Thursday, February 22, 2024

Review - "The Folly and the Madness: The Civil War Letters of Captain Orlando S. Palmer, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry" edited by Thomas Cutrer

[The Folly and the Madness: The Civil War Letters of Captain Orlando S. Palmer, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry edited by Thomas W. Cutrer (University of Tennessee Press, 2023). Softcover, 4 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:154/230. ISBN:978-1-62190-841-8. $39]

The Folly and the Madness: The Civil War Letters of Captain Orlando S. Palmer, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry is a recent installment from University of Tennessee Press's venerable Voices of the Civil War series. In the main, the volume consists of secession period and wartime letters from lawyer and Civil War officer Orlando Palmer (1833-1864) to his younger sister Artimisia Palmer. The experience of being orphaned relatively early in life (Orlando was eleven when his father died, and the pair's mother passed away six years later) seems to have fostered a very tight emotional bond between the two. Orlando's letters to Missie (as his sister was called) are consistently encouraging and deeply solicitous of her welfare.

As explained in editor Thomas Cutrer's introduction, the Palmers were raised in northern Alabama near the border with Tennessee. When Orlando moved away, first to briefly attend Cumberland School of Law in Tennessee and then to start his professional career in Des Arc, Arkansas, Artimisia lived with their grandparents in Florence, Alabama. In addition to filling in background information and context for the letters that follow, Cutrer also introduces readers to the Palmer's extended family network, which is helpful as he uses the letters of first cousin Oliver Kennedy to fill in some of the considerable time and content gaps in the Palmer correspondence. Though Orlando displays some sympathies with Fire-eater politics and joined a local militia company for presumably more than just social reasons, he did not look forward to nor did he anticipate war between the sections, which he deemed "folly" and "madness." After tidying up his law practice affairs, he enlisted in what would become the Fifteenth Arkansas Volunteer Infantry. No doubt influenced by his education, background, and rising reputation in the legal field, administrative postings took Palmer out of the ranks and into brigade headquarters. Indeed, he was employed by a succession of generals, his roles including secretary to William J. Hardee and brigade adjutant to Sterling A.M. Wood and successor Mark Lowrey.

Though ground-level military perspectives are obviously narrow with very limited knowledge of larger affairs, the opinions of intelligent lower-ranking officers regarding superior officers in the same army are always interesting to read. While Palmer does not describe his adjutant duties to his sister in any detail, his headquarters positions presumably afforded him some personal access to the higher echelons of western theater generals. Palmer's very negative first impression of Hardee's haughty treatment of him as the general's personal secretary was quickly replaced by esteem. Beyond the Arkansas connection, it should come as no surprise that Patrick Cleburne is described in glowing terms. Though one wishes he had explained his views in more depth, Palmer positively gushes about Simon Bolivar Buckner, proclaiming him to be the officer that he prefers over all others. Presumably that opinion grew out of personal interactions or observations made during the prolonged early-war occupation of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Palmer also viewed Army of Tennessee commander Braxton Bragg as a competent leader and expressed no wish to join that general's list of abusers and detractors that grew as the war progressed. Even after the disaster at Chattanooga, not a single negative word about Bragg's leadership can be found in Palmer's letters, only confidence in the future. This reinforces the research conclusions of recent biographer Earl Hess and others before him who have strongly challenged the traditional notion in the literature that Bragg was deeply unpopular. Somewhat curiously, beyond general comments expressing how agreeable their working and personal relationships were, Palmer writes relatively little about Brig. Gen. S.A.M. Wood, the man whom he directly served in the capacity of brigade adjutant before Wood resigned between Chickamauga and Chattanooga (and was replaced by newly promoted general Mark Lowrey, who kept Palmer on in the same post).

As mentioned before, there are significant gaps in Palmer's correspondence, and Cutrer gamely tries to fill them with letters from family members, most prominently a first cousin named Oliver Kennedy. One particularly lengthy gap (which filled much of 1862) was between Bowling Green and the aftermath of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign. Palmer's serious leg wound suffered at Shiloh was undoubtedly a major factor in making letter writing less of a priority, but it is unfortunate to have no letters from such a critical, event-filled period. In fact, Palmer's body of correspondence consistently leaves large gaps around major movements and battles, which is understandable on his part but frustrating for future readers. For example, it is unfortunate that Palmer, who correctly anticipated that Union Army of the Cumberland commander William S. Rosecrans would attempt to outflank Tullahoma's built-up defenses, did not write about the actual campaign of maneuver once it started nor did he describe for his sister the pitched battle at Chickamauga that followed it. Though it's possible such letters once existed, it is October 1863 before known correspondence from Palmer picks up again. He does offer some brief observations regarding the fighting experiences of his own brigade and division at Tunnel Hill and Ringgold, but once again demurs when it comes to offering more detailed information. Anticipating his sister's interest in the battle fought and lost along Missionary Ridge, Palmer offers the common refrain ["I am not prepared to give you a general description of the battle, not being sufficiently informed to do so with any satisfaction" (pg. 129)]. A few letters follow from the period of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, most notably a short description of the June 27 fight at Kennesaw Mountain. Palmer's letter writing campaign ended on June 29, with no surviving correspondence existing between that day and his death in action five months later during the November 30, 1864 assault at Franklin.

Due to what would quickly become a permanent detachment from his regiment to brigade headquarters, the Palmer letters as a whole will not greatly satisfy readers hoping to find an extensive personal record of wartime service with the 15th Arkansas. The letters contain a great deal of the typical content found in Civil War correspondence, including descriptions of personal health, inquiries about the well-being of extended family members, news from home, and gossip. A unique facet of Orlando Palmer's letters are his continual attempts at assuaging his sister's melancholy, the mindful tenderness and frequency of which leads the editor to surmise that Missie suffered from what we might diagnose today as clinical depression (though we can never know that for certain). Courtship rituals and behavioral mores regarding relations between men and women are also common subjects of discussion, prodigious commentary and advice apparently coming from both sides of the letter exchange. Palmer also repeatedly enjoins his sister to expand her horizons of independence.

In terms of editorial duties, Cutrer contributes the aforementioned chapter-length introduction and helps bridge the more extended time gaps with helpful contextual narrative. Additional context can be found in the volume's frequently lengthy explanatory endnotes. In this particular collection of soldier letters, cultural and societal insights outnumber military ones, but it's a solid entry in a series that always manages to sustain its reputation for masterful curation of Civil War primary source materials.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Booknotes: Thunder in the Harbor

New Arrival:

Thunder in the Harbor: Fort Sumter and the Civil War by Richard W. Hatcher, III (Savas Beatie, 2024).

The crisis that developed around Fort Sumter during the momentous "Secession Winter" of 1860-61 and the bombardment and surrender of the Charleston Harbor facility in April 1861 have been explored in several full-length studies, some of them quite good. Richard Hatcher's Thunder in the Harbor: Fort Sumter and the Civil War, however, extends the fort's history through the rest of the conflict and beyond. Indeed, Hatcher recounts the entire active history of the fort, from initial construction through the aftermath of World War Two. In 1948, the fort was formally incorporated into the NPS as Fort Sumter National Monument.

While the intensity of federal land and sea assaults against it waxed and waned, Fort Sumter was under Union guns for almost the entire duration of the war. From the description: "After its surrender, Southern troops immediately occupied and improved Sumter’s defenses. The U.S. blockaded Charleston Harbor and for two years the fort, with its 84 heavy guns and a 500-man garrison, remained mostly untested. That changed in July 1863 when a powerful combined operation set its sights on the fort, Charleston, and its outer defenses. The result was a grueling 22-month land and sea siege—the longest of the Civil War. The complex effort included ironclad attacks, land assaults, raiding parties, and siege operations. Some of the war’s most famous events unfolded there, including the assault against Battery Wagner, led by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (depicted in the movie Glory), the shelling of the city by the “Swamp Angel,” and the beginning of submarine warfare when the H. L. Hunley sank the USS Housatonic and was herself lost at sea. The destruction of Fort Sumter remained a key Federal objective throughout the siege. Despite repeated concentrated bombardments of the fort and the city, Sumter never fell." Of course, all of those events are covered in the book.

Federal control of Fort Sumter resumed in February 1865, only after Charleston itself was evacuated by Confederate forces in the face of Sherman's approaching army. The campaign against the "Cradle of Secession" was the longest of the war. More from the description: "Hatcher, the former historian at Fort Sumter Fort Moultrie National Historical Park, mined a host of primary sources to produce an in-depth and fascinating account of the intricacies, complexities, and importance of this campaign to the overall war effort."

But the book doesn't end there. After the conclusion of the Civil War, Sumter continued to the serve the government. More: "During the eight decades that followed, the United States invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours rebuilding and rearming the fort to face potential foreign threats in three different wars. By the end of World War II, sea and air power had made Sumter obsolete, and the fort was transferred to the National Park Service."

Friday, February 16, 2024

Review - "Yankee Commandos: How William P. Sanders Led a Cavalry Squadron Deep into Confederate Territory" by Stuart Brandes

[Yankee Commandos: How William P. Sanders Led a Cavalry Squadron Deep into Confederate Territory by Stuart D. Brandes (University of Tennessee Press, 2023). Hardcover, 7 maps, photos, illustrations, chronology, notes, appendix section, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,205/329. ISBN978-1-62190-746-6. $34.95]

It is difficult to understate the significance of Tennessee's white Unionists and their armed contributions to victory in the West from beginning to end. Taken together, they contributed to federal ranks what amounted to an entire mid-sized field army. Roughly three-quarters of those individuals (an estimated 30,000 organized fighting men) hailed from rugged East Tennessee, where the majority of the population remained fiercely loyal to the United States government. Dedicated to liberating their homes and punishing secessionists on both battlefield and civilian fronts, those men were highly motivated soldiers wherever they fought. Immediately recognizing this large wellspring of loyalism in the heart of the Confederacy and receptive to their cries for help, President Lincoln very early on in the war enjoined his military commanders to come up with a plan to succor the population through invasion and occupation. Initially conciliatory, Confederate authorities cracked down on dissent after a failed autumn 1861 uprising that included an extensive bridge-burning campaign, and later on conscription agents further drove thousands of fighting age men across the mountains and into federal recruitment camps in Kentucky. Despite continuous promises of relief, the pro-Union population could only look on in frustration over the first half of the war as logistical concerns and shifting strategic priorities repeatedly postponed federal plans for occupying East Tennessee.

Finally, in the spring of 1863 Major General Ambrose Burnside was in the process of assembling his new Army of the Ohio for a major relief campaign, the plan being to pour through the mountain gaps along the Kentucky-Tennessee border and capture Knoxville, the East Tennessee region's principal urban center. Unfortunately for the locals, that long-anticipated movement was yet again aborted, with the Ninth Corps (half the expedition's manpower) ordered to Mississippi in June to bolster U.S. Grant's army besieging Vicksburg. In the meantime, while waiting for the return of his borrowed troops and resumption of the campaign, Burnside ordered a cavalry raid into East Tennessee. The general hoped that a bold incursion there would serve as a morale boost to the population while at the same time damaging Confederate transportation and communications infrastructure in ways that would facilitate his expected follow-on campaign. The history of the resulting June 14-24, 1863 raid is recounted in full for the first time by Stuart Brandes in his book Yankee Commandos: How William P. Sanders Led a Cavalry Squadron Deep into Confederate Territory.

The man selected to lead the mission was 29-year-old Colonel William P. Sanders, a highly regarded up-and-comer in the leadership ranks of Union cavalry officers. Born in Kentucky, Sanders's slaveholding family later moved to Natchez, Mississippi. Young Sanders graduated from West Point in 1856 with a rather mediocre record, was assigned to the 2nd Dragoons in the West, and resided in California when war broke out in 1861. As Brandes relates in the book, those who knew him remarked that Sanders regularly displayed strong southern sympathies, which would not have been unusual for someone of his upbringing. What was unexpected by many what that he stayed in the U.S. Army. Given his age and social background, he might have been expected to resign his commission and 'go South' but didn't. No surviving letters share his thinking on the matter. Brandes's research did not uncover any documents within which Sanders either explained his reasoning or discussed any conflicting views on loyalty he might have held. Forced to read between the lines, the author reasonably posits that Sanders's decade removed from the Deep South and his immediate family's broken ties with the region (through marriage and geographical relocation to free state California) combined with his U.S. Army service to cement Sanders's national loyalties.

Sanders's brigade-sized command that was assigned to conduct the raid consisted of a select group of approximately 1,500 Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky men drawn from six mounted regiments. Anticipating the difficulties involved in traversing rugged mountain trails, only a single artillery section accompanied the raiders. You don't have to be a stickler for accuracy to wonder why the author repeatedly refers to Sanders's ad-hoc raiding column as being a "squadron" (which is two companies by the U.S. cavalry's organizational terminology of the period, in practice between 100 and 200 men) but it's best to not get too hung up on that particular semantic quirk.

Overall, Brandes does a very fine job of constructing a Civil War cavalry raid narrative, seamlessly weaving numerous participant and observer accounts into his text's meticulous recounting of events. In the opening stage of the raid, Sanders was gifted with good fortune when his Confederate opponents left a poorly guarded gap in their front-line screen at Wartburg. That inexcusable oversight allowed Sanders to make it all the way to the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad and its critically important Loudon Bridge (the raid's chief objective) without any major roadblocks or fighting. Finding the huge bridge fortified and well-defended, Sanders prudently declined to attack yet was determined to press on with the raid. On June 20, he feinted against and skirted around the Knoxville defenses. Pressing beyond Knoxville, Sanders and his men destroyed the massive, state of the art bridge built at Strawberry Plains. After destroying another important bridge at Mossy Creek, Sanders sensed that the jig was up and turned back toward Kentucky. That final stage of the raid was not without incident, however, as converging Confederate pursuers and blocking forces compelled Sanders to spike and abandon his artillery and break up his command into small groups in order to escape across the mountains.

In addition to closely following the movements of Sanders and his men, the text provides a full picture of the Confederate response to the raid and the challenges they experienced in attempting to thwart it. Brandes is justly critical of Brigadier General John Pegram's failure to maintain an effective screen across his geographical area of responsibility, which included Wartburg. Generally speaking, East Tennessee department commander Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner conducted himself in reasonable fashion, having little choice but to take calculated risks as he could not afford to abandon the mountain screen in favor of concentrating overwhelming force against Sanders. As Brandes details in the book, Buckner's most disreputable action was his post-raid attempt to scapegoat Brigadier General John Frazer, the Cumberland Gap commander and the principal subordinate arguably least responsible for the most critical defect in the Confederate defensive screen.

Brandes rates the Sanders Raid a success and that conclusion is difficult to dispute. Strawberry Plains was the movement's most significant achievement, but the raiders also destroyed two other important bridges of lesser size. While Sanders was forced to abandon his artillery section and his men were largely scattered by the end of the raid, actual casualties were very low (at least by official count). The side objective of showing the flag and raising the spirits of the pro-Union population also seems to have been well achieved, as the author highlights innumerable incidents of celebratory acts and examples of cheerful assistance from friendly civilians all along the raid's path.

In assessing which factors contributed most to that success, the author's analysis offers a number of insights. As became standard practice during the war, Burnside directed that diversionary operations be conducted to confuse the enemy as to the raid's path and target, and the probes led by Col. August Kautz and Gen. Julius White fulfilled those purposes. Assisted by the aforementioned Confederate mistakes and their need to closely guard numerous fixed points, Sanders also helped his own case by employing speed and misdirection in both bypassing strongpoints and overcoming token garrisons. Information was another key to success, as civilian guides and local knowledge possessed within his own command (roughly half of the raiders were East Tennesseans) kept Sanders accurately and abundantly informed as to road/trail directions and enemy dispositions. Brandes consistently lauds Sanders's decisive and effective leadership, but he can be critical when warranted. For example, at two points Sanders endangered his own rear guard detachment by neglecting to assign a guide or otherwise mark a path for those men to rejoin the main body.

A brief epilogue describes the few months remaining in Sanders's life, including his death in action on the skirmish line during James Longstreet's Knoxville Campaign. Brandes's study is the first to truly invite a full consideration of the life and Civil War career of William Sanders. During that process, one might also ponder what might have been had he lived. Given the independent leadership displayed during the East Tennessee raid and the confidence his superiors had in his abilities (though unconfirmed by the Senate, he was appointed acting brigadier general before his death), it seems possible to imagine Sanders leading a mounted division at some point during the subsequent Atlanta, March to the Sea, Middle Tennessee, and Carolinas campaigns or during James Wilson's 1865 Raid through Alabama and Georgia.

Yankee Commandos is worthy of recommendation for a number of reasons. The past few decades have witnessed a great upsurge in the number and quality of Civil War raid histories, and Stuart Brandes's work admirably fills in one of the remaining gaps in that coverage. The volume also significantly enhances the larger Southern Unionist literature by highlighting one of the numerous notable military contributions spearheaded by the homegrown southern opposition to the Confederate experiment. Finally, a detailed, book-length account of the Army of the Ohio's 1863 campaign to secure East Tennessee is still lacking, and Brandes's study of the Sanders Raid will stand as a vital companion to such a work, if one is ever created.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Booknotes: Our People Are Warlike

New Arrival:

Our People Are Warlike: Civil War Pittsburgh and Home-Front Mobilization by Allen Christopher York (U Tenn Press, 2023).

When you operate a book review site for nearly two decades, you really notice how faddish Civil War publishing can be. While the popularity of Civil War urban studies may have faded a bit from wider view, examples continue to pop up on occasion. One released last year is Allen York's Our People Are Warlike: Civil War Pittsburgh and Home-Front Mobilization.

As the subtitle suggests, emphasis is placed on the city's mobilization of people and resources. According to York, Pittsburgh was united in its "overwhelmingly pro-Union fervor—which cut across class, ethnic, and gender lines" and "mobilized the city for the war effort."

From the description: "From its establishment as a frontier village, Pittsburgh evolved on a cultural path divergent from that of both the Northeast and the towns developing farther west. The city entered the war with close economic ties to the East, West, and South, yet also stood apart from them—too small to assume the political positions of cities like New York or Philadelphia that represented greater ethnic and class conflict and much greater tension over secession—yet large enough to manifest the complex institutions and systems of an urban center."

At less than 150 pages of main narrative, the volume is of readily digestible size. It is organized by theme, its seven chapters comprising "an exploration of Pittsburgh's reaction to the secession crisis of 1860-1861, the presence of soldiers and the threat of invasions, wartime industries, the introduction of conscription and emancipation to the war, the care of soldiers on the home front and front lines, and the devastating loss experienced throughout the war" (pg. 8).

More: "This book represents a significant contribution to the scholarship of both the Civil War and the city of Pittsburgh, adding to the growing historiography of regional and community studies of the war. With abundant illustrations of local people and places, research on Pittsburgh’s geographic importance and extensive industrial output, this book also provides compelling details on Black citizens’ efforts to oppose slavery, ultimately through their service in the Union Army. Civil War Pittsburgh was unique: its distinctive geography, politics, and economy set the conditions for ordinary citizens to directly participate in the war in myriad ways that connected the experiences of the battlefield and the home front."

Monday, February 12, 2024

Booknotes: The Cassville Affairs

New Arrival:

The Cassville Affairs: Johnston, Hood, and the Failed Confederate Strategy in the Atlanta Campaign, 19 May 1864 by Robert D. Jenkins, Sr. (Mercer UP, 2024).

With a title like The Cassville Affairs you're getting either a very British Cold War spy drama starring Michael Caine or a new look at an important and controversial episode in the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. Thankfully, at least for our purposes here, we are getting the latter. The Cassville Affairs: Johnston, Hood, and the Failed Confederate Strategy in the Atlanta Campaign, 19 May 1864 is the third 1864 North Georgia campaign study from attorney, author, and battlefield preservationist Robert Jenkins, the first two of which [here and here] addressed in great detail the period between the end of Kennesaw Mountain and the indecisive result of the Battle of Peach Tree Creek.

A major battle was planned by Confederate Army of Tennessee commander Joseph E. Johnston for May 19. During it, Johnston expected to hurl the greatest portion of his army against a vulnerable segment of William T. Sherman's advancing army group. The expected offensive miscarried when corps commander John Bell Hood, who held the Confederate right, spied approaching Union forces of unknown size beyond the army's flank, suspended his attack, and notified Johnston of the unexpected state of affairs. Johnston then made the decision to retire the Confederate army southward and take up a new ridge-top defensive position. Johnston wanted to make a stand there, but two of his corps commanders (Hood and Leonidas Polk) insisted that enfilading fire from Union artillery rendered the new line indefensible. Disappointed at their attitude, Johnston determined to retreat once again. However, not every major player involved in the distressing happenings of May 19 agreed with Johnston's version of events.

From the description: "Civil War historians have remained baffled over the Cassville controversies for the past 150 plus years. There are two versions of events: Confederate commanding General Joseph E. Johnston's story, and Lieutenant General John Bell Hood's story." On May 19 there "were two critical decisions that the Confederate leadership faced at Cassville: first, whether to attack a portion of the Federal army in the morning; and second, once the morning attack was no longer feasible, whether to stay and fight the next day. Both decisions were the responsibility of Johnston, and both decisions involved advice and assistance by Hood. Johnston issued a General Order to all soldiers that morning proclaiming that the army had fallen back enough and would now turn and face the enemy. After a series of unforeseen circumstances, however, the Southern commander withdrew without a fight."

In supporting its detailed text, the volume does not skimp on visual aids. With 21 originals and 16 others reproduced from previously published sources, the map collection is particularly impressive.

Predictably, given the personalities involved and the gravity of what occurred, the Cassville blame game was both heated and prolonged. More from the description: "Before the war even concluded, Johnston and Hood began finger-pointing as they wrote their own versions of what happened that day. Since then, historians have been scratching their heads as to who was telling the truth, or if either one was honest." With its "new revelations," The Cassville Affairs "promises to change our understanding of the events surrounding the Cassville controversies and close the gap in its history."

Friday, February 9, 2024

Booknotes: Decisions of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign

New Arrival:

Decisions of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation by Robert G. Tanner (U Tenn Press, 2023).

From the description: "The Shenandoah Valley Campaign, often referred to as Jackson’s Valley Campaign, saw Gen. Stonewall Jackson lead fewer than seventeen thousand Confederate soldiers on a 464-mile march that defeated three larger Union armies. Jackson’s men fought and skirmished for months to achieve their ultimate objective of preventing Union forces in the Valley from reinforcing the Federal assault on the Confederacy’s capital at Richmond. Jackson’s success in the Shenandoah Valley contributed greatly to his legend among Confederate soldiers and brass and to his permanent place in military history, yet Jackson was not the only leader of note during this pivotal episode of the Civil War."

The critical decisions associated with the Valley Campaign that interest me most are those with closest connection to the concurrent campaign fought on the Virginia Peninsula. The two 1862 operations were inextricably linked. It's cool that Decisions of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign is written by Robert Tanner, the author of one of the major works on the topic. A long time has passed since my last reading of his revised edition of Stonewall in the Valley, so I'm also looking forward to a refresher course on his perspectives of the campaign's most important features.

More from the description: Decisions of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign "explores the critical decisions made by Confederate and Union commanders during the battle and how these decisions shaped its outcome. Rather than offering a history of the battle, Robert G. Tanner hones in on a sequence of critical decisions made by commanders on both sides of the contest to provide a blueprint of Jackson’s Valley Campaign at its tactical core. Identifying and exploring the critical decisions in this way allows students of the battle to progress from a knowledge of what happened to a mature grasp of why events happened."

The sixteen decisions compiled in the book are organized into six chapters discussing events stretching from February to mid-June 1862. Together, they "examine decisions made at the campaign's outset, the Battle of Kernstown and a subsequent major reorganization of Union forces, Confederate plans and marches during April and early May 1862, Federal concentration outside the valley while Confederates concentrated and attacked in the Shenandoah during the pivotal second half of May, the Union's counterstrike against the Confederate offensive, and decisions to end the campaign." Finally, the volume "looks briefly at the aftermath of the fighting and offers conclusions" (pg. xiv). In support are 17 maps, ten assigned to the main text's decision analysis and seven to the driving tour linked to those critical decisions.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Review - "Confederates from Canada: John Yates Beall and the Rebel Raids on the Great Lakes" by Ralph Lindeman

[Confederates from Canada: John Yates Beall and the Rebel Raids on the Great Lakes by Ralph Lindeman (McFarland, 2023). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,201/240. ISBN:978-1-4766-9278-4. $39.95]

In yet another one of those seemingly unlikely coincidences of Civil War publishing, two titles featuring the exploits, trial, and execution of Confederate maritime raider John Yates Beall were released in the same month last year. William C. Harris's Confederate Privateer: The Life of John Yates Beall (LSU, 2023) is the traditional biography of the two. As its subtitle suggests, Ralph Lindeman's Confederates from Canada: John Yates Beall and the Rebel Raids on the Great Lakes also devotes a great deal of attention to Beall but mainly in the context of the wider picture of clandestine operations based out of Canadian territory. Thus, there is significant overlap but also strong complementary elements between the two studies.

Obviously any military action on the Great Lakes would have significant diplomatic complications. The United States and Canada were subject to long-maintained treaty stipulations strictly limiting the militarization of the international border, including naval deployments on the Great Lakes. For much of the war, the Davis administration, still wishing to curry favor with the British Empire, shied away from using Canada as a base of operations for carrying the fight to the Union home front. However, as the war progressed with the South clearly losing and possibilities of international recognition and foreign intervention fading from view, those prior misgivings evaporated. As Lindeman shows, the green light to launch operations from Canada in 1864 sparked a number of new proposals ranging from cooperating with anti-war "Copperhead" allies (an example being the so-called "Northwest Conspiracy" led by former John Hunt Morgan raider Thomas Hines), seizing or purchasing vessels for commerce raiding and bombardment attacks on lakeside U.S. cities, and freeing Confederate POWs (the officer prisoners at Johnson's Island a frequent target of attention). Events outside the Great Lakes regions, such as the Vermont Raid and plot to burn New York, are outside the scope of this study and are mentioned only briefly. Canada also proved to be a convenient place to carry out more cooperative negotiations in secret, and Lindeman cites late-war cotton trading agreements that were forged across the border and away from the prying eyes of the American press and public.

The number of Copperheads who would have been willing to actually take up arms and involve themselves in the kinds of plots mentioned in the book (in particular, Hines's venture involving thousands of Sons of Liberty warriors converging on Chicago and coordinating with Confederate agents in an attack on Camp Douglas) has always been disputed, and there's wide disagreement among scholars when it comes to how serious the Copperhead threat was to the Union war effort. Lindeman's text seems to draw from both camps, frequently equivocating on the plausible strength and influence of the most radical and violent elements of the Copperhead movement. There are some brow-raising moments in the part of the book discussing links between Confederate activities and the Union home front opposition. For instance, the book labels both Horace Greeley and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens as being "anti-war," which certainly wasn't their overall stance (though use of the adjective might be a case of ill-advised shorthand for describing administration critics within Lincoln's own party who sharply and frequently objected to the way the war was being conducted).

Beall's irregular activities are described in depth. Lindeman's account of Beall's productive Chesapeake Bay maritime guerrilla attacks, and the Union response to them that eventually led to the capture of Beall and many of his men, reveals much about a part of the war not often mentioned in the literature. Lindeman's text also closely features the Johnson's Island, Ohio prison facility that would be targeted by the Confederates, providing a great deal of information regarding its curious location, construction history, design, guards, and defenses. A lengthy description of what life was like for POWs housed there is included as well. Perhaps most finely detailed is Lindeman's meticulous recounting of the renewal of Beall's ambitious older plan to appropriate a civilian lake steamer and use it to capture the gunboat USS Michigan, a joint effort that was to be coordinated with a POW uprising that would seize control of Johnson's Island and free the officers held there. The September 1864 operation, which was largely dependent upon an agent successfully bribing or drugging key members of the Michigan's crew, was a highly complicated endeavor that involved a rather astounding number of moving parts, all of which had to come together to perfection in order for the scheme to succeed. Of course, that didn't happen and the plan miscarried. Beall's high-risk career finally ended after a similarly desperate action in December 1864. This time, Beall's small group of agents would attempt to waylay a passenger train by threatening derailment, the Confederate general officer prisoners being transferred aboard it freed by the agents and secreted back to Canada. That scheme also failed and Beall was arrested, tried, and executed as a convicted spy and saboteur. All of these accounts of Beall's irregular activities exceed in detail the bit more cursory treatments found in the Harris biography, though Harris's coverage of the trial and widespread lobbying efforts aimed toward getting Lincoln to commute Beall's death sentence is much more extensive.

Lindeman's study effectively highlights many of the challenges and weaknesses of clandestine Confederate operations. Aside from the unrealistic 'shoot for the moon' nature of some of the plots, secrecy and information compartmentalization were badly handled on a routine basis and decidedly unreliable individuals (some of whom were turncoats) were frequently employed at key stages. Their foes also played a primary role in thwarting Confederate plans. As demonstrated in the book, U.S. and state authorities employed in the Great Lakes border region a combined effort of diplomatic pressure, policing, government detectives, and informer networks, the effective coordination of which countered a number of cross-border clandestine schemes and movements.

Both Lindeman and Harris (though in his book Lindeman presents the alleged supporting evidence in far more extensive fashion on the page) convincingly determine that the available hard evidence does not conclusively support claims made that there was a personal relationship between Beall and John Wilkes Booth, that they met in Canada, and that Beall's capital sentence (and Lincoln's refusal to commute it) was a major motivating factor behind the actor's assassination of the president. Lindeman, however, does not entirely dismiss the possibility. Given the tantalizing nature of some of the circumstantial evidence compiled through his research, the author believes that "the safest conclusion may be the axiom that 'absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence'" (pg. 192).

Confederates from Canada is worthy of recommendation through its strong contributions to our Civil War knowledge on several fronts. Combining Lindeman's writing with Harris's biography, we now have the most complete portrait of the life and Civil War career of one of the war's most infamous (though little-known today) behind-the-lines raiders. Lindeman's study significantly fleshes out both particular Confederate military activities in the Great Lakes region and more generally the connections between Canada and the American Civil War. The often delicate diplomacy involved in U.S.-Canadian relations throughout the war is also fruitfully explored.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Booknotes: Here's a Letter from Thy Dear Son

New Arrival:

Here's a Letter from Thy Dear Son: Letters of a Georgia Family During the Civil War Era edited by Edward H. Pulliam (Mercer UP, 2024).

From the description: Here's a Letter from Thy Dear Son "provides a personal, primary-source exploration of the Civil War era from several different perspectives in an unusually full and informative narrative. Through the intimacy of personal letters," the book "tells the compelling story of the young men and women of a North Georgia farming family of modest means as they seek places in their quiet communities in the 1850s, live the trauma of the Civil War on the battlefield and at home, and for those who survive, strive to regain peace in a changed world and begin life anew."

Divided into three parts (Antebellum, Civil War, and After the War sections), the letters begin in 1847 and numerous ones stretch into the 1880s, with some documents even going all the way to 1923.

More from the description: "Beginning in 1847, a seventeen-year-old Simeon David leaves home to teach school in a nearby county and continues as he, his younger brothers Tom and Horatio, sister Lona, and their friend Manning Alexander confront questions familiar to young people today: Where shall I live? Whom shall I marry? What will be my life’s work? The arrival of the Civil War sweeps them up, transforms the young men into soldiers—private, lieutenant, regimental surgeon, company commander—and transports them to previously little-known places: Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and the Wilderness."

The letters offer both war and home front perspectives. "At home, the family women face their own disruptions and hardships. For one, it is more than she can bear. Throughout, their lives were filled with joy, struggle, fatalism, triumph, and sadness. Their writing concerns Baptist camp meetings, courting rituals, war-rousing speeches, dashes across battlefields, Tories on the home front, and night riders of the Klu Klux Klan."

The volume is nearly 650 pages in length, making it a very extensive collection of family correspondence with rich supporting material from editor Edward Pulliam. Most of the letters in the book were written to James David and Thirza David by family members. Who's who can be difficult to keep straight in big collections such as this, and Pulliam assists the reader by including relevant family trees for the Bowen, David, and Alexander families. Editorial text in the preface provides family history and additional background related to the letter writers.

Each document transcript is immediately followed by a "notes" section, often quite expansive in nature, the purpose of which is to "explain unusual terms, identify persons, or clarify difficult passages in the letter." Other notes elements are used to "provide context for material in the letter or otherwise expand upon information in it" (pg. xxiii). Notes also bridge gaps between letters. This editorial material can run several pages in length. Source notes are located in the typical footnote format and position at the bottom of each page.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Booknotes: Miserable Little Conglomeration

New Arrival:

Miserable Little Conglomeration: A Social History of the Port Hudson Campaign by Christopher Thrasher (U Tenn Press, 2023).

This is the second major Port Hudson title to come out of UTP within the past few years, the first, Larry Hewitt's astounding photographic collection and history, being my Book of the Year for 2021. As its subtitle suggests, Christopher Thrasher's Miserable Little Conglomeration: A Social History of the Port Hudson Campaign is different from previous detailed military history accounts from Hewitt and David C. Edmonds, the former's book an excellent history of the siege and the latter's work an unmatched two-volume microhistory of the entire campaign. The focus and structure of Thrasher's book on the war's longest siege are most similar to those found in his own recent award-winning work 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, which also made my Top 10 list for 2022. As noted in the foreword, Thrasher's new book also evokes similarities with fellow Voices of the Civil War series volume Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink (2007).

The breadth of the Port Hudson campaign literature certainly does not match that of its concurrently fought neighbor just to the north. So there are gaps to fill. From the description: "Previous accounts of these events have rested on the leaders, well-known figures, and familiar faces of the Civil War. Here, social historian Christopher Thrasher draws from a robust collection of archival sources to tell the story of the common people’s experience throughout the Port Hudson Campaign: the soldiers who fought, the civilians who persisted, and the men who persevered, for those long days."

In a bit over 300 pages of main text, Thrasher's study embraces the entire campaign from initial Confederate defensive preparations through to the conclusion of the siege, all of that presented chiefly from the perspectives of "ordinary" soldiers and civilians. Over its course, the volume "weaves the stories of ordinary people into a broader overview of the strategic picture" (pg. xxx). More from the description: "With more than forty illustrations and maps depicting the battles of Port Hudson and the defenses of the place itself, Miserable Little Conglomeration builds upon previous scholarship to present a social history of this campaign through the eyes of the people who lived, fought, and died within it."

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 29, 2024

Booknotes: Yankee Commandos

New Arrival:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Coming Soon (February '24 Edition)

Scheduled for FEB 20241:

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

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

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

Friday, January 26, 2024

Booknotes: The World Will Never See the Like

New Arrival:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Booknotes: The Boy Generals, Vol. 2

New Arrival:

The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, from the Gettysburg Retreat Through the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 by Adolfo Ovies (Savas Beatie, 2024).

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

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

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

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