Preview – Smith & Sokolosky, “To Prepare for Sherman’s Coming”

21 11 2015

Layout 1A decade or so ago I was lucky enough to tour North Carolina sites with a small group that included then U. S. Army officers Wade Sokolosky and Mark A. Smith, who were then putting the finishing touches on their book “No Such Army Since the Days of Julius Caesar”: Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign from Fayetteville to Averasboro. Now the duo have published through Savas Beatie the slightly less wordily titled “To Prepare for Sherman’s Coming”: The Battle of Wise’s Forks, March 1865.

The book has all you’ve come to expect from Savas-Beatie. Illustrations throughout, George Skoch maps, appendices with orders of battle and numbers and losses, bottom of page notes, bibliography (plenty of newspapers and manuscript collections, usually a good sign), and index. Of course the meat is in the 223 page narrative that takes the reader along with the opposing forces of Jacob Cox and Braxton Bragg, culminating in the four-day confrontation at Wise’s Forks, which ultimately provided Confederate commander Joe Johnston with the time needed to concentrate about Bentonville. The final chapter is devoted to a Final Analysis, which should prove interesting given the career army background of the authors.

Preview: Banks, “Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers”

16 11 2015

hidden_history_book_coverJohn Banks, fellow Pittsburgh area native and host of John Banks’ Civil War Blog, has published a new book with The History Press, titled Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers. Over the years John has pored over the records at NARA, Fold3, and elsewhere to flesh out a truckload of stories about Connecticut soldiers and regiments. He’s already collected a lot of them in Connecticut Yankees at Antietam, but in his new book he gives us more tidbits that don’t all have the Antietam tie-in. The 181 page narrative is packed with illustrations, including archival and modern-day photos by the author (one of the cool things about John’s research is that he regularly travels to where the stories take him). Chapters are broken down into Remembering, Brothers (there were at least 40 sets of Nutmeg brothers who died during the war), Heroes, Villains, Tragedies (the longest chapter), and Survivors. Notes, bibliography, and index are also included.

John has overcome his Mt. Lebanon HS and West Virginia University education and is a gifted writer. I think you can’t go too wrong with this one.

Preview: Two New Emerging Civil War Titles

5 11 2015

Two new titles in Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War Series have been published recently. By now your familiar with the formats, so I won’t go into that too much.

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A Want of Vigilance is a study and guide to The Bristoe Station Campaign, October 9-19, 1863. Authors Rob Orrison and Bill Backus are working public historians in the area. The narrative is 113 pages, plus you get six appendices, focusing on R. E. Lee and A. P. Hill, the reconnaissance of the 1st ME Cavalry, Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford, an earlier clash at Bristoe Station, and a chronology of events. A full order of battle, Hal Jesperson maps, suggested readings, and period & modern photos round things out.



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The Aftermath of Battle, by Meg Groeling, “picks up the story as the battle ends,” and looks at how the dead were treated through vignettes. One of interest to readers of this blog is the famous case of Major Sullivan Ballou, but you’ll also find Elmer Ellsworth and sixteen others of varying degrees of specificity and generality. Another five appendices by authors including Chris Kolakowski, Edward Alexander, and Matt Atkinson. This is not simply a look at disposal and treatment of bodies – it also includes chapters on how the horrors of the battlefield were brought to the public by Matthew Brady, Andersonville prison camp, and the layout of Chattanooga cemetery as directed by George Thomas.

Sometimes I Wonder…

28 10 2015

…why I even bother.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. I know that not every single person researching the First Battle of Bull Run (or even, if you prefer, the First Battle of Manassas) is going to use this site. I know a lot of people do, but I’m certain there are some who do not. And even those who do may only use a part of it. But I also know that, while there are some major issues which I feel almost everyone who has written about the battle have misapprehended, there is at least one minor misconception I thought had been put to rest: the uniforms of the 11th New York, and specifically those worn on July 21, 1861.

I’m not going to rehash that here. You can find other stuff I’ve written on the topic by searching the tag 11th New York in the cloud at the bottom of the margin at right, but this post sums things up nicely, I think.

What brings me to remind you of this is a book I’m currently reading and recently previewed, Custer’s Trials, by T. J. Stiles. So far it’s been what I expected – very nice writing and some interesting takes in the way of storytelling based on facts already in evidence. Some instances of a lack of familiarity with military structure during the Civil War, both theoretical and practical. But one inconsequential passage set me off, and perhaps is more illustrative of the stuff that gets in the way of folks like us, who have perhaps read too much, enjoying non-fiction story telling. Here it goes:

The cavalry did not stand by the artillery. Instead, the 11th and 14th New York infantry regiments hustled up the hill – the 11th wearing the baggy red pants of Zouaves, patterned after Algerian troops serving in the French army and something of a craze in America in 1861.

Ugh. No footnote, of course.

I have kept and will continue to keep in mind that this is a book about George Armstrong Custer. A character study. It will get some things wrong, as the author is not a specialist. He will rely on some he considers to be specialists (one author of very popular books on the Peninsula Campaign and of the Union Army commander, for instance). And I may not be happy with the results as far as that goes. But I will be guided by the question of how an error affects the story being told about Custer, as opposed to falling into the “if he got that wrong, what else does he get wrong” trap. That’s just plain lazy.

Preview – Stiles, “Custer’s Trials”

22 10 2015

41jMb9LuJsL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_The nice people at Knopf (that’s k-nop-f) sent me a copy of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles. Mr. Stiles is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book on Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, and also authored a biography of Jesse James. So, like Arthur Digby Sellers (author of the bulk of the TV series Branded), he’s not exactly a lightweight.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. If you’re a regular reader of this or other Civil War blogs, you’re probably beyond a comprehensive biography by a “non-specialist,” particularly yet another biography of one of the most biographied Americans ever. And you’re right to be leery.

I wager there are a few members of the Little Big Horn Associates who stop by here every now and again (after all, Autie was here at First Bull Run), and I don’t think most of them or you will find much to shock or surprise. It’s 460 pages of text, with 80 pages of notes and a surprisingly brief 8 page bibliography (but a good four pages of that is archives and newspapers.) But at this point, is some new discovery the real reason you’d pick up a Custer bio these days? Doubtful. Folks who have read thousands of pages just on the condition of Custer’s body, or certain parts of his body, when found aren’t going to be surprised by much in the way of documentary discovery.

Stiles states in his preface that his intent with Custer’s Trials is “to change the camera angle – to examine Custer’s life as it was lived, in order to better grasp…his larger meaning….escape the overshadowing preoccupation with his death.” Because his life “had a significance independent of his demise.” “I want to explain why his celebrity, and notoriety, spanned both the Civil War and his years on the frontier, resting on neither exclusively but incorporating both.”

So let me explain why I’ll read this one, despite the fact I’ve read others, and some studies of Little Big Horn, and even have a pretty focused book sitting right here in my maybe-I’ll-read stack, Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle. I’m going to read this because it promises something so very rare in Civil War literature: good story telling. Dude won a Pulitzer! What I’ve skimmed is elegant, that is, not painful to read, and it smacks neither of hagiography nor hatchetography (although that could change, I suppose.) I encourage all CW lit consumers to take breaks every now and again for books that are not painful, in fact, enjoyable to read. Think of it as a reward. You’ve earned it.

Interview: Joseph A. Rose, “Grant Under Fire”

11 10 2015

Author photo - Don Rose cropped B&WJoseph A. Rose is the author of Grant Under Fire: An Expose of Generalship and Character in the American Civil War. I previewed the book here. Mr. Rose took some time to answer some questions about the book below.

BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

JAR: Growing up, I read anything non-fiction, up to and including the 1960 World Book Encyclopedia. Our house contained a goodly number of books, and my father’s collection was rich in military history. These works, especially the West Point Atlas of American Wars, simultaneously begat a love of maps (I preferred that atlas to the pictorial maps in American Heritage’s fat The Civil War, showing little soldiers running around). One of the first books I read on warfare was The Great Siege by Ernle Bradford, with its map of Malta’s convoluted Grand Harbor. At the State University of New York at Albany, I earned sufficient credits for a minor in history, as part of a bachelor’s degree in geography, but cobbled together an urban studies minor, instead. A joint Cornell University/Baruch College program awarded me a Master of Science in Industrial and Labor Relations.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War? Who/what were your early influences?

JAR: My interests in military history—and history, in general—have always been wide-ranging, but no early influences really stand out. I had no favorite generals or battles and read for information and not just a well-told narrative. But after returning from a year-long, cross-country trip—with requisite stops at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Chattanooga—I joined a Yahoo discussion group on the western theatre of the American Civil War.

BR: Why the interest in Grant, in particular?

JAR: I had no interest in him at first. While debating the Civil War online, however, two topics engendered particularly fierce debates: General Grant’s surprise and activities at the Battle of Shiloh and his intentions of ascending Missionary Ridge, along with other events in the Battle of Chattanooga. No matter the number and reliability of the primary sources I advanced, which substantiated a rather negative view of Grant, his defenders denied almost anything and everything. Most refused to entertain the possibility that Grant made mistakes beyond the most inarguable, accused me of being a “Lost Causer,” and even asked, “Why do you hate Grant?”

These arguments caused me to delve more deeply into the library stacks, the Official Records, the internet’s myriad resources, and various manuscript collections. It became apparent early on that Ulysses S. Grant’s own writings—biased, inaccurate, and sometimes untruthful—have been overly influential. Civil War history should no longer be founded upon his Personal Memoirs. After a while, with a ton of research already compiled, writing a book became the obvious next step.

BR: What makes your study stand out? There have been over the years and recently works critical of Grant – what does your book contribute to the literature on Grant that has not already been contributed?

JAR: Grant Under Fire overturns 150 years of what is, frankly, bad history, which has basically followed Grant’s Memoirs and the biographies of his friends, staff, and supporters. Writers such as Adam Badeau, Albert D. Richardson, and John Emerson praised Grant without end. Until lately, Civil War historiography rarely strayed from this path. Recent books by Frank Varney, David Moore, and Diane Monroe Smith, however, have made a good start, along with William McFeely’s Grant and a few much older works, in rectifying some of the mythology surrounding the General.

But there’s so much that has never before been investigated or analyzed, and never anything published that is nearly as comprehensive as Grant Under Fire. In controversy after controversy after controversy, this book offers a fresh take, more information, and—quite often—a vastly different conclusion than that reached by the General’s prior biographers. Negative but highly germane evidence, if uncovered by these writers, was somehow omitted, while Grant’s manifold blunders were ignored, minimized, or excused. Along with reevaluating Grant’s generalship, I lay bare innumerable flaws in the historiography, such as Bruce Catton’s about-face on several issues after taking over Lloyd Lewis’ biography.

BR: Grant Under Fire is a doorstop at 621 pages of narrative alone. Can you summarize your thesis, and maybe give a few supporting examples?

JAR: The examples could go on nearly without end. My book has a number of major themes: Grant’s tactical inability, favoritism and hatreds, indolence and negligence, exploitation of military politics, mistreatment of Black soldiers and civilians, and marked unreliability as a chronicler of the conflict (his Memoirs do not deserve their vaunted reputation), as well as numerous minor ones: his alcoholism, luck, corruption, injustice to fellow officers, and failure to credit essential supporters (e.g., Elihu Washburne, John Rawlins, and Charles Dana). A chapter on the post-war period demonstrates that he didn’t change his stripes. His defects were just easier to see.

Grant’s biographers often credit him with victory at Fort Henry—where Foote won the battle—and refuse to recognize that Buell deserves much if not most of the acclaim for Shiloh (Grant falsely asserted that he took overall command). And Grant appropriated the tribute for opening the Cracker Line at Chattanooga. Only the bravery and intelligence of the men and subordinate officers turned his foolish orders (to charge to the base of Missionary Ridge and stop) into an unexpected and glorious triumph, after which he stole their laurels. The Overland and Petersburg campaigns revealed a commander who could not stop attacking, no matter how strong the enemy’s defenses or how worn-out his own men were. Much of Grant’s advance on Vicksburg was highly commendable, but his previous bungling for months in the Delta’s swamps and his assaults on the city detracted from even that campaign.

People who might complain that the book is one-sided should keep in mind the subtitle: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War. It would be like saying that Woodward and Bernstein weren’t open-minded about Nixon. My investigative efforts are an antidote to the poison of Grant hagiography. The existing biographies are almost always both one-sided and inaccurate, although they may look unbiased.

Grant Under Fire should also help redeem the reputations of many unfairly criticized victims of Grant, whose biographers seemingly love to berate officers such as John McClernand and William Rosecrans, whom the General detested. They unreasonably slag George Thomas and even censure Robert E. Lee, in comparison with their hero. Grant’s failure to quickly forward a flag of truce after Cold Harbor became an opportunity for some biographers to blame Lee for letting the federal wounded suffer and die between the lines. My analysis reveals who was responsible … Ulysses S. Grant.

BR: What were the major stumbling blocks along the way to completing the book?

JAR: The inability to see more manuscripts scattered at repositories around the country. I still need to visit the Wyoming Archives to see letters of Grant’s staffer, John Rawlins, in the Bender Collection. I had to use secondhand accounts of the Hamlin Garland papers at U.S.C., although I don’t completely trust writers to correctly characterize what they cite.

BR: What surprised you in the process of writing it?

JAR: Several items: A certain level of inaccuracy in contemporary accounts and in the participants’ autobiographies, for example, was anticipated. But the extent of fallacious logic and argument and fact, not only in the Grant biographies but in standard histories, was astounding. Several authors used “proportional losses” as an indicator of generalship, when all that does is automatically reward the leader of the larger force. It’s mathematically wrong, yet no one seems to object.

Then there were omissions of readily available material (e.g., in the Official Records.) Apparently frustrated by a delay, Grant ordered the attack at the Crater when the mine hadn’t exploded (OR 40:1:47). To quote from Grant Under Fire, “But sending men atop four tons of gunpowder liable to ignite at any moment bespoke Grant’s reckless disregard of human life, and they came close to being hoist on his extremely large petard.” Shouldn’t such a startling fact be in every general biography of Grant and in every detailed account of the Crater? Furthermore, the General then unrealistically wanted Burnside to “forward intrenching tools and hold all his men had gained.”

Certain authors even practiced a literary jujitsu, turning negative characteristics into positives. Grant’s lack of detailed directions in orders to assault became an unwillingness to micromanage his subordinates. Giving friends undeserved acclaim was magnanimity. Unmilitary, unofficial dealings with Representative Washburne were celebrated as an ability to use politics. His authorizing a huge expenditure without bothering to look into it displayed his decisiveness.

BR: Can you briefly discuss your research and writing process?

JAR: Unfortunately, I multi-tasked and went off on tangents. Instead of sticking with a single line of pursuit, I constantly jumped from one issue to the next as the threads of research kept leading to new material. Had this been attempted before computers became available, confusion would have reigned. But I duly entered the information into one of many multi-tabbed spreadsheets, and this allowed me to compile numerous accounts on each aspect of an issue. So, when the time came to write it up, I could compare and analyze multiple perspectives to obtain a more accurate picture, as opposed to those writers who depended upon a single source (all too often Grant’s Memoirs, something similar, or a secondary account). A fine example might be the Union soldiers’ feelings on leaving the Wilderness. Typically, the view comes from Horace Porter’s idolizing Campaigning with Grant or Frank Wilkeson’s Recollections of a Private Soldier. William Marvel, however, determined that Wilkeson’s battery wasn’t even in the battle. By way of contrast, I examined well over one hundred sources, and Porter’s “triumphal procession” was actually a tedious, vexatious, exhausting, and silent march, according to most participants, particularly those who recorded it at the time.

With determined digging, I’ve found so many brand new or relatively unknown accounts and, in the process, overthrown other widely accepted stories. I’m amazed that more authors haven’t found or used Grant’s unsubmitted report in the Library of Congress, which confirmed that he occupied Paducah under orders. The same goes for General Stephen Hurlbut’s published letter to his wife after Shiloh, helping to confirm the Memoirs’ exaggeration (“I was continuously engaged in passing from one part of the field to another, giving directions to division commanders” at Shiloh). Grant intended to have George Thomas’ men ascend Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga on November 25, 1863, according to Sylvanus Cadwallader’s posthumous book, Three Years with Grant. Yet, this reporter’s evidently unknown Chicago Times article, written that very evening, maintained the exact opposite.

My book could not have been written without the internet. So many resources are now available online, particularly newspapers of the period, scholarly and magazine articles, government records, maps, dissertations, and even manuscripts (I am particularly happy when transcripts are provided). I’ve downloaded thousands of books in the public domain, including hundreds of the “regimentals.” For more current works, Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature and Google books permitted limited searching.

BR: What archival sources did you use, both brick and mortar and digital?

JAR: I used everything that I could. New York City has a wealth of resources, and having friends and family in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington helped immensely. The $1 fares offered by Megabus kept my costs down. A two-month trip across country featured stops at the Lincoln and Grant libraries, other repositories, and many battlefields. Those interested can see the bibliography on the book’s website (along with the introductory chapter and index) at:

BR: How long did it take? How did you know you were done?

JAR: Altogether, it took roughly twelve years, and for almost half of that period, it was a full-time pursuit.

And I’m still not done. Although the book has been printed, the research continues. Friends told me that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” meaning that I had done enough and it was time to publish. I finally did so, but good is sometimes not good enough. There are so many resources still untapped, that I get a kick out of those who say—even about Grant Under Fire—that a book is “exhaustively researched.”

BR: How has the book been received so far?

JAR: It’s gotten great commendations from everyone (except a certain “CANNIBAL” on Amazon: “This book is probably the worst book on Grant ever written. The author seizes every opportunity to twist the facts to suit his purposes.” When this was written, the book was almost unavailable; I’m pretty sure that the reviewer hadn’t read it. Cannibal’s three other Civil War reviews—including Tim Smith’s Shiloh—were also one-star, but were typed in all caps, and I wish the same had been done for my book to reveal the nuttiness). Before Grant Under Fire was published, eight noted Civil War authors had read parts or the whole of the book, and their blurbs praised it, especially for the research. Midwest Book Review stated: “Impressively researched, Grant Under Fire is an iconoclastic but exceptionally well documented contribution to our clearer and more in-depth understanding of the role Grant played in the American Civil War.” A very large number of other review requests are still outstanding, as those in journals, especially, take a long time to appear.

I did introduce the book on one Civil War website where Grant’s supporters seemed rather resistant to new information and perspectives. In that respect, it will be a tough sell; almost everybody, it seems, loves a hero. But I’m not at all astonished that people admire the General, as hundreds of biographies have lauded him with little reservation since before the war even ended. Surprisingly, the sales in Europe have been higher than I would have imagined. Maybe they are not as emotionally involved as some readers on this side of the Atlantic.

BR: What’s next for you?

JAR: As part of the marketing campaign, I am scheduling speaking engagements on a 2016-17 cross-country tour. My research projects are all related to the Civil War and/or Ulysses S. Grant. I’ve learned so much throughout this whole process and hope to put it to use. I am currently editing two Civil War manuscripts and expect to be helping other authors publish their work, be it history, inspirational, or fiction.

You can find out more at Mr. Rose’s website here.

Preview – Joseph A. Rose: “Grant Under Fire”

10 10 2015

PrintIronically, this preview of Joseph A. Rose’s Grant Under Fire: An Expose of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War, will be brief. I say ironically because this one weighs in at 621 pp of narrative, with another 105 pp of notes and 38 pp of bibliography. That is to say, it’s a big honking book. Dust jacket blurbs include William Glenn Robertson, Wiley Sword, John Horn, Lawrence Lee Hewitt, and Gordon Rhea, among others. Most of the maps are by Hal Jespersen, or are based on maps by him. Other than maps and tables, though, there are no illustrations in the book, so what you get for the most part are words. Lots and lots of them.

This book is about Grant’s generalship, and so we go from his birth to the Civil War in ten pages, and the postwar is covered in about 40 pages. So it appears that, despite the length of the book, the author has not been distracted too much (I’ve seen lengthy tomes ostensibly focused on specific actions, units, or individuals, which spend dozens of pages on Lincoln’s election, secession, and the outbreak of war, for instance.)

As the author points out, Grant Under Fire is an expose, so it will feel distinctly one-sided. That’s the nature of the beast, after all. You can find more information at the author’s website here. And I’ve completed an interview with Mr. Rose which I’ll post shortly.

Think of this as a tease.

Stay tuned – this should be interesting. At least, I hope so!

Press Release


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