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.

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.