Preview: Rod Gragg, “The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader”

1 07 2013

P9781621570431Regnery History sent me a very nice, autographed copy of Rod Gragg’s new The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader: An Eyewitness History of the Civil War’s Greatest Battle. If you’re not familiar with Rod Gragg, you should be – he is, among other things, the author of a fine study of the battle of Fort Fisher, Confederate Goliath, and also a history of the 26th North Carolina Infantry at Gettysburg, Covered With Glory. This new book follows the traditional reader format, with first hand accounts presented in chronological order. What sets this apart are the extensive illustrations (photos, artwork, maps.) Is this something that every student of the Civil War in general and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular needs on their shelves? Probably not, but if you’re looking to introduce someone to the use of primary sources, or to that Pennsylvania battle, it’s a safe bet.





“There are three grown negroes there doing nothing, and wants men to build him a kitchen.”

25 06 2013

I came across a couple of passages today that got me thinking, the way things get you thinking to the point where you can’t read any further until you sort those thoughts out a bit. Do something about them. My current read is the very fine Voices from Company D, a collection of diaries by members of the Greensboro Guards, 5th Alabama Infantry, edited by G. Ward Hubbs. It really is a must read for anyone studying the war. I’ve had it for a long time and am just getting around to actually reading it, as opposed to skimming. Currently I’m in January of 1863, and this entry by John Henry Cowin (who, despite being a doctor and graduate of Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College, served as a private) got me to thinking (p. 138):

January 13, Tuesday…Col. Hall ordered today a detail from the different companies to go to Camp and build him a kitchen. Capt Renfrew refused to send him any man and Capt Williams sent him word that he could not get any more men for such a purpose. There are three grown negroes there doing nothing, and wants men to build him a kitchen.

This got me thinking on two levels (at least), one being that CW armies in many ways were not armies as many of us understand them today, whether that understanding comes from service, study, or simply watching dozens of movies over the years. Many of us tend to think that orders are orders, yet we run across so many instances of orders not necessarily being orders in Civil War armies of independent-minded citizen soldiers. (By the way, Renfro – inconsistent spelling – was arrested the next day, though Williams was not.) The Colonel detailing soldiers for manual labor of a personal nature while more “appropriate” personnel for such duty was available was seen as adding insult to injury. The passage gives the lie to the first line of defense of many who try to downplay the role of slavery as a cause of the war – that only fillintheblank percent of southerners actually owned slaves. As if actual ownership of human chattel was the single criteria for interest in seeing the institution perpetuated. This plays into one of my other on-going interests regarding how slavery as a character-molding fact of life in the south affected the efficiency and capabilities of the Confederate military.

Just three days later, another Cowin entry caught my attention (p. 140):

January 16, Friday…Last night about ten o’clock it began to rain and continued until day light this morning. Six of us were under a fly. (The tent being occupied by Britton’s Servant who is very sick with Typhoid Fever.) Our blankets all got perfectly saturated with the rain, and occasionally a large drop of water would fall in my face rendering all hopes of sleep vain. I could only lay there and amuse myself dodging from the drops of rain and wishing fro day light to come…Britton’s Servant John died today about half past twelve o’clock and was buried this afternoon. No coffin could be procured and he was buried as a soldier, wrapped in his blanket.

This second passage illustrates the complexity of viewing slavery with minds formed in the latter part of the 20th Century. It’s difficult to reconcile the inhuman nature of human bondage with the image of six white men huddled under a tent fly in a rainstorm while a servant, presumably a slave, lies dying as the sole occupant of their nice, dry tent, and with the fact that they  made an effort to procure a coffin for the man before burying him “as a soldier.” What do you think?





Preview: Thomas Fleming, “A Disease in the Public Mind”

21 06 2013

9780306821264_p0_v1_s260x420The questions of what “caused” the American Civil War and whether the conflict was avoidable or inevitable has spawned countless books and articles, running the gamut from balderdash to convincing, but none of which I would say settle those questions fully and finally. Prolific author Thomas Fleming takes a crack at it in A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War, from Da Capo Press. Reviews have been mixed at best, and pretty gnarly at worst. In a nutshell, Fleming argues that the conflict was the outcome of deep-seated sectionalism that predated the founding of the nation. Extremist, abolitionist thinking in the north perhaps even caused a pervasive fear of slave revolt in the south. No bibliography is provided, and notes are heavy with secondary sources.





Preview: Mackowski & White, “Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front”

18 06 2013

Layout 1Yet another new release from Savas Beatie is from the prolific team of Chris Mackowski and Kris White, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863. Most of the visitors to this website are likely aware that the Battle of Chancellorsville was not fought solely on the National Park Service land west of Fredericksburg, yet most visitors to the battlefield spend their time almost exclusively on the grounds of Hazel Grove, the Chancellor House, the Chancellorsville VC, Jackson’s wounding site, and perhaps even make the trek to Guiney Station. But as this book title notes, the battle had a “wholenother” front, in the city proper, Marye’s Heights, and the area of Salem Church. Granted, the fighting in the city is difficult to envision for a visitor, and the Salem Church area is unrecognizable and, well, dangerous to roam over. Unlike the Emerging Civil War series, Forgotten Front is a traditional battle study, in hardback, 332 pages of text plus five appendices covering the actions that have perhaps received less than their fair share of attention. Illustrations, photographs, and maps accent the narrative of what the author’s claim were simultaneously the Army of the Potomac’s finest hours and biggest lost opportunity of the campaign. A glance at the bibliography indicates that numerous newspaper and manuscript collections were consulted by the authors. Check it out.





Preview: Mathew Lively, “Calamity at Chancellorsville”

12 06 2013

Layout 1How often do you see the same publisher offer two very different interpretations of an event at practically the same time? That’s what Savas Beatie has presented with Calamity at Chancellorsville: The Wounding and Death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, by Mathew Lively. The main variance from the tale as told by Chris Mackowski and Kris White in The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson (I wrote about it here) is Jackson’s location at the time of his wounding. You can read Mr. Mackowski’s summary of the difference here. The long and the short of it is that Last Days presents the official Park Service narrative established by R. K. Krick that when shot Jackson was on the Mountain Road north of the Orange Plank Rd (Route 3), near the location of the modern Chancellorsville battlefield visitor’s center. Calamity presents a different version – no spoiler here, though. Between these two releases you’ll learn pretty much all you’ll ever want to know about Stonewall Jackson’s wounding and death.





Preview: Mackowski & White, “A Season of Slaughter”

11 06 2013

Layout 1Another one from Savas Beatie in their Emerging Civil War series, again from the prolific team of Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White, is A Season of Slaughter: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, May 8-21, 1864. Having just read J. Tracy Power’s Lee’s Miserables, it seems hard to overstate the fundamental change brought about in the opposing armies as a result of the horrific fighting during these two weeks.

A 138 page narrative, supported with maps and illustrations, describes the action from the Wilderness through the beginning of the movement toward the North Anna. Four essays follow, discussing Yellow Tavern, local civilians, a history of the battlefield, and a bit on the battle in memory. Full orders of battle wrap things up.

Mackowski and White have provided here a nice summary to help navigate the often confusing events and ground of Spotsylvania Court House. Check it out!





Preview: Reardon & Vossler, “A Field Guide to Gettysburg”

6 06 2013

51ha61pZ7+L__SY346_There are countless tour guidebooks of the Campaign and Battle of Gettysburg. They vary from God-awful to great. I won’t go into which ones are in which category. Except for this new one from UNC Press, A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People, by Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler. While you can never know for sure until you take it out and test it, this looks fantastic. It’s laid out much the way I would lay out a guidebook if I had my druthers. First, it’s heavy duty paperback – light enough to throw in a backpack, but durable enough to not be destroyed by repeated use in the field. It’s also substantial, at 400+ pages. It’s indexed – ‘nough said. Modern photographs help orient the reader (or, as they say in the Army, “orientate.”) And 47 (47!) maps help describe the action. Lots and lots of illustrations, too. Stops are organized thus: Orientation; What Happened Here?; Who Fought Here?; Who Commanded Here?; Who Fell Here?: Who Lived Here?; What Did They Say About It Later? Classic staff ride format, with less emphasis on after action reports and more on the human aspect.

Is A Field Guide to Gettysburg perfect? Well, some will moan that their favorite stop or action is excluded (for instance, Farnsworth’s Charge is given short shrift but, hey, it’s cavalry!). But it’s the best organized and most comprehensive I’ve seen so far (your mileage may vary, of course, and there are plenty of alternatives to please everybody.) It’s available now. Check it out!








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