Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Glorious Army

A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph 1862-1863
by Jeffry D. Wert

In A Glorious Army Wert traces Lee's command of the Army of Northern Virginia from the Seven Days through Gettysburg. The time when nearly everything went right (until it came crashing down at Gettysburg) for Lee. This is a good recap of the campaigns the army undertook with Lee during that time frame. Wert does a good job of providing details of battles (even down to the regimental level) without getting bogged down in them, and does it all in just under 300 pages of text.

What I especially liked is how Wert brought other historians in the mix. Of course any writer would use them in a book like this but Wert would offer their interpretations right in the text and not just through a footnote. For example he would say "Gary Gallagher said that ....." Sometimes Wert would then disagree or agree and sometimes he would just leave it out there as an example of an interpretation. Having read most of those books at one time or another it was very helpful to get this little reminder of what that author had said about something.

When I read Eastern Theater stuff I sometimes think in the back of my head, "well that's all very nice but the war was won in the West, so while Lee was having great success it doesn't really matter in the end." And while I do still feel that way Wert gave a very convincing argument that Lee's audacity and aggressiveness was the only way the Confederates could hope to win. And he did win a lot and suffered tremendous losses at the same time, but it was his only hope. One thing I am forced to agree with him on, and it happens to be the last line of the book, is "No American army, against such odds and in less than a year, compiled such a record as that of the Army of Northern Virginia, and none altered the direction of a conflict more." Wert is right on that, so maybe I should give the Eastern Theater a little more respect.

Wert makes a good point in the final summary chapter of reminding us that when Lee took over the army the total war effort for the Confederates looked very bleak. To that point the Confederacy had mostly been on the strategic defensive and was losing the war. Lee's aggressiveness changed the course of the war in the Eastern Theater, which prolonged the contest as a whole because of the political aspect of the war. Later many people, participants and historians alike, would say that Lee should have operated on the strategic defensive but there is reason to believe that his offensives is the reason the Confederacy was able to stay in the war that long.

I really enjoyed this book and it slightly changed my opinion of the value of the Eastern Theater. If you wanted a highly detailed account of regimental actions covering those 12 months this is not the book for you. Truthfully I'm not sure anyone has covered all of that in one volume, so the book you want has not yet been written. But Wert's book gives a good overview of that year and also gives enough tactical information for you to get a good grasp of how Lee's army fought. A fine addition to any Civil War library and especially for Eastern Theater students.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Civil War Day by Day

Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac by EB Long and Barbara Long

I have been reading this classic with my oldest son lately. Every night we settle down and read what happened 150 years ago. By the time we finish my younger son will be joining us for the readings. I got the idea when on the way home from a cub scout meeting on April 5th I decided to tell my son about the battle of Shiloh. But not the detailed minutia of the battle, just a story of farm boys far from home. I told him the story of the night of April 5th, how the Union boys were settled down to sleep, thinking of home, of writing and reading letters, that the next day was Sunday and they'd get a rest from their army "chores." And of the Confederate boys sleeping down the road knowing that their world would change the next day. And both sides wondering if they would be cowards or brave, and that bravery does not mean being scared but sometimes means pushing past what you are afraid of. He really enjoyed the story and when I was done he asked if I had any others. Sure I've got tons. And I also knew there was a book that would keep us informed about every day.

If you don't have this book you have to go get a copy. It is a true classic and you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Civil War in the Southwest

Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Edited by Jerry Thompson

This is an interesting collection of remembrances from seven members of the Sibley Brigade. They were originally published in a small East Texas newspaper, the Overton Sharp Shooter. It is also useful in that for some actions, like the battle of Valverde, there will be a few different viewpoints presented. For Valverde there are five different perspectives given.

It is an interesting read but I would not use it to pinpoint locations or time of day on a battlefield. It seems in every battle the Sibley Brigade thought they were heavily outnumbered but in reality they usually fought at pretty similar strengths.

I wish the editor had made the notations footnotes instead of end notes because his notes were more about background info than being bibliographic in nature. For instance for Valverde the common theme is that the Confederates faced roughly 4 to 1 odds, with Union numbers from 7000 to 8000, actually was 3800 and Confederates from 1400 to 2100, with 1800 being about right. One author claims Union losses of nearly 6000, while it really was about 250. Another says the Union recovered 1000 dead and had 1500 missing (which were lost in the river) while the Confederates captured 700 wounded, with more wounded on the other side of the river. That would put the loss around 3200 that this author was sure of plus the ones on the other side of the river he could only see but not count. By the way Confederate losses were around 180. The author who said the Union lost about 3200 said they buried 185 Confederates there, so he wasn't too far off. Other authors put it at 300 and 235, those two authors also claimed the Union loss at around 500-600. But finding out the rest of the story by flipping to the end notes was a little annoying when footnotes would have been much easier for the reader.

I prefer footnotes for annotating recollections because there is so much to clarify or correct in a 125-150 year old source. End notes are fine for scholarly books as they often are just citations. I do always check them just in case an author has left some interesting nuggets of information there. Some authors use their notes to supplement the story and some stick to just straight citations.

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about the 1862 New Mexico Campaign. It will be a great supplement to one of the other scholarly campaign histories.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Decisions at Gettysburg

Decisions at Gettysburg: The Nineteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Campaign by Matt Spruill

Last Thursday at the Rocky Mountain Civil War Roundtable meeting Matt Spruill talked about his newest book, Decisions at Gettysburg. It was a great talk and having read the book since then it is also a great book. To be fair as a friend of Matt's I have read portions of the manuscript as he's worked on it. So I knew from the moment I got the book it was going to be a great book, but this was the first time I had seen it all put together, especially with the illustrations.

The idea for the book is that its one thing to know what happened at Gettysburg, that is what we all learn first. But it is more important to learn why the events happened as they did. There were many decisions made during the campaign and battle that left us with the Gettysburg we know today. Some of those decisions were more important than others, some had more influence on the direction the battle took than others. One thing Spruill stresses early is that changing the decision does not mean Lee could have won, just that the battle and campaign would have unfolded differently. Some of them might have lead Lee to victory but others might have made Meade's victory even more complete.

For example the first decision of the book is that Lee basically has four options in the summer of 1863. He can simply wait for the Union to regroup and attack him, he can maneuver in Virginia to bring on a battle, he can send send men West which would force him to be on the defensive, or he can launch an invasion of the North. Knowing Lee's character the obvious choice is that he will invade the North but it was a critical decision in that the other ones will not lead to a battle in rural Pennsylvania. The summer battle might then be Third Manassas or Second Chancellorsville, etc.

Another example is Sickles moving forward on the second day. His other option is to stay in position along Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. In his mind Sickles has valid reasons for moving forward, (the high ground of Hazel Grove at Chancellorsville that he held, was ordered off of and then was hammered by Confederate artillery probably came to mind as he saw the high ground of the Peach Orchard) but he still made the decision. The difference in flow of battle is that combat would have occurred closer to his other position. Also how would the Confederates have attacked this position? Would they have tried to flank it, or come straight at Sickles, or drive up the Emmittsburg Road like originally planned and hope Sickles doesn't come off the ridge to strike the flank. There likely would be zero mention of The Wheatfield or Peach Orchard, they would just be a wheatfield troops marched through or a peach orchard the Confederate artillery fired from.

An example of a decision that was not critical to the course of the battle is Howard leaving troops in reserve on Cemetery Hill when he first enters the fight on July 1. It was a good decision in that it gave the Union a reserve to fall back on. In an odd way its a good decision because it means less troops later trying to force their way through the congested streets on town when the Union had to retreat from its advanced positions. This is all just a commander doing a good job.

The critical decisions can also be strategic, operational, tactical and organizational. Two of the pre-campaign decisions Spruill discusses are Lee's reorganization of his army (going from two corps to three) and how the Army of the Potomac's artillery was reorganized after Chancellorsville. Both will have an impact on how the battle is fought and if the command structures had been left alone the battle probably would have unfolded differently.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to better understand why things happened at Gettysburg like they did.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography

Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography by Jack Hurst

The whole reason I read this one is because I so enjoyed Hurst's book on the Donelson campaign. Yes I admire Forrest's battlefield skills. I definitely would not have wanted to get on his bad side and seeing how often his fellow officers and soldiers got there I think I would have never wanted to be around him. There is at least anecdotal evidence of him beating soldiers of his command and there is concrete evidence of him killing one of his lieutenants. Definitely not someone you'd pick to be friends with, but if you remained loyal to each other you'd have a solid supporter forever backing you. But woe if you ever crossed him.

Hurst's biography is a good one. I was somewhat amazed in how pro-Forrest he was. The Fort Pillow massacre is not just dismissed out of hand, Hurst spends time with it, puts it in historical perspective but at the end of all of it pretty much lets Forrest off the hook. There is a somewhat similar approach to Forrest's klan activities. He's acknowledged to be a leader and using it to get ex-Confederates the vote in Tennessee, but then dissolving it afterwards. Hurst says that Forrest was too hands off in the invisible society and too busy with railroad projects to know that his dissolution orders were never followed.

I thought Hurst did a good job of offering a balanced picture. Forrest bios tend to either praise his every move or denigrate everything he did. This one picks a middle ground that edges on the praise side. The book was published in 1994 so I wonder if some of the recent books on Fort Pillow might now sway Hurst to be harsher on that chapter of Forrest's career. [As a side note it seems odd to refer to 1994 as a bit dated in historiography.]

Forrest is a fascinating character who achieved much as a general and whose personal life before and after the war was also interesting. Some of our interesting generals seemingly sprang from nowhere and/or faded into oblivion when the guns went silent. Forrest was active and interesting from the get go.

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.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tennessee and the Civil War Sesquicentennial Series

The other day I got a letter from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly that during the sesquicentennial they will be republishing some of their Civil War articles as a series of twelve volumes. The first volume is Tennessee in the Civil War and will appear this August. Members of the Tennessee Historical Society get a 33% discount on the volume as long as they preorder by June 30, so of course I've already sent my check in.

Future topics will cover nearly every aspect of the war in Tennessee. Battles of course will make up the bulk of the offerings and I'm especially anxious to see the volumes on Shiloh, Fort Pillow, and Stones River. Since its inception in 1942 the Tennessee Historical Quarterly has published almost 400 articles about the Civil War so there is plenty of prime material to pick from.

Each volume will be $25. The way the letter was worded members might get the 33% discount on each offering, with shipping it will come to $21.50. Or maybe that's just the discount for the first volume, to get you hooked on the series. To quote the email I also received, "THS members get a 33% discount on the $25 retail price -- that's $16.50 a book, a savings of $8.50 – plus $5 shipping & handling for each book, for a total of $21.50 each." Each book could refer to each copy of volume one or each book/volume of the series. In any respect I'm sure I'll end up getting most if not all of the volumes.

To reserve your copy of the first book, Tennessee in the Civil War, send payment before June 30, 2011, to Civil War Series, Tennessee Historical Society, 305 Sixth Ave. North, War Memorial Building, Nashville TN 37243. You can become a member, and get the discount on at least one volume, by going to the THS website