Category Archives: Book Review

Cold Harbor by the Numbers

“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.”  – US Grant

 

With that observation in his best-selling memoir… Grant started the historical firestorm around the second-to-last battle of the Overland Campaign.  Through the years and volumes documenting every facet of the war, Cold Harbor has come to symbolize the carnage and suffering endured by the fighting men.  Writers have elevated the battle to the conclusive example of obsolete tactics brutishly utilized during an ill-conceived campaign.   Images of doomed soldiers pinning name tags to their uniforms and ranks of men mowed down in place haunt students of the Civil War.     But does the Battle of Cold Harbor truly measure up to the perception of needless slaughter?

The reputed butcher...

The reputed butcher…

Battlefield historian Gordon Rheatakes this and other misconceptions to task in his multi-volume study of the Overland campaign.  The facts simply do not support the popular reputation of June 3, 1864 being a day of unspeakable slaughter.  Grant’s forces suffered between 5,500-6,000 casualties- making it only the 5th bloodiest day of that Summer.  Every day of the Wilderness battle saw more casualties- Spotsylvania stands as one of the bloodiest battles of the war.  Rhea smartly points out that there were bloodier days in the two years preceding the Overland Campaign.   What happened to our Remembrance?

The truth stays in the trenches

The truth stays in the trenches

The Summer of relentless combat… that marked the Overland Campaign took a drastic toll on the Army of the Potomac.  The soldiers remembering June 3, 1864 were tired and weary of combat- particularly massed frontal assaults against entrenched Confederates.  “Fog of War” is a concept bordering on cliche, but clearly, the judgement of many of the battle’s participants was clouded.  Grant’s own recollection of the day only solidified the  misapprehensions and flawed narrative.

 

 

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Book Review- Chernow’s Grant

Chernow, Ron, Grant, Penguin Press; 1st edition (October 10, 2017)

     A hefty, yet easily digestible biography  continues the author’s attempts at reimagining supposedly misunderstood figures.  The actual result is consensus history masquerading as newly discovered insight. 

 

The success of his biography of Alexander Hamilton… and the subsequent musical it inspired, brought about unprecedented anticipation for his latest work.  Chernow has tapped into the millennial generation’s need for easily digestible, episodic history.  His style is to illustrate personal relationships, conflicts, and controversies and explain how the collective memory has misunderstood the stories.  This is best illustrated as he discusses Grant’s well documented drinking problem- never really that drunk, always alert, and kept in line by his dutiful wife, Julia.  Chernow’s gift is his effortless storytelling blended with an authoritative tone.  Trouble is, this analysis is not revelatory, and has been well covered in the work of previous historians.

 

Chernow combs through and pieces together observations from previous Grant scholarship… and artfully weaves it into his own narrative.  His assertion that Grant’s reputation as a poor general is undeserved  was well covered in Bruce Catton’s three volume study from 1960.  Brooks D. Simpson’s 1991 evaluation of the Grant presidency put to rest the many accusations of incompetence and corruption and established Grant’s indispensable role in Reconstruction; points that Chernow meticulously recounts in the final one third of his 1,074 page study.

 

Reviewers have already deemed this biography as “definitive”… despite the fact that Chernow breaks little, if any new ground.  Chernow wants you to believe that Grant has been widely misunderstood and underappreciated.  The casual history reader, unfamiliar with previous Grant scholarship, is best served by Chernow’s efforts.` The popularity of his previous work all but guarantees his place on the bestseller list.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review

Schultz, Duane, Custer; Lessons in Leadership, London, Palgrave

Publishing, 2010, ISBN 978-0-230-61708-7

Custerbook

 

Plenty of ink has been spilled over George Armstrong Custer in the last 30 years.  Recent archeology has provided new insight to Custer’s most famous battle, but studies of the great General’s life have reached an impasse.  Duane Schultz contributes a slender volume on Custer to the Great Generals series from Palgrave Publishing, and does his best to distinguish his work from the well worn Custer biographies.

“We built a foundation of thoughtful preparation, teamwork, and mutual understanding which has made our forces the most effective and agile in the world…We probably owe it all to Custer.”   Such insight would have provided much needed depth to Schultz’s biography, unfortunately this passage is found in General Wesley Clark’s introduction.  Clark contributes an interesting premise, Custer’s perceived recklessness provided valuable lessons to the American military.  Schultz’s biography doesn’t stray from the usual Custer fare- boy general, personally brave, heroic during war, always ambitious, chivalric soldier caught in the wrong type of struggle where he pays the  ultimate price.

In a surprising move, Schultz attempts to revive the story of Custer’s Indian love-child.  A rumor first promulgated by Custer’s enemy, Frederick Benteen, scholars discarded it long ago- most effectively in 1984 by Evan Connell’s  Son of the Morning Star.   Schultz relies upon questionable sources and unreliable claims in oral history to support a rumor that contributes little to our understanding of Custer’s character.  The revisionism of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s has been effectively refuted by more disciplined studies of the last 20 years.  Custer provided New Left historians with a suitable villain to the image of the noble savage- the exploitation of an Indian woman added to his disreputable resume.  Strange that Schultz would imply that the rumor could be true when well received studies from Connell, Jeffrey Wert, and Robert Utley have all relegated it to history’s ash heap.

An analytical study of Custer’s leadership and its effects on the evolution of the American military would be a valuable contribution to Custerology.  Duane Schultz’s brief biography does not fill that need, but it does provide a fast read on one of America’s more controversial figures.

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Book Review- A new look at Grant

Frank P. Varney, General Grant and the Rewriting of History, California, Savas and Beatty, 2013

A critical examination of Grant’s memoirs and their effects on the historical record. 

 

Professor Frank Varney’s first book is a bold effort to right historical wrongs…. and the wrongs were perpetrated by none other than US Grant.   Varney proposes a three volume examination of the inconsistencies, mistakes, and outright lies found in Grant’s widely utilized memoirs.  Volume one takes Grant (and his historical defenders) to task for ruining the reputation of Major General William S. Rosecrans.  Varney carefully dissects both the historical record and the secondary sources which were deeply influenced by Grant’s account.

“The well of data about Rosecrans has been so tainted that many historians… are simply not motivated to look beyond the traditionally relied-upon sources- the writings of Grant prominent among them.”   Varney sums up how Grant’s memoirs have affected Civil War historiography.  Researchers simply assume Grant was right- they fail to verify with lesser known primary sources; what source could be more valuable than the man credited as the Union victor?  Varney’s research is extensive and provides key insights to the Grant/Rosecrans feud.  At the Battles of Iuka and Corinth, Grant was miles from the fighting- his battle reports change over time- and his memoir bears little resemblance to the Official Records.  Historians like Steven Woodworth and T. Harry Williams  have been complicit in propagating Grant’s distorted account and Varney cites key examples of his peers failing to carry-out the most basic research methodology.

Far from a redemptive piece about Rosecrans… Varney acknowledges the flaws in the man.  But, the evidence of tampering and distortion are too extensive to be ignored by the historical community.  Rosecrans had his flaws, but Grant’s accounts of the war have forever tarnished a General with widely accepted military skill.  Grant didn’t care for his subordinate and Varney skillfully shows how he took credit for victories, exaggerated his own actions, and distorted (even lied) about the performance of others.  Rosecrans was the victim of a concerted effort led by Grant- and historians have failed to give a balanced account of this chapter in Civil War history.  Hopefully, Professor Varney’s future volumes will be as detailed and insightful as this first edition.

The recent Grant renaissance should be reconsidered. 

 

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Essential Civil War Reader: Part 2

A few more books that no Civil War student should go without….

Battle lines are fading…

  • Army of the Potomac Series: Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, Stillness at Appomattox, by Bruce CattonThe Grandfather of modern Civil War history, Catton’s prolific career set the standard for consensus scholarship.  This series is by far his most influential, the third volume earning him the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1954.  Catton details the trials and tribulations of the Army tasked with defeating Robert E. Lee.
  • Lee’s Lieutenants:  A Study in Command- 3 Vols., By Douglass Southall FreemanFreeman’s most widely read work by far, this three volume set was published at the height of America’s involvement in the Second World War.  A multilayered biography of the men who served under Lee, Freeman’s account is a carefully crafted and witty reference to high command of Lee’s army.
  • George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, By Stephen SearsOne of the most misunderstood figures of the War, Sears’s biography provides a balanced portrait of America’s Napoleon.  Sears is able to present a fair and honest account of McClellan’s career, the bulk of the study focused on his time in the military.  Neither indictment or defense, Sears’s book is biographical history at its best.
  • Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Vols, By Rufus R. DawesAn indispensable primary source for writers, including Alan Nolan, author of The Iron Brigade.  Dawes account provides a first hand account of the formation and growth of the Army of the Potomac.  The Sixth was in the thick of every Eastern campaign and Dawes’s history puts the reader in the line of battle.
  • The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, By Edwin CoddingtonA strategic overview combined with tactical analysis, Coddington’s work is standard reading for buffs and Licensed Battlefield Guides alike.  A critical look at Lee’s strategic blunders is paired with a tactical defense of Meade’s battlefield decisions.  This book was Coddington’s magnum opus.
  • For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, By James McPhersonA direct refutation of Gerald Linderman’s Embattled CourageMcPherson argues that the courage and dedication of Civil War soldiers never wavered.  Drawing on over 25,000 letters and more than 250 diaries, this is an exhaustively researched and documented piece of scholarship.  McPherson should be commended for allowing the soldiers themselves speak to the difficult aspects of Civil War military service.

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Essential Civil War Reader

Books that need to be on every Civil War Buff’s shelf….

Probably would happen

Probably would happen

  • Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is the best one volume account of the War told by its greatest storyteller.  It traces the conflict from Free Soil to the assassination of Lincoln in an authoritative voice that has yet to be rivaled.
  • To the Gates of Richmond, by Stephen Sears.  Only Sears could encapsulate the quagmire of McClellan’s Peninsular campaign into a single, eminently readable volume. The book brilliantly weaves multiple story-lines from common soldiers all the way to the Commander-in-Chief-  Sears proves there is no greater authority on the McClellan/Lincoln feud.
  • No Better Place to Die, by Peter Cozzens.  The rare book that definitively recounts the battle, while bringing humanity to the brave men who fought it.  Cozzens’ tactical knowledge is matched only by his exhaustive research into hundreds of primary sources.  No finer battle study has been produced- Stones River is no longer a forgotten battle.
  • Gettysburg; The Second Day, By Harry Pfanz.  No man knew Gettysburg better, Dr. Pfanz’s book is the definitive study of July 2, 1863.  By focusing on the pivotal day of the battle, Pfanz brings the sacrifices of the men into clearer perspective.  Far too much ink has been spilled on Pickett’s charge, Pfanz shows us  the battle was truly won the day before.
  • The Iron Brigade, By Alan Nolan.  More than a unit history, Nolan’s book is military history at its finest.  By tracing the unit through primary sources, from its Commanders to the private soldiers, Nolan’s book provides a rich and exciting narrative.  The detailed description of battles with the legendary Stonewall Brigade set the book apart.  This book is the standard all subsequent unit histories are measured.
  • Joshua Chamberlain: A Hero’s Life and Legacy, by John Pullen.   The perfect companion to Pullen’s regimental history of the 20th Maine, this biography of its legendary leader stands the test of time.  Pullen separates myth from fact in recounting Chamberlain’s heroic military service.  Like any great biographer, Pullen finds the man in the midst of hyperbole and legend.
Soul of the Lion

Soul of the Lion

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Book Review

Baumgartner, Richard, Blue Lightning; Wilder’s Mounted Infantry Brigade in the Battle of Chickamauga, Huntington, West Virginia, Blue Acorn

     Press, 2007, ISBN- 978-1-885033-35-2

“If the government would expend the large sums now used to induce men to enlist, in arming the men now in the field with this kind of weapon, the rebellion would be…speedily crushed.”  Richard Baumgartner begins his study of Wilder’s brigade at Chickamauga by discussing how and why the unit was equipped.  Colonel John Wilder was one of the few officers willing to take a chance on advances in weapons technology by equipping his men with the Spencer repeating rifle in 1863.  He also saw that his brigade was mounted, making it a unique part of the Union army in Tennessee.  Baumgartner’s book focuses on the pivotal campaign for Chattanooga and the important role Wilder’s brigade had in it.

Baumgartner’s study is richly detailed, well researched, and painstakingly documented.  The pages are filled with informative tables and rare photographs, giving the reader valuable insight into the more complex facets of Civil War era logistics.  Baumgartner, a former journalist, weaves together an efficient narrative, especially describing Wilder’s troops in complex combat scenarios.  The result is an effective book, but a book clearly intended for Civil War buffs.  Casual readers may find the subject matter too specialized and the scope too limited to invest the requisite time.

The author chooses not to put Wilder’s troops into the larger context of changing military weapons and tactics.  Focusing on the specifics of the Chattanooga campaign (Chickamauga was its decisive battle) Baumgartner relies heavily on his primary sources to expand the narrative.  At times quoting entire sections of diaries and letters, the book never leaves the Southeastern Tennessee countryside.  Serious students of the Civil War will applaud the painstaking research, but the scope may not attract the less avid reader.  Baumgartner could have broadened the appeal by using Wilder’s brigade as an example of how the Civil War was rapidly changing military doctrine.

Richard Baumgartner’s book will be a delight to Civil War and military history buffs.  The depth of the research and exciting battle narratives make it one of the better campaign studies in recent years.  Casual history readers may not be ready to invest the required time is such a narrow study.

Gordon Sheaffer

James Madison Preparatory School

2012

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