Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table

Education and Preservation

mcilwain tv cwrt jan 2019.pdf

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 

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.

October 11th Round Table Meeting — Atlanta Campaign Logistics

Greg BiggsGreg Biggs, a great friend of the Round Table and a frequent contributor to our understanding of all aspects of the Civil War will be here on Thursday, 11 October. His topic is: “The question was one of supplies” – The Logistics for William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. Greg led us on two tours in as many years focused on the Atlanta Campaign a few years back. There will be some in the audience that will recall the fantastic insight into the campaign. 


Greg Biggs has been a student of military history for over 45 years. His study includes the Spartans through modern times. His Civil War articles have been published in Blue & Gray magazine, Civil War Regiments journal, North-South Trader, Citizen’s Companion and local publications. He also has an essay in the recent book on the Tullahoma Campaign and is working on first-person accounts of that campaign as well as a unit history of the 83rd Illinois Infantry.  Greg is a Civil War flags historian and has consulted with a number of museums and authors and has presented flags programs to the Museum of the Confederacy and the National Civil War Museum among others. He has also assisted the Civil War Trust in securing flags for their website.  Greg lectures across the country on Civil War topics, primarily on flags and the Western Theater and he throws in a little Revolutionary War too. Greg leads tours of the Fort Donelson Campaign, the Tullahoma Campaign, the Atlanta Campaign and where The River Campaigns Began: Cairo, IL to Columbus/Belmont, KY for Civil War groups, individuals and U.S. Army Staff Rides. He is the president of the Clarksville Civil War Roundtable and an officer of the Nashville CWRT. He lives in Clarksville, Tennessee with his wife Karel, a 7th Grade science teacher, and their four cats named for Confederate cavalrymen.


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.

Clio’s Confederates: The Women who gave me my path

On Thursday, September 13, John Sledge presents Clio’s Confederates: The Women who gave me my path. Mr. Sledge’s presentation will focus on his grandmother and aunt on my father’s side, one in Mobile and one in Selma. One was born in 1889, one in 1894, so essentially, they were Victorian Southern women and bona fide steel magnolias as well. They knew people who witnessed the Civil War in Alabama first hand and their magical storytelling ability inspired me to become a historian.

John S. Sledge is senior Architectural Historian for the Mobile Historic Development Commission. He has a BA in History and Spanish from Auburn University and an MA in Historic Preservation from Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of six books, including The Mobile River, and These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War. His forthcoming title is The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History, to be published by the University of South Carolina Press in the fall of 2019.

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.

Roundtables Teach American Heritage

Begun in Chicago in 1941, “Civil War Round Tables” are historical study organizations that are independent of each other. The name “Round Table” connotes a setting where discussions and presentations occur, not a physical, round table. Organized as IRS 501(c)(3) entities, Round Tables are sited all-around the country by those interested in the study of the American War Between the States. The local “Round Table” is the Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table founded in 1993 and celebrated its 25th anniversary this summer. The purpose of the organization is to provide a forum for nonpartisan study, education and discussions concerning the American War Between the States and to support the preservation of Civil War battlefields with related activities.

Round Table members are a varied lot with professional historians, amateur historians and people who just enjoy history. Members’ backgrounds are varied as well with a mix of blue and white collar workers of all ages. As an example, President Harry Truman was one of the founders of the Kansas City Civil War Round Table because of his personal interest in his family’s participation in the war. In order to encourage membership by younger people in the Tennessee River Valley, special dispensation is granted for dues by high schoolers (free membership).

Monthly programs include presentations by a number of different speakers on a wide variety of topics dealing with the period of 1861-65. It is not all about battles, operations and tactics but presentations cover other issues such as technology, personal biographies of participants and sociological issues. Noted authors and historians frequently travel from around the country to present to the Round Tables.

Every year, the TVCWRT conducts a field trip to historical sites related to the war.  This October, a two-day visit to northern Mississippi will follow the campaigns and battles of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest in the defense of the state in 1864. The visit is based on the recently published book, “The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest 1861-1865” by TVCWRT member (and former president), retired Brig. Gen. John Scales, Ph.D. The trip will allow participants to actually visit a number of battles and engagements sites of the studied period and is open to the public with priority to Round Table members.

Surprisingly, despite decades of existence, there are those who have never heard of Round Tables. For professional military personnel, Round Tables provide a great way to learn military history so applicable to the military profession. In fact, foreign military officers have frequented Round Tables including a visit by an attaché stationed in Washington, D.C., to the TVCWRT. Many foreign military officers see value in studying our “Civil War” and the international officers at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, all take an elective on the war culminating in a trip to Gettysburg annually.

The war spanned four years, covered thousands of miles of territory, and involved millions of Americans. It remains a significant defining event in our national history.  Hundreds of new books are published each year about the war and the Civil War Round Tables provide a valuable venue through which intellectual knowledge about our American history can be shared. Visitors and guests are always welcome to attend the meetings and hopefully, become members. The TVCWRT meets the second Thursday of every month at the Elks Lodge at 725 Franklin St. in Huntsville.


Retired Lt. Col. Ed Kennedy

New Market resident

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

August 9th Round Table Meeting — Alton Military Prison

Thursday, 9 August; Howard Mann presents “The Alton Military Prison”. Howard G. Mann is currently a member of the Nashville Civil War Round Table. Previously, he was a member and former President of the Kansas City Civil War Roundtable (2000 to 2014) and was a member of the Harrisburg, PA Civil War Roundtable (1992 through 1995).

Howard’s great-grandfather, George Thomas Tracy, was a member of the 3rdKansas Volunteers, Lane’s Kansas Brigade, and the 10thKansas Infantry during the Civil War. Howard speaks on a variety of topics with a focus on his great-grandfather’s regiment as well as topics related to the Trans-Mississippi West in the Civil War.

From January 1864 through August 1864, the 10thKansas Infantry was posted throughout St. Louis and specifically at Alton Military Prison where they guarded Confederate prisoners of war, civilians and federal prisoners at Alton Prison, Gratiot Prison and Myrtle Street Prison. The 10thKansas was seen by the residents of these communities as battle tested veterans having served throughout the 1862 Campaign in Arkansas culminating in the December 7, 1862 battle at Prairie Grove, Arkansas. Their controversial commander, Colonel William Weer, former Attorney General of the Territory of Kansas, was a former resident of Carlinville, Illinois and had ties to the area, although his actions would result in community and military dissention and, ultimately, a court-martial.

While material is plentiful on Alton Military Prison during the Civil War, a book on this topic has never been published. His presentation will shed light on an interesting topic.

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

General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War

While revisionist history generally has pejorative connotations, General Grant and the Rewriting of History by Dr. Varney is an excellent case for “revisionism”.  Varney does an excellent job of re-assessing what has been written by over a century’s worth of historians and analyzing the subject matter using common sense and most importantly, critical thinking.   His work has produced a very detailed and analytical assessment of General U.S. Grant using primary source documents.  What Varney shows is that what we know of Grant’s wartime performance is biased and, in many cases, traced back to what Grant says it should be, not what it actually was in a number of cases.  This is a problem as errors in fact have been propagated, many times by very reputable historians as is proven by the author.

I believe, based on years of study and reading as well as personal experience as a professional infantry officer, that Grant was a good soldier prone to human emotions like any other.  Although Grant has many fine attributes to commend him as a leader, he also is shown by Varney to have a darker side, especially with those he took a disliking to.  Generals Rosecrans and Gouverneur K. Warren were but two of whom unfairly suffered from Grant’s displeasure.

The old adage that the “victors write the history” is certainly applicable to Grant’s memoirs.  Published twenty years after the war and based on Grant’s personal memories and subject to his prejudices and biases, The Memoirs of Ulysses Simpson Grant has been used for decades as a primary source without serious critical assessment.  There is good reason for this.  Grant won.  No one can deny that his accomplishments were substantial.  This lends credence to what Grant writes as “the” official records.  However, Varney finds well-founded faults with not only the memoirs, but with those who used them as the definitive source for their interpretations.  Many substantive and highly-placed historians have fallen victim to taking Grant’s word unquestioningly.  It is a human failing to not seriously question the word of leaders of Grant’s stature but it should be done.  This is accomplished through extensive cross-referencing with primary sources and good detective work by Varney who, combining logic and common sense, discovers a number of problems with Grant’s version of history.  I believe that Varney actually approached this topic with an open mind giving Grant the benefit of the doubt but the facts enumerated by Varney are convincingly undeniable in most cases.

General Grant and the Rewriting of History focuses on Generals Grant’s and Rosecran’s wartime experiences and relationship.  How Grant came to be at such variance with Rosecrans is puzzling.  Rosecrans was a year ahead of Grant at West Point and both left the Army after stints on active service.  There is no indication that they were at odds prior to 1862, and, in fact, might have been friends due to their common and somewhat similar military backgrounds.

Rosecrans was a capable and talented officer and leader.  He had his faults —-including pride and perhaps excessive ambition.  However, he was roundly admired by many of his subordinate leaders and soldiers.  Grant’s treatment of Rosecrans appears solely to have been based on a personal vendetta sparked by an unsubstantiated letter from another Union officer to Grant alleging Rosecrans’ disloyalty.  Grant seems to have placed much credence in this correspondence, affecting his relationship with Rosecrans.

Varney skillfully weaves a “pattern of deceit” by Grant beginning with Shiloh and how his performance is recorded for posterity.  Grant definitively shows a pattern of mis-remembered events and outright misrepresentations in his memoir of these events.  Memories tend to fade but the recorded official records, written contemporaneously or shortly after the events in question, are at odds with Grant’s memoir’s accounts.  Varney demonstrates the substantive “disconnects” in a number of cases using not just the Official Records, but the recollections of a number of other participants.

As the war progressed, Grant appears to not only have mis-remembered events, he actively sought to change their official recording for reasons we can only now speculate.  The re-writing of battle reports by Grant’s staff and changing of initial assessments of subordinates like Rosecrans demonstrate Grant was subject to unseemly, emotions, that average people experience.  Revenge, jealousy, and pettiness are not normally attributed to senior military leaders.  They are human however and subject to the same failings.  It is not unreasonable to understand that Grant suffers from these shortcomings.

The root of the Grant-Rosecrans divide is traced to Iuka in 1862 where, after a reasonably generous post-battle report, Grant turns on Rosecrans to blame him for the Confederate’s escape.  The battle at Corinth and the Tullahoma campaign lay the foundation for Rosecrans’ denouement at Chickamauga.  Grant became even more critical —- mostly without serious cause.  At this point however, I part ways with Varney’s analyses.

Having led both staff rides and tours of military leaders and US Army Command and General Staff College students to Chickamauga for almost twenty-five years, I cannot countenance Varney’s explanation of the battle failure being pinned on BG Thomas J. Wood.  Varney, I believe falls into the same trap he exposes in other historians by stating the Wood’s performance was intentionally based on a personal grudge.  The substantiation is conjecture and opinion, not fact.  This is the only place I find Varney to show a bias in an otherwise very balanced study.  The fact is that a number of circumstances, including Rosecrans’ bad decision-making and unclear orders due to physical and mental exhaustion combined to cause the Union battle disaster.  Despite rumor and conjecture, a general officer (Wood) intending to punish his commander in the heat of battle goes against logic when the consequences for Wood’s own command could have been catastrophic.

That Rosecrans and others like G.K. Warren suffered unfairly is a fact.  Leadership is a human endeavor and leaders and subordinates are both subject to human emotions.  They are not perfect.  However, Varney shows convincingly that Grant went beyond the bounds of professionalism to punish Rosecrans for imagined offenses.  It even extended to the post-war period when both had left the Army which smacks of personal revenge.  He backed his decisions by changing the official records and then insuring they survived in perpetuity by recording his feelings in memoirs.  Both Rosecrans and Warren are better than to be remembered for their reliefs by Grant.

Dr. Varney has done a tremendous service for the historical record by critically analyzing Grant’s memoirs.  His book is logical and clearly written with an excellent bibliography which demonstrates academic rigor on this topic.  General Grant and the Rewriting of History adds much to our knowledge of the war.  I highly recommend it to those with an interest in setting the records straight.

Reviewed by Ed Kennedy

Challenges of Command in the Civil War: Generalship, Leadership, and Strategy at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Beyond, Volume I: Generals and Generalship

Richard Sommers’ fame as a historian rests on forty years of service as the Senior Historian of the Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Barracks, PA. His enduring contribution to civil war scholarship rests with his first publication, Richmond Redeemed (1981), a massive study of the Fifth Federal Offensive against Petersburg. This work set a new standard for tactical study of civil war battles and was the first of a new genre of narrative history, the ‘micro-tactical’ history (still a popular genre, represented by works such as Henry Pfantz’s Gettysburg the Second Day, and Dave Powell’s very recently published three volumes on the battle of Chickamauga).

  Challenges of Command in the Civil War, first of a two-volume set, provides a distillation of his thoughts about Generalship in the American Civil War. The book is written in two parts, each composed of chapters that are nearly self-contained essays. All of them were written separately as lectures or papers delivered to the United States Army War College and various Civil War convocations. The first half of the book discusses the generalship of Grant and Lee, and these five chapters use examples drawn almost exclusively from the 1864 Virginia Overland and Petersburg Campaigns. Mr. Sommers writes more about Grant than Lee, but in discussing Lee he makes a very interesting argument: That Lee was not being overly-parochial or short-sighted when insisting on remaining in Virginia with his army throughout the war, but was correctly recognizing that Virginia, the most populous and economically developed southern state, was the actual heartland of the Confederacy.

His discussion of Grant’s generalship, the subject of four of the first five chapters, is an excellent review of the general’s strengths and weaknesses as a commander. Sommers’ does not consider Grant a genius, but delivers a very complete appreciation of Grant’s broad perspective, persistence, adaptability, and his mastery of logistics. Sommers also highlights Grant’s ability to learn from mistakes and take corrective action. Grant continuously modified his tactical and operational methods until he found the winning combination; first in the west and then in the east.

The second part of the book covers the origins and careers of Federal Army Corps Commanders between 1862 and 1865. In this section Sommers’ makes a very useful distinction between “political generals” and “citizen-soldiers.” Using chapters focused on the Battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Fifth Offensive against Petersburg he shows how the senior Federal leadership changed from 1862 through 1864: From older men to younger, from career Regular Army and former politicians to citizen soldiers, from men raised suddenly and with no preparation into supreme command to men who had time to develop professionally before taking senior positions in the army.  He provides very detailed background information, wartime service, and the post-war accomplishments of a very large number of Federal officers. He also provides a very short evaluation of each man.

Finally, there is one chapter devoted to those Civil War Generals (Union and Confederate) with Revolutionary War commanders as ancestors. This should interest the genealogist’s among us.

Sommers’ interpretations were developed through considerable research and consideration of other historian’s opinions, but he does not compare or contrast his ideas with those of other historians. He is at the climax of his career, and is stating his conclusions. This is a useful book for anyone interested in the generals and the generalship, mostly Federal, of the eastern theater of the American Civil War. The second volume of the set will be published soon, and will deal with grand strategy, strategy, and operations.

Reviewed by David Lady


Ron Chernow’s Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017; ISBN 978-1-59420-407-6) ranks among one of the best biographies I have read.  A sympathetic but not adulatory attitude to his subject, the book is obviously grounded in deep research. Military biographies often can be a bit harder to write than the standard sort simply because the author cannot assume that the reader has a deep background of military expertise and must set out the facts relating to this clearly and concisely.  This Chernow does.  I was most impressed by the way in which he kept the overall descriptive level on an even keel, never getting bogged down in excessive detail, but providing just enough information for the reader to grasp the gist.

The book is divided into four sections: one covering Grant’s early life, one on his Civil War experiences, one on his presidency, and the last on his final days, which must have been excruciating, and he faced this trial with magnificent courage. Chernow is an able, accomplished, and accurate writer.  One of his particular gifts is to provide vivid sketches of almost everyone with whom Grant dealt in any significant way, so you understand their characters, backgrounds, and also their cast of mind.  He clearly sees where bias and self-serving testimony is involved.  While most people who are well-read on the USA Civil War probably will learn little new about that in this book, the section on Grant’s presidency is a real eye-opener. When we remark on slanted and vituperative media commentary on President Trump, comparing it to how the press sometimes treated Grant and his political contemporaries, the current atmosphere takes on something of the aspect of an afternoon tea party!

Each of the sections of the book highlights something interesting and valuable in Grant’s life—

His early years were permeated by his father and father-in-law, both men of outsize egos and a reach which far exceeded their grasp.  Learning how to stand up to such men was essential for Grant’s development and also shaped his character — he wanted to be nothing like either of these men.

His Civil War years were marked by two traits which seem straightforward until you realize how few generals actually display either or both: a profound, instinctual understanding of the strategic situation, and the capacity for rapid decision-making, which Grant had in spades.  One chestnut which gets a perennial cooking is whether a general is great on his own account, or is great because his opponents were so bad.  Grant had the fortune to meet opponents like Pillow, Pemberton, and Bragg, and whipped them like cold cream, but even against first-rate opponents like Lee and Johnston, he prevailed.

His commitment to civil rights and the franchise for freed slaves [and indeed, Grant was generally enlightened about this whole spectrum of issues] stands out as a highlight of his presidential administration; Grant himself was the root of the matter in developing and implementing policy.  Chernow particularly shines here in seeing past the ‘reconstruction myth’ to give an accurate account of what happened.

Not least of the factors in Grant’s life, which Chernow presents throughout the book, was his good fortune in marriage.  Ulysses and Julia were perfectly matched and remained faithful supporters of each other throughout their entire lives; she was of cardinal importance to his well-being.  It is altogether fitting then that she lies beside him in his monumental tomb in New York City.

The text is supported by effective maps, a judiciously-chosen set of pictures, and a well-honed index.  Ultimately, this is a good book about a fundamentally good man, well worth reading for anyone interested in the force of character on events in a life filled with more accomplishments than any other ten men might have accomplished.


John Howard Oxley

John Howard Oxley was born right after WWII ended, which may account for his lifelong interest in military matters, with particular reference to technical naval history [he is a major battleship fan].  Apart from three years of service in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve’s University Naval Training Division, where he completed service as a sub-lieutenant, he has had no connection with the military whatsoever, apart from a two-year stint in the early 1990s as Research Director for Crisis Simulations Inc., which developed computer-assisted simulators for the Canadian Army and for civilian disaster relief organizations.  He retired from a 17-year career teaching IT at a private, for-profit university in Atlanta in 2014, relocating back to his native Canada in the following year.

Being single, with no responsibilities except for his cat, in retirement he indulges his passions for reading military and naval history along with lots of sci fi, board wargaming (including extensive re-design of existing naval war games), drinking good brandy, and smoking far too many cigars.  For over three decades, he has published reviews, mostly on military books, for The American Reference Book Annual, and is currently the feature editor of the Ships’ Library for the International Naval Research Organization. He also has an abiding affection for bad puns.

A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle

Gregory Ashton Coco (May 4, 1946 – February 11, 2009) was a student of and a prolific writer on the Civil War.  In these two volumes (each a 2017 reprint by Savas Beattie of the originals), Greg gives us an enlightening tour of too often-neglected aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg – battlefield medical care (Union and Confederate) and the aftermath of the battle.

The Civil War was the bloodiest war in the history of the United States. Two percent of the population at the time (approximately 620,000) died during the conflict. These numbers may actually be an underestimate of the death toll, given that much of the data regarding deaths of Confederate soldiers was destroyed when Richmond burned on April 2, 1865. More recent estimates based on comparative census data put the figure closer to 752,000.  In any event, more Americans died in the Civil War than in all other wars combined.

The Civil War left about 1 in 10 able-bodied Union soldiers dead or incapacitated, versus 1 in 4 in the Confederate Army.  Countless soldiers were left disabled in one way or another. Amputations were prolific.  The year after the war ended, the state of Mississippi spent 20% of its annual budget on artificial limbs for its veterans.  We don’t have accurate figures on what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so one can only presume its extent and the lingering suffering it caused.

At Gettysburg, alone, casualties totaled 23,049 for the Union (3,155 dead, 14,529 wounded, 5,365 missing). Confederate casualties were 28,063 (3,903 dead, 18,735 injured, and 5,425 missing), more than a third of Lee’s army.

This era is often referred to in a negative way as the Middle Ages of medicine in the United States. Physicians were practicing in an era before the germ theory of disease was established, before sterile technique and antisepsis were known, with very few effective medications, and often operating 48 to 72 hours with no sleep.  Layer that on something over 33,000 injured in three days of hard fighting, and you can begin to imagine the scope of what Mr. Coco covers in these two books.

Based upon years of firsthand research, Greg’s A Vast Sea of Misery introduces us to 160 field hospitals.  He uses the term broadly, applying it to the complete network of field aid stations and anywhere else that casualties were collected for medical treatment – the full gamut of what today is known as a combat service support system – battlefield medical care.  His is an exhaustive treatment, describing each site by name and location, often supplemented with recollections and first-hand accounts to provide context and flavor.  With his maps and inventory of sites, one could spend days at the battlefield studying this aspect of the battle alone.  In the book’s one appendix, Greg, himself a National Park Service Ranger and a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, provides a concise history of how battlefield guides came to be an organized and certified service at Gettysburg.

In the companion book, A Strange and Blighted Land, Greg deals with the death and destruction that littered the landscape after the battle.  He discusses how the dead and wounded were handled, how prisoners were handled, and the fate of the thousands of stragglers and deserters left behind once the armies departed.  Along the way he describes how and why the Gettysburg National Cemetery and the Gettysburg National Military Park were established.

These are not easy reads, but they are interesting books and necessary for anyone who wants to be well-informed about the American Civil War or even about war in general. A wealth of information in each, Greg did us a great service in writing them, as did Savas Beatie for re-issuing them for today’s audiences.  For an awareness skim-through or a deep dive, these books will serve you well.  Enjoy!

PS, if you are interested in delving more deeply into either of these topics, let me suggest Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign(Kent Masterson Brown) and Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Megan Kate Nelson).  Reviews of both books are available on our website (

  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.

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