Archive | August, 2021

Best Books on the Army of Tennessee

31 Aug

The famous Army of Northern Virginia has garnered a plethora of scholarship over the years. Under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, the South’s premier military force kept hope alive for Confederate independence, even when the war was going badly in other parts of the country. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, its second principal army was the primary reason the South failed to win the war. The Army of Tennessee waged war all across the heartland of the deep South and although their soldiers fought as bravely and were just as determined as their counterparts in Virginia, various factors led to numerous losses and retreats over the years. Here are some of my favorite books that cover the history of the Confederacy’s lesser known fighting force.

Stanley Horn gave us the first (published in 1941) comprehensive view of the army with his aptly titled The Army of Tennessee. Nashville native Horn provided a solid, “top-down” account of the army’s campaigns. New information has been uncovered in the eighty years since it was written, but it did provide a solid narrative of the campaigns and battles and expert analysis of the army’s leadership, which was the primary reason for so many failures. Horn deserves credit for putting the spotlight on the other Confederate force and his book remains a great place for historians and buffs alike to begin a study of the Army of Tennessee. 

Thomas Connelly followed Horn with his masterful two volume narrative Army of the Heartland (1861-1862) and Army of Glory (1862-1865.) Written in the late 60s and early 70s, they remain the definitive study of the Army of Tennessee. Connelly built upon Horn’s work with more research, specifically targeting previously unused manuscript collections. He continued to emphasize leadership failures such as poor decision making and constant bickering and feuds while praising the common soldiers in the command who managed to maintained their own sense of morale and fighting élan even after loss after loss. Readers follow the army from its formation all the way until the last veterans surrendered in North Carolina. Epic narratives of Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, Atlanta and Nashville fly off the page. Connelly’s volumes have a special place in my heart as I felt it equaled what Douglas S. Freeman did for the Army of Northern Virginia in Lee’s Lieutenants. I was always struck by the powerful book cover images showcasing soldiers marching slightly uphill in volume one and then downhill in volume two. Superbly written, the books get my highest recommendation.

Finally, another favorite of mine is Steven Woodworth’s Jefferson Davis and His Generals. The book’s subtitle says it all, The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Rather than a strict narrative of all the battles and campaigns, Woodworth focuses on Jefferson Davis and his relationships with his western generals. His analysis of leadership, relationships and strategy are top notch as the failings of Jefferson Davis rise to the forefront. His clear, succinct writing makes Woodworth one of my favorite historians/writers.

What did I leave out? Don’t hesitate to let me know.


Fort Sumter Tour

24 Aug

This summer I had the opportunity to visit Charleston, South Carolina for the first time. Of course, no one would visit the city and fail to tour the place where the Civil War began, historic Fort Sumter.  A comfortable ferry ride took us out to Charleston Harbor to see the now dilapidated fort, broken down by not only the elements but the harshness of war. I was immediately struck by how the fort’s walls looked so much smaller than many of the images we have seen of the famous bombardment. Built after the War of 1812 to provide security for Charleston, Fort Sumter took decades to construct. At the time of the Civil War, it was still not fully completed.

Following South Carolina’s secession from the Union, U.S. troops determined to hold onto Federal property at Fort Sumter. After months of negotiations, Confederate forces opened bombardment of the fort early on April 12, 1861. It surrendered the next day. Shortly afterward, Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, additional states seceded, and the Civil War had begun. Confederate forces held on to Fort Sumter for the majority of war. The fort withstood several naval attacks but Confederates eventually abandoned Charleston in February 1865 ahead of Union General William Sherman’s onslaught. The fort is like many other brick masonry forts that I have visited over the years, but standing atop its ramparts and looking toward Charleston and the Atlantic provide powerful moments of reflection. Fort Sumter probably deserved to be on my Top Ten Iconic Places List.  Our nation’s bloodiest conflict, its defining moment, started right there. What more needs to be said.


Review of The Lost Colony of the Confederacy, by Eugene C. Harter

17 Aug

In the aftermath of the Civil War, an estimated twenty thousand bitter Confederates sought to flee their devastated homeland and start anew in another country rather than face the prospect of life under the rule of victorious Federal authorities. The reasons for exodus were several. Some hated what they called their “Yankee oppressors,” and feared the political direction of the country after the South’s defeat would be unbearable for them. Some sought to escape possible retribution by the federal government for their participation in the Confederate war effort. Others were driven less by political ideology than poverty, having lost all they had. Brazil, where slavery was still legal at the time and the government encouraged such immigration, the most hardened and desperate Confederates saw an opportunity to continue the lifestyle that had come to a sudden end by military force in the United States. There are multiple accounts of the Confederate colonization attempt in Brazil. I recently listened to an audiobook version of Eugene C. Harter’s The Lost Colony of the Confederacy, a chronicle of the event and its legacy through the eyes of a “Confederado” descendant who grew up in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century.

Harter’s book, originally published in 1985, was among the first books to address this immigration story. At the time, very few people in America had any real knowledge of it. Several books have followed since that time, many based on much more rigorous research but none more personally connected to the story Harter tells. Harter attempts to introduce readers to an almost unknown story by doing several things at once so that the Confederate colony in Brazil is better understood and appreciated as a part of both American and Brazilian history. It seeks to help readers understand the rationale behind and true scale of the Confederate migration, the degree of economic success the emigrants found in their new home, the degree to which the new arrivals fit into Brazilian society, and their legacy in their adopted home country. As might be expected, it accomplishes some of these objectives better than others.

The book is not a thorough analysis of any one part of the broad story it seeks to tell, but rather a series of vignettes addressing the major themes. All are heavily colored by the author’s personal remembrances and family history. They work together to provide a compelling glimpse of a unique cultural enclave where some antebellum Southern traditions were frozen in time on another continent and others curiously blended with Brazilian society to produce a unique and most unexpected hybrid. Harter chronicles how over a century since the Confederate exodus, Southern accents, figures of speech, foodways, and other traditions continue on among a community of people that through decades of intermarriage are now thoroughly Brazilian.

Harter’s account is an almost nostalgic look at the Confederado colony. He points out the group’s contributions to Brazilian society, its acceptance among the larger population and its most visible legacy in the existence of the city of Americana which its members founded, and the ways Confederate heritage is remembered by descendants. He is sympathetic to the plight of those that immigrated and the challenges they had to overcome to thrive in a new country foreign in almost every way to them. He does not give the colonists a pass on the issue of slavery, though, pointing out directly how many Confederados moved to Brazil precisely because slavery was still legal there at the time. He explains, however, that in their adopted home the former Confederates were unable to duplicate the race-based society they had left in the South. In Brazil they encountered what was at first a bewildering social arrangement in which skin color amounted to very little as far as social hierarchy and the institution of slavery would soon be banned. The fact that they continued on and persisted in creating a community which today still proudly remembers its Southern American heritage is an intriguing story. Harter does not flesh out all of its details, but achieves well his goal of introducing readers to it. The Lost Colony of the Confederacy is far from the definitive account of its subject, but well worth a read if you have an interest in this peculiar immigration story.


Review of Such a Woman: The Life of Madame Octavia Walton LeVert, by Paula Lenor Webb

10 Aug

The name Octavia Walton LeVert is integrally associated with the social life of antebellum Mobile. A near-mythical figure in local history whose famed salons seemingly single-handedly yielded the nineteenth-century city a legendary societal scene, LeVert appears in countless descriptions of the era and her name was recalled by dozens of visitors to the city during her years of residence. One might fairly describe LeVert’s home as one of the primary attractions in antebellum Mobile—a place where noted authors, politicians, and distinguished guests were extended the city’s unofficial welcome and introduced to local movers and shakers. Despite the familiarity of her name to readers of Alabama history, however, relatively little has been written about LeVert’s personal life. In truth, we barely know her beyond her reputation. Here to introduce modern readers to a woman to whom so many were introduced during her time is Paula Lenor Webb with a biography of one of the antebellum South’s most celebrated female figures in Such a Woman: The Life of Madame Octavia Walton LeVert.

Webb is a librarian at the University of South Alabama and veteran researcher into Mobile’s storied history. As we noted here in this blog, her first book, Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade (2016), made a welcome contribution to our understanding of the city during the Civil War. With Such a Woman, a labor of love years in the making, Webb offers the first comprehensive biography of her subject and again makes a noteworthy contribution to Mobile-area history. But because LeVert’s renown extended far beyond the port city, the book will ultimately be of use of those interested in the past of the many places with which she is associated.

Born in Georgia and growing up in Florida, LeVert was the granddaughter of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the daughter of the first Secretary for the Florida Territory. She spent most of her adult years in Mobile, but also had brief stays in other locations such as New York and Washington, D.C. LeVert was one of the most famous socialites of her day, able to translate her family’s social prominence, a reputation as a conversationalist owing to her in-depth knowledge on a range of subjects, her special facility with multiple European languages, and a rare charm into a career as a social influencer some two centuries before the coining of the term. Her writings, most notably including her book Souvenirs of Travel, made her among the leading female authors of her time. She became a correspondent of the likes of statesman Henry Clay, President Millard Fillmore, author Washington Irving, and international literary figure Frederika Bremer, and seemed to be able to gain entry with any audience she desired in the prime of her life. Such was her fame that on her tours of Europe, she became something of an unofficial American diplomat. Back in the states, she used her status to, among other things, become a key player in the movement to preserve George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, as a national shrine. Yet for all of her triumphs, LeVert’s life featured its share of tragedies. She endured the loss of three children and her husband in addition to her brother and parents, and in her last years struggled financially.

Webb’s treatment of LeVert’s remarkable life is thoroughly researched, evidencing a diligent quest for seemingly every shred of information on her along the Gulf Coast, the eastern seaboard, and in her travels across the Atlantic. Webb manages to turn hundreds of bits and pieces of often incomplete information only hinting at LeVert’s presence in a given location into a coherent narrative of her life in her narrative. This is no mean feat, and one made possible only by her thorough knowledge of her subject, the historiography mentioning her, and her attempt to visit many of the locations frequented by LeVert during the course of her research. Such a Woman is a colorful biographical portrait that is at once entertaining and intensely personal, and will surely be of interest to readers of Mobile and Gulf Coast history.


Review of General James Longstreet in the West: A Monumental Failure, by Judith Lee Hallock

3 Aug

In the fall of 1863 the Confederacy made a desperate gamble to shore up its flagging hopes by sending a detachment of troops from its most successful army in the east to the aid of its beleaguered primary force in the west. The idea had been floated frequently prior, but owing to a variety of reasons including a myopic concern for the safety of Richmond and General Robert E. Lee’s reluctance to part with any of his forces, it was repeatedly postponed. When the plan was finally agreed to, the man chosen to head west with a corps of the Army of Northern Virginia to help the hard luck Army of Tennessee was General James A. Longstreet. Chronicling the general’s short-lived stay in this pivotal theater of the war is Judith Hallock’s brief book, General James Longstreet in the West: A Monumental Failure. The book first appeared in 1998 as part of the McWhiney Foundation Press’s Civil War Campaigns and Commanders Series.

As the title implies, Hallock is brutal in her assessment of Longstreet’s shortcomings in the western assignment. She refers to his noted success at Chickamauga, in which he attacked the Union line precisely where a gap had opened and turned the tide of the battle, as a “lucky break.” (84) Hallock notes that after that stunning strike he had “no successes whatever” in the west. “(84) At both Chattanooga and during the operations at Knoxville,” she goes further, “Longstreet displayed his lack of moral courage by trying to blame others when his own failures led to defeat. The entire campaign through East Tennessee demonstrated his inability to coordinate an offensive.” (84) Throughout the book, she calls attention to Longstreet’s persistent refusal to follow orders, his inability to understand obvious military necessities, and his penchant for debilitating indecision.

In truth it is hard to argue with many of the basic facts about the results of the actions described in the book, as Longstreet did in fact have luck on his side in Chickamauga, turned in an objectively poor performance at Chattanooga, and bungled his way into an unabashed debacle at Knoxville. By any measure, the effort to have Longstreet’s corps revive Confederate hopes in the west went for naught. Still, the spirit and tone of the book is unusually personal and biased in its antagonism to Longstreet. Relatively little context is provided for any of the campaigns—crucial information that might help readers better understand the failures in which Longstreet was involved were a group effort by a dysfunctional Rebel high command. There are numerous times in which for evidence supporting her assessment of Longstreet’s shortcomings relies on the observations not of military peers but of civilians such as Mary Chesnut.

The blanket condemnation of the general contained in the pages of this volume is perhaps the most selective in terms of evidence and conclusions one will find. If you want a quick summary of just how ineffective was the effort to send Longstreet west, this book is a virtual bullet point list of failure. If you are seeking a thorough and balanced account of how the results of the campaigning at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Knoxville figured into Confederate defeat and all the factors involved in these episodes, look elsewhere.