Maps of the Wilderness – Bradley M. Gottfried

An atlas of the wilderness campaign, including all Cavalry operations, may 2-6 1864

This is the latest of the Savas-Beatie series of atlases on Civil War campaigns.  Each page has a map on the right page and text on the left explaining the map. In the thick of the battle the time intervals per page can be as short as 15 minutes, but are usually about an hour.  Each part of the field has its own connected set of pages so there is a minimum of mental scene switching.

The text is contains a good amount of tactical detail, but is by its nature more of an overview of the battle than a more in-depth study is.  The strength of the book is that it does give the tactical details and maps that usually are described in a sentence or so with a map every chapter or so.  In that way it is a good counterpoint to those other books.

The battle itself is the start of the Overland Campaign, the first where Grant met Lee in the field.  The Army of the Potomac had been overmatched by Lees’ Army in part due to its own faltering leadership.  This fact was compounded by fact that it had to fight on Lee’s turf, and being so close to the capital it was both under scrutiny and was tempted to play politics itself.  It isn’t a coincidence that the two times Lee invaded the North and there was a clear purpose for the Army it fought much better and turned him back with a drubbing.

The Overland Campaign would be a strategic defeat for Lee, ending with him being pinned against the vital rail lines protecting the capital for the winter, then routed out of them and forced to surrender.  Thus it starts the period where Confederate history starts to lose interest in the battles and shade into vagueness.and excuses.  A recent study shows that by examining the newspapers of the time there is evidence that Lee received more reinforcements and lost more men in all these battles than estimated previously.

The Army of the Potomac had just been reorganized by Meade in the fall because the small corps previously in use were hard to manage and required many commanders, which could not be found due to battlefield losses.  Complicating matters was the fact that Confederate corps were larger than Union due to the way regiments were recruited, so it required multiple Union Corps to contend with a Confederate one.

However, in retrospect the new size of the Union Corps was probably too large, compounded by the propensity of the high command to attach and reattach divisions from place to place in battle.  Repeatedly the Union found its corps commanders unable to handle their large units, most having doubled in size or more since their last battle.  As the campaign went on this tended to be ‘solved’ by losses and veterans going home, thus making the units more in line with what commanders were used to.

The main change in this battle was that at the top, Grant had no reluctance to engage the Confederates when encountered.  Lee, despite what historians claim for him, did not realize this as his usual rush to contact on two widely separated roads put him in an embarrassing position when Grant attacked his forces, pinning them in place.  Meanwhile, an entire Union division was in-between the two, able to pitch into the  flank or rear of either.  Sadly for the union, the high command did not realize this and the forces retired later to the main line.  Later attempts to hit this wide gap from the front never quite managed to strike home.

A second crisis happened at the start of the second day of the battle.  The southern prong of Lee’s army had been hard pressed at nightfall.  Lee refused to pull the men back to another position claiming that his last corps, Longstreet’s, would arrive before the Union would attack.  Since they had marched 32 miles and were still 15 miles off, this shows that he did not consider a dawn attack a possibility.  Longstreet did arrive at 6 AM, but only after Hancock had routed Hill’s corps and driven them back nearly a mile.  Only a stellar performance by Longstreet and the confusion of the attack column allowed the situation to be stabilized and kept his army from being driven west away from the capital.  This would not be the last time in this campaign that Lee avoided disaster by luck and the Army of the Potomac’s fumbling rather than by his own decisions.  By the next spring, the middle leadership of the Union Army had absorbed Grant’s attitude and become much more deft, and the result was a series of crushing defeats and eventual surrender.

Grant, as supervisor of Meade’s army, played a more limited role in tactical issues than he would later.  He loses some points for confusing the command structure by dispatching divisions all over the field outside of their chain of command.  This added to the hesitantness of the remaining troops who lacked reserves, and to the confusion of the arriving troops and the burden of the other corps commander.  While you might expect poor commanders like Burnside to have problems, all the others also did, even veterans like Hancock and Sedgwick.

Historians have been hesitant to call this battle what it was, a decided Union victory. Unlike most other battles in the East, even Union victories, there was no long rebuilding pause and no change in policy by the army commander.  Losses were proportionally even (or by modern research, higher for the South), and losses aren’t the point.  Grant’s objective was to press Lee continually, and he continued to do so.  Lee’s objective was to disrupt this campaign and gain time for the South, and he failed to do so.

Northern Men with Southern Loyalties – Michael Todd Landis

The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis

This book is a great complement to the previous book Slave Power.  That book describes the start of the process, while this book details the final decade as the Democratic Party failed to meet the challenge of how to reconcile the power of the slaveholding bloc in national politics with the increasing reluctance of the northern voter to accept the situation.

The poster child of the 1850s rift is the “doughface”, a term that originated in a diatribe of a southerner over how easy it was to manipulate northern politicians.  When it begins to be a term used by your own voters, you have an image problem.

The book is a short, but detailed look at the inner workings of the 1850s Democratic Party, by then the one national based party.  As the dominant force, it had the fate of the nation in its hand, and the result was continual sectional crisis, division, a virtual civil war in Kansas, and eventually the breakup of its own party and true national warfare.

The inner workings of the Democratic Party were the essential forces causing the problem, not outside agitation or other forces.  This book exposes that in a short and clear way.  No party ever had such a dominating position in history, and yet within a decade it had all crumbed to dust.

I’ll be reading this one again, like I do America in Kenneth views into political collapse.


The Counterrevolution of Slavery – Manisha Sinha

Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina

This is an excellent book that delves deep into the antebellum South Carolina planters’ continual moves to increase the power of slave owners and defeat democracy both in their state and on the national stage.  By using the slave owner’s own words to define their intent and actions she makes the point even more clear, as they did not mince words. They had their position and they meant it.

After the war, there was a sort of gentleman’s agreement between the sides that the North would not press the point about slavery if the South admitted it was just as well they lost. This might have had its uses in the past, but for the last hundred years historians for the South have polished the image of the rebels that some can contend that the South was fighting for limited government without being instantly being called out for their error.

It is far past time to call things as they were, and state that without slavery and the strident defenders of it who were eager to divide the country, we could have been spared a bloody civil war.  And of all the slave states, the South Carolina planters were the most extreme, most eager to boost and spread slavery, and the most eager to form a slave nation.

South Carolina was the most uniformly ultra section of the country, but that didn’t keep them from repressing unionist opposition by gerrymander, fraud, and violence.  There was a sincere, generally supported resumption of the illegal slave trade in the state in the 1850s.  When slavers were caught, juries refused to convict and the blacks were unlawfully taken out of custody and sold into slavery.

The book ranges across the pre-war decades making a number of points, but even as a student of the period and one that recognizes the ultimate cause of the war, the author concludes with a powerful statement of how we have been blind to the obvious:

“Historians, like contemporaries, have long noted that an overwhelming majority of South Carolinians were for secession.  But a majority of South Carolinians had nothing to do with secession or the glorification of human bondage.  A majority of South Carolinians in 1860 were slaves.”

Engineering Victory – Justin S. Solonick

The Union Siege of Vicksburg

There are a lot of books on the campaign of Vicksburg, and the battles around Vicksburg.  I even know of one that discusses the geology of the region and its impact on the campaign.  This is the first that concentrates on the Siege as a siege, rather than a battle.

The purpose of a formal siege as understood by a trained 19th century military man, is to get the army close enough to the works to batter down the walls and works, provide a sheltered path for troops to launch an assault that will carry the fort.  In standard military rules, the defenders would then give up and surrender at this point and save the risk of an assault.

In my readings as a young adult, I had always gotten the impression that the defenders gave up a little early to get terms on the 4th of July.  When I visited the place, though, I was impressed to see an approach trench on the north of the town moving straight up a very steep hill to nearly the top, marked by a sign stating that this was the Union position on July 4.  They were close indeed!

The picture below is that same approach trench – you can see the scar going up toward the Confederate line at the top of the hill..

The Union Army really had not intended to besiege the place, and so did not have any prepared tools and guns ready. Also, the Western army had few trained engineers, who normally direct almost every operation – one count says there were four. And this position was miles and miles across.  But one thing Union armies, especially the Western ones could do was improvise.

The first method used to get engineers was to dragoon any civilian engineer in the ranks and put them to work directing operations. Also, West Point officers had some engineering training.  One commissary officer, somewhat overweight complained that he could best be used as a sap roller!  A sap roller was a round mass of branches and reeds used to create a bullet-resistant shield in front of a trench heading forward to a position.

So while at first the knowledge was concentrated in a few, circumstances required training to be spread down to the rank and file.  While this caused some initial problems, later on the engineers found that it made more work possible since they could delegate to the entire army than to just a few engineering troops available. And the troops were willing enough once they got the idea.  There was an incident where General William T. Sherman was riding by and saw a detail of about 100 men idle.  Asking what was up, the officer in charge showed him an order to make 50 gabions and 50 fascines. The officer then said the unit was only a year old and had never been in siege work before.  Sherman got down from his horse, asked for an axe and personally started cutting down small trees and driving them into the earth to make a gabion.  This is like a large bottomless woven basket, which could be carried to a position, hammered into the ground and filled with earth to make a shotproof wall quickly.  Sherman then cut grapevines and began personally weaving them to form the walls.  After this was well begun, the began binding straight cane stems into bundles – fascines. These have a number of uses – bracing dirt walls, or tossing in a trench to fill it in quickly in an attack. By the time Sherman left, those men knew how to make fascines and gabions, if not the French names.

The author’s theory is that this is the last classic siege – the enemy surrounded, parallel trenches set up and approach trenches set up close for a final assault. It was modified somewhat for the changes in military technology and the terrain. Two traditional mines were dug and a part of the defenses blown up.  Other sieges in the Civil War, like Petersburg and Atlanta, did not surround the city at any time, or create approach trenches.

This book puts a new, complementary spin on this important campaign.


The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged – David W. Reed

This thin book is a short but curiously complete description of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862.  It has often been used as a jumping off point for other historians writing about the Civil War, and is only being published recently to the general public.

The author was a veteran of the battle, and worked at the park in the 19th Century collecting other veteran reports to complete this book.  It is the kind of thing that nobody can repeat now.

It also comes with some maps of the battle on CD-ROM.

A nice little book, if better limited to the enthusiast than someone starting out.


The Battle of Peach Tree Creek – Robert D. Jenkins, Sr.

HOOD’s First Sortie, 20 July 1864

The West in the US Civil War is in general very under-represented in the literature which seems far more ready to produce yet-another-Gettysburg book.  Even so, from time to time a book comes out to fill in one of the gaps with an excellent battle study.

This book succeeds in being one of those for the Battle of Peach Tree Creek, the first battle around the city of Atlanta, and the first for John Bell Hood as the leader of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.  The author claims to have started with a smaller history of the Mississippi regiments that his ancestors served in that paid a high cost in the battle, and then enlarged the project to include the entire battle.  It is a good thing that he did.

The MARCH TO Atlanta – May to July 1864

In the winter of 1864, U.S. Grant was named general in chief of the war effort, and he named General W.T. Sherman as the general in the West.  His mission was to advance to Atlanta and take the city.  Joseph E. Johnston was tasked to stop him.  The campaign started in the ridges and mountains of North Georgia and required the guarding of a single rail line for supply.  Sherman had a considerable advantage in numbers, but at this point in the war the use of field fortifications on defense by the veteran troops made attacking a prepared position costly and likely to fail.  Even a few hours of preparation could make a line that could hold against almost anything thrown at it.

The problem Johnston had in defense is that Sherman had enough men to eventually outflank any position he held.  And Sherman, for the most part, was content to find the main position, entrench part of his men in front, and send the rest marching to the flanks.  Johnston was skilled at detecting and checking these moves before they could lead to a disaster, but he had to give ground to do so.

An even more serious problem was Johnston’s poor relationship with the President of the CSA, Jefferson Davis.  This had been the case for years, and at this point Davis had no confidence in him and was forced by political pressures to use him.  He sent John Bell Hood west to take over an army corps….and to report to him unknown to his commander. And Hood took every chance to undermine Johnston.

Personally, I’ve always liked “Old Joe” Johnston, and his task here was a daunting one. That said, he probably could have done more to retard Sherman than he did.  There was one attempt at a counterattack at Cassville, but Hood called it off due to a mistaken sighting of forces on the flank.  Johnston erred in not overriding this, and Hood reported to Davis that the failure was all on Joe Johnston.

So when Sherman neatly flanked Johnston out of the line on the Chattahoochie River, the last major river before Atlanta, Davis had had enough and fired Joe Johnston and replaced him with Hood, as Sherman approached the suburbs of the city.

Peach Tree Creek

North of Atlanta, Peach Tree Creek runs across the line of advance of Sherman’s Army. They needed to cross this creek in the face of Hood’s army.  Johnston himself had planned to strike the US forces of the Army of the Cumberland, one of Sherman’s three armies, as they crossed the river and defeat them.  Then he was fired, and Hood took up the plan, but had to delay a day to take up the reins of the army.  This gave time for more forces to cross the creek, and to begin entrenching.

Hood was also finding that pulling off an attack was a bit more difficult than writing nasty-grams to the President.  It turned out that the forces needed to be shifted sideways to avoid being outflanked, which cost even more time.  It was now afternoon and the US had had even more time to concentrate and cross the creek.

The attack went in, and had some momentary successes where US troops were caught unaware or in flank.  In other spots, the line was fortified and the cost of the assault was high.  The Mississippians broke one line, but then were caught in crossfires from supporting units and suffered severely.  In other spots, the Rebels didn’t try very hard to overcome a line that seemed too strong.  This would bear bitter fruit in subsequent battles as Hood came to believe that this sensible caution was a kind of cowardice that needed to be cured by a diet of frontal attacks.

So after some tense hours the battle ended with no real result aside from the casualties.


What neither Hood, or apparently Johnston knew when making this plan was that Sherman had sent about a third of his army on a wide circle to the east of Atlanta, which was entirely unguarded.  Only a few regiments of cavalry were delaying these 30.000 men from walking into the city.  A little less caution by the Union General McPherson and Atlanta would have fallen that day.

As it was, reserve forces had to be rushed to block the path, which was just as well rather than be bloodied in a frontal attack at Peach Tree.  Hood now had to plan a second battle for the day after tomorrow, to take McPherson in the flank and drive him back.  The troops that fought at Peach Tree Creek would form this flanking column, and would have to march all night to do it.


Like most battles, this one has come in for a lot of recriminations afterward.  Should Davis have fired Johnston? Could the attack have routed Thomas?  Could Sherman have been driven back?

Davis probably did the right thing by replacing Johnston, although doing it earlier would have been better.  The relationship was so poisoned that no information was moving between the two, leaving only Hood’s lies.  That said, Hardee might have been a better choice, even though he had declined command in the past.

The delay of a day may not have mattered much.  If they got there too early, there would be no forces on the south side of the creek to attack.  Punishing a brigade or so wouldn’t reverse the tide of the war.  And ironically, a more successful attack might have led to Sherman forcing McPherson to expedite his movement from the east, and led to an early capture of the city!

Hood just did not have the force to totally defeat Sherman’s three armies, even at the end of the long supply chain.  Wishing for that is like wishing for a miracle.  By this point, a win made the other side fall back a mile or so and come on again, and a loss meant you fell back a mile or so and stood again.  Hood managed to delay the fall for some time, but failed in the end.  It isn’t clear that Hardee or Joe Johnston would have done better.

The Confederate Approach on Harrisburg – Cooper H. Wingert

The Civil War Sesquicentennial Series

This series of books by the History Press during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has interested me for some time.  They are relatively low priced, and instead of covering the rehashed major battle also tackle some less known aspects of the war. I decided to pick this one up and see what the books are like.

The book is a trade paperback, with a nice cover painting by Don Stivers. It is about 150 pages of text, with the standard additional pages for citations, references, notes and index.  There are some period and recent photographs and maps in the text, but not in that glossy paper you get in hardback books.  Good quality

The Gettysburg Campaigns Northernmost Reaches

The book itself is on the days where the Union was trying to collect militia and scratch forces to oppose Lee’s 1863 invasion of the North to limit the damage until the Army of the Potomac could march and oppose them.  Elements of Ewell’s Corps took the town of Carlisle, which had a military barracks, and then Jenkins’ Cavalry pressed on toward the Susquehanna River and Harrisburg.

Militia was busy entrenching the hills near the city and for a time there was thought of an attack.  But then Lee recalled the infantry to gather near Gettysburg in response to the reports of the Union army approaching, and the mission changed to aggressively covering the movement.  There was a skirmish at Oyster’s Point and Sporting Hill and then Jenkins pulled out.

The final action in this area was a few days later, when Stuart‘s expedition was wandering the area looking for Ewell’s corps.  He then bombarded the town of Carlisle, which had been reoccupied, before finding out where Lee was and joining him in turn,

Sure these are minor actions, but not without their interest. The book has a lot of detail – the local farmers who had goods confiscated, the scouts for both sides, letters from the militia soldiers and their commanders.  It is an excellent and detailed look at a small piece of a big campaign.

I’ll be getting more of these in the future.

Roll Call to Destiny – Brent Nosworthy

The Soldier’s Eye View of Civil War Battles

This is an interesting book. It takes a single moment in a battle, and attempts to give you a feeling for how it was by examining it in great detail through quotes from the men who were there.  This microhistory is then repeated for several battles:

  • Burnside’s Brigade at First Bull Run
  • 57th NY in the woods at Fair Oaks
  • CSA Artillery at Fredericksburg
  • Union Artillery at Arkansas Post (attacking a fort)
  • Cavalry vs Cavalry on the third day of Gettysburg
  • Attacking Fort Sanders, Knoxville
  • The attack up Missionary Ridge
  • The 7th South Carolina at Darbytown Road

These have the additional advantage of not having been done to death before.

The author moves between description and analysis of the overall tactical lesson smoothly in each story, and hearing the soldiers in their own words is nice.  It gives a zoomed in view of a few battles that can be used with other books to get a better feel for how combat as a whole was in other battles.

The Maps of Antietam – Bradley M. Gottfried

This book is an atlas of the Antietam campaign in the American Civil War.  It is part of a series that so far has done First Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga.

Since it is an atlas of the campaign rather than just the battle, it includes the movements that led up to the battle, which in this case is the crossing of the Potomac and the taking of Frederick, MD, the move to take Harper’s Ferry and the counter-moves by McClellan that produced the battles of South Mountain and Crampton’s Gap, and then the fall of Harper’s Ferry and the battle itself.

The format is a good one for map lovers, as the right side page is a full-sized map and the facing page on the left is text for that map.  You never have to flip 50 pages back to refer to a map when reading the text of this book!

The text isn’t breaking a whole lot of new ground, but it is clear that the author is up to date with the rest of the field and used the information in preparing it.  And I don’t think that this is a bad thing – the main ‘new information’ is the frequency and accuracy of the maps themselves.  They are more or less one per day or more up to the battle and every few hours at most in the battle sections.  Each is full color, and the ground is marked with contour lines, and what kind of greenery and crops are present there.  The paper is has a glossy finish that makes the maps stand out well.  The background of the cover is one of the maps, on the opening of the battle.

It also isn’t too large a book to be carried on a battlefield tramp or to be used as a reference to follow the text of other books on the battle.

I’ve liked all the books in the series, and I look forward to it continuing, and for modern technology to be used to add more and better maps to all books.

Unholy Sabbath – Brian Matthew Jordan

Battle of South Mountain (northern field of ba...

Battle of South Mountain (northern field of battle) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is about the Civil War battle of South Mountain, on September 14, 1862.  This was part of Lee’s first invasion of the North with the Army of Northern Virginia, and it marks the time when the operation went from bold stroke to a scramble for survival for Lee.

If you look at this map of the area of Frederick, MD, you can follow the strategic positon. Early in September Lee had moved across the Potomac to Frederick after driving the Union army back to Washington DC after the battles of Second Bull Run and Chantilly. His initial plan was to move further north, rallying southern sympathizers in Maryland and garnering political points to possibly gain European intervention.

As he rested at Frederick, the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry began to draw his attention.  It sat behind him, on his line of communications south.  He decided to take it out.  This was the first mistake – if the goal is to move north, taking your eyes off the main army and scattering yours is a dangerous mistake.  Lee was counting on the Union army to remain inactive.

His plan was to break his army into five parts and use three of them to surround Harper’s Ferry.  The other two would cover the rear – D. H. Hill‘s division at South Mountain and Longstreet at Hagerstown against anything coming from the north.  This was another mistake – the position at South Mountain was the more critical and most exposed to danger. It should have had the larger force.

The Army of the Potomac was quickly reorganized under McClellan who showed his usual energy and efficiency that was always present in him except when in contact with the enemy.  He marched them out to meet Lee and arrived at Frederick on September 12 to find him gone.  Now at this point, McClellan had already made the risk of any move North by Lee too dangerous.  From Frederick, he could move on interior lines or cut his lines of communication.  If Lee attacked him directly, the hills to the west of town made a good defense.

But then McClellan had a stroke of luck – soldiers found a misplaced copy of Lee’s entire march plan.  McClellan thus knew that Lee’s army was scattered and that he was closer to the forces attacking Harper’s Ferry or holding the center than Lee’s other forces were.  Lee himself knew nothing of this, because his cavalry under Stuart were doing an unbelievably poor job of scouting and delaying the Union forces. So on the 13th, when Hill saw two-thirds of the Union army approaching his positon, it was a shock indeed.

South Mountain is a considerable hill, so the defense had an for man, but that was not nearly enough to overcome the weight of Union force.  The defenders of Crampton’s Gap to the south were routed, the forces at Fox’ Gap were crushed and pushed back, and the main pass at Turner’s Gap was closely pressed and flanked.  Several of the defending units suffered severe losses.  Lee had to fall back at night to avoid a worse defeat the next day.  McClellan had broken the center of his position, and Lee retired towards the Potomac.

Lee then found out that Harper’s Ferry was about to surrender and decided to unite his army for a final battle at Sharpsburg.  This was his last mistake of the campaign, because there was no real chance of a decisive victory coming out of it – even a victory would let the Union fall back out South Mountain and defend there.  And the poor condition of his own army made that victory unlikely, where a defeat with his back to the Potomac could be a disaster.

But Little Mac managed to take three days to advance to the battle, and though he managed to grind up Lee in the bloodiest day of the entire war and defeat him, he could not crush him, and the Army of Northern Virginia retired to fight again.

To the Union Army, South Mountain was a tonic – it was the first victory they had had in months and gave them the confidence that on their home turf they could match the Confederates and drive them off.  This confidence carried on to Sharpsburg and to Gettysburg the next year, which ended the invasions.