Category Archives: Book Review

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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Leave Madison Alone

Joe Ellis explained the absence of serious Madison biographies… by proclaiming “he’s boring as hell” and that “only lawyers like him.”   As previously stated, Ellis’s recent comments on the Framers and Original Intent cast doubt on the rigor of his scholarship- and these nuggets of wisdom only enhance the evidence of his misguided revisionism.

Never far apart

Never far apart

The revision Ellis is peddling holds that Madison and other Framers… rejected the doctrine of Original Intent on its face.  The only empirical evidence supporting this notion is Madison’s oft quoted explanation for not publishing his notes on the Constitutional Convention.  Once established, the government continued to disappoint Madison, driving him closer to his friend Jefferson.  During his presidency, Madison undoubtedly supported Original Intent as he battled John Marshall and Congress for the soul of the Constitution.  He feared the elasticity in the Constitution was being abused by ambitious demagogues- Madison wanted the power of government restrained- his original intent.

What have your wrought, Joe?

What have your wrought, Joe?

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How Have We Come so Far?

America seemed to represent the future… yet by the end of the 19th century, we became a people obsessed with our past.  A paradox not easily explained, and frankly, not wholly considered either.  The recent passing of historian Michael Kammen received little fanfare nationally, but to younger academics everywhere, it represented a melancholy turning point.

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Kammen’s epic study, “Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture” was standard reading for first year grad students across academia in the mid-1990’s.  The difficult task of explaining why Americans simplify and revere their past was at the core of Kammen’s research- historians agreed with his thesis, students were primed for future frustration.  The Civil War was indeed a transformative event, radically shifting our traditions of remembrance and honor.  Prior to the war, argued Kammen, Americans viewed their past with casual indifference- the Civil War democratized our past- the masses wanted a story worthy of the sacrifices made in that most bloody struggle…American mythology began.

1936-2013

1936-2013

The good academic he was… Kammen was troubled by the wave of popular history that emerged in the 20th century.  His analysis at times bordered on whining- why don’t ordinary folks pay more attention to academic history?  To his credit, he never looked to assign blame- his study maintained an analytical approach- and his conclusions are if nothing else, valid.  But, like many writers of his background, he misses the true point of historical remembrance- pride.  Trying to explain it away with abstract concepts understood only in academic circles  is manipulative.  Our story is a complex, yet inspiring one, and the American people truly feel a part of it.  The study of history is so compartmentalized that it cannot contemplate this collective remembrance.  There is room for all types of historical study- academic, public, and popular history alike…. Kammen’s work proved it to be so… though it may not have been his intention.

 

 

 

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Uncommon Valor- Book Review

   Frank Antenori with Hans Halberstadt, Roughneck Nine-One: The Extraordinary Story of a Special Forces A-Team at War, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2007

 

Rising above the politicization of the Iraq war is a task best left to the men who fought it.  Well publicized memoirs by the commanding Generals, the Secretary of Defense, and the Commander-in-Chief only fueled the partisan debate.  Green Beret Frank Antenori’s gripping account of the Battle of Debecka Pass is a vital primary source detailing the misunderstood conflict. An unusual blend of tactical storytelling and technical detail, Roughneck Nine-One is a rare look into the world of America’s “quiet professionals.”

Roughneck

Antenori expresses the unprecedented nature of his battle history.  Typically, Special Forces battles are classified affairs, kept from public scrutiny until years later.  Embedded reporters from CNN and the New York Times present at Debecka prevented the combat from being classified.  Antenori and co-author Halberstadt are able to relay the events with brutal frankness and commendable accuracy.  The frustrations of military logistics are explained to build anticipation for the inevitable battle.  Glimpses into American military planning are rare, and Antenori’s insights are particularly telling- the warrior struggling with red tape to acquire the necessary tools.

 

Roughneck Nine-One is essential reading because it dispels many commonly held myths about the Iraq war.  First, most importantly, the myth about weapons of mass destruction.  Mainstream media perpetuates the narrative of Bush lying about WMD to start the war- Antenori establishes that if true, this was a most elaborate lie.  Special Forces units were assigned specific missions targeting known WMD sites. Strategic complications delayed US entry into Iraq giving Saddam Hussein time to destroy or hide the incriminating evidence; Debecka was fought on such a mission.  Secondly, that Saddam had no ties to terrorism.  The Green Berets regularly engaged foreign fighters using the Iranian border as shelter- Antenori has no politically axe to grind, he tells a story the way he experienced it.

Quiet Professional

Quiet Professional

Frank Antenori opens an important window to a misunderstood conflict.  Partisan bickering over the justification for the war has clouded a proper historical picture of it.  Stories like Roughneck Nine-One are invaluable to scholars looking to accurately record America’s involvement in Iraq.

    

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