Monday, April 11, 2011

Men of Fire

Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign that Decided the Civil War by Jack Hurst

Not all that new, came out in 2007, but I got a copy for Christmas. I was excited to read this as there is not much out on Fort Donelson (that is the campaign Hurst believes decided the war). I think Hurst brings some new interpretations that I'll need to examine in the future.

The biggest is that Halleck was pretty actively trying to replace Grant. And he wasn't being very covert as McClelland discusses one potential replacement with him. Hurst says that Halleck would use his later position as general-in-chief to destroy/hide some of the other evidence. I didn't notice anything new in the tactical aspects but it has been close to a decade since I read Cooling's wonderful book on Fort Donelson. Just a reminder again of how badly the Confederates bungled the breakout attempt and should have been able to escape, but when Floyd and Pillow are your ranking generals its easy to see how things went awry. I'm not sure I'd agree that this campaign was the one that decided the war.

On one hand how does the first major Union effort to invade the heartland become the tipping point for the war? But when the Union is basically able to win battle after battle in the west and hardly ever have a major setback there is no turning point. A turning point is when the war seems to be going one way and then the course changes. That's why Gettysburg is often described as the turning point, which I do not agree with, because Confederate fortunes in the East seem to always be bright and then after Gettysburg they never regain that momentum. They tend to suffer defeat after defeat and lose ground until they are forced to surrender at Appomattox.

But in the West there are only a few times the Confederates gain something positive and its usually followed in quick secession by defeat. They get away from Corinth, slip east to Knoxville and steal a march into Kentucky only to come to grief at Perryville. The campaign as a whole does regain some of Tennessee as the lines eventually end near Murfreesboro but I don't think its a turning point because Union fortunes are about the same post-Perryville. Later Grant is forced to abandon his overland Mississippi campaign but they are soon closer to Vicksburg, just using a different route. Bragg wins at Chickamauga but within a few months his army has been forced farther south again and he has resigned. In that light maybe there is no turning point in the West. The story of the West is pretty much success after success so maybe the opening victory on that path can be called the decisive campaign.

All in all it was a good book, glad I finally was able to add it to my library. If you needed a book on the details of the Donelson campaign I'd probably go with Cooling's but Hurst's book is also a good one to have.


Tim Kent said...

I enjoyed this book also. Great book review.

Scott Semple said...

I think the Fort Donelson campaign was not a turning or tipping point, but could have been if the Confederates had taken advantage of their opportunities. In this sense, it was the decisive campaign of the war. A defeat here would have ended Grant's career, set the conquest of the South back by months if not years. The Confederacy never had the chance to accomplish this again. Grant never lost the initiative.