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Book Review

The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi

Dr. Timothy B. Smith, the author, wanted to tell a good story, describe the events in a social context, and include the operational considerations that fully illustrate the significance of the achievement.  He achieved his objectives.

John Wayne’s cavalry adventure “The Horse Soldiers” was entertaining but not exactly correct. Dr. Smith, also the author of “Champion Hill: Decisive battle for Vicksburg”, explains the considerations and analysis leading to the operational faints and distractions orchestrated in Northwest Mississippi and North Alabama to confuse the Confederate commanders in Mississippi and Richmond allowing Grierson to execute the primary mission; destroy and disrupt the Mississippi Southern Railroad resupply of Vicksburg that passed through the rail hub at Newton Station and distract Confederate action from Grant as he crossed the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg.

Mr. Smith includes a number of simple yet clear maps of the area of operation, essentially Mississippi, that aid understanding the complexity of the operational situation and the audacity of Grierson’s challenge. He provides an interesting character study of Grierson and other officers and men participating. He describes the task organization of the cavalry and detachments and the missions they were assigned and executed on their trek through Mississippi. All topics essential to a complete study of military operations. Readers will also enjoy the prologue that describes journalists, individual participants, Union military leaders, and even the Confederate response to the raid. The author also describes the impact of the raid on the lives of some soldiers for the remainder of the war and in life, providing testimony to how the hazards of war linger with its participants. 

This book will not only impress cavalry enthusiasts, but anyone with a serious or casual interest in Civil War operations and the personalities that experience it.

 

Reviewed by Arley McCormick

Holding the Line on the River of Death: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga, September 18, 1863

This exceptionally well-researched and written book provides a tremendous view of the opening tactical actions of the battle of Chickamauga, Georgia 19-20 September 1863 from the Federal’s perspective.  The author, Eric Wittenburg writes a detailed account of the actions of two major units involved in the opening stages of the battle: Minty’s cavalry and Wilder’s mounted infantry brigades.   His bibliography is extensive and demonstrates the use of a wide breath of applicable resources.  

The basic premise of the book is that the two mounted brigades of Wilder and Minty “saved” the Army of the Cumberland in September 1863.  Although the army was defeated, it was not destroyed.  I think the author definitively proved his thesis in a clear, logical manner.  Much of the mounted forces’ actions happened in spite of the very confused, and almost panicked response by Major General Rosecrans to the discovery of General Bragg’s army in close proximity.  Rosecrans’s actions to consolidate his widely dispersed forces to meet Bragg’s imminent threat caused units to re-task organize on-the-move and conduct a withdrawal in contact, a less than desirable method of conducting operations.  

Colonel Robert Minty, a former British Army officer and extremely capable cavalry commander, led a cavalry brigade in Major General McCook’s XX Corps (cavalry).  Two of the three regiments were armed with carbines, the third was armed with Colt revolving rifles essentially making them “mounted infantry”.  Colonel Wilder, a former businessman, led a brigade of mounted infantry who were armed with the relatively new, breech-loading Spencer rifle.  While mounted infantry was not a new concept, it was first successfully employed in the Army of the Cumberland during the Tullahoma Campaign.  While Wittman claims Wilder “invented” the “concept” of mounted infantry, this is not exactly correct.  The Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, later becoming the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, was formed in 1846, pre-dating Wilder’s unit.  Arguably, the U.S. Dragoons (1833) pre-date both of those organizations.  The concept had been around for a number of years.  Wilder’s real claim-to-fame was the arming of his mounted units with the new, multi-shot, Spencer rifle.

Both brigades had a complement of field artillery.  Minty had a section from the Chicago Board of Trade battery and Wilder had Eli Lilly’s battery (18th Independent Battery, Indiana Light Artillery) which was attached to Wilder’s unit giving both units their own direct support artillery responding to their commanders’ needs.

In mid-September 1863, McCook’s XX Corps was operating on a widely separated avenue of approach as the right wing of the Army of the Cumberland.  All of Rosecrans’ corps’s were out of mutually supporting distance based on his misperception that the Confederates were withdrawing to Atlanta.  Minty’s brigade had been detached from XX Corps to provide cavalry support to XXI Corps (Crittenden) on the far-left wing of the army.  Wilder’s brigade was nominally part of Reynolds division of Granger’s Reserve Corps, but because of their unique capabilities, were operating, almost at the discretion of Major General Rosecrans, forward of the army.  This had the potential for impacting command and control except for the excellent cooperation exhibited by both Minty and Wilder with each other.  As the battle developed, so did potential problems as commanders “jumped the chains of command”.  Major General Rosecrans was not beyond by-passing corps and division commanders to order division commanders (two levels down) what to do, a significant faux pas in the military.

Both Minty and Wilder recognized the threat posed by Bragg’s army consolidation in north Georgia during mid-September 1863.  Both these brigades immediately deployed against Bragg’s consolidation and north-ward advance with the intent to slow the Confederates.  Minty’s superior, Crittenden, refused to acknowledge Bragg’s threat until it was literally on top of him.  Rosecrans recognized the threat to his line of communication and ability to withdraw to Chattanooga but time was not on his side.  It was then that the mounted forces of Wilder’s mounted infantry and Minty’s cavalry proved their real value to the Army of the Cumberland.

Wittenberg makes an excellent analogy to modern tactical doctrine.  The deployment of Minty and Wilder’s brigades against Bragg on 18 September was, as aptly pointed-out by Wittenberg, in what are now considered “traditional” cavalry roles.  They acted as a “covering force” in modern doctrinal parlance.  Additionally, while the definition of security tasks have not changed substantially since WWII, Wittenberg does reference an Army manual twenty years out-of-date. The tasks performed by Minty and Wilder were “covering forces” cited by Wittenberg because they operated away from the main force, were designed to “buy-time” for the main body to maneuver, and they accepted engagement in decisive combat.  This is a significant topic of discussion with Army units that I frequently take to Chickamauga.  The difference between a “cover” and “screen” (or “guard”) tasks differ in a number of ways to those in Army units that must conduct these.  Wittenberg correctly assesses what Minty and Wilder did and correctly ties it to our modern doctrinal tasks.  

Wittenberg does a great job of introducing the reader to the different commanders and key participants by the use of explanatory footnotes.  They add much to the book and add a great deal to the understanding of who these men were.  I give major kudos to his excellent notes.  The short biographies of these personnel makes for interesting reading and does much to add to the understanding of the people involved in this major battle.

The writing style is easy to read and Wittenberg’s organization is excellent.  The bane of editors are maps but I believe that there can never be too many.  A few more would have been excellent but the ones that are used are very good.  The period and modern images of commanders and locations are interesting although the modern photos are not the best printed quality.  I really like the driving instructions and the fact that GPS coordinates are listed for those not familiar with the battlefield.  They make the book infinitely more useable for those visiting the battlefield. The organization table showing the armaments of the different regiments is superlative.  However, photos and descriptions of the weapons would have been a nice addition for those who are not familiar with period weapons.

There are a few points that I disagree with, or, are minor editorial errors.  The claim that Bragg and President Jefferson Davis were life-long “friends” is not an interpretation that I agree with since Bragg left the US Army largely as a result of Davis’ treatment.  Infantry cartridge boxes carried 40 rather than 60 rounds, and Bragg’s offensive plans seemed to be more of a result of fragmentary orders than “carefully laid plan(s)”.

Wittenberg weaves the complex maneuver of both armies into a highly readable and logical story making this book a tremendous resource for the study of the campaign and battle of Chickamauga.  Overall, I rate this book as an A+ that does much to add to the understanding of the battle at Chickamauga and the war.  It is a “must read” for students of the battle.  

Reviewed by Ed Kennedy

“The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg — A History and Walking Tour

There were cavalrymen that historians and adventure writers have painted as icons of daring and adventure, Custer, Forrest, Morgan come to mind but competent leaders that didn’t capture the spirit of the horse because opportunity eluded them yet were respected and, in some cases, revered because they were competent. John Buford was successful and competent by all accounts yet researchers may be disappointed, Gettysburg enthusiast may feel more discussion was necessary with regard to his action on day 1 of the battle, but for most readers with limited knowledge of John Buford it will be satisfying and interesting. Once your study of the Civil War inches down from the principle leadership of legend to those that executed the hard parts, primary source information is sketchy at best. And, particularly if the subject died before the war ended. 

   The General, apparently, didn’t write much aside from dispatches and his contemporaries apparently, while recognizing his competence as a cavalry leader found nothing particularly noteworthy to applaud or complain about to their spouses or friends which leads one to believe he was a solder executing his mission with apparent success and not an opportunist, a noteworthy characteristic not always found in senior Civil War leaders. 

  Mr. Whittenburg produced a pretty clear, although sketchy, character study of the General, his decision-making process, and personal habits. And, he provides a sufficient analysis of Buford’s battlefield conduct to illustrate a bit of his command style. 

   Mr. Whittenburg is an attorney and attorneys are known for their research skills so the assumption is that the author found about as much as there is on John Buford today. It is a pretty quick and rewarding read, yet if you expect to learn of all the warts associated with his character, his failures and disappointments, more details must lie in some dusty archive awaiting discovery. 

 

Reviewed by Arley McCormick

To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862

Although I was unable to attend the special December meeting of the TVCWRT, I was told the topic was well represented and the speaker really understood his topic. For those of you who also were unable to be there, the subject of December’s meeting was the Dunker Church at Sharpsburg, Maryland. Coincidentally, the subject of this review is the Maryland Campaign of 1862 as presented in To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862, a new book by Robert Orrison and Kevin R. Pawlak.

The book is part of the Emerging Civil War Series, from Savas-Beatie Publishers, offering easy-to-read overviews of some of the War’s most important battles and stories. The series received the Army Historical Foundation’s Lieutenant General Richard G. Trefry Award for contributions to the literature on the history of the U.S. Army. More information can be found at www.emergingcivilwar.com. 

To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862, is precisely what the title describes, a guide. It is, in fact, a driving and, occasionally, walking, tour guide of the entire campaign, which lasted from early September to November of that year during which several actions and skirmishes occurred, including, of course, the battle at Sharpsburg, Maryland, along the banks of Antietam Creek. Each chapter focuses on the movements and locations of the Confederate and Federal armies as they moved and counter-moved across western Maryland and northern Virginia that autumn. Although it would be a daunting task to visit and describe every location, the authors have given readers a book that definitely hits the more important ones and even takes them to a few out-of-the-way spots and hidden gems along the way.

Each tour stop or key military action is shown on maps by Hal Jespersen (five driving tour maps and nine troop movement/battle maps) and each chapter is peppered with photographs of key figures, monuments, and locations you will see along the way. Points of interest are described in detail along with an admonition to respect the rights of private homeowners who live in historical structures. Picture captions provide historical and interesting information on the subject. Every point along the trip is provided with turn-by-turn driving directions, typically starting at a visitor center or location important to that chapter’s focus, and each tour stop includes GPS coordinates.

Most of the tour routes follow the actual roads traveled by the opposing armies and you’ll find that the paths of these armies crossed in more than a few places. Accordingly, although a site may be listed in more than one chapter, the point of view is that of the units visiting at the time, so the reader doesn’t get the same information and, possibly, learns something new each time.

Getting back to my introductory paragraph, the Dunker Church at Sharpsburg was, interestingly, mentioned only briefly in the text. First noted in the narrative as the target of General Hooker’s men the morning of September 17, and then in a photo caption, the plateau surrounding the church was said to be “artillery hell” for General Stephen Dill Lee, who had posted 15 guns in the area and lost 85 men from his battalion to the severe fire of the Federal guns pounding his position. Even though it’s not a focal point of the tour, the church was (is) located in the center of many important landmarks familiar to students of the battle including the Cornfield, East Woods, West Woods, and Bloody Lane. 

To Hazard All definitely lives up to its purpose; an easy-to-follow guide to the important, and some “hidden”, sites associated with the Autumn 1862 Maryland Campaign. Scattered across 120 miles of western Maryland, the history and natural beauty of the area cannot be denied. Readers living in the region can use this book as an easy “day-tripping” guide, and for those living farther afield, the text offers readers an introduction to the area’s features. If you decide to visit, To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862, is a great place to start.

 

Reviewed by Lee Hattabaugh

The Million-Dollar Man Who Helped Kill a President

President Lincoln was reviled by many in the Confederacy, being considered the cause of the Civil War and the personification of all the wrongs the North had perpetrated on the South.  As the war ran on, and particularly in its waning days, many concluded that his assassination was warranted.  These feelings came together on the evening of April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth shot the president at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.  Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward had also been targeted that fateful night.  President Lincoln died the next morning.  The would-be assassin targeting VP Johnson lost his nerve, and Seward was only wounded.

Anger and hatred flared in the North, and federal efforts to find and bring the conspirators to justice were intense.  Booth was shot resisting arrest in a barn on Garnett’s Farm in King George County, VA on the morning of April 26, 1865.  In the ensuing days and weeks scores of others were arrested (including co-conspirator David Herold who was with Booth when he was killed.)  Having had the slightest contact with the conspiracy was grounds.  In the end, all were released except for eight.  Of these, each was found guilty of participating in the conspiracy.  Four were executed by hanging, three were given life prison sentences, and one sentenced to six years.

One of those caught up in the sweep was an Alabama firebrand lawyer, George Washington Gayle, former Democratic state legislator and US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama– the “Million-Dollar Man” whose involvement in the assassination Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr. studies in this book.  Conventional histories portray Gayle as a tangential figure, certainly sympathetic to efforts to bring President Lincoln down, but not a direct player.  Mr. McIlwain sees Gayle’s role differently – less tangential and more direct.  What was Gayle’s contribution to the assassination of PresidentLincoln? It revolved around his publication in a local newspaper, the Selma Dispatch, in December 1864 a call – an advertisement – for contributions towards raising $1 million (and towards which he contributed the first $1,000) for the express purpose of paying for the assassination of President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Mr. Seward by the following March 1, 1865.  Serious intent?  Did it substantively contribute towards the actual assassination? You must read the book to find that out, but I will saythat Mr. McIlwain provides substantive argument and wellreasoned conclusions.  

This is a substantive yet concise read.  It provides history at the personal level of the growth and development of the Secessionist movement and, ultimately, the assassination plot, principally as that history developed in South Carolina and Alabama, with the focus on Gayle within the pantheon of local politicos and activists all along the way.  Mr. McIlwain’slawyerly experience and training shines through with his meticulous attention to detail and masterful reliance on period newspaper reporting and commentary for flavor and contemporary context.

It eventuated that Gayle was apprehended by federal authorities and held in prison pending trial by military tribunal – a trial that never came.  For various reasons analyzed by Mr. McIlwain, the trial was delayed.  Then, in an interesting turn, President Andrew Johnson authorized his parole from the prison at Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia.  The terms of his parolerequired him to return to Alabama for trial by a civil court rather than a military court (which was falling out of favor as the venue of choice).  President Johnson finally pardoned him in full on April 27, 1867, before the civil trial could be arranged.  It turned out to be quite a ride for Mr. Gayle, and quite a tale described by Mr. McIlwain.  Enjoy!

Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr., has been practicing law for more than three decades in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This is the third book Mr. McIlwain has written.  The other two were Civil War Alabama (co-authored with G. Ward Hubbs; Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016) and 1865 Alabama: From Civil to Uncivil Peace (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017).  He has also published several articles in a variety of history journals.

Your reviewer is Emil L. Posey, former Vice President of the TVCWRT, now continuing to support by being part of the Stage Crew. His work history spans almost 45 years of military and civilian service to our country.  He retired from NASA/George C. Marshall Space Flight Center on December 27, 2014.  He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Hood College, Frederick, Maryland; is a former president of the Huntsville chapter of the National Contract Management Association, and is a life member of the Special Forces Association.  He is also a member of Elks Lodge 1648 (Huntsville, AL) and the Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society.  He is a dedicated bibliophile, and is a (very) armchair political analyst and military enthusiast.

The Maps of Fredericksburg: An Atlas of the Fredericksburg Campaign, Including All Cavalry Operations, September 18, 1862 – January 22, 1863

The Maps of Fredericksburg is a very complete exposition of the campaign leading from Antietam (September 1862) to the Mud March (January 1863). It is also a detailed hour-by-hour and event-by-event discussion of the actual battle at Fredericksburg in early December. Laid out in a very user-friendly format of a map on the right-hand side and facing page text explaining the map, the book serves as a useful and insightful guide to not only the battle itself but also as to why the battle took place when and where it did. Author Bradley Gottfried has written five other books documenting the campaign in the East and his experience shows on every page.

There are a few flaws. A number of misprints are present throughout the book, most in the text but a few on the maps as well. Many of the maps used the same “base map” and there are instances of icons from one illustration not being erased before the base was utilized for another map. There are also several instances of the “north-indicating arrow” not actually pointing north, which can cause some disorientation if the reader is not careful. However, as long as you are aware of these, the book offers what I would consider an indispensable guide for those who wish to study the battle in detail or knowledgeably tour it. I highly recommend it on that basis.

 John Scales is a former President of the Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table and continues to lead tours and discussions regarding the Civil War.

September Mourn: The Dunker Church of Antietam

The Dunker Church is no stranger to those familiar with the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).  Antietam is an iconic battle, known for it being where Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was turned back in its first invasion of the North in a battle that saw the highest number of casualties in a single day in the whole of the war. But how much do you know about the church itself?  In one of the great ironies of the Civil War, “in the middle of this whirlwind of violence stood the small white washed building founded on the principles of peace and dedicated to the brotherhood of all men.“

This is a tight history of a single artifice on a major Civil War battlefield.  Despite its narrow focus, it is an easy and delightfully interesting read.  It describes the spiritual journey of a small German pacifist religious sect — separate in their own trajectory, but part of a much larger historical meme — and how their journey intersected with a violent sweep of history when war overtakes them. Schmidt and Barkley tell their story — who the Dunkers were, how they came to be, and how this small church, caught up in a battle in a war over slavery, both of which (war and slavery) its congregation considered abominations, became one of the three most iconic churches in US military history (the others being the Alamo Mission and the Shiloh Meeting House).

It begins with the construction of the church, its layout and furnishings, and typical congregation activities as well as the Brethren themselves.  There is a concise summary of the overall battle (plus an appended more detailed description – a “tactical overview” – of the action immediately around the church), followed by an interesting discussion of local impressions in the days immediately preceding and following the battle, as well as activities in and around the church itself during the battle. It contains interesting vignettes, such as the loss of the Dunker Bible and its return, and the accompanying story of Brother John T. Lewis’s roll in its return.

Schmidt and Barkley don’t stop with the battle’s end.  They go on to tell of the repair of battle damage, the various battlefield markers and memorials, unit reunions, and the church’s ultimate demise in the early 1900s.  Following its collapse during a particularly fierce windstorm in 1923, the battlefield was left with only the church’s foundation until it was rebuilt and rededicated on September 2, 1962, just a few days short of the 100th anniversary of the battle.

Alann Schmidt spent 15 years as a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield.  Terry Barkley has served as an archivist and museum curator at Bridgewater College in Virginia, a Brethren-related institution.  Together they have produced a marvelous description of this church, its people, and its place in history.  Well written, full of rich detail and visuals throughout, this is a big “little” story of how we, as individuals and institutions, can and do get swept up in events beyond our control and yet somehow endure. Enjoy!

  Your reviewer is Emil L. Posey, former Vice President of the TVCWRT, now continuing to support by being part of the Stage Crew. His work history spans almost 45 years of military and civilian service to our country.  He retired from NASA/George C. Marshall Space Flight Center on December 27, 2014.  He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Hood College, Frederick, Maryland; is a former president of the Huntsville chapter of the National Contract Management Association, and is a life member of the Special Forces Association.  He is also a member of Elks Lodge 1648 (Huntsville, AL) and the Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society.  He is a dedicated bibliophile, and is a (very) armchair political analyst and military enthusiast.

Alabama and the Civil War: A History Guide

The book should have another subtitle; South of the Tennessee River. But, even as his work minimizes the war in communities north of the Tennessee River it fulfills the subtitle; A History & Guide. The most impressive chapters address manufacturing, prisons, forts, and key players.

Mr. Jones does not divulge the criteria that he used to choose the key players he addresses and it will challenge your imagination why he chose Emma Sansom and completely ignores the first Secretary of War, Leroy Pope Walker. He does address politicians, fire eaters, and Generals, but ignores the home front, bushwhackers and partisans. The value of the narrative is not in the detail but in the timelines that give a perspective on the life and times affecting the key players, logistics facilities, and events.

Mr. Jones narrative will garner interest from some of our most avid Civil War enthusiasts and disappoint others who cherish infinite details. But the descriptions of the war industry in Alabama south of the Tennessee River and the overview of battles perpetrated by Union Army General’s James Wilson and Able Streight, and Union naval officers Rear Admiral David Farragut and the seldom addressed incursion up the Tennessee River to the Shoals in North Alabama by U.S. Navy Lieutenant S.L. Phelps will delight others. Union General’s Ormsby Mitchel’s capture of Huntsville and Edward Canby’s capture of Mobile are also mentioned.

I define Mr. Jones work as an introduction to the Civil War in Alabama and in only 180 pages of narrative there are nuggets of information that will tweak your interest. It is an excellent, although compressed, source to begin further study.

 

Reviewed by Arley McCormick

Confederate Courage on Other Fields: Overlooked Episodes of Leadership, Cruelty, Character, and Kindness

Confederate Courage on Other Fields is an interesting compendium of four separate stories.  Three of the stories are from the Eastern Theater, one from the Trans-Mississippi.  While I am not sure how I would entitle the book, I do not believe that the title given to the book accurately reflect the contents.  Less the chapter about Price’s Raid, the book is about North Carolina soldiers.  It is somewhat disparate but still very interesting.

The four stories that are related are very extensively researched and well documented.  Excellent images and current-day photos of battle sites add much to the narrative.  I am an advocate of always having more maps and but understand the hesitancy of publishers to do so due to costs.  However, this book would be enhanced with more maps to improve understanding.

The first chapter begins with the end of the war so the book is not arranged chronologically.  The battle of Dinwiddle Courthouse is covered with heavy emphasis on the human dimension of battle —- as are all chapters.  Soldiers are not portrayed as faceless numbers but as real people who suffer through horrendous actions.  The pathos of battle is described with vignettes including those of a young bugle boy whose father dies in his arms.

The second chapter follows the life of COL C.C. Blacknall, 23rd N.C. Infantry Regiment, who is dies from the effects of a serious wound just a few months before the end of the war.  Chapter three jumps to the Trans-Mississippi —- Missouri and the fateful raid by Price’s cavalry corps in the late summer and fall of 1864.  Crawford captures the intense feelings borne of war crimes against the populace and how this generated a non-stop partisan warfare against occupying Federal troops.  It specifically highlights the revenge and retaliations inflicted by each side.   Chapter four is a short, but evocative chapter dealing with soldiers sent to a hospital located in Kittrell’s Springs, North Carolina.  It highlights the tragedy of soldiers who not only suffer from battle wounds, but also from disease which killed more soldiers than did bullets during the war.

  Confederate Courage on Other Fields provides an interesting view of the war by considering social and personal aspects of the soldiers who fought in it.  For readers who enjoy learning about the lives of soldiers and their battlefield experiences without having to slog through entire campaigns or the war, this is an excellent book.  For those from North Carolina or Missouri, it should hold a special interest due to the link to the units and places discussed.

Reviewed by Ed Kennedy

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