Tag: American Civil War

Holding the Line on the River of Death: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga, September 18, 1863 by Eric J. Wittenberg

My favorite Civil War author, Eric J. Wittenberg, has recently written a book on the Union mounted force’s delaying action on September 18, 1863 at Chickamauga in Holding the Line on the River of Death.

Wittenberg is my favorite author because he details the actions of individual units, but also gives a great overview of the surrounding battle. He continues this trend in this latest book. He describes the actions of the Union and Confederate units as they fight each other, but also describes how those fights affected the surrounding units.

Wittenberg has written several books on cavalry during the Civil War, including one on Buford’s delaying actions on July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg. He takes his knowledge of Buford’s actions and compares it to the actions of the Union men at Chickamauga – he gives a slight edge to the Chickamauga men. He does not discredit Buford’s or his men’s actions, but rightly points out that Colonels Minty and Wilder and their commands at Chickamauga had fewer men and fewer repeating rifles, and were fighting more Confederates than Buford.

One of Wittenberg’s greatest strengths in the book is his discussion on the role of cavalry in delaying actions. He describes the tactics that should be used in such actions, including having vedettes and outposts in front of the main line of defense. Minty and Wilder executed textbook delaying actions.

Wittenberg includes detailed footnotes that further describe figures or actions that do not bog down the narrative. Sprinkled throughout the text are numerous photographs and wonderful maps that allow the reader to follow the narrative.

The book is an excellent addition to anyone’s Civil War library.

General Lee’s Immortals by Michael C. Hardy

The vast majority of my Civil War reading has been either objective or from the Union perspective. I decided to read a book from the Confederate perspective in General Lee’s Immortals: The Battles and Campaigns of the Branch-Lane Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865 by Michael C. Hardy.

It took a bit of an adjustment to view the war from the Confederate perspective, but the writing helped with the transition. With a few editing issues, the book is excellently written. Although written in a straight narrative of events, Hardy writes in a manner that is easy to read. He easily incorporates direct quotes from the participants into the text.

Hardy shines a much-needed light on the deeds of the Branch-Lane Brigade. The officers and men made their mistakes during the war, but in a number of battles their actions saved the Confederates from a crushing defeat. Unfortunately, the Brigade is best known for a crippling blow to the Confederacy – the wounding of General Jackson. Men from the Brigade accidentally fired the shots that wounded Jackson (although Hardy makes it clear that it was not the Brigade’s fault).

Another strength of the book is Hardy’s intermixing in the narrative various chapters on a soldier’s life. Hardy addresses issues that many unit history’s do not discuss –  medical care, plight of prisoners, and crime and punishment. Most people know that medical care greatly improved as the Civil War progressed, but it was still poor compared to modern standards. More men died from disease and infections than from battle. As part of this discussion, Hardy looks at the Brigade’s dearth in qualified medical personnel. This deficiency caused undue hardships to the men of the brigade.

As with most good war books, Hardy includes plenty of maps and photographs of the men who served in the Brigade. The maps are especially helpful so that the reader can easily follow the action described in the text.

A Fierce Glory by Justin Martin

Almost every angle imaginable on the Civil War has been studied and yet authors continue to bring forth different perspectives. This is the case with Justin Martin’s A Fierce: Antietam-The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery.

I have read many accounts of the Battle of Antietam – most focus solely on either side or give a balanced view of the battle. Martin gives a balanced account of the battle, but he adds a new element by looking at Abraham Lincoln during the battle. Lincoln was waiting to hear about the results of the battle before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was anxious to issue it, but he did not want to issue it after a loss – better effect if it was issued after a victory.

Martin’s descriptions of the fighting are not too detailed, but they are enough to give the reader a decent picture of how the battle unfolded and why it ended the way it did. Its greatest strength is not in the battle descriptions, but in explaining the relationship between the battle and Lincoln’s decision to issue the Proclamation. Martin discusses Lincoln’s thought process in coming to the conclusion for issuing the Proclamation rather than choosing another course like the federal government paying for the freedom of the slaves and sending them back to Africa.

Another part I enjoyed was Martin’s discussion on the unique relationship between Lincoln and Union general George McClellan. They were polar opposites in many ways: Lincoln was humble, McClellan was a braggart; Lincoln was aggressive in wanting the Union to attack, McClellan was cautious to a fault; Lincoln was a Republican, McClellan was a Democrat who eventually ran for President against Lincoln. Throughout the battle, Lincoln was desperate for news and McClellan knew it and yet he refused to inform Lincoln on the battle except in the vaguest of terms.

Finally, it includes several pages of photographs from the battlefield and major characters covered in the book. It also includes three good maps of the Battle and of Lincoln’s daily commute to work.

Excellent book that looks at the Battle of Antietam from a different angle.

The Last Battle by Scott C. Patchan

I am touching base with one of my favorite subject’s in history – the Civil War. Scott Patchan’s The Last Battle: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign August 7 – September 19, 1864 is a wonderful look at a pivotal battle for control of the Shenandoah Valley.

The Shenandoah Valley – a beautiful and yet tortured area during the Civil War. It was a primary source of food for the Confederacy and it was used many times as an avenue to attack the North or threaten Washington D.C. I say tortured because the people of the Valley knew no rest because of the constant military activity, including battles and skirmishes.

Patchan provides a balanced account of the events prior to, during, and after the Battle of Winchester. He equally praises and criticizes both sides. Many authors do not go into the mistakes made by the winning side. However, Patchan credits General Phil Sheridan for his excellent generalship, but he also fairly criticizes Sheridan for several mistakes (both tactically and strategically) For example, Sheridan did not plan well for the movement of the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps prior to the battle because he had both corps travelling through the narrow Berryville Canyon – this caused a delay in the deployment of the Union troops.

Patchan’s brief biographies of the major players are helpful in understanding their actions and motivations during the fighting. For example, his biography on General Emory of the Nineteenth Corps gives a good indication of his fighting abilities and his leadership. Emory served mainly in the western area of operations. As Patchan writes, Sheridan could expect “dutiful performance and old army obedience to orders … Initiative, dash, and flexibility, however would be provided by others.” This was true in the final Battle of Winchester.

The book gives an excellent account of the battle and all of the participants. Patchan uses various sources, both primary and secondary, to describe the flow of the battle. He captures the mix of emotions that the combatants experienced – from the highs of the Union in the initial assault to their terror when reinforcements for the Confederates smashed into them.

The book is 517 pages with seven appendixes and photographs and maps sprinkled throughout the text. This book is an excellent summary of the final Battle of Winchester.

Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White

The Battle of Chancellorsville has been described as both General Lee’s greatest triumph (total domination of the Union forces) and lowest point in the Civil War prior to surrender (loss of General Thomas Jackson).  Although much has been written about the battle around Chancellorsville, not much attention has been given to the clashes around and in Fredericksburg and Salem Church. However, a much-needed book by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863, has brought new light to these two battles.

Here is a synopsis of the book from the publisher Savas Beatie:

Layout 1By May of 1863, the Stone Wall at the base of Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg loomed large over the Army of the Potomac, haunting its men with memories of slaughter from their crushing defeat there the previous December. They would assault it again with a very different result the following spring when General Joe Hooker, bogged down in bloody battle with the Army of Northern Virginia around the crossroads of Chancellorsville, ordered John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps to assault the heights and move to his assistance. This time the Union troops wrested the wall and high ground from the Confederates and drove west into the enemy’s rear. The inland drive stalled in heavy fighting at Salem Church. Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863 is the first book-length study of these overlooked engagements and the central roles they played in the final Southern victory.

Once Hooker opened the campaign with a brilliant march around General Lee’s left flank, the Confederate commander violated military principles by dividing his under-strength army in the face of superior numbers. He shuttled most of his men west from around Fredericksburg under Stonewall Jackson to meet Hooker in the tangles of the Wilderness, leaving behind a small portion to watch Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps. Jackson’s devastating attack against Hooker’s exposed right flank on May 2, however, convinced the Union army commander to order Sedgwick’s large, unused corps to break through and march against Lee’s rear. From that point on, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front tightens the lens for a thorough examination of the decision-making, movements, and fighting that led to the breakthrough, inland thrust, and ultimate bloody stalemate at Salem Church.

As with all of the books that I have read from Savas Beatie, this book is an example of great research and wonderful writing. The authors do justice to the soldiers and leaders of both sides. They discuss the aggressiveness of the Union forces to take the hills above Fredericksburg and the equally aggressive defense/offense of the Confederates at Salem Church.

The authors have a perfect balance between discussing strategy and tactics. They explain General Hooker’s overall goal of trying to flank General Lee, but describe how General Sedgwick’s troops tried to succeed in that task.

I particularly like the brief biographies, including photographs, of the leaders in the battles from both sides. These biographies help you understand why the leaders did what they did in the battle based on their history. The authors also include an extensive amount of maps to allow you to see the movements of the troops as you read the text. As I have said in the past, not many authors include enough maps to help the reader understand what is going on.

One final note, I want to encourage people to read the book’s Prologue. The authors describe how some parts of the battlefields of second Fredericksburg and Salem Church have disappeared due to development. Much of the ground described in the Battle of Salem Church cannot be seen today because of the construction of such things as a gas station or a parking lot. It can never be stressed enough that Civil War battlefields are our heritage that must be protected.

This book is a must-read for any person wanting to fully understand how the Confederates were able to dominate the Union at Chancellorsville.

A Disease of the Public Mind by Thomas Fleming

I am dabbling again in one of my favorite time periods in history – the Civil War. I recently read Thomas Fleming‘s Disease of the Public Mind, which is a fascinating look at the causes of the Civil War. It is 339 pages with footnotes.

Here is a description of the book from its publisher Da Capo Press:

a-disease-in-the-public-mind_originalBy the time John Brown hung from the gallows for his crimes at Harper’s Ferry, Northern abolitionists had made him a “holy martyr” in their campaign against Southern slave owners. This Northern hatred for Southerners long predated their objections to slavery. They were convinced that New England, whose spokesmen had begun the American Revolution, should have been the leader of the new nation. Instead, they had been displaced by Southern “slavocrats” like Thomas Jefferson. This malevolent envy exacerbated the South’s greatest fear: a race war. Jefferson’s cry, “We are truly to be pitied,” summed up their dread. For decades, extremists in both regions flung insults and threats, creating intractable enmities. By 1861, only a civil war that would kill a million men could save the Union.

I always have felt that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery, but I did not realize how ingrained the animosity was between the North and the South over this issue. Fleming makes a convincing argument that the fringe elements (fanatics in his words) in both regions pushed the country toward a civil war. He also argues that the animosity began decades before the Civil War. He supports this argument by giving examples of the fear that many of the Founding Fathers had about slavery – among them Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Many slave owners feared a slave revolt that would kill many of the white Southerners.

Fleming also discusses the early abolitionist activities in the North and the South. For example, many Quakers in the North pressed for an early end of slavery. Fleming recounts how one Quaker, John Woolman, in the mid 1700s tried to convince (to no avail) not only the colonists, but the British Parliament that slavery was evil and a sin.

One particular piece that I find intriguing is Fleming’s take on the abolitionist movement. He was not critical of the movement in general, but of particular individuals who fanned the flames of hate to the point where war was the only option. According to Fleming, William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, was to blame for creating a disease in the public mind of hatred in the North toward “The Slave Power.” Garrison accused “The Slave Power” of manipulating the American presidency by ensuring that pro-Southern presidents were elected.

Although not as detailed, Fleming criticizes the South and its leaders in poisoning the public mind. For example, Senator John C. Calhoun argued that American slaves, as “employees,” were better off than factory workers in England and New England. He continued by stating that slavery was a vital part of the South’s economy and that if it was taken away, the South would perish. Many slave owners also tried to support the continuance of slavery by comparing American slaves to their counterparts in the Caribbean and South America – Southern slave owners were far more humane than these other areas where working the slaves to death was a policy.

Any fan of Civil War history would enjoy this engaging and enlightening take on the causes of the Civil War.