Thursday, January 27, 2011

Symposium 2011

I regret to inform you all that there will be no symposium in 2011. Due to a variety of reasons, but primarily financial, the roundtable leadership has decided to cancel the event. It might resume some other year, or maybe it never will, I just don't know.

I do know that I had a great time helping to put on the events. Some years I was more involved than others but despite the hard work it was a great time. I got to meet and talk with many amazing people including some historians whose work I really admire. Made some friendships along the way and generally learned a lot.

In the meantime the roundtable plans to bring in one speaker a year. We went this route in the years before the symposium and that success is what prompted us to dream a little bigger. Maybe the one speaker a year format will expand into two, or maybe it will expand back into the symposium again.

And 2011 was going to be a good year, no need to go into details on who was going to come but I was really excited about the panel. We were going to follow the 150th as best we could and 2011 was going to be an early Eastern Theater focus. Oh well

Monday, January 10, 2011

Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus

Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus. By Mary Bobbitt Townsend. Illustrated, photographs, maps, bibliography, index, 288 pp., 2010, Missouri,, 888-888-8900, $39.95, cloth.

Peter Osterhaus truly served the Union cause from the beginning to the end. He lead a battalion in the Camp Jackson Affair in St. Louis that started armed conflict in Missouri. He was also present when Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the Confederate forces of the trans-Mississippi theater to Edward Canby, signing the surrender document. In between he became one of only three German major generals, and the only one given the rank more for battlefield achievements than political considerations. Remarkably though his historical record has been largely ignored. In Yankee Warhorse the general’s great great granddaughter Mary Bobbitt Townsend finally tells the story of this accomplished general.

Osterhaus came to America to escape charges of treason after leading troops in the failed German revolution of 1848. He settled in Illinois and by the start of the Civil War was living in St. Louis. Following the Camp Jackson Affair his battalion fought at Boonville and Wilson’s Creek. At Pea Ridge he admirably commanded a division and helped secure the Union victory. He was then transferred to Grant’s army for the Vicksburg campaign and commanded a division in the battles of Arkansas Post, Port Gibson, Champion Hill and the assaults on Vicksburg on May 19th and 22nd. He was then given the task of defending the Union rear along the Big Black River during the siege.

One of the bright moments of his career happened after one of his lowest personal times. Prior to the Chattanooga campaign he went home to be with his dying wife but arrived too late. After making arrangements for his children he returned to the army in time to take part in the battles of Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge and Ringgold Gap, where he was severely handled by Patrick Cleburne’s division. He continued in divisional command during the campaign for Atlanta and was given command of the Fifteenth Corps in the March to the Sea. He did not march through the Carolinas but was instead sent to Mobile Bay to assist General Canby with that campaign, serving as his chief of staff.

After the war he served as military governor of Mississippi during the early days of Reconstruction. In 1866 he began a diplomatic career for his new country with an appointment to the US Consul at Lyons, France. He had a few more diplomatic posts and eventually moved back to his old hometown of Koblenz, Germany. He died there in 1917 just before his adopted country entered World War I against his home country.

The book is pretty even handed, pointing out Osterhaus’ errors when needed and highlighting his successes too. It does not follow the typical pattern of descendent driven biographies that heap too much praise on success and ignore mistakes. The author is not as critical as some are of Osterhaus’ performance at Port Gibson but handles his mistakes at Ringgold Gap quite well. The maps lack a scale and do not use anything to denote elevation which is quite distracting considering that the terrain was a key aspect of most of Osterhaus’ battles.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Chatfield Story

The Chatfield Story: Civil War Letters and Diaries of Private Edward L. Chatfield of the 113th Illinois Volunteers. Edited by Terry M. McCarty with Margaret Ann Chatfield McCarty. Illustrated, photographs, maps, bibliography, appendices, index, 564 pp., 2009, Georgetown, Texas,, $32.99, softcover.

Chatfield Story covers the history of the 113th Illinois from its formation through the battle of Brice’s Crossroads told through the writings of private Edward Chatfield. Chatfield left behind a wealth of material in letters and diaries and it has been combined here very well. Interspersed between diary entries and letters is plenty of background text by the editors that fills in the gaps and ties all the material together.

Chatfield and the 113th Illinois served along the Mississippi River, first as part of the Union efforts to capture Vicksburg and then later as part of the force garrisoning Memphis. It was while doing this duty that it saw its most combat at the battle of Brice’s Crossroads. At this battle Chatfield was captured and the prodigious writings ceased. Chatfield survived the war and eventually settled out west in Littleton, Colorado. While his wartime service was nothing too beyond the normal Edward Chatfield became a prominent man in Littleton and eventually many different places were named after him.

One of the strengths of the book is that whenever Chatfield mentioned a comrade in his writings the editors listed all they could about that person. While Chatfield is the center of the story the editors did a good job of filling in the story of the regiment.

An interesting benefit of having diaries and letters is comparing Chatfield’s thoughts between the two. There was one time in particular that he complained to his diary about being sick but in his letter home he said he was in perfect health. This self censorship was easily revealed when read with the diary, a fact the editors pointed out as well.

Much of Chatfield’s service was somewhat dreary, including work on Grant’s failed canal during the Vicksburg campaign, but this book is an excellent source on that sort of service as Chatfield wrote often. This book is also a self published work through booksurge but the quality of the work does not make that readily obvious. This is one of the better self published books I’ve ever run across.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Napoleonic War vs Civil War

Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of Napoleonic War-era stuff. Mostly Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series but also adding in non-fiction books to flesh out campaigns and personalities that interest me.

We often hear of the Civil War being fought with Napoleonic influences and in some cases I do agree, mostly I don’t. In reading though lately there are some things from that era that seem to have disappeared in the roughly 50 years between the wars. Not sure if this is an American versus European thing or if its just a change in warfare over time.

For example I have read accounts of the dead being burned after a battle. Apparently the ground would be too hard for burial trenches and so the dead would be stripped of belongings, including most of their clothes when wanted/needed, piled together and burned. And this was done for both sides, not something that you just did to your enemies but also to your own side. This seems truly strange to me and it might be a cultural difference but I feel pretty confident that this was not done in the Civil War, at least not intentionally.

The extent of looting also seems out of place in the Civil War. I realize that soldiers always have looted the dead, and probably always will. But in the Napoleonic era it there seems to be quasi-sanctioned looting against civilians, and we’re not talking about stealing the chickens from a farmer. If there was a siege, especially if the attackers suffered much, the town was going to be sacked. At Badajoz it took 72 hours to get the army back under control. Cornwell has a line in one novel about how the army stole what could be carried and raped what couldn’t be stolen. Obviously not 100% true but gives a flavor of what the fighting was like. At Vitoria the loot was immense, in modern terms it could have been about £100 million. And this loot did not go straight into the British coffers, although technically forbidden the common soldiers kept some of the loot themselves.

Also it seems that post-war everyone studied the campaigns of Napoleon but it appears to me that Civil War officers would have been better served by studying Wellington. Strategically they both seem to be very good at their craft but tactically I think Wellington was his superior, something that was proven on the only battlefield they faced each other directly, Waterloo. Napoleon used a column formation to attack instead of lines as we are familiar with from the Civil War. Wellington used lines. The key to breaking the column is as simple as pouring as much firepower into the column as possible. The column formation means that only a small percentage of it can fire at the defenders, the front rank and the men along the sides. But if you can put a ton of firepower into that column and make it halt then you’ll win. The British army was apparently one of the better trained armies in how fast they could fire their muskets. The other European nations were not as fast and the column attacks defeated them time after time. But eventually the British got a toehold in Spain-Portugal and proved their might against the columns.

Reading about the Peninsular War has made me want to visit Portugal and Spain, and perhaps some day I will. I’d also love to see Waterloo but am disappointed that the terrain has been much changed, mostly to build a monument. I did have the good fortune to visit London many years ago and went through Wellington’s house. I would definitely do so again now that I know more about the man.