemental material is also impressive. More from the description: "Twenty-eight original maps highlight the artillery actions in great detail. The book has an introductory chapter on light artillery operations in the Civil War and six tables providing detailed information on numbers of artillerymen, casualties, and armament."

Hartwig's mammoth battle history, of which I am currently approaching the halfway mark, will undoubtedly leave me Antietam'd out of a while, but I will eventually get to this.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Coming Soon (September '23 Edition)

Scheduled for SEPT 20231:

Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1-April 30, 1863 by Timothy Smith.
Oracle of Lost Causes: John Newman Edwards and His Never-Ending Civil War by Matthew Hulbert.
Losing the Thread: Cotton, Liverpool and the American Civil War by Jim Powell.
A Man by Any Other Name: William Clarke Quantrill and the Search for American Manhood by Joseph Beilein.
Final Resting Places: Reflections on the Meaning of Civil War Graves ed. by Jordan & White.
Michigan's Company K: Anishinaabe Soldiers, Citizenship, and the Civil War by Michelle Cassidy.
My Dearest Lilla: Letters Home from Civil War General Jacob D. Cox ed. by Eugene Schmiel.
Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor by Charles McLandress.
From the Wilderness to Appomattox: The Fifteenth New York Heavy Artillery in the Civil War by Edward Altemos.
Building a House Divided: Slavery, Westward Expansion, and the Roots of the Civil War by Stephen Hyslop.
Calamity at Frederick: Robert E. Lee, Special Orders No. 191, and Confederate Misfortune on the Road to Antietam Alexander Rossino.
Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862 Victor Vignola.

Comments: Both Losing the Thread and Oracle of Lost Causes were released a bit early (click on the link at left to read the Booknotes entry for the latter). Scheduled for release at the very end of the month, Vignola's Fair Oaks/Seven Pines book has received a title change, from A Mismanaged Affair: The Battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks, May 31-June 1, 1862 to Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31-June 1, 1862. I guess the altered title better reflects the content, as the description text notes that the book "focuses primarily on the Fair Oaks portion of the battle." I can't find the Cox letters book anywhere on UT Press's website yet, so there seems little chance it will actually be published next month (but, just in case, I include it anyway as a placeholder). BTW, Smith's book does cover Arkansas Post.

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.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Booknotes: Outwitting Forrest

New Arrival:

Outwitting Forrest: The Tupelo Campaign in Mississippi, June 22 - July 23, 1864 by Edwin C. Bearss, ed. by David A. Powell (Savas Beatie, 2023).

For those seeking the best single source for learning about the 1864 Tupelo campaign and battle in Mississippi, the current gold standard is Tom Parson's Work for Giants: The Campaign and Battle of Tupelo / Harrisburg, Mississippi, June-July 1864 (2014), which was also expertly condensed by its author as a Blue & Gray magazine feature. Before that, an excellent summary of the campaign and battle was placed in the middle section of Ed Bearss's Forrest at Brice's Crossroads, published by Morningside (1979, R-1987).

A number of 'firsts' were produced by Bearss during his long and distinguished government service career, among them many detailed campaign/battle narratives and sets of battlefield troop movement maps that together provided the groundwork for subsequent studies (including a number of his own). One of those seminal works is the 1969 publication The Tupelo Campaign, June 22-July 23. A Documented Narrative & Troop Movement Maps. I haven't taken the time to closely compare the appropriate parts of Bearss's Morningside title with his 1969 monograph, but several chapter headings are closely shared and the wording used in the opening passage of both is remarkably similar.

Regardless of the amount of shared material, it's always worth preserving (and, just as important, making more widely available) those works that 'started it all' and are of such timeless quality as to heavily influence more modern titles written decades later. The latest installment of Savas Beatie's Battles & Leaders series and freshly edited by David Powell, Bearss's 1969 manuscript has now been reissued under the title Outwitting Forrest: The Tupelo Campaign in Mississippi, June 22 - July 23, 1864.

Though often overshadowed by the stunning Confederate victory at Brice's Crossroads that preceded it by mere weeks, the campaign had significant consequences. By keeping Confederate forces in northern Mississippi occupied and away from the Union Army's main effort in the West, the Tupelo Campaign materially aided Sherman's advances in North Georgia.

From the description: "The engagement came about when Maj. Gen. A. J. Smith marched a Federal expeditionary force (his XVI Army Corps) into northern Mississippi in early July 1864. The thrust forced a response, the largest of which was delivered by the combined Confederate cavalry of Stephen D. Lee (who was in general command) and Forrest.

The tactical result was a Union defensive success. The larger Confederate strategic play, however—one that might have impacted the course of the war in the Western Theater—would have been to unleash Forrest on a raid into Middle Tennessee to destroy the single line of railroad track feeding and supplying the Union armies of William T. Sherman in his ongoing operations around Atlanta. Instead, his troopers were contained within the Magnolia State, where his combat effectiveness was severely curtailed."

In addition to penning a new foreword discussing the context and significance of Bearss's original monograph, Powell appends some of Bearss's chapter notes. Six new maps were also commissioned for this edition.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Booknotes: Hoosier Spies and Horse Marines

New Arrival:

Hoosier Spies and Horse Marines: A History of the Third Indiana Cavalry, East Wing by James A. Goecker (McFarland, 2023).

From the description: Hoosier Spies and Horse Marines "traces the history of a remarkable troop of Hoosier horsemen—the East Wing of the Third Indiana Cavalry—during the Civil War. From the backwaters of the war in eastern Maryland to the epicenter of cavalry action in the eastern theater, they fought at Antietam, Brandy Station, Gettysburg and around Petersburg, and helped subdue Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley. Along the way they served as spies and fought in dozens of vicious skirmishes and battles. At Appomattox, they escorted one of the most famous generals to come out of the war."

The six companies (A-F) that make up the object of this unit study were initially intended to become part of the First Indiana Cavalry, which was oversized at 14 companies and geographically scattered. To bring order out of this bit of organizational mess, the demi-regiment in Washington, D.C. was detached and formally redesignated as the East Wing of the new Third Indiana Cavalry. If there's an East Wing there has to be a West Wing, and that Third Indiana unit, eventually consisting of the remaining companies G-M, served in the western theater. The two units never fought alongside each other.

Upon quick perusal of the bibliography, it looks like author James Goecker was able to mine archives (in Indiana and elsewhere) for a fair number of member journals, letters, and other personal papers. The text appears to be primarily a military history narrative of the unit's campaigns and battles with the Army of the Potomac, bookended by organizational and postwar chapters. A number of fine-looking, full-page battle maps are sprinkled about in support. The appendix section consists of a Gettysburg casualty list and a detailed unit roster, the latter also including a more simplified list from an 1864 reorganization.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Review - "Revisiting The Battle of Red Fork: A Two-Part Review and Analysis of the History and Controversy of the First Civil War Battle Fought in Indian Territory in What is Now Oklahoma" by Dale Chlouber

[Revisiting The Battle of Red Fork: A Two-Part Review and Analysis of the History and Controversy of the First Civil War Battle Fought in Indian Territory in What is Now Oklahoma by Dale Chlouber (New Forums Press, 2023). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendix section. Pages:vi,164. ISBN:978-1-58107-378-2. $26.95]

In a rare diplomatic victory over its Union foe, the Confederate government in 1861 successfully negotiated alliance treaties with the major tribal nations residing within Indian Territory. However, even after principal chief John Ross finally succumbed to the pressure and aligned the powerful Cherokee with Richmond, there were many among the Creeks and other groups who believed their best interests still lay in honoring the old agreements with the U.S. government. Numbering in the thousands, they rallied around the highly respected Muscogee Creek former chief Opothleyahola. On the other side, the now Confederate Indians and their new Texas and Arkansas allies were determined to deny the possibility of armed opposition blossoming under their noses. That rising threat of open warfare caused Opothleyahola and his followers to flee north, a winter trek that some have called the "Trail of Blood on Ice." Pursuit led to a running series of engagements, the most significant of which were the "battles" of Round Mountain (November 19, 1861), Chusto Talasah (December 9), and Chustenahlah (December 26). The last was a rout of Opothleyahola's remaining warriors, but the harried Indian loyalists ultimately reached asylum in Kansas. There they huddled in refugee camps under less than ideal conditions, their sufferings endured amid the hope and promise of eventual return to their former homes under the protection of U.S. forces.

Perhaps the most notable historiographical controversy of the entire campaign revolves around the disputed location of the Battle of Round Mountain (less commonly known as the Battle of Red Fork or Round Mountains). Strong oral history and local tradition built up around the Twin Mounds site west of Yale, Oklahoma, but the controversy really started with the public dissemination of the findings of avocational historian John Melton and the 1949 Chronicles of Oklahoma article authored by professional historian Angie Debo. Their arguments in support of the Twin Mounds site convinced many, and the issue seemed resolved. However, Debo's scholarship was soon challenged by Chronicles of Oklahoma editor Muriel Wright, who initially seemed satisfied by Debo's analysis before rejecting it wholesale in favor of promoting a location (or locations) near the confluence of the Cimarron and Arkansas Rivers, the so-called "Keystone Site" or sites. That was followed by decades of back and forth arguments and competing claims among historians, interested individuals, historical societies, and local communities. The conflict, which frequently reached unseemly depths, resulted in competing monuments and enduring questions. This contentious and nearly three quarters of a century-long debate is the subject of Dale Chlouber's Revisiting The Battle of Red Fork: A Two-Part Review and Analysis of the History and Controversy of the First Civil War Battle Fought in Indian Territory in What is Now Oklahoma.

Chlouber's book is divided into two parts of roughly equal length: (1) "Background on the Controversy of the Battle of Red Fork" and (2) "Revisiting the Battle of Red Fork." "Background" re-explores the source of the controversy in depth, one of its most useful reference features being its creation of an extensive and well-documented timeline of events spanning 1949-1996. After professional historians lost interest in the debate, sometimes due to the career problems involved with it, amateurs stepped forward, and Chlouber also critiques the merits of the battle location advanced by Robert DeMoss (called, appropriately enough, the "DeMoss Site"). In strong fashion, the author explains why he is unconvinced by DeMoss's arguments and unsupported conspiracy charges, finding instead that the best features of DeMoss's analysis not only do not reject the Twin Mounds/Yale site but buttress it.

In point by point fashion, the "Revisiting" section reevaluates the merits of the best sets of evidence put forth by proponents of both main locations: the collective Keystone area site(s) and the Twin Mounds/Yale site. Chlouber judiciously weighs the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of evidence, and persuasively concludes that the preponderance of best sources (including maps, participant accounts written closest to the time of actual events, and oral history) strongly supports the Twin Mounds/Yale location over any other suggested site. In determining this, Chlouber is not a lone wolf. By his estimation, knowledgeable persons today support the Twin Mounds/Yale site with near unanimity.

In text and photos (including the results of his own amateur relic hunting), Chlouber also advances the notion that available artifact discoveries tend to support Twin Mounds as being the true battle site. What's really needed, as Chlouber admits, is a more systematic survey of the location candidates using the most current technology and professional practices of battlefield archaeology. Douglas Scott and others have used such tools to great effect on other Civil War battlegrounds. Chlouber reminds us, however, that man-made Keystone Lake has placed some potential survey sites underwater.

In terms of suggestions for improvement, typos were pretty heavy, especially in the first section. Inclusion of an updated, article-length narrative summary of the battle itself would have helped many readers more fully comprehend the events themselves along with their historiographical dimensions. The volume seems to assume that most, if not all, prospective readers possess at least a rudimentary prior understanding of the battle, but the topic along with its sources and critical geography will undoubtedly be alien to a number of interested readers (as they mostly were to this one!). Additionally, key sources excerpted in the main text are limited enough in number to be fully reproduced in the appendix section. For a future edition, the book's overall organizational structure might also be gainfully reconsidered. There is some needless repetition between sections, and, at least from this reader's perspective, there's a great deal of information presented in the second part of the book that provides useful context for sounder comprehension of key matters explored in the first. In some ways, I wish I had read the second part first. Those concerns might have been resolved through employment of a more integrative approach.

In highlighting the negative consequences of institutionalized personal animosity, incomplete and selective research, misuse of sources and context, flawed assumptions, and community rivalry, Chlouber's Round Mountain examination draws sober lessons from the controversy that can be more broadly applied to the practice of history. In what seems appropriate, the author broadly faults Wright's leadership of the publication arm of the state historical society, The Chronicles of Oklahoma, as doing a disservice to history. By "neutralizing and subduing critiques," (pg. 71) Wright's editorship promoted deeply flawed history and engendered a fear of reprisal (i.e. through refusal to publish other professional articles in The Chronicles) that suppressed healthy scholarly dissent.

Out of an abundance of caution, one might still deem the matter of the Round Mountain battle location to be lacking an unassailable resolution. Nevertheless, this volume thoroughly and effectively compiles and analyzes the available evidence in ways that significantly reinforce those assessments favoring the Twin Mounds site. In doing so, author Dale Chlouber strongly rebuffs the claims of those who still argue that good evidence, or not enough of it, in support of one site over the others does not exist. Revisiting the Battle of Red Fork is a very useful tool for guiding readers through a long, complicated, and lesson-filled historiographical dispute.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Booknotes: Oracle of Lost Causes

New Arrival:

Oracle of Lost Causes: John Newman Edwards and His Never-Ending Civil War by Matthew C. Hulbert (Bison, 2023)

Historian Matthew Hulbert accurately describes his subject, John Newman Edwards, as a "B-list celebrity" among the war's many colorful military and civilian figures, but the lively journalist is certainly a household name among students of the Civil War in Missouri. Edwards made a career out of advancing the fame of others and attempting to steer readers toward his version of how the war should be understood and remembered. Considering Edwards's influence, in Hulbert's view he is deserving of a biography of his own. As the author puts it, Edwards "furnishes the scaffolding of a tale far larger, and more geographically expansive, than a treatment of any single contemporary might yield" (pg. xxviii).

From the description: "John Newman Edwards was a soldier, a father, a husband, and a noted author. He was also a virulent alcoholic, a duelist, a culture warrior, and a man perpetually at war with the modernizing world around him. From the sectional crisis of his boyhood and the battlefields of the western borderlands to the final days of the Second Mexican Empire and then back to a United States profoundly changed by the Civil War," Oracle of Lost Causes: John Newman Edwards and His Never-Ending Civil War "chronicles Edwards’s lifelong quest to preserve a mythical version of the Old World—replete with aristocrats, knights, damsels, and slaves—in North America."

The introduction colorfully summarizes the book's most prominent themes (Hulbert is an engaging writer), though I must admit the author's psychological profiling of his subject, at least when it comes to addressing Edwards's motivations, hopes, and fantasies, seems a bit too strongly assured for my taste. Of course, that's just a first impression, and one would have to read the rest of the book to gauge the degree to which such interpretations are justified.

More from the description: "This odyssey through nineteenth-century American politics and culture involved the likes of guerrilla chieftains William Clarke Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson, notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James, Confederate general Joseph Orville Shelby, and even Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Charlotte of Mexico. It is the story of a man who experienced Confederate defeat not once but twice, and how he sought to shape and weaponize the memory of those grievous losses."

Hulbert also presents his biography of Edwards as another means through which to usefully expand the boundaries, geographical and otherwise, of Civil War studies. His work "ultimately reveals how the Civil War determined not only the future of the vast West but also the extent to which the conflict was part of a broader, international sequence of sociopolitical uprisings."

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Booknotes: Revisiting The Battle of Red Fork

New Arrival:

Revisiting The Battle of Red Fork: A Two-Part Review and Analysis of the History and Controversy of the First Civil War Battle Fought in Indian Territory in What is Now Oklahoma by Dale Chlouber (New Forums Pr, 2023).

While significant bits and pieces of the campaign's history are spread among numerous scholarly books and articles, we still lack a single, comprehensive, book-length examination of the series of 1861 battles fought between Confederate troops from Texas, Arkansas, and Indian Territory on one side and on the other a sizable minority alliance of anti-Confederate tribal dissenters under the Muscogee (Creek) leader Opothleyahola, the latter attempting to flee to presumed refuge in Kansas. In addition to being confronted by very poor period maps of the region and published information that is often dated and incomplete, readers new to the topic also quickly find that the very location of one of the major engagements (the Battle of Round Mountain) is a complicated topic of long dispute.

Dale Chlouber's Revisiting The Battle of Red Fork (Red Fork being one of the alternate names favored by some) represents the latest attempt at making sense of the competing claims surrounding the various Round Mountain controversies. The book is organized into two sections "Background on the Controversy of the Battle of Red Fork" and "Revisiting the Battle of Red Fork." In conducting his research for this book, Chlouber "has accumulated every scrap of information relating to the battle that could be located and has evaluated the arguments forwarded by those seeking to place the battle." In the end, the author finds that "there is no real controversy and the controversy lingers for reasons that have little to do with the battle" itself.

Having never waded into this historiographical morass beyond simply following a number of messageboard arguments about it over the years, I am looking forward to reading Chlouber's analysis and conclusions.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Booknotes: The Bone Ring

New Arrival:

The Bone Ring: Civil War Journals of Colonel William James Leonard by Gari Carter (Donella Press, 2023).

This book's title refers to one example among many types of war art produced by soldiers throughout the history of warfare, particularly by those with a lot of free time on their hands but little in the way of traditional art-making supplies. Common examples include the celebrated trench art of WW1 and the artistic renderings of American Civil War POWs, this remembrance ring, of course, being among the latter. From the description: "When Colonel William Leonard died in 1901, among his effects was found a lovely jewelry box containing a simple ring carved of cow bone and engraved with his birthdate and the year of his imprisonment in Libby Prison. This humble memento, so carefully preserved, was made for him by his men to mark his 46th birthday when they were all prisoners of war in the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia."

Preserved along with that cherished ring was Leonard's wartime journal, "which begins when he was colonel in Purnell's Legion Infantry, which was charged with protecting telegraph and rail lines in Maryland and Virginia, and ends after he was paroled from Libby Prison and returned to Maryland." Now his great-granddaughter, Gari Carter, "presents Col. Leonard's journal, richly annotated and supplemented with family lore and local history."

The resulting publication, The Bone Ring: Civil War Journals of Colonel William James Leonard, supplements the journal with an introduction (which includes a summary of Leonard's pre-Civil War life as well as a capsule history of the Purnell Legion), an epilogue describing the Colonel's service after his release from Libby Prison as well as his postwar life, and some Leonard family genealogy. The text is also extensively footnoted by Carter.

Leonard and his men participated in the Eastern Shore expedition of 1861, and his command also served in Baltimore, the Lower Shenandoah Valley, and northern Virginia. Essentially a record of Leonard's POW experience, the journals (dated August 20, 1862 through September 28, 1862) transcribed in the book "begin when he was serving on guard duty for the Orange & Alexandria rail lines from Catlett's Station to Culpeper Court House, Virginia" (pg. 10), mere days before he was captured and sent to Richmond. They end with his return to Union lines upon release from Libby Prison.

With so many individual Civil War stories lost to history, Leonard is fortunate in having a caring, and capable, custodian of his memory in descendant Gari Carter, who has also published the Civil War journals of another ancestor (see her 2008 book Troubled State: Civil War Journals of Franklin Archibald Dick.