Review: Arwen Bicknell, “Justice and Vengeance”

25 11 2016

justice_and_vengeance_with_coinI received Justice and Vengeance: Scandal, Honor, and Murder in 1872 Virginia from author Arwen Bicknell a while back, and intended on writing a brief preview. However, I was intrigued enough by the very limited details provided on the back cover (including a good blurb from John Hennessy) and website to read the whole thing. I don’t usually do this, but want to get the synopsis from Amazon out of the way so I can discuss the cooler parts of this book:

In Justice and Vengeance, Arwen Bicknell offers the first full account of the events leading up to the shooting of James Clark by Lucien Fewell and the sensational, headline-grabbing murder trial that followed. Set against the backdrop of Reconstruction, tumultuous Virginia politics, and the presidential election of 1872 featuring Ulysses Grant, Horace Greeley, and protofeminist Victoria Woodhull, the first female presidential candidate, Bicknell paints a vivid picture of the evolving South as she traces the families and fortunes of Lucien Fewell, a hellraiser with a passion for drink and for abusing Yankees and scalawags, and James Clark, a rising legal and political star with a wife, a daughter, and a baby on the way.

A marvelous work of historical re-creation, Justice and Vengeance is sure to fascinate anyone interested in crime drama, the Civil War and its aftermath, and the history of Virginia and the politics of the American South.

OK, so why would anyone interested in the First Battle of Bull Run be interested in this 51vvmjvwiel-_sx311_bo1204203200_work, concerning a murder and trial which occur a decade after the battle? First of all, the bulk of the story takes place in the general Manassas vicinity, and particularly in Brentsville, and in the Brentsville jail house which you can visit today. Second, two fairly prominent Confederate participants in First Bull Run, Eppa Hunton of the 8th Virginia Infantry and Billy Payne of the Black Horse Troop, play very prominent roles as attorneys for the defense of the accused, Confederate veteran Lucien Fewell, who openly shot and mortally wounded Confederate veteran James Clark. Former Virginia governor Henry Wise assisted the prosecution.

But what is particularly fun is how the author pulls strings, albeit sometimes tenuously connected, to weave a wide ranging tapestry of the times in which these local events took place. It’s difficult to describe, which I imagine is why I found available summaries so dissatisfying.

Regardless, I recommend you give this book a tumble, if post-war politics, gender roles, legal proceedings, and general roller-coasterly good times flip your switch.





Oops…

29 11 2015

3The latest issue of Civil War Times (February 2016) is on newsstands now, and includes my review of a new e-book on page 66. The book is “If I Have Got to Go and Fight, I am Willing.”: A Union Regiment Forged in the Petersburg Campaign, a history of the 179th New York Infantry. I’d just like to clear something up with it. I’m not complaining, mind you, but there is a typo in the text that may be misleading. The text reads thus:

Click on the note number and you go right to the citation, without the need to flip back and forth. I would like to see these citations take another step, such as linking to public domain publications that are available online, taking readers to the specific passage when possible. Or for non-public domain publications, a link to purchase details (a possible revenue opportunity for publishers?) photographs, maps and illustrations that can be enlarged and swipe navigated, and links are provided to high-resolution copies on the author’s website.

That last sentence is confusing, and may lead the reader to believe I am suggesting that the book would be better if photographs, maps, and illustrations (don’t get me started on the jettisoned Oxford comma) could be enlarged and swipe navigated. Let me be clear – they can be and are in the book as is. Here is the passage as submitted:

Of course endnotes are actively linked – click on the note number and the reader is taken to the citation – no need to flip back and forth. I would like to see these cites taking another step, such as linking to public domain publications which have been digitized and are available on the web, even taking the reader to the specific passage cited when possible. Or for non-public domain publications, a link to purchase details (a possible revenue opportunity for publishers?) Photographs, maps, and illustrations can be enlarged and swipe-navigated, and links are provided to high resolution copies on the author’s website.

I’m not calling out my editors here: they are a great bunch and have been a pleasure to work with over the years. I just want to be clear about what the book does and does not offer. I admit that my placement of a question mark inside parentheses without a period to end the sentence may have contributed to the confusion. But you don’t have to publish too many pieces in periodicals to learn that there are things within and without your control. Like Dutchie said at the end of Ride With the Devil, “It ain’t right, it ain’t wrong. It just is.”

I apologize to the author, Ed Rutan, for this. As I told the magazine folks, I could have written a full article on the currently unfulfilled potential of the e-book. Mr. Rutan’s book is a notch above most in that regard.

 





Review: Rafuse (Ed.) “Corps Commanders in Blue”

26 03 2015

My review of Corps Commanders in Blue, written for Civil War Times, is running in the digital version of the June 2015 issue. For whatever reason, the review was reduced in length. As I believe this book was one of the best of 2014, I’m posting the full version below.

517bM0P30PL._SL500_AA300_Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War, Ethan S. Rafuse, Editor

Sometimes, too much familiarity with how “modern” armies operate can be a hindrance when studying those that operated under more primitive circumstances. Such is the case with the armies of the American Civil War. At some levels, strict obedience of orders was required. At others, limitations of distance and communications required subordinates to exercise much broader discretion than that with which we have become accustomed. Outside of army chief, at no level was an officer’s initiative and ability to exercise prudent discretion more desired and expected than at that of corps command. As such, the men who held these positions present a unique study opportunity, one seldom specifically explored. In Corps Commanders in Blue, editor Ethan Rafuse has called in eight prominent Civil War historians, including himself, and put together an equal number of case studies of Union Corps commanders, most familiar, and some less so.

John Hennessy starts things off with a very strong, and balanced, look at the Army of the Potomac’s controversial Fitz-John Porter, one ultimately critical of the “too superficial” conclusion that Porter was “ruined by his devotion to [George B.] McClellan.” Instead, it was his commitment to a conservative war policy – one that the Lincoln administration officially, at least, endorsed – that put Porter out of favor with the powers-that-were. Thomas Clemens gives a flesh-out of a relatively shadowy Joseph K. F. Mansfield, whose long antebellum army career could not overcome the “leadership and combat-experience problems” that pre-existed his late arrival to the Army of the Potomac’s 12th Corps prior to the Battle of Antietam. If Mansfield is shadowy, the subject of Kenneth Noe’s essay, Charles C. Gilbert, is a virtual unknown to many. His assignment to the command of the Third Corps of Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio was the result of a process of elimination of other candidates based on Buell’s personal and political considerations, and Gilbert’s experience in that role through the Battle of Perrysville was “a textbook case of how not to direct a corps.” In what may be the collection’s centerpiece essay, Christopher Stowe profiles George G. Meade in his role as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps. Stowe sets Meade’s record as corps commander straight, as an aggressive leader, as one who was held in high regard by peers and superiors, and as one who was clearly considered a leading alternative to Joseph Hooker as chief of the Army of the Potomac prior to Meade’s promotion to that post. Recent publications notwithstanding, Stowe notes that “[t]hroughout his career, Meade viewed himself not as a policymaker but as a public servant beholden to obey orders regardless of his personal feelings or impulses.”

While the first four essays cover their subjects’ entire careers in corps command, the last four examine specific periods of longer lengths of service in that role. Stephen Woodworth’s coverage of James B. McPherson in the Vicksburg Campaign, and Mark Snell’s of William B. Franklin in the Trans-Mississippi perhaps got a little side-tracked in the weeds of the details of the respective campaigns. Ultimately, McPherson’s “remarkably limited amount of experience” in the campaign “did not subject him to the most severe of tests.” Franklin appears to have performed as well as could be expected despite the highly dysfunctional command structure with which he had to deal. Ethan Rafuse’s sketch of Joseph Hooker’s stint in command of the 20th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland in 1864 reveals a competent, effective commander doomed by his inability to play well with others including Grant and Sherman, and by conniving anglers like John Schofield. Brooks Simpson’s essay on Winfield Scott Hancock’s command of the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps in the Overland Campaign is a focused look at how “The Superb” performed those tasks peculiar to running and fighting a corps. While Hancock’s multi-layered command role at Gettysburg may be more well known, the author with good reason argues that the 1864 campaign is a better barometer of his performance strictly as a corps chief. In the course of a year, the nature of the fighting in Virginia had changed significantly. Those changes, along with failing health, limited Hancock in the use of the tactical skills and inspirational leadership for which he was best known.

Corps Commanders in Blue is an important contribution to the study of command in the American Civil War. Hopefully readers will be seeing more along this line coming soon.





More on “Corps Commanders in Blue”

11 12 2014

517bM0P30PL._SL500_AA300_Back in October I gave you a sneak-peak at the Ethan Rafuse edited essay collection “Corps Commanders in Blue.” I’ve submitted a full review that will run in either Civil War Times or America’s Civil War – not sure which. This is a really good collection, and I’d put it on the short list for Best of 2014. While the eight authors varied in how well they stuck to the central theme (examination of the individual officers strictly as corps commanders), all produced informative sketches of their subjects. Best of the eight for me were Fitz-John Porter, George G. Meade (a great counter to some recent suggestions about the snapping-turtle), Joseph Hooker and 20th Corps, and Winfield Scott Hancock in the Overland Campaign. This last stuck to the theme best, I thought, while some others went astray into the weeds of operations. Thumbs up, and here’s hoping more along this line – especially more Union sketches – is on the way.





To Read or Not to Read – That is the Question

3 08 2013

I get lots and lots of books sent to me. And I also still buy books “on my own.” And I read non-fiction slowly. And I read Civil War history very, very, VERY slowly. So, I really can’t read all the books I get, or all the books I have, cover to cover. That’s why I describe the book commentary you typically see here as Previews instead of Reviews. I scan the book, read the intro and (if there is one) the conclusion, check out the notes and bibliography. Basically, I do what I would normally do if I was considering buying the book myself. Hopefully you find that helpful.

So, when it comes to actually reading a book, I have to be very selective. Because it’s a significant investment of my time, and because the opportunity cost is great. So I don’t make the decision lightly. I have two books here, relatively slim volumes, recently received from Savas Beatie: General Grant and the Rewriting of History and John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General. I have reservations about both books – not about reading them, but reporting on them. The latter is written by a descendant of the subject, and my experience has shown such efforts to be typically problematic. Also, I’ve observed (and been slightly involved in) discussion of Hood’s reputation and it got heated. The former delves into the ever dangerous waters of U. S. Grant criticism. The mere mention of the book is likely to bring Grant fans out of the woodwork – I’ve seen them operate, and it ain’t pretty. They are such rabid gatekeepers (and I have no doubt they view themselves as such) that a perceived slight to anyone in the Grant solar system, let alone HUG himself, is likely to elicit a response of biblical proportions.

But after much discussion and deliberation, I’ve made my decision. As soon as I complete my current read, I’ll tackle these two. I have no dog in either fight, regardless of my thoughts on those who do (have dogs in the fight – I’m too distracted to figure out how to write that sentence so that it doesn’t end in a preposition.) I’ll report back to you as best I can. But I have a sneaky feeling that my efforts will be deemed woefully inadequate by partisans of all stripes.





A Note To Authors

3 01 2012

As someone who has been fortunate enough to have published a few things, in addition to this blog, I have some idea of the time, money, and effort required to produce them. I’ve never written a book and imagine it to be a monumental task; I appreciate the love and effort that must go in to producing one. I’ve read and/or previewed/reviewed many of these works, some good, some bad. I’m happy to pass along my thoughts on many of them here. If you’re an author looking to get the word out on your book, all I ask is that you follow these simple rules. I rarely have time for a full reading and review, but if, after I take a look at your stuff, I think it’s worth mentioning to my readers, I’ll do so. If I think the subject matter is not appropriate, I’ll let you know up front. If, after I look at the book, I feel I can’t promote it for whatever reason, I won’t mention it. That’s the deal.

Lately, a few folks have decided that the comments sections to various posts and pages here are good, quick, and cheap ways to get the word out on their product. Don’t do this. Send me an email, and we’ll discuss it.





America’s Civil War May 2011

3 03 2011

Inside this issue:

Field Notes:

  • Wilderness battlefield preservation victory
  • The Lowry controversy
  • Budget woes affect sesqui efforts
  • Monitor restoration
  • Georgia Dept of Agriculture removes controversial murals

5 Questions:

  • Daniel Weinberg of the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop

Cease Fire:

  • Harold Holzer discusses historical honesty

Legends

  • Ron Soodalter points out some surprising lyrics in state songs that are unchanged to this day

Features

  • Jackson, Johnston and Conflicting Interests – Dennis Frye: differing opinions on holding Harper’s Ferry in 1861
  • Looking for a Few Good Men: recruiting poster photo essay
  • An Omen a Philippi – Gerald Swick: early fight in Western Virginia, with an interesting sidebar on James Hanger, an amputee whose prosthetic manufacturing company lives on today
  • The Common Soldier’s Recipe for Disaster: photo essay on the culinary delights of the Civil War
  • Diary of a Morgan Raider – John M. Porter: in fact, a memoir. Extract form One of Morgan’s Men, Kent Masterson Brown, ed.

Reviews

  • My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy – Nora Titone
  • God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War – George Rable
  • Faith, Valor, and Devotion: The Civil War Letters of William Porcher DuBose – W. Eric Emerson & Karen Stokes, eds.
  • A Young Virginia Boatman Navigates the Civil War: The Journals of George Randolph Wood – Will Molineux, ed.
  • Santa Fe Trail (Film)
  • Harry’s Just Wild About
    • John Bell Hood and the Fight for Civil War Memory – Brian Craig Miller
    • The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It – Brooks Simpson, Stephen Sears, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, eds.
    • Caught Between Three Fires: Cass County, MO, Chaos, & Order No. 11, 1860-1865 – Tom Rafiner
    • The Battle of Resaca: Atlanta Campaign, 1864 – Philip Secrist