Upon the Fields of Battle

If you’re worried about the state of military history in the study of the Civil War, this fine volume should alleviate your fears. Edited by Drs. Drew Bledsoe and Andrew Lang, the book features twelve essays from some of the top historians in Civil War history.

Bledsoe and Lang team up for the first essay, “Military History and the American Civil War.” They tell us, “Critics of ‘traditional’ or ‘conventional’ military history are often caught up in a dismissive paradox, viewing studies of tactics, strategy, biography, campaigns, logistics, and technology as ‘too geared toward a popular audience and yet too technical and complex.’ We believe that this misperception has led to needless lacunae in Civil War studies that risk tribalizing historians, whose work otherwise suggests a collective enrichment of the field. Our view is that the ‘military history’ of the Civil War should grow–and has grown–beyond its more traditional and old-fashioned boundaries to encompass the martial, cultural, social, political, and applied dimensions of military service and institutions. After all, the Civil War generation thought precisely in these collective terms–and so should we. Campaigns, battles, and biography formed the backbone of traditional Civil War military history, even appearing before the conclusion of the conflict itself. The intervening decades have seen a glut of such ‘drum-and-trumpet’ histories and chronological narratives, often bounded by the battlefield and tightly focused on commanders, strategies, and tactics. In the mid-twentieth century Bell I. Wiley brought the experiences of the ‘common soldier’ of the Civil War into the public consciousness, inspiring social historians to take a fresh look at the armies from the bottom up. Perhaps even more influential to the generations of Civil War historians who followed Wiley, John Keegan’s sensitive examination of the ‘face of battle’ inspired them to dig deep into and employ traditional methodologies of military history, informing new ways of thinking about the experience of war. Important methodological changes brought to the historical profession occasioned the rise of the ‘new’ military history–though that now-dated term has itself fallen somewhat out of favor–linking the armed forces and the field of battle, both defined broadly, to wider societal conditions and cultural values. in truth, there is now very little that is ‘new’ about the new military history of the Civil War. In a 1991 article, Joseph T. Glatthaar observed the trend toward a new approach to the military history of the war, describing it as an effort ‘to link military history, whether in wartime or peacetime, to broader themes in society. Thus, studies of the new military history relate directly to larger historical issues and trends, and this has enabled military historians to gain a legitimacy in the historical profession and also to attract the interest of scholars who would never consider themselves military historians.” [p. 5] In discussing some of the more recent works, the authors write, “Scholars have explored soldiers’ motivations and lived experiences, the multiplicity of reasons for and implications of victory and defeat, the role of armies in the processes of emancipation and Reconstruction, an increasing understanding of the importance of ethnicity and gender, and the essential role of women and people of color in the course and conduct of the war. The military aspects of the Civil War continue to be scrutinized through considerations of class concerns, religious and intellectual history, and the complex interplay and blurring of boundaries between home front and battlefield. Authors still push the envelope of traditional military history by evaluating the makeup and movement of armies and navies, leadership, command, contingency, tactics and technology, asymmetrical and irregular warfare, counterinsurgency, logistics, desertion and disloyalty, the process of professionalization, and the seemingly confusing transition from war to peace, mobilization to demobilization. Historians also link the military aspect of the war to its contested memory and meaning, to participants’ sensibility and ways of knowing, to material culture, and to the relationships between armies and the natural environment. Explorations of Civil War trauma and stress, the ‘dark turn,’ and the rejection of triumphalist, reconciliatory, heroic, and tragic narratives all provide more subtle understandings of the war’s violence and destruction as well as its larger meanings and lasting influence.” [p. 6] While there are many different aspects of analysis of military actions, the authors stress contingency. They write, “armed conflict is inherently unpredictable, shaped indelibly by what Carl von Clausewitz called ‘the fog of war.’ Military history reminds us that contingency is a potent concept that should inform our thinking and serve as a corrective to myopic presentism, teleological determinism, or the conceit of perfect retrospection. Battles and campaigns, perhaps more than any other historical arena, illustrate the power of contingency to shape human events. Historians must resist the temptation to see the Civil War’s outcome as predetermined or else risk falling into a trap of elevating Union victory to an a priori assumption. The pernicious ideology of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy is predicated upon just such a willful disregard of historical contingency. Certainly at the war’s outset the United States possessed material and manpower advantages over the slaveholding republic and continued to do so throughout the conflict, imparting certain important benefits to the Union war effort. Causation in history is immensely complex, and identifying the chain of events that dictate historical outcomes is often an exercise in subjectivity. But to surrender to the notion that the principal outcomes of the war–preservation of the Union and emancipation–were foreordained ignores the fact that the ultimate issue of victory or defeat hung in the balance and could only be adjudicated, even if imperfectly, by battlefield outcomes. A failure to account for contingency also dismisses the interconnectedness and unpredictability of actions. We see military history, particularly an acceptance and understanding of historical contingency intrinsic to war, as an antidote to the kind of thinking that fueled the Lost Cause for a century and a half or more and that continues to cloud modern understandings of the Civil War and its consequences.” [p. 8] They also “believe that a thoughtful assessment of command and control must lie at the heart of an analysis of war. The fine-grained sensibility of the historian is particularly well suited to frame analyses of leadership, culture, shared experience, and the personal relationships of the actors.” [p. 8] This essay introduced the volume, set the tone for the rest of the essays, and gave us a preview of what each author was going to cover.

In “Revitalizing Traditional Military History in the Current Age of Civil War Studies,” Dr. Earl Hess calls on historians to include traditional military history in their studies, not to supplant but to supplement their usual perspectives. Hess points out, “There are in fact many kinds of military history, not just one, and all of them have important perspectives on every facet of the Civil War, not just on the battlefield or the campaign trail or within the ranks of the armies.” [p. 21] He discusses the decline of academic military history by saying, “Traditional military history is certainly on a steep decline in academia in general, not just in Civil War studies. In fact, academic jobs specifically defined as Civil War positions of any kind are on the decline as well. There will always be a popular market for Civil War history, but it is shrinking, and if academia continues to marginalize traditional military history, readers will find fewer good studies produced by trained historians. There have always been Civil War military histories written by nonacademic authors, but their quality has ranged from those that are as good as any scholarly work down to those that misinform the reader and distort the subject. The significance of traditional military history within Civil War studies will never be adequately served if left entirely in the hands of nonacademic writers. The field needs traditional military history, and the people who can do it well are those with academic and historiographic training.” [pp. 22-23] In evaluating the state of military history applied to the Civil War, Hess identifies certain weaknesses. “One of the chief causes is the large popular market for combat studies. Traditional military historians write for at least three potential audiences: their peers in the academic world, a small class of nonacademic readers who are serious-minded students of the war, and a much larger class of nonacademic readers who have only a casual interest in the conflict. The best kind of works reach the first two classes, while the lesser quality products tend to be more popular among the third class. In general, nonacademic readers tend to expect colorful narrative, to desire an emphasis on action and personalities, and to have little interest in new interpretations or linking Civil War studies with general trends in Western military history, which of course are important for academics. The more serious-minded nonacademic reader is far more open to new ideas and the larger context of military operations, but the more casual reader rarely seems to be so. Traditional military historians of the Civil War have tended to write for the lower common denominator rather than for the higher. … The ready market for books has attracted a large number of nonacademic writers who have produced works of poor quality. In the minds of many scholars, this has branded Civil War military history as tainted, diluted, and unacademic.” [p. 23] Dr. Hess tells us, “Traditional Civil War military historians need to stretch themselves out of comfortable niches imposed by their large popular audiences. They need to not only write more thoroughly researched battle books and campaign studies that offer new interpretations of their subject but also seek the larger implications of their effort well beyond the battlefield and develop fundamentally new views of their subject when justified. They need to become true military historians rather than mere chroniclers of Civil War battles.” [p. 28] He also calls for more use of numbers and statistical analysis. Additionally, “It would also be heartening to see traditional military historians branch out and write in a more comparatively global way. They need to see the American Civil War as an exceptional experience in the world. By ignoring developments in Western military history and our conflict’s place in those developments, Civil War historians give the impression that their war was set apart from global trends. Nothing could be further from the truth. The connections between the war of 1861-65 and European and Asian conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century need to be explored.” [p. 30] Not only that, but he also wants historians to look at the Civil War from a multidisciplinary perspective. Hess ends his article by outlining a number of areas academic military historians could explore, areas that have traditionally been ignored by academics. Any serious students of the war who look to do some original research will profit greatly from this essay.

With ” ‘I am Completely Checked by the Weather’: George B. McClellan, Weather, and the Peninsula Campaign,” Dr. Ken Noe gives us a fresh perspective on the problems McClellan faced in the Peninsula campaign. Those problems included incredibly bad luck with the weather. “Usually described as ‘rainy’ or ‘bad,’ precipitation on the Peninsula during the campaign in fact was unusually torrential that spring, and it played more of a role in delaying the army than McClellan’s personality. The causes of that heavy and persistent rain remain elusive, but over the last few years, many meteorologists with a historical bent have speculated that El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) might have been involved at some level. Hundreds of miles off the western coast of South America, subsurface waters sometimes heat up or cool dolwn a few degrees for reasons that still defy easy explanation. Ocean currents and winds churn those waters to the surface, where contact with eastward-blowing trade winds occurs. Growing stronger, west winds transport the warmer or cooler air toward land. Warmer temperatures bring the El Niño phenomenon, while cooler air leads to the opposite La Niña effect. Both involve dramatically shifting weather patterns worldwide. Scientists first hypothesized the existence of ENSO in the late 1870s as a explanation for the devastating monsoon of 1876 in India. They could only begin to prove its existence in the late 1960s, however. Meteorologists more recently have read backward into the records from the later decades of the nineteenth century in order to identify ENSO’s earlier handiwork. Lacking full data from modern tools, any conclusions remain tentative and debatable. Meteorologists have considered both El Niño and La Niña, while other recent work leans toward the North Atlantic Oscillation as a more critical factor in the early 1860s, perhaps in conjunction with a mild El Niño. Whatever the final verdict, the Peninsula Campaign ultimately serves as a useful example of how considerations of climate, weather, and soil can help better explain the experience and conduct of the Civil War, as opposed to ‘good/bad general.’ ” [pp. 46-47] Neither President Abraham Lincoln nor Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton understood the effect weather had on movement and on the soldiers themselves. The weather had its effects from before the campaign even began. On March 13, Lincoln approved McClellan’s final plan for the campaign and McClellan immediately began to prepare. “From Manassas and Centreville, the Union troops retraced their muddy steps north to the Potomac. Over an inch-and-a-half of rain fell during the night of March 14 and throughout the next day. A thunderstorm that came up the following night brought wind and nearly another inch of precipitation. The rain, swollen creeks, and ever-present mud made marching and sleeping unpleasant, especially as many regiments were without tents. During the stormy night of the fifteenth, some soldiers simply stood in the rain rather than lay in the mud. Others tried to construct shelter from surrounding trees, but the effort left them soaked nonetheless.” [p. 48] And the rain continued. “On March 26 Maj. Gen. John Wool at Fortress Monroe reported deep mud that precluded troop movements. During the afternoon of March 29, a ‘pelting rain’ began that evolved into ‘torrents’ as it continued through the night and into the next morning. At the fort the resident army weather observer recorded three-quarters of an inch of rain. Camped in a plowed field, soldier Charles Brewster of the 10th Massachusetts lamented the great quantities of red mud it produced. These were clay-laden ultisols, unfamiliar in most of the Union but dominant over the face of the Confederacy. When wet, ultisols produce sticky mud the likes of which most Federals had never seen. Unlike northern soils, southern ultisols also fail to produce a more solid layer beneath the surface topsoil, causing wagons, artillery trains, and unfortunate horses to sink deeply into ‘bottomless’ terrain. And this effect was even worse on the Peninsula. Nearly all of the Confederacy’s ultisols belong to the udult suborder. Along the relatively flat Virginia coast, however, the suborder aquult dominates. Sandy aquults are found in wet areas near sea level where the water table is near the surface. They are even wetter soils than udults and thus are even more prone to producing ‘bottomless’ mud. Any great quantities of rain quickly turned aquult ultisol roads and fields into quagmires while simultaneously flooding the Peninsula’s many streams into so many swamps. Worse, those morasses teemed with mosquitoes carrying malaria.” [pp. 49-50] This article is really excellent and opens our eyes to problems McClellan faced that we didn’t appreciate before.

In the next essay, Dr. Jennifer Murray considers “George Gordon Meade, the Expectations of Decisive Battle, and the Road to Williamsport.” This was in the wake of the Battle of Gettysburg. Dr. Murray writes, “Dissatisfaction with Meade’s conduct and the seemingly hallowed [sic] victory at Gettysburg rests in misplaced expectations of a battle of annihilation or the ability of the Army of the Potomac to execute a relentless pursuit culminating with the destruction of the Confederate army. Meade’s contemporaries as well as scores of historians have judged the general’s actions and crafted his legacy on his inability to deliver a conclusive blow to Lee’s retreating army. Criticism stems from a narrow interpretive assessment; few of Meade’s detractors have placed the pursuit within a broader historical context. Using such a wider perspective illustrates two critical points that more accurately, and objectively, contextualize Meade’s leadership during the Gettysburg Campaign. First, a broader study of military history readily shows the difficulty commanders face in achieving a decisive battlefield victory. Second, executing a successful pursuit is one of the most complex operations for an army and, like decisive battlefield victories, are incredibly rare.” [p. 72] Dr. Murray discusses the confederate retreat and the Union pursuit, then tells us, “By the morning of July 11, the Confederates had established a nine-mile-long defensive position on a series of slight ridges between Hagerstown and Williamsport. Held with approximately 50,000 effectives, it offered several tactical advantages. Engineered with artillery emplacements and two lines of infantry entrenchments, the Confederate position also  protected the vital road junctions, covering the National Road, the Hagerstown-Williamsport Turnpike, the Williamsport-Boonsboro Road, and the Hagerstown-Downsville Road. Still, with the high river level and the loss of the sole pontoon bridge, the situation remained precarious. … By July 12 the Confederate retreat and Union pursuit had reached its culminating point. Nearly thirty hours of stagnate operations six days earlier had cost Meade the advantage, allowing Lee’s forces to hold the strategic and tactical advantage at Williamsport. While presented with intelligence on the enemy position and of the Potomac’s decreasing water levels, assured to facilitate Lee’s crossing, Meade remained cautious. Finally, after days of maneuvering and with Lee’s back pressed to the river, he offered Halleck a plan: ‘It is my intention to attack them to-morrow,’ Meade declared, then couched his aggressiveness tone with caution, ‘unless something intervenes to prevent it, for the reason that delay will strengthen the enemy and will not increase my force.’ Something intervened. Near 8:00 that evening, Meade held a council of war. The command structure of the Army of the Potomac had changed considerably since his first council just ten days prior. This inexperience among the army’s senior leadership cannot be overstated. Meade later recalled that he advocated an attack on the Confederate position, stating that he was ‘in favor of moving forward and attacking the enemy and taking the consequences.’ As the generals deliberated, however, his apparent preference for an offensive did not guide the council. Here, as he had in the campaign’s earlier councils, the commanding general allowed his subordinates to vote on the proposed course of action. In a telegraph to Halleck the following day, Meade reported that ‘five of six’ of his generals were ‘unqualifiedly opposed’ to an attack. Unwilling to act against the consensus of his subordinates and reluctant to face uncertainty in this operational environment, Meade acquiesced to the majority vote. His decision to exercise cautious leadership and yield the initiative and timing to the enemy cast significant strategic implications.” [pp. 80-81] Lee was able to escape, much to Lincoln’s chagrin. In concluding, Dr. Murray writes, “Meade proved capable in defeating the attacking enemy force and thus fulfilled his army’s strategic objective by protecting Washington and Baltimore. Yet he was unable to destroy Lee’s forces. Still, placed within context from military campaigns prior to Gettysburg, Meade’s inability to achieve a decisive battlefield victory and the execute a relentless pursuit resulting in the complete destruction of the enemy was not uncommon. Few generals have demonstrated the ability to fight battles resulting in the complete annihilation of the foe.” [p. 86] This was another terrific essay, providing information and perspective most students of the war haven’t considered.

In his essay, “The Farce Was Complete,” Dr. Andrew Bledsoe considers Braxton Bragg at McLemore’s Cove. He tells us, “Command of Civil War armies at the tactical or operational levels was often a matter of problem solving, and commanders had to ‘see’ the problem themselves in order to arrive at a satisfactory solution. An officer’s sphere of influence dictated his ability to manage his forces and dictate their actions through orders. This arrangement often turned on the nature of a commander’s relationships with his subordinates; his ability to issue orders with clarity, precision, and appropriateness; and his army’s capacity or willingness to execute those instructions. Implicit within this complicated arrangement is the possibility–often probability–of intervening human error, exhaustion, disruption, confusion, limitations of character, aptitude, or simple chance. Evaluating the art of command in a particular historical moment begs a careful balance of multiple methods, and the historian’s multifaceted and granular approach is particularly suitable for such a complicated process.” [p. 93] “The challenges for historians evaluating the art and language of command,” he tells us, “are much like those faced by the commanders themselves. Effective military leaders must impose order and coherence upon complexity and uncertainty while creating an organized portrait of the context, conditions, and environment in which their decision making takes place. Historians of command, unencumbered by the impediment of combat’s physical, mental, and emotional stresses, have the immense benefit of hindsight. Consequently, it is important to approach any analysis of the art of command with a degree of humility, even empathy, remembering that precise courses of actions and clear solutions after thoughtful deliberation were not always possible during military operations. Historians must always recognize that conclusions arrived at from the comfortable perch of the calm present often do not allow for the dynamism and abstractions of war’s reality. Military action is an interconnected and complicated process, and the reductive nature of distilling war to problems and solutions ignores the intervention of causation, contingency, complexity, and chance, all of which frustrate and disrupt conclusions.” [pp. 93-94] He tells us historians have to account for what Clausewitz called “the fog of war,” which is “the inescapable degradation of effectiveness endemic to armies engaged in prolonged military operations as well as the natural uncertainty brought on by faulty, limited, or distorted intelligence, human weakness, and the element of randomness that all contribute to warfare’s unpredictability.” [p. 94] What follows is a detailed, cogent, excellent analysis of Bragg’s performance at McLemore’s Cove, where “Gen. Braxton Bragg and his Confederate Army of Tennessee permitted two vulnerable Federal divisions to escape entrapment and possible destruction, thus altering the opening sequence of the entire [Chickamauga] campaign. An immense lost opportunity for the Confederates, this operation serves as an object lesson on the power of contingency to shape historical events, on the difficulty of managing and commanding field armies during the Civil War, and a valuable window into the command problems and troubled relationships between Bragg and his subordinates during the summer of 1863.” [pp. 94-95] This highly useful article should be required reading for all serious students of the war.

John Hennessy gives us the next essay, “The Looting and Bombardment of Fredericksburg.” That episode, of course, happened during the infamous Battle of Fredericksburg in late 1862. Hennessy, however, sets it into historical context. “Fredericksburg’s journey into the abyss of war began in the spring of 1862, when a Union command under Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, the vanquished loser at Bull Run, arrived there. McDowell intended his stay to be short: restore the crossings of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and then, at the appointed moment, descend southward on Richmond, adding a northern front to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s westward advance against the Confederate capital. His command swelled to 41,000 men in advance of the movement. But just days before McDowell was to move, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and his small Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley spoiled the plan. Jackson’s bold dash down the Valley inspired a far-flung and ultimately unsuccessful response from Pres. Abraham Lincoln. Instead of moving south, pieces of McDowell’s command rushed westward to snare Jackson (they failed). for the next three months, McDowell’s command would lay scattered across northern Virginia; thousands hovered at Fredericksburg until the end of August. McDowell recognized that no army could carry into the field all that it needed–and indeed, Union policy across the South recognized this fact. Water, wood, forage for animals, lumber, and bulk supplies of corn and wheat all would come from the nearby countryside–from local civilians. Soon after his arrival near Fredericksburg, McDowell prescribed (and largely enforced) the process by which supplies could be taken from area residents. Seizures could only occur when approved by division or brigade commanders. In every case, he ordered, enough must be left behind to sustain the family affected. Receipts would be made in duplicate on a printed form, signed, and one copy given to the civilian. The document committed that remuneration would be paid at the end of the war so long as the claimant could demonstrate his or her loyalty to the United States from the date on the certificate forward, presumably giving even the most rabid secessionist some incentive for a philosophical transformation.” [pp. 125-126] So we see McDowell set up a very light occupation designed to provide minimum impact on the civilians of Fredericksburg. How well did that work in practice? “While Fredericksburg’s residents found the presence of a Union occupying force noxious, they could hardly claim malevolence. McDowell went to pains to ensure the good behavior of his men. He reminded them that local civilians had no practical redress for wrongs done by the army; this, he commanded, ‘heightens our obligation to protect the helpless.’ Whem some soldiers despoiled a tomb in the cemetery at Falmouth’s Union Church, the general ordered a team of bricklayers to make repairs. Not only did McDowell prohibit wanton foraging, he actively sought to protect local residents against it. He permitted, and sometimes required, the placement of guards at houses and farms (those of unionists received the most enthusiastic protection). A soldier trying to tour the grounds at Chatham, the home of secessionist J. Horace Lacy and for a time McDowell’s headquarters, encountered a phalanx of guards ‘stationed everywhere around his house and lands, with the strictest directions to preserve his fences, trees, and even lawns, intact.’ More evidence of McDowell’s determination to see private property protected emerged when, after some troops took some of Lacy’s fence rails, he ordered the fences rebuilt.” [pp. 126-127] And how did the good citizens of Fredericksburg respond to this approach? “Despite McDowell’s conciliatory practices and relative good behavior of his men, local civilians grew to despise the presence of the Union army, if not the blue-clad soldiers themselves. Troops swarmed through the town and patrolled its edges, preventing passage in and out. The flag of the United States appeared over streets, hung from buildings, trees, and, according to one resident, even the horns of oxen. In return, Federal soldiers suffered snubs, curses, taunts, and spitting. Local women refused to walk under the U.S. flag, and occasionally, one soldier told his hometown newspaper, they ‘resorted to indecencies which I cannot write or get printed in a respectable northern newspaper.’ On May 23 young Lizzie Alsop scrawled her antipathy on the pages of her diary: ‘Ah! They little know the hatred in our hearts towards them,–the GREAT SCORN we entertain for Yankees.’ Soldiers returned the hostility. … Nothing provoked angrier reaction among the white citizenry than the army’s disruption of slavery. On this topic McDowell issued few orders. Rather, the enslaved people of central Virginia acted for themselves. During the summer of 1862, more than 10,000 men, women, and children left their places of bondage, determined to find freedom within the Union lines at Fredericksburg. It was one of the largest, most concentrated exoduses of the war.” [pp. 127-128] One may read this essay alongside Dr. Mark Grimsley’s essay, “Conciliation and Its Failure, 1861-1862” in the December 1993 issue of the journal Civil War History or his ground-breaking book, The Hard Hand of War. Hennessy discusses in detail the return of Union soldiers in December 1862, under command of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, and the widespread destruction wrought by those soldiers. Hennessy summarizes, “Fredericksburg was the first wanton, sanctioned, large-scale destruction inflicted on an American town by an American army. But while it symbolized a war intensifying in violence and scope, it did not usher forth a new era of destruction. Events in Virginia would demonstrate much of what happened here to be born of a unique concoction of circumstances–a mix of geography, morale, resentment, and leadership. Indeed, the development and distribution of a new set of instructions for the operation of armies in the field in 1863 (the ‘Lieber Code’) included no bending of the moral or legal precepts that would have made the looting of Fredericksburg acceptable. But to most, Fredericksburg was no case study in military law. Rather, the campaign took place in the context of an evolving Union war effort. Through that lens it became evident to all–no matter what their political views–that what happened there had benefited no one (the army included) and diminished the Confederates not at all. For Union soldiers, the rampage in town became inextricably linked with the disastrous battle that followed; there would be few fond remembrances of either. But perhaps the best indicator of how the men and their officers came to view their actions is this: they never repeated them.” [pp. 153-154]

“Guerrilla Warfare as Social Stimulus” by Dr. Brian McKnight is the next essay. It discusses the uses of guerrilla warfare and how communities protected themselves from guerrillas. “In the contested borderlands, local institutions suffered under the weight of the war. For an upstart entity such as the Confederate States, traditional civil authority promised little help. By destroying these foundational elements of society, the Confederacy gained credibility among sympathetic elements of the local populace and alienated those who would likely never join the Southern cause anyway. Along the shared borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, many courthouses were put to the torch. By burning the administrative center of a county, the community would see the destruction of their dominant symbol of traditional authority, removing its reminding presence from their daily existence. In addition to the deeds, wills, and other documents that meant so much to those who valued social and political stability, tax records, delinquencies, and indictments were also lost, giving those on the community’s margins reason to support a new regime. In Lebanon, Kentucky, John Hunt Morgan’s July 1863 raid resulted in the burning of the courthouse, which reportedly held indictments against several of Morgan’s men. When Confederates entered Barbourville, Kentucky, they removed the tax books and destroyed them in an attempt to befriend many of the country’s indebted citizens. In Booneville, Kentucky, Confederate soldiers strewed public documents in the street before burning them. Local citizens recognized this element of warfare and sought to either prevent or hasten the destruction of such papers. In Hardinsburg, Kentucky, citizens rescued county records from the courthouse before fire could destroy them. Worried that men from nearby Kentucky might burn the Lee County, Virginia, courthouse, the clerk removed all public records and stored them twelve miles away in the private home of a respected citizen to prevent their destruction. A second byproduct that compromised stability was the closing of churches and schools. As the war grew and hostilities expanded into communities, such institutions in contested regions closed their doors, usually because it was no longer safe to travel the public roads or be away from home.” [pp. 168-169] Dr. McKnight takes us through many guerrilla actions as well as resistance to guerrilla actions, and takes us past the end of the war with the lingering effects of the guerrilla warfare. He concludes, “As one studies the role of guerrilla warfare during the Civil War, it is easy to classify it as a military function and move on to the next question. But when viewing the irregular war from the ground up, it becomes obvious that social and community history can be very helpful in reconstructing the story. Furthermore, the guerrilla story must also be understood through those who were affected by it, with the knowledge that they had as much influence over the guerrillas as the guerrillas had over them. At numerous points during the conflict, individuals and communities rose up to resist irregular actors and often did so with great effect. Not only did they halt ongoing depredations, they even went so far as forcing influential politicians to take firmer stands than they would have naturally preferred. In the past few decades much good work has been done to provide breadth and context to the guerrilla experience in the Civil War. The myth of powerlessness is ripe for reconsideration.” [p. 177]

In “The Limits of American Exceptionalism,” Dr. Andrew Lang considers the evolution of Union soldier attitudes so they eventually supported emancipation in large numbers. “As they served throughout the war-torn South, witnessed the death of slavery, and interacted with black and white civilians, Northern volunteers noted the transformative social changes and upheavals happening in the wake of the movements of Union forces. They acknowledged that the collapse of the region’s slaveholding aristocracy and the liberation of enslaved people necessarily strengthened the Union’s exceptional disposition. Yet in confronting the aftermath of emancipation and the repressive conditions of white slaveholding, these soldiers witnessed how the power of military occupation at once collapsed forces that threatened American uniqueness while also creating cavernous vacuums in which those very threats took new form. They questioned whether the inclusion of black and white Southerners, conditioned by the evils of slavery and seen as uncivilized, indolent, and apathetic, would ultimately delegitimize all that made the Union worth preserving in the first place.” [p. 184] How did this change in attitude take place? “Military occupation brought Union soldiers into close proximity with slavery and African Americans. Despite early civil and military policies that prohibited slavery’s destruction, the South’s premiere social and economic institution deteriorated through a lengthy war of invasion and occupation, African Americans’ unswerving quest for freedom, and white soldiers’ growing commitment to emancipation in a war for Union. Federal armies offered refuge to the enslaved who actively pursued freedom, undermining the Confederacy by utilizing emancipation as a military tool in the quest for national preservation. U.S. forces, composed of loyal volunteers who reflected the broad swath of moderate antislavery opinion, thus acted as the central vehicles in collapsing American slavery. Ultimately the Union military extended the arm of federal emancipation policy, assuming the role of an occupying institution that governed evolving social relations in the South. Soldiers in the ranks helped enact the policy and processes of military emancipation.” [p. 185] Dr. Lang tells us, “While they supported emancipation as a pragmatic means to assist the war effort, some Union soldiers questioned the rapidity with which military occupation brought social dislocation and destablilization to the South. while detesting the Southern slavocracy, believing that it spawned an unscrupulous, oligarchic, and aristocratic ruling class, these soldiers worried that the combination of rebellion, invasion, occupation, and emancipation–with a powerful army responding to and directing the course of each–collapsed order and stability. Even as Federal armies helped produce a new birth of freedom that portended a more secure Union, occupiers questioned what would come in the wake of black liberation, sensing that military emancipation thrust freedom onto a people presumably unprepared to meet the standards of white American liberty.” [p. 186] Dr. Lang discusses many of the paradoxes Union soldiers confronted during their military occupation of the South. He concludes the essay, “And herein lay the root of the soldiers’ concerns as they witnessed the rise of emancipation and the fall of the slaveholding elite to the Union’s armed legions. The United States was exceptional because it presumably was not an invading and occupying nation, one that transformed societies at the point of the bayonet. And yet preservation of the Union and its democratic promise mandated that fundamental change had to take place under the duress of military actors able to alter Southern ways of life, permanently changing existing social and cultural relations. But would loyal citizens be willing to use the army indefinitely, as Scot wondered, to shape the aftermath of emancipation and reform the South’s decrepit conditions, both of which witnessing Northern soldiers feared could undermine their conception of American exceptionalism? With force and tenacity Americans answered this question during Reconstruction, a moment that not only ensured the nation’s lasting peace but also allowed former Confederates to fill critical voids once held by the Union’s armies of occupation.” [p. 199]

The next essay, by Kevin Levin, is “An Analysis of Confederate Military Executions.” He tells us, “Confederate soldiers were subject to a wide range of punishments, many of which were outlined in the Articles of War enacted by Congress in 1806 and utilized by both sides during the Civil War. Article 45, for example, mandated that a soldier found drunk on duty ‘shall suffer such corporeal punishment as shall be inflicted by the sentence of a court-martial.’ The majority of cases for such violations were dealt with at the company or regimental level; officers carried out punishments as dictated by local circumstances, a commander’s whim, or the decision of a court-martial. General courts-martial at the brigade level or higher typically dealt with the more serious offenses. Soldiers who committed the most serious crimes, such as insubordination or desertion, risked facing a firing squad. Roughly five hundred men from both the Union and Confederate armies were executed during the war, the majority for desertion, which represented the clearest demonstration of the military’s coercive power over the rank and file.” [p. 206] Levin tells us how typical executions were carried out, and how these “carefully choreographed events provided an opportunity for onlookers to think about the kind of death they wanted for themselves; in short, soldiers were forced to consider the real possibility that their lives might end as a result of the war, and the only remaining question was whether to die well or in shame and ignominy.” [p. 210] After considering some examples of executions he looks at accusations that General Braxton Bragg “wantonly killed his own men for trivial reasons” [p. 218] through military executions. Instead, “As for Bragg’s record, a close examination of court-martial records suggests that he overturned death sentences at a higher rate compared to other generals, and the overall number of executions was likely lower in the Army of Tennessee compared to the Army of Northern Virginia.” [p. 218]

Dr. Keith Altavilla contributes the next essay, “McClellan’s Men: Union Army Democrats in 1864.” This interesting essay explores soldiers who supported George B. McClellan’s bid to replace Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. We learn, “While the number trended very heavily toward Lincoln, a substantial number of soldiers cast their votes for McClellan, doing so openly. This support for the rival candidate suggests that there was still room to support reunion and the war while also disagreeing with the Republicans and being willing to cast a vote for their political opponents.” [p. 228] We find that soldiers supporting McClellan did so not only out of loyalty to their still popular former commander but also because they sincerely believed he offered the best chance of winning the war. About eighty percent of soldiers supported Lincoln, and Dr. Altavilla considers the remaining twenty percent. “Men who voted for Democrats like McClellan did so under a cloud of scrutiny from their comrades. To be a McClellan supporter, or at the very least opposed to the administration, could make a soldier the target of scorn, derision, and more official forms of persecution.” [p. 229] Racial politics also played a role, and many soldier Democrats agreed with the racial appeals Democrats made. “One area where Democratic racial commentary had little effect among the troops was over the enlistment of black soldiers. Throughout the war, Democratic politicians condemned the notion of black troops, which they viewed as unnecessarily inflammatory toward the South and, in the words of historian Jennifer Weber, ‘a Trojan horse for racial equality.’ ” [p. 239] Dr. Altavilla discusses ethnic politics, the divide between officers and enlisted in political action, and a number of other factors involved. Dr. Altavilla filled his essay with cogent analysis and the results of deep research. It was an eye-opening read.

In “The 107th Ohio and the Human Longitude of Gettysburg,” Dr. Brian Matthew Jordan looks into pension applications and payments for soldiers from this regiment who fought at Gettysburg and their widows. This takes our look at soldiers beyond the war itself to their struggle at home after the war.

In the final essay, “Albert Sidney Johnston and Civil War Memory,” Dr. Robert Glaze considers how Johnston has been remembered and his place in the confederate pantheon of “might have beens.” A myth arose surrounding Johnston and his potential impact on confederate fortunes had he lived. This myth was even fostered among high-ranking confederates after the war. ” ‘With him at the helm,’ declared Richard Taylor, ‘there would have been no Vicksburg, no Missionary Ridge, no Atlanta.’ Despite having served under both Lee and Jackson, Taylor insisted that Johnston was ‘the foremost man of all the South; and had it been possible for one heart, one mind, and one arm to save her cause, she lost them when Albert Sidney Johnston fell on the field of Shiloh.’ Similarly, Basil Duke stated that ‘it would be difficult to induce the people of the South to admit that any other man … is worthy to be ranked on the same level with General Lee. But if any of the great men of the Confederacy shall, in the estimation of his countrymen or by the verdict of history, be accorded that extraordinary eminence, it will be, I believe, Albert Sidney Johnston.’ Even officers of the Army of Northern Virginia echoed these pronouncements. William C. Oates of Little Round Top fame thought Johnston ‘perhaps the greatest general the war would have developed.’ John Brown Gordon compared him to Lee and George Washington and lamented that ‘a great light had gone out when Albert Sidney Johnston fell. … [I]n him more than in any other man at that period were centered the hopes of the Southern people.’ ” [p. 277] Lost cause writers continued the myth-making in their postwar writings and afterward. This case study in myth building gives us insight into how memory is created as well as insight into how other myths developed.

This book is an excellent addition to the serious student’s bookshelf. I can highly recommend it.


  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    The essay format has always appealed to me, as it gives an abbreviated glimpse into a wide range of topics which often inspire this reader to seek further knowledge. This book has been on my radar for a while, and I am thrilled that it appears to live up to my anticipation/expectation.

    As an aside, I find it tiresome at best that there is a *need* to defend the study of military history! C’mon: Without even a basic understanding of the sequence of events that took place at a particular battle, any other study is going to lack foundation. To that, I would also add that spouting numbers alone, will not suffice as understanding of a battle, either (we have seen enough of these “experts” share their wares on the message boards) As the authors express, we need a synthesis of military, cultural, & social analysis to fully understand not only the Civil War, but any history that involved battle/war.

    1. Well said, Shoshana. Thanks for commenting. I would add more multidisciplinary approaches such as integrating science will spice up military histories. Good work has been done on geological impacts on battlefields and battles, for example.

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