Review of A Storm in Flanders, The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front, by Winston Groom

11 May

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scare heard amid the guns below.

World War I has given us perhaps the most famous military-themed poem of all time with John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Famed writer and novelist Winston Groom’s foray into the “War to End all Wars” includes the history of this poem and much more in his epic A Storm in Flanders, The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front.  Groom utilizes larger-than-life storytelling to narrate the horrors of war in Belgium while placing it in the larger context of the war.

All soldiers who fought in World War I experienced terrors unknown to men at that time.  Improvements in military technology such as machine guns, artillery, tanks, flamethrowers, and poison gas allowed armies to kill their enemies in numbers undreamed of before this conflict, leading to trench warfare that dragged on for years without either the Central Powers or the Allies gaining an upper hand. The fighting on the northern end of the western front in Belgium typified this warfare and Groom narrates it superbly. For four years, the two sides fought over land in terrain that could only be described as nightmarish as constant rain and artillery bombardments ripped the ground to shreds.  There were four major battles around the Ypres Salient over those years, but men fought and died on daily basis, littering the land with thousands upon thousands of corpses with neither side gaining any true advantage. Men fought on with no real hope of success, suffering from plummeting morale and dwindling hopes of survival.  Groom presents it all in clear and vibrant language, filling the reader with the hopelessness of it all. From providing stories of the front line soldier to the intrigues of generals devising their plans for achieving the breakthrough that would end the war, Groom lays it all out until the war finally comes to a merciful conclusion.

Experiencing this as an audiobook brought the horrors of this conflict even more to life. A shout-out to narrator David Baker who read Groom’s prose superbly. Not being an expert on the fighting in Flanders, I am unable to fully critique Groom’s work, but I know his narrative included plenty of first-hand accounts that brought the conflict to life.  He also offers the obvious critiques of generalship such as when he faults British General Douglas Haig for the fighting at Passchendaele; one of the book’s most memorable moments came after a British general surveyed the battlefield afterward, staring in disbelief about sending troops to advance in that quagmire of mud. 

There might be more accurate and detailed books on war in this portion of Europe, but none that fully capture the horror and futility of the fighting in World War I. Coined by a British psychologist as “Shell Shock” and known today as PTSD, readers, or in my case listeners, can fully understand about the breaking point of soldiers when they are asked to do too much.

A Storm of Flanders is yet another exceptional book by Groom whose historic works have brought iconic moments in history to life for the general public; a highly recommended read.

We are the Dead. Short days ago.

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though Poppies grow

In Flanders fields.


Review of Vicksburg, 1863, by Winston Groom

4 May

“The fate of the Confederacy was sealed at Vicksburg.” None other than Ulysses S. Grant wrote those words following the conclusion of perhaps the war’s most intriguing military campaign. Celebrated author Winston Groom echoes Grant’s statement in his account of the actions surrounding the capture of the South’s most important city on the Mississippi River. In Groom’s Vicksburg, 1863, the noted novelist discusses the numerous attempts to capture the city and theorizes that after Vicksburg’s fall, the war’s two remaining bloody years should never have occurred.

Groom, made famous for his creation of Forrest Gump, has also written historical accounts of important battles of World War I, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Vicksburg, 1863 was his second entry on the Civil War, after his initial Shrouds of Glory, which chronicled the doomed Confederate Nashville Campaign of 1864. In this study, Groom claims his purpose is “to tell the story of the Battle of Vicksburg and the events leading up to it, as well as its aftermath.”  Groom is true to his word in spending two hundred pages detailing events prior to even getting to 1863. He discusses the nation’s two regions and how they differed, the events leading to war, and mini-biographies of key players such as Grant, William T. Sherman, John C. Pemberton and countless others plus analyzes all the battles and campaigns that preceded Grant’s numerous attempts to take the city. This format is curious considering the inclusion of 1863 in the book’s title would lead the reader to think the book’s focus was on that year.

Groom details the Union’s eight failures prior to launching his successful effort. These failures include Admiral David Farragut’s initial threat to the city, the first attempt at a canal to bypass the city, Grant’s overland campaign defeated by the Confederate Holly Springs Raid, Sherman’s failed attack on Chickasaw Bayou, the second canal attempt, the Lake Providence Route, Yazoo Pass and Steele’s Bayou. Although failures, these attempts kept Grant’s men active and Confederate General Pemberton guessing. Finally, Grant gambled and landed his men south of the city to come up at Vicksburg from that direction. He succeeded, winning several battles, and eventually bottling up Confederate forces in the city, “shut up as in a trap,” as one Vicksburg citizen put it. Groom refers to the city then as nothing more than a “corpse factory” until Pemberton had no choice but surrender. Groom’s narrative is well-written but offers nothing much different than the countless other books on the topic. His best analysis is the Confederate lack of cavalry being a huge detriment to Pemberton trying to ascertain Grant’s intentions throughout the campaign.

Groom’s concluding thesis is the strongest aspect of the book. The loss of Vicksburg doomed any chance the Confederacy had of winning the war and the South would have been better off negotiating for peace at that point. Groom postulates Lincoln might have granted better terms and that the last two years of bloodshed would not have occurred along with the additional destruction that the South suffered which made the post war years so much more difficult. Continuing the fight was simply stubbornness and that Jefferson Davis, whose hatred of the North overcame better sense and judgment, was to blame.

Overall, Groom provides a solid narrative of the Union effort to capture Vicksburg. Too much space was spent on events prior to the main campaign but we assume Groom wrote this book for the general layman so extra effort was placed to put the campaign in context of the entire war. So, this book would be good for anyone not familiar with Vicksburg or the war as a whole. Anyone else would be better served with other studies by experts like Timothy Smith, Michael Ballard, or the more recently reviewed Vicksburg, Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy by Donald Miller.


Review of Home of the Infantry: The History of Fort Benning by Peggy A. Stelpflug and Richard Hyatt

27 Apr

This review originally appeared in the Summer 2008 edition of the Georgia Historical Quarterly

Home of the Infantry is the first narrative history of one of the oldest and largest military outposts in the world to be published. Historians are indebted to the Historic Chattahoochee Commission, the National Infantry Association, and Mercer University Press for the joint effort to arrange its publication. Part masterful storytelling and part ledger, the book is a comprehensive chronicle of the life and times of one of the most important military installations in the world.

The book details Fort Benning’s history from its rough-and-tumble beginnings in 1918 as a small training station on the outskirts of Columbus, Georgia to one of the largest and most sophisticated installations operated by the United States Army. Everything readers would hope to find regarding the crucial role of the fort in training hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight in every conflict since World War II is contained in the volume in sixty short, tightly focused chapters. Refreshingly, though, the authors step beyond that most basic of stories and attempt to place Fort Benning in the context of the national and international events to which it was called on to respond. They also explore the post’s role as a proving ground for weapons platforms and technology that are ubiquitous in the heritage of the U.S. Infantry, such as the jeep, the Bradley fighting vehicle, and helicopters. Equally important, the authors detail the role played by Fort Benning in pioneering the Airborne and Ranger training that have become its hallmark.

Stelpflug and Hyatt’s narrative is not strictly a military history, however. Through analysis of the fort’s evolving mission to train soldiers over the course of ninety years, they explore the many ways Fort Benning has become a participant in some of the more consequential struggles that transcend the base itself. The role of women and blacks in the military, and by extension American society in general, is given attention in this history. Likewise, questions about America’s influence in the modern world are reflected in candid and objective discussions of the connection between Fort Benning and the controversial School of the Americas, the Vietnam War, and America’s military involvement in the Middle East.

Despite the scope of their work, the authors never lose sight of the fact that this is in the end a history of a single military installation. By skillfully interspersing accounts of on-post events with those of the larger world, readers learn just how far Fort Benning has come from its early days, when it held a notorious reputation for having some of the most primitive conditions of any military post in the U.S., to become an installation that routinely wins awards for overall effectiveness and working conditions. Luminary figures in American military history including Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, George Patton and Colin Powell are integrally involved in Fort Benning’s past and occupy prominent spots in Home of the Infantry. These leaders are just a few of the most well-known with connections to Fort Benning through which the authors relate the post’s story.

It is no coincidence that the authors are actually at their best when relating the history of the fort through the lives of the soldiers, civilian employees, and government leaders associated with it. A self-proclaimed “military wife” and English teacher, Stelpflug is well-acquainted with the trials of military families, and Hyatt is an award-winning Columbus journalist with over forty years of experience. As a result, the book is written in a lively journalistic style that unfolds more as a series of short and insightful stories than a continuous narrative; a technique that makes the five hundred sixty seven-page book a much less intimidating read one might ordinarily expect.

Precisely because of this approach, those interested in American military and Georgia history especially will find much of interest in Home of the Infantry. The authors provide a thorough account of the essentially local struggle to establish and maintain the post, and throughout the book they highlight the symbiotic relationship between Fort Benning, the city of Columbus, and the state of Georgia. In this light, stories of everyday life on post that include the perspective of civilian employees and the linking of the development of the base with its host community make the book every bit as much a Georgia story as a national one. In similar manner, discussion of the origins and development of Fort Benning’s National Infantry Museum highlight the ways local citizens have helped shape the interpretation of a national institution. In addition, the book contains an extensive collection of photographs, documenting everything from on-post training and sporting events to visits by leading government officials, that forms an intriguing album of a part of Georgia’s history in itself. Home of the Infantry is a welcome addition to Georgia’s historiography that is sure to remain the standard on its subject for years to come.


Review of The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy, by Tom Chaffin

20 Apr

This review was originally published in the July, 2009 issue of The Alabama Review

On the night of February 17, 1864, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank the U.S.S. Housatonic with a torpedo, becoming the first boat of its type to sink an enemy warship. It quickly assumed legendary status, as much for its accomplishment as the fact that it also disappeared that night and was not recovered for more than 130 years. There has been no shortage of writing about the Hunley since that time, but all too much of it has been filled with errors and based on speculation. In The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy, author Tom Chaffin gives the remarkable craft’s saga the depth, life and accuracy it has deserved for so long.

Chaffin, author of Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah,begins by providing perhaps the most-thoroughly researched biographies of the key individuals whose ambition launched the effort to create a functional submarine for the Confederacy: Horace L. Hunley, James McClintock and Baxter Watson. Following them from the New Orleans machine shop where their quest began, he chronicles a journey that eventually included numerous collaborators, several high-ranking military figures and three different submarines. The first boat the group developed, the Pioneer, was scuttled in New Orleans shortly before the city fell into Union hands. A second, the American Diver, sank in Mobile Bay.  

One of the primary strengths of Chaffin’s book is its scope. He provides an informative summary of developments in submarine technology prior to the Civil War and helps readers better understand the difficulties faced by the maritime pioneers he chronicles. Submarines were not easy to build, especially in the Civil War South, and most military authorities had strong reservations about the appropriateness of this new mode of warfare. Chaffin details both the political and technological battles the designers had to overcome in refreshingly clear fashion, and readers will marvel as much at the persistence of the designers as the surprising level of sophistication of the boats they built.

Serious scholars will appreciate that Chaffin’s careful research underpins his effort to rescue a story that has become “encrusted with the barnacles of accumulated lore” (xvii). He relies heavily on seldom used primary sources in his writing, shedding light on the many misunderstood details of the story while simultaneously revealing candidly those aspects of the tale that are unlikely to ever be known. Perhaps most crucial to the book’s unprecedented accuracy, Chaffin uses findings from the ongoing archaeological investigation of the Hunley to provide a thorough account of the boat’s construction and operation. His in-depth discussion of the many legends associated with the submarine, such as the famed blue light which was supposedly flashed from its conning tower after sinking the Housatonic, stand out and do much to separate the book from previous scholarship.  Readers of Alabama history will find especially interesting Chaffin’s fleshing out of the connection between the submarine and the city of Mobile. The city to which Hunley and his compatriots fled after the fall of New Orleans, Mobile figures prominently in the story by virtue of being the location where both the American Diver and Hunley were constructed and tested.

Though Chaffin’s narrative is laden with detail, the book unfolds as a compelling tale that readers will find difficult to put down. Combining a masterful command of his subject with a novelist’s flair for weaving a good story, Chaffin takes readers on an intriguing journey centered on one of the landmark events in maritime history. His narrative shines most brightly in the second half of the book, where he recounts the Hunley’s time in Charleston, South Carolina. With captivating style and vivid detail, Chaffin brings to life the experiences of those who labored and died aboard the boat. He dramatically sets the stage for the boat’s fateful voyage into naval history and helps readers understand the confusion that reigned in the wake of its disappearance by explaining what information was available at the time. To his credit, Chaffin brings the story of the Hunley full circle by including information on its 1995 discovery and subsequent recovery and investigation. 

The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy is much more than yet another account of one of the most unique occurrences of the Civil War. The book provides the most detailed portrait to date of the remarkable boat and places it in the context of worldwide submarine development. Even though Chaffin is admittedly unable to explain every mystery surrounding how “amid the ragged vagaries of a desperate war, its builders managed to design and assemble such a sublimely elegant craft” (p. 255), the attempt currently stands as the preeminent volume on the subject.


Review of Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill, by Mark Lee Gardner

13 Apr

Despite the fact that we collectively actually know so little about it, Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill endures today as an iconic moment in American history. Most people have probably heard of the Rough Riders, but I would venture to guess that a very small portion indeed of our nation’s population can tell you where San Juan Hill is or when or why they were there. A pivotal fight in the short, ten-week long war with Spain which came about over the issue of Cuban independence, the Battle of San Juan Hill was an overwhelming American victory. Here to chronicle the event in a definitive historical narrative is Mark Lee Gardner with Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill. I recently listened to an audiobook version of the title.

Gardner comes to the task with an impressive track record of popular books on western history including To Hell on a Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett and Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape. In this volume he turns his attention to a legendary event which yet lies in a fog of confusion for even many well-read historians. The book is fast moving, but readers should be aware this is a history of the famed Rough Riders—a unit of western cavalrymen with a smattering of east coast recruits—and their involvement in the Spanish-American War. Therefore over a third of the book is devoted to the process of their organization, training, and travel to the scene of action in Cuba where they would win their immortal fame. Gardner relates their experiences with clarity and rich detail, drawing on a number of first-hand accounts to produce a solid and entertaining narrative of a significant campaign in the Spanish-American War.

Central to the story, of course, is Theodore Roosevelt. The then-thirty-eight year old Teddy would use the fame derived from his exploits in Cuba to assist his rise to become governor of New York and eventually win the presidency. While Roosevelt was such a robust and accomplished man that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between fact and myth in his life, the truth of his actions on San Juan Hill in July of 1898 is both verified and stunning. Astride his horse, Little Texas, Roosevelt was in the thick of the fight, even personally gunning down a Spaniard with a revolver. For his bravery and leadership he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor—the only president in our history to be so recognized. Gardner brings the fighting on the hills of Cuba to life in his book, conveying the sights, sounds, and chaos of the scene in satisfying fashion. He also addresses, by the way, the longstanding misnomer that the famed charge was actually up a nearby height called Kettle Hill, affirming the battle is indeed appropriately named. Rough Riders is an interesting and detailed account of a legendary event and well worth your time.


Grant’s Nine Lives?

6 Apr

Beginning last spring, Mike and I began a chronological journey of the Civil War west of the Appalachian Mountains.  We started with Wilson’s Creek and are currently in the middle of the Vicksburg Campaign. We have read some outstanding works by many of the leading scholars in the field. General Ulysses S. Grant figures prominently as the key factor in leading Union forces to victory in the West and eventually the war.  Reviewing these battles and campaigns has illustrated that although ultimately successful, Grant suffered near defeat on many occasions, but some luck, inept leadership from his opponents, and his determination staved off defeat.

At his first battle at Belmont, Missouri, his forces initially drove back Confederate forces, but additional southern reinforcements led to a counterattack that overwhelmed Grant’s command. Grant himself barely made it back upon his boat transport to escape, leaping his horse onto its planks barely avoiding capture or worse. 

At Fort Donelson, after Union ironclads failed to silence the fort, Confederate forces launched an attack that pushed back Union forces. Only inept Confederate leadership prevented a larger Confederate victory or at minimum, allowing the Southern force to escape capture.

At Shiloh, Grant camped close to the enemy, but failed to enact any defensive measures. Confederate forces attacked his vulnerable position, driving Grant’s men back throughout the day.  Union reinforcements, a poorly conceived Confederate battle plan, and rainy conditions that postponed the attack a few days saved Grant’s army. 

During the Vicksburg Campaign, Grant went through quite a few lives with multiple failures to capture the Gibraltar of the South. These failures include the overland railroad campaign of late 1862, the failed attack at Chickasaw Bayou, and multiple attempts to either bypass the stronghold by several bayou and other river experiments. This combined with the persistent rumors of Grant returning to his drinking ways almost led to his removal on several occasions.

But Grant did survive these setbacks. His dogged determination, willingness to adapt, and aggressiveness were the main factors to eventually achieving victory. What is interesting is how many times Grant was almost removed from the chessboard of war. I have always considered leadership to be the most significant reason for winning the conflict and not simply the North’s superior advantages in men and materials. Finding the right people to fully utilize those advantages to overwhelm the South into submission was the key ingredient to success. Grant won the war, in part because the Confederacy failed to deliver a knockout blow to him, especially early in the war when they had opportunities. Abraham Lincoln also deserves credit for standing by him and not relenting to outside pressure to remove him. Of course, Grant did benefit from facing inadequate leadership on the other side in the forms of generals like Leonidas Polk, Gideon Pillow, John Floyd, and John Pemberton.  But Grant survived and flourished, taking advantage of his catlike ability to survive long enough to achieve ultimate victory.


Review of With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by Eugene B. Sledge

30 Mar

Referred to by some as perhaps the best memoir of its type in American military history, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa is a personal and poignant account of World War II in the Pacific. The book was compiled by its author, Mobile native Eugene B. Sledge, years after the trial of combat from notes and memory and first published in 1981. I was able to listen to an audiobook version of the title recently, introduced by none other than acclaimed actor Tom Hanks and featuring one of the best readings (by Joe Mazzello) I have had the pleasure to listen to. So much has been written about the volume, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and famously informed such noted documentaries as Ken Burns’s The War and the HBO miniseries The Pacific, that I will keep my comments here brief.

This book is powerful and subtly eloquent. It brings what the desperate combat on isolated Pacific islands against a determined enemy was really like with a crystal-clear and emotional clarity in a style only the best writers can hope to duplicate. It is brutally honest, describing in detail scenes too terrible to contemplate as the war brought out an almost inhuman type of barbarity; gruesome injuries, troops laboring amidst the stench of decomposing bodies under the realization any moment might be their last, and the heartrending spectacle of men breaking down when pushed beyond the brink of what they could mentally endure. Yet at the same time the extraordinary heroism which is so frequently on display amongst young men thrust into the awful responsibilities of war is recognized in the pages of the book—refusal to leave an injured buddy on the field and the willingness to put one’s life on the line when almost certain death awaited the deed. If you are unmoved by the material recounted by the author in this book, you must have no soul. 

What the book is not is sentimental or didactic. Sledge, nicknamed “Sledgehammer” by his Marine compatriots, offers an unvarnished and straightforward account of his experiences that allows readers to make their own of what it means in the bigger picture. He chooses not to ring his combat record in the aura of patriotism or noble duty fulfilled. This does not mean he is dispassionate, however, as he provides liberal doses of descriptions of moments of exhilaration and pathos which help the reader understand fully events being described. Neither is he boastful, either, freely admitting the crippling fear he, and others at one time or another, felt during the vicious and disorienting fighting when air, sea, and land were all consumed by the maelstrom of combat. Sledge offers few overt moral lessons to be gleaned from his narrative, save for perhaps a general disillusion with the effectiveness of warfare. If you want a clear-eyed account of the reality of war and the strength of the bonds of camaraderie, With the Old Breed should be on your reading list. You will be better off for the experience.


Review of The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole City, by Dianne Guenin-Lelle

23 Mar

New Orleans revels in its French heritage and is famously America’s most European of cities. Its unique cultural history has translated into a special niche in tourism and almost an entire field of cultural study unto itself. But history fails to give us a straightforward answer as to why New Orleans retains the aura of being a bastion of French culture amidst a sea of English and Spanish influence in the broader region of which it is a part. True, it was founded by French colonists and remained a French city in its early years, but that experience was well in its past by the time it began to grow into a substantial city in the late 1700s. New Orleans underwent more growth as a Spanish colonial city than it had under French rule, and its development as a part of the early American republic was much more pronounced than either of those colonial interludes. In truth there is almost no physical manifestation of the French period in New Orleans today; the architecture of the famous French Quarter is actually Spanish and American.

Wrestling with the city’s longstanding identity with its earliest and numerically smallest European founders is Dianne Guenin-Lelle in The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole City. The book was originally published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2016. Guenin-Lellereceived her PhD in French literature from LSU, and is currently professor of French at Albion College. Previously, she co-authored Prison Narratives of Jeanne Guyon and Jeanne Guyon: Selected Writings.

In her book, Guenin-Lelle takes a broad look at how French culture came to so permeate life in New Orleans by examining a range of factors including race, religion, and governance. Interestingly to historians of the region, she points to the arrival of refugees from Haiti in the nineteenth century as likely playing as important a role in the city’s enduring French identity as its French-Canadian founders of the eighteenth century. But readers beware, this is no narrative history of cultural heritage in lower Louisiana. It is an academic treatise as much philosophical as literal, and over half of the book is simply an overview of regional literature. It is a slow and difficult read (or listen—I checked out the audiobook version), and ends up venturing far indeed from any traditional thesis on cultural identity as it becomes more of a literary review after the opening chapters. The book no doubt will be regarded as a major contribution to the study of Francophone literature and cultural arts by the narrow group of academics engaged in that field, but for historians looking for a comprehensible narrative about the region’s enduring celebration of its seemingly thin French heritage based in historical facts, I advise you to look elsewhere.


Review of No Better Place to Die, the Battle of Stones River, by Peter Cozzens

16 Mar

Following the first day of battle along Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Union General William Rosecrans met with his troop commanders to determine if their army should retreat after getting mauled by Confederate troops. One of those subordinates, George Thomas reportedly exclaimed, “General, I know of no better place to die than right here.” Historian Peter Cozzens not only included this powerful quote in his narrative of this key Civil War clash, he used it as his title.  In No Better Place to Die, the Battle of Stones River, Cozzens provides a detailed analysis of yet another horrific clash in the Western Theater where failures in Confederate leadership contributed to Union success.

Following his failed Kentucky campaign in the fall of 1862, Confederate General Braxton Bragg stationed his forces near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and awaited the next move by Union forces. Morale in the army had plummeted and serious doubts from solders and his lieutenants about his leadership arose. Cozzens explains that Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s decision not to remove Bragg from command at the time had dire repercussions for the fight at Stones River. Besides leaving a man in command the army did not trust, Davis also negatively impacted the upcoming campaign when he transferred 7,500 men from Bragg’s army to Vicksburg to thwart an impending attack in that sector.

Opposing Bragg in the coming battle was newly installed General William Rosecrans, who had replaced the ineffective Don Carlos Buell. Rosecrans was pushed to action by leaders in Washington so Rosecrans marched out in late December of 1862 from Nashville. As the armies neared each other, both commanders made plans to attack his opponent’s right flank. Bragg’s attack simply launched sooner and his men succeeding in pushing the Union troops back when the armies initially engaged on December 31, 1862. Only determined resistance led by Philip Sheridan and Rosecrans himself, who was seen prominently on the battlefield, prevented a complete collapse of the Federal force. Lack of additional troops to perform one final push at the crucial place on the battlefield prevented Confederate forces from gaining complete success. Shockingly, Cozzens does not mention those transferred 7,500 men who might have proven significant. But that is assuming Bragg would have used them wisely in the first place. Regardless, the first day ended with Confederate forces controlling a large portion of the battlefield. Bragg thought the Union forces would soon retreat; they did not, leading to disastrous results for the Confederate two days into the New Year.

On January 2, 1863, Bragg felt he had to continue pressing and decided to attack the untested Union left. Rosecrans made another wise decision to shore up this portion of the battlefield with troops. Although Bragg’s subordinates, especially John Breckenridge, pleaded not to attack this positon, the assault did achieve initial success until over forty Union cannon decimated Confederate attackers as they tried to cross Stones River, putting an end to the attack.

Bragg now faced the same decision that Rosecrans had faced earlier, remain or retreat. He polled his subordinates, most of whom either supported retreat or recommended it themselves. Bragg therefore made the decision to retreat, gaining more enmity from those around him and in Richmond. Most of his soldiers were stunned since many had thought they had whipped the Yankees. It had become a familiar pattern to these soldiers after Perryville and now Murfreesboro; launch an assault and push the enemy back only to retreat afterwards.

Cozzens focuses great attention during the book on the Confederate high command. Whether it was the fractured relationship between Bragg and John C. Breckenridge, poor leadership during the battle by a drunken Frank Cheatham, or Leonidas Polk’s launching of piecemeal attacks at a fortified position, Cozzens provides plenty of examples of failures in Confederate leadership. Cozzens definitely places failure to win a substantial victory on Bragg and then afterwards, discusses the intrigue surrounding attempts to replace him as leader of the Army of Tennessee following Stones River. It is obvious to these reviewers that regardless of where ultimate blame needed to be placed, it seemed foolish to leave Bragg in command following the Kentucky campaign and Stones River. The soldiers and more importantly, upper leadership, had no faith that Bragg could lead the army to victory. As one Confederate soldier put it, “Bragg’s army? He’s got none; he shot half of them in Kentucky, and the other half got killed up at Murfreesboro.”

Cozzens has written a thorough account of the battle which at times is almost too detailed. His narrative is so exhaustive in the tracking of troop movements all the way down to the regimental level that it at times leaves the reader overwhelmed and confused to the point they may miss the bigger picture of how the battle developed as they fumble through enumerations of regiments and commanders.  There are several maps accompanying the text, but they never seem to be as many as are needed or clear enough to allow the reader to determine exactly how the action is transpiring. Cozzens’s analysis of command issues, especially after the battle is top notch. He does jump immediately into this analysis, without fully completing an evaluation of the battle itself. For instance, there are not even casualty figures listed. Although published over thirty years ago and notwithstanding these critiques, No Better Place to Die remains the authoritative account of this crucial battle.


A Royal Pain-Revisited

9 Mar

The British Royal Family is in the news again for all the wrong reasons following an interview of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle by Oprah Winfrey. Several disconcerting allegations of how the two have been treated since getting married are at the heart of the discussion, as well as hints of racism. It is all another sordid chapter in a story than inexplicably continues to enthrall Americans.  We touched upon this ridiculous infatuation with an entry in this blog back in 2013 when Prince Harry and Kate had their first child.  We feel it only appropriate to re-share the blog again now as a timely commentary on the continuing irrelevance of an archaic, and apparently very flawed, monarchy. The very monarchy, we like to remind readers, that our forebears fought to establish their independence from over almost two and a half centuries ago.

Original posting of July 24, 2013:

We guess we should join the hordes of people and offer our congratulations to Prince William and Princess Kate on the birth of their first child. We acknowledge and offer our blessing to them as much as we would any others on the joy it is to bring a new life into this world.  The great hysteria and unbelievable fanfare over this event, however, borders on the ridiculous. We are amazed and stunned that so many people are so infatuated by this birth as well as the other comings and goings of the British Royal Family, a dysfunctional and archaic lot if there ever was one. Are our personal lives so pathetic that we only find meaning in the lives of these privileged few whose obsolete and meaningless titles are their only claim to fame?  We equate this infatuation with those who follow every move of the Kardashians. To borrow an often used colloquialism, I think there are many people who simply need to “Get a Life!”

Royal watcher

Examining this fascination from an historical aspect is even more confusing. Our nation owes its existence to the courageous efforts of patriots who eschewed birthrights and royal entitlement in favor of self-sufficiency and a chance to achieve greatness on your own ability. We won our independence from the British in the American Revolution and then 30 years later secured it during the War of 1812. We later saved England two times during the World Wars in the 20th century. And yet many of our citizens still focus their attention on the other side of the Atlantic and the Royal Family as if anachronistic nobility, funded in their lavish lifestyles by taxpayers, still has either merit or relevance. It should make us cringe to hear the repeated references to “nobility” and “commoners” being bandied about in reference to the royal family. Maybe it is the Cinderella fairy tale aspect of it or simply a desire to look toward those we feel are somehow greater than us, or maybe, as noted in an earlier blog, we are just searching for heroes.  If that is the case, we should search elsewhere, because the Royal Family does not offer anything to truly admire to an American! The very notion of royalty flies in the face of the principles upon which men like Washington and Jefferson founded this country, and those such as Jackson and Lincoln championed.