McDowell’s Real Plan

1 05 2014

Sorry this has taken so long.

The good folks at the Central Ohio Civil War Round Table – they’re in the Columbus area – invited me out to speak to them on the topic of my choice this past March 12. They invited me, jeez, must have been at least 18 months ago. They get really good speakers out there so the schedule is set many months in advance. This is the second time I’ve spoken to the group. I really like being invited back to a group, as I rightly or wrongly interpret that to mean they like what I do. Regardless, I’m to the point now where I won’t speak to any group unless they say “Hey, you want to speak to our group?”

My wife actually accompanied me on this trip; she’s never seen me speak before, and only once did she even attend a class I taught – because our soon to be son was due any day and she hoped discomfort and boredom would help spur things along. So this was an unusual trip right from the start, and continued on the unusual path when we got a flat tire very near our hotel. I changed the tire and we made it over to the hotel where our host Mike Peters (the historian of the COCWRT and the talent-booker) was waiting to take us to dinner.

After a nice meal we headed over to the venue in Westerville – a cool room in an old building at Otterbein University where veterans held meetings post-war. I renewed a couple of old acquaintances and made some new ones, and finally got to meet Phil Spaugy, with whom I’ve been “friends” on Facebook for awhile, and his posse from Dayton. Check out Phil’s blog here.

Towers Hall, Otterbein University

Towers Hall, Otterbein University

Meeting Room, COCWRT, Towers Hall, Otterbein University

Meeting Room, COCWRT, Towers Hall, Otterbein University

I was told by Mike that I had about 30 to 45 minutes for my presentation. I went over by about half an hour, but only one of the 20 or so in attendance left before the end (he is a lawyer, and I heard a siren going off only minutes before he left – coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.)

The gist of the presentation in a nutshell – my opinion, which I hope I supported adequately:

McDowell’s plan for the First Bull Run campaign was not a quick, tactical flank attack meant to overwhelm his outnumbered opponent and defeat him in the field. It was a deliberate, strategic turning maneuver, meant to compel a superior opponent to abandon his carefully chosen position, allowing McDowell to cut his line of communications. It did not fail because of slow movement, a complex plan, or the arrival of last minute Confederate reinforcements. It failed because McDowell was unable to establish his own line across Bull Run and move on the rail line at Groveton, and was instead drawn into a series of frontal assaults against a larger force occupying a superior position.

Sacrilege, I know. Of course, I had more to say than these four sentences, and that’s the fun part. You can read a recap of my talk here. I can quibble with a few things, but I’m not sure if the misunderstanding was due to a failure on my part to be clear. For now let’s just say that not all the details jive with what I meant to say. I really like this bit, though:

[Harry Smeltzer] reacts to consensus like a bull to the matador’s cape. Charge! And he lays waste to conventional wisdom. He doesn’t trust accepted “facts” and easy generalizations about battles, strategies, troop movements, and other assumptions that have been passed down as gospel over generations.

Yep, that’s me. I’m a loner. A rebel.

Afterwards we took a chilly walk to a nearby college pub where a few of us quaffed ales and had a generally ribald time. The next day, Mike and I went on a little field trip to nearby Lancaster, OH, while the wife made some sales calls and got the flat fixed. But that’s another story…





Previews: New from Savas Beatie

25 04 2014

Three new(er) releases from Savas Beatie have hit the shelves. I do apologize for the delay in announcing these, but now that our government has exacted it’s pound of flesh (that is, I have rendered unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s), I’m hoping to get back to more regular posting beyond the stuff I find and share on the blog’s Facebook page (which you can follow by clicking on the link over to the right.)

PETERS_CAMP2_lgFirst up is Volume II of Ed Bearss’s writings on the Petersburg Campaign, entitled The Petersburg Campaign Volume II: The Western Front Battles September 1864 – April 1865. The title is self-explanatory. You can read an interview with co-author/editor Bryce A. Suderow about the project here. This interview addresses to some extent who wrote what. 557 pages of text for you muddy trench fans. No order of battle, but clear George Skoch maps abound, and if you need more on the organization of the forces, check out Brett Schulte’s site here. And don’t miss the interview with Mr. Bearss on the back of the dust jacket.

We also have two new entries in the Mackowski and White edited Emerging Civil War series (see ECW’s site here.) Layout 1The first, No Turning Back is a guide to the Overland Campaign from Wilderness to Cold Harbor, and is the product of the combined efforts of National Park Service current and former employees Robert M. Dunkerly, Donald C. Pfanz, and David R. Ruth. Unlike most other ECW series entries, in which the battlefield tours are more or less appendices to a narrative, this is 165 pages of touring, supplemented with numerous maps and illustrations. Siegel’s No Backward Step has thus far been my go-to Overland guide, but the cheap binding really doesn’t lend itself to use in the field. No Turning Back relies on a more narrative flow and less reproduction of large chunks of text from eyewitnesses.

Layout 1The second new ECW title is Bloody Autumn: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, by NPS alums Daniel Davis and Phillip Greenwalt. This format will be more familiar to readers who have viewed other entries in the series. The narrative is concise at 90 pages, and, as the action is so spread out, appendices include four separate driving tours and an essay on battlefield preservation by one of my favorite rangers, Eric Campbell of Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park.

 





“Blind Tom” Wiggins – Battle of Manassas

21 04 2014

See here for more on “Blind Tom” Wiggins.

 





David Kincaid – The Boys That Wore the Green

20 04 2014

Fun stuff. Listen along – can you figure out who everyone is?





Johnny Horton – Battle of Bull Run

19 04 2014

Thanks Craig Swain!





Ezra Walrath Court of Inquiry

24 03 2014

As concerns Col. Ezra Walrath, 12th New York Infantry, and the results of his efforts for a Court of Inquiry into his command of the regiment at Blackburn’s Ford to which he alluded in his correspondence here and here, I was able to locate this unidentified news clipping from this site:

NEW YORK VOLUNTEERS.—Hon. George Geddes only delays his acceptance of the Colonelcy of the Twelfth Regiment until his physician shall assure him that his health will admit of active service. The commissioned officers of the Twelfth were unanimous in selecting Mr. Geddes for commander. The Syracuse Journal says he is the only man now left in the county, whose education and ability fit him for the position. The Twelfth has now about 400 men left, all of whom have served six months, and are said to be under good discipline. Col. Walrath having resigned, and Major Louis having been killed, the regiment is sadly in need of a head, and it is hoped that Mr. Geddes will soon determine upon his course in the matter.

—Col. Walrath, of the Onondaga regiment, (12th) has been entirely cleared of charges cowardice and incompetency, by the verdict of a Court of Inquiry, which awards to the Colonel high praise for his conduct at Bull’s Run. Capt. Locke, of the same regiment, was charged with giving the order to retreat, unauthorized. This charge was not sustained before a Court of Inquiry.

—The commissioned officers of the Onondaga Regiment (12th) have unanimously chosen Hon. George Geddes for Colonel, in place of Walrath in whose hands the regiment has fallen into a deplorable state of demoralization. Desertion has reduced the number from 780 to two or three hundred available men. Recruiting for it has actively commenced, and Col, Geddes will restore the regiment to efficiency if any man can.

Once I’ve identified the newspaper and date, I’ll move this to the resources section. As always, any help is appreciated.





Hey Man, That’s Not Yours!

27 02 2014

f56392d4841f119aa49c9928a7883bc61cb8eefad4542341996522b7379f4f3aI recently overheard some discussion among civil war researchers who present their work in public through speaking and writing on the web. They voice concern regarding “lifting” of their work by readers and attendees. Some cite examples of their work being presented by others in public and print as their own – without attribution. I’ve written before that it’s a risk we all take, and should even expect it to happen. But I have to admit to being a little concerned in this regard about my upcoming talk – assuming anyone else would consider my notion more than harebrained.

Of course the whole idea of Bull Runnings is sharing things. Recently someone mentioned to me that I have all these great letters that no one else has, to which I replied “Well, really, they all have them too.” But now we’re talking ideas and interpretation, not just photos and documents. It feels different.

What are your thoughts? Any examples of which you can think? Has it happened to you? How has it affected your sharing? Here’s your chance to vent…





Presenting in Ohio Next Month

20 02 2014

Just a reminder that I’ll be making a presentation to the Central Ohio Civil War Roundtable on March 12. Here’s a summary:

Irvin McDowell’s Plan and Other Bull Run Misconceptions. This program will explore what the presenter feels are popular misconceptions surrounding the First Bull Run campaign, with primary focus on the Union army commander’s intentions up to the early hours of July 21, 1861. We will discuss how we have come to know the story of Bull Run as we know it, various primary sources and secondary accounts of the campaign, treatments by historians and institutions, the general interest (or lack thereof) of Civil War enthusiasts in the details of the campaign, and other related – or even unrelated – topics. As always, the audience will likely play no small role in the content of the program as it progresses.

I’m looking forward to this. It will be the first time I talk about my thoughts on what McDowell really intended when he set out from Washington for Manassas. It’s not what you think. Just gotta figure out how to set it down on paper and slides. You see, this is a very complicated case. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, a lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Oh man, my thinking about this case has become very uptight. Let’s just hope I can get things straight by then.

Check out the details at the COCWRT website.





Hood and Me (But Mostly Me)

3 02 2014

JBHWhile reading John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, I realized something about myself: the more ubiquitous the application of hyperbole to an individual or event, the more willing I am to consider challenges to the established line on them. Does that make me an iconoclast? To some extent, maybe, and certainly in cases where it appears to me writers have worked backwards from their fundamental diagnoses and bent evidence to fit their conclusion. Author Stephen M. Hood makes a compelling case that this is precisely what has happened over the years with his collateral relative. I think.

(It’s not hard to find “discussion” of this book on blogs and social media. Some clear thinking, some dogma, the usual “I haven’t read it, have no intention of reading it, but am happy to tell you what I think of its content” type comments. Some compelling arguments that author Hood committed some of the same crimes of which he is accusing others. Lots of folks talking past one another. Lots of pots shouting at kettles. Google to your heart’s content. You’ll find all of it out there.)

To me, the  book is strongest when it points out that sources cited as support in a particular work do not say what the author of that work claims they say. Author Hood does so often. And he does so convincingly. This is why you should read the book. In my opinion.

While I’ve had Wiley Sword’s The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah (aka Embrace and Angry Wind) on my shelf for years with every intention of reading it, I don’t see how I can possibly do so now with an open mind. Many of the indictments of Sword in author Hood’s book appear so cut and dry that I have difficulty perceiving of a scenario in which reading Sword’s book will make me think, “you know, with regards to these particulars, Sword is right and author Hood is wrong.” Again, that may say a lot more about me than about Sword or author Hood. And Hood doesn’t stop at Sword. He points out weaknesses in the works of Sword’s predecessors and followers. Out of necessity writers of non-fiction build upon the work of those who have gone before. Sometimes what they accept, they accept in error. I’ve seen it in my research of First Bull Run. I imagine everyone who has researched anything has seen it as well. Sometimes it’s purposeful, sometimes it’s not, but when discovered and proven it’s always wrong and should be corrected. At least, if you ask me it should.

Of note, author Hood points out that, despite what most students of the war believe, General Hood was not overly fond of frontal attacks, and rarely employed them of his own volition. Read that again. And he backs it up, too. Hey, don’t get mad at me. Relax. Count to ten. Now, if it’s true, does that affect your overall impression of General Hood? It affected mine.

On the other hand, I found the book weakest when it reached down deep in the ranks to find contemporary Hood praises; when it presented defenses consisting of “how could all these guys say such nice things” and “well, if Hood was so bad, why don’t you think so-and-so was bad for doing the same things?” Now, in a lot of instances author Hood is right, double standards have been established, but the exposition of double standards has rarely ever done anything but dredge up the old “you’re trying to tear down our guy to build up yours” response. That is to say, it’s an emotional thing, and the consideration of cold, hard facts carries more weight. With me.

I felt the Foreword and Introduction didn’t serve the book well. I was in fact concerned about the book’s prospects after reading them – they laid out a game plan that was inconsistent with my understanding of the focus of the work. After deliberation, I determined to forge ahead. I also found the author’s attempt to discredit Jefferson Davis’s writings about and dealings with Hood, coupled with his uncritical, face value acceptance of Davis’s criticisms of Joe Johnston, to be an odd and hypocritical juxtaposition. But maybe that’s just me.

Despite these and other, as I view them, weaknesses, I think John Bell Hood is an important book, and one that should be read by anyone interested in Hood and his tenure at the helm of the Army of Tennessee, and/or historiography in general. This book will make you think, whether or not you agree with the resurrection bit in the title. For this reason, it was picked as a runner-up for best book of 2013 in Civil War Monitor. By me.

I thought about this song a lot while reading this book, and while reading discussions of this book. I think sometimes it illustrates the relationship between authors and their subjects.





Preview: Ural, “Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades”

19 12 2013

HadesNew from Osprey Publishing and Dr. Susannah J. Ural is Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War In the Words of Those Who Lived It. I’m a little leery of collections of first person accounts from different sources, unless the theme is compelling. And that appears to be the case here. Dr. Ural has chosen letters and diaries to tell the stories of families (well-known and not, north and south, free and slave) during the war. There also appear to be a few memoirs in there – that gets my Spidey-senses tingling, as I’ve never been able to get over how the co-mingling of immediate and recollected accounts fatally flawed Richard Moe’s otherwise fine The Last Full Measure (the use of a lone memoir to provide a counter-point to overwhelming contemporary opinion really changed the tone, IMO.) We’ll have to see how that affects things here. But this one looks good at first glance, and as soon as I finish this light-weight, really kinda silly account of George Washington’s New York spy ring I’m going to dive in.








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