Archive | April, 2020

Review of Attack at Daylight and Whip Them, the Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, by Gregory Mertz

28 Apr

At different times during the Civil War battle of Shiloh in 1862, both Confederate General Albert S. Johnston and Union General Ulysses S. Grant vowed to “attack at daylight” in order to defeat their enemy. Gregory Mertz, in one of the more recent volumes of the Emerging Civil War Series, chose those words to serve as his title with his Attack at Daylight and Whip Them, The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862. This series provides a great introduction to the Civil War’s climatic battles and campaigns, but this volume chooses a unique method that many readers might find perplexing.


Mertz is a longtime employee of the National Park Service with stints at Gettysburg, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania. His initial love for the Civil War came from his boyhood trips to Shiloh with his Boy Scout Troop. Mertz has shaped his love for Shiloh to create a book that serves as not only a narrative of the battle, but a tour of the battlefield today. The other Emerging Civil War Series volume that I reviewed on Bentonville chose to provide a battlefield tour at the end of the narrative whereas Mertz uses the battlefield to tell the story itself. Mertz explains the battle as it unfolds while taking the reader on a stop-by-stop visit of the battlefield similar to the tour map provided by the Park Service. Readers follow Mertz’s narrative as Confederate forces attack the Union army’s encampment along the Tennessee River in a make or break effort to reverse the tide of war in the West. This methodology provides Mertz opportunities to point out key places and monuments on the battlefield as he attempts to narrate the battle itself. The main problem is that while fascinating to learn about the battle this way, it weakens the narrative itself. Chapters will jump back and forth across the battlefield at different times during the day and even skip back and forth from April 6 and April 7 which would confuse any reader who is not overly familiar with the battle itself.

This edition follows the framework of other Emerging Civil War Series volumes containing superb images and maps as well as sections such as an Order of Battle and Suggested Reading. This volume also presents an appendix on Union General Lew Wallace’s long and complex journey to the battlefield and an insightful forward by Tim Smith, who is today’s definitive scholar on the battle. Mertz should be commended for utilizing modern interpretations of the battle, such as de-emphasizing the iconic Bloody Pond, and much of his narration is solid in generating excitement as one reads about the ebb and flow of the armies engaged. But, there is no doubt to this reviewer that this book is best read as one tours the battlefield itself and not in a chair at one’s home hundreds of miles away.


Review of Colonial Natchitoches, A Creole Community on the Louisiana-Texas Frontier, by H. Sophie Burton and F. Todd Smith

21 Apr

Recently, my wife and I visited the scenic Louisiana town of Natchitoches (pronounced Nak a tish) for a quick getaway vacation. Located in the northwestern part of the state, the town offered a nice escape located on the Cane River. Established in 1714, four years prior to New Orleans, I desired to learn more about the origins of this community and purchased Colonial Natchitoches, A Creole Community on the Louisiana-Texas Frontier by H. Sophie Burton and F. Todd Smith.  Winner of the 2008 Kemper Williams Prize for best book in Louisiana History, the book provided a plethora of information, but lacked the strong narrative that I prefer.

Burton and Smith

Originally established by the French to serve as a strategic outpost to monitor Spanish activities in Texas, Natchitoches and its inhabitants initially survived mainly on the trade with surrounding Indian nations.  Eventually, Spain acquired Louisiana in the late 1760s and maintained control until Napoleon acquired the colony in 1801 only to give it to the United States in 1803.  Authors Burton and Smith perused databases located at Northwestern State University, located in Natchitoches, and through detailed statistical analysis, derived several important conclusions relating to this frontier settlement.

First of all, the town maintained a strong French community as its inhabitants either came from France or were Creole, meaning born in America but children of French parents. Surrounding natives and nearby Spanish did not interfere or disrupt the strong French hegemony.  Secondly, the Indian Trade did not completely dominate the economy of the region.  A plantation-based economy with tobacco and eventually cotton emerged as well as the raising of livestock. Tobacco farming really took off upon Spanish takeover of the region. Interestingly enough, these endeavors created class differences in the community which had previously remained class-free for the most part. Finally, Africans dominated the slave community as there were in reality few Indian slaves. A small free black community also emerged, although they tended to cling close to the French who sustained them.

Burton and Smith are to be commended for their precise research into this community.  They state in their preface that they wanted to focus on the common folk of the town and their statistics of their lives, indicated with ample charts and graphs, provide a very detailed view of them. Their chapters are not page turners as it becomes very tedious to read stats concerning families, marriages, slaves, and pounds of tobacco raised. I was personally searching for more on the politics and military situation of how Natchitoches fit into the larger picture of colonial Louisiana. Their first chapter gave a quick overview of that information, but I personally wanted more. Burton and Smith have produced important scholarship on this community, but anyone wanting a compelling read that provides a more encompassing picture will want to look elsewhere.


Review of Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed, by Larry J. Daniel

14 Apr

Until the last few decades, studies of the Civil War tended to emphasize the Army of Northern Virginia and its opposition as the determining factors in the fate of the Confederacy. The war in the west received relatively little critical attention. As a consequence, from Douglas Southall Freeman’s epic three volume Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command to the more recent General Lee’s Army by Joseph Glatthaar, the Confederate army in Virginia has been examined in depth to determine how it became and remained such a potent fighting force, how it won a number of engagements against heavy odds, and how and why it ultimately was compelled to surrender in 1865. While the campaigns of its counterpart, the Army of Tennessee, have lately been given unprecedented analysis by a host of writers who have collectively reminded us of the importance of the western theater in the course of the war, the main Confederate army there has not quite gotten the same level of critique as Lee’s famed fighting force. In a new and unique study, veteran western theater historian Larry J. Daniel strives to spotlight the Confederacy’s main army in the west and how and why it struggled with his Conquered: Why the Army of the Tennessee Failed.


The most complete assessment of the Army of Tennessee’s military history comes from Thomas Connelly’s two volume epic (Army of the Heartland/Autumn of Glory) first published in the 1970s. Daniel, author of numerous books on the war in the west (Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War, Days of Glory: The Army of the Cumberland, The Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict Between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland) felt the need for a re-examination of the army’s service. In Conquered he provides not just a narrative but a topical approach, exploring everything from logistics and command structure to morale and desertion. Conquered is not simply a straight recounting of four years of campaigns and battles, but rather an analysis of multiple topics and a summary of historiography on the subjects. The result is an incredibly detailed book on the Army of Tennessee’s internal functioning which ironically gives readers less information than expected on its actual battlefield exploits and ends up featuring a somewhat disjointed narrative that reads as a series of essays.

In Daniel’s preface are found his strongest points. He agrees with the prevailing theory that the army suffered defeat due to leadership failures, but other factors contributed as well such as sectionalism, geographic challenges, diminishing manpower, poorly trained officers, and the decline of the cavalry.  Perhaps Daniel’s most compelling claim as it regards the military history of the army and the importance of its successes and failures in the overall course of the war is found in his discussion of Kentucky failing to provide the manpower the army repeatedly expected and sorely needed. While not desiring to rehash battlefield narratives, Daniel does delve in some detail with a few selected battles and campaigns, at times examining isolated battlefield decisions at length and at others treating whole significant campaigns in a cursory manner. As is common in many military history books, there are not enough adequate maps for the reader to trace movements of armies in these discussions. Nothing is more frustrating than reading a detailed narrative of troop movements and getting lost trying to fathom the flow of events. In one case in point, Daniel describes in detail aspects of the Tullahoma Campaign and the lone map shown does not illustrate the correct area of Tennessee.

Upon publication, we were both excited to read a one volume account of the Confederate army’s struggles in the west and get Daniels’s insight on why he thinks the army failed so miserably, especially in contrast with Lee’s army in Virginia. Unfortunately, this approach has led to a disjointed account that left us both wanting to better understand the connection between logistical struggles and internal friction and battlefield accomplishments and setbacks. The book would have been better served as either a complete narrative of events or a topical examination, but not both.


America’s Storytellers

7 Apr

Ask anyone who reads history to name some of their favorite authors of the genre and some of the books they were most inspired by, and I guarantee that names such as Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, Winston Groom, David McCullough, and Nathaniel Philbrick will be mentioned early and often. One of the many things these writers have in common, besides their literary talent, is that none of these distinguished writers hold doctorate degrees in history, and none ever earned their living as a professor. Certainly there are examples too numerous to mention of historians from the ranks of academia who have produced compelling books on historical subjects, but the fact that some of the leaders in the field of historical writing are, in the parlance of the field of higher education, “amateurs,” is more than a coincidence to me.


Shelby Foote

Clay and I have discussed many times in this blog our personal preference for narrative storytelling as a means by which to engage the public with the past. And while we both have many friends and colleagues from the academic ranks whom we respect and admire, we find it a continuing irony that the most effective voices in advocating for the study of history and engaging the public with the past seem to be those outside of institutions of higher learning. Perhaps this is in some ways inherent, as professional academics are at times asked in some ways to do very different things than “amateur” historians, who generally have more freedom and ability to pursue subjects of their choice and present them in ways of their choosing. Plus, I fully admit, an important aspect of academic writing is that it furthers the understanding of a given field and is instructive to instructors themselves. Not all useful books will therefore be page turners appealing to the masses. But should not academia value connecting with the broader public a little more in the literature it produces? Are professors not as naturally talented storytellers as those from outside the profession, or is their training and career environment somehow preventing them from getting in touch with the masses? For all of the excellent work so many professors produce, I cannot help but think that we have forgotten one of the chief benefits of writing in colleges and universities that are training the next generation of historians by devaluing simple storytelling. Academia should applaud and encourage this type of product, not dismiss it.

I am not the first to pose these questions. When Shelby Foote’s landmark three-volume narrative of the Civil War first appeared back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was praised by the general public but generally panned by academics for its lack of footnotes, no clear thesis, and narrow focus on military action. That he simply told a story in compelling style and focused on the central events in the national drama—the battles which decided the war—was viewed by some as not sophisticated enough for academic use. I dare say the sentiment would be similar among academic historians if such a masterpiece was released today. But I recently found a reference to at least one eminent scholar who at the time raised a note of caution in dismissing such literature as of less value than the rigorous academic study, and I think it is worth noting. In a review of the third volume of the trilogy (The Civil War: A Narrative Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox) penned by the legendary C. Vann Woodward which  appeared in March 6, 1975 issue of the New York Times, the dean of Southern historians at the time had unabashed praise for Foote’s effort. Further, he counseled that academics might do well to take notice of the accomplishment. I think his words resonate just as clearly today as back then, if not more so:

“Professionals do well to apply the term amateur with caution to the historian outside their ranks. The word does have deprecatory and patronizing connotations that occasionally backfire. This is especially true of narrative history, which nonprofessionals have all but taken over. The gradual withering of the narrative impulse in favor of the analytical urge among professional academic historians has resulted in a virtual abdication of the oldest and most honored role of the historian, that of storyteller. Having abdicated—save in the diminishing proportion of biographies in which analysis does not swamp narrative—the professional is in a poor position to patronize amateurs who fulfill the needed function he has abandoned.”

Well said, Dr. Woodward. Historians serve a valuable role in educating society. Perhaps no role is more important than that of storyteller, in my opinion.