Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rise of the Centennial State

The Rise of the Centennial State: Colorado Territory, 1861-76 by Eugene H. Berwanger
232 pages, 2007, University of Illinois Press, $40

Colorado became a territory under Lincoln achieved statehood at the end of Reconstruction. It fits the Civil War era time frame perfectly although its actual involvement was much less. Colorado's involvement in the war does not get as full a treatment here as I would like, the focus is more on the Indian conflict that raged during this time and continued after the war. I thought the author did a good job of putting the entire Indian conflict in perspective, including the Sand Creek fight. He rates it as a massacre but also explains that the residents even a year later were calling for Indian extermination. While Easterners might have thought the Colorado troops went overboard the locals thought they had done right, even with plenty of hindsight to think otherwise.

One story I always hear in connection with Sand Creek is that it cost Colorado the opportunity to be a state in 1864/1865. That the Eastern press and Federal politicians were so horrified that they shot down attempts in 1864-65 to become a state. The territory was being punished. But Berwanger explains that what killed that attempt to be a state was that Colorado citizens would not grant the vote to blacks. They voted down black suffrage in 1864 and continued to oppose it until 1867 when Congress made black suffrage a fact. There were also factions in the territory that did not want to become a state so it was not until 1876 that everything aligned for it to achieve statehood.

Interestingly, and a story I don't remember ever hearing, is that statehood was pushed through hastily in 1876 to the point that there was not a popular vote for presidential electors and instead Colorado's 3 Electoral College voters were determined by the state legislature. While this was common practice previously most states had changed to popular vote nearly 40 years earlier. Colorado went Republican and the disputed election of 1876 eventually went to Hayes 185-184. But if Colorado had not been a state then 184 votes would have been enough to win the Electoral College and Tilden had those 184. We normally think of the disputed votes in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana being the reason Hayes was allowed to win but its also interesting to think about what if Colorado's entrance had been delayed just a little longer and those three votes had not been cast. Then Hayes would likely not have been awarded the 20 disputed votes and Tilden would have won 204-165. Or maybe there would have been another batch of disputed votes, maybe the fix was always in.

The rest of the book concerns activities of Colorado that would not interest a Civil War audience, such as political power struggles and railroad building. Overall the book was good. I picked my copy up from the library and I don't think I'd pay $40 for it but cheaper ones can be found online.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Turner Ashby

The Memoirs Of General Turner Ashby And His Compeers by James Battle Avirett

Originally published in 1867 this book was interesting for more than just the story of Ashby. It was enjoyable to read a book from an unreconstructed rebel so soon after the war. He still had a lot of anger at how things turned out. One of the funny parts was when he complained about how West Virginia had been taken away from Virginia and he hoped that the wrong would soon be corrected.

Ashby was one of the early heroes of the war. Of course the author, Ashby's chaplain during the war, is going to gloss over the imperfections in his subject. At the end you're left wondering how far Ashby would have risen, and maybe he would have gone far. On the other hand though I know from other books that Ashby was not as great as he sounds here. He spent much of his time doing scouting activities that would have been better left to a man of lesser rank. A colonel should not be leading small squad scouts, that is a job for a sergeant or lieutenant, maybe even a captain. A colonel, and for a short time a brigadier general, should concern himself with the unit as a whole; perfect its training and organization.

And there were stories that Ashby's unit was not very disciplined, even the author addresses that to a small degree. But in 1867 that sort of commentary was not very likely, especially for a deceased hero. And especially by a member of his command. If you accept the fact that were will not be much criticism of the title subject than this biography is interesting.

The author goes into much detail about Ashby's personal life and how he lived a chivalric life. One thing I thought odd is there was no mention of a wife. Ashby was 33 when he died so its not like he was so young as to not have married. Its odd just because we normally don't see too many bachelors among Civil War generals.

If you want a biography of Ashby that will point out his strengths and weaknesses this is not it. That is due to the time frame when written which provides its own interesting aspects. Otherwise this is a good book, not a great one, but interesting enough to warrant reading.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Shadow of Shiloh

Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War by Gail Stephens

This is a great book covering perhaps the most controversial general at Shiloh. I've always felt Wallace got a bad rap for Shiloh, that his march was not the mistake we've mostly always been lead to believe. It seems that the scholarship of the last decade or so has also lifted much of the blame from him and has given him a much fairer verdict. This book continues rehabbing his Shiloh reputation and offers a pretty fair assessment of his entire service.

My favorite aspect of the Shiloh section is when the author recounts an excursion when a group of Shiloh scholars actually hiked Wallace's route. They had the benefit of maps and hard roads (made their hike in the fall rather than in a very wet spring) and they ended up being 15 minutes slower than Wallace. The verdict now has to be that Wallace was not lost, he was just not where Grant thought he might be. Or rather where Grant later said he thought Wallace would be as the author has enough evidence that Grant expected Wallace to show up on Sherman's right that there has to be some reasonable doubt as to what road Grant thought Wallace would take that day. Afterwards Grant and his staff do a good job of making it seem like the River Road was always the only option but Grant might have other motives for making this come out as the historical record.

I have one complaint of the book though, the pages are oversize. So much so that there are two columns of text per page. [At my local library it is actually filed with the oversize books that I normally associate with picture books.] I found that a bit difficult to read and wish the size was a tad smaller. One benefit of the larger size though was that the full page maps were wonderful. I liked the large maps so much that the double columns almost were not too terrible to deal with. But after thinking about it I'd rather have slightly smaller pages that had just one column of text.

The copy I read was from the local library but I will certainly add this book to my personal collection as soon as I can. A must read for any Shiloh scholar.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lincoln on the Civil War: Selected Speeches

Lincoln on the Civil War: Selected Speeches
This is a small (127 pages) volume that brings together 9 of Lincoln's speeches. These are generally considered to be his most important speeches (one is more a writing than a speech but you get the idea). The speeches are:
Address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838
"House Divided" speech at Springfield, June 16, 1858
Address at Cooper Institute, February 27, 1860
Speech at Independence Hall, February 22, 1861
First Inaugural Address
Emancipation Proclamation
Gettysburg Address
Second Inaugural Address
Speech on Reconstruction, April 11, 1865
There are a ton of collections of Lincoln's speeches and writings. I personally have one of the larger (though not nearly complete) two volume works. I think every Civil War library needs some sort of "Lincoln's Greatest Hits" volume. If you only want a few top hits, then this volume might be enough for you. If you want to have a wider range of speeches and writings than this one is much too skimpy.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Stephen A. Hurlbut

A Politician Turned General: The Civil War Career of Stephen Augustus Hurlbut by Jeffrey N. Lash

In my continuing quest to learn as much as I can about Shiloh I sought out this book on Hurlbut. I knew that Hurlbut had turned in a pretty good performance at Shiloh, not well enough that people talked of it in awe and thought of giving him better field commands but a pretty solid performance, in fact it seems all the Union division commanders fought well during the battle. He also became the post commander at Memphis and left there due to questionable financial dealings.

I was a little shocked to learn that this was Hurlbut's only real battle experience. His experience prior to Shiloh was in a rear area of Missouri where he saw no combat, just chased the Confederates. I was even more shocked to read how corrupt his administration of Memphis was, and that after basically being chased out of there by rumors he was able to get another post in New Orleans where he did it all again and ended up getting caught and punished.

He was somewhat politically connected in Illinois. I saw somewhat because it seems he lost more elections than he won and angered some Illinois politicians who actually did have some influence during the Civil War era, like Elihu Washburne (Grant's benefactor). His connection to Lincoln was rather flimsy but apparently he had not done anything to anger Lincoln like he had Washburne. Hurlbut constantly ran against Washburne for his US Senate seat even after Washburne was fairly well entrenched in that post, and also was rather negative in his attacks.

He also seems to have been a bit crazy, which might have come from his drinking. One anecdote in the book is of a time Hurlbut showed up at a cavalry camp, challenged one of the best riders to a race and lost his horse in the race. While this might in someway endear a general to his soldiers it is also not normal behavior for a general.

Hurlbut was a native of South Carolina and had just prior to the firing on Fort Sumter had done a diplomatic mission there for Lincoln. It achieved little but realistically at that point nothing would have likely kept South Carolina in check except for surrendering the fort, which was not going to happen. There is some thought that his diplomatic mission failed too because he had allegedly left town with funds for a charitable organization he worked for when he had lived in Charleston 16 years before. After the war he served mostly in foreign diplomatic posts and was one of the founders of the Grand Army of the Republic.

I enjoyed the book. Not every general could be on the battlefield, some needed to govern the territory gained. Hurlbut spent most of his war doing just that, and along the way he may have made a tremendous amount of money for himself through embezzlement. Would I have picked this up without the Shiloh connection? Probably not but I'm glad I did as I read about an aspect of the war I am not very familiar with.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Book reviews

I've been reading a bunch again lately and will have some book reviews showing up here again starting next week.