Friday, January 14, 2022

Various book news items

1. Civil War political generals (or "politician generals" as one recent author prefers) came in all stripes, but I am guessing that one of the rarest birds was the West Point graduate who served in the US House or Senate before the war. Maybe there are more, but without researching it or having a better memory I can only think of one. Samuel Ryan Curtis, who graduated from West Point in 1831 and resigned from the army soon after before briefly returning to uniform as a Mexican War volunteer officer, was in his second term as US Representative (R) of Iowa's first congressional district during the secession crisis. In 1861, Curtis resigned his House seat to accept the colonelcy of the Second Iowa and later that year a brigadier general appointment in the Union Army. Though he won laurels as the victor of the Battle of Pea Ridge, was quickly promoted to major general, and went on to lead district and department-level posts in the Trans-Mississippi, Curtis never became of focus of a full biography. For many years it has been known to us that historian Bill Shea was plugging away at a much-anticipated Curtis life and career history, but no concrete news about its actual publication has emerged until now. Scheduled for a November 2022 release from Potomac Books, Shea's Union General: Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West should finally reward the general with the major biographical treatment he deserves.

2. Before historian Timothy Smith recently launched his own multi-volume series, no other Vicksburg Campaign writing project has come close to matching the comprehensive breadth of the classic Ed Bearss trilogy. Rather well detailed in Bearss's books, the Chickasaw Bayou and Mississippi Central components of the late-1862 phase of the Vicksburg campaign, though both large in scale, have not been revisited at comparable depth in any later publication. However, that will change very soon. The history of those operations, due for an update, will be the focus of Smith's next installment Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862 (Kansas, May '22). Ever since Smith made known his plans for this series, this was the volume I have been looking forward to most of all.

3. McFarland has two more southern railroad studies currently scheduled for release in 2022. Things may change, but Walter R. Green's The Nashville and Decatur in the Civil War: History of an Embattled Railroad currently has a May publication window. The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War: The Struggle for Control of the Nation’s Longest Railway from Dan Lee is also supposed to be released this year. Maybe we'll get a wartime history of the Memphis & Charleston RR sometime down the line, too.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Review - "The Laird Rams: Britain's Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923" by Andrew English

[The Laird Rams: Britain's Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923 by Andrew R. English (McFarland, 2021). Softcover, photographs, illustrations, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:v,158/212. ISBN:978-1-4766-8276-1. $45]

While native southern industry clearly possessed a limited but significant capability of converting existing craft into ironclad warships or even constructing such vessels entirely from scratch, Confederate naval planners nevertheless quickly realized foreign sources, particularly the shipyards of Britain and France, would need to be tapped if the southern coastline was to have any chance of being adequately defended. Of course, much attention has been paid to British-built ships purchased by the Confederate Navy such as the commerce raiders CSS Alabama and Shenandoah, but even more formidable ships were funded though ultimately not delivered into Confederate hands. Andrew English's The Laird Rams: Britain's Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923 tells the full history of two such vessels contracted by the Confederacy but seized by British authorities before they could leave the country, the controversial double-turreted ironclads that came to be known as the "Laird Rams."

The biographies and activities of Confederate purchasing agents sent to Europe have been well documented in the very recent Civil War literature. The best man the Richmond government had in Britain, James D. Bulloch, has been the subject of at least two biographies published within the last ten years, and he is the Confederate representative most closely associated with the Laird Rams. English does a fine job of recounting the story of the Laird Rams from the military, economic, and political perspectives of all the primary stakeholders: the Confederate government, the US government, the British imperial government, and the Laird shipbuilding firm. The Laird company very willingly collaborated with Bulloch in trying to keep Confederate ram construction and ownership secret, but both truths were exposed early on and the business deal threatened to cause a major rift in relations between the United States and Great Britain. Though largely willing to look the other way at first, the British government by 1863 was engaged in a great deal of diplomatic back and forth with the US when it came to the fate of the two rams. Finally, after seeing its best interest in avoiding war with the US, British authorities seized both ships in 1864 and arranged for them to be purchased by the Royal Navy.

Throughout the first half of the book, English clearly illustrates the delicate (and often shady) balance struck between the British government's enforcement of its own neutrality laws and policies on the one side and on the other its general lack of willingness to impose itself upon private business dealings. As all of the best works on trans-Atlantic Civil War diplomacy have also noted (and there has been a number of them published in recent years), this study appropriately stresses US superiority over their Confederate rivals when it came to diplomatic appointments, intelligence networking, funding, and cause messaging. As outlined in the book, skillful and unrelenting US pressure in the matter of the rams eventually succeeded, but it is also recognized that their Confederate opponents labored under major diplomatic handicaps. As others before him have done, English traces the ways in which Confederate agents, due to their unofficial status, could never gain access to important diplomatic channels available to their US foes.

The most interesting design features of the ships themselves, which were called Nos. 294 and 295 during construction and HMS Wivern and Scorpion in 1864, are well explained in the book, as are their strengths and weaknesses stemming from the many compromises associated with building warships to specific tasks (ex. to reduce draft for coastal service, the rams were flat-bottomed and thus did not ride or handle well in stormy, mid-oceanic conditions). The author also informatively contrasts the turret design implemented in the Laird rams with that of Ericsson's US monitors. Neither ram fired its guns in anger, so we'll never know how the ships might have fared against the US Navy or against the ships and shore fortifications of any foreign power at war with Britain.

In meticulously documenting the long Royal Navy careers of the Wivern and Scorpion, the second half of English's study convincingly refutes the popular opinion commonly expressed then (by the British government, navy, and press) and now by many modern observers who have taken their cue from the past that the ironclads were "failures." Purchased and designed for harbor defense and for breaking the Union Navy's inner blockade of the Confederate coastline, the ships were never intended to spend the bulk of their service cruising the oceans, so much of the criticisms leveled at their awkward seaworthiness as part of the Royal Navy are rather misplaced. In being assigned the role of port guardian at key locations across world, especially in the Pacific and Caribbean, the ironclads fulfilled an important task by freeing up for active service Royal Navy warships more suitable to patrolling the empire.

Overall, English's narrative very effectively situates the long history of the Laird rams (the Scorpion sank at sea while under tow in 1903 and Wivern was finally scrapped in 1923) within the context of an age of very rapid changes in warship design and technology. During the decades between the launching of the first ironclads and the emergence of steel warships, innovation was so fast paced that basically every vessel could be considered experimental and design features that were state of the art during construction were arguably obsolete by commissioning. Used to seeing readily identifiable ship classes, those who observed any large concentration of Royal Navy ironclads during the decades following the American Civil War frequently remarked about how very different they all looked from each other. The book is very convincing in its thematic claim that the Laird rams should be regarded not as failures but rather as important naval architectural and technological waypoints in the transition between the last generation of wooden ships of the line and the pre-Dreadnought battleships that ushered in the Great War's "castles of steel."

Monday, January 10, 2022

Booknotes: First Fallen

New Arrival:
First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero by Meg Groeling (Savas Beatie, 2021).

Every Civil War reader is familiar with the May 24, 1861 death of Col. Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York "Fire Zouaves" at the hands of an enraged Alexandria hotel owner. Being the first Union officer killed in the conflict immediately vaulted Ellsworth into the ranks of national martyrdom, and his avenger (Pvt. Francis Brownell, who shot and bayoneted to death Ellsworth's killer) achieved a measure of fame of his own. However, while Ellsworth's death is one of the most famous events of the early war period, it's been over sixty years since a full-length biography was published. Meg Groeling's First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero thus stakes claim to being the "first modern biography."

Before his death, young Ellsworth had already achieved a degree of national renown as one of the leading figures of antebellum "Zouave Fever," which he parlayed into command of a 90-Day Zouave regiment. From the description: "Ellsworth and his entertaining U.S. Zouave Cadets drill team had performed at West Point, in New York City, and for President, James Buchanan before returning home to Chicago. He helped his friend and law mentor Abraham Lincoln in his quest for the presidency, and when Lincoln put out the call for troops after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Ellsworth responded. Within days he organized more than 1,000 New York firefighters into a regiment of volunteers."

Indeed, Ellworth's personal relationship with the Lincoln family remains a major part of his historiographical and reader appeal. More from the description: "When he was killed, the Lincolns rushed to the Navy Yard to view the body of the young man they had loved as a son. Mary Lincoln insisted he lie in state in the East Room of the White House."

The older biography referenced above is Ruth Painter Randall's Colonel Elmer Ellsworth: A biography of Lincoln's friend and first hero of the Civil War (1960). As is the case with nearly every Civil War topic updated after such a long period of time, "new information has been found that gives readers and historians a better understanding of the Ellsworth phenomenon and his deep connections to the Lincoln family." "(G)rounded in years of archival research, " First Fallen "examines every facet of Ellsworth’s complex, fascinating life." If you're interested in taking a deeper dive than ever before into Ellsworth's life, this looks like the book for you.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Booknotes: Thunder in the Thickets

New Arrival:
Thunder in the Thickets: Shiloh's Soldiers Speak by Mark Russell Richardson (Author, 2021).

Of course, there are already a healthy number of full-length Shiloh operational and tactical battle histories from which to choose, all worthwhile. However, Mark Richardson's Thunder in the Thickets: Shiloh's Soldiers Speak was not created to compete with those type of works from Sword, McDonough, Daniel, Cunningham, or Smith. Instead, Richardson's book "rehumanizes the combatants of the late American Civil War by recreating Shiloh exclusively through raw excerpts from firsthand accounts and memoirs. Experience the bloody conflict through a tapestry of real-time personal narratives and supporting information drawn only from sources immediately available to frontline troops during the events of April 6–7, 1862."

According to the author's preface, the ground-level perspective presented in Thunder in the Thickets depicts Shiloh as "a contest between individual men," its collection of quotes written by those "personally immersed in the thick of the battle" (and mostly from captain and below). In common cause with the traditional descriptions of Shiloh as a ferociously fought `soldier's battle´ between armies consisting largely of green troops, this book seeks to convey to readers the picture of a desperate battle during which a lack of training and experience was compensated for somewhat by "sheer will and stubborn resolve" on the part of those on the front line.

Officer and soldier quotes are presented in indented, bold-faced paragraphs (with parts consisting of information that could only have been known after the battle excised), and these are connected together by the author's two-part (Union and Confederate) bridging narrative. All of the material is annotated. From a quick glance through the bibliography, it appears that roughly 75 individual accounts were used. The final chapter offers information, where available, about the post-Shiloh lives of the contributing writers.

More from the description: "Not simply another American Civil War history, Thunder in the Thickets: Shiloh’s Soldiers Speak is an entirely unique and innovative exploration of the human experience amid fierce combat."

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Review - "Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War" by Lawrence Lee Hewitt

[Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War by Lawrence Lee Hewitt (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Hardcover, photos, maps, image credits, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:xl,392. ISBN:978-1-62190-483-0. $49.95]

Lawrence Lee Hewitt is the professional historian most closely associated with Louisiana's Port Hudson Campaign. In addition to serving as the first manager of the Port Hudson State Historic Site and authoring one of the best books on the topic (from LSU Press, 1987's Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi)1, Hewitt has been collecting photographic images from the campaign for more than forty years now. The collection has reached such a high content number that Hewitt long believed Port Hudson to be the war's most photographed battlefield before challengers intervened and successfully convinced him otherwise. Still, being the third-most photographed battlefield2 is notable for one of the conflict's less-heralded campaigns, one that remains greatly overshadowed by its celebrated companion operation conducted just up the Mississippi. A great many of these carefully curated images are compiled in the stunning new volume Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War.

The answer to the question of why so many Port Hudson photographs involves many factors, including the operation being the war's longest siege and the battlefield's relatively short distance from New Orleans affording both access to photographers and abundant time for them to perform their laborious work. Hewitt organizes the book chronologically, with sections devoted to the biographies and activities of the six Port Hudson photographers that left their rich collections to posterity. The most notable contributions were made by William D. McPherson and his partner A.J. Oliver. Though initially drawn to the area for commercial reasons, McPherson and Oliver came to be hired directly by Union army commander Nathaniel Banks and were granted wide access to the front to photograph the siege and its aftermath. The author suggests that there might have been ulterior motives behind General Banks's desire to thoroughly and publicly document the operation, and that does seem like a very strong possibility. It has often been said that Banks craved the presidency, and images that powerfully conveyed both the immense strength of the Port Hudson defenses and the general's own successful siege efforts in overcoming them could be very useful to him for future political campaigns.

In a background section that critically informs readers of erroneous captions and common mistakes made (such as horizontal flipping of images), Hewitt provides readers with a very helpful analysis and appraisal of Port Hudson's photographic legacy in the existing literature. Also of interest is the author's discussion of the many trials involved in getting a book like this published. Obviously, a tome containing all of the hundreds of Port Hudson Campaign photos collected by Hewitt could not be affordably printed and priced (especially given the king's ransom demanded by some rights holders for reproduction), the Hewitt graciously credits the team at University of Tennessee Press for successfully negotiating the process and providing him the opportunity to make available a still pretty hefty 173 figures. Some of the originals are in rough shape but are included for details that can be seen and for their historical significance.

The part of the collection that was able to be published is remarkable in its range. In it readers will find numerous CDVs and photographs of individuals and groups along with equally numerous images of officer quarters, unit encampments, hospitals, graves, churches, civilian buildings, soldier barracks, earthworks of all kinds (among them trenches, lunettes, detached works, forts, and siege batteries), battle detritus, both intimate and panoramic views of the riverfront and battlefield landscape, and loads and loads of cannon. Hewitt organizes this assemblage into smaller groups that he in turn identifies and labels on clear maps for reader orientation. Captions are extensively researched and provide both historical context and fascinating discussions of technical and artistic achievements. The latter go far in justifying the merits of the book subtitle's claim regarding the collection's exceptional importance.

Of particular historical noteworthiness are many of the McPherson and Oliver photographs. According to Hewitt, the pair captured the only image we have of a Confederate army surrender ceremony in progress (see Fig. 23). Their work also affords early examples of skillfully executed combination printing and, as the author alleges, attempts at nighttime (or very low light) and time-lapse photography. While the equipment technology of the period did not allow actual movement to be shown without ruinous blurring, Hewitt believes a group of their photos represent the first photographs of troops "engaged" in battle. Photographs in figures 6-11, 13-17, and 19-22 were all taken during the active siege (thus, in Hewitt's estimation, technically "in action"), and Fig. 17 depicts infantry manning a trench cavalier separated from the enemy by only 40 yards. Port Hudson was not the first time black troops saw combat during the war, but the May 27 assault was the first major battle that they participated in, and the book contains a valuable photographic record of the men of the Louisiana Native Guard and where they fought. A photographer also captured images of the Port Hudson school for black soldiers established there.

A sturdy hardcover securely bound in landscape format of roughly 8" x 10" dimensions and printed on heavy, photo-friendly paper stock, the book gets a handsome presentation worthy of its significance. The publisher also deserves a great deal of credit for releasing it at a price point affordable for libraries and individual collectors alike.

Port Hudson should appeal to many readerships. First off, it is an essential new contribution to a Port Hudson Campaign historiography that still lags well behind that of its Vicksburg partner. The book is also a uniquely valuable addition to the libraries of Civil War photography enthusiasts, researchers, and collectors. Additionally, students of Civil War fortifications and artillery will reap major benefits from the volume's rich collection of images along those lines. Very highly recommended.



Notes:
1- The standard campaign overview remains Ed Cunningham's The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863, which was published in 1963 and remains in print today in paperback format. While Cunningham's classic is very bare bones by today's standards, David Edmonds's The Guns of Port Hudson (2 Vols, 1983-84) is exhaustive by comparison. You can count yourself fortunate to have that long out of print set in your home library, though in the 25 years since I first encountered them I haven't given the pair a second reading to see how well they hold up. From 1986, there's also William Spedale's Where Bugles Called and Rifles Gleamed. After a long gap, more recent developments include a 2012 title from Dennis Dufrene Civil War Baton Rouge, Port Hudson and Bayou Sara: Capturing the Mississippi, content from Donald Frazier's Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi (2015), and Russell Blount's The Longest Siege: Port Hudson, Louisiana, 1863 (2021). I have not read or even seen the Spedale, Dufrene, and Blount books, so I can't comment on any of those. All of this plus Hewitt's books together comprise a pretty solid library, though there remains room for an updated comprehensive treatment along the lines of what Timothy Smith is currently doing for Vicksburg.
2 - According to the author, in conjunction with establishing an unexplained set of rules and discussions with Civil War photography archivists and experts, Chattanooga, with its thousands of battlefield photographs, is the clear winner of the crown. Brandy Station (surprisingly) comes in second place making Port Hudson a very close third, although Hewitt believes that developments subsequent to those determinations might have already pushed Port Hudson past Brandy Station. It would be interesting to hear what other parties have to say about this.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Booknotes: A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky

New Arrival:
A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter edited by John David Smith and William Cooper, Jr. (UP of Ky, 2021).

Eighteen years old at the start of the war, Lexington's Frances D. Peter resided in a divided Border State city. The daughter of US army surgeon Dr. Robert Peter (who worked in the area's military hospitals), she resided in a well to do section of town, her house scarcely a block from that of the secessionist Morgan family that raised Confederate cavalry general John Hunt Morgan. Portions from her 1862-64 diary were published in 1976 under the title Window on the War. Adding a new scholarly introduction along with "more than two hundred additional diary entries, and hundreds of new annotations," John David Smith and William Cooper's A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter represents a major expansion and modernization of the material. Originally published in hardcover in 2000, this is the 2021 paperback reissue (seemingly unaltered). The information provided in the Peter diary and who wrote it are important additions to Civil War local, military, social, and women's history studies.

Beginning in January 1862 and ending in early April 1864, Peter's "candid diary chronicles Kentucky's invasion by Confederates under General Braxton Bragg in 1862, Lexington's monthlong occupation by General Edmund Kirby Smith, and changes in attitude among the enslaved population following the Emancipation Proclamation. As troops from both North and South took turns holding the city, she repeatedly emphasized the rightness of the Union cause and minced no words in expressing her disdain for 'the secesh.'" Like many other Kentucky Unionists, Peter was a stalwart supporter of the war effort. Though she had no use for Peace Democrats, Peters initially opposed many Lincoln administration policies, including emancipation (though she came to accept it by the fall of 1863).

An epileptic who ultimately succumbed to the condition in 1864 (a seizure event that August led to her death at the age of 21), Peter was often confined to her home, though she did receive an excellent local academy education, visited friends, and attended outside events before and during the war. When she was stuck at home, Peter actively sought news and information about the war beyond her window and relied on a combination of northern newspapers and a local network of female friends and acquaintances to provide it. Indeed, the greater focus of her diary is not on family life but rather outside social and war-related events.

More from the description: "Peter's descriptions of daily events in an occupied city provide valuable insights and a unique feminine perspective on an underappreciated aspect of the war. Until her death in 1864, Peter conscientiously recorded the position and deportment of both Union and Confederate soldiers, incidents at the military hospitals, and stories from the countryside." According to Smith and Cooper, the Peters diary also notes examples of the "assertiveness and empowerment of women necessitated by wartime conditions."

Thursday, December 30, 2021

2021 - The CIVIL WAR BOOKS and AUTHORS Year in Review

BOOK OF THE YEAR
1. PORT HUDSON: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War by Lawrence Lee Hewitt (University of Tennessee Press).

A product of decades of persistent toil in image acquisition and in forensic photography research and analysis, Hewitt's book is a unique and important contribution to the historiography of the Port Hudson Campaign as well as the study of Civil War battlefield photography more generally. Even those readers with a high degree of familiarity with the published Port Hudson literature will be viewing the great majority of these images for the first time, and the book's documentation and presentation of the collection are both superb. [For more thoughts on this title, see the full Review (1/6/22)]


The Rest of the Year's TOP TEN (in no particular order)

2. Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country by Fay Yarbrough (University of North Carolina Press).

Yarbrough's book is the first truly expansive study of the Confederacy's staunchest ally among the nations of Indian Territory. Drawing parallels with the southern states, it illuminates both common and unique factors involved in Choctaw willingness to fight in the Civil War and details their profound commitment to defending slavery and controlling the parameters of tribal citizenship during Reconstruction and beyond. [Review forthcoming]

3. The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War by Kenneth W. Noe (Louisiana State University Press).

In comprehensively assessing the impact of the elements on the war's fighting and home fronts, Noe creatively assigns weather what amounts to co-belligerent status and convincingly illustrates the ways in which Union superiority in coping with its effects played a major role in victory. [see the full 5/6/21 Review]

4. Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 - July 4, 1863 by David A. Powell and Eric J. Wittenberg (Savas Beatie).

By any measure a first-rank example of Civil War operational history writing, Powell and Wittenberg's full-length treatment finally propels the Tullahoma Campaign toward the wider appreciation it deserves as a critical component of the summer 1863 series of major Union victories that collectively altered the course of the war. [see the 2/4/21 Review]

5. "We Gave Them Thunder": Marmaduke’s Raid and the Civil War in Missouri and Arkansas by William Garrett Piston and John C. Rutherford (Ozarks Studies Institute).

In addition to being by far the best historical account of the operation, this book usefully documents the transition period between the end of realistic Confederate hopes of establishing a permanent presence in Missouri and the raiding strategy they employed during the second half of the war. [see the 6/8/21 Review]

6. The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas).

Of course the books fully deserve it, but I might as well just reserve a spot on the year-end list for every new title in Smith's Vicksburg Campaign series. [see the 9/29/21 Review]

7. Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter by William Marvel (University of North Carolina Press).

In quite sympathetic yet still evenhanded fashion, Marvel provides readers with a superior treatment of Porter's Civil War career, his court martial, and his long personal quest after the war to restore rank and reputation. [see the 4/2/21 Review]

8. Civil War Supply and Strategy: Feeding Men and Moving Armies by Earl J. Hess (Louisiana State University Press).

An excellent companion volume to his earlier book on military transportation titled Civil War Logistics, Hess's follow-up rigorously explains how each side addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) the steep challenges involved in supplying large armies on a continental scale. Also clearly explained is how superior Union leadership and management fostered victory in ways that cannot be accounted for by manpower and material superabundance alone. [see the 3/25/21 Review]

9. Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863 by Jeffrey Wm. Hunt (Savas Beatie).

While Kent Masterson Brown's excellent 2021 study of Meade at Gettysburg (which could easily have made this list as well) showed the general's leadership qualities at their best, Hunt's detailed account of Meade's first offensive campaign reveals the army commander's strengths and weaknesses in a way that does not diminish his achievements yet raises critical concerns about the general's capacity to finish the job against Lee's army in Virginia. [see the 6/24/21 Review]

10. Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands by James Bailey Blackshear and Glen Sample Ely (University of Oklahoma Press).

Though a mini-flood of recent publications examining the Civil War-era American Southwest in ways both large and small has emerged in recent years, Blackshear and Ely's book documenting the war years in the trans-Pecos occupies a novel and important geographical and historical niche within that burgeoning literature. [see the 12/15/21 Review]



[Note: Some of the year's best titles can be found among the volume of 4Q releases. Those books become eligible for the following year's list (thus the reason why several 2020 books are in this compilation).]

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Coming Soon (January '22 Edition)

**NEW RELEASES1** Scheduled for JAN 2022:

South Carolina in 1865 by Karen Stokes.
Sons of East Tennessee: Civil War Veterans Divided and Reconciled by Jack Brubaker.
When the Southern Lights Went Dark: The Lighthouse Establishment During the Civil War by Clifford & Clifford.
Chicago to Appomattox: The 39th Illinois Infantry in the Civil War by Jason Baker.
The Carnage was Fearful: The Battle of Cedar Mountain, August 9, 1862 by Michael Block.

Comments: I received a copy of the Stokes book already (see the Booknotes entry here). I recall hearing about the lighthouse book quite a while back (maybe a couple years or more), and it appears like the long-delayed release is finally imminent.

1 - These monthly release lists are not meant to be exhaustive compilations of non-fiction releases. They do not include non-revised/expanded reprints of previously published books, special editions not distributed to reviewers, and digital-only titles. Works that only tangentially address the war years are also generally excluded. Inevitably, one or more titles on this list will get a rescheduled release (and they do not get repeated later), so revisiting the past few "Coming Soon" posts is the best way to pick up stragglers.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Booknotes: Suffering in the Army of Tennessee

New Arrival:
Suffering in the Army of Tennessee: A Social History of the Confederate Army of the Heartland from the Battles for Atlanta to the Retreat from Nashville by Christopher Thrasher (UT Press, 2021).

Suffering in the Army of Tennessee is very different from most volumes in University of Tennessee Press's Voices of the Civil War series in that it "doesn’t just draw upon one single diary or letter collection, and it does not use brief quotations as a way to fill out a larger narrative." Instead, "across eight chapters spanning the Atlanta Campaign to the Battle of Nashville in 1864," author Christopher Thrasher "draws upon a remarkably broad set of primary sources—newspapers, manuscripts, archives, diaries, and official documents—to tell a story that knits together accounts of senior officers, the final campaigns of the Western Theater, and the experiences of the civilians and rebel soldiers who found themselves deep in the trenches of a national reckoning."

Over the past couple decades, Civil War readers have finally been gifted with a relative abundance of book-length coverage of the marching and fighting that occurred in Tennessee and Georgia during the 1864 campaigning season. However, there is always room for new angles, and Thrasher's book lays claim to being the first to offer "what amounts to a sweeping social history of the Army of Tennessee—the daily details of soldiering and the toll it took on the men and boys who mustered into service foreseeing only a small skirmish among the states."

The book will undoubtedly touch upon many common themes found in modern Civil War soldier studies, and though the history of the fighting men of the Confederacy's principal western army has not been neglected (see Larry Daniel's 1991 book Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army) it will be interesting to see what thesis develops from Thrasher's more detailed concentration on the late-war period. It's also a generously illustrated book, with 18 maps and a host of photos, tables, and other figures.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Booknotes: The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War

New Arrival:
The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War edited by Lorien Foote and Earl J. Hess (Oxford UP, 2021).

As its title reveals, The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War is part of the Oxford Handbooks series, the installments of which "offer authoritative and up-to-date surveys of original research in a particular subject area. Specially commissioned essays from leading figures in the discipline give critical examinations of the progress and direction of debates, as well as a foundation for future research."

For this volume, editors Lorien Foote and Earl Hess have gathered together a star-studded cast of historians to pen 39 essays, all of which revolve in some way around the book's unifying theme "that operational military history is decisively linked to the social and political history of Civil War America." From the description: "Every time Union armies invaded Southern territory there were unintended consequences. Military campaigns always affected the local population -- devastating farms and towns, making refugees of the inhabitants, undermining slavery. Local conditions in turn altered the course of military events. The social effects of military campaigns resonated throughout geographic regions and across time. Campaigns and battles often had a serious impact on national politics and international affairs. Not all campaigns in the Civil War had a dramatic impact on the country, but every campaign, no matter how small, had dramatic and traumatic effects on local communities. Civil War military operations did not occur in a vacuum; there was a price to be paid on many levels of society in both North and South."

The book is almost 700 pages in length and breadth of coverage is wide. "The (39) chapters cover all three major theaters of the war and include discussions of Bleeding Kansas, the Union naval blockade, the South West, American Indians, and Reconstruction." All of the largest campaigns, east and west, are in some fashion incorporated into the anthology. The war in the trans-Mississippi, stretching to both the desert Southwest and the Great Plains is also addressed. Like all good military history books, cartography is a feature, not an afterthought, here. There are 51 maps included. Notes and bibliography are placed at the end of each chapter. While this kind of book can certainly have a wider appeal than others in the series, institutions and professionals are the target audience (and it's priced accordingly).

More from the description: "Each essay offers a particular interpretation of how one of the war's campaigns resonated in the larger world of the North and South. Taken together, these chapters illuminate how key transformations operated across national, regional, and local spheres, covering key topics such as politics, race, slavery, emancipation, gender, loyalty, and guerrilla warfare."

Monday, December 20, 2021

Review - "Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories" by Scott Hippensteel

[Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories by Scott Hippensteel (Stackpole Books, 2021). Hardcover, photos, tables, illustrations, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:v,263. ISBN:978-0-8117-3997-9. $29.95]

Many Civil War stories and expressions have become so entrenched in both the published literature and popular imagination that they're often repeated without much in the way of reflection. Employing a variety of methods, Scott Hippensteel's Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories employs a quantitative approach that reexamines a number of those popular Civil War assumptions, claims, and phrases. Seven chapters examine such "tropes," and they do so in three stages. First, the "oft-repeated historical claim" is defined as narrowly as possible and meticulously detailed. To counter arguments that the author might be stacking the deck against the myth, Hippensteel to his credit attempts to formulate often nebulous assumptions in a way that is as favorable to the myth as possible while remaining within the parameters of evidence found in the literature (anecdotal as it may be). Some readers might find the often high number of examples provided to be repetitive and a bit tedious, but it's largely necessary to establish the trope. Second, "the background scientific principles are introduced and explained in a nontechnical manner." In each case, the author develops a quantitative method to examine the myth. The third and final section is reserved for "analysis and evaluation" of the claim and the science employed for testing it. In addition to "studying and discussing the potential reality of the antiquated trope," this section also suggests "alternative and more realistic scenarios" for the rejected historical claim (pg. 5). Both stages two and three are well stocked with photographs, contemporary illustrations, figures, and tables that augment and/or visually illustrate the analytical process in a very clear manner.

Civil War sharpshooting has received increased attention of late (with some excellent published work from Fred Ray and a number of other writers and historians), and much of it is incorporated into Hippensteel's focused examination of three famous (or infamous) sniping episodes from two major battles. Though 'impossible' and 'highly improbable' are used a bit too interchangeably in the discussion of assumptions and results, the volume's rational and well-illustrated approach to sniping mythology offers a really excellent treatise on the extreme difficulties involved in achieving a first-shot kill beyond 500 yards under battlefield conditions while using even the best long-range rifles and crude scopes of the period.

Every Civil War reader has encountered countless quotes or passages that create a mental picture of the aftermath of fighting over a particular patch of ground (often large open fields) using colorful phrases like a "carpet of death" or describe the ability of a person to fully traverse a corpse-stewn part of a battlefield without touching the ground. In another example, the volume of enemy fire is very often described as a "hailstorm" of lead. In rethinking those tropes, Hippensteel uses novel spatial and meteorological analysis to completely discount such scenarios having any basis in reality (though for the former, it is conceded that corpses can conceivably be concentrated enough within the most tightly confined spaces). Though cognizant that such widespread use of the same words and phrases can be indicative of period lexicon not meant to be taken literally (and most readers and writers are surely aware of that as well), the author still insists that too many authors remain credulous and those that aren't too often pass them on to their audience without qualifying statements.

The post-battle collection of thousands of abandoned rifles that contained multiple loads in their barrels has attracted several explanations, the most popular of which involve poor user training and the stresses of battle. The fact that this phenomenon continued throughout the war among veteran armies and keeping in mind that the technology itself was subject to relatively frequent misfires, Hippensteel suggests a better explanation. The scenario is as follows: (1) a misfired weapon (for whatever reason) is discarded for another dropped by a killed, wounded, or fleeing comrade, (2) another soldier needing a replacement weapon picks up the inoperable rifle, assumes it has been fired already, loads it, and pulls the trigger, (3) that soldier then discards the rifle when it obviously doesn't fire. This process is then repeated any number of times leading to thousands of weapons with three or more loads in the barrel. Though others have surely independently arrived at the same possibility, this is a scenario that is far more convincing than the ones most commonly raised in the literature.

A large volume of ink has been spilled debating the merits of Civil War rifle-musket superiority over older technology and whether it had a revolutionary impact on the battlefield. Hippensteel's analysis agrees with that of Earl Hess, Paddy Griffith, and others, arguing that the Springfield and Enfield rifle-muskets in the hands of Civil War soldiers had only a marginal (not revolutionary) impact on Civil War battlefield tactics and casualties.

Through the pioneering work of William Frassanito and others, it has been demonstrated that Civil War photography was frequently staged, altered, or given fraudulent captions by practitioners more concerned with appealing composition and profits than in creating an authentic historical visual record. Using knowledge of the photographic process, forensic techniques, and geology (the author's own professional expertise), Hippensteel establishes a useful "hierarchy of manipulation" that he employs in the book to quantitatively assess fraud, finding that one-third or more Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg images show clear evidence of manipulation. Thus, Civil War photography did not at all possess the fabled journalistic and historical truthfulness so often extolled at the time. This has been revealed for some time already, but arriving at a numerical evaluation of its scale is insightful.

The book ends with a "realism vs. romanticism" examination of popular Civil War art. Rather than getting into arcane arguments involving uniform and weaponry minutiae, Hippensteel selects three readily quantifiable elements of "realism" for his comparison. These are (1) the ratio of firing to reloading soldiers, (2) the amount and quality of smoke in the frame, and (3) the presence and extent of muzzle and vent flash. Using those metrics, the author determines that the popular art of the 1980s and 90s (exemplified by the prodigious output of leading lights such as Dale Gallon, Don Troiani, Keith Rocco, and Mort K√ľntsler) is indeed, as claimed, generally more 'realistic' than that produced by previous generations of painters and illustrators.

Of course, readers can come up with a host of additional tropes that could easily fill up another volume, and many solid candidates are mentioned in the book's conclusion. In the series of topics addressed in the appendix section, Hippensteel offers more information on means available for comparing rifle knockdown power, looks at how effective hand-held revolvers were in Civil War combat, discusses common 'farbiness' in reenacting, and reflects on how poorly Civil War projectile ballistics and wounds are portrayed in cinema and on television.

Some of the topics covered by Myths of the Civil War aren't myths by the strict definition of the word or are really quite harmless to any quest aimed at obtaining a mature understanding of the war, but the ways in which Hippensteel applies math and science to test the range or limits of reality when it comes to popular figures of speech, feats of sharpshooting, the alleged firearms revolution, and Civil War art are unique and fresh. Its contributions to ongoing debates about Civil War rifled shoulder arms and ballistics are arguably the volume's most important contributions. The book usefully reminds us that it is always good to periodically step back and more objectively question long-held assumptions, and the author creatively demonstrates a host of relatively simple tools and methods one might employ in doing so. Scott Hippensteel is two for two now when it comes to creating books that approach the Civil War in fascinating ways we've never quite seen before (see also 2019's Rocks and Rifles), and one can only hope that his authorial aspirations will continue on in this distinctive vein.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Booknotes: Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers

New Arrival:
Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers by John M. Sacher (LSU Press, 2021).

During my time running this site, I've come across enough questionable claims about publishing 'firsts' (or firsts in a long, long time) to not always accept them at face value. My initial reaction to reading that John Sacher's Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers "serves as the first comprehensive examination of the topic in nearly one hundred years" was a skeptical one. But after wracking my brain and tapping my keyboard for a bit, I couldn't come up with another candidate. I can recall (as Sacher also does in his introduction) Walter Hilderman's They Went into the Fight Cheering!: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina (2005), but it is obviously a study of more limited scope. Given conscription's important and controversial role in the war, the fact that a book the dusty vintage of Albert Burton Moore's Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy (1924) remains the standard work on the topic is a bit surprising. Moore's book, which was reissued in paperback in 1996 by University of South Carolina Press with a new introduction, is also yet another early twentieth-century classic unread by me.

Accepting the challenge of formulating an up-to-date modern reexamination of Confederate conscription, Sacher work promises "fresh insights" into the South's draft system and "new conclusions." From the description: "Often summarily dismissed as a detested policy that violated states’ rights and forced nonslaveholders to fight for planters, the conscription law elicited strong responses from southerners wanting to devise the best way to guarantee what they perceived as shared sacrifice. Most who bristled at the compulsory draft did so believing it did not align with their vision of the Confederacy. As Sacher reveals, white southerners’ desire to protect their families, support their communities, and ensure the continuation of slavery shaped their reaction to conscription." Popularly regarded as the most "hated" of the Richmond government's war policy measures, Sacher finds that most Confederate supporters recognized that it was necessary to maintain the fighting strength of the army and believes the evidence shows conscription to be rather more accurately described as the most "debated" measure.

More: "For three years, Confederates tried to achieve victory on the battlefield while simultaneously promoting their vision of individual liberty for whites and states’ rights. While they failed in that quest, Sacher demonstrates that southerners’ response to the 1862 conscription law did not determine their commitment to the Confederate cause. Instead, the implementation of the draft spurred a debate about sacrifice―both physical and ideological―as the Confederacy’s insatiable demand for soldiers only grew in the face of a grueling war."

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Review - "Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands" by Blackshear & Ely

[Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands by James Bailey Blackshear and Glen Sample Ely (University of Oklahoma Press, 2021). Hardcover, maps, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,175/286. ISBN:978-0-8061-7560-7. $32.95]

Ever since the Comanche people moved into the Texas-New Mexico borderlands between the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers during the early 1700s, trade relationships were formed between the region's Hispano settlers and the powerful, empire-building tribe. By the 1840s, an important economic-exchange network had evolved between New Mexican merchants and Pueblo Indians on one side and Southern Plains indigenous groups (the aforementioned Comanche, but also Kiowa and Apache) that came to be known as the "Comanchero" trade. That early to mid-nineteenth century period, which witnessed a changed in territorial control from Mexico to the United States at the conclusion of the 1846-48 war fought between those nations, also saw an influx in European (most prominently German) immigrants and Anglo-American entrepreneurs who prospered as merchants and army supply contractors. Those partners forged indispensable ties with Comanchero middle men who could effectively transport and negotiate the exchange of manufactured goods highly prized by the Comanche with Texas livestock stolen by Comanche raiders. The Comanchero trade of the 1860s and 1870s, with the American Civil War context as its centerpiece, is the subject of James Blackshear and Glen Ely's important new study Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands.

Confederates and Comancheros makes two fresh and notable contributions to the historiography of the nineteenth-century American West. First, its chronicling of the final two decades of the Comanchero trade in the Texas-New Mexico borderlands offers an important reappraisal of who was involved in the trade, its significance to the region's culture and economy, and what factors contributed to its demise. Second, Blackshear and Ely's study is the first book to document in detail Civil War activities and events in the Trans-Pecos during the 1862-65 period. The literature of the 1861-62 Confederate invasion of New Mexico and Arizona is very well developed at this point, a notable circumstance in itself given how little coverage is accorded to much larger Trans-Mississippi campaigns and battles situated much closer to the theater's military and political centers of gravity. However, those studies typically end with the less than triumphal return to Texas of General Henry H. Sibley's defeated and bedraggled army, offering only cursory reminder of sustained tensions in the region between Union and Confederate authorities. With New Mexico reasonably secure, Union planners turned their military attentions away from Confederate enemies and toward pacification of hostile tribes, and the disappointed Confederates in Texas were diverted by more pressing problems to the south and east. This volume fills that gap.

Blackshear and Ely offer readers really the first full examination of the spying, scouting, and raiding that persisted in the trans-Pecos between 1862 and 1865. In deftly weaving the international dimensions of those overt and covert activities into their narrative, the authors make a notable contribution to the Civil War-era borderlands literature that has become highly fashionable of late. They draw attention to an important regional figure, Confederate irregular scout Henry Skillman, who remains unknown to nearly all Civil War students but was the scourge of Union authorities. Skillman's aptitude for the work lived up to his name as he crisscrossed the region gathering intelligence, raiding enemy lines of supply and communication, and facilitating many beneficial cross-border connections. As the authors document, his death in an 1864 ambush was a loss that proved irreplaceable to Confederate military authorities in Texas and contributed mightily to tightened Union control over the region during the late-war period. The authors further illustrate how the grander plans of both sides, the Confederate dreams of returning to New Mexico with another army and Union ideas of using troops in southern New Mexico to cooperate with invading forces from the coast, never materialized due to logistical and manpower constraints. The text is supplemented by a handful of excellent, detailed maps of the region's geography. All are essential to understanding key locations, trade routes, and military movements obscure to most readers.

Comancheros were primarily New Mexican traders descended from Spanish settlers, but Pueblo Indians and other ethnicities were also involved in the widely interconnected network of legal and illegal exchange. These groups became vital go-betweens in the region's lucrative barter system in stolen Texas cattle that Comanche and Kiowa perpetrators traded with Comancheros for highly desirable trade goods obtained from New Mexican merchants. German immigrants and Anglo-Americans (often former army officers) eager to profit from their knowledge of the region and their government connections also became intimately involved. After the end of the war between the US and Mexico, the trade system operated on an officially licensed basis with significant financial bond requirements, but there was a great deal of corruption in the profitable business, and illegal trade in guns, powder, and whiskey was rampart. US government and military authorities tried to clamp down on the illegal activity but often had to tread lightly as Comancheros proved to be essential negotiators in bartering for the return of white women and children kidnapped by the Indians during their livestock raids.

Using depredation files, court records, and other sources, the authors piece together a detailed picture of the trade, along with many of its players both major and minor, as it existed in the trans-Pecos. In an appendix, the authors also compile for future reference a large, alphabetically organized roster of known Comancheros, their employees, and bond holders. After the end of the Civil War, cattle ranching and trailing (the Goodnight-Loving trail that followed the Pecos into New Mexico before continuing on to Colorado and Cheyenne, Wyoming being the nearest) exploded in scale, and old animosities between Texans and New Mexicans boiled over, with conflict (including deadly vigilante raids) ensuing between angry ranchers and those in New Mexico who participated in the trade in stolen Texas cattle.

New Mexico Territory was not the only source of pain to Texas ranchers, and the book also documents the Comanche-Comanchero trade in stolen horses and cattle on the Upper Arkansas that occurred during the late-1850s, especially activities around Bent's New Fort. During the Civil War, demand for beef skyrocketed under the dual demands of Union military occupation and the need to feed thousands of new mouths on the Bosque Redondo reservation. This was a windfall for army contractors, Comancheros, and Comanche raiders. The authors also note that, by the mid-war period, NW Texas ranchers, their livestock subject to impressment and payment in worthless Confederate paper money, themselves secretly traded with Union authorities.

Before and during the Civil War, the Comanchero trade was tolerated largely because the military posts and government agencies across northeastern New Mexico needed beef in great quantities and Comancheros were a major part of the 'few questions asked' subcontracting process. After the Civil War, with the arrival of the railroad and the booming business in feeding the teeming population of the East with Texas beef, a more concerted effort was finally made to defeat the powerful Comanche and Kiowa, whose raids still routinely stole thousands of head from the growing cattle trails. Doing so also meant that the Comanchero trade that previously supplied the army with fresh beef had to be dealt a severe and permanent blow.

As the book demonstrates, the Comanchero trade was largely extinguished by the mid-1870s, and the US Army was the primary force behind its demise. The authors note Texas vigilante threats and violence (and later their heavy migration into the region), a hostile press, and elements of elite New Mexican opposition as other major contributing factors. However, sources of prosperity and violence associated with the trade did not disappear with its end but rather changed in form, and the book insightfully draws many direct connections between the economic forces and players involved in the Comanchero trade with the cattle wars that followed, including the infamous Lincoln County War. While most presumably redirected their economic activities into more acceptable contemporary pursuits, what happened to the former Comancheros themselves is not delved into deeply. The authors do note that they were prized by allies and former enemies alike for their intimate knowledge of the region's geography, and some were even hired out by cattle ranchers on that basis.

In discussing those Union men who traveled into Texas itself to gather herds (mostly through purchase but supplemented through jayhawking), the book complements earlier studies in addressing the impact of California Column veterans on economic activities in the Southwest. Most of these large purchases were from John Chisum, who also acted as broker for other large ranchers. According to the authors, and contrary to many historical accounts, the record is clear that James Patterson and his associates forged the great trans-Pecos cattle trail a year before Goodnight and Loving. The book additionally documents the massive scale of Texas livestock losses from Indian raiders (who were often accompanied by Comancheros) during the early 1870s, and those losses would only diminish with the end of the Red River War in 1875 and establishment of Comanche, Kiowa, and Mescalero Apache reservations. Though raiders left the reservations on a regular basis that decade, losses from their activities weren't as serious as before and their extinguishment roughly coincided with the end of the Comanchero trade.

Deeply researched and expansive in scope, Confederates and Comancheros adds fresh and vital understanding to the history of the rise and fall of a legendary Trans-Mississippi trade network involving all segments of New Mexican and Southern Plains societies. The volume also admirably fills a major time and subject matter gap in the literature's coverage of the American Civil War fought in the Border Southwest. Highly recommended.