Thursday, January 21, 2010

Maps of First Bull Run

The Maps of First Bull Run by Bradley M. Gottfried.

Once again a book review that is well behind the time. I think I'm late in doing this review because it is so obvious from the first time you open this book that this is a great book. This is Gottfried's second book in the battlefield atlas series from Savas Beatie (he did Gettysburg first and Dave Powell has added Chickamauga to the series as well).

The basic layout of each book in the series is that there is a full page color map depicting one phase of the battle and the text that describes that map is on the facing page. You can read the book cover to cover or simply use it to enhance another book on the battle that has much fewer maps. I think the series is great and as each book comes out I'll buy it without needing to see it or read reviews first, that's part of the reason why I did not review this book when it came out.

There are 51 maps in this volume, half of which cover the battle directly. Nine cover the preliminary movements and skirmishes, including Blackburn's Ford. A few maps cover the theater situation in the month afterwards and then there are about a dozen maps on Ball's Bluff.

My only complaint, and it is a series wide complaint, is that elevation change is indicated by hash marks and not by topographic lines. I grew up with topo maps so reading them has never been a problem for me. I understand they can clutter a map or be difficult for a portion of the population to read but I personally would prefer them over hash marks. I've seen topo lines used in books where it doesn't clutter the map, so it can be done. I think it would help with study as you would be able to see real elevations (and for those of us who know how to make profiles you could create profiles to show how much of the field could be seen from a particular position). Whenever I study I battle I go to the local USGS office and get the quad sheets so I have a good topographic map.

Anyway, that's my only complaint about the book series. I see no reason not to add this book to your library.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Complete Gettysburg Guide

The Complete Gettysburg Guide by J. David Petruzzi. Maps and photography by Steven Stanley.

I am behind the times in reviewing this book, it already has received numerous highly positive reviews, but I’m sure one more won’t be too much in the way.

This is as complete a guide of Gettysburg as I’ve ever seen. What separates it from the other Gettysburg guides is its attention to the periphery. Besides chapters covering the main fighting of July 1-3 there are chapters on the June 26 skirmishes, the cavalry fighting on Brinkerhoff’s Ridge and East Cavalry Field, the fighting at Hunterstown on July 2nd and at Fairfield on July 3rd. But there is also tours of the town of Getysburg, the National Cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery, the various rock carvings around the battlefield and the plentiful hospital sites scattered around the town.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on the National Cemetery and the rock carvings. I loved the amount of detail given to the variety of mistakes in the cemetery. Some of these are simply stone cutters who made misspellings (and not just of soldiers’ names) but some are because the soldier was misidentified when buried. Since then researchers have found that no soldier by that name served in that regiment but that same name was found in a different regiment, or state which meant there are Confederates buried in the National Cemetery. Today that’s not a big deal but before the reconciliation of the 1890s veterans would have been quite upset to know that.

I also enjoyed the rock carving chapter because it looks like it would be a fun tour to do. I knew about some of the carvings but the tour created here has 21 stops and would be a fun extra tour to do next time I’m there, especially finding the dinosaur footprint and fossils with my young son.

The book itself is beautiful. Stanley’s beautiful maps grace nearly every other page. When there isn’t a map there is a great photo as Gettysburg is a very photogenic battlefield (that may sound odd but the right combination of monument and natural beauty creates amazing photos at many battlefields). The text is clear with good directions (giving odometer readings at tenth mile increments and longitude and latitude coordinates for GPS users). I haven’t had the good fortune to field test it yet but the directions are clear and informative so I do not foresee any problems in the field. The page stock is even different than most books, a nice thick page that feels very durable for field use. I’m not sure it’ll survive a rain storm but normal field use should be fine.

I only wish there was a Shiloh version of this book. I am excited to hear that an Antietam version is in the works.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Britton's Lane

Yesterday I received the new issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly and the first article is about the battle of Britton's Lane. Britton's Lane is one of the smallest battlefields I have ever visited, on the way there I was sure I was lost but I found the little park. The park is located east of Denmark, Tennessee which is southwest of Jackson (I mention that because Denmark is a very tiny town).

The article actually has little to do with the battle and more about where the battle was fought. The available maps, the reports in the Official Records and the few available letters and diaries are pretty vague on location, basically six miles from Denmark. In the article King Wells Jamison argues that the real location is northeast of Denmark, pretty close to present day Jackson.

And he has some compelling evidence, things like Britton does not appear on the list of Denmark inhabitants, but does appear on a list of inhabitants of District No. 6 and No. 7 of Madison County, which is north of Denmark. And that Shedrick Pipkins, a local man who helped with the dead and wounded, is listed in District No. 7.

But not once does Jamison deal with the fact that there is a preserved park over 8 miles, as the crow flies, to the south. There is a state historical marker there as well as other modern interpretive markers, cannons and monuments (including one to the mass grave on site). He doesn't say one word about the park, not to explain why its wrong or anything else. In fact the preserved land is on a road named Britton Lane.

Jamison's new site has an old lane in nice condition. He has scoured part of the area looking for artifacts that would indicate a battle had taken place there but has not yet found anything besides some slag lead which might indicate that bullets were cast there. Some parts of that proposed location though have been developed so artifacts may have been lost.

I was disappointed with this article. At first I was intrigued by the possibility that the battlefield might be this far wrong. But Jamison's points were not that convincing and he didn't attack the placement of the current park. For one I'd like to see sort of attack on the mass burial site, use ground penetrating radar to determine if there is a mass burial there. If there isn't then some questions creep in. If there is then Jamison needs to explain why its there. Is it from a different battle? Did the men move the dead over 8 miles instead of burying them where they fell? Why would they do that? I thought the article had a good start but when it ended I was left wondering what the point of it all had been.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Those Damned Black Hats!

Those Damned Black Hats! The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign.
By Lance J. Herdegen

I am a fan of the Iron Brigade. I would feel this way if its only significance was a heavy number of Wisconsin regiments but they then ended up being one of the better fighting units of the war. When I heard Iron Brigade historian Lance Herdegen was doing a book focusing on the brigade in the Gettysburg campaign my only question was when I would add this book to my library not if I would. Then last year Herdegen was one of the speakers at the Rocky Mountain Civil War Symposium so I decided to wait until the event to buy the book (helping the event’s sales and also to get it signed).

While the focus of the book is Gettysburg Herdegen also does a good job briefly explaining the activities of the brigade both before and after Gettysburg. The battle of Gettysburg is the meat of the book but it was good to also have coverage of the post war efforts at memoralization and the various battle anniversaries the brigade survivors attended.

And as far as the battle goes expect a ton on the events of July 1st. There is some coverage given to the brigade’s activities on the other days but after July 1st there were too few men left to do much of anything. The brigade went into battle with 1883 men but on the night of July 1st the brigade quartermaster only issued 500 rations. The 2nd Wisconsin lost 77%, the 6th Wisconsin lost 48%, the 7th Wisconsin lost 51%, the 19th Indiana lost 72%, and the 24th Michigan lost 80%. Officially they lost 189 killed, 774 wounded and 249 missing (leaving 671 survivors yet only 500 rations were issued so apparently close to 200 men were separated from the regiment that night.

The book itself was a pretty quick read. It has 33 short chapters, none is more than 15 pages long. So it was quite easy to read a chapter or two during the small batches of free time that I have as a husband and father.

The maps are wonderful (done by Bradley Gottfried of Maps of Gettysburg fame) and plentiful. There are also a good number of pictures of brigade veterans.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Children's book reviews

The other day while looking for books to use by Barnes and Noble gift card on I happened across some of their children's Civil War titles. Not knowing the quality of the work I instead checked out the books from my local library and have been reading them to my son this past week.

First up he picked the one about Lincoln (he loves Lincoln and John Brown). Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale by Deborah Hopkinson.

It tells the story of a young Abe crossing a creek with one of his friends. Abe falls in and is saved by his friend. Its an okay story but the narration is odd. The narrator talks to the reader and illustrator as if they are active participants in the story. For instance the narrator explains that we don't really know how Abe's friend saved him, maybe he used a big stick, maybe he was able to reach him with his arms, or maybe something else happened (and even says we don't know if the story is true or not to begin with). So the narrator asks the illustrator to pick one of the methods himself. My son enjoyed it which is my main goal for any bedtime reading. If the story is true or not doesn't matter much here, its not like this event really matters much to how Abe grows up, unless of course he had drowned.

Next we read Civil War Sub: The Mystery of the Hunley by Kate Boehm Jerome.
This was a very good book but probably too long for a six year old. We read it over three nights and it covers the entirety of the Hunley story from its invention to its modern place in a research museum. My impression is that the book came out soon after the sub was opened up for research. The finding of Lt. Dixon's gold coin is mentioned but not much of the findings since then. There was one error that leaped out to me, the Hunley was described as an altered boiler and I'm pretty sure they are now convinced that was not the case. But that is a relatively minor error for a six year old to overcome. He really liked the story and would make guesses about what would happen in the next night's reading.
Then we read From Slave to Soldier by Deborah Hopkinson.
Slave boy Johnny runs away from his master to join the Union army as a teamster. He quickly shows that he is a good teamster, earns the respect of his new comrades and ends the book by receiving his own blue uniform. I'm sure this story happened many times during the war. The book is pretty good, my son was interested the whole time. I think its important to give him a few different view points on the war so he has a fuller grasp of the war. I'm not going to ignore slavery when selecting his books but I also don't demonize the South. The Hunley book was a good one for the bravery of the Southern soldier.

We also read Billy and the Rebel by Deborah Hopkinson. Hopkinson turns out a ton of history themed children's books which have been pretty enjoyable.
Billy lives west of Gettysburg and during that battle has many different encounters with Confederate soldiers. One such encounter is a young boy who wants to desert from the Confederate army. This young Rebel changes into Billy's clothing and stays hidden well enough to avoid detection. This based on a true story, Billy Bayly really did help hid a Confederate deserter and he stayed in Gettysburg after the battle and eventually bought a farm there. The author says she was never able to locate the name of the soldier.
Our final book was Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson (and my least favorite of the books we read).
This one tells the story of a slave family escaping into the North and beyond. The reason I didn't like one as much was that it used the story of quilts on the Underground Railroad. My mother is a quilter and has read some books about the Underground Railroad quilts, and found out that it is all a myth. There is not one piece of real evidence that quilts were used as signals. Also I don't think this story connected with my son as much as he fidgeted more during this one. I think that was also due to the narrative style and not so much because of the topic.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Civil War’s First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861

The Civil War’s First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861
By James Denny and John Bradbury

This book is a wonderfully illustrated introduction to the early fighting in Missouri. The title says it covers the period of 1854 to 1861, otherwise known as Bleeding Kansas but the period before Lincoln’s election is not dealt with in much detail. Mostly it is because the events of those years primarily happen in Kansas while the authors focus on Missouri’s history.

That is one of a few drawbacks that prevent this from being a much better book. My chief complaint is that while the authors included many old Missouri maps these maps were often grainy and not all the details could be seen. They needed to include one large map of Missouri that showed all the important towns and rivers. This could have been an antique map or a modern creation; it just needed to be well labeled and easy to read.

One thing that made me wary was when Albert Sidney Johnston was misspelled Albert Sydney Johnston. If they misspelled the name of one of the more important generals of the early war period it made me wonder the spelling accuracy of all the lesser known individuals who were mentioned.

The final drawback I have with the book is that there were no footnotes. There is a bibliography at the end but no notes. It seems obvious that this book is intended more as an introduction to the conflict but it still could have had footnotes.

Despite those drawbacks this is a very entertaining book. The authors do a good job of explaining the haphazard way Missouri tried to leave the Union. Ultimately the convention that Governor Claiborne Jackson called with hopes that it would declare for secession ended up declaring his administration vacant and appoint a new Union friendly government. The Confederate friendly government mismanaged its first attempts to join the Confederacy and eventually officially succeeded in November 1861, but did so without a legal quorum.

Nearly every corner of Missouri saw organized fighting in 1861. The guerrilla war was heating up but during 1861 there were still small armies facing each other on Missouri battlefields. Sometimes the battles occurred between forces that were only a regiment in size but it was still more organized than the guerrilla fighting that Missouri would become more well known for during the rest of the war. The battles of Wilson’s Creek, Lexington, Athens, Carthage, Boonville, and Belmont are covered quite well, striking a nice balance between excruciating detail and simplistic overview.

In fact that is something the book often does quite well, although it is an overview of the first year of combat in Missouri it provides a good amount of detail. Most battle descriptions offer a good amount of tactical details without becoming tedious. And the sections that deal with the movements of armies, recruiting and other activities also provide a good amount of details. If one good map of Missouri had been provided it would have made these sections even better.

One other thing the book does quite well is providing numerous illustrations. Often these are of the politicians and soldiers being discussed but there are also many period drawings from newspapers and even some modern paintings. Most pages have two such illustrations so the reader sees a wide range of personalities and other images.

Despite a few shortcomings this is a very good book that serves as a good introduction to the first year of the Civil War in Missouri.

This book review also appears in the January 2010 issue of Civil War News

Monday, January 4, 2010

Fun problem

I have a fun problem, I have a gift card from Barnes and Noble and have no idea what to get. First I visited the store on the off chance they'd have something I couldn't live without, but I didn't see anything there. Then I browsed online and found a few items to consider but right now nothing has jumped to the fore front. In the past I've hardly ever had a problem picking out a new book. This current situation is largely due to my role as a book reviewer for Civil War News.

I might just save the gift card until something comes out that I need, but its hard for me to hold onto gift cards, I want to use them before I forget I have them.

Any advice on a good book that I should buy with my gift card?