Archive | February, 2021

Review of War in Kentucky: From Shiloh to Perryville, by James Lee McDonough

23 Feb

“I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky,” is just one of Abraham Lincoln’s memorable quotes. Although sometimes regarded as comical, the remark addressed the critical importance of the Bluegrass state for both the Union and Confederate forces. Southern troops abandoned Kentucky in early 1862 following a string of defeats, but the fall presented the Confederacy an opportunity to reverse the tide of war and reclaim Kentucky. James Lee McDonough describes these events in a fast-moving narrative in his War in Kentucky: From Shiloh to Perryville.

After the crucial battle of Shiloh and capture of Corinth, Mississippi, Union General Henry Halleck faced a choice of several options, any of which would impact the immediate course of the war. He could marshal his forces and attack the important river city at Vicksburg or press the defeated Confederate forces at Tupelo. Instead of these aggressive moves, Halleck opted to strengthen his supply lines and move Don Carlos Buell’s army towards Chattanooga. Lincoln, always concerned with East Tennessee and the plight of the large loyal population there, was pleased, but many historians have since assented that Halleck missed an opportunity and more importantly, yielded the initiative to the Confederate forces. Braxton Bragg quickly transported his troops via rail to Chattanooga to plan an offensive operation with Kirby Smith into Kentucky. The prospects appeared bright for the Confederates, but like in so many cases in the war’s western theater, looks could be deceiving.

The seeds of failure had been planted when Smith and Bragg failed to establish a unified command or clearly defined military objectives.  Smith and Bragg’s forces were supposed to unite as they maneuvered northward, but Smith’s forces proceeded alone. Smith never seemed to want to place his men under Bragg’s command. Smith’s army did win one of the Confederacy’s most complete victories of the war at Richmond, Kentucky, but rather than try to unite with Bragg, he proceeded to Lexington where he hoped to arm thousands of eager Kentuckians for the Confederate cause. Bragg’s men moved through Tennessee and into Kentucky, winning a small affair on the railroad at Munfordville. Here, Bragg also faced a critical decision. His force stood astrideBuell’s supply line to Louisville so he could have held his ground and forced Buell to attack. He could have chosen to march against Louisville itself or try to move towards Smith so they could unite forces. He chose the latter. Again, without any real plan of action, the only objective Smith and Bragg seemed to share was gathering Kentucky troops. McDonough hits hard on their lack of specific goals as being the paramount reason for the campaign’s dismal results.

McDonough is at his best in providing analysis of the commanders and their decisions, whether it is his own or reminding us of those of other historians. Besides faulting the poor Confederate command structure and lack of objectives, he also analyzes Buell’s actions. He faults Buell’s lack of aggressiveness at several turns where decisive action might have meant victory. For instance, he could have moved his forces to block Bragg’s path towards Kentucky, but instead chose to head to Nashville instead. He also points out the many faults of Confederate general Leonidas Polk for not following orders and provides a quote from Bragg biographer Grady McWhiney who stated “Polk probably had been a bishop too long to be a successful subordinate.” 

As the armies came together in the sleepy town of Perryville as they searched for water during a particularly dry season, Buell had an overwhelming numerical superiority and yet only a fraction of his men saw action. The dreaded natural phenomenon known as acoustic shadow prevented the sound of battle from reaching his headquarters a relatively short distance off, but this does not fully explain how Bragg’s men were allowed to maul a lone Union corps while thousands of Federals were within easy distance of providing assistance.  In terms of major Civil War battles, Perryville is one of the smaller ones, but McDonough provides plenty of first-hand accounts attesting to its ferocity. Famed Confederate private Sam Watkins, who fought in almost every battle in the Western Theater and later wrote one of the most-quoted accounts of the war, claimed he was never in “a harder contest and more evenly fought battle than that at Perryville.” Bragg eventually saw he was outnumbered and pulled out. Buell’s lack of aggressiveness eventually cost him his command as Lincoln replaced him shortly afterward.

McDonough states that Bragg’s decision to abandon the campaign after Perryville rather than unite with Smith was another strategic choice which contributed to Confederate failure in Kentucky. Bragg was disheartened with the low numbers of Kentuckians who joined his army and with concerns over supply and the safety of Chattanooga, decided to head south. The grand campaign had concluded without any tangible results for the Confederacy except casualties that could not be replaced and a serious lack of trust in Bragg by his soldiers.

The Confederate Kentucky offensive was one of three in the fall of 1862. Bragg had left Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price in Mississippi with hopes they would march into Tennessee. Those dreams were dashed at Corinth. And of course, Robert E. Lee led the most famous campaign that was halted at Antietam. The Confederate high tide of the fall of 1862 was over once each of these advances were turned back. Interestingly enough, McDonough ends the book with a discussion of Lee fighting at Gettysburg. His point is Lee was trying to win a dramatic victory to overcome the multitude of Confederate defeats in the western theater, defeats that could never be overcome. Lee has been criticized for this maneuver, but McDonough seems to think it was the Confederacy’s best shot by the summer of 1863 considering the string of irreconcilable failures out west. A campaign of complex maneuverings over hundreds of miles of terrain with commanders having to make several critical decisions makes this Civil War campaign one of the more fascinating of the war. McDonough carefully guides the reader through it all, in well-written prose. Antietam gets all the headlines in the fall of 1862, but War in Kentucky makes it clear that it should share the spotlight with events in the Bluegrass.


Review of The Founding of Alabama: Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County, by Frances Cabaniss Roberts

16 Feb

This review was originally published in the January, 2021 issue of The Alabama Review

The extended celebration of the bicentennial of Alabama statehood has yielded a variety of excellent projects celebrating its rich heritage, none dearer to those of us interested in the interpretation of the state’s colorful history than the many great books which have made their appearance during this extravaganza. Especially remarkable in this special effort has been the veritable flood of scholarship which has been published on the state’s early years. This critical formative period had for too long been neglected in Alabama’s historiography, and the rediscovery of its significance sparked by the bicentennial is perhaps one of the celebration’s most substantial impacts. Few bicentennial-inspired books are more deserving of consideration by Alabama historians than one that was actually written over sixty years ago but finally made easily available to the public last year; Frances Cabaniss Roberts’ The Founding of Alabama: Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County.

Roberts was a highly respected historian, author, teacher, and community servant who enjoyed an accomplished career at the University of Alabama’s Huntsville (UAH) campus for over two decades and remained active in local cultural heritage organizations throughout her retirement years. Today the humanities building on the UAH campus, Frances C. Roberts Hall, bears her name. Roberts was the first woman to earn a doctorate in history at the University of Alabama in 1956, with “Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County” her dissertation. Despite never have been published, the manuscript has nonetheless been extraordinarily influential. It has been consulted by generations of historians delving into Alabama’s territorial and early statehood years, and long been recognized as among the definitive sources on the history of the region which is its focus.

As published by the University of Alabama Press in 2019 in attractive hardback form, the book contains an insightful introduction by Thomas Reidy, former lecturer at UAH. Reidy provides some information on the life, accomplishments, and point of view of Dr. Roberts, as well as some contextual background on how the practice of history has changed since the time she penned the dissertation. As he points out candidly, the book can rightfully be characterized as a product of its times, focusing as it does on the progress of white men in developing a “civilized” society which became a dynamic and influential part of the young state of Alabama. There is little discussion of slavery, and the cession of land which made the region’s transformation from Native American domain to American frontier elaborated upon merely is its processes. But this is not an overtly racist book to be disregarded as anachronistic by contemporary researchers. Its focused narrative still stands as the most detailed account of the process of Americanization of the Great Bend of the Tennessee region and it more than makes up for in detail on those events what it might lack in coverage of broader shared experiences.

Readers of The Founding of Alabama will be struck by depth of familiarity with the subject displayed by the author. The book evidences a thorough canvassing of resources on the history of the Madison County area, bringing to light information on the contours of its early development which stand up to scrutiny and remain authoritative in their particulars despite the intervening six decades of scholarship which have added to the story Roberts tells here. Some may also be surprised that Robert’s prose does not read as dated, either. It is straightforward narrative history, chock full of information but admittedly more utilitarian than florid.

Yet this prosaic style and tight focus is exactly what allows the book to still be a valuable contribution to Alabama historiography today. The Founding of Alabama details the development of “The Triangle,” the 345,000 or so acres bordering the Tennessee River in the south and the state boundary in the north, which came into American possession as a result of treaties with the Chickasaws and Cherokee in the early nineteenth century and was formally organized as Madison County in 1808. Since virtually the whole of Alabama’s Tennessee Valley tracks its American origins to this area, its story is in some ways inherently a regional saga in microcosm. Roberts’ narrative chronicles how this land came to play a central role in the development of the valley region and the Mississippi Territory as a whole, introducing readers to a host of speculators, traders, and agriculturalists who figure into the region’s story in the process. All of the events on the standard timeline of regional historical development receive treatment: the various schemes for development of the Tennessee Valley both speculative and extralegal; the distribution and use of land; the rise of an agricultural economy built upon slave labor, the path towards statehood; the Creek War; the Panic of 1819; the so-called Royal Party and the influence of wealthy Georgians in early politics; the formation of government; the establishment of communities, churches, and schools.

The book is vital as a reference source on early Alabama history for casual and professional historians alike and is a veritable treasure trove for geneaologists, as it lists not only prominent individuals but the names of dozens of pioneering merchants, minor officeholders, and early settlers in the Tennessee River region who appear in few other publications. While it does provide some nuggets of information on what life was like for the people whose lives it attempts to chronicle—relating the intriguing connection to the lost state of Franklin among some of Madison County’s founders, the festive atmosphere of militia muster day gatherings and political debates in the territorial and early statehood years, and glimpses at early architecture, for example—this is no cultural history. It is a nuts-and-bolts survey of how Madison County came into being and functioned as a part of the Mississippi Territory and the young state of Alabama. It is important on a local level owing to its richly detailed investigation into Huntsville area history, but it is significant statewide and beyond owing to its focus on a county that wielded disproportionate influence in Alabama’s formative years. Madison County at the time of Alabama statehood paid into the state treasury approximately a quarter of all tax it collected, claimed its largest and fastest-growing population, and was home to a concentration of political power unrivaled elsewhere in the state in the era. The region’s prominence was such that despite being located in its northern extremity, Huntsville hosted the state constitutional convention. The Founding of Alabama, then, is a timely contribution to state history whose publication is long overdue. It merits the attention of all interested in the state’s formative years.


Review of Andrew Jackson: Southerner, by Mark R. Cheathem

9 Feb

Andrew Jackson was a one-of-a-kind in American history whose influence and place in our nation’s political development is still fervently debated nearly two centuries after he last held public office. Jackson represented both the best and worst of the America of his time. As anyone who has ever studied his life in any detail can attest, his experiences can both inspire and revolt us all these many years later. He could be at once the selfless patriot and intrepid warrior and the greedy manipulator and condescending racist. Deciding what about him we should admire and what about the man we should disdain is not a new exercise, as even during his day Jackson was a lightning rod for controversy.

We have come to so associate Jackson with the westward expansion of America and the removal of European influence along and within our borders that we sometimes forget that he was, at heart, a Southerner. Born in the Carolinas, he established himself in Tennessee as a young man and won the fame that would propel him to the presidency in the Gulf South. In essence, historian Mark R. Cheathem claims in his recent book, Andrew Jackson: Southerner, everything about him lay fundamentally associated with the Southern slaveholding aristocracy that he strove to be a part of throughout his life. Only by understanding this basic point about his outlook and aspirations, says Cheathem, can we truly understand what animated him to pursue the course he did in the early nation’s political scene. Understanding Jackson merely as a frontiersman who brought the backwoods of the Old Southwest into the orbit of American ideals, in other words, misses a critical aspect of what made him tick. Cheathem, professor of history at Cumberland University and author of several books on Jackson and the era in which he came to power, is an authority on what we today call “Jacksonian America.” Clearly, his suggestions are worth noting by those of us interested in the time period about which he has devoted so much of his effort during his professional career.

The case Cheathem lays out to support his thesis is rather straightforward. He evaluates Jackson’s rise to prominence in a rough and tumble society which featured duels as almost a matter of course in the evolution of a gentleman. Cheathem follows him on his journeys throughout the Old Southwest and onto his plantation in central Tennessee to observe him as a slaveholder who relished the wealth and social standing the enterprise could bring men of his type during the era. He explores the network of extended kinship he forged and used to help him navigate his way through the political world he hoped to conquer. The end result is a thorough and entertaining biography of Jackson that emphasizes his identification with the Old South a bit more than most and brings to the table a few stories that those only casually familiar with Jackson will likely find new. But does it force a significant reconsideration of the man? I cannot say that it can. As a person who has long studied the era of Jackson’s rise and is familiar with the contours of its historical development, I am well aware of the physical and literal confluence of the Old South and the Old Southwest at the time. Cheathem has certainly highlighted that connection in a unique way and, to his credit, managed to write a solid biography of one of the most written-about figures in American history that truly takes a new approach. I certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in Old Hickory’s life and times, but not necessarily because it helps us understand him as anything more than what most already understand him to be. That is to say, he was an extraordinarily influential and controversial figure who can, as much or more than any other man, be studied as the very embodiment of an age in American history. By approaching the study of Jackson’s life from the slightly different direction Cheathem takes, it only makes his continuing relevance to the American story even more clear.

I should note that I listened to the audiobook version of the book, and have to say that the reader seemed to have little familiarity with the region in which Jackson performed the deeds that made him famous. The names of several people and places are routinely mispronounced, none more grating to the ears of those who know it better than his consistently calling Natchez, “Notches.” It may be a small point for most readers, but one to be aware of if considering the audiobook.


Review of Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy, by Donald Miller

2 Feb

Military Historian J.F.C. Fuller wrote, “Vicksburg, and not Gettysburg, was the crisis of the Confederacy.” (483)  The Vicksburg Campaign during the Civil War has been the subject of many studies and its importance to the conflict has been debated for years. Author Donald Miller has joined the conversation with his account that focuses on the Union perspective of capturing the Confederacy’s key bastion along the Mississippi River.

Miller, the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History Emeritus at Lafayette College, is most known for his works on World War II. He is a self-proclaimed late entrant to Civil War studies, but with Vicksburg, you would never know it. Miller has produced a solid, well-written narrative that covers the complexity of the Vicksburg campaign, that in the author’s mind, began in 1861 with Ulysses S. Grant in Cairo, Illinois. Miller relates early maneuvers such as Grant capturing Paducah, Kentucky, and fighting at Belmont, Missouri, which all contributed to either the eventual capture of Vicksburg or helped forge Grant into the winning general he would one day become. Readers trace Union armies and naval actions at Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Memphis, New Orleans, Iuka, and Corinth as part of the larger strategic endeavor to capture Vicksburg. Miller covers these campaigns expertly without ever getting too detailed and bogging down the reader, a skill unfortunately not all historians possess.

Following these initial episodes, Grant’s attempts to capture the city met with many failures over five months in late 1862 and early 1863. His overland railroad campaign was stymied by Confederate cavalry and his trusted lieutenant William T. Sherman met defeat north of the city at Chickasaw Bayou. These reverses were met with more setbacks as Grant attempted five different maneuvers through bayous and rivers to try to find a way to get his army into position to assault the city. Each attempt failed and left the army as well as the country to wonder if mighty Vicksburg would ever fall.

But eventually, Grant devised the witting strategy by sending his army south of the city and crossing the river in one of the most daring strategic military movements ever made. In eighteen days, his men marched 200 miles, won five battles and bottled up the main Confederate force from which they would not escape. Miller emphasizes that Vicksburg only fell when there was joint army/navy cooperation as the city always seemed to withstand any challenge when the two military arms acted independently. Grant deserves immense credit for the campaign but it would never have happened without the aid of the Union Navy led by David Dixon Porter.

Besides covering the basic military tactical maneuverings, Miller also emphasizes other important elements of this campaign to tell a more complete story. Miller devotes space to detail the struggles with supplying the army as well as the deadly sickness which killed hundreds of Union soldiers forced to camp near swamps and rivers in the spring and summer. Miller also stressed the hardships suffered by white Southerners caught in the Union army’s wake or trapped in Vicksburg during the siege.  Finally, Miller accentuates the massive social upheaval that the Union troop movements caused as hundreds and thousands of slaves broke away from captivity to follow the Union soldiers.

Miller also avoids a common mistake that many writers fall under when writing about an historic figure they obviously respect. Many writers fall into the trap of “hero worship” and fail to point out their subject’s failures and weaknesses. For example, Miller discusses Grant’s mistakes at Fort Donelson and Shiloh and even heavily criticizes Grant for failing to call a truce to allow his dead to be buried who had fallen in front of the Confederate trenches after the failed assaults on Vicksburg on May 19 and 22. He also examines the many occasions when Grant may or may not have overindulged with alcohol during several points of the campaign. Miller objectively lists the evidence in these instances and indicates that in many cases, the facts seem to indicate Grant’s guilt.

All in all, Miller has written a superb overview aimed at a general audience that this reviewer would recommend to anyone seeking one book to learn about this important struggle in capturing one of the South’s most important cities. Although a lengthy read at 500 pages, it does not overwhelm the reader and his prose makes it an easy page turner. The book’s fault is there is not enough information on the Confederate perspective which would have aided the reader in getting a more complete understanding of the campaign from both sides. Miller is to be commended on this work and it is hoped that he does not end his Civil War interest with Vicksburg, but chooses other aspects of our nation’s most important conflict to explore.