Archive | September, 2020

Air Force Football Remembers the Tuskegee Airmen

29 Sep

As college football fans, Clay and I have drawn attention to interesting commemorations of important historical events via special football uniforms worn by Army, Navy, and other universities from time to time.

Today we recognize a special uniform to be worn in an upcoming game by the Air Force Academy remembering the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a group of primarily African-American fighter and bomber pilots who served with distinction in World War II. Part of what the Air Force is calling its “Air Power Legacy Series,” the uniforms feature helmets with paint schemes based on the P-51 aircraft flown by the Tuskegee Airmen along with the signature red tails and nose that helped identify each squadron. There are four variants of helmets, decorated with squadron patches for the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd units. In special lettering on the back of the jerseys is the unit’s nickname, “Red Tails.”

Thanks to the Air Force Academy for finding this unique way to help us remember an important part of our nation’s distinguished military heritage.


Review of War in the West: Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, by William L. Shea

22 Sep

Leadership is often the determining factor between victory and defeat in military encounters.  This characteristic has been discussed often in prominent Civil War campaigns and battles such as Vicksburg and Atlanta, but is just as important in other theaters of the war. Author William L. Shea hammers home the importance of effective battlefield command in War in the West, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, a succinct volume that provides brief overviews of the two largest battles in Arkansas.

Shea, who co-authored the definitive book on Pea Ridge with Earl Hess, provides a concise summary of the battles of Arkansas. As part of the “Civil War Campaigns and Commanders” Series of short, introductory volumes on a number of significant campaigns, the book also contains brief biographies of all the key leaders, both North and South. Personally, we found these disruptive to the book’s narrative and too long. Perhaps these were deemed important to the series, but we would have preferred them in an appendix rather than interspersed throughout the text.

As for the battles, Shea states no Confederate Army ever marched off to battle with greater relative numerical superiority than the one that fought at Pea Ridge.  Confederate forces under Earl Van Dorn failed to capitalize, however, on this rare advantage. Seeking to attack isolated Union forces, Van Dorn sought to split his force to achieve victory. One of Van Dorn’s wings, led by Ben McCullough, who had led forces to victory at Wilson’s Creek, attacked an inferior Union force, but McCullough was quickly shot and killed. His second in command was killed shortly afterwards leading to a lack of leadership and a lost opportunity to bring victory. Van Dorn, leading the other wing, was unaware of this development and launched disjointed attacks on other Union forces. Union General Samuel Curtis outgeneraled Van Dorn and brought his divided forces together to defeat and ultimately rout the Confederate army at Pea Ridge. Eventually, Van Dorn led his remaining forces across the Mississippi River to assist Confederate forces there but they arrived too late to participate in the crucial battle of Shiloh. This departure of troops, however, did leave Arkansas defenseless.

Months later, a new Confederate force under the command of Thomas Hindman sought to also attack isolated Union commands which resulted in the Battle of Prairie Grove. Shea describes Pea Ridge as a boxing match with lots of sparring whereas Prairie Grove was a pure slugfest with extremely high casualty rates considering numbers involved.  Shea gives high praise to Union division commanders Francis Herron and James Blunt whose relentless energy and aggressiveness prevented Hindman from achieving total victory. Union superiority of artillery, a common theme in Arkansas, also proved an important factor. By the end of 1862, war in the Ozark Plateau was on the backburner; Missouri was safely secure for the Union and Confederate authority in Arkansas was rapidly diminishing.

War in the West provides an adequate overview of these campaigns in Arkansas, but leaves the reader wanting more. Shea did emphasize the role that Union superior military leadership played in these Union triumphs while conversely saying Van Dorn and Hindman tried to do too much. Historians will surely agree that McCullough’s death and its resulting void in leadership was a huge factor in Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge. We also understand the practicality of combining these campaigns into a single volume, but it did seem to lessen the importance of each battle. Readers will be satisfied if they simply seek a quick synopsis of war in Arkansas. Anyone wanting more will need to look elsewhere.


Review of Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862, by Kendall Gott

15 Sep

Historians love debating the key moment when the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Many point to the twin calamities of Vicksburg and Gettysburg while some even point to the firing upon Fort Sumter as where the South lost its chance at independence. Retired U.S. Army officer and army historian Kendall Gott claims the Confederacy headed towards defeat in early 1862 with his Where the South Lost the War, An Analysis of the Fort Henry–Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862. Gott’s superb narrative and thoroughly researched examination of this crucial campaign has us believing his answer is correct.

Gott provides a traditional narrative of Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s offensive push at the Confederacy’s weakest point in its long defensive front in the West. The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers provided convenient avenues of invasion for Northern forces and with the help of armored gunboats, Grant aimed his force at exploiting this advantage. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston served as department commander, but instead of providing critical oversight over the entire region, he limited his focus to the Confederate center at Bowling Green, Kentucky. Confederates constructed Forts Henry and Donelson to defend the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, but Johnston never paid enough attention to what was clearly the most vulnerable area of his several hundred mile-long line. After Union naval forces overwhelmed the poorly-constructed Fort Henry (with ample help from the rising river water), Grant then proceeded to march on Fort Donelson. A more formidable bastion, this site withstood naval attack, but its convoluted command structure eventually led to the fort’s surrender with its more than 12,000 irreplaceable soldiers. Gott states the South never recovered from these disasters as it lost an entire army and it gave easy access to the two principal rivers that the Union would use to advance into the heartland.

Gott concludes each chapter with hard-hitting analysis that makes this book so valuable to historians and history buffs alike. His final chapter summarizes all his main points in clear and concise fashion.  Some of his strongest points include his praise of Gideon Pillow for there being any defensive effort at Fort Donelson at all. He then heavily criticizes Simon Buckner whose poor battlefield performance, personal feud with Pillow, and defeatist attitude doomed the fort. Grant gets complimented for taking the initiative at the battle’s critical moment by authorizing an attack. Finally, Johnston gets the ultimate blame for the Confederacy’s defeat by not paying enough attention to these forts. He never visited these sites himself, which Gott finds inexcusable, and failed to provide a worthy commander to oversee their defenses. Instead, Confederate troops were led by a hodgepodge of leaders including Pillow, Bucker and the hapless John Floyd. These leaders surrendered the fort when, according to Gott, there was really no reason in what he calls “one of the most amazing examples of the collapse of command in the annals of American warfare.”

As one reads this account, it is hard to argue against Forts Henry and Donelson being where the South lost the war. The ineptitude is of an epic nature with major blunder following major blunder. Gott believes it may have even been the most mismanaged affair of the entire war, noting that “there was no other parallel of such incompetence and incapacity.”  The long list of missteps in the campaign is indeed remarkable: building Fort Henry in a low-lying area below the regular high-water mark of the river; launching a successful break-out attack at Donelson but not taking advantage of the opportunity due to the dithering and lack of direction of bumbling leaders; the rush to surrender a post that was still defensible; and a disastrous command structure that failed to provide clear goals or allow for concerted action. The list goes on and on and Gott basically dares readers to find another campaign in the war where worse decisions were made. Gott concludes his study with the ominous comment on wondering how the eventual battle of Shiloh might have concluded had Johnston had the 12,000 men from Donelson under arms rather than languishing in prison camps in the north. Unfortunately, he only had himself to blame. Those Confederate soldiers deserved better. Historians of the war owe it to themselves to read this account and decide for themselves.


Review of The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, by Rick Atkinson

8 Sep

There are some stories in America’s storied past that, even if they have been recounted several times, virtually demand retelling every generation. The incredible saga of the opening years of the Revolutionary War is on that short list. Encompassing the first shots of the war at Lexington and Concord, legendary action at Bunker Hill, dismal setbacks in New York, and a bold and stunning surprise attack at Trenton, the military events of 1775-1777 are at the very heart of American heritage.

Here with a much anticipated account of those pivotal years in the struggle for American independence is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson with The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777. The book is the first of a planned three-volume series on the Revolutionary War from Atkinson, a former journalist who has established himself as among the foremost American writers of non-fiction. His acclaimed “Liberation Trilogy” on World War II (An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, The Guns at Last Light) have been hailed as masterpieces on their subjects. It is a pretty safe bet that his effort at telling the story of America’s birth on the battlefields of the Revolution will soon be receiving the same praise.

In the pages of The British Are Coming (I listened to the audiobook version), Atkinson combines smooth, gripping prose with a depth of knowledge on the people and events of the war to produce one of the more compelling and insightful accounts of the first years of the Revolutionary War. Atkinson places great emphasis on the experience of the men in the ranks and the uncertainty of the venture in which they were engaged. Their endurance of privation, struggle against the odds, and determination in the face of setbacks stand out as key themes throughout the book. Equally so does the fact that morale was not always high in the American army as the setbacks accumulated. The leadership and sheer will of George Washington looms large in Atkinson’s narrative, leaving no doubt how indispensable he was to keeping a somewhat ragtag army together in trying circumstances and wresting victory from what on more than one occasion appeared to be certain defeat.

It is obvious that the British Are Coming tells a story that few historians will find unfamiliar. But the flare Atkinson brings to the task is remarkable, and it is easy to see why it has already become one of the most celebrated books on its subject ever written. Anyone with an interest in American history will enjoy this stellar volume, and will eagerly await the next two in the series.


Review of The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky, by Stuart W. Sanders

1 Sep

Described by one participant as “the first blow which breaks the back of this rebellion,” the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky deserves much more recognition from scholars and laymen alike than it has customarily received. This Union triumph, which tore open the right flank of the Confederacy’s long defensive line from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and set the stage for further Union incursions, has been the subject of very few studies. In truth the battle has been only hazily understood almost since its ending, as it has been referred to over the years by several names including Fishing Creek, Logan’s Crossroads, and of course Mill Springs; few significant Civil War battles have as many unofficial names. As part of the History Press’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Series, author Stuart W. Sanders provides a brief, yet detailed analysis of this crucial battle in The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky.


The right flank of the four hundred mile Confederate defensive position in the winter of 1861-1862 was manned by forces led by George Crittenden and Felix Zollicoffer. After quickly securing the important Cumberland Gap in the fall of 1861, Zollicoffer made the crucial decision to cross the Cumberland River to put pressure on Union forces in the area.  Zollicoffer bungled the exercise, though, establishing a base with his back to the river. It would be only the first of several missteps and unfortunate circumstances which ultimately resulted in both his death and Confederate defeat following the decision to attack Union forces under George Thomas on January 19, 1862.

Confederate forces outnumbered their opponents in the battle, but two main factors led to Union triumph. On repeated occasions, Sanders discusses the impact of faulty Confederate firearms as too many troops were armed with older muskets and flintlocks that functioned poorly in the wet, dreary conditions of the day. Secondly, poor generalship doomed the Confederate assault. No overall direction and strategy was followed and regiments were sent in piecemeal, especially at the start of the fight when an organized assault with adequate numbers might have led to victory. Sanders’s narrative is well written and researched with ample first-hand accounts and quotes from participants of the struggle, but like so many books we have reviewed in this space, there are not enough adequate maps to help readers follow such a detailed account of the battle.

Stuart provides a detailed examination of the death of Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer. Zollicoffer was shot by Union soldiers (supposedly by Union Colonel Speed Fry) as he mistakenly wandered into Union lines during the battle due to the poor weather and a case of uniform misidentification. His corpse was afterward pillaged by souvenir-seeking Union troops. Being the first Confederate general killed in battle in the war, Zollicoffer became known as something of a martyr throughout the South at the time and much of the early efforts at memorializing the battlefield involved the circumstances surrounding his death. Stuart’s analysis of the strategic importance of the battle is strong. The Confederate defeat in eastern Kentucky led to other places like Bowling Green, Kentucky becoming untenable and, combined with disasters at Forts Henry and Donelson, led to a complete collapse of the Confederate line which led to an almost complete evacuation of most of Tennessee. All these roads eventually led from Mill Springs to Shiloh, the Confederacy’s last ditch effort to overcome these early war reverses. The Battle of Mill Springs Kentucky succeeds in providing a concise overview of the battle, but there is a definite need for more studies that not only discuss the fight itself but also give more thought and explanation of the overall context to the central importance of the struggle for territorial control in the western Confederacy.