Thursday, December 3, 2020

Review - "Defending the Arteries of Rebellion: Confederate Naval Operations in the Mississippi River Valley, 1861-1865" by Neil Chatelain

[Defending the Arteries of Rebellion: Confederate Naval Operations in the Mississippi River Valley, 1861-1865 by Neil P. Chatelain (Savas Beatie, 2020). Hardcover, 8 maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,304/334. ISBN:978-1-61121-510-6. $32.95]

It is easy to see why the Union "Brown Water Navy" dominates the western and Trans-Mississippi naval literature of the Civil War. Though there were a number of isolated setbacks, federal gunboats and oceanic vessels effectively swept their enemy counterparts from all major inland waterways and forged indispensable combined operations partnerships during innumerable Union Army campaigns. With book, essay, and article publication of Confederate officer biographies, ship and squadron histories, and both ship vs. ship and ship vs. shore engagement studies, the other side of the story has not been neglected altogether, but it is rare to encounter a theater or national-level examination of Confederate naval operations and strategy. Readers are treated to just that kind of uncommon contribution in Neil Chatelain's excellent new book Defending the Arteries of Rebellion.

The heart of Chatelain's narrative is a skillfully organized description and analysis of Confederate naval operations on the Mississippi River and its vast system of tributaries and deltas. Combining his own manuscript research with a solid grounding in the published literature, the author traces the fortunes of Confederate naval power from initial planning in February 1861 through the final surrender of the Red River ironclad C.S.S. Missouri on June 3, 1865. Coverage of squadron-level engagements and smaller ship vs. ship battles is comprehensive with detail suitable to an overview of this length. The geographical breadth of the study extends beyond the length of the Mississippi River south of Cairo to nearby coastal sounds of Louisiana and Mississippi. Given how well these major naval actions have already been addressed in the literature, often on a standalone basis that includes many excellent book-length treatments, seamless synthesis is the chief value that Chatelain brings to his descriptive chronology of events.

Hand in hand with the comprehensive operational narrative referenced above is the author's perceptive analysis of why western inland Confederate naval forces experienced such rapid defeat. While CSN ships operating in ones and twos were able to score impressive tactical victories throughout much of the conflict, squadron-scale Confederate gunboat and ram fleets were largely swept out of organized existence by the middle of 1862. This is commonly attributed to Union superiority in industry, manpower, and resources, but Chatelain correctly points out that those disparities (extreme though they were) do not adequately explain the scale and rapidity of Confederate defeat. The author recognizes that it was the aggressive urgency displayed by U.S. naval and civilian leadership in placing high priority on early-war combined offensives on both ends of the Mississippi that most robbed the enemy of the time needed to complete their New Orleans, Memphis, and Tennessee River ironclad programs. The rapid seizure of the best naval construction facilities at New Orleans, Memphis, and other places also meant that Confederate plans for a second generation of river ironclad projects had to be scaled back tremendously. The author also effectively demonstrates how the disjointed and indecisive manner in which Confederate authorities handled those concurrent threats on both ends of the Mississippi led to comprehensive defeat. Chatelain very clearly highlights several moments in the western river war when constantly shifting priorities regarding upriver and downriver defenses resulting in key Confederate naval assets being absent at decisive moments.

Chatelain does credit Confederate authorities for early recognition of the need for a powerful inland navy. Additionally, their proactive adoption of a defense plan that combined both land fortifications (to be augmented by mine and obstruction innovations) and gunboat fleets was sound. What is most questioned by the author and others is how scarce resources were distributed. Some sort of stop-gap measure in the form of wooden gunboat conversions was necessary until ironclads could be finished, but the vast (by Confederate standards) investment of money, military manpower, guns, labor, materials, and technical expertise directed toward building or converting large numbers of civilian steam vessels (many of which turned out to be near useless as naval combat ships) into wooden warships directly competed with ironclad construction programs that were themselves scrambling for limited iron, skilled craftsmen, mechanics, and materials of all kinds. Exacerbating the resource scarcity issue even more was the top-level competition between Confederate, state, and even private fleet construction and investment. All of these factors resulted in critical time delays in ironclad construction. Excluding the civilian-built Manassas, only one ironclad out of the five vessels comprising the first wave of construction (the C.S.S. Arkansas) became full operational. The rest were lost, and, even worse, the uncompleted Eastport was captured and converted into a Union ironclad. One can easily imagine an alternate reality of a dangerous squadron of Confederate ironclads operating in the open rivers of the West had even a slightly more timid Union naval leadership and approach been taken there.

In addition to highly questionable resource allocation, Confederate contributions to the loss of New Orleans and the rest of the Mississippi River Valley extended to leadership. As demonstrated in the book, there was consistently poor coordination between the army and navy during the most critical early war period in the West, with no Confederate partnerships emerging that were analogous to the hearty ones forged by the other side. Command within naval forces was also divided. Though Confederate authorities were able to unilaterally seize some important ships (such as the ironclad Manassas) for their use, the fact remained that no centralized control over Confederate, state, and private ships was ever fully established. As Chatelain shows, Commodore George Hollins was the closest the Confederates went toward appointing a single commander to coordinate Mississippi River operations, but Hollins's independent authority was still limited and he ended up getting relieved at a particularly inopportune time.

In Defending the Arteries of Rebellion, readers finally have a worthy Confederate companion to the many studies of Union naval operations along the Mississippi River. In addition to providing a uniquely comprehensive survey of Confederate naval operations, the volume very astutely gets to the heart of the many internal factors that lay behind the CSN's catastrophic failure to defend the strategic waterways of the Mississippi River Valley. In this study, author Neil Chatelain conclusively demonstrates that, while Confederate ships would continue to score occasional tactical successes, greater aspirations of maintaining permanent control over any major stretch of the Mississippi was essentially rendered impossible by the decisions and events of 1861-62.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Book News: The Siege of Vicksburg

The six-week siege of Vicksburg was recounted at some length in Ed Bearss's classic trilogy, but subsequent book-length examinations have been either theme-based (see Ballard and Solonick) or organized as an essay anthology (see Woodworth & Grear). However, by the middle of next year we'll finally have the first exhaustive, chronologically-arranged narrative history of the siege in Timothy Smith's The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863 (UP of Kansas, June 2021). I knew this was coming, but didn't realize it would be so soon. Nice.

From the description: In The Siege of Vicksburg, Smith "offers the first comprehensive account of the siege that split the Confederacy in two. While the siege is often given a chapter or two in larger campaign studies and portrayed as a foregone conclusion, The Siege of Vicksburg offers a new perspective and thus a fuller understanding of the larger Vicksburg Campaign. Smith takes full advantage of all the resources, both Union and Confederate--from official reports to soldiers' diaries and letters to newspaper accounts--to offer in vivid detail a compelling narrative of the operations. The siege was unlike anything Grant's Army of the Tennessee had attempted to this point and Smith helps the reader understand the complexity of the strategy and tactics, the brilliance of the engineers' work, the grueling nature of the day-by-day participation, and the effect on all involved, from townspeople to the soldiers manning the fortifications."

More: "Smith's detailed command-level analysis extends from army to corps, brigades, and regiments and offers fresh insights on where each side held an advantage. One key advantage was that the Federals had vast confidence in their commander while the Confederates showed no such assurance, whether it was Pemberton inside Vicksburg or Johnston outside. Smith offers an equally appealing and richly drawn look at the combat experiences of the soldiers in the trenches. He also tackles the many controversies surrounding the siege, including detailed accounts and analyses of Johnston's efforts to lift the siege, and answers the questions of why Vicksburg fell and what were the ultimate consequences of Grant's victory."

Monday, November 30, 2020

Booknotes: The Impulse of Victory

New Arrival:
The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga by David A. Powell (SIU Press, 2020).

David Powell's The Impulse of Victory is a natural extension of his decades of research (and more recent flurry of publications) on the Chickamauga campaign and battle. However, in its focus on army command-level planning, decision-making, and execution, this book is more akin to the author's earlier work on a different campaign (the opening stages of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864). In The Impulse of Victory, Powell's "sophisticated strategic and operational analysis of Grant’s command decisions and actions shows how his determined leadership relieved the siege and shattered the enemy, resulting in the creation of a new strategic base of Union operations and Grant’s elevation to commander of all the Federal armies the following year."

From the description: "Powell’s detailed exploration of the Union Army of the Cumberland’s six-week-long campaign for Chattanooga is complemented by his careful attention to the personal issues Grant faced at the time and his relationships with his superiors and subordinates. Though unfamiliar with the tactical situation, the army, and its officers, Grant delivered another resounding victory." The personal command traits that Powell cites as being major factors behind Grant's success at Chattanooga are common to most of Grant's Civil War campaigns. Grant's victory at Chattanooga, "explains Powell, was due to his tactical flexibility, communication with his superiors, perseverance despite setbacks, and dogged determination to win the campaign."

More: "Through attention to postwar accounts, Powell reconciles the differences between what happened and the participants’ memories of the events. He focuses throughout on Grant’s controversial decisions, showing how they were made and their impact on the campaign. As Powell shows, Grant’s choices demonstrate how he managed to be a thoughtful, deliberate commander despite the fog of war."

This is the second volume in SIU Press's World of Ulysses S. Grant series to examine the general's decision-making during a specific campaign, the first being Timothy Smith's The Decision Was Always My Own: Ulysses S. Grant and the Vicksburg Campaign (2018). Maybe they can rope in Gordon Rhea to author an Overland Campaign volume for the series and A. Wilson Greene to do Petersburg.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Book News: Southern Strategies

Serious book-length studies of Civil War national strategy are still rare. Offhand, I can't think of any good candidates released during the decade following the 2010 publication of Donald Stoker's The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, and even that one, if I recall correctly, was mostly limited to military affairs. Part of University Press of Kansas's upcoming spring catalog, Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed (June 2021) employs an integrated, systematic approach "to offer new theoretical and historical perspectives about why the South failed in its bid for independence." For this ambitious project, editor and U.S. Army War College professor Christian Keller assembled a unique group of contributors possessing decades of scholastic and real-world professional military experience. These individuals "bring over one hundred years of experience in the field at the junior and senior levels of military leadership and over forty years of teaching in professional military education."

From the description: "The contributors identify and analyze the mistakes made by the Confederate political and strategic leadership that handicapped the prospects for independence and placed immense pressure on Confederate military commanders to compensate on the battlefield for what should have been achieved by other instruments of national power. These instruments are the diplomatic, informational (including intelligence and public morale), and economic aspects of a nation's capability to exert its will internationally. When combined with military power, the acronym DIME emerges, a theoretical tool that offers historians and national security professionals alike a useful method to analyze how a state, such as the Union, the Confederacy, or the modern United States, wielded or currently wields its power at the strategic level. Each essay examines how well rebel strategic leaders employed and integrated these instruments, given that the seceded South possessed enough diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power to theoretically win its independence. The essayists also apply the ends-ways-means model of analysis to each topic to offer readers greater insight into the Confederate leadership's challenges."

Southern Strategies "offers fresh and theoretically novel interpretations at the strategic level that open new doors for future research and will increase public interest in the big questions surrounding Confederate defeat." I am definitely going to have to check this one out. There's also another title of interest in the Kansas catalog that I'll mention next week.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Booknotes: First for the Union

New Arrival:
First for the Union: Life and Death in a Civil War Army Corps from Antietam to Gettysburg by Darin Wipperman (Stackpole Bks, 2020).

From the description: "The Army of the Potomac’s First Corps was one of the best corps in the entire Union army. In September 1862, it was chosen to spearhead the Union attack at Antietam, fighting Stonewall Jackson’s men in the Cornfield and at the Dunker Church. In July 1863 at Gettysburg, its men were the first Union infantry to reach the battle, where they relieved the cavalry and fought off the Confederate onslaught all day before retreating to Cemetery Hill. Their valiant stand west of Gettysburg saved the Union from disaster that day but came at great cost (60 percent casualties). The corps was disbanded the following spring, having bled itself out of existence."

In addition to its distinguished combat record, the famous units that were a part of it and the high command stature of several generals who passed through it all contribute to the corps's lofty historical reputation. More from the description: "The First Corps’ leadership included two generals who would rise to command the Army of the Potomac—Joseph Hooker and George Meade—and a third who refused that command, John Reynolds, often considered the best commander in the East until his death at Gettysburg. The corps was made up heavily of men from New York and Pennsylvania (including the famous Bucktails), with a handful of New England regiments and the Midwesterners of the Iron Brigade, perhaps the Civil War’s most famous Union brigade."

This is the kind of book topic that typically goes into my "maybe" reading pile, but a glance through the introduction section can often sway things in one direction or the other. In his introduction to First for the Union: Life and Death in a Civil War Army Corps from Antietam to Gettysburg, author Darin Wipperman isn't shy about unpopularly declaring General Reynolds "overrated." I happen to agree with that assessment, not because I don't believe he was a good general but rather because I feel his war record (always a combination of actual performance and quality of opportunities to perform) doesn't merit the gushing ratings he so often receives from writers as the Army of the Potomac's best general. Wipperman also claims that some of his reinterpretations of events "could leave some students of the war wondering if my analysis has plunged off the deep end" (pg. xvii). We all know that books employing that brand of enticement often don't turn out well, but that tease might be too hard to pass up!

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Coming Soon (December '20 Edition)

*NEW RELEASES* - Scheduled for DEC 2020:

Storm Over Key West: The Civil War and the Call of Freedom by Mike Pride.
First for the Union: Life and Death in a Civil War Army Corps from Antietam to Gettysburg by Darin Wipperman.
Changing Sides: Union Prisoners of War Who Joined the Confederate Army by Pat Garrow.
Bullets and Bandages: The Aid Stations and Field Hospitals at Gettysburg by James Gindlesperger.

Comments: The pandemic gave us a uniquely skimpy Q4 this year. The optimist in me wants to believe that it is just the case that many publishers are throwing in the towel for the remainder of awful 2020 and preparing for a bigger and better 2021. This tiny group of winter stalwarts does look pretty interesting, though. Enjoy your long Thanksgiving weekend.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Review - "Lincoln's Wartime Tours from Washington, D.C." by John Schildt

[Lincoln's Wartime Tours from Washington, D.C. by John W. Schildt (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2020). Softcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:153/172. ISBN:978-1-4671-4571-8. $21.99]

From massive multi-volume biographies to studies narrowly focused on very specific features of the president's life (such as his dreams, his sense of humor, his depression, and much more), Lincoln books of all kinds continue to be produced in vast numbers. Among that latter group is John Schildt's new presidential travel history titled Lincoln's Wartime Tours from Washington, D.C..

From early life through middle age, Lincoln was a traveler and his Civil War presidency was no different. Schildt's book examines nineteen trips the president took between 1862 and his assassination in 1865. Ultimate destinations were limited to locations in only four states (13 trips to Virginia, three to Maryland, two to Pennsylvania, and one to New York), so Lincoln still kept relatively close to the capital and never did visit the western theater. As the author demonstrates, the driving force behind the great majority of these trips was military affairs, either to consult with commanding generals or visit the troops (the latter through both formal reviews and informal meet and greets at camps and hospitals). The president also attended sanitary fairs and, of course, made his famous journey to Gettysburg in 1863 to speak at the national cemetery dedication there. Many of these events, such as the rail trip to Gettysburg, the visit to the Army of the Potomac after Antietam, and the 1865 foray to City Point, are well known and well documented, but the book also addresses a host of lesser-known travels (among them the president's April 1862 boat trip to Aquia Landing to meet with General McDowell for strategy discussion and an unannounced excursion to West Point two months later).

As the book shows, these trips were often spur of the moment affairs, and the author's surmise that the travels also served as brief escapes from the pressure-filled and unhealthy capital is a familiar observation. Indeed, Lincoln was often ill himself in the periods surrounding these trips. There are many other common threads, among them the president's general unwillingness to speak to crowds extemporaneously balanced by an openness to being approached by individual citizens. Lincoln also seemed to be particularly moved by the suffering of the common soldiers of both sides, and military hospital visits were a frequent part of his trips to the front. Though fighting a continental-scale civil war was always going to make Lincoln's presidency an exceptional one in so many ways, the book might have benefited from some comparative background history regarding boat or rail travel by earlier presidents to see if the frequency of Lincoln trips was atypical or not.

Much of the text is devoted to what Lincoln did at each destination, but substantial attention is paid to each trip and its planning. Sprinkled throughout are block quotes from both firsthand observers of these events (drawn from the author's manuscript research) and secondary sources that Schildt relied heavily upon in specific cases (an example being historian Donald Pfanz's Lincoln at City Point). The author also incorporates quite a bit of broader war narrative into each chapter in a manner that effectively contextualizes the timing, meaning, and reasoning behind each trip. The text is annotated and the travel accounts are augmented by a collection of photographs and period drawings. If you are interested in Lincoln's wartime activities outside the capital, this is a solid popular-style compilation of his lengthier trips.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Status of Hartwig's Maryland Campaign Vol. 2

Earlier this week, helpful CWBA scout Mark H. informed me about Scott Hartwig's most recent progress report on the Antietam book that will complete his massive two-volume study of the 1862 Maryland Campaign. You can read Hartwig's post here. He hopes to have the writing phase completed by this upcoming spring. I have no idea how Johns Hopkins normally works their schedule (and we unfortunately still have to insert the ongoing pandemic into the calculus as well) but it seems difficult to imagine that we could see it out before 2022.

I still haven't read To Antietam Creek, which was released back in 2012 to universal acclaim. For me, the timing of it was terrible (at least that's how I remember it). It was the Sesquicentennial rush and I was already too Antietam'd out by other titles to take on a new 800-page tome on the subject. As a reviewer receiving a constant stream of new arrivals (at least that's the way it was back then), putting an extraordinarily time-consuming book like that one aside only makes it harder to later find the time to return to it. It's still on my shelf somewhere.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Review - "Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863" by Earl Hess

[Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863 by Earl J. Hess (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). Hardcover, 16 maps, photos, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xx,295/400. ISBN:9781469660172. $40]

Its first edition released by Morningside in 1985, Ed Bearss's classic three-volume history of the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign was the first publication to examine in depth the May 19 and May 22, 1863 assaults on the Vicksburg fortifications. Over the following decades the topic has been addressed in book chapters, scholarly essays, and magazine articles, but it would be 2019 before the first appearance of a standalone book-length treatment, a slim essay anthology titled The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863. This was closely followed in early 2020 by Timothy Smith's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863. Remarkably, less than a year later we now have a third study in Earl Hess's Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863. Smith's and Hess's detailed histories of these events are quite similar in many ways, but they also possess complementary strengths that will interest many prospective readers.

As is the case with the research efforts put into all of Hess's earlier campaign and battle histories, Storming Vicksburg is based upon a large and richly diverse collection of primary and secondary sources. This mountain of material is skillfully incorporated into a comprehensive narrative account of the fighting, one that assesses the full breadth of command decisions and vividly records battlefield experiences of all ranks on both sides. Fully appropriate to studies of this type, regimental-scale tactical detail abounds, and for each battle sector the staging, formation, and movements of these units are closely recounted. Once again, Hess's skill at organizing masses of small-unit information in a manner that's easy for the attentive reader to comprehend and follow is on full display. Though somewhat spartan by current expectations (regular readers of Hess's recent work will recognize his now standard hand-drawn style of cartography), the book's collection of sixteen maps, which are intimately tied to the text, are very useful visual aids.

Timothy Smith's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg examines the Union approach march to Vicksburg from Big Black River at greater length, but both manuscripts (his and Hess's) exhibit similar levels of descriptive detail and military analysis when it comes to their treatments of the May 19 and May 22 attacks. The Union assault of May 19 was a hasty one involving essentially one division (Frank Blair's of William T. Sherman's Fifteenth Corps), with the balance of Sherman's troops plus James B. McPherson's Seventeenth Corps and John C. McClernand's Thirteenth Corps all mostly engaged with getting into position after hours of struggling through rough terrain. The May 22 attack was better coordinated from top to bottom and heavily involved all three army corps, although only McClernand's was fully committed to front line action. As it was a much larger event fought over most of the day, the bulk of the book is devoted to May 22.

Most of the reasons Hess gives for the failure of the twin attacks have been cited before. As is often the case, the other side had a great deal to do with it. Just as he did way back in late 1862 during the earliest stages of the long Vicksburg Campaign, the oft-maligned Confederate commander John C. Pemberton achieved another brief moment in the sun through his thwarting of Grant's designs on May 19 and 22. Rather than facing demoralized troops, Grant attacked confident, well-placed, and mostly fresh Confederate defenders who expertly exploited Vicksburg's strong earthwork defense network designed by engineer officer Samuel Lockett. Coordination among the attacking formations was also less than ideal. Another major factor in the Union defeat was the topography in front of the Confederate defense line. Characterized by a series of bald-topped hillocks separated by steep ravines choked with dense vegetation and man-made military obstructions, the approaches to Vicksburg both slowed and disorganized attacking columns and lines. Where roads entered Confederate lines, Union assault formations had to brave open, narrow fronts swept by rifle and artillery fire deployed within forbidding earthwork trenches, forts, redoubts, and redans. In their respective texts, both Smith and Hess vividly define this menacing battlefield terrain for their readers, though neither of their map sets really show it to any great effect. However, Hess compensates for this to a strong degree by including a series of well-composed battlefield photographs of the viewshed (often from each side's perspective in turn) at the location of every major attack. These photos offer readers a strong impression of just how intimidating so many of these battlescapes were for Grant's men, and its easy to imagine attackers seeing them as impossible to overcome by simple assault. As Parker Hills did in his contribution to the essay anthology referenced above, Hess believes that Union rank and file demoralization at the sight of the enemy defenses contributed mightily to the failed attack on May 22. Citing his extensive manuscript research, Hess claims that the vast majority of Union soldier diaries and letters expressed grave misgivings about attacking (though after the battles the very same writers tended to express undiminished confidence in their leaders and in eventual victory). Hess persuasively suggests that it was this psychological barrier against conducting frontal attacks collectively judged by veteran troops to be impossible that was the primary reason why so many Union formations went to ground before reaching the enemy line (a spontaneous expression of self-preservation and rank-and-file disobedience most commonly attributed to 1864 campaigns and beyond).

Of course, the most controversial command figure of May 22 remains John McClernand. In addition to inaugurating the six-week siege phase of the campaign, the May 22 attack largely ended the general's active career in the field (though he would go on to serve a minor role in Texas). Though McClernand overall performed at least as well as his fellow corps commanders did during the campaign, he remained the odd man out of the otherwise tight-knit high command of the Army of the Tennessee. He also made many errors and questionable judgment calls on the 22nd. After urging upon Grant the need to concentrate the army and punch through the enemy defenses on a more narrow front, McClernand then proceeded to disregard his own advice by spreading his own corps out on a broad attacking front in a manner similar to what Grant ended up doing with the entire army. Like other historians before him (including Timothy Smith and Steven Woodworth), Hess is critical of McClernand's corps dispositions, as the general's pairing of assault and support brigades from different divisions unnecessarily heightened already challenging issues of command and control. The author's critical views of McClernand's behavior and judgement are also aligned with others when it comes to the general's messages to Grant that heavily exaggerated (whether the result of erroneous judgment or willful deception) the strength of the Thirteenth Corps toehold on the enemy works. On another controversial matter, Hess lays blame for the ineffective use of Isaac Quinby's Seventeenth Corps division (which was ordered to McClernand's aid) primarily at the feet of McClernand. Unlike Parker Hills (who mostly blamed Grant and Quinby himself for the division arriving too late to do any real good), Hess more persuasively sides with those who have argued that McClernand was most at fault by parceling up Quinby's division as reinforcements for three different sectors of his corps front. It might be an interesting what-if to contemplate what might have happened had Quinby's entire division been hurled at a single point, but Hess is likely accurate in determining that as long as the morale of the defenders held no attack of that scale was likely to achieve a major breakthrough. Smith's examination of the May 22 attacks hypothesized that Col. William Hall's approach against South Fort on the extreme left of Grant's army might have had the best chance for success, but Hess largely, and more persuasively, dismisses the possibility of a single-brigade breakthrough. Hall himself never seriously tested the enemy defenses before responding to McClernand's call for support by marching away to join the Thirteenth Corps. In the end, Hess is fully supportive of Grant's decision to relieve McClernand of command, if for no better reason than to conclusively resolve the threat to high command unity that was both longstanding and exacerbated by the regrettable behavior of both men.

In several ways, Hess's examination of the late May attacks moves further beyond the battlefield than all previous treatments. Though Smith goes into more depth on the civilian experience, and both major studies address the plight of the wounded at some length, Hess does uniquely discuss the burial truce of May 25 along with the front line fraternization that provided psychological relief to both sides and priceless opportunity for not-so-surreptitious intelligence gathering. Hess also examines the efforts of both sides to honor the most deserving participants of the twin assaults. Along with initiatives and events surrounding preservation of the battlefield, remembrance of the assaults in the form of speeches, poetry, and art is also discussed. Of the last, the two Vicksburg cycloramas (both of which depicted scenes from the May 22 assault) are featured. According to Hess, only a few images of the second cyclorama remain for us to examine, and the rapid disappearance of both artworks after brief showings materially contributed to the obscurity of the attacks in public memory.

Though description and analysis of the May 19 and May 22 attacks contained in Timothy Smith's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg and Earl Hess's Storming Vicksburg are roughly similar in scope and depth, as indicated above there are more than enough complementary features to refrain from definitively recommending one study over the other. Really, when we have two of the field's best Civil War military historians exploring the same ground, there is no compelling reason for those with an exceptional interest in the topic to not add both books to the home library.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Booknotes: Women Making War

New Arrival:
Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice by Thomas F. Curran (SIU Press, 2020).

Recent studies contextualizing the Civil War's guerrilla conflict as a "household war" have emphasized the key supporting roles assumed by women who provided food, supplies, shelter, and information to local fighters. War-torn Missouri has proved to be the most fertile ground for this work, and it is no surprise that the state provides the setting for Thomas Curran's Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice.

From the description: "During the American Civil War, more than four hundred women were arrested and imprisoned by the Union Army in the St. Louis area. The majority of these women were fully aware of the political nature of their actions and had made conscious decisions to assist Confederate soldiers in armed rebellion against the U.S. government. Their crimes included offering aid to Confederate soldiers, smuggling, spying, sabotaging, and, rarely, serving in the Confederate army. Historian Thomas F. Curran’s extensive research highlights for the first time the female Confederate prisoners in the St. Louis area, and his thoughtful analysis shows how their activities affected Federal military policy."

As one might have anticipated, the guerrilla war's expansion in scale and intensity coincided with harsher treatment of female civilian supporters by Union authorities. "Some Confederate partisan women were banished to the South, while others were held at Alton Military Prison and other sites. The guerilla war in Missouri resulted in more arrests of women, and the task of incarcerating them became more complicated."

More: "The women’s offenses were seen as treasonous by the Federal government. By determining that women—who were excluded from the politics of the male public sphere—were capable of treason, Federal authorities implicitly acknowledged that women acted in ways that had serious political meaning. Nearly six decades before U.S. women had the right to vote, Federal officials who dealt with Confederate partisan women routinely referred to them as citizens. Federal officials created a policy that conferred on female citizens the same obligations male citizens had during time of war and rebellion, and they prosecuted disloyal women in the same way they did disloyal men."

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review - "Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood" by Stephen Davis

[Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood by Stephen Davis (Mercer University Press, 2020) Hardcover, 5 maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:298/356. ISBN:978-0-88146-720-8. $35.]

Historian Stephen Davis's 2019 study Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta critically examined the 1861-64 ascendant phase of Confederate general John Bell Hood's controversial Civil War career. Over that roughly three-year period, Hood competently led brigade, division, and corps formations before his disastrous initiation to army command beginning in July 1864 most exposed his limitations. Davis's follow-up volume, 2020's Into Tennessee and Failure, reassesses Hood's generalship after the fall of Atlanta when he masterminded his first and only operational offensive at the head of the star-crossed Army of Tennessee. Conducted from September 1864 through December of that year, Hood's long, winding advance through northwest Georgia, northern Alabama, and Middle Tennessee—what came to be known as either the 1864 Tennessee Campaign or the Franklin-Nashville Campaign—resulted in a military catastrophe that essentially ended the Civil War career of Hood and rendered the Army of Tennessee a spent force.

After the Battle of Jonesboro and the abandonment of Atlanta to the enemy, Hood's defeated army was scattered and vulnerable. Though a triumphant General Sherman was content with Atlanta's fall and failed to press his advantage further, Davis nevertheless credits Hood for successfully extricating his army from its potentially dangerous predicament. Like many other writers and observers of the campaign, Davis does not have any strong objections to Hood's subsequent decision to return north of the Chattahoochee River and operate directly against Sherman's lines of communication. Still, one has to wonder how history might have turned out had the Army of Tennessee instead stayed in Georgia in late 1864 to oppose further federal advances into the Deep South's almost undefended interior.

Just when the decision was ultimately made to strike north into Tennessee has long been a point of contention among historians. Davis's examination of the evidence strongly supports the argument that the September 1864 strategy meeting between Hood and President Davis marked the official genesis of the operation. President Davis's appointment of General P.G.T. Beauregard to theater command over both Hood and Richard Taylor (the latter the head of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana) is heartily approved by the author as it resulted in rapid improvement in Hood's rickety logistical arrangements. Avoidable or not, Davis and other chroniclers have shown that the three-week operational pause in North Alabama (a consequence of poor weather, the need to accumulate sufficient supplies for an offensive, and the desire to not set out before the arrival of Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry) was lost time that Hood could ill-afford and that the scrambling federals put to good use.

As he did in Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta, Davis draws on his mastery of the secondary literature to effectively harvest from the historiography a comprehensive overview of several generations of published views and opinions on every major decision point and controversy related to the 1864 Tennessee Campaign. Doing much more than simply summarizing competing interpretations both old and new, Davis analyzes the positions of other historians through the critical lens of his own decades of primary research. His judiciously weighed conclusions are appropriately equivocal in places where strong evidence is lacking. Also appreciated are the stimulating side discussions that take place in both footnotes and main text. Readers might recall from the first volume Davis's extended look at the differences and similarities between the events and historiographies of Stonewall Jackson's flank march at Chancellorsville and Hood's daring plan for the July 22 Battle of Atlanta, and this book offers an equally compelling comparative evaluation of Hood's Franklin assault and Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. A notable difference in presentation between the first and second volumes, however, can be found in the supporting cartography, with map coverage dropping in number precipitously from 28 to only 5.

Thankfully, in this volume Davis does not feel the need to once again refute old canards no longer worthy of debate (ex. previously popular contentions that Hood was heavily impaired by drug use or callously threw his army at the Franklin trenches as "punishment" for its failure at Spring Hill). The most exciting recent development in Hood research was the discovery of a large cache of the general's papers, and Davis properly praises Stephen M. Hood for making the previously unknown material available both privately and through publication (see 2013's John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General and 2015's The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood). Davis is not alone in questioning some of Stephen Hood's more facile interpretations of those documents; however, he justly observes that the writer's highly partisan defense of the general does possess a number of persuasive challenges to traditional thought that every future Hood biographer must address.

In the book, Davis meticulously reconstructs Hood's planning and execution of the Tennessee campaign from its September 1864 beginnings through its December conclusion, and no one will be surprised to find Spring Hill presented as the campaign's inflection point. Often described as the location of one of the war's great lost opportunities, Spring Hill was a point astride the main Union line of communication between General Schofield's corps-sized command at Columbia and General's Thomas's growing army at Nashville. As Davis outlines in the book, there's no document trail indicating that Hood even had a clear plan (at least one shared with his generals) regarding what he expected his army to do once it arrived at Spring Hill. Indeed, a common critique of Hood's army generalship is that even when he had sound (even brilliant) ideas on the operational level careless planning and execution would commonly derail them. Some proportion of blame for the Spring Hill debacle has traditionally fallen upon generals Brown, Cheatham, and Hood. Brown, as commander of the right flank division of Cheatham's corps assault, declined to attack when he felt his own right threatened, and Cheatham not only did not overrule him but allegedly refused in the day's fading light to involve himself in any darkness attack. Hood has been criticized for not being present to ensure that his orders for Cheatham to attack were carried out, but Davis seems to agree most with Wiley Sword's view that Hood's chief failing at Spring Hill was his vacillating uncertainty over tactical objective (partly a function of him not having a clear understanding of the relative positions of the major components of each army). Davis also reiterates historian Stanley Horn's concern about how much benefit would have been derived from a successful Cheatham attack (as the movement would have placed the corps in a narrow pocket between two parts of Schofield's army). Hood's lack of attention toward operational details, logistics, and oversight are also frequently mentioned as major contributors to the day being a bust. Davis agrees with Richard McMurry's argument against the whole idea that seizing either the turnpike or Spring Hill itself ensured a grand triumph of Confederate arms. According to this view, Schofield could have rather easily marched the trailing divisions of his army around the blockade during the night. On the other hand, those that support that argument seem to underestimate the difficulty of moving an army and its trains over secondary roads in darkness. In the end, Davis's own view of who was most to blame for the aborted attack at Spring Hill centers on the usual suspects (Brown, Cheatham, and Hood) with the army commander shouldering the ultimate responsibility. The events of Spring Hill do seem to have become clearer over time, but Davis is surely correct to note that the host of contradictory testimony from participant generals and their staffs, along with the absence in the historical records of written orders that might clear up major points of contention, will always leave an element of mystery to the famously aborted battle. Regardless of where blame can be assigned, Schofield's army got away with little interruption and there was only one more opportunity for the Confederates to catch it.

In the wake of the so-called lost opportunity at Spring Hill, Hood's decision to launch his army into a headlong frontal assault against Schofield at Franklin has been roundly condemned in the traditional campaign historiography. With the benefit of hindsight, the carnage seems preordained, but the Spring Hill command debacle left Hood with no good choices. Retreat without a battle was unthinkable, and if the goal was to prevent a junction between Schofield's command and General Thomas's growing army at Nashville (and it had to be if the Confederate campaign was to have a gambler's chance of success) then the empty results of Spring Hill essentially straitjacketed Hood's dwindled options. By reproducing all of its main points in his own study, Davis generally agrees with the logic behind Stephen Hood's multi-faceted rejection of the conventional arguments advanced in favor of bypassing the Franklin defenders. In the few remaining hours before winter darkness settled in, a frontal assault was the last option available that might have prevented Schofield's junction with Thomas.

Given that Schofield's command escaped to Nashville intact and the Franklin battle gutted the leadership and manpower of the Army of Tennessee, most agree that all of Hood's remaining options afforded very little chance of redeeming the campaign. Davis narrows the conversation to three. On the face of it, retreating seems most reasonable, but the author sees eye to eye with those who have argued that a retreat at that juncture would have crushed the army's morale for good and resulted in mass desertions of such proportions that the army would have been done as a fighting force. Another choice would have been to channel Bragg in 1862 by bypassing Nashville altogether and striking into Kentucky, but December 1864 was not August 1862 and Davis is certainly correct in deeming such a maneuver both logistically and militarily impossible given the state of Hood's army and the superior numbers and fighting condition of his skilled opponents. Finally, the third option (and the one Hood settled upon) was to trail Schofield to Nashville and set up a strong defensive position just outside the city, the hope being that Thomas could somehow be induced into launching a rash battle fought on Hood's terms the result of which might lead to new opportunities. Clearly the campaign was grasping at straws, and no sane person would bet on its chances for success, but Davis presents a good case that the decision to continue forward had at least some rational reasoning behind it.

Even if one grants that Hood had no substantially better options than the one he selected, some critics maintain that the general still did not make the best of it. Writers have taken issue with the position taken by Hood's army as it settled into a defensive posture outside of Nashville as well as with Hood's decision to detach a sizable part of his remaining forces (under Forrest) to hover around Murfreesboro. On the former point, the consensus seems to be that Hood's army was poorly sited, but there is no suggestion regarding the layout of a better (let alone ideal) defense line. On the latter point, it is certainly reasonable for an army commander to assign troops for rear area security. Really the size of the force that Hood assigned to Forrest, not the decision itself, is most fit for debate. Of course, the battle itself was a predictable defeat for the Army of Tennessee. The strongest Nashville battle and retreat criticisms the author levels at Hood are related to the general's attempts to both conceal the scale of the disaster and delay reporting it to his immediate superior (General Beauregard). At least for the matter of Hood's purported reluctance to communicate with Beauregard, it might perhaps be ungenerous to fault Hood too sharply given the state of communications in his area of operations. On the other hand, Hood's record of regularly consulting with Beauregard and keeping his superior fully informed of his decisions and movements was spotty throughout the campaign.

When Hood resigned (to be replaced by Richard Taylor), his career as a Confederate general who commanded troops in the field ended. The book also discusses at some length Hood's postwar fight over control the historical memory of the Atlanta and Nashville campaigns, a frequently unseemly conflict in word and print that often pitted Hood and President Davis partisans against General Johnston's many supporters. When it came to Hood's, Sherman's, and Johnston's published recollections of the Atlanta Campaign, there were more than enough half-truths and untruths to go around. Ironically, it could be argued that P.G.T. Beauregard (who has his own historical reputation as an intensely vain military fantasist who took great offense at every slight both real and imagined) is the Confederate star that shone brightest over the period covered in this volume. Thrust into a job he did not want, Beauregard nevertheless labored overtime to provide Hood's army with the logistical support needed to make the Tennessee Campaign possible (all in the face of Hood's stubborn unwillingness to fully communicate with and subordinate himself to his new superior).

Davis's epilogue summary of Hood's entire Civil War career is appropriately titled "Spurs Without Greatness." As a bold, brave, and aggressive brigade and division commander, Hood, in the author's view, certainly earned his spurs, and he was an adequate corps commander among a rather undistinguished Army of Tennessee peer group. Yet the general's bid for greatness fell far short of expectations during the battles around Atlanta and especially during the 1864 Tennessee Campaign. Davis agrees with those who have argued that Hood's operational vision of the battlefield was occasionally on par with that of the Lee-Jackson school that spawned him, but he also concurs with those who have faulted Hood for tendencies toward assigning subordinates unrealistic goals and paying insufficient attention to details necessary for an army to carry out ambitious designs. On a more theoretical level, Davis sees in Hood's failure as an army commander a larger lack of recognition regarding how much the Civil War battlefield changed between 1862 and 1864. In last year's Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta, Davis advanced the view that Hood's principal character flaw was overweening ambition. Into Tennessee and Failure adds to that negative trait Hood's resistance to subordination, his unseemly penchant for blaming others (worst of all the common soldiers) for his failures, and his unwillingness to report the true scale of his army's disasters. Some of those conclusions are certainly open to further debate, but it is the opinion of this reviewer that these two volumes easily constitute the Civil War literature's richest and most compelling military biography of Confederate general John Bell Hood to date.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Booknotes: Absalom Hazlett

New Arrival:
Absalom Hazlett: A Loyal Soldier in John Brown’s Army by Spencer Sadler (America Through Time, 2020).

Absalom Hazlett tells the story of one of John Brown's Harpers Ferry raiders. Author Spencer Sadler self describes his book as "creative nonfiction" that is "told in an unorthodox manner." It employs a "backward narrative" structured around Hazlett's personal experiences, and the dialogue is a combination of direct quotes cited in the endnotes and uncited dialogue constructed from dramatic license that the Sadler insists has "historical basis and context."

From the description: "Hazlett was a lieutenant in John Brown's provisional army. He was introduced to Brown when he was fighting in the "Border Wars" with another American rebel, James Montgomery. Hazlett proved himself a cool, even-handed soldier, not easily frightened or thwarted, and he was an accessory in several major historical events, including the raid at Harpers Ferry, which some historians refer to as the catalyst to the Civil War. He helped Brown lead twelve fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada, and he battled with James Montgomery during the legendary Fort Scott affairs."

At least in the popular histories of the event, the drama of Brown's trial and execution tends to overshadow the fate of the other raiders who survived the deadly 1859 clash with U.S. Marines and angry locals. For the subject of Sadler's book, escape was only temporary and death was simply postponed. "When Brown attempted to overtake the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and spur a slave rebellion, Robert E. Lee was dispatched to quell the violence and end the three-day standoff between the townspeople and the raiders. Hazlett and Osborne Anderson escaped, hoping to run to freedom, but Hazlett succumbed to debilitating blisters and was eventually caught, put on trial, and hanged." In addition to endnotes and bibliography, the main text is supported by a collection of illustrations (B&W and color) and an event timeline.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Booknotes: Disorder on the Border

New Arrival:
Disorder on the Border: Civil Warfare in Cabell and Wayne Counties, West Virginia, 1856-1870 by Joe Geiger, Jr. (35th Star Pub, 2020).

Though still a relative newcomer to a scene long the domain of Pictorial Histories and Quarrier Press, 35th Star Publishing has already established itself as the go-to publisher of Civil War West Virginia military history and edited primary source materials. Their latest release didn't appear on my radar until it was already out the door. Disorder on the Border is from Joe Geiger, the Director of the Archives and History section of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and a figure well-known to Civil War readers as the author of Civil War in Cabell County West Virginia, 1861-1865 (1991) and Holding The Line: The Battle of Allegheny Mountain and Confederate Defense of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike in 1861-62 (2012).

Geiger's new book greatly expands upon his earlier published work on Cabell County (and readers might also recall Jack Dickinson's slender book-length study of Wayne County). From the description: "In the last half of the 1850s, the Virginia counties of Cabell and Wayne became immersed in the national debate over slavery. Located only a stone's throw away from the free state of Ohio, some western Virginians practiced and defended slavery, and the contentiousness between supporters and those who opposed the institution increased dramatically as the nation moved closer to civil war. When the conflict erupted in 1861, disorder was the order of the day. Although the overwhelming majority of voters in Cabell and Wayne counties opposed the Ordinance of Secession, the most prominent and influential citizens in the area favored leaving the Union. When the state seceded, some who had opposed this step now cast their loyalty with Virginia rather than the Union. During and after the Civil War, dozens of skirmishes, raids, and armed encounters occurred in this border area, and the lengthy struggle only ended with the statewide Democratic victory in the 1870 election."

The two counties did not host any major battles, but a pair of chapters in the book discuss the Battle of Barboursville and the Raid on Guyandotte along with a host of other minor actions. A number of raids passed through the area and both counties experienced the horrors of guerrilla warfare. More from the description: "Federal supporters in Cabell and Wayne counties lived through years of terror. Their efforts to save the Union and create the new state of West Virginia, and their willingness to die on behalf of the country ensured its survival from the greatest conflict in the history of the United States."

Friday, November 6, 2020

Booknotes: The Maps of the Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign

New Arrival:
The Maps of the Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign: An Atlas of Mounted Operations from Brandy Station Through Falling Waters, June 9 – July 14, 1863 by Bradley M. Gottfried (Savas Beatie, 2020).

This is the eighth installment of the Savas Beatie Military Atlas Series. Predominately eastern in focus, the series is the brainchild of Bradley Gottfried and he's now authored seven of its titles (the lone western theater battle atlas the work of Davids Powell and Friedrichs). I had to refresh my memory of how much cavalry coverage was in The Maps of Gettysburg (2007, rev. 2010) and the earlier book (the first in the series) was indeed largely limited to the Day 1 dismounted cavalry fighting along with the later Gettysburg battlefield clashes at East Cavalry Field and South Cavalry Field.

So The Maps of the Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign indeed consists of previously uncovered material. It is useful as both standalone and supplement to The Maps of Gettysburg. From the description: "Gottfried covers the opening battle of the campaign at Brandy Station in detail, followed by the actions at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, where Jeb Stuart’s cavalry successfully halted Alfred Pleasonton’s probes toward the Blue Mountain passes in an effort to determine the location of Robert E. Lee’s army. The movements toward Gettysburg are covered in a series of maps, including the actions at Westminister, Hanover, and Hunterstown. The five major actions on July 2-3 at Gettysburg take up a considerable portion of the book and include the fight at Brinkerhoff Ridge, and four more on July 3 (Stuart against David Gregg northeast of the town, Wesley Merritt’s fight along Emmitsburg Road, Judson Kilpatrick’s actions near the base of Big Round Top, and Grumble Jones’s near-destruction of the 6th U.S. Cavalry near Fairfield)."

In addition to covering Brandy Station and the myriad of much smaller actions that preceded the great three-day battle at Gettysburg, the retreat phase of the campaign is also addressed at length. More from the description: Part of the Confederate retreat and Union pursuit, "(t)he numerous fights at Monterrey Pass, Smithfield, Boonsboro, Funkstown, and Hagerstown were of critical importance to both sides and are covered in detail. The book concludes with the fight at Falling Waters and ends with an epilogue recounting events occurring in Virginia through the end of July."

The atlas contains 82 color maps (I may be wrong, but believe the first edition of The Maps of Gettysburg was the only series volume to employ B&W maps) arranged into 16 "action sections," the map subset organization that is a series staple. When opening the book the full-page map is viewed on the right and descriptive text on the left, the latter "describing the units, personalities, movements, and combat (including quotes from eyewitnesses) depicted on the accompanying map." It's a nice system that works well. The well-researched text is extensively annotated, and the reader will find endnotes, bibliography, orders of battle, and index at the back of the book.