What's going on with Valley Thunder?

Here is where you can stay most up-to-date with the publication of Charles Knight's Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market, including the latest info on its release, up-coming appearances by the author, latest reviews, more in-depth looks at various aspects of the battle and anything else that comes to mind.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Best & Worst Strategists of the CW

Time once again to borrow from grad school...This time the discussion was "best and worst strategists" of the Civil War. Here's my thoughts on the matter:

Each side had its full share of strategists good and bad, and some who passed from the scene too early to evaluate. Some of them also excelled at strategy but failed at the tactical and/or operational level, so success may not have always followed their strategic ideas.

As author of the strategy which ultimately won the war, U.S. Grant would have to be at or near the top of the list. Rising from Col to Lt Gen and General in Chief, his was one of the more meteoric ascents during the war. Grant recognized the need for coordinated efforts against the Confederate forces in the field. He saw that the Confederate armies, rather than territory and points on a map, were the main targets, but also appreciated the value of cities and supply lines. Even before he was in overall command, Grant had wanted to take out Mobile. In VA Charlottesville and Lynchburg - both important rail centers - were favorite objectives of his. After Sherman had captured Atlanta Grant sent him gentle reminders that Hood's army not Atlanta was his objective. Few other commanders realized that concentration in time and concentration in space were the true recipes for victory.

Winfield Scott deserves mention here for his "Anaconda Plan," although it had the early war fascination with Richmond as the overall objective. The blockade and control of the Mississippi River were the strongest points of Scott's plan. However, given his advanced age and debilitating size by 1861 his best days were long behind him.

George McClellan was one of the rising stars of the antebellum army and knew more than anyone else in the country, possibly the planet, about siege warfare. For all his tactical faults and shortcomings as commander of a field army, McClellan was a brilliant military mind, one who could dominate a chess board when the human elements were removed from it. The idea behind the Peninsula Campaign - if not the execution of it - was superb, as was his idea to reduce Richmond by siege once he finally got there. Little Mac had an appreciation, matched perhaps only by Joe Johnston, for securing one's base fully and making sure all one's military ducks were in a row, so to speak, before committing to battle. Had McClellan been in a European-style staff role, or remained behind a desk overseeing movements on a map rather than being in direct command of a field army, he would be remembered much more kindly by history.

William Rosecrans is one of the unsung heroes of the Western Theater. His biggest achievement was gaining Chattanooga w/o a fight, and had arguably been the brains behind McClellan's West VA Campaign at the outset of the war. Unfortunately Rosecrans' defeat and his personal retreat from the battlefield at Chickamauga permanently blemish an otherwise stellar record as strategist and tactician. (I have always wondered by Rosey was never given a chance in the Eastern Theater.)

William Sherman, Philip Sheridan and John Pope all had an appreciation for "total war" that few other commanders did. Pope brought it out too early - in the days when their was still the early 19th century romance about the war and such actions were vilified. Sherman and Sheridan both recognized how the home front was also a military front and how to best eliminate it militarily.

Robert E Lee was the best that the Confederacy had to offer. Like McClellan, Lee had an engineering background and an appreciation for terrain that few could rival. Lee realized that the Confederacy was outnumbered and could never have any realisitic hopes for numerical parity on the battlefields, and with that understanding knew how to compensate and make best use of what he had - even if it meant undertaking high-risk operations. Lee also argued - usually in vain - for the shifting of troops from quiet theaters to concentration in active theaters: troops were of no value sitting idle in garrisons. He was a rumored candidate for Secy of War in 1862 and several months before the end of the war was finally named General in Chief.

GT Beauregard was another of the proponents of troop concentration, as long as it didn't entail taking troops from him only giving them to him. He seemingly constantly bombarded Davis and the War Dept w/grandiose proposals to strip most of the Confederacy of troops for grand offensives, of course under his command. But Beauregard certainly had his off-days as well.

John Bell Hood - most folks would say that he belongs in the other column of this list, but that would be based on results not the idea. If McClellan's results are overlooked to the benefit of his planning, Hood should be accorded the same favor. Aggressive by nature, Hood observed from his service in Lee's ANV how to be aggressive to greatest advantage. Hood inherited the Army of Tennessee w/his back against a wall - the similarities to Lee's assumption of command of the ANV could not have been lost upon him. As Lee took the offensive against McClellan, so too would Hood against Sherman. But Sherman was not McClellan, the Army of Tennessee was not the Army of Northern Virginia, and Hood was not Lee. After losing Atlanta Hood employed another REL-esque strategy - falling upon Sherman's supply lines to force Sherman to fall back. Lee had forced Pope (Second Manassas Campaign) and Meade (Bristow Stn Campaign) to retreat using a similar strategy. When Sherman refused to take the bait, Hood (with Beauregard's concurrence) devised another Lee-like plan - to invade Tennessee; if Sherman took Georgia, Hood would take Tennessee, Kentucky and had his eyes on Ohio. Yet Hood's subordinates would fail him outside Atlanta and at Spring Hill, and his own poor tactical choices at Franklin all overshadow Hood's historical reputation.

Now for the not so great...

It would be difficult to find a more disappointing officer in a gray uniform in terms of independent command than James Longstreet. Longstreet was never subtle in his suggestions that he warranted his own command, and he never did anything to prove himself worthy of it; in fact his two stints in independent command proved him completely unworthy of it. Although the Suffolk Campaign was not his idea, he botched it completely and ignored orders to return to the ANV before the opening of the Spring offensive, thus Lee was without two divisions at Chancellorsville. His actions at Chattanooga - although more in the tactical or operational realm than the strategic - contributed greatly to Grant being able to lift the Confederate siege. His insistence on being detached to Knoxville from Chattanooga was extremely flawed, and pouring salt in the wound he botched his Knoxville operation entirely. Bragg needed every soldier he could find at Chattanooga to offset the accessions Rosecrans and then Grant was getting from other armies, yet Longstreet was angry at not being named Bragg's successor so wanted away from him, thus took three divisions to Knoxville and neither commander - Bragg nor Longstreet - had the troops they needed for their own operations. And every time that Longstreet failed he found a scape goat: for Suffolk it was Sam French, for Chattanooga it was Evander Law, for Knoxville it was Lafayette McLaws, and overriding all from Chickamauga onward it was Braxton Bragg.

Perhaps the only officer who rivaled Longstreet as a failure was John Pemberton. There were only a handful of officers who lost their entire army prior to the end of the war - Pemberton reigns supreme in that category. Ostensibly under Joe Johnston's command during the Vicksburg Campaign, Pemberton made a horrible choice for the security of Vicksburg by surrendering the initiative to Grant and withdrawing into his defenses ringing the city while awaiting a relief column. Once exchanged Jeff Davis proposed Pemberton for corps command under Joe Johnston but eventually realized that would come close to causing a mutiny, thus Pemberton - once a Lt Gen - became a Lt Col in command of the heavy arty in Richmond's defenses.

Speaking of Jefferson Davis, his cordon defense strategy and his insistence on being his own General in Chief until the war's end gives him high ranking on this list as well. Davis' penchant for playing favorites and holding grudges, regardless of the military consequences of his personal friendships and vendettas, was unforgivable and in the end quite costly.

Ambrose Burnside simply was in over his head once he got stars. His initial plan to go around Lee via Fredericksburg was sound but when his pontoons were late in arriving his decision to await them although the surprise of the move was lost shows a lack of creativity. The disaster of the Battle of Fredericksburg falls under tactical failures, so he will not be faulted for that here. But his "Mud March" was a combination of bad luck and another example of his inability to adapt his plans to unforeseen circumstances. The move itself was very similar to what Joe Hooker would do several months later. Sent back West after Fredericksburg Burnside languished at Knoxville, only entering the pages of history again there b/c Longstreet's failures to dislodge him. A final tick mark against Burnside is his handling of the Crater attack. He gets kudos for the creativity of the mine idea, but allowing fate/luck to put his worst division commander in the van of the attack that very well could have taken Petersburg, well, is in line with what one would expect from the man whose plan for renewing the attack at Fredericksburg consisted of personally leading the IX Corps into the meat grinder of Maryes Hgts.

Ben Butler is representative of the many political generals who donned Union blue. Unfortunately for the Union war effort, he was near the top of the seniority list. Butler managed to make himself the most hated man in the entire South, and a good portion of the North as well. His handling of the escaped slaves at Fort Monroe created a political hot potato for the Lincoln administration. He followed this up by insulting the female population of New Orleans - and by extension nearly the entire population of the South - while in command of that city. Fast forward to 1864 and his command of the Army of the James, he very nearly captured Richmond and then took his army out of the fight by bottling his army up at Bermuda Hundred. A final note on Butler's failures was his attempt to literally blow up Ft Fisher outside Wilmington with a "powder ship" which caused a lot of noise and fireworks and hardly gained notice from the Confederate garrison.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Translating Mahone-ish to English

Going thru the Walter Taylor papers housed down the street from Casa de Chuck at the Norfolk Public Library. Ran across this post-war letter from William Mahone to WHT. Don't ask me what it says though...This is bad even for Mahone.

As soon as I saw this in the folder I immediately recognized Little Billy's trademark scrawl, without having to look for his signature on the second page or the emblem atop the stationery. I must say though that this is the first letter of his I've encountered that I cannot translate.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shenandoah County in the Civil War

Shenandoah County in the Civil War: Four Dark Years, Hal F. Sharpe (History Press, 2012) 156 pages, illustrations, ISBN 978-1-59629-760-9, $19.99

The Civil War publications released by the History Press continue to be rather hit or miss. One of the most recent additions to the line, Shenandoah County in the Civil War by Hal Sharpe, falls more into the latter category. In his defense the author states that his purpose is not to recount the major battles (New Market, Fishers Hill, Cedar Creek) which took place in the eponymous county in the central Shenandoah Valley but rather to look more at the effects of the war on the population.

As with nearly all books of this series, there is no index, nor are there any citations – only a bibliography at the end, and of the works listed at least ¾ of them are secondary sources. Many of the battle descriptions are muddled and error-filled, which is surprising considering the overall lack of detail the author uses for the battle descriptions.

The cover art is Keith Rocco’s painting showing the Virginia Military Institute cadets in the Bushong yard at New Market. With New Market being one of the largest engagements in the county as well as one of the best-known, one would hope for more attention devoted to this engagement, not to mention more accuracy. (And as a personal aside, this reviewer’s book on New Market is not among the works in the bibliography.)

Sharpe’s book is an ample introduction to the war in the central Shenandoah Valley but unfortunately is little more. The military detail and accuracy simply is not there while many of the civilian accounts he gives are readily available elsewhere. Its strength is in the photographs included of the residences and locales which he mentions.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Richmond Theater Fire

The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster, Meredith Henne Baker (LSU Press, 2012) 317 pages, illustrations, index, ISBN 978-0-8071-4374-2, $39.95

The Richmond Theater Fire is another facet of local history I grew up hearing about, but about which there was precious little written. Sometime in the mid-80s I got the opportunity to tour Monumental Church - built as a memorial to the victims of the fire on the site of the theater - including going into the basement where the large concrete bunker-like vault is located which houses the remains of many of the victims. Creepy factor aside, how could one not want to learn more of this event? Until LSU Press released Meredith Henne Baker's book The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster earlier this year, there wasn't really much to go on in the way of modern writings of the story.

On the day after Christmas 1826, an audience of hundreds packed into the Richmond Theater, situated on what is now Broad St, about a block from the Capitol near the crest of Shockoe Hill. When a stagehand mistakenly hoisted a chandelier with a still-lit candle into the rafters, disaster resulted as curtains, scenery and backdrops caught fire. The flames quickly spread and chaos quickly descended. Too few exits, narrow corridors and stairwells, locked windows, inward-opening doors and resulting confusion all combined to cost approximately 70 lives, including that of Virginia's Governor George Smith. The temperature of the resulting inferno is estimated to have been in excess of 1000 degrees. Few of the victims were able to be identified after the fire. Dozens of others suffered injuries either from burns, smoke inhalation, leaping from windows, or simply being trampled underfoot by the crowd. In the wake of the disaster, the city of Richmond formed a committee - headed by John Marshall - to construct a memorial. The resulting Monumental Church opened a few years later, with the remains of many of the victims entombed beneath it. "The death count alone did not make the event so horrific and psychologically traumatic; it was its unexpectedness and the helpless nature of the victims it selected." (pg 111)

I have mixed feelings about Baker's book. The parts about the actual fire itself and the immediate aftermath are excellent. However, they occupy only about half of the book. The rest is given to Virginia's religious history up to that time and a history of 18th and 19th century theater. Granted, some of both are required to put the event in the proper context, but the author gets too carried away with the social and religious history for my taste. For all the religious history that the author presents, I would have liked more about Monumental Church - beyond the actual fund-raising and controversy over the design, there is precious little about it.

The author's recounting of the actual fire is excellent - it just occupies a very small portion of the book. The first-hand accounts of it are far more numerous than I had expected them to be. One of the greatest assets of the book is a 3-d diagram of the likely design of the interior of the theater - very vital to understanding how the crowd became trapped inside. However, one has to search for the final death count - a rather important statistic for the event. Unless I somehow missed it, the "official" death toll (72) - although referenced several times - is not presented until page 219 - long after its proper place in the narrative. She also briefly tackles the myth begun by one Edgar Allan Poe that his parents were killed in the fire (pg 116).

It is surprising to me that given the importance of the theater fire in Richmond's history that it took more than 200 years after the event for the first worthwhile study of it to appear. This is definitely a much-needed work. The depth research is incredible, both into the fire and Richmond's religious history as well as early American theater history. The latter two were quite unexpected in this work. Definitely recommended for anyone with an interest in Richmond history, as well as theater history and religious history. I would have given more stars if there was more about Monumental Church, or if the social history were scaled back - I find the book's title does not reflect the proper ratio of actual event history to social history.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

1st NY (Lincoln) Cav book

I stumbled upon a new book about the 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry - thank you Amazon and your recommendations: A Lincoln Cavalryman: The Civil War Letters of Henry Suydam, 1st NY (Lincoln) Cavalry; Daniel P. Black, ed. (Old Line Publishing, 2011) ISBN9781937004347 $14.95

Requested and got a review copy in the mail today. Glancing through it, it appears that Suydam - like a good number of his regiment - was captured at New Market Gap on May 13 by John Imboden's troopers and was sent to Andersonville. There are a couple of letters from the months leading up to Sigel taking the field, and one from a week after his capture but they are sparse on details. I'll be interested to see what sort of context the letters are placed into, as the bibliography is only about a page and a half, and about half of that is CW-related. Surprisingly, Jack Davis' Battle of New Market is not listed, although Valley Thunder is and so is Turner's New Market Campaign and Jerry Holsworth's Blue & Gray article about NM.

This one has just moved to the front of my stack of review titles (which also includes, in no particular order: Fergus Bordewich's America's Great Debate, Frederick Hatch's Protecting President Lincoln, and Meredith Baker's Richmond Theater Fire).

Monday, June 11, 2012

L&N in the Civil War review

The L&N Railroad in the Civil War, by Dan Lee (2011 McFarland, www.mcfarlandpub.com 800-253-2187) 214 pages, index, illustrations, map - $35 (paper)

Being a self-professed "railroad nut" in addition to being a Civil War historian, I love books that combine both topics. Although Festus Summers' work on the B&O in the CW back in the '30s was the first such to specifically tackle the topic, few works appeared afterward devoted solely to one line during the years 1861-65. That has changed in recent years - David Stone's Vital Rails about the Charleston & Savannnah was excellent and Dan Lee's recent McFarland release on the L&N is a good one as well.

Although at just under 200 pages of text, The L&N Railroad in the Civil War is shorter than most McFarland books, it is one of their better releases (though still pricey at $35 for a paperback). Lee is quite knowledgeable on the Civil War in Kentucky and it is very apparent in his writing, for this is more than just a recounting of John Hunt Morgan's raids on the Louisville & Nashville or James Guthrie's exploitation of the Federal government, it is a good concise history of the war in the central portion of the Bluegrass State.

Lee provides an excellent summary of the importance of railroads during the Civil War: "Civil War generals were notoriously slow in giving up the Napoleonic tactics they had studied at West Point...And yet, somehow, the generals were uncharacteristically quick to realize the importance of railroads, and they fought to deprive the enemy of their use. Some 30 percent of Union forces were assigned to railroad defense. Every theater of war saw railroad destruction as a costly but necessary feature of the struggle." (p 11)

The L&N was one of but a few railroads that spanned the border betwixt United States and Confederate States in 1861, giving both sides an interest in it. Its president James Guthrie - one of the most influential businessmen of the 1850s and 1860s, and Franklin Pierce's Secretary of the Treasury - was not one to ignore the unique situation into which this placed his railroad. He courted both sides and would eventually gain for his railroad benefits given no other line by the Lincoln Administration during the war. He was simply too politically well-connected and his railroad too militarily important to antagonize.

The L&N had been constructed before the war to a standard not often seen on other lines at the time (though Billy Mahone's Norfolk & Petersburg was more than a rival in terms of quality). One of the engineers was Albert Fink - one of the most brilliant railroad men and engineering minds of the 19th century. Having such high standards aided in keeping the line in efficient operation throughout the war, despite the destruction of some of its most important engineering feats - the bridge at Gallatin and Big South Tunnel and constant raids by John Hunt Morgan and Joseph Wheeler.

While Bedford Forrest and Earl Van Dorn's combined Holly Springs-West Tennessee raids in late 1862 often are credited as being the most successful cavalry raids of the war and the only "raid" that had a major strategic effect on a major campaign, Morgan's raid on the L&N earlier in '62 was no less spectacular and had a similar effect. Morgan's Gallatin raid in August 1862 destroyed 800 feet of tunnel among other things, crippling Don Carlos Buell's supply line and forcing him to abandon his planned move into the Tennessee interior and Chattanooga (although subsequent moves by Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith into Kentucky would have forced him to abandon the Tennessee campaign). Writes Ball: "Morgan could not have known it, but he would never do anything greater than what he had just done for the Confederacy. The railroad was closed for 98 days, but its importance is seen in the context of the larger picture. For the first time Morgan had conducted a raid, not only to satisfy his personal craving for adventure and attention, but in co-operation with a major military objective, stopping Buell." (p 72)

But John Hunt Morgan's destruction done to the L&N could have been much worse than it actually was during 1862. When the "Thunderbolt" captured a train, enemy soldiers were of course captured and military stores and equipment either captured or destroyed, as often was the train itself. However if a number of ladies were present on the train, the chivalrous Morgan would spare the train so as not to deny the ladies transportation. "If James Guthrie had loaded a delegation of women on every train, he might have save a lot of rolling stock and a good many locomotives." (p 62)

Lee does sometimes get sidetracked on tangents not directly related to the L&N (for instance the level of detail in retelling of Morgan's capture), but these are not detrimental, as they just serve to paint a larger picture of the war in Kentucky and Tennessee. It is very apparent from his writing that he is not a fan of Albert Sidney Johnston or John Bell Hood, and is quite partial to Joseph Johnston. And like many other writers he falls prey to the incorrect notion that a close pre-war friendship existed betwixt Braxton Bragg and Jefferson Davis. However, none of this is any great fault. What is a major flaw is the maps - or lack thereof. There is but one map - of the war-time L&N - and it is located at the very back of the book when it should have been placed near the front.

Yet the book overcomes its lack of maps with excellent content. Lee does not get bogged down (as is so easy to do) with raw data of annual tonnage moved, net revenues, etc. lifted straight from the L&N annual reports. The narrative is very readable, flows well, and is more or less on topic.

What is missing - although admittedly out of the scope of this book - is an appendix telling "the rest of the story" of the L&N, which became one of the largest railroads east of the Mississippi prior to its merger into the CSX system. Also of interest would have been an short look at the L&N's involvement in the centennial tour of "The General" of Great Locomotive Chase fame, as the former Western & Atlantic had come under L&N control.

Lee's book is a well-written volume which belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the Civil War in Kentucky, 19th century railroads, and of course is a must-have for all L&N buffs.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Church Hill Tunnel collapse review

The Collapse of Richmond's Church Hill Tunnel, by Walter S. Griggs, Jr. (2011 History Press) 125 pages, index, illustrations, map - $19.99 (paper)

Most folks know that besides Civil War history, trains are my other big interest. Growing up in Richmond, when my Dad wasn't taking me to battlefields, we were going to railroad spots. One of my favorite was a spot where we were not going to see a train (in fact we were far more likely to witness a crime there back then, although the area has been cleaned up some of late, but I still wouldn't go there unarmed). I refer to the old Chesapeake & Ohio Railway tunnel running under Church Hill from Shockoe Bottom to Fulton Yard near Rocketts Landing.

The C&O had an issue with Richmond's topography - standing right in the path of their mainline heading eastward out of downtown was Church Hill. Less than a decade after the Evacuation Fire, workers began boring a tunnel through Church Hill - almost literally right under Patrick Henry's St. John's Church - to get to Richmond's docks on the other side. Several times the tunnel collapsed, but eventually it was completed and placed in service. However, it was replaced by a viaduct along the city's riverfront as C&O officials decided to extend the line to Newport News and Hampton Roads. Post-WWI rail traffic however required the reopening of the tunnel. On October 2, 1925, a work train was sent into the tunnel which required considerable shoring up before traffic could return to it. The train never left the tunnel - it remains there to this day, possibly with some of the work crew. After rescue efforts proved unsuccessful, C&O ordered the tunnel sealed off and filled in to prevent further collapses and damage resulting to the neighborhoods above. But the disaster drew national attention and was perhaps the biggest event in the city's history since the Civil War.

The story is a fascinating one; the book, eh, not so much...

As a Richmond native I was quite familiar with the old C&O tunnel under Church Hill. My Dad had taken me to the entrance (western one) several times and recounted the story. He had worked briefly with several folks who had worked on the rescue/recovery efforts.

Intrigued by hearing his recounting of the story of the day in October 1925 when the tunnel collapsed on the work train and crew inside, I wanted to know more. But there was no BOOK on the topic - a glaring hole in both Richmond's history (the collapse was arguably the worst natural disaster to strike the city since the Theater fire of 1811) and local railroad history.

When I learned that a book had finally come out on the topic I poured over it eagerly. The Collapse of Richmond's Church Hill Tunnel, by VCU Professor Walter S. Griggs, Jr., (History Press, 2011) looks at an important episode of Richmond's post-Civil War history. However it didn't fulfill my expectations, for several reasons. First, there is NO MAP. I am a map guy - a book can never have too many maps. There is but one map in this book, on page 100 no less, and it is a VERY shoddily-reproduced one that shows not the location of the tunnel in relation to the rest of the city but instead the location of the rescue shafts dropped into the tunnel after the collapse. A reader not familiar with Richmond's geography would be absolutely lost as to where the tunnel is located and why it was even needed, due to the local topography. This is a glaring omission that should never have been allowed to happen.

Second, it is poorly written and edited (something that seems to plague many of these History Press works, in addition to poor graphic quality). There is much repetition by the author, and too much first-person usage by him in the text as well. Despite being very well researched, Griggs gets bogged down in inane details in spots while glossing over other important details that are left unexplored. Despite interviewing witnesses and participants over a period of 50 years, the apparent depth of this research does not come through in the text.

But Griggs' work is not without merit. As noted above, it is quite well researched. After the collapse occurs, Griggs devotes a chapter to each successive day of the rescue efforts - a much more understandable and readable approach than combining all into one or two chapters (although some of the resulting "chapters" are literally one or two paragraphs). And needless to say the book fills a void in Richmond history. Griggs even tackles the popular story of the "tunnel vampire" - most authors, if they even mentioned such at all, would likely have only in passing mentioned the birth of that legend arising from the tunnel disaster.

At 120 pages, Collapse is a quick read (I read it in a single afternoon). But sans maps it can't really be deemed a "field guide" (although most folks know NOT to venture around that area, especially the east portal). The length is typical, though, of similar works by the History Press.

This is one of those books that crosses subject lines and would appeal to several audiences: Richmond history folks, railroad buffs - C&O folks in particular, and those with an interest in engineering history as well (although details on the actual structure of the tunnel itself are sparse, despite the author's harping on the unstable composition of Church Hill).

While Griggs has at least given interested audiences a book to turn to for more information, the definitive work on the subject of the Church Hill Tunnel remains to be written.