December 31, 2012

Review: "World War Z" By Max Brooks

I didn't include this book in my list of favorite reads in my "2012--My Year In Review" list that I posted, but I probably should have.  It must be something about the time and age that we live in that the zombie apocalypse has become something of a cult phenomenon--witness all of the zombie books being published and read, and AMC's remarkably popular TV series "The Walking Dead"--and I must confess that I am a 'card-carrying' member of the zombie cult too (which, on its face, is perhaps the most ridiculous thing I've said in months ;-).  Anyway, World War Z was a morbidly fascinating and well-written fictional account that purports to provide an 'oral history' of the efforts of the world's living to contain and eradicate the world's undead.  Max Brooks (Mel Brooks' son) wrote this book as a collection of interviews among the survivors of the horrific war against the zombies, and certainly pays an extraordinary amount of homage to the late Studs Terkel. 

As crazy as it sounds, this was an easy and entertaining book to read, largely because of Brooks' organization of the novel.  It starts with a chapter describing the initial outbreak and spread of the virus that leads to the 'zombification' of billions of humans across the entire globe.  The remaining chapters include the personal accounts of the survivors as they try and combat the horror of the mounting threat of the zombie hordes, and then the formulation and implementation of a global strategy to reclaim the planet from the undead hoards. 

Personally, I liked the use of the personal interview and vignettes of story-telling rather than focusing on a first- or second-person accounting of this horrific tale.  And while the notion of zombies taking over the world may seem a bit far-fetched (I hope?), there was plenty of 'food-for-thought' about the way governments and individuals might react if there were global threats associated with nuclear or biological terrorism, or even the short- and long-term effects associated with global climate change.  The human propensity for inhumanity to other humans is well known, and is maybe even more terrifying than that of the zombies described in Brooks' World War Z.  I'll be interested to see how the upcoming blockbuster movie starring Brad Pitt handles the material in the book when it is released during summer 2013.  World War Z, the book, gets four out of a possible five stars from me.


December 29, 2012

Reviews: A Neil Gaiman Cornucopia

2012 found me discovering, or rediscovering, the British author Neil Gaiman, and I am so glad that I did.  A few years ago I read his novel American Gods, and I was really not all that impressed.  However, after my most recent experiences with Gaiman's fiction I must confess that I am prepared to give American Gods another chance at some point.  Anyway, over the past couple of months I've read Stardust, Neverwhere, and Coraline.  Here are my brief thoughts about each of them--

Stardust is an elegant and poignant little novel, and is truly one of the very best books that I've read this year.  Gaiman is a brilliant story-teller, and this is a tale for the ages.  Stardust is a story that has the feel and threads of a fairytale that has been handed down and greatly loved through the generations.  There is something in this beautiful and compelling story that re-galvanizes one's faith in the good-heartedness of most people, and that Fate and Chance can also work for good.

You'll note that I am not sharing one jot about the plot of this tale, as I don't want to influence you other than to simply say that it is my humble wish that each and every person read Stardust at some point during their lives, and maybe bring a little extra Magic and Love into their hearts and souls.  Upon finishing this lovely little story you simply can't help but look at the world around you just a little differently, and that'll be a mighty fine thing, I think.


I finished Neverwhere over a three-day period while on Christmas vacation, and loved every moment and every word.  In my humble opinion, Neil Gaiman is the undisputed master of the 'modern British fairytale'.  He is a sorcerer with words as he successfully weaves new twists and turns into the fables and fairytales that we've all probably encountered over the course of our lives.  Neverwhere is a brilliant story that looks at the 'other' world below modern London--the world of abandoned 'Tube' stations, trains from odd places and going odd places, ancient sewer systems and its denizens--in other words, the 'Land of Faerie' in an urban setting. 

The story's protagonist, Richard Mayhew, falls through the cracks and emerges into this other London, and is immediately thrust into an epic adventure with a Dickensian cast of characters.  The adventure rapidly turns into a titanic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil (and the Evil forces are really quite horrifyingly awful).  Like most, if not all, of Gaiman's protagonists, Richard Mayhew has to dig deep within himself to find his courage, but once he commits himself he is a stolid and reliable friend to the young woman, Door, who is in desperate need of his help.  Again, I dare not say more about the plot, other than I loved this book immensely and I simply loved the ending--it was perfect! Neverwhere is a marvelous, marvelous novel.


I loved Coraline!  This beautiful little book can, and should, appeal to readers of all ages, including my precocious and intelligent seven year-old grandson (who, by the bye, is reading The Hobbit right now).  This little fairytale is all about the notion of "the grass is not always greener on the other side"; courage and fidelity to one's beliefs; the love of family and friends; and most importantly perhaps, that one must stand up and fight injustice whenever it is encountered.  Little Coraline does all of this in spades.  In short, this little girl is my hero.

As a bit of a sidenote, something else that I've noticed is that Gaiman has a thing for doors, doesn't he?  Hmmm...Think about it.  In his novel Stardust there is a gate to Faerie; and in Neverwhere the young woman, Door, is able to find, open, and pass through doors that are portals to other planes and places; and then our own Coraline and the 'fourteenth' door in her parents' flat that opens upon the alternate world of her "other Mother" and "other Father" and some other creepy doings.

Being the father of two beautiful daughters, this little tale cast me back to the days of watching their inquisitive natures and insatiable curiosities as they began exploring the world around them and the people they encountered. So, while there are some superb moral lessons for children in this book, there are an equal number of lessons for the parents and grandparents of children too.  Foremost is to pay attention to and unconditionally love our children, and in so doing that is likely enough to prevent them from seeking out or, worse yet, actually finding a set of "other parents" behind the "fourteenth door".

Coraline is a wonderful little book to pass around to all of the adults and children in your life.


Neil Gaiman is certainly one of my great literary discoveries of 2012, and I'm so glad to have most of his fiction sitting on my bookshelf now.  Both Stardust and Coraline made my "Year In Review" list too.  Finally, I have Gaiman's The Graveyard Book sitting in the queue on my TBR shelf.  I can't wait!

December 28, 2012

2012--My Year in Review

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

I know that I have been extremely remiss in posting to ProSe over the past couple of months, but there's been a lot--a great lot--going on in my life of late.  This posting, while some of you may find it of interest, is probably written more for my own edification than anything else.

In early-August 2012, my oldest daughter received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I cannot begin to tell you how proud all of us are for the hard work she has put in over the years to achieve this significant milestone.  I was extremely honored to have been asked by her to read and review her dissertation prior to it being finalized and submitted to her committee.  She is still teaching at UNL while she begins the task of trying to find a full-time teaching position at a four-year institution.  I am sure that a good school will snap her up soon.

My very elderly mother passed away after a long struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or "Lou Gehrig's Disease") on November 7, 2012.  She died quite peacefully in the morning with family and friends surrounding her in the sun-room of my parents' house in southern Arizona.  I was able to spend a lot of quality time with her over the past couple of years, and for that I shall always be eternally grateful.  ALS is a terrible and miserable disease, and my heart simply goes out to any who have a family member struggling and endeavoring to cope with it.  I also want to give a huge 'shout-out' to the magnificent angels who involve themselves in all aspects of home hospice care.  I think having my mom in her own home surrounded by her own possessions and memories, her cat, her friends, and my father--in short, her Life--made the struggle so much easier for her to bear.  I also want to say that my father is really doing very well, and that my younger brother has moved in with him to lend a helping hand.  We all miss you, Mom!

Concurrent with my mother's passing, my wife and I found out that our oldest son (my stepson, my wife's son) had been selected to attend the U.S. Army's Warrant Officer Career College at Fort Rucker, Alabama.  He has been in the Army for 14 years and has been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few years.  He was a Sergeant First Class when selected to become a Warrant Officer, which is a hugely positive career move.  At the same time that he was off to Warrant Officer school, his wife (our daughter-in-law) was deployed to the large U.S. military base in Doha, Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.  She is active-duty Army too, and began her year-long deployment in early November.  So, "Grammie" (my wonderful wife) and I have taken in their two children--a wonderful seven year-old boy, and a sweet little two-and-a-half year-old girl.  We set up one of our guest rooms for the kids, and are now back to being full-time parents, running kids hither and yon.  I am 56 years old, and I can absolutely attest to the fact that raising young children is most assuredly a young person's "sport"!  At the same time, it really is kinda like riding a bicycle, you really don't forget how to do it.  Depending upon the needs of the Army, the kids could be with us through July 2013, or as long as November 2013.

Early November 2012 also saw the President being reelected, and I was profoundly relieved that the American people saw fit to give his administration another four years.  Personally, I do believe the country is moving in the right direction under his leadership.  I just wish that there was some of way of stepping back from the extreme polarization and partisanship that seems to have overtaken the two political parties.  I am cautiously optimistic that President Obama can use his second term in trying to find a way to bridge the gulf--more like a chasm--between the parties and get the Congress back to doing the Nation's business.

From a literary perspective, 2012 was a very good year for me.  I read over 110 books this year, and I've still a few days left! Of the books I read, some were 'old friends' that I was revisiting, and others were brand new to me.  While I read a lot of fiction, 2012 was also a year in which I read a lot more non-fiction than is typical in a given year, as I explored the latest books associated with human origins and anthropology, and a whole raft of relatively recent military history books about the American Civil War.  I thought it might be fun to share "My Best Books of 2012"--

Best of Non-Fiction
Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, by Chris Stringer (Science/Anthropology)
Hardy: A Biography, by Martin Seymour-Smith (Biography)

Best of Military History
The Battle of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, by Gordon C. Rhea
The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, by Gordon C. Rhea
This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga, by Peter Cozzens
Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, by Noah Andre Trudeau

Best of Historical Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror
Hide Me Among the Graves, by Tim Powers(Historical Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, and my review here)
11/22/63, by Stephen King (Fantasy)
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks (Fantasy/Horror)
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman (Fantasy)
Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (Fantasy)
The Fall of Troy, by Peter Ackroyd (Historical Fiction)
Something Red, by Douglas Nicholas (Historical Fiction/Fantasy/Horror)
Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth (Historical Fiction/Mystery)
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (Post Apocalyptic and a re-read for me)
The Forge of Darkness, by Steven Erikson (Fantasy)

Best of Classic Fiction
Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy (A re-read for me)
The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy (A re-read for me)
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (A re-read for me)

Best Poetry
The Oresteia, by Aeschylus (Translated by Peter Meinick)
The Lays of Beleriand, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Iliad, by Homer (Translated by Anthony Verity)
Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition, Translated by Howell D. Chickering, Jr.

Special 'Kudos' to Neil Gaiman's Stardust, Douglas Nicholas' Something Red, and Tim Powers' Hide Me Among the Graves.  These three books may very well be my favorite new reads of the year, and I highly recommend them to readers. I'd have to give an 'Honorable Mention' to Stephen King's new novel, 11/22/63 as well.

Finally, the book that I am really looking forward to reading is the final volume in the monumental "Wheel of Time" series of fantasy fiction that was started by the late Robert Jordan, and is being finished up by Brandon Sanderson.  The fourteenth and final book, A Memory of Light, is being released on January 8, 2013, and I can hardly wait.  I have been reading this series for over twenty years, and it really is some of the very best fantasy fiction out there.

A very Happy New Year to each of you as we ready ourselves to leave 2012 and begin 2013.  I look forward to stopping by and visiting each of your blogs and sharing our love of all things literary as we start a new year.  Cheers!


October 20, 2012

"A Sound in the Night" by Thomas Hardy

Woodsford Castle (c) Mike Searle
Here is another one of my favorite poems by Thomas Hardy.  This well-crafted macabre poem even features a spooky castle on a cold, dark, and stormy night.  Woodsford Castle is considered an excellent example of a fortified medieval manor house of the mid-14th Century.  The construction of Woodsford Castle was completed in 1370, and it is located just a few miles south of Dorchester in Dorset County, in the heart of the 'Wessex' countryside that Thomas Hardy lived in and wrote about in much of his fiction and poetry.  In fact, Hardy's builder father, Thomas Hardy, Sr., was involved in an extensive restoration effort at Woodsford Castle in 1850.  One simply has to imagine that the ten-year-old Hardy would have accompanied his father to the castle during the restoration and must have prowled about all of the nooks and crannies of this old building.

A Sound in the Night
(Woodsford Castle: 17--)

"What do I catch upon the night-wind, husband?--
What is it sounds in this house so eerily?
It seems to be a woman's voice: each little while I hear it,
And it much troubles me!"

''Tis but the eaves dripping down upon the plinth-slopes:
Letting fancies worry thee!--sure 'tis a foolish thing,
When we were on'y coupled half-an-hour before the noontide,
And now it's but evening.'

'Yet seems it still a woman's voice outside the castle, husband,
And 'tis cold to-night, and rain beats, and this is a lonely place.
Didst thou fathom much of womankind in travel or adventure
Ere ever thou sawest my face?'

'It may be a tree, bride, that rubs his arms acrosswise,
If it is not the eaves-drip upon the lower slopes,
Or the river at the bend, where it whirls about the hatches
Like a creature that sighs and mopes.'

'Yet it still seems to me like the crying of a woman,
And it saddens me much that so piteous a sound
On this my bridal night when I would get agone from sorrow
Should so ghost-like wander round!'

'To satisfy thee, Love, I will strike the flint-and-steel, then,
And set the rush-candle up, and undo the door,
And take the new horn-lantern that we bought upon our journey,
And throw the light over the moor.'

He struck a light, and breeched and booted in the further chamber,
And lit the new horn-lantern and went from her sight,
And vanished down the turret; and she heard him pass the postern,
And go out into the night.

She listened as she lay, till she heard his step returning,
And his voice as he unclothed him: "'Twas nothing, as I said,
But the nor'-west wind a-blowing from the moor ath'art the river,
And the tree that taps the gurgoyle-head."

"Nay, husband, you perplex me; for if the noise I heard here,
Awaking me from sleep so, were but as you avow,
The rain-fall, and the wind, and the tree-bough, and the river,
Why is it silent now?

"And why is thy hand and thy clasping arm so shaking,
And thy sleeve and tags of hair so muddy and so wet,
And why feel I thy heart a-thumping every time thou kissest me,
And thy breath as if hard to get?"

He lay there in silence for a while, still quickly breathing,
Then started up and walked about the room resentfully:
"O woman, witch, whom I, in sooth, against my will have wedded,
Why castedst thou thy spells on me?

"There was one I loved once: the cry you heard was her cry:
She came to me to-night, and her plight was passing sore,
As no woman . . . Yea, and it was e'en the cry you heard, wife,
But she will cry no more!

"And now I can't abide thee: this place, it hath a curse on't,
This farmstead once a castle: I'll get me straight away!"
He dressed this time in darkness, unspeaking, as she listened,
And went ere the dawn turned day.

They found a woman's body at a spot called Rocky Shallow,
Where the Froom stream curves amid the moorland, washed aground,
And they searched about for him, the yeoman, who had darkly
  known her,
But he could not be found.

And the bride left for good-and-all the farmstead once a castle,
And in a county far away lives, mourns, and sleeps alone,
And thinks in windy weather that she hears a woman crying,
And sometimes an infant's moan.

A Sound in the Night was published by Hardy in 1922 in a volume of poetry entitled Late Lyrics and Earlier.

October 11, 2012

"A Trampwoman's Tragedy" By Thomas Hardy

A Trampwoman’s Tragedy

From Wynyard's Gap the livelong day,
The livelong day,
We beat afoot the northward way
We had travelled times before.
The sun-blaze burning on our backs,
Our shoulders sticking to our packs,
By fosseway, fields, and turnpike tracks
We skirted sad Sedge-Moor.

Full twenty miles we jaunted on,
We jaunted on, —
My fancy-man, and jeering John,
And Mother Lee, and I.
And, as the sun drew down to west,
We climbed the toilsome Polden crest,
And saw, of landskip sights the best,
The inn that beamed thereby.

Ay, side by side
Through the Great Forest, Blackmoor wide,
And where the Parret ran.
We'd faced the gusts on Mendip ridge,
Had crossed the Yeo unhelped by bridge,
Been stung by every Marshwood midge,
I and my fancy-man.

Lone inns we loved, my man and I,
My man and I;
'King's Stag', 'Windwhistle' high and dry,
'The Horse' on Hintock Green,
The cosy house at Wynyard's Gap,
'The Hut', renowned on Bredy Knap,
And many another wayside tap
Where folk might sit unseen.

O deadly day,
O deadly day! —
I teased my fancy man in play
And wanton idleness.
I walked alongside jeering John,
I laid his hand my waist upon;
I would not bend my glances on
My lover's dark distress.

Thus Poldon top at last we won,
At last we won,
And gained the inn at sink of sun
Far-famed as 'Marshal's Elm'.
Beneath us figured tor and lea,
From Mendip to the western sea —
I doubt if any finer sight there be
Within this royal realm.

Inside the settle all a-row —
All four a-row
We sat, I next to John, to show
That he had wooed and won.
And then he took me on his knee,
And swore it was his turn to be
My favoured mate, and Mother Lee
Passed to my former one.

Then in a voice I had never heard,
I had never heard,
My only love to me: 'One word,
My lady, if you please!
Whose is the child you are like to bear? —
His? After all my months o' care?'
Gods knows 'twas not! But, O despair!
I nodded — still to tease.

Then he sprung, and with his knife —
And with his knife,
He let out jeering Johnny's life,
Yes; there at set of sun.
The slant ray through the window nigh
Gilded John's blood and glazing eye,
Ere scarcely Mother Lee and I
Knew that the deed was done.

The taverns tell the gloomy tale,
The gloomy tale,
How that at Ivel-Chester jail
My love, my sweetheart swung;
Though stained till now by no misdeed
Save one horse ta'en in time of need;
(Blue Jimmy stole right many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.)

Thereaft I walked the world alone
Alone, alone!
On his death-day I gave my groan
And dropt his dead-born child.
'Twas nigh the jail, beneath a tree,
None tending me; for Mother Lee
Had died at Glaston, leaving me
Unfriended on the wild.

And in the night as I lay weak,
As I lay weak,
The leaves a-falling on my cheek,
The red moon low declined —
The ghost of him I'd die to kiss
Rose up and said: 'Ah, tell me this!
Was the child mine, or was it his?
Speak, that I my rest may find!'

O doubt but I told him then,
I told him then,
That I had kept me from all men
Since we joined lips and swore.
Whereat he smiled, and thinned away
As the wind stirred to call up day. . .
--'Tis past! And here alone I stray
Haunting the Western Moor.


Stanza I 
Fosseway - The "Fosse Way" a very straight Roman road that runs from southwest England all the way up to Lincoln, a distance of over 180 miles.  The Somerset portion of the Fosse Way actually touches Windwhistle, mentioned in the poem.

Stanza II
Fancy-man - common-law husband, or a man living off the earnings of a prostitute. 
Landskip - archaic form of "landscape," descriptive of inland scenery (from 17th c. Dutch painting).

Stanza III 
Blackmoor - This, like most of the other places mentioned, is in south-west England, especially Dorset. Blackmore Vale (Valley) is just beyond the Dorset Uplands, north-west of Dorchester. 
Marshwood midge - a stinging, gnat-like insect.

Stanza IV 
King's Stag, Windwhistle, The Horse - the names of inns located along the Fosse Way.  Hardy's reference to the "Windwhistle high and dry" refers to its location on top of a hill and had no well and only alcohol to drink.

Stanza VI 
Tor and lea - The Tor at Glastonbury is a medieval watchtower on a steep incline known as Tor Hill. "Lea" means "a tract of open ground."

Stanza VII 
Settle - a wooden bench with high back and arms.

Stanza X 
Blue Jimmy - a British horse-thief of some renown.

Stanza XI 
Glaston - Glastonbury, an ancient town in southwestern England famous for its abbey.


Thomas Hardy and his bicycle
It is October, and fall is upon us.  I thought it might be fun to post a few of Thomas Hardy's narrative poems that are somewhat spooky or border on the macabre, and A Trampwoman's Tragedy certainly qualifies on both counts.  Apparently, Hardy had taken a bicycle ride up around Glastonbury in Somerset County and had heard a story about a woman named Mary Ann Taylor, and when he returned to his home (Max Gate) in Dorset he crafted this poem in 1902 and submitted it for publication to the Cornhill Magazine for publication.  It was rejected as "unsuitable for a family periodical".  It was, however, published in the North American Review in the November 1903 issue.  Hardy came to believe that A Trampwoman's Tragedy was "upon the whole his most successful poem", and included it among his collection of poems entitled Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses published in 1909.  

[The black and white photograph at the top of the post is an image that I took in 2007 on a cold and blustery day on Tehachapi Pass in the southern Sierras east of Bakersfield, California.  It very much reminds me of some of the landscapes Hardy describes in this poem.]

October 5, 2012

"At a Pause in a Country Dance" By Thomas Hardy

At a Pause in a Country Dance
(Middle of Last Century)

THEY stood at the foot of the figure,
And panted: they'd danced it down through--
That 'Dashing White Serjeant' they loved so:--
A window, uncurtained, was nigh them
That end of the room. Thence in view

Outside it a valley updrew,
Where the frozen moon lit frozen snow:
At the furthermost reach of the valley
A light from the window shone low.
'They are inside that window,' said she,

As she looked, 'They sit up there for me;
And baby is sleeping there, too.'
He glanced. 'Yes,' he said. 'Never mind,
Let's foot our way up again; do!
And dance down the line as before.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1883
What's the world to us, meeting once more!'
'--Not much, when your husband full trusts you,
And thinks the child his that I bore!'
He was silent. The fiddlers six-eighted
With even more passionate vigour.

The pair swept again up the figure,
The child's cuckoo-father and she,
And the next couples threaded below,
And the twain wove their way to the top
Of 'The Dashing White Serjeant' they loved so,
Restarting: right, left, to and fro.

--From the homestead, seen yon, the small glow
Still adventured forth over the white,
Where the child still slept, unknowing who sired it,
In the cradle of wicker tucked tight,
And its grandparents, nodding, admired it
In elbow chairs through the slow night.


Edel Rodriguez, NY Times
I love Thomas Hardy's poetry on so many levels, and this poem is just such a fine example.  First, Hardy is incredibly adept at portraying the 'country rustics'--the people--of his beloved Dorset; and, in fact, much of his fiction and poetry centers upon this part of southwestern England that he called "Wessex".  The people he writes about are fun-loving, earthy, and incredibly connected to the landscape around them--the farms and fields, the forests and orchards, the rolling hills, the villages and towns, and the streams and rivers.

Hardy, as many of you know, is a master story-teller; who absolutely excelled at his craft, and it doesn't matter if it is one of his poems, a short story, or one of his famous novels--Hardy can can tell a tale.  Hardy typically takes his reader to the heart of the matter--and it is generally an unbridled mix of passion and joy, sadness and grief, and sometimes even a touch of the macabre.  Somehow, Hardy was able to unerringly hone in on the fabric of Life and what it is that we like to think of as the 'total human experience'.  And it was in that dynamic between a man and a woman that Hardy truly found ever so much to write about.  I have to think that "At a Pause in a Country Dance" was spawned from the fond memories Hardy had of accompanying his father to country dances where they both played the fiddle for the dancers.  Perhaps there's even a remnant of some bit of idle gossip he heard whilst at one of these dances.  Who knows?  It is simply a wonderful example of the brilliant little poetic vignettes that Hardy was so fond of writing. 

["At a Pause in a Country Dance" was published in a collection entitled Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles in 1925, three years before Hardy's death in 1928]

September 17, 2012

Battle of Antietam--September 17, 1862--150th Anniversary

Battle of Antietam, by Thure de Thulstrup, 1887
Today, September 17, 2012, is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.  Antietam was fought near the banks of the Potomac River in extreme western Maryland near the little town of Sharpsburg.  The Battle of Antietam has the distinction of being the single bloodiest day of the American Civil War, with a combined total of about 23,000 men killed, wounded, or missing from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and McClellan's Army of the Potomac.  This battle was the culmination of Lee's invasion of the North, and while the battle is generally considered a tactical draw between the two armies, it is also viewed as a strategic victory for the North, and gave President Lincoln the ability to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Dunkard Church
The Battle of Antietam really was a near run thing for Lee and his Confederate army.  He was significantly outnumbered by McClellan's Federal army, and he had his back to the Potomac River with really very limited maneuvering room.  Tactically, Lee did have the advantage of interior lines, and could more easily move his forces to respond to areas of weakness along his lines as the Federals attacked.  This advantage, however, would have been largely nullified if McClellan's army had been able to attack the Confederates in a sustained and coordinated fashion.  As it was though, McClellan's attacks over the course of the day were initiated in a piece-meal fashion starting early in the morning in the northern portion of the battlefield, near the Dunkard (or, Dunker) Church, the North Woods, the East Woods, and the Cornfield.  In this part of the battlefield two large Federal corps (I and XII Corps) slugged it out with rebel troops commanded by Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet.  The fighting in the Cornfield was the scene of some of the most savage and indescribable slaughter, and it was estimated that the Cornfield changed hands no fewer than 15 times in the course of the morning.

After the Federal attacks in the northern sector of the field were repulsed, the fighting in this area became quiescent by mid-morning.  True to character, McClellan then began feeding troops from two more Federal corps into the battle in the center portion of the field immediately east of the town of Sharpsburg.  Again, the fighting was intense and brutal as Lee shuffled his troops to meet the new threats, and two farm roads along which much of the fighting occurred are now well known features of the battlefield--The Bloody Lane and The Sunken Road.  Repeated Federal charges and Confederate repulses resulted in the dead and dying being stacked like cord-wood along these two roads.  By mid-afternoon, the two more Federal corps were largely thrashed and the fighting slowly died down along the center.

Burnside's Bridge, by Edwin Forbes, 1862
Lee's army was clearly on the ropes, and McClellan was beginning to believe that one more good push might be all it would take to shatter the rebel army.  Finally, he was able to get Major General Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps moving on the southern portion of the battlefield.  Burnside's corps was on the east side of Antietam Creek, and was separated from Lee's right flank by a well-made stone bridge over the creek known as Rohrbach's Bridge, but is now known as 'Burnside's Bridge'.  The bridge was stoutly defended by some rebel troops from Georgia that commanded the forested high ground on the west side of the creek.  Eventually a concerted and coordinated charge initiated by the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania were able to weather the musket fire of the rebel troops and charged across the bridge and gained the high ground.  The 21st Massachusetts, located on the left side of the bridge, provided covering fire during charge, and it was here that a direct ancestor, on my father's side, was badly wounded (shot through both legs with a musket ball).

Once the bridge was taken and successfully crossed, much of the IX Corps then poured across Antietam Creek and began advancing through the fields southeast of Sharpsburg towards Lee's main lines.  It was at just this moment though that a division of Lee's army, under A.P. Hill,  that had been tasked with capturing the Federal garrison at Harper's Ferry reached the field after a hard 17-mile forced march.  Hill's men struck Burnside's left flank and threw most of them back almost to Antietam Creek.  For all intents and purposes, the Battle of Antietam was over and combat across the field slowly died down.

Over the course of the day of battle, the Federals suffered 12,400 casualties, including 2,108 killed.  The Confederate army suffered a total of 10,318 casualties, including 1,546 killed.  McClellan lost about 25% of his total force during the battle, and Lee sustained losses approximating 31% of his total force.  Bluntly put, more Americans died on this day (a total of 3,654 killed), 150 years ago, than on any other day in our country's military history. In fact, a soldier in the 9th New York, part of Burnside's IX Corps, wrote after the battle that--
The mental strain was so great that I saw at that moment the singular effect mentioned, I think, in the life of Goethe on a similar occasion--the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.
Finally, I think it is important to point out that for much of the day Lee's army's entire position had been in dire straits, and had McClellan thrown his entire army forward in one concerted effort it is hard to imagine any other outcome other than the complete defeat of the rebel army.  It didn't happen though, because all along McClellan just couldn't convince himself that he wasn't horribly outnumbered by Lee's army, and that his own army was near complete disaster itself.  While McClellan was a good organizer of the Union army, he was essentially incapable of actually using the army to fight.  McClellan was imbued with what Lincoln called "the slows".  In fact, for several days after the battle McClellan, and his army, remained on the field near Sharpsburg, and had let Lee safely disengage his army and slip away back across the Potomac River unimpeded and into Virginia.  President Lincoln was not impressed, to say the least, and finally relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862.

If you are interested in reading more about the Battle of Antietam, I would offer the following suggestions--

The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee's Maryland Campaign, September 1862
By James V. Murfin
Softcover, 472 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 1965 (reprinted 2004)

Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam
By Stephen W. Sears
Softcover, 464 pages
Mariner Books, 1985

The Maps of Antietam: An Atlas of the Antietam (Sharpsburg) Campaign, Including the Battle of South Mountain, September 2-20, 1862
By Bradley Gottfried
Hardcover, 326 pages
Savas Beatie, 2011


September 9, 2012

The Civil War in the West--Part One

After many, many years of reading and studying about the American Civil War (1861-1865), I have found that I am generally much more interested in the politics associated with and the fighting that occurred in the western theater of the war.  Of the many tens of thousands of books that have been written about the Civil War, I'd wager that probably three-quarters of them, or more, cover events that occurred in the eastern theater, i.e., the region surrounding Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia.  Frankly, I have sort of come to the conclusion that from the perspective of the Confederate states the war probably couldn't have been won in the west, but it surely could be lost out there.  I thought it might be interesting to look at why I believe this, and I'm going to do it in conjunction with a series of postings that review several books that I believe are particularly relevant to the Civil War in the west and my conclusion, stated above.

First though, I think it worthwhile define precisely what I mean when I say "the Civil War in the West".  As you probably know, eleven states seceded (starting with South Carolina in December 1860, concluding with Tennessee in June 1861) from the United States and became the Confederate States of America (CSA).  The eleven states that seceded included the following, in the order in which they left the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.  Two other states tried to secede, Missouri and Kentucky, but were retained in the Union by interests within each state.  Obviously, the border states between the Confederate states and those in the Union were bitterly contested during much of the war, especially in Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland.  The states in green on the map, above, are the eleven in the CSA.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the "western theater" of the war encompassed that region of the CSA west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River.  So, this generally included all of Tennessee, and significant portions of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the border state of Kentucky.  The regions west of the Mississippi (e.g., Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico Territory, and much of Louisiana) and where fighting between the two sides occurred was referred to as the "Trans-Mississippi", although these regions were certainly in what we would call the 'western' portion of the country today.

The western theater of the war was huge, particularly when compared to the eastern theater of operations in the area around Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia.  For example, from Lexington, Kentucky, to Mobile, Alabama, as the crow flies was about 450 miles; and from Memphis, on the Mississippi River east to Knoxville, Tennessee was about 350 miles; or from Vicksburg, Mississippi east to Atlanta, Georgia was nearly 400 miles.  By way of comparison, it was little more than 100 miles from Richmond to Washington, D.C.  The map of the western theater, below, helps to place these great distances in context, especially when compared to the area of operations in the eastern theater.

The western region was also considered "The Heartland" of the Confederacy, and was chock full of natural resources and agricultural products that the CSA would require in order to effectively sustain itself, not to mention fight a war against the USA.  Obviously, the major transportation corridors included railroads, roads, and rivers, and were certainly some of the critical geographical points and infrastructure that was fought over by both sides.  Without the major rivers or railroads, the CSA would largely have been unable to efficiently shift foodstuffs and other material, including troops, from one theater to the other.  For example, because northern Virginia was occupied by Federal forces and was picked pretty clean, Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was hugely dependent upon the agricultural produce and other resources of the west to feed and arm itself, and trains loaded with flour, grains, beef, pork, gun-powder, fodder for horses, and so forth, regularly chugged into the large railroad junctions at Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia from 1861 through the end of the war in late-Spring 1865.

Geography played a big role in the conduct of the war in the west as well.  For example, the rivers in the western theater (e.g., the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers, etc.) are typically oriented in a north-south direction, in contrast to the rivers in the eastern theater that typically run east-west.  This meant that in the west, the Federal forces could use the rivers as transportation corridors to knife deep into the heart of Confederate territory; and in the east, the rivers were used by both sides as defensive barriers.

Like I said at the outset, whenever the Civil War is brought up in casual discussion, most folks think about the major battles between Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac at places like Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor.  And largely all of these big, and very bloody, battles were fought on or very near the same patch of ground in and around Washington, D.C. and Richmond.  The western theater had more than its fair share of major and horrendously bloody battles too, but these battles were scattered up and down and all across the entire theater.  Kentucky saw a bloody battle fought at Perryville.  Tennessee hosted many major and minor engagements, but battles at Shiloh, Stones River, Chattanooga, Nashville, and the ferocious Battle of Franklin stand out, and all rivaled any of the larger battles in the east.  In September 1863, Georgia had the distinction of being the location of the bloodiest battle in the west at Chickamauga; and the state was later savaged by Sherman's army with the fall of Atlanta and his "march to the sea" in late-1864.  Mississippi saw the tenacious campaign of U.S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee to capture Vicksburg, the "Gibraltar of the Mississippi".

Dealing with the geography of the region and the significant logistical challenges, not to mention the fighting out west, gave rise to the military careers of several prominent Union commanders like U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, and Philip H. Sheridan.  It also wrecked the careers of some Union generals, like Don Carlos Buell, William S. Rosecrans, Alexander McD. McCook, and Thomas L. Crittenden.  We'll talk about some of the Confederate commanders in the following sections of this post.

My intent with this series of postings about the Civil War in the west, of which this is the first, is to provide a review of the books that I am reading about the western theater, the commanders involved with the various armies, and the battles that were fought.  My goal is that by the time I have finished this series, I hope to have a much clearer understanding about the importance of the war in the west, and how it affected the political decisions made by Presidents Lincoln and Davis.  I want to see if it can be definitively shown that, from the Confederate perspective, the war couldn't be won in the west, but it could be lost out there.  Finally, while I will be periodically referring to battles and their outcomes, these postings generally won't be focusing on battlefield tactical situations, but will be looking at theater strategies and operations and the relationships between army commanders and their subordinates, as well as with the civilian governments in Richmond and Washington, D.C.

The book that I am reviewing in this first posting is the first volume in a two-volume series about the Confederate Army of Tennessee, and is entitled, Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly (1938-1991).  Professor Connelly was teaching at Mississippi State University when the book was published in 1967.  As the title indicates, this is the story of the Army of Tennessee during the first two years of the Civil War.  Depending upon who's doing the classification, there were something like seventeen different Confederate armies that were constituted during the Civil War, but only two of them really mattered--the Army of Northern Virginia in the eastern theater, and the Army of Tennessee in the west.  I'd always understood that the Army of Tennessee was essentially the 'bastard child' of the Confederacy and never had the requisite supplies, lacked effective leadership, and was largely ignored by the political leaders in Richmond.  I always wondered why this was so, particularly given that the theater of operations was so important to the ultimate Confederate goal of achieving its independence.

First, I want to make it clear that while this book was written and published forty-five years ago, it is not stale or out-dated in any respect.  This is a quality piece of historical research that is written with style and lyricism.  It is extensively footnoted and contains a superb bibliography.  I actually found pristine hardcover editions of this two-volume set from a reprinting issued in the late-1980s and early-1990s by the Louisiana State University Press (I just love Amazon).  I am so glad to add both volumes to my library.

In the first volume, Professor Connelly tells the story of this much-maligned army in five parts, with each part being the story of the army commander that was in charge during the period of 1861 through the end of 1862.  Over a nearly two-year period there were essentially four different commanders of the Army of Tennessee, and even if they had all been incredibly competent commanders it still would have been difficult for the army to adapt to such frequent change at the highest level.  The Army of Tennessee, as its name implies, was an army of and from Tennessee.  It was originally raised as a state army shortly after Tennessee seceded from the Union, and then was later turned over to the Confederate government.  The first commander was Tennessee Governor Isham Harris, and while he tried hard to ready the army, it was an army in name only, and lacked training, weapons, and professional military leadership, and was largely ignored by Richmond.

The Army of Tennessee began to take shape as a professional military entity with the appointment of General Albert Sidney Johnston as its commander-in-chief in September 1861 (photograph at left).  Johnston had resigned his U.S. Army commission and had traveled all the way across the country to Richmond from his post in California, and was given the command of the Army of Tennessee by President Davis.  At that time, the Army of Tennessee was only about 27,000 strong, and was badly outnumbered by the numerous Federal armies adjacent to Tennessee in the region.  While Johnston was certainly a decent man, and fully committed to the Confederate cause, Connelly maintains that he was largely overwhelmed in the job of trying to weld the army into an effective fighting unit and, at the same time, develop and implement a strategy for defending the 'Heartland' from Federal incursion and conquest.  Greatly complicating the job, according to Connelly, was that Johnston was never able to corral and control his fractious subordinates, especially Lloyd Tilghman, Simon B. Buckner, Gideon Pillow, and the worst of the lot, Bishop General Leonidas Polk (Polk was also an Episcopal bishop).  In fact, because of this failure to effectively develop a coordinated command structure among the army's leadership, Connelly observes that--
"Unlike the Virginia army, which depended for its morale upon a few individuals such as Lee or "Stonewall" Jackson, the men of the Army of Tennessee never attained a real esprit at a corps level.  Instead, the peculiar western morale was usually most evident at the regimental or brigade level."
With the sudden and devastating losses of Forts Henry and Donelson, and because of the ineffective defensive strategy devised by Johnston, as well as the ineptitude exhibited by his subordinates, the army was largely maneuvered completely out of Tennessee and into northern Mississippi.  At this juncture, Pierre G. T, Beauregard came west and joined Johnston as his second-in-command, and began advocating for a concentration of Confederate forces and going on the offensive against Federal forces in Tennessee.  Connelly describes how Johnston essentially turned the army over to Beauregard, and then somewhat inexplicably sat back as Beauregard reorganized the army and developed the plan to attack U.S. Grant's Federal army at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, just north of the Mississippi-Tennessee border.

On April 6-7, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh was fought as the Army of Tennessee attacked Grant's forces and by the end of the first day had pushed them back all the way to Pittsburg Landing by the Tennessee River.  Because of Beauregard's initially complicated attack plan, and that the Confederate forces' unit cohesion became completely and hopelessly disorganized during the ferocious combat, the army was largely fought out by the end of the day.  During the night, the Federals were able to tighten up and make a stand near the Landing and were also reinforced by elements of Buell's Army of the Ohio.  On the following morning (April 7th), the Federal forces counterattacked strongly and ultimately routed the Confederate army from the field and back to its starting point in Corinth, Mississippi.  Among the 23,000 total casualties in this bloody fight was the army commander of the Army of Tennessee--Albert Sidney Johnston--who was killed during the middle of the first day of fighting.  Beauregard was now the commander-in-chief of the Army of Tennessee.

 Beauregard didn't last long.  In fact, Connelly describes this period as "the Beauregard Interlude" in his book.  While a good organizer of the divisions and corps within the Army of Tennessee, Beauregard added to the overall malaise and issues of command performance within the army.  Additionally, Beauregard and President Davis didn't, and just couldn't, seem to get along and the Army's relationship with the Richmond government soured.  On June 28, 1862, Davis removed Beauregard as army commander and replaced him with General Braxton Bragg (photograph at right).

Upon assumption of command of the Army of Tennessee, Bragg inherited an army that was still fraught with significant command structure issues.  And while Bragg was a personal friend of President Davis, he was considered irascible and rigidly inflexible and stubborn by his peers and subordinates, and the personality clashes among the leadership within the Army of Tennessee were only exacerbated (again, Bishop Polk being one of the worst offenders).

The last section of the book tells the story of Bragg's conduct of the "Confederate Heartland Offensive", which was his campaign to invade Kentucky and see if it could be successfully brought into the CSA.  Here again, Bragg's issues with his own subordinates, as well as with the independent command of 9,000 troops under Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, leads to the rebel forces meeting the vastly larger Federal forces in a series of sharp engagements, culminating in the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862.  While Perryville can be considered a tactical victory for Bragg and the Army of Tennessee, it was a strategic victory for the Union in that Bragg and his army had to retreat in face of the much larger Federal army, and that Kentucky stayed on the Union side of the ledger-book.  The Army of Tennessee inflicted almost 4,300 casualties on the Union Army of the Ohio's First Corps, but it also incurred about 3,400 casualties itself.  Bright spots for the Army of Tennessee that emerged from the forging fires of the army's fights at Shiloh and Perryville were that Confederate Generals Patrick Ronayne Cleburne and Alexander P. Stewart were well on their way to becoming superb combat commanders.

In the late-fall of 1862, following the Battle of Perryville, the 38,000-strong Army of Tennessee retreated out of Kentucky and towards a rendezvous with its own destiny at the end of the year with a Federal army at Murfreesboro on the Stones River in middle Tennessee.  This story will be told early on in Professor Connelly's second volume of his history of the Army of Tennessee, Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865.

In conclusion, I have to say that I really enjoyed reading this book and learned a lot about the reasons behind much of the early dysfunction in the Army of Tennessee, and that much of it stemmed from the general ineptitude or outright insubordination of general officers under the command of, first, Albert Sidney Johnston, and then Braxton Bragg.  Based upon my interpretation of the material presented by Professor Connelly in the book, it is clear that both Johnston and Bragg should have been more forceful in exerting their leadership qualities as commanders, but I genuinely think the largest share of the blame can be squarely laid at the feet of Bishop Polk.  Bluntly put, it is my opinion that the man was criminally negligent in just about all of his doings with the Army of Tennessee.  The Army of Tennessee deserved so much better than that.


Finally, for your information, the books that I will be reading and then reviewing over the next few postings include the following:

Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862
By Thomas Lawrence Connelly
Hardcover, 305 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 1967 (1986 reprinting)

Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865
By Thomas Lawrence Connelly
Hardcover, 558 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 1971 (1994 reprinting)

Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History
By Richard M. McMurry
Hardcover, 204 pages
University of North Carolina Press, 1989

Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West
By Steven E. Woodworth
Hardcover, 400 pages
University Press of Kansas, 1990

The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi
By Earl J. Hess
Hardcover, 392 pages
University of North Carolina Press, 2012