In the Queue: Four Previews and a Review

28 05 2010

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received four books from publishers and authors.  Sorry for the delay, but I hope to get three of them previewed and one reviewed here in the next week.  I also have one highly anticipate release that I just received from Amazon – it’s not Bull Run related, but concerns another campaign that is near and dear to me.  It’s a very important book, probably the most significant ever produced by its publisher.  I’ll have a preview of that, too.  Of course, just when I have this backlog work has picked up as well.  A good problem to have, I suppose.  Stay tuned!

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Interview: Ed Bearss “Receding Tide”

17 05 2010

On April 8th I interviewed NPS Historian Emeritus Ed Bearss (via telephone) about his new book, set for release tomorrow, May 18.  I’ll get to the interview in a minute, but first here’s what I submitted to America’s Civil War for my July 2010 previews, courtesy of the good people at the magazine:

Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Campaigns that Changed the Civil War, Edwin C. Bearss with J. Parker Hills

Ed Bearss is known as the Pied Piper of the National Park Service.  His battlefield tours are legendary, as are his photographic memory, stentorian voice, and physical stamina.  If there has been one criticism of Mr. Bearss’s work it is that his ability to spellbind tourists on the battlefield has not translated to his writings.  The good folks at National Geographic tried to remedy this deficiency – if it can be called that, since Bearss’s The Vicksburg Campaign is a tour de force after 25 years – with 2006’s Fields of Honor, which consisted of transcriptions of Bearss tours of about twenty Civil War sites.  This year they follow that up with Receding Tide, which uses more detailed transcriptions to focus more narrowly on the period from the end of 1862 through the early days of July and the twin Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.

I was a little nervous about the interview, which was set up courtesy of Penny Dackis at National Geographic.  I bought a digital recorder for the event, and like most of you I really hate the way I sound on tape (or digital).  Add that to the fact I was going to be talking to possibly the most recognizable name – definitely the most recognizable voice – among students of the war, and you see where I’m coming from.  I tried my best to throw my questions in quickly, step back and let the man speak.

BR: Your new book, Receding Tide, covers a broad period and is concerned with more than simply the campaigns of Vicksburg and Gettysburg.

EB: It starts with the Union setbacks of Fredericksburg and Chickasaw Bayou, when the Union has run into severe difficulties.  It follows through to the early stages of the Vicksburg Campaign when the Confederates are doing fairly well, and through Chancellorsville, playing [the two theaters of operation] off against each other, and ending for all practical purposes on the Fourth of July, 1863, though Gettysburg doesn’t really end until Lee crosses [the Potomac] and Vicksburg doesn’t end until Sherman drives the Confederates out of Jackson.

BR: The concept behind this book is similar to that of Fields of Honor, which National Geographic published in 2007?

EB: Yes, both books are basically transcriptions of recordings of my tours at the various sites.  In Receding Tide, [co-author J. Parker Hills] edits them down and fills in the connecting parts.

BR: In what ways do these projects differ from traditional works, like your Vicksburg Campaign?

EB: I’m standing on the spot when I’m talking about what happened there.  People who liked the first volume said it comes across like I’m talking, that it’s like being on the field with me.  Talking in the field, you can get more emotions in than if you’re writing and footnoting everything.  People who like oral presentations like it the best.  Fields of Honor has sold better than any book I’ve written.

BR: How do you think the two types of works, the tour transcriptions versus traditional works like your Vicksburg set, differ – that is do you like one better than the other, or are they really apples and oranges?

EB: The three-volume Vicksburg study is for people who want to know everythingReceding Tide looks more at the highlights, interesting facts and personalities.  It has more of an emotional appeal.

BR: Would you say it tells a better story?

EB: Yes.

BR: What different challenges are presented when conducting a tour of Vicksburg versus Gettysburg?

EB: Gettysburg is much better known – in the English language, there are more books on Gettysburg and Little Big Horn than any other campaigns because they sell well.  Little Big Horn sells well because nobody really knows what happened in those last thirty minutes or so.  Gettysburg sells well because so much has been written and is known about it, particularly the controversies.  I can do a complete tour of Vicksburg, for a well-informed group, in about three days: two on the campaign up to the seige, and one on the seige.  Gettysburg, because of the knowledge of the general public and the interest in the personalities, the fighting of the Lost Cause, the Meade/Sickles controversy, and the fact that more people know a lot more about Gettysburg, it takes longer to tour.  The buffs know a lot about Vicksburg, but the general public doesn’t. 

When I took the job with the National Park Service at Vicksburg in 1955, I did so because it was the only Civil War site that had an opening.  If I had had my choice, I would have said “Give me an eastern battlefield, give me Gettysburg”.  That’s what everyone wanted, what everyone was writing about.  Catton had just finished his trilogy, and Lee’s Lieutenants focused primarily on that.  But when I got out there I found out Vicksburg had a lot going for it.  I’d more or less become convinced that the Vicksburg Campaign is why Grant became General-in-Chief in February of 1864.  Meade’s result after the Battle of Gettysburg was not what the President wanted.  In his mind, Vicksburg was a more important victory than Gettysburg – except for the address he gave there.

You can argue that the worst day of Meade’s life was when he issued the congratulatory order to his troops on July 7th, where he calls on them for “further exertion to drive the enemy from our soil.”  Lincoln will say “My God, my God!  What does the man mean?  It is all our soil!”  On the same day, Lincoln gets the message from Grant that Vicksburg has fallen.  And not only had Grant accomplished the military objective, he has opened the Mississippi river to divide the Confederacy, and has destroyed a Confederate army of 40,000 men.

BR: The letter that Lincoln wrote to Meade, the one he never sent, it has always struck me that we can give so much import to a letter like that, one that Lincoln thought better of and didn’t send, when we don’t have any idea how many other letters like that were written and to whom.

EB: We only know about this one because he kept a copy.

BR: And because Nicolay and Hay made sure it was preserved.

EB: Right.

BR: Are there any similar studies like this from National Geographic in the works?

EB: Yes.  Because of the increased interest in the Revolutionary War, we’re considering doing a book on those conflicts similar to Fields of Honor, which will again be based on my battlefield tours.

There was more, but we moved far afield from the focus of the book, talking a lot about Meade and the bad spot into which he was put after Grant was named General-in-Chief and how history has perhaps misrepresented what Meade would or would not have done had Grant not come east; the influence of surviving correspondence (or lack of same) on the way history has treated various commanders; and even an interesting tidbit regarding why he doesn’t spend much time on the internet and what influenced his decision to retire from the NPS (in short, in the 1940s real men didn’t type).  Maybe at some later time I’ll cover that material here.

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July 2010 America’s Civil War

1 05 2010

I received the new America’s Civil War in the mail yesterday.  Again, lots of good stuff inside.

  • Rebels in Check by Ethan Rafuse – Nobody played the game better than Bobby Lee.  Until his luck ran out at Gettysburg.
  • Could This Man Have Stopped the War? by Thomas Horrocks – James Buchanan left a monumental mess for the next guy to clean up.
  • “It’s No Use Killing Them” by Zack Waters and James Edmonds – The 2nd Florida fought in Lee’s army, but forged its own stature.
  • Tracing Natchez by Joe Glickman - From Grant’s mansion quarters to funky watering holes, Natchez oozes atmosphere.

These are but prelude to the real reason folks buy the magazine: my reviews.  As I mentioned before, Smeltzer’s Six-Pack has bitten the dust.  In the last couple of installments we had fallen off the formula of pairing new releases with older books on the same or similar topic – a formula which I felt set the column apart, but which fell victim to the need to preview an increasing number of new books in every issue.  July debuts Harry’s Just Wild About…, in which I’ll preview four or five new or re-issued titles (I’m not sure what they’ll call it if I happen to not be wild about any of the books).  Here’s a glimpse of what it looks like – that’s me at the Pittsburgh Irish Festival a few years ago:As you can see, I lead off with Ed Bearss’s new Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Campaigns that Changed the Civil War.  Also in this issue: The Great Task Remaining: The Third Year of the Civil War, by William Marvel; Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby, by James A. Ramage; and The Battle of Cedar Creek: Victory From the Jaws of Defeat, by Jonathan Noyalas.

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Review: Gettysburg Battlewalks

22 04 2010

If you’re lucky enough to live in Pennsylvania (or otherwise receive PCN on your TV package), then you’re probably acquainted with the channel’s annual Gettysburg Battlewalks.  Every July 1, 2, & 3 since 1996 they have broadcast specialized tours conducted by NPS Rangers and Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides during the anniversary of the battle.  (Although for the last few years the PA legislature can’t seem to finalize the budget by the July 1 deadline, so we’ve been treated to endless hours of truly bizarre bickering which has pushed the air dates back a week or more.) These tours are very popular with the 37 million people who converge on Gettysburg the first three days of July, who are happy to wear shorts in 90 degree weather and hip high grass (check out the guides, folks: they NEVER, EVER wear shorts.  Guess why?).  The tours are pretty specific, focusing on the actions of individual corps, divisions, brigades, even regiments.  PCN trails along and films each tour, panning over the crowd and the terrain but devoting most of the face time to the guides.  Then in the evening three or four of the tours are broadcast.  The rest of the day, tours from previous years are shown.  I have dozens and dozens of these tours on VHS and DVD.  They’re awesome time suckers.

The good folks at PCN sent me a copy of one of the Battlewalk DVD’s for review.  This particular tour is Ranger Troy Harman’s Longstreet’s Flank Attack:

General Longstreet authorized an after-dark scouting party to search for ways “by which we might strike the enemy’s left.”  He began to implement a tactical turning maneuver early on the last day of the battle, before General Lee cancelled it.  National Park Service Ranger Troy Harman poses the question – what if Lee had followed through with Longstreet’s plan?

Go here to order this or one of the many other Battlewalks that PCN has made available on DVD for $25.25 plus shipping and applicable sales tax.  Run times vary – Longstreet’s Flank Attack is 1 hour and 20 minutes.

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Coming Soon – Interview with Ed Bearss

11 04 2010

Last Thursday I was privileged to spend about 35 minutes on the phone with NPS Historian Emeritus Edwin C. Bearss.  Our discussion centered on the upcoming release of his new book, Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Campaigns that Changed the Civil War, but it naturally strayed to other topics.  I’ll be arranging our talk in the form of an interview and posting it here soon.  If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, Mr. Bearss will be speaking to the Greater Pittsburgh Civil War Roundtable on April 26.  You can find details here.  The photo above is Mr. Bearss signing my copies of his three-volume The Vicksburg Campaign in Carnegie, PA after his appearance there on February 9, 2009.

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Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

17 02 2010

The way I heard the story, in response to complaints of baseball purists that actor Ray Liotta’s portrayal of baseball legend “Shoeless” Joe Jackson batting right and throwing left was in contrast to the fact that he batted left and threw right, Field of Dreams director Ron Shelton quipped, “Did they notice he is currently dead?  I guess that’s another mistake we made.”  Or words to that effect.

I had to remind myself of that story frequently while reading Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.  This book requires the suspension of a whole lot of disbelief.  After the vampire-induced death of his mother, Abe devotes himself to the eradication of the creatures from the country.  Abe’s father’s inability to repay a debt to his vampire loan shark (the senior Lincoln’s many faults were frequently referred to, as were the positive traits he passed on to his son) is what led to Nancy Hanks’ murder.  It turns out that vampires were the movers and shakers, the money-lenders, the men behind the men in 19th century America, though they stretched back all the way to Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke settlement.  They also played a role in the institution of slavery, striking deals with human slaveholders for prey.

Abe was a self-taught vampire hunter at first, but early on was trained by a friendly bloodsucker.  He hunted with crossbow and knives, but his weapon of choice was his trusty axe.  Over the years, he enlisted the help of first Jack Armstrong of  Clary’s Grove, then friend Joshua Speed, and later Ward Hill Lamon.  But none of them could help Abe during what would be his last confrontation with the undead in Ford’s Theater in April, 1865.  Or was it his last?

Throughout, Grahame-Smith weaves Abe’s nocturnal hunts in with the “known” history.  As you’d expect, much of that “known” history has some unknown facets: was Ann Rutledge the victim of a vampire?  Take a wild guess.  But here’s where the book disappointed me.  Not just the fact that there were inaccuracies, but that the miscues would have been easy enough to correct without affecting the story one iota.  For the record, I reviewed an advance reading copy (aka bound galley aka uncorrected proof).  The following may be corrected in the book when it is released next week:

  1. The military career of Edgar Allan Poe is discussed.  Grahame-Smith states that when Poe was transferred to Ft. Moultrie in South Carolina, he was not near a town.  Ft. Moultrie is hard-by Charleston.
  2. Grahame-Smith describes Lincoln’s cabinet in the spring of 1861, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  Simon Cameron, not Stanton, was Lincoln’s first Secretary of War.
  3. Robert E. Lee is said to have been a friend of Lincoln’s before the war.  The two were not acquainted, though Lee’s opponent George McCellan appears to have had numerous dealings with Lincoln in the 1850s, and they established a friendship of sorts.
  4. Grahame-Smith writes that Our American Cousin was a new play in 1865.  It was written in 1858.

There are other hiccups - these just happened to stick with me.  But guess what?  Vampire’s aren’t real (at least, I think they aren’t).  Unless you’re a fourteen-year-old girl, that shouldn’t come as any surprise to you.  If you can overlook that minor detail, I think these little mistakes shouldn’t concern you much.

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Abe Kicks Undead Ass

2 02 2010

 

Today’s mail brought a package I’ve been eagerly anticipating.  About a week ago, Miriam Parker of the Hachette Book Group sent me a note asking if I’d like to review their upcoming (March 2, 2010) release by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  (I think the titles are self-explanatory, but if you don’t get it these books are based on the classic works and written in Jane Austen’s style, with macabre twists.)  Ms. Parker tried to sell me on the book by telling me that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is supporting the book with author events (see their press release), but I couldn’t say “YES!” to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter fast enough.  The collection of essays on Thomas Jefferson’s founding of West Point that I’m currently reading is so dry it would make Gordon Ramsay use the F word, so this is a welcome break.  From the inside front cover of my uncorrected proof:

When Abraham Lincoln was nine years old, his mother died from an ailment called the “milk sickness.”  Only later did he learn that his mother’s affliction was actually caused by a local vampire, seeking to collect on Abe’s father’s unfortunate debts.

When the truth became known to the young Abraham Lincoln, he wrote in his journal, “Henceforth my life shall be one of rigorous study and devotion.  I shall become learned in all things—a master of mind and body.  And this mastery shall have but one purpose.”

That purpose?  Elimination of all vampires.

While Abraham Lincoln is widely lauded for reuniting the North and the South and abolishing slavery in our country, no one has ever understood his valiant fight for what it really was.  That is, until Seth Grahame-Smith stumbled upon The Secret Journal of Abraham Lincoln and became the first living person to lay eyes on it in more than one hundred and forty years.

Using the journal as his guide and writing in the grand biographical style of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, Seth has reconstructed the true story of our greatest president for the first time—while revealing the hidden history behind the Civil War and the role vampires played in the birth, growth, and near-death of our nation.

Were Jack Armstrong and the Clary’s Grove Boys actually a coven of blood suckers?  Was the pathological sluggishness of George McClellan attributable to the fact that he only came out at night?  Did Jefferson Davis sleep in a casket (OK, that one’s obvious – just look at the guy!)?  I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

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America’s Civil War: March 2010

7 01 2010

Inside this issue of America’s Civil War:

Up Front

  • Pennsylvania gears up for the sesquicentennial (no, they didn’t contact me and no, I’m not holding my breath);
  • An interim (aren’t they all?) superintendent named for Gettysburg;
  • An interview with Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell on his state’s sesquicentennial efforts (let’s hope I don’t have to type that word again);
  • A short piece on the anecdotes, legends and lies about CSS Shenandoah;
  • A profile of Hinton Rowan Helper, a native-born Carolinian from a slave-holding family who published The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It in 1857, in which he blamed wealthy planters, “the slaveholding oligarchy” for his section’s ills and, while not disapproving of the institution morally, felt it was not a viable basis for an economic system.

Features:

  • Mike Clem: A Port in the Storm – on the US Naval Academy during the war.
  • Harold Holzer: Abraham Lincoln The Anti-Politician – hmm…this should be interesting considering the more you learn about Abe, the more you realize he was nothing if not a political animal.
  • Dana Shoaf: Grant’s Bridges to Victory – an illustrated essay on bridges in the Overland Campaign.
  • Jim Bradshaw: The Other Battle of Calcasieu Pass - some general wackiness caused by a 17-year-old Louisiana belle named Babette.  I wonder if vampires had something to do with it?
  • David McCormick: Knights in Binding Armor – on personal body armor in the Civil War.
  • Fight Songs - a pictorial essay on military music and musicians.

Reviews:

Six-Pack

  • Five new books, and only one old one.  Two by fellow bloggers: The Boys of Adams’ Battery G by Robert Grandchamp, and John Hoptak’s Our Boys Did Nobly.  Add Paul Taylor and that makes three bloggers with traditional print books in this issue.  Also here is Brian McGinty’s John Bron’s Trial and Clay Mountcastle’s Punitive War: Confederate Guerillas and Union Reprisals.  The last two books and only pairing this time around are Jim Hessler’s Sickles at Gettysburg and the classic Sickles the Incredible by W. A. Swanson).  This Six-Pack was a little more heavily edited and lost some of what I was trying to get across, but that’s the nature of a one-page with graphics limit.  I do wish my editor would stop changing my Corps designations (i.e. 9th Corps to The IX Corps).  They didn’t use roman numerals, so why should we?  We go ‘roud and ’round on it, and it’s really a small thing.

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Civil War Times – February 2010

4 12 2009

The new issue of Civil War Times has been mailed.  The cover is one of my favorite photographs of Robert E. Lee, taken on the steps of his rented home in Richmond shortly after the surrender of his army at Appomattox Court House.  Lee’s face clearly shows bitterness and defiance - perhaps he was still in denial.  I saw the lens Matthew Brady used to take this photo, in Warren Motts’s Military Museum in Columbus (see here).  This issue includes two Lee pieces, one by Gary Gallagher (Do the Numbers Add Up for “Marse Robert”?), the other by Noah Andre Trudeau (Lee’s Last Hurrah, about his postwar tour through the South).  Other feature articles:

  • Guerilla War on the High Seas by Craig L. Symonds
  • “To Rise Again”: the salvage of  USS Monitor by Kristina Fiore.
  • Seeing the War Firsthand:  rare newspaper sketches by Helen Hannon.
  • “Mimic War” No More: Phil Sheridan’s and Jubal Early’s faceoff in August 1864 by Fred Ray.

I also have a review of R. K. Krick’s entry in Broadfoot’s South Carolina Regimental-Roster Set, The 14th South Carolina Infantry Regiment, of the Gregg-McGowan Brigade on page 66.  And on page 15, I have a brief news item and photo on the Potomac Crossing and Shepherdstown Battlefield Tour program I wrote about here.

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Turkey Break

25 11 2009

There won’t be much – if any – activity here for a while as I take a little holiday break.  Nope, no burnout.  I do have some posts to make, but won’t be able to get to them for a week or so.  Anyway, I try only to post when I a) have something to say and b) have the time.  This is a case of b.  When things break, I’ll finish four more posts on my Springfield trip, and hope to pick up the pace with Resources posts.  While I’m away from the blog, take some time to surf around it – go to the resources section; click on some of the tags in the tag cloud in the lower part of the right hand margin.  Also look for me in print in the upcoming Civil War Times magazine – I think I have a news item and a book review in there.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving!








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