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


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


  • 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.


  • 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

Review: American Experience – Robert E. Lee

29 12 2010

A few weeks back the folks at PBS’s American Experience sent me a copy of their new program on Robert E. Lee set to air next Monday night, January 3, at 9:00 PM ET.  I finally got a chance to view it last night and was pleased with what I saw: a well-balanced and generally unvarnished look at the marble man, warts and all.  Of course, such a view may displease many who subscribe to the belief that Lee was in the end a “pure Christian with a clean soul.”  Here’s a promo:

The 83 minute program features an impressive list of “talking heads” – some usual suspects but encouragingly some newer faces as well.  Here they are in what I think is their order of appearance:

  • Lesley Gordon
  • Michael Fellman
  • Peter Carmichael
  • Elizabeth Brown Pryor
  • Gary Gallagher
  • Emory Thomas
  • Ervin Jordan
  • Joseph Glatthaar
  • Winston Groom

The program does a nice job of laying out Lee’s life in chronological order and identifying the influences that helped form his character: the role his father played in the early days of the Republic and his subsequent disgrace; Lee’s single-minded purpose firmed up at West Point, where he developed his sense of duty, self-discipline, denial, and achievement, and also his burning ambition.   Both his courtship of Mary Custis and his experience in Mexico under Winfield Scott were lessons in the value of audacity.  Lee never really felt at home at Arlington and preferred the order of military life, but in 1857 after the death of his father-in-law he returned to Arlington, where he was not a good manager of the farm and was less than kind to “insubordinate” slaves – this segment may cause some discomfort to some viewers.  Lee is described as aligned with “slavery apologists” who felt slavery was far from ideal and would eventually die off  but who also believed that negroes were better off as slaves and that the institution should be defended to the last.  Also interestingly the commentators note that Lee did not become particularly religious until after the Mexican War, when he was having trouble adapting to the peacetime army and Mary became ill.

A better job of exploring Lee’s decision to resign from the army could have been done.  Although a good amount of time was spent showing how hard the decision was, the producers could have more closely examined why, and really if, Lee and his fellows actually felt that their state was their country.  Why not their section of the state?  Why not their county?  Why not their town?  How do we explain the decision of many to side with the Confederacy despite the decisions of their states to not do so?  Were these decisions based more on philosophy or, more likely, finances than on loyalty?  I tried to discuss this here a while back, with disappointing results.

A little more precision could have been used in describing just what Francis Blair offered Lee – command of an army, not the army.

Lee’s role early in the war, his failures, disappointments, and physical aging are adequately discussed.  Then comes his rise, reorganization of the army, and strategic vision.  In the winter of 1862-63 he was plagued by bad temper, paperwork, the deaths of a daughter and two grandchildren, and possibly a heart attack.  He reached his zenith at Chancellorsville, the moment “that the bond between Lee and his men was sealed.”  In the wake of the wreck of his army at Gettysburg, Lee became more insistent that his men – the Confederate people, in fact – become more committed to the cause, that they could persevere because God was on their side, but that they must be brave, strong, and disciplined.  He demanded that they live up to the standards to which he held himself.  While desertions spiked in 1864, so too did executions [in this Lee was not unlike his father, who was admonished by Washington for his harsh treatment of deserters].

Through the Overland Campaign, Lee broke down further, until finally at North Anna he couldn’t rise from his cot to take advantage of a tactical opportunity.  When his army was backed into a siege, he probably knew the gig was up but persisted as he believed it his duty as a soldier.

Post war, Lee was never able to reconcile to the defeat.  He believed that his cause was just, that God was on his side, and that his men had been brave.  Defeat made no sense to the engineer given the knowns of the equation – until the day he died he believed the wrong side had won the war.  He never accepted reconstruction (though he publicly encouraged his countrymen to do so) and was bewildered by emancipation.  In the end, he believed his life a failure, and that the great mistake of it was taking a military education in the first place.

[Perhaps the most tantalizing quote ever attributed to Lee comes at the end of Freeman’s opus, when near the end of his life he advised a southern mother to teach her infant son that he “must deny himself.”  If God was on the side of the south, if the cause was just, if the soldiers were brave, then were they and their people not disciplined enough to achieve victory?  What did folks like Jefferson and de Tocqueville think along these lines even before the war?  Was this what Lee meant by his advice?]

Don’t get me wrong – the program is no hit piece, and the above paragraph presents thoughts that ran through my head as I watched.  Your mileage may vary.  Give it a whirl Monday at 9:00 PM ET.


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