“The Devil’s to Pay” John Buford at Gettysburg: A History and Walking Tour by Eric J. Wittenberg

Gettysburg – one of the key battles in the Civil War that turned the tide in favor of the Union. It also is an excellent example of the use of cavalry. General Buford expertly led Union cavalry on the first day of the battle. Eric J Wittenberg chronicles the actions of Buford and his men as they delayed Confederate forces in his book “The Devil’s to Pay” John Buford at Gettysburg.

Wittenberg brings his traditional skills of excellent writing and thorough research to this book. I consider the book a “page turner” because Wittenberg’s writing is casual and easy to follow. He sprinkles in plenty of maps to keep the reader apprised of the tactical situation.

As with most descriptions of the Gettysburg Campaign, Wittenberg gives an excellent summary of the Union and Confederate movements prior to the battle. For obvious reasons, he gives particular attention to Buford and his division. Wittenberg also gives good biographies of the main actors in the fighting—giving particular attention to Buford and his brigade commanders Colonels William Gamble and Thomas Devin.

As I have mentioned in previous reviews, Wittenberg is an expert in Civil War cavalry. He has written many articles and books on cavalry tactics and operations. This knowledge is on full display in the book with his analysis and understanding of Buford’s tactics to delay the Confederate infantry. Wittenberg frequently references Civil War cavalry manuals and how Buford’s actions were textbook. Buford deployed his men with maximum effect.

Not only is the narrative and analysis of Buford’s actions great, Wittenberg’s appendixes are just as strong. He includes appendixes on the myth of the use of Spencer rifles by Buford’s men in the battle; the nature of Buford’s defense (defense in depth or covering force). Finally, Wittenberg includes a walking and driving tour of Buford at Gettysburg—something I will definitely take on my next trip to Gettysburg!

The book would be an awesome addition to the library of any Civil War enthusiast.

 

Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War by David A. Powell and Eric J. Wittenberg

When I am struggling to figure out what to read, I go to a familiar topic—the Civil War. I also try to read an excellent author’s work. My latest read hits both of these. Although Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War is not solely written by Eric Wittenberg (it is co-written by David Powell), I can see his influence in the words.

Although the Tullahoma Campaign under General William S. Rosecrans does not garner the attention of the other two major campaigns that occurred simultaneously (Gettysburg and Vicksburg), the success of his army (Army of the Cumberland) was pivotal in the Union’s war efforts to conquer the South. The Campaign’s success cleared most of Tennessee of Confederate forces and changed the course of the war in the Western Theater.

Powell and Wittenberg do yeoman’s work establishing the situation for both sides prior to the Campaign. They describe the strategic and tactical circumstances in the region and Theater. They also detail the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, including in leadership and supplies.

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The Eulogist by Terry Gamble

Gamble provides a fascinating look at family dynamics at a time when African Americans were thought to be subservient to whites and women were considered the “lesser” sex. Gamble delicately and masterfully balances the independent thoughts of Olivia with how a woman was viewed in society at the time—without letting our modern ideas intrude into the story.

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Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell continues the chronicles of Uhtred of Bebbanburg in the Saxon Tales.

Here is a brief summary of the book from the publisher:

It is a time of political turmoil once more as the fading King Edward begins to lose control over his successors and their supporters. There are two potential heirs—possibly more—and doubt over whether the once separate states of Wessex and Mercia will hold together. Despite attempts at pulling him into the political fray, Uhtred of Bebbanburg cares solely about his beloved Northumbria and its continuing independence from southern control.

But an oath is a strong, almost sacred commitment and such a promise had been exchanged between Uhtred and Aethelstan, his onetime companion in arms and now a potential king. Uhtred was tempted to ignore the demands of the oath and stay in his northern fastness, leaving the quarrelling Anglo-Saxons to sort out their own issues.  But an attack on him by a leading supporter of one of the candidates and an unexpected appeal for help from another, drives Uhtred with a small band of warriors south, into the battle for kingship—and England’s fate.

As with my other reviews of the books in this series, Sword of Kings does not disappoint. Everything from the plot to the character development is great–only difference with this book being that it has a twist for Uhtred. Cornwell shows Uhtred going through a little more adversity than normal – he is humbled. This humbling makes the story that much better.

Not only does Cornwell humble Uhtred, but he also continues to keep Uhtred human (rather than some superhuman that many authors tend to do for their protagonist). Cornwell often has Uhtred doubting his decisions–whether to rescue Queen Eadigfu or to honor his oath to Aethelstan to kill Aethelhelm and his nephew Aelfweard. It is refreshing to have the protagonist be unsure of him or herself.

The battle scenes are as epic as ever, which are visceral with a “down-in-the-trenches” description of men fighting with swords, axes, spears, and shields.

As I read each successive book, I have an increasing sadness knowing that Uhtred is getting older, thus his tale will end at some point in the nearer future.

On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir–the Greatest Battle of the Korean War by Hampton Sides

The Korean War – one of the most brutal wars regarding the extreme cold in which it was fought and the massive numbers of enemy soldiers thrown against American and U.N. forces. On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides revisits the heroic withdrawal (“fighting in another direction”) of the First Marine Division in the brutal cold from the Chosin Reservoir.

Sides takes an interesting approach to his description of the campaign. For the initial Chinese surprise attacks on the night of November 27, he writes detailed narratives of small unit experiences (platoon and company level). Sides then transitions to a broader view of the campaign at the regiment and division level (although he still includes stories of individuals struggling to survive the incessant Chinese attacks and the cold). For example, he describes the efforts of the Division’s engineers to repair a bridge that was blown by the Chinese and how the various units supported the engineers as they performed their work under fire.

This approach gives the reader a glimpse of the fighting at all levels of the Marine command.  Sides also thoroughly – rightfully so – praises the leadership of the Division commander General Oliver Smith. Smith’s calm, sometimes cautious, approach to battle was exactly what the Marines needed at the time. For instance, he ignored the X Corps commander’s order to push forward to the Yalu River prior to the main Chinese attack. Sides points out that this caution paid off because the Division was more concentrated at the time of attack. If Smith had heeded the corps commander’s orders, the Marines would have been more easily cut off with little chance of breaking out.

Sides takes a less kind analysis of General Douglas MacArthur – supreme commander of U.N. forces. As with most historians that write about MacArthur – they either love him or hate him – Sides is no different. He begrudgingly credits MacArthur for Inchon (although Sides credits the resounding success more on Smith’s and his Marines’ actions than MacArthur), but he eviscerates MacArthur for his strategy of pushing to the Yalu River. MacArthur ignored obvious signs of aggression from the Chinese – even when Chinese troops were captured, he did not believe his own commanders that the U.N. forces were at risk of attack.

Sometimes the book does feel like a rah rah for the Marines, but it is mostly an objective look at the Marines who fought hard to save themselves and their fellow Marines.

The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor

The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor is another installment in the mystery series of Wehrmacht Officer Martin von Bora–this book is a prequel to the following five books in the series. This latest is set in Spain, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Bora investigates the murder of poet Garcia Lorca.

I have not read any of the other books in the series, but easily became familiar with Bora due to the excellent writing. I am fairly impressed with not only the writing, but the story line and character development as well.

Pastor begins the book with Bora finding Lorca’s body and developing the plot from there. She vividly describes the scene and gets the reader engaged immediately.

Not only is the story line well thought out, but the character development is just as strong. Pastor portrays Bora in a mainly positive light, but she also shows his weaknesses–including where he needs to gain more wisdom. I also appreciate her equal attention to Boras’ opponent–fellow “investigator” Philip “Felipe” Walton, an American volunteer fighting for the communists/anarchists/socialists.

Although Walton is cast in a bit of a more negative light, the reader can relate to him. His hardscrabble life in the United States embitters Walton and leads him from various battlefields, including Western Europe during World War I, to Spain. Pastor expertly weaves Walton’s disappointments in life into his current relationships.

Despite Bora’s many doubts, he doggedly pursues the killer of Lorca and eventually succeeds–despite the many obstacles placed in his way by his own side and the communists.

The book is a good story set during a turbulent time in Spain.