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Unlike Anything that Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862 by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes

Unlike Anything that Ever Floated by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes is an excellent look at a pivotal naval battle during the Civil War.  The ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia (and other similar ironclads) were the precursors of modern steel naval ships. The book is part of Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War Series (simple overviews of the Civil War’s important battles and issues).

Hughes thoroughly chronicles the development of ironclads in the United States and Confederate navies. As a part of the chronology of events surrounding the two ships, Hughes incorporates the development of both ships. He delves into not only the armor, but the armaments and propulsion systems. Many people would find these discussions quiet drab, but Hughes brings a refreshing approach by describing the various personalities involved in the construction of both ships.

Following the discussion on the construction (or rebuilding in the case of the C.S.S. Virginia) of the ships, Hughes analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each ship. For instance, the C.S.S. Virgina was well-armored, but its engines were poor. The engines were very unreliable and lacked power. These deficiencies played a part in the day’s battle.

The heart of the book – the day of battle between the two ships – is the best and most engaging part. As Hughes recounts, the C.S.S. Virginia utterly destroyed two Union ships and was on the verge of routing the entire naval squadron when the U.S.S. Monitor arrived.  Hughes does not describe the action in a clinical manner, but humanizes it by writing about the bravery and sacrifice of the sailors on both sides. This humanization is often lost in many history books that tell the facts in black and white without recognizing the human factor.

Unlike Anything that Ever Floated is an excellent history of a pivotal moment for not only the U.S. Navy, but the world’s navies as well.

The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac by Adolfo Ovies

The story of the Army of the Potomac’s Union cavalry in the Civil War is fascinating. It began the war as a poorly led force that was frequently bested by their Southern counterparts in the Army of Northern Virginia. However, that changed as the war progressed and better leadership rose to the top of the command chain. Adolfo Ovies in The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac chronicles this transition. This book is the first in a three book series on Custer and Merritt.

Ovies does not describe every Union cavalry action, but focuses on the ones that Custer and Merritt were involved in. Ovies succinctly describes the conflicting thoughts of those in the cavalry on its use, including Custer and Merritt. Some believed in the saber and shock charges (Custer), but others believed more in the dragoon concept, fighting dismounted (Merritt). Ovies chronicles how the differences in philosophy between Custer and Merritt slowly turned the men from acquaintance to bitter rivals.

Ovies scholarship is excellent. He uses multiple primary sources, including multiple manuscripts and official government documents. He expertly weaves these sources into a compelling story that shows the changing nature of the men’s relationship. It always amazes me how quickly the two men rose in the ranks. They started the war as lieutenants and were brigadier generals by Gettysburg – Ovies touches on the disgruntlement of fellow officers by these meteoric rises.

Ovies’ writing and analysis is generally exceptional with a few awkward places. He thoroughly explains the actions of Custer and Merritt in the various battles. However, his analysis at times is confusing. For example, when describing the starting time of the battle at the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg, I was a little confused on when he thought the battle started – there is much debate among scholars when the fighting began.

Overall, this is an excellent examination of two of the Union Army’s great cavalry leaders. I look forward to the second book in the series.

Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station by Jeffrey William Hunt

I consider myself a fairly well-informed person regarding the Civil War. However, I don’t know much about the interactions between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg and the Confederate’s escape across the Potomac River in 1863. Jeffrey William Hunt’s Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863 sheds some light on this time period.

Hunt provides a great overview of the situation in the Eastern Theater between the two armies. As part of the overview, Hunt discusses the pressure on Meade from Lincoln and General Henry Halleck (General-in-Chief of Union Armies) to follow-up the victory at Gettysburg  with another defeat of Lee. However, Meade and Lincoln/Halleck cannot agree on a strategy to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to battle. Conversely, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia are anxious to avenge their loss at Gettysburg.

Following the overview, Hunt describes the various strategic options both commanders had at their disposal. He expertly gives the pros and cons for each option. For example, if Lee wanted to defend against a Union attack, he had the option to defend a line behind the Rappahannock River or the Rapidan River. However, the Rappahannock defensive line had several disadvantages, including possibly trapping the Confederate army between the Rappahannock River and the Rapidan.

Meade’s options were just as difficult for different reasons. Meade was hemmed in by the constraints of Lincoln and Halleck.  Lincoln and Halleck wanted Meade to use the Orange and Alexandria Railroad as the axis of advance for the Army of the Potomac. Meade argued against this because the railroad angled away from Richmond, away from his major supply depots in the East, and ran entirely through enemy territory. The latter was no small matter because Meade would have to use thousands of troops to guard the railroad from Confederate raids. Meade preferred shifting to the East and operating from a base on the Potomac River near Fredericksburg. Meade lost the argument.

Hunt masterfully dictates the Union attacks and the Confederate’s counter-measures. Meade took a risk by splitting his forces to attack Confederate-held Kelly’s Ford and Rappahannock Station. Hunt indicates that Lee accurately guessed that Meade would choose this option. The Union’s assault on Kelly’s Ford went as expected – the Union cleared the Confederates from the Ford, but the Confederates then held them in check due to a lack of aggressiveness from the Union commander (General French).

The book’s most intriguing portion centers on Hunt’s discussion and analysis of the Union assault at Rappahannock Station. Meade allocated two corps to take the Confederate outpost on the northern side of the Rappahannock River and continue the assault after the crossing. Although the  Union succeeded, Hunt points out that the assault took too long and accomplished too little due to a lack of aggressiveness at the corps level.  Hunt praises the leadership of lower ranking officers and the men from a few regiments in taking the Confederate position (the Confederate leadership on that side of the river misread the tactical situation).

Hunt concludes the book with Lee’s escape to the Rapidan River. As Hunt notes, this escape was partially due to masterful Confederate tactics and the Union’s lack of aggressiveness. In his analysis, Hunt impartially blames Lee and his commanders for the loss of Rappahannock Station. However, he finds fault with Meade and his commanders for not pursuing the Confederates more aggressively for a more decisive victory.

The book is an excellent review of Union and Confederate actions at Kelly’s Ford and Rappahannock Station.

“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.

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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