August 31, 2012

Review: "Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26--June 3, 1864" By Gordon C. Rhea

Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June3, 1864 is the final volume in Gordon Rhea’s brilliant series of four books describing the “Overland Campaign” of U.S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac conducted against Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the spring and summer of 1864.  This book picks up with the two armies maneuvering from their stand at the North Anna River crossings, and Grant’s efforts to continue to sidle south around Lee’s right flank and interpose the Union army between Lee and Richmond.  Rhea masterfully describes the movements of the two armies as they come together again at the important road junction of Cold Harbor just nine or ten miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond.  Much of the book then focuses on the particularly vicious and bloody fighting that occurred on June 1st and June 3rd during the Battle of Cold Harbor.  Unfortunately, for Grant and the Federal army this is the continuing story of missed opportunities during the Overland Campaign, and just like during the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, those missed opportunities translate into great loss of life on both sides and the extension of the war by several months, if not longer.

Observations and what I learned reading this book and from Rhea’s series—

The Federal cavalry arm of the Army of the Potomac was now the master of the battlefield in the eastern theater.  They had grown up, learned their lessons, and were now ruthlessly efficient and thoroughly professional.  The days of pell-mell charges and saber-slinging were over, the Federal cavalry with their repeating carbines and well-fed horses were now being utilized as mobile infantry that, when they met their foes on the field of battle, generally dismounted and fought behind defensive protection or earthworks.  While Federal cavalry units were now largely decisively defeating their Confederate counterparts when they met in combat, the primary problem associated with the Federal cavalry during the Overland Campaign revolved around the on-going feud between Army commander George Gordon Meade and the cavalry commander, Major General Philip Sheridan.  Consequently, Meade typically wouldn’t ask for assistance from Sheridan (or even the tactically correct assistance), and Sheridan wouldn’t respond even when he did.  Inexplicably, Grant could have stepped in and dealt with Sheridan’s insubordination, but never did.  Worse yet, in my humble opinion, Grant never did utilize this professional cavalry corps as he should have—i.e., to effectively scout out Lee’s intentions, or use them as a blocking force, or to effectively determine the disposition of Lee’s forces on each of the battlefields, or even to use the cavalry to recon proposed Federal army corps movement routes.  Again, in my opinion, this was one of a number of significant short-comings associated with Grant’s overall leadership of the Federal forces during this campaign.

In the context of the Battle of Cold Harbor, had Grant and Meade more efficiently or effectively utilized Sheridan’s troopers, they probably could have ‘sniffed’ out the inherent weaknesses in the southern portion of Lee’s lines near Cold Harbor early on June 1st.  Lee’s right flank was more than ripe for turning and Grant could have opened him up like a tin-can and moved the Confederate army (or a portion thereof) out of its impregnable earthworks, and probably easily gotten himself between Lee and Richmond.  This very well could have been the proverbial “straw that broke the back” of Lee’s army, but we’ll never know because at the time Grant and Meade hadn’t the foggiest idea of Lee’s positions and strengths along much of his Cold Harbor lines.  Additionally, the Federal corps commanders weren’t any better at actively collecting or assessing information and then closely cooperating and coordinating with one another, or even passing that information on to Grant and Meade in a timely fashion.  Ultimately, and tragically, the Battle of Cold Harbor really was nothing much more than a bunch of individual set-piece affairs of frontal assaults by brave Federal troops against Lee’s entrenched lines, and the results were all too familiar—bloody repulses and significant casualties.

Some of my observations about Grant vs. Lee that I picked up reading this series—

It probably goes without saying that the two commanders of the Federal and Confederate armies in the Overland Campaign—Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—were the very best combat leaders on either side, and were mostly pretty evenly matched in skills.  Both had a profoundly accurate sense of the overarching strategies required for prosecuting the war from both the Federal and Confederate perspectives.  Maybe the nod goes to Grant in the sense that he and President Lincoln not only had a good working relationship, but he and Lincoln shared a firm grasp on the national strategy that involved ensuring that there was a combined and coordinated push by all Federal forces in all theaters of the war.  This is something that Confederate President Jefferson Davis just wasn’t able to grasp; or, if grasped, just wasn’t able to effectively implement it with the resources he had available.  Even Lee, to a large degree, was fixated and focused only on the strategic situation and potential tactical opportunities in the immediate theater surrounding Richmond and Washington, D.C.  During the course of the Overland Campaign it very well may be that Lee knew that it really was just a matter of time before the Army of Northern Virginia was pinned, by Grant, with its back against Richmond; and that the best that he could do was try and hurt Grant and the Federal army enough to force a political solution that could lead to the independence of the Confederate states (i.e., through the defeat of Lincoln in the 1864 election by an anti-war candidate).

A lot has been made over the past 150 years of the notion that Grant was a “butcher” and needlessly wasted the lives of his men in senseless headlong assaults against Lee’s entrenched army.  At first blush, this seems like an accurate assessment as Grant’s Overland Campaign cost something like 55,000 Federals killed, wounded or captured over a 45-day period (or, approximately 45% of the total number of men in his army).  The Battle of Cold Harbor is always held up as the prime example of “Grant the butcher”.  Frankly, in my opinion, the facts simply don’t warrant this conclusion.  For example, at the North Anna River Grant and his corps commanders had tactically won some minor engagements, but he soon realized that the entrenched Confederate position was virtually unassailable and would lead to great bloodshed, and no material gain, if he attacked.  Consequently, during the night he deftly withdrew three Federal army corps back across to the north side of the North Anna River and smartly maneuvered the entire army east and south again in an effort to turn Lee’s flank and engage him in open country.

Staying with this theme then, if any one general during the American Civil War is deserving of the moniker of “butcher” it perhaps could be fairly stated that it was Lee himself.  For example, Lee, over the three days at Gettysburg, lost more men in battle than any other general, north or south.  Another pertinent example is that Lee, during that horrific one day at Antietam in 1862, lost more men than any other general did during a single day.  Finally, Lee’s combined losses during the 45-day period of the Overland Campaign were more than 33,000, or greater than 50% of the total strength of his vaunted Army of Northern Virginia.  Bluntly put, once Lee’s blood was up he worshiped at the ‘Altar of Carnage’ with the best of them.

It is true that Grant’s army suffered significant losses while assaulting the Bloody Angle in The Muleshoe at Spotsylvania Court House, or during the frontal assaults at Cold Harbor, but these attacks were directly stimulated by the efforts of the Federals to exploit existing or perceived weaknesses in Lee’s lines during the heat of battle.  I submit that most battlefield commanders would have made similar assaults given the facts at hand—witness Lee’s assault on the Federal center at Gettysburg on the third day, as he was confident that the center had been significantly weakened based upon the hard fighting that had occurred during the first two days of the battle.

Much has also been made that to Grant, Meade, and even Lincoln to some degree, the Overland Campaign was nothing more than a battle of attrition, and was just a numbers game.  While in hindsight this is certainly true, and that at the time the Federal high command probably recognized it too, it certainly didn’t mean that Federal commanders were callous or negligent in their use of the troops at their disposal during the Overland Campaign.  At best, the summer of 1864 was dicey period politically within the Union, and if it seemed that the war had simply turned into a blood-fest with no end in sight, it was clear that the President would likely not be reelected, and Grant and Meade, and even the Army itself, understood this probability well.  Additionally, the Army of the Potomac could ill afford to ‘throw away’ any troops as it was bleeding strength anyway as a good number of regiments’ three-year enlistments were expiring and the existing conscription efforts simply couldn’t make up for the losses.  More importantly, the three years of hard fighting had sapped the Army of the Potomac of many of its combat-hardened veterans.  The new troops coming into the Federal army just weren’t of the same caliber as those who had fought their way through The Seven Days, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Second Bull Run, and Gettysburg.  Having said all of this though, it was clear to both Grant and Lee that it was certainly easier for the Federals to replace their losses than it was for the Confederates.  After four hard years of a war that had evolved into—as Sherman put it—a “Total War”, the Confederate ability to come up with additional troops, replace material, and even provide for the civilian population was becoming more and more limited with each passing day.  It really was just a matter of time now.

Finally, I think Rhea’s books highlight the other significant element of Grant’s strategic vision that was critical to the long-term success of the Federal forces against Lee and the Confederacy and that was his management of the logistical issues for the Army of the Potomac once it moved south of the Rapidan River and began its relentless struggle with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Up to this point in time, all other Federal commanders had swooped south and fought Lee, and then shifted back (normally in defeat) across the river to rest and refit.  Grant was determined to latch on to Lee and his army and not let go.  Therefore, he needed to utilize the existing road and rail network in this part of Virginia to ensure that he could efficiently receive supplies, transmit and receive communications, and transport reinforcements and wounded to and fro.  His ability to work with the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps and the U.S. Navy ensured that he could cut himself off completely and just focus on the task at hand—running Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to ground.  Grant kept his eyes on the prize, and he ultimately won the game because of this single-minded focus.

In writing these four volumes about the Overland Campaign of 1864, Gordon Rhea has performed an extremely valuable service for all who are interested in American history and especially those interested in the military history of the American Civil War.  While each of the books are important in the detailed description of the tactical movements and outcomes on each of the battlefields, perhaps the real strength of the series is Rhea’s ability to continually review and update the strategic issues and realities from both the Union and Confederate perspectives.  These four well-written volumes document and support Rhea’s assertion that it was not just the story of a series of independent battles—the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, or the Battle of Cold Harbor—it was the assertion that Grant set out and entered upon a coordinated campaign with the overarching goal being the absolute and utter destruction of Lee’s army.  The movements of the troops led to the battles, and the battles led to next series of movements and the next battle, and so on.  The point being that these battles and movements were clearly inter-related and inter-dependent from start to finish, and I think that when you have completed reading all four books you’ll agree that by the time the two armies settled into the siege at Petersburg, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was largely finished as an effective combat force of any significant power.

In conclusion, I highly recommend the entire series that Gordon Rhea has written about Grant's Overland Campaign of 1864.  I guarantee that you won't be disappointed, as these four books are a superbly well-written "you are right there" military history of a campaign and set of battles that hasn't really received all that much attention by scholars in the past.  These books would be a valuable addition to the library of any Civil War history aficionado.


Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26--June 3, 1864
By Gordon C. Rhea
Hardcover, 552 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 2002

Review: "To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864" By Gordon C. Rhea

Like two dueling grandmasters, Lee and Grant sat down over the 'chess-board' of the northern Virginia landscape that separated Washington, D.C. from Richmond, Virginia.  For the first two weeks of May 1864, the two generals have been adroitly maneuvering their armies across the terrain and engaging in some of the most sustained, ferocious and horrific combat seen in the Civil War.  It is spring 1864, and the Northern population is wearying of the war, and Lincoln and his administration are up for reelection in November.  While the South may not be able to prevail any longer militarily on the battlefield, it is hoped that Lee can buy time for a political solution by conducting a careful and defensive campaign against Grant's much larger Army of the Potomac.

Rhea's third volume in his "Overland Campaign" series, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 is an incredibly fascinating story about the little-known period of time between the dreadfully bloody Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (see my review of Rhea's The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864 below) and the impending slaughter at the Battle of Cold Harbor.  Following the bloodbath at Spotsylvania Court House, Grant gingerly disengages his army from his lines fronting Lee and deftly begins to sidle south and east around Lee's right flank.

Grant's short-term strategic goal is to turn Lee out of his earthworks at Spotsylvania Court House and hopefully engage him in battle on more open ground.  In fact, Grant even sends Hancock's Second Corps trundling off southward as 'bait' in an effort to draw Lee out.  Lee doesn't fall for Grant's trick though, and rapidly shunts his army 25 miles due south to the banks of the North Anna River and devises an ingenious system of defensive earthworks, and awaits the approaching federals with a trap of his own.

Close on the heels of Lee's army, Grant and the Army of the Potomac move up to the North Anna River, and thinking that the Confederates have continued to retreat toward Richmond, move across the North Anna at two separate crossings that are a couple of miles apart.  This has the effect of splitting the large Union army into two pieces separated by Lee's entrenched rebel army.  In essence, with his interior lines, Lee can now attack each wing of the federal army and defeat them in detail. 

Fate and Chance always seem to have a way of intervening on the battlefield, and it is no different here.  Lee becomes very ill with dysentery and as he is bedridden he is really quite unable to aggressively lead the rebel army in these complicated maneuvers, and his subordinate command structure is unable to fill the void.  Simultaneously, Grant does come to realize the predicament he is in and immediately has his army entrench and protect itself.  With the opportunity to 'check-mate' one another now passed by, Grant is realistically left with just two options: (1) attack Lee's virtually impregnable position on the North Anna; or (2) disengage and sidle east or west of Lee's position and try and maneuver Lee out of his works toward Richmond.  He chooses the latter option and determines to sidle easterly, and the two grandmasters continue their game of maneuver and probing for defensive weaknesses.  In just a few days the two commanders and their armies will meet again on the field of battle near the tiny hamlet and road junction of Cold Harbor just nine miles from Richmond.

I really can't say enough about the quality of Rhea's writing and his ability to bring history alive.  Somehow his story-telling manages to impart a real feeling of 'you are there as an eyewitness' so very effectively.  While the decisions of the command structures of the two armies are certainly important to Rhea's narrative in the book, I think it is Rhea's attention to the stories of the common foot-soldiers, artillerymen, and cavalrymen that makes this book--and the entire series--so darned poignant and engaging.  These books illustrate and describe accounts of patriotism, courage and extraordinary feats of heroism--on both sides of this bloody conflict--that are such an important part of the overall saga of the history of our American republic.


To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864
By Gordon C. Rhea
Hardcover, 472 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 2000

Review: "The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern" By Gordon C. Rhea

"Out of the frying pan, and into the fire"--Out of the butchery of The Wilderness, and into the horrific carnage of The Muleshoe and Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania--this is the second entry in Gordon Rhea's masterful series describing the Overland Campaign of Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virgina in the spring and summer of 1864.  Following the inconclusive horror of two days of bloody fighting in the tangled forests of The Wilderness, Grant has sidled the Union Army to the southeast, hoping to turn Lee's right flank and put his army between the Confederates and their capital in Richmond, Virginia.  Unfortunately, for the federals and Grant, Lee's army beats him by a step to the tiny hamlet of Spotsylvania Court House, and there behind superbly constructed defensive works repels numerous assaults made by the larger Union Army of the Potomac over the next week.

It was with riveting horror that I read of each of the attacks made against the rebel fortifications in what became known as "The Muleshoe"--a large salient that jutted out from the center of Lee's lines.  The Muleshoe was nearly a half-mile in length and nearly as wide and was ably defended by Lee's Second Army Corps, commanded by Lt. General Dick Ewell.  By the end of May 12th, at the conclusion of major fighting on this section of the battlefield, nearly 18,000 men had been killed, wounded, or captured (8,000 rebel, and almost 10,000 federal).  It was carnage on a scale not seen before in the Civil War, and that the bulk of the fighting took place in the defensive earthworks ringing and within The Muleshoe, it portended the gruesome butchery that was to come in the trenches of the First World War just fifty years later.

Rhea is an excellent story-teller, and tells of these horrifying days and events through the use of the personal accounts (e.g., letters and diaries) of the officers and men that participated in the fighting.  It is my understanding that perhaps William D. Matter's If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania is an even better account of the Spotsylvania Campaign--that may be so, as I've yet to read it--but Rhea's is a gripping "you are there" account that is a page-turner from the very first to the last.  The thirty maps that are included within the text are incredibly detailed, from both a strategic and tactical perspective, and perfectly complement Rhea's masterful prose and battle descriptions.

By the time one has finished this excellent book, one cannot help but completely agree with the conclusion reached in Rhea's epilogue--
"The Confederates were technically correct in considering May 10 and 12 as victories.  After all, they had foiled Grant's assaults on each occasion.  But a few more such victories would leave Lee's army in shambles.  Eight days of fighting Grant had gutted the Army of Northern Virginia's capacity to go on the offensive.  For the future, Lee had little choice but to continue his defensive tactics, hoping to thwart Grant's thrusts and to buy time for a political solution to the war."
If anything, I enjoyed this second volume in Rhea's four-volume series about the Overland Campaign of 1864 even more than the first, and now it is on to the third book, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864.


The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern
By Gordon C. Rhea
Hardcover, 512 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 1997

Review: "The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864" By Gordon C. Rhea

Like two titans, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee locked armies and ferociously grappled with each other over two days in early-May 1864 in a dense forbidding patch of terrain and landscape in northern Virginia known as "The Wilderness".  At the conclusion of these two days of some of the most severest fighting of the entire Civil War, the two armies had lost a combined total of nearly 29,000 men killed, wounded, or captured.

Gordon Rhea's account of Grant's first battle as the Union Army Commander-in-Chief, is a well-written and very thorough description of The Battle of the Wilderness.  Grant was determined to maneuver the Union Army of the Potomac between Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate capitol in Richmond, and in The Wilderness he very nearly succeeded.  He started three extremely powerful Union Army Corps eastward down the Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike and ran headlong into two Confederate Corps commanded by A.P. Hill and Dick Ewell.  Unfortunately for the Federals, as the fighting started the corps and brigade commanders just couldn't maintain effective coordination and communication as the assaults progressed, and the out-numbered Confederate corps were able to beat back most of the Federal attacks at great cost to both attacker and defender.

The woods were so dense and disorienting that the attacking troops couldn't see but just a few yards in any directions, and unit movements became fragmented and went off-track almost immediately.  The firing of muskets and artillery actually started numerous forest fires, which flared up among the troops as they moved through the woods, or lay wounded on the forest floor.  The fighting was pretty much a unconstrained brawl between the two armies and just raged back and forth and up and down the turnpike and plank roads.  Finally, after two days, the major fighting slowly sputtered out and the two armies were largely back in their original starting positions and just scowling at each other. 

Rhea assesses the result of two days of battle in The Wilderness as, at best, a tactical victory for Lee and the Confederates, but a strategic victory for Grant and the Federal army.  The bottom-line was that Grant was not going to leave--not even after nearly 18,000 Federal casualties--but was going to latch onto Lee's army like a pitbull, and not let up up until the war was over.  This attitude for prosecution of the war was a sea-change compared to all of the previous commanders of the Union Army of the Potomac.  Grant, in The Wilderness, tried to exercise the use of power in attacking Lee's army, as he did so successfully in his campaigns in the western theater.  The problem was that his subordinate commanders (i.e., Meade, Hancock, Sedgewick, Burnside, et al.) and the Army of the Potomac just weren't up to the challenge yet.  Both Grant and the Army of the Potomac needed to learn how to fight differently and fight 'together', and this first step in The Wilderness was clearly part of that learning process. 

I can't begin to relate how much I learned about Grant's leadership qualities and The Battle of the Wilderness in this excellent book by Gordon Rhea, and how much I am looking forward to reading the next three books in his series about the Overland Campaign.  The maps included in the book are truly quite superb and make much of the complicated maneuvering of the units during the battle much easier to follow and comprehend.  As usual, I wish there were even more maps, but that's a common litany of mine.  Every serious Civil War buff ought to have this book on their shelf.


The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864
By Gordon C. Rhea
Hardcover, 512 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 1994

Review: "The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22-September 23, 1863" By David Powell & David Friedrichs

Absolutely brilliant!  In 2009, David Powell and David Friedrich combined, with the fabulous assistance of publisher Savas Beatie, to create one of the best ever books about the Battle of Chickamauga.  The Battle of Chickamauga was fought in the northwestern corner of Georgia on September 19-20, 1863, and Powell's text and the exquisitely detailed color cartography of David Friedrichs combine to precisely and definitively tell the complete story of the second bloodiest land-battle fought on the North American continent (only Gettysburg was bloodier).

This beautiful atlas starts the story of this fascinating, but not all that well known, campaign in June 1863 with Union Major General William S. Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Just south of him is Confederate General Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee in Tullahoma, Tennessee.  Rosecrans moves south and over the course of the next couple of months maneuvers Bragg's army southeasterly all the way to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Finally, Bragg and the Army of Tennessee had enough and counter-punched, and counter-punched hard against Rosecrans in the long narrow valley through which Chickamauga Creek flowed.  With the text and 126 full-color incredibly detailed maps, Powell tells the complete story of this frenzied and chaotic bloody battle.  The maps and the text describe the movements of the units on the battlefield at the brigade and/or regimental level in increments of 15-30 minutes.  With this book in hand it would easily be possible to absolutely walk the battlefield in step--minute-by-minute--with those combatants in butternut and blue from nearly 150 years ago.

Finally, I highly recommend a combined reading of this book with Peter Cozzens' This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga (reviewed below) to get the full flavor of the vicious intensity of the combat at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19-20, 1863, in that densely wooded valley in northwestern Georgia.  Trust me, armchair Civil War historians, wargamers, and military history buffs are just gonna eat this book up!  Once you pick this atlas up you'll find that a couple of hours has just flown by as you slowly page through the book.  Big 'kudos' to Savas Beatie for the overall superb quality of the binding and printing of this book too, it'll last for years and years!


The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign
By David Powell & David Friedrichs
Hardcover, 319 pages
Savas Beatie, 2009

Review: "This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga" By Peter Cozzens

One of the largest land battles fought on the North American continent, and second only to Gettysburg in the total number of casualties (a total of about 36,000 killed or wounded), the Battle of Chickamauga was a horrific brawl fought in the dense woods in extreme northwestern Georgia over a two-day period in mid-September 1863.  I guess I can't really quite put my finger on exactly why the Battle of Chickamamauga has fascinated me most of my adult life, but it sure has.  I had a direct ancestor who fought on the Union side (21st Massachusetts) with the Army of the Potomac (in Burnside's Ninth Corps) in the Virginia theater, and for a brief period of time around Knoxville, Tennessee, but not at Chickamauga.  I guess it comes down to my assessment that a final and total victory in the Civil War ultimately favored the Union based upon the strategic and tactical results of the performances of Federal armies in the western theater.  The Battle of Chickamauga is sort of anomalous as it was a resounding victory for the Confederate Army of Tennessee that had, throughout most of the Civil War, been beaten by various Federal armies, but had also been pretty badly used by its own high command.

While most battles fought during the American Civil War were generally won or lost based upon the decisions of the army and field commanders, Chickamauga was really one of the very few battles with an outcome that was largely determined by the soldiers on the ground.  In spite of the leadership (or, lack thereof), this battle was a bloody testament to the tenacity of the fighting men in blue and grey as they engaged in this titanic two-day struggle.

In This Terrible Sound, Peter Cozzens has taken on the near-impossible task of trying to describe the completely confusing and chaotic fighting that occurred between the Union Army of the Cumberland, led by Major General William C. Rosecrans, and the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by General Braxton Bragg.  This two-day bloody affair was fought in a long narrow valley that was heavily vegetated with pine and oak woods, limiting visibility between the combatants, in most places, to just a few tens of yards at best.  Most of the time intense combat flared up between the two armies as they blundered into each other in the dense woods up and down the valley.  Brigade and Division commanders tried to respond to threats by feel and sound, and in many instances guessed wrong.

Cozzens goes into great detail describing the command structure and personalities of the leaders in the Confederate and Union armies, and while the Confederate Army eventually prevailed at the end of the day, it was not due to leadership qualities among the Confederate command structure.  It was really much more the result of absolutely disastrous tactical decisions by Rosecrans and a few of his subordinates, and a hefty dose of just plain bad luck.  Had it not been for the steadiness and dogged defense exhibited by Union Major General George H. Thomas at Snodgrass Hill, the entire Union army may very well have been decisively routed from the field of battle, or even completely destroyed in place.  I was completely enthralled reading Cozzens' superb and detailed description about Thomas's day-long stand on the second day as he essentially bought time for the rest of the Union army to safely retreat from the Chickamauga battlefield and into defensive works in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  It really was very nearly an utter and complete disaster for the Union Army of the Cumberland, and with his tenacious defense Thomas earned himself the sobriquet "The Rock of Chickamauga".

While the Battle of Chickamauga was clearly a tactical victory for Bragg and his Confederate Army of Tennessee, it ultimately turned out to be a strategic defeat for the Confederacy, as Bragg let the Union Army safely get away and regroup in Chattanooga.  Eventually, Union General U.S. Grant came to Chattanooga and, replacing Rosecrans, he and Major General Thomas attacked and routed Bragg's army.  This opened up the way for Sherman's campaign on Atlanta and his later "March to the Sea".

Cozzens' writing style is personal and descriptive.  He gives you a very good feeling for the conditions on the battlefield, and for the experiences of the common soldiers in both armies as the battle raged back and forth.  He has drawn liberally, not only from official Confederate and Union records and reports, but also from letters and diaries and first-person accounts related by the veterans themselves.  This is a very compelling story about a battle that really receives little attention when it comes to discussions about the American Civil War, as most tend to focus on the campaigns and great battles that occurred in the eastern theater of the war.

While Cozzens has included twenty-five very detailed maps, it was still difficult to fully comprehend the complicated and chaotic movements and counter-movements of the brigades and regiments as the fighting surged up and down and back and forth across the valley over the entire two days of the battle.  I was so glad to have, readily available, David A. Powell's The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 - September 23, 1863 (reviewed above).  This is a "must-have" if you truly want to maximize your experience reading Cozzens' brilliant book.  I really enjoyed them both, and if you're a Civil War or military history buff I think you will as well.


This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga
By Peter Cozzens
Hardcover, 688 pages
University of Illinois Press, 1992

The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 - September 23, 1863
By David Powell & David Friedrichs
Hardcover, 319 pages
Savas Beatie, 2009

August 7, 2012

Review: "Cain at Gettysburg" By Ralph Peters

Cain at Gettysburg, by Ralph Peters, is a new historical novel describing the bloody three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July1-3, 1863.  Gettysburg is still the largest land battle ever fought on the North American continent, and was the bloodiest of the American Civil War. 

While superficially similar in scope to Michael Shaara's epic novel The Killer Angels, Peters' book also focuses on the battle leaders on both sides, as well as several of the enlisted men from a Confederate regiment (the 26th North Carolina) and some of the Union's German-Americans (of the 26th Wisconsin) and Irish-Americans (of the 69th Pennsylvania).  Shaara spent much of his novel telling of the brilliant and dogged defense of the extreme left of the Union line at Little Round Top by the 20th Maine, commanded by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain; and Peters, in Cain at Gettysburg, tells the story of the fierce combat associated with the first day of fighting near Seminary Ridge and the area just north of the town of Gettysburg.  This part of the battlefield was ably contested by elements of the First and Eleventh Corps of the Union Army.  The time bought by the courageous actions of these two army corps allowed the Union Army to slowly fall back and dig in on some very good ground (i.e., up on Cemetery Ridge) that ultimately led to the defeat of the Confederate forces after three days of ferocious combat.

Peters' military background, and that he has been a serious student of the Civil War for 50+ years, has resulted in a historical novel that pays close attention to detail and the facts, and focuses on accurately describing the tactics and consequences of the bloody business that was combat between the regiments and brigades during the Civil War.  Peters is a very good writer and in telling this very compelling tale about one of the seminal moments in American history he really gives it his all.  This is grim, gritty stuff and it is not for the faint of heart, but then war never is, is it?

P.S. If you like historical detective fiction set during the American Civil War, I understand that Ralph Peters, under the pen-name of Owen Parry, has written a series of five or six historical novels featuring his character, Union Major Abel Jones.  I've not yet read any of these, but based upon my enjoyment of Cain at Gettysburg I expect I will try one or two of them.


Cain at Gettysburg
By Ralph Peters
Forge Books, 2012
Hardcover, 432 pages

Summer 2012--What's Up with Me?

What a summer it has been so far!  Loads going on around here.  Work has been keeping me extraordinarily busy with lots of travel and meetings.  We've also had the kids and grandkids cycling through for a good visit.  In fact, we took the little folks down to Legoland near San Diego, and then up to Sequoia National Park (we even saw a bear!).  I've also been spending as much time as possible with my very elderly parents south of Tucson, Arizona.  Unfortunately, my mother was just recently diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as 'Lou Gehrig's Disease), and this has obviously very much complicated the living arrangements for my parents who have prided themselves on their independent lifestyle.  So, for now it is one day at a time, and just enjoy each and every one of those days!

As you can see, while I haven't been perhaps as conscientious as I should be in keeping up with my blog postings, I have been reading a lot of really great stuff of late.  At least no one can accuse me of being permanently stuck in one genre or another.  I have always been what I consider to be a fairly eclectic reader, and dip into all sorts of literary subjects. Anyway, of late I've been re-exploring my interest in the American Civil War, and trying to read a lot of the books that have come out over the past twenty years or so since the last time I really dove into it.  I am thrilled to find that there are a lot of really superb battle and campaign monographs that have been written, as well as some really top-shelf biographies (ain't just the best!).  For example, I've had Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln sitting on my to-be-read bookshelf ever since it was published.  Well, it is finally going to be read and reviewed here later this summer.  Finally, it somehow just seems kind of timely and appropriate to be once again exploring the Civil War (1861-1865) as it is the sesquicentennial period right now, and on July 1-3 next year is actually the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  I hope that some of you enjoy some of the reviews and related scribblings that I will be posting over the next few weeks.

I hope all of you are well, and enjoying a wonderful summer (and staying cool)!



Review: "Gettysburg: The Second Day" By Harry Pfanz

This is a superb tactical analysis of the fighting that occurred late in the day on July 2, 1863, on the federal left and the Confederate right at the Battle of Gettysburg.  Pfanz, a former historian for the National Park Service at Gettysburg National Military Park, describes this hellish several hours of vicious combat in great detail and down to the regimental and even company level.  Most of the fighting is focused on the area of the Federal line held by the Third Army Corps commanded by Major General Daniel Sickles.  Sickles had moved his Corps forward off of the stronger Cemetery Ridge line out to the Emmitsburg Road.  This brought most his brigades into the range of Confederate artillery batteries, and placed his men directly in the path of most of Confederate Lt. General Longstreet's Corps as it mounted a concerted attack on the Federal left.

While Pfanz describes the ferocious fighting at the extreme left of the Federal line at the Round Tops, and particularly the storied repulse of the Confederate attack at Little Round Top by Vincent's Brigade and the 20th Maine, most of the book focuses on the combat along the Emmitsburg Road, through the Peach Orchard and Wheatfield, and up Plum Run into the Devil's Den.  General Longstreet described this as some of the hardest several hours of fighting that he'd ever seen.  The Confederates certainly enjoyed early successes during the fighting on the second day, but the end result was that they, in effect, hammered the Federal forces back from their initially exposed positions and up into a position of greater defensive strength on Cemetery Ridge.  This would have disastrous consequences for Lee's Army of Northern Virginia the next day--July 3rd--when Lee ordered the massive charge against the Federal center (i.e., Pickett's and Pettigrew's Charge).

Pfanz is an engaging writer, and definitely brings a historian's scholarly perspective to bear in his book with loads of personal and eye-witness accounts backed up with nearly 100 pages of end-notes.  While the maps included in the text are very good, I have to say that I still found myself to be somewhat confused by all of the complex maneuvering between the Federal and Confederate units as the fighting raged back-and-forth across the southern end of the battlefield.  I found that utilizing Bradley Gottfried's sterling The Maps Of Gettysburg: An Atlas Of The Gettysburg Campaign, June 3--July 13, 1863 really enhanced my understanding of the combat that occurred on this section of the battlefield.  If you're interested in more fully understanding this pivotal battle of the American Civil War, I strongly urge readers to seek out and read the detailed battlefield tactical monographs by both Harry Pfanz and David G. Martin.  Pfanz has written three volumes that cover the Battle of Gettysburg (i.e., The First Day, The Second Day, and Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill).  Martin's Gettysburg, July 1 is truly excellent and is reviewed below.


Gettysburg: The Second Day
By Harry Pfanz
University of North Carolina Press, 1987
Hardcover, 601 pages

Review: "Gettysburg, July 1" By David G. Martin

On July 1-3, 2013, it will have been 150 years--the sesquicentennial--since the largest and bloodiest land battle on the North American continent was fought at the little rural Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, combined with the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi to Grant's Federal forces (on July 4, 1863), the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg really was the turning point in the American Civil War.  In my opinion, it was now simply a matter of time before the Union would prevail and end the rebellion.

David Martin's Gettysburg, July 1 is a fascinating account of the fighting that occurred on the first day on the ridges and fields west and north of Gettysburg between elements of Confederate forces led by Corps commanders A.P. Powell and Richard Ewell and the Federal First and Eleventh Corps commanded by John Reynolds and Oliver Howard, as well as the two Federal cavalry brigades brilliantly managed by John Buford.

Typically, when the fighting at Gettysburg is discussed, the focus is always on the action at the extreme left of the Federal line at Little Round Top on the second day, or the horrific carnage associated with the Confederate charge upon the Federal center on the third day by Pickett's and Pettigrew's divisions.  Martin's account is solely focused on the fighting of July 1st, and the convergence of the two armies upon the field near Gettysburg.  This is the story of an uncommonly ferocious stand-up slug-fest that profoundly affected the final outcome of the battle.  It is also the story of command leadership that was both brilliant and inept, with heroism and courage exhibited time-and-again by the individual soldiers under some of the most harrowing circumstances.  The description of the fighting on McPherson and Seminary Ridges, both north and south of the Chambersburg Pike, involving the First Corps' First Division made up of Cutler's Brigade and the Iron Brigade was simply riveting.  Martin's use of numerous personal accounts of the combat made for very compelling reading.

Above all though, Martin's account is an incredibly detailed tactical analysis that swings back and forth between the Federal First Corps west of Gettysburg and the Federal Eleventh Corps north of town.  Ultimately, at the end of the day these two large Federal Army corps were shattered and forced back to a superb defensive position atop Cemetery Ridge just south of Gettysburg where they awaited the coming up of the rest of the Union Army of the Potomac.  It simply cannot be overstated how important it was that Federal battlefield commanders recognized the value of Cemetery Ridge and rallied their divisions and brigades to hold the high ground.

What became apparent to me as I read this book was that the first day of fighting at Gettysburg really was a coming of age for the Army of the Potomac.  Even though these two corps (i.e., the First and Eleventh) were significantly out-numbered, driven back and suffered significant casualties, they went toe-to-toe with the Confederates and stubbornly resisted (particularly the First Corps) and bought time for the rest of the Army to make its way up to the battlefield.  While Martin's book provides the detailed tactical analysis of the fighting, the end result is that Federal losses on the first day actually facilitated the huge Federal victories that followed on the second and third days.

This is really the story of the Federal Army of the Potomac and how its battle leaders and troops had finally become a fighting force that was no longer particularly intimidated by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  The Federal commanders were, in the main, now as good as their Confederate counterparts, but most importantly the troops themselves believed that they could give as good as they got.  The victory at Gettysburg--begun on that critical first day--was the beginning of the end of any opportunity for Confederate military success in the Virginia theater of the Civil War.  It was now just a matter of time.

If you're a student of the Battle of Gettysburg, the American Civil War, or military history I highly recommend David G. Martin's account of the first day of fighting at Gettysburg.  While the maps included in the book are quite good, I found it very helpful to also have Bradley Gottfried's The Maps Of Gettysburg: An Atlas Of The Gettysburg Campaign, June 3--July 13, 1863 on hand to refer to periodically.


Gettysburg, July 1
David G. Martin
Combined Publishing, Revised Edition, 1996
Hardcover, 732 pages

Review: "A Blaze of Glory" By Jeff Shaara

I read this novel a couple of weeks ago, and my verdict?  'Meh!'  I promptly sent it along to my mom and dad with a note that read, "A so-so novel about the Battle of Shiloh.  Keep it, or pass it along to someone else..."

This is the second novel by Jeff Shaara that I've read (the first being Gods and Generals) and it will surely be the last.  I have always been fascinated by Civil War battles and leaders, and especially with the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), Grant's first big action.  Over the years I have read several very well-done non-fictional accounts of the battle (e.g., Wiley Sword's book, Shelby Foote's account of the battle in his 3-volume narrative, etc.) and was excited to see this new fictional account of Shiloh at the bookstore.

Unfortunately, Shaara's writing is as flat as most of the characters in the novel.  Frankly, I thought his characterization of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston was maudlin, overly sentimental, and way too introspective.  He didn't do any better with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman either; as Sherman comes across as peevish and an almost complete imbecile (and he chain-smoked cigars like a fiend in the novel!).  Interestingly, to me, Shaara's characterization of the fictionalized enlisted men or officers from the various Union and Confederate units were, on the whole, done quite a bit better than his historical characters.  For example, I actually did grow to like the Rebel cavalry Lieutenant, James Seeley, and the Yankee, Fritz Bauer; and found myself flipping pages just to get back to their respective points-of-view.  Weird, huh?  Even the battle/combat descriptions just weren't all that engaging, at least for me.  In short, this book just never grabbed me, not one jot.  I tried, I really tried to like this book, but I didn't.

In rating this book, I would give the novel two stars out of five, and--in my humble opinion--I'm being very generous.  I debated whether to even post this review here as it really is that bad.  As I mentioned above, I've not even kept the book on my physical bookshelf at home.  Finally, I decided that I should just go ahead and write up and post my review.  Ultimately, maybe my observations and opinions associated with this book will be helpful to someone else.  Enough said.


A Blaze of Glory
By Jeff Shaara
Ballantine Books, 2012
Hardcover, 464 pages

Review: "Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage" By Noah Andre Trudeau

This was an amazing book, and ever-so-well written!  I have been to Gettysburg National Military Park several times over the course of my adult life, and I never fail but to be astounded at the overall importance of this battle and that the Union Army was able to ultimately prevail over the Confederate Army during this battle on July 1-3, 1863.  The other important element of this battle that Americans need to understand is the sheer ferocity with which this battle was fought between the two sides.  It really was blood-letting on an almost unimaginable scale with about 45,000 men--blue and grey--killed, wounded, or missing over the three days of battle in this quiet little Pennsylvanian town.

In 2002, former National Public Radio producer Noah Andre Trudeau published his own detailed account of this significant episode in American history, and it really is a solid winner.  With 65 superb maps in the book, this is virtually an hour-by-hour, or blow-by-blow account of the battle, and for much of the book leaves the reader almost breathless with anticipation as one turns the pages, as this battle really was a very near-run thing and could just as easily have turned to the favor of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. 

A lot of books (a bazillion, maybe?) have been written about this seminal battle of the American Civil War, and it is easy to see why.  The Battle of Gettysburg is generally considered to be the "High Tide of the Confederacy", and with Lee's loss at Gettysburg on July 1-3, and the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg to Grant's Army on July 4th, it really did become just a matter of time before the war would end in victory for Lincoln and the Union. I remember reading Edwin B. Coddington's The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command many, many years ago, and while Coddington's analysis is truly superb, I think that most readers are likely to enjoy Trudeau's even more.  I've also yet to read Stephen Sears' one-volume account, Gettysburg, but have it on my 'Mount To-Be-Read' shelf waiting for me (I'm actually halfway through it now).  Finally, if you're interested in fictional accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg, I urge you to read Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels and the very recent novel, Cain at Gettysburg, by Ralph Peters (review posted, above).

If you're at all interested in the American Civil War, American history, or military strategy and tactics, I highly recommend Noah Andre Trudeau's book, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage.  Finally, it is worth pointing out that the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is coming up next year--July 1-3, 2013.  This book would be worth reading between now and then and ponder the consequences; and if you've the time, take your family and go visit this hallowed ground.


Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage
By Noah Andre Trudeau
Harper, 2002
Hardcover, 720 pages

Review: "11/22/63" By Stephen King

Whee-Doggy!  This was a great novel from start-to-finish!  A real barn-burner of a book!  Over the years I have come to conclusion that Stephen King may very well be the modern American equivalent of Charles Dickens, and 11/22/63 has only reinforced that notion.  The man sure knows how to write about the human character--both good and bad. 

11/22/63 is not a mystery, it is not a tale of horror, nor is it fantasy.  In my humble opinion, this is simply one helluva good story about a whole bunch of interesting characters inside one humdinger of a plot.  I started this early one morning and in about 48 hours I'd plowed through all 850 pages.  You just can't put this damn thing down once started!

In a nutshell, here's the premise of the novel--

If you could go back in time are there things that you'd try and change?  In 11/22/63, the protagonist, Jake Epping, has just this opportunity, and he goes back in time in an effort to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  The only catch is that he has to go back in the Fall of 1958--so, he needs to integrate himself into the America of the late-50s for nearly five years before that fateful day in Dallas in 1963.  What one learns during the course of reading this incredible novel is that the past is obdurate to change, and that there are always unintended consequences to all of the actions, be they in the past or present.  I am not going to say any more about the plot of the novel, other than it is one of the more thought-provoking plots I've encountered in a while.  There were a lot of 'Whoa!' moments as I read this book.

After reading a lot of Stephen King's fiction in the 70s and 80s, and especially after reading his magnum opus "The Stand", I kind of stopped reading his work.  I think it was because I just felt that The Stand really couldn't be topped, and that I wanted that novel to be my standard of excellence associated with his body of work.  Well, I gotta say that 11/22/63 is right up there, and I think is destined to ultimately be considered a true classic of 'time-travel' fiction.  I highly recommend this book, you won't be sorry.  Finally, I have to say that I think that this book would make one terrific movie!


By Stephen King
Scribner, 2011
Hardcover, 849 pages