A Review of Justice in Blue and Gray by Stephen C. Neff

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013, All Rights Reserved

Every now and then I get into arguments with people about the law of war.

“There’s no such thing as the law of war,” they say (or words to that effect). “War is hell. Anything goes. The only thing that matters is winning.”

“Oh, really?” I reply. “So you’d have no problem with, say, an officer ordering his men to kill all the unarmed civilians in a foreign town they occupy after it surrenders? Or, as a matter of policy, to always shoot prisoners after they surrender? Or work them to death in a concentration camp? Or torture or rape them? That’d all be fine, right, because there’s no law of war?”

“Uh…no,” they reply.

Clearly there is a law of war – but just how widely observed it is, and just how effective it actually is, varies from war to war. In Justice in Blue and Gray: A Legal History of the Civil War, Scottish legal scholar Stephen C. Neff explores the law of war as it existed and was honored, or more than occasionally breached, during the American Civil War.

Both the United States, as a republic under the rule of law, and the Confederate States, as a group of states attempting to secede from that republic and win independence in its own right, intended from the outset to wage war within the bounds of the law as it was then understood. Both wanted to maintain domestic support and win international backing, and being perceived as lawless or ruthlessly unprincipled would not be helpful in achieving those goals.

The most influential source on the law of war in 1861 was the Swiss writer Emmerich de Vattel. His 1758 book The Law of Nations was a key early statement of the law of war (including civil war) and international relations. Henry W. Halleck (yes, that Henry W. Halleck) wrote the treatise International Law, or Rules Regulating the Intercourse of States in Peace and War in 1861, further refining and updating Vattel’s arguments. The Lieber Code, written at Halleck’s request by expatriate Prussian lawyer Francis Lieber, guided U.S. military legal policy during the Civil War, and it, in turn, had a major impact on the development of the Hague Rules, which to this day provide the framework for the international law of war.

Neff writes, “It is…interesting, and ironic, that neither side in the great struggle of 1861-1865 regarded the contest as a civil war. The North regarded it as a law-enforcement enterprise, as the subduing of a rebellion (albeit on a large material scale), rather than as a war. The South regarded it as a war, but not a civil war, since it saw itself as an independent nation.” The Provisional Confederate Congress actually passed a declaration of war on May 6, 1861, but the U.S. Congress never did.

On the legal front, at least, the U.S. had a somewhat schizophrenic approach to the war. President Abraham Lincoln, a skilled lawyer but with no previous experience in the law of war, would use his country’s belligerent rights, those arising under the international law of war, as he saw fit when it was in the national interest to do so, but would also use its sovereign rights, those arising under the Constitution and the peacetime law of the land, when those best fit the situation. Neff writes, “On the field of battle, [the United States] acted as a belligerent. Off that field, however, it acted as a sovereign…and courts generally supported this stance.”

Neff is very thorough. He explores the prewar legal nature of the United States (was it, as George Washington wrote, “an indissoluble Union of the states…[bound] by a chain which never can be broken,” or, as secessionists argued, a compact which could be dissolved by any state which so desired?); the exercise of emergency powers; guerilla warfare, espionage, and the targeting of civilian populations; the occupation of enemy territory, terrorism, reprisals, and the confiscation of private property, either to support one’s own military efforts or to punish foes; slavery and emancipation; and civil liberties, treason, martial law, habeas corpus, prisoners of war, and military tribunals. The author notes that Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz was not, as is commonly thought, the only person tried for war crimes during the rebellion; Confederate guerilla Champ Ferguson (convicted and executed) and Brig. Gen. Hugh W. Mercer (tried and acquitted) also were. There is a lot on Neff’s plate, including the many legal issues surrounding the Lincoln assassination conspiracy, but he handles it all clearly and concisely.

The author knows his stuff, and sprinkles interesting factoids throughout: The Empire of Brazil and the Kingdom of Hawaii both declared their neutrality during the Civil War. Robert E. Lee did not approve of Confederate partisan activity, which he said “gives license to many deserters and marauders [who] commit depredations on friend and foe alike.” Congress wrestled with whether or how to seat those elected from occupied, pro-Union areas of Southern states; two Congressmen from Virginia were refused their seats in the U.S. House of Representatives when it was learned that they had won with just 25 and 10 votes, respectively – not their winning margins, mind you, but the total number of votes cast in those elections. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (at Harpers Ferry, VA) and Flag Officer David G. Farragut (at Donaldsville, LA) both ordered the widespread destruction of enemy property before Sherman ever did. In 1867, a man argued that he could not be tried for bigamy, since his second wartime wedding had been under the pro-Confederate state government’s laws; the Supreme Court of Virginia said, in essence, “Nice try.”

The Civil War cast a long shadow over American law for many years to come. Claims for compensation for captured or abandoned property were presented decades after the guns fell silent, with the U.S. Supreme Court dealing with one such case as late as 1921. Pensions were paid to soldiers and their next of kin through 1958. And you may be surprised, as I was, to learn how many of the war’s legal questions are still not entirely answered. Neff notes that many of them gained new salience with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the beginning of the War on Terror.

In the end, the verdict of the Civil War battlefield was more important than the pronouncement of any lawyer, magistrate, or judge, and history has since largely vindicated what Neff calls the Lincoln Administration’s “legally adventurous” approach to the conflict. Despite too many typos and a handful of minor factual errors, Justice in Blue and Gray: A Legal History of the Civil War is an interesting and in-depth exploration of the war’s legal issues, and I recommend it.


Justice in Blue and Gray: A Legal History of the Civil War by Stephen C. Neff

From the publisher: Stephen Neff offers the first comprehensive study of the wide range of legal issues arising from the American Civil War, many of which resonate in debates to this day.

Neff examines the lawfulness of secession, executive and legislative governmental powers, and laws governing the conduct of war. Whether the United States acted as a sovereign or a belligerent had legal consequences, including treating Confederates as rebellious citizens or foreign nationals in war. Property questions played a key role, especially when it came to the process of emancipation. Executive detentions and trials by military commissions tested civil liberties, and the end of the war produced a raft of issues on the status of the Southern states, the legality of Confederate acts, clemency, and compensation. A compelling aspect of the book is the inclusion of international law, as Neff situates the conflict within the general laws of war and details neutrality issues, where the Civil War broke important new legal ground.

This book not only provides an accessible and informative legal portrait of this critical period but also illuminates how legal issues arise in a time of crisis, what impact they have, and how courts attempt to resolve them.

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George H. Thomas Gets What’s Coming to Him — A Review of Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011, All Rights Reserved

George H. Thomas gets what’s coming to him. A thorough but readable new biography, that is! Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas by Benson Bobrick is worth a look for anyone who wants to know more about Gen. George Henry Thomas. “The Rock of Chickamauga” was one of the greatest Union commanders of the Civil War, but has too long been lost in the shadows cast by U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Phil Sheridan.

George H. Thomas

Bobrick is clearly an admirer of Thomas, and it shows. From the outset, he notes Thomas’ consistent record of battlefield leadership, most notably at Mill Springs, Corinth, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Nashville. Even when the generals under whom he served lost battles, “Pap” Thomas proved his steadfast courage and absolute reliability. Of all his peers in the pantheon of leaders in blue, Bobrick notes, “Thomas was the only Union general to destroy two Confederate armies, and the only one…to save two Union armies from annihilation by his personal valor and skill.”

Although Thomas was in some ways a stolid and unflashy figure, the author humanizes him. Born and raised in rural Southampton County, Virginia, Thomas at age fifteen helped save his family from Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising. Five years later he was appointed by a fellow Southerner, President Andrew Jackson, to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he befriended Sherman, Oliver O. Howard, and William S. Rosecrans. Early on, he showed the good judgment, attention to detail, and the innate intelligence that would serve him well in his Army career. He was brevetted three times in seven years, including during the Mexican War.

Fortunately for the nation as secession fever swept the South, Thomas proved immune. According to a friend, Thomas “denounced the idea [of secession] and denied the necessity of dividing the country or destroying the government.” He wrote to his wife Frances, “Whichever way I turned the matter over in my mind, my oath of allegiance to my Government always came uppermost.” (Would that Lee, Jackson, Longstreet & Co. had decided likewise!) Thomas nevertheless had to repeatedly prove his loyalty to the Union in the early days of the Civil War, swearing no less than three oaths in the span of ten days. Perhaps understanding the suspicions of his superiors, Thomas didn’t seem to mind. He told a fellow officer, “If they want me to take the oath before each meal I am ready to comply.” In years to come, Thomas was compared repeatedly by his contemporaries (including Sherman, Howard, James Garfield, and William Rosecrans) to another military Virginian of impeccable standing who placed loyalty to the United States over that of his home state: George Washington.

Once at the front, Thomas’ star began its steady rise. Bobrick praises Thomas’ inspirational effect on his troops, tactical skill, mastery of logistics, care in preparing for battle, and – different from far too many of his peers – his utter unwillingness to throw his men’s lives away in foolish or hasty attacks. But the author does not stop there, also highlighting Thomas’ personal courage, knowledge of military law, modesty, patience, religious faith, and even his kindness to animals. (A goose and a “sleek cat” were among his headquarters menagerie by the end of the war.) His leadership and his record of getting results drew the attention of Lincoln and his advisors. Three days after Thomas saved the day at Chickamauga, the president wrote, “It is doubtful whether his heroism and skill…has ever been surpassed in the world.” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase also became admirers.

A “practical” and not an idealistic abolitionist, Bobrick writes, Thomas became one of the top advocates for the use of U.S. Colored Troops, unlike Sherman. When a captured Confederate officer turned up his nose at his USCT guards, saying, “I’d rather die than be taken into custody by nigger troops,” Thomas snapped, “Well, then, you’d better get ready to die, because these are the best men I’ve got!” Bobrick squarely addresses and dismisses the hoary criticism of Thomas for being too slow, quoting Bruce Catton (“There was nothing slow about Thomas”) and grudging praise on that point by Confederate generals including Stephen D. Lee and D.H. Maury. John Bell Hood met Thomas in 1866, just two years after Thomas had smashed his army at Nashville, and said to a friend afterwards, “Thomas is a grand man; he should have remained with us, where he would have been appreciated and loved.”

Why is Thomas still not given his proper and honored place in Civil War history? Bobrick unhesitatingly lays the blame at the feet of Grant and Sherman, who, he writes, did all they could to undercut him in their dispatches, correspondence, and memoirs. (Thomas never wrote his own memoirs, which surely must be a factor in his lower profile today.) Unfortunately, perhaps as a means of polishing Thomas’ laurels to an even brighter luster, I think the author goes overboard in his condemnation of Grant and Sherman. He writes that Grant, “however capable in some respects, remained small-minded, devious and (with interludes) a heavy drinker to the end,” was “next to insane,” and that his orders led to “butchery.” Sherman, although acknowledged as an early advocate for Thomas at the War Department, later becomes, in the author’s view, “neurotic,” “unhinged,” “unstable throughout his career,” and “arguably incompetent.” Bobrick is convinced that Grant and Sherman actively and persistently conspired to hurt Thomas’ career, and there is thus an unfortunate and, I think, largely unjustified air of paranoia that hangs over his discussion of the two.

Although a noteworthy flaw, this does not detract too much from the overall value of the book, which I recommend to anyone wishing to learn more about this fascinating but still underappreciated general. “Time and history will do me justice,” Thomas once said, and Master of War is one more important step along the path to proving him right.


Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas by Benson Bobrick

From the publisher: In this revelatory, dynamic biography, one of our finest historians, Benson Bobrick, profiles George H. Thomas, arguing that he was the greatest and most successful general of the Civil War. Because Thomas didn’t live to write his memoirs, his reputation has been largely shaped by others, most notably Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, two generals with whom Thomas served and who, Bobrick says, diminished his successes in their favor in their own memoirs.

Throughout his career, Thomas was methodical and careful, and always prepared. Unlike Grant at Shiloh, he was never surprised by an enemy. Unlike Sherman, he never panicked in battle but always remained calm and focused. He was derided by both men as “Slow Trot Thomas,” but as Bobrick shows in this brilliant biography, he was quick to analyze every situation and always knew what to do and when to do it. He was not colorful like Grant and Sherman, but he was widely admired by his peers, and some, such as Grant’s favorite cavalry commander, General James H. Wilson, thought Thomas the peer of any general in either army. He was the only Union commander to destroy two Confederate armies in the field.

Although historians of the Civil War have always regarded Thomas highly, he has never captured the public imagination, perhaps because he has lacked an outstanding biographer — until now. This informed, judicious, and lucid biography at last gives Thomas his due.

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A Review of The West Point History of the Civil War

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved

Who better to write a book about the Civil War than the faculty of the U.S. Military Academy? Well… yes and no.

The West Point History of the Civil War, edited by Clifford J. Rogers, Ty Seidule, and Samuel J. Watson, is a big, handsomely illustrated book. Intended to be the first in a series of authoritative, West Point-approved books on our country’s major wars, it is an impressive – but far from flawless – volume.

The book was excerpted from a 71-chapter text used to teach the Civil War to cadets, and then tested and improved by feedback from faculty and cadets. It embodies a longstanding West Point boast, “Much of the history we teach was made by the people we taught.”

The early days of the Civil War were not easy ones for West Point. Although Cadet J.E.B. Stuart (Class of 1854) had praised the nationalizing influence of the school and said there was “no North and no South” among the cadets while he studied there, by 1859 the sectional divide had become stark. One observer said the Corps of Cadets had split “into two parties, hostile in sentiment and even divided in barracks.” Southern cadets burned President-elect Abraham Lincoln in effigy in late 1860. The first cadet left to serve the Confederacy on November 19, 1860, just weeks after election day. When high-profile graduates and faculty such as Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard went south, critics in Congress blasted West Point as a breeding ground of traitors. Sen. “Bluff Ben” Wade of Ohio declared that “you can hardly find a graduate of West Point who is not heartily now the supporter of southern independence… the whole batch were imbued with…secession doctrine.” Bills were actually twice brought to the floor of Congress to cut off all funding and close the school. The Academy survived, but Congress imposed a new loyalty oath that is still used to this day.

Cadets at West Point, 1865

I was pleasantly surprised that the book goes into considerable detail on the political, economic, and social roots of the Civil War. Once the war begins, there are excellent graphics on the structure and composition of the armies. Important leaders in gray and blue are profiled in brief but engaging biographical sidebars. The authors thoroughly explore politics, logistics, recruiting, contrabands, military discipline, conscription, communications, and other key issues. Members of the West Point faculty contributed meaty chapters on the origins of the war, the campaigns in the east and the west, coordinated strategy and “hard war,” the end of the war, and the ugly postwar realities of Reconstruction (which is especially well-covered) and Jim Crow. I found Prof. James K. Hogue’s chapter on why the U.S. won and the Confederacy lost to be particularly incisive and well-written. He makes an excellent case for the proposition – first suggested by Gary Gallagher – that we shouldn’t now ask why the Confederacy didn’t win, but rather, how was it able to last so long?

Soldiers live and die by maps, and the maps in this book are, as you might expect from a West Point project, almost uniformly excellent. There are both tactical and strategic maps as well as foldout maps for such crucial battles as Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga.

It is not a perfect book, however. Its coverage of the Trent Affair is somewhat repetitious. Stonewall Jackson is incorrectly implied to have been killed by Federal troops’ fire. The authors repeat the old myth that Confederate troops came into Gettysburg looking for shoes on July 1, 1863. There are minor but troubling contradictions sprinkled throughout the text. The 1st Minnesota’s battlefield losses at Gettysburg are said to be 82%, then 80% just three pages later. In the span of another three pages, Grant is said to have had either 36,000, 45,000, or 49,000 troops during the Vicksburg campaign. Sherman’s March to the Sea is variously described as having begun on either Nov. 12, 14, or 15, 1864, and there are just too many other minor errors scattered throughout. The 432-page-long book’s photo and illustration credits are also very poorly formatted, making it difficult to figure out their sources. Even the remarkable maps have their problems – the First Bull Run map, for instance, shows Washington, D.C.’s boundaries as a square, even though the southwestern part of the district had been retroceded to Virginia in 1846.

Still, despite these unfortunate shortcomings, The West Point History of the Civil War is an interesting and engaging way to learn about how Academy graduates such as Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and Sheridan won the war, even as other graduates named Davis, Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet did their best to keep them from doing so. West Pointers, Prof. Charles Larned of the Academy’s faculty later rightly said, had played an outsized role in the Civil War, giving their all in a “mighty struggle for principle, which freed a race and welded a nation.”


The West Point History of the Civil War edited by Clifford J. Rogers, Ty Seidule, and Samuel J. Watson

From the publisher: The definitive military history of the Civil War, featuring the same exclusive images, tactical maps, and expert analysis commissioned by The United States Military Academy to teach the history of the art of war to West Point cadets.

The United States Military Academy at West Point is the gold standard for military history and the operational art of war. West Point has created military history texts for its cadets since 1836. For the first time in over 40 years, the United States Military Academy has authorized a new military history series that will bear the name West Point. That text has been updated repeatedly, but now it has been completely rewritten and The West Point History of the Civil War is the first volume to result in a new series of military histories authorized by West Point.

The West Point History of the Civil War combines the expertise of preeminent historians commissioned by West Point, hundreds of maps uniquely created by cartographers under West Point’s direction, and hundreds of images, many created for this volume or selected from West Point archives. Offering careful analysis of the political context of military decisions, The West Point History of the Civil War is singularly brilliant at introducing the generals and officer corps of both Union and Confederacy, while explaining the tactics, decisions, and consequences of individual battles and the ebb and flow of the war.

Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.

A Review of How Robert E Lee Lost The Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

By Stuart Kay
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

Robert E. Lee

The number of books published concerning the Civil War or some aspect of that conflict is staggering. Books continue to appear on a regular basis which shows no sign of diminishing in the foreseeable future. Even here in England a quick tour of my local book shop revealed no fewer than 28 Civil War and related titles. For this reason, without extensive research of primary material, it is very hard for an author to come up with anything that has not been covered before. The potential author is therefore faced with conducting painstaking primary research, covering a less prominent aspect of the conflict, or, alternatively places a novel interpretation on existing well-covered fields of research, in an attempt to distinguish their book from all the others on the shelf. Edward Bonekemper’s book is clearly one of the latter.

The author is quite clear in his introduction to How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War that the aim of the book is to place a new interpretation on the contribution of Robert Lee to the Confederate cause. In 248 pages he goes at this aim with relish. Although the title of the book being what it is, the student of military history will be aware before they open the cover that whatever the merits of the book are, objectivity is not going to be one of them.

The book is written in a fairly brisk manner that flows quite well and does not get bogged down in excessive detail, although the reason for this will quickly become apparent. A minor criticism is the use of belittling language throughout the book, such as “an obvious choice…”, “as usual for Lee he…” And “instead of simply…” although in the grand scheme of the book this is a minor problem.

Before going on to address the main body of the book, it might be well to just state that I write this review not as a rebuttal to the author’s claims, but as an assessment of its value as a fair conclusion to arrive at when reviewing all the facts. In doing so I do not intend to whitewash Robert Lee; that he made mistakes, sometimes costly ones is undeniable. The body of recent literature is clear in moving away from his earlier portrayal in the “Lost Cause” style of early post-war portrayals of him. Furthermore, I must point out I’m not a Southerner. I’m not even an American, although I must admit to being an admirer of Lee and his campaigns. I have no national or State allegiance to push, although I should go on record as saying my best friend is a Virginian (albeit one married to an Ohio girl and now living in Dayton) and the source of my initial fascination with the Civil War. I do not intend to influence any potential reader as to the right or wrong of this book. I believe any serious student of the Civil War or military history is quite capable of making their own minds up.

The main question to be addressed is to what extent the claim of the author is based on sound constructive evidence, objectively considered? The observant will note that I do not state the conclusion of the author, as it is quite apparent that the book’s conclusion came first and the body of the book written to support that conclusion. It is also quite apparent that Edward Bonekemper is a lawyer; he builds a case for the prosecution while ignoring or minimizing all contrary evidence, leaving that to the defense.

All writers of military history are to some extent reliant on hindsight; it is the nature of the game so to speak. However, whilst hindsight may well help to show how things happened, it is rarely a useful guide as to why. A General in any war is required to make decisions on the spot, often at times of great stress and confusion. He will make these decisions on information and facts known to him at the time. Often it will turn out that the information he does have is wrong. The General does not have the luxury of knowing what happened before he reaches his decision. As already mentioned above, the author is prone to statements that things were either obvious or there being a simpler way of doing them. It is a weakness of the book that having said this he does not investigate why, if a simpler alternative was so obvious, Lee did not take it. Throughout the book no consideration is given to the fact that what might appear obvious to the historian sitting in the comfort of his study with all the facts to hand, might not be so obvious to the General in the field in the heat of battle.

Many of the decisions made by Lee and others are presented in the book without any reference to external factors. Military action does not occur in a vacuum, and the reason for doing something or the way that it is done can come down to other factors. There is no assessment of what was intended, what was hoped to be achieved, or the factors influencing them.

It is a maxim of historical study that an accusation should not just be made, it must be proven. Throughout the book facts and accusations are made but not investigated or proven. For example, the often made claim that Lee over-concentrated on the Virginia theatre at the expense of the whole is again made. The author is not the first or last to make this statement. However, there is no investigation or assessment of the strategic value of Virginia. No attempt is made to demonstrate Virginia’s relevance or otherwise to the Confederate cause. Likewise, Lee’s position as senior military advisor to President Davis is not assessed for the reality of the position, but is stated at face value. On a similar vein, there is no discussion as to whether Lee, after the dispatch west of the large forces the author states should have been sent there, would have retained sufficient numbers to defend Virginia. Furthermore, there is no consideration given to the logistics of supplying large additional forces in the West, where the Confederacy struggled to support the forces that it did have there.

The more serious reader with more than a glancing knowledge of military affairs will be quickly aware that the author’s lack of understanding of military maxims or his decision to ignore them is unsupportive of his argument. There is no consideration given to the importance of initiative, that often attack is the best form of defense, concentration of resources, or, most importantly, that military actions are difficult! It is a well-known statement that no plan survives contact with the enemy. It is very rare indeed for an opposing force to sit still and comply exactly with how the plan requires them to. The enemy is trying to win as much as you are. Too much of this book is concerned with plans not going entirely to plan and sometimes not at all. This can be the fault of the Generals, but not entirely and rarely exclusively.

Alarm bells will quickly sound in the head of the objective reader when they start to encounter the author’s description of the battles, themselves, and the planning for them. The serious reader will quickly spot that a fair amount of misrepresentation in their description is involved, and the narrative includes a fair amount of what we would today call “spin.” This occurs from the start; for example, the Mechanicsville battle in its description is written in a way to suggest that Lee devised an over-complicated plan to launch a series of frontal attacks. The serious student is aware of the fact that the hoped-for result of the complicated approach march was to obtain the objective by maneuver. Worryingly, at least three of the books listed in the book’s bibliography make this abundantly clear.

Putting to one side the glaringly obvious weaknesses in the author’s portrayal of events and lack of contextual presentation for a moment, the serious historian confronting the book’s main contention, that Lee should have known that the South’s best chance of victory lay in Lincoln’s electoral defeat in 1864, I have two observations.

Firstly, hindsight is the basis of this position. Although, as the author quite rightly points out, Lincoln’s potential electoral defeat was well-known in the South as a chance of victory, it is hindsight that leads the author to claim it as the best chance. The author’s claim that Lee ignored this and went for the win instead is quite puzzling; after all, logically, isn’t a General who is not trying to win, surely trying to lose? Furthermore, no explanation is given as to why Confederate strategy, as the inferior power, should have obviously adopted a strategy of endurance.

Secondly, and quite probably the most obvious weakness of this book, the objective reader will note that the author fails to even justify his own recommendations. Adoption of a passive defense in Virginia with a transfer of forces to the West would have required the South to gradually retreat south, abandoning the economically vital Upper South. The well-informed reader will immediately ask why, with her armies deep in the Southern heartland earlier, with tangible results to show for the cost in lives, and success more easily discernable, would the Northern population be more demoralized and inclined to elect a peace-at-any-cost president in 1864?

The author’s opinions as to Lee resigning once “defeat became obvious” shows a clear lack of understanding of the main subject of the book: Robert Lee, himself, and of Western military convention. It has long been standard in Western armies that whilst a General may offer his resignation, if it is not accepted, he will continue. This is because, in a Western army, whilst a General has the right to resign, his men do not, and as a result Generals have traditionally considered resignation in wartime to be desertion. To suggest that Lee should have done what he would undoubtedly have considered tantamount to desertion and abandoning his post shows a worryingly lack of knowledge about General Lee.

On the plus side, the book does contain some useful statistics in regard to casualties. In many ways casualty statistics are what the book boils down to. The casualty figures reveal the terrible cost of the Civil War in particular and warfare in general. Warfare is risky. If you do not want to suffer casualties, then do not fight wars. As is the case with the rest of the book, the author does, of course, view them as an abstract and not in conjunction with any other factors. It should always be borne in mind that no matter how thorough or clever the plan or maneuver, there will always ultimately come a point when the infantry must advance and engage the enemy. The historian is well aware of the shortcomings of basing any argument purely on statistics, especially when they are viewed out of context of all other consideration and influence on events.

In summary, the author has produced a book based on misrepresentation, selective quotations, statistics, and misunderstanding to support an argument not fully thought through or presented. Whilst the casual reader may find it useful, the more serious or objective student of the Civil War or military historian will quite quickly observe that it is not based upon a realistic assessment of the situation or factors at the time. Whatever the rights or wrongs of his argument, the author has failed to present a credible argument in this book.


How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

From the publisher: This book challenges the general view that Robert E. Lee was a military genius who staved off inevitable Confederate defeat against insurmountable odds. Instead, the author contends that Lee was primarily responsible for the South’s loss in a war it could have won.

His theory: The North had the burden of conquering the South, a huge defensible area consisting of eleven states. The South only had to play for a tie and only had to wear down the Northern will to win (as insurgents did against superior forces in the American Revolution, the Chinese Communist takeover of China, and the Vietnam War). Specifically, the South had to hold on to its precious manpower resources and convince the North to vote Lincoln out of office in 1864.

Instead, Lee unnecessarily went for the win, squandered his irreplaceable troops, and weakened his army so badly that military defeat became inevitable. Lee’s army took 80,000 casualties in his first 14 months of command-the same number of troops he inherited when he took command. Also noteworthy are Lee’s failure to take charge of the battlefield (such as the second day of Gettysburg), his overly complex and ineffective battle plans (such as the Antietam and Seven Days’ campaigns), and his vague and ambiguous orders (such as those that deprived him of Jeb Stuart’s services for most of Gettysburg).

Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.

A Review of The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013, All Rights Reserved

Prolific writer Jennifer Chiaverini has been best known for her Elm Creek Quilts series. It includes two Civil War related books: The Union Quilters and The Runaway Quilt. Chiaverini has also written a Civil War novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, about Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave dressmaker in Washington City who became close to Mary Todd Lincoln (and President Lincoln). This novel focuses on the relationship between these two women.

The Spymistress is Chiaverini’s twenty-second novel. It focuses on the amazing life of another woman – Elizabeth Van Lew. A Virginian born into a wealthy Richmond family opposed to slavery, she was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia. After the death of her father in 1843, the family privately freed their nine slaves. Living with her widowed mother in a prestigious Richmond neighborhood, both were pro-Union and disheartened by Virginia’s secession in 1861. While Elizabeth’s brother, John, was also pro-Union, he was married to an ardent pro-Confederate.

Elizabeth Van Lew

The novel follows Elizabeth and other pro-Union Richmonders who joined her in helping the Union, including the formation of a spy ring. Overcoming the opposition of Lt. David Todd, the jailor of the Libby Prison (and Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-brother), Elizabeth carried food, medicine, and other materials to the imprisoned Union officers held in this former tobacco warehouse. She cultivated Gen. John Winder, in charge of the Richmond P.O.W. camps, on the grounds of providing Christian charity to Union captives whose conditions were horrific (despite Confederate disclaimers of abuse). This gained her an unfavorable reputation among her neighbors, which she tried to allay by showing a similar concern for wounded Confederate soldiers.

After gaining access to the jailed prisoners (often by either offering food or bribes to their guards), she began to smuggle information out of Libby Prison. This led to the formation of an underground spy ring to provide the Union army with important information about Confederate war policy and troop alignments. Van Lew scored her greatest success by planting Mary Bowser, a former servant, in the Confederate White House as a member of President Jefferson Davis’ household staff. Gen. Ben Butler and later Gen. Ulysses Grant would praise Van Lew and her fellow pro-Union supporters as their best source of information from the Confederate capital.

This was a dangerous game, with an early Union spy, whose identity was revealed by captured Pinkerton agents, hung. Chiaverini provides a spy mystery account of Van Lew’s adventures, including incidents threatening to uncover her pro-Union activities and the jailing of some members of her spy ring. This included her being denounced to the Confederate authorities by her estranged sister-in-law, whose husband, upon being forced into the Confederate forces defending Richmond against Grant’s Overland campaign in 1864, deserted. Nevertheless, Van Lew persisted and not only gathered information, but helped Union prisoners to escape. However, she lost her access to Gen. Winder, who was reassigned to oversee the Confederate prison in Andersonville (and then died in early 1865).

The novel details some of the most dramatic events that occurred in wartime Richmond. These episodes include the explosion in March 1863 at the gunpowder factory that killed many of the women working there, the women’s bread riot in April 1863, the Libby Prison breakout of 109 Yankee officers on February 9, 1864 (with over half making it to the Union lines), the thwarted cavalry raid of March 1-2, 1864 that led to Ulric Dahlgren’s death, and finally the fall of Richmond in April 1865, its burning, and the arrival of Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps the most intriguing is the successful effort of Van Lew and friends to recover the desecrated body of Dahlgren and its delivery to the Union army.

With the retreat of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the flight of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government, the Van Lews were the first to fly the Union flag in the former capital of the defeated Confederacy. Elizabeth then received the thanks of the Union for her underground work. Ostracized by hostile residents, the Van Lews fell on hard times with most of their previous wealth spent during the Civil War to aid their beloved Union. After his election in 1868, President Grant appointed Elizabeth Van Lew postmistress of Richmond. Despite her admirable record in this position, she was not reappointed by his successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, in 1877. Increasingly impoverished, she survived until her death in 1900 on an annuity provided by the family (none other than the Reveres) of a Massachusetts soldier she had helped while a prisoner in Libby Prison.

Chiaverini’s novel mostly follows historical events. As she explains in an author’s note, she rejected the image of “Crazy Bet” promulgated by some who have written about Van Lew, claiming that she acted as an eccentric to divert suspicion about her pro-Union activities. Chiaverini ends the book with the inscription on Van Lew’s headstone (provided by Boston admirers) in Shockoe Cemetery and her 1993 induction into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame of the U.S. Army.

Chiaverini’s next Civil War novel, again featuring fascinating women, is about Mary Todd Lincoln and Kate Chase Sprague. Chiaverini’s upcoming novel is titled Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. It is due to be published January 14, 2014.

Additional reading

Blakely, Arch Fredric. General John H. Winder, C.S.A. University Press of Florida, 1990.

Ferguson, Ernest B. Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War. Knopf, 1996.

Leveen, Lois. The Secrets of Mary Bowser. William Morrow, 2012.

Lineberry, Cate. “Elizabeth Van Lew: An Unlikely Union Spy,” Smithsonian Magazine (May 5, 2011).

Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wheelan, Joseph. Libby Prison Breakout: The Daring Escape from the Notorious Civil War Prison. Public Affairs, 2011.


The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

From Booklist: Chiaverini follows Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (2013) with the story of the intrepid leader of a Union spy ring, Elizabeth Van Lew. When her beloved Richmond becomes the capital of the Confederacy, Van Lew uses her social standing, her family fortune, and an appeal to Christian charity to minister to the needs of Union prisoners. Soon she is passing messages to the North and recruiting an ever-growing network of Unionists to help her. She maintains a facade of loyalty – and she is loyal to Virginia, if not the Confederacy – by temporarily housing high-ranking Confederates or hosting a party for her nephew’s brigade. Meanwhile, she feasts on fast days, frees her slaves as far as she legally can, and hollows out eggs to transport messages. There is danger, although Chiaverini does such a good job convincing the reader that Van Lew is just a well-bred Virginia woman that the extent to which she aided Union victory is not entirely clear. Readers of historical and inspirational fiction will admire Van Lew’s courage and commitment to her principles and the bravery of her ring of spies. — Susan Maguire

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A Review of The Battle of Roanoke Island by Michael P. Zatarga

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved

Having made summer trips to the Outer Banks with my family since I was a boy, I wanted to read this book as soon as I heard about it. I knew only a little about the Civil War along the North Carolina coast from David Stick’s classic Graveyard of the Atlantic. Michael Zatarga, a historian formerly with the National Park Service, has written a short, concise book about one of the first Army-Navy amphibious operations in U.S. history. Although The Battle of Roanoke Island isn’t perfect, I did learn quite a bit from it.

Ambrose Burnside

George McClellan and Ambrose Burnside were classmates and friends at West Point, and McClellan gave Burnside a much-needed job with the Illinois Central Railroad in 1858, after Burnside’s business went bankrupt. Burnside did not do too badly leading troops at First Bull Run, and McClellan, named to command the Army of the Potomac, soon picked him to lead an expedition to capture territory along the North Carolina coast. If all went well, Federal strongholds there could provide bases and coaling stations to support the Navy’s blockade, and furnish jumping-off points for raids deeper into Confederate territory, including threatening the naval base in Norfolk, VA., just up the coast.

Zatarga provides short profiles of the commanders of the mostly New England units which Burnside brought into his “Coastal Division,” including Cols. Edward Harland of the 8th Connecticut infantry regiment, Charles Russell of the 10th Connecticut, John Hartranft of the 51st Pennsylvania, Edward Ferrero of the 51st New York, and Edwin Upton of the 25th Massachusetts, among others. We learn of Col. Lionel Jobert D’Epineuil’s 53rd New York, a riotous lot and an unfortunate exception to the usual rule of Zouaves being elite troops, and of Col. Isaac Peace Rodman’s 4th Rhode Island, so pleased by their new commanding officer that they bought him a gift of field glasses for the expedition. Jesse Reno, one of Burnside’s brigade commanders, won early glory on the North Carolina campaign before his untimely death on South Mountain later that year.

Burnside, to his credit, soon assembled his disparate units into an effective force, and also worked well with his Navy counterpart, Flag Officer (there were no admirals then) Louis M. “Old Guts” Goldsborough. They loaded up the almost 13,000 soldiers at Annapolis, MD aboard a scratch fleet of 65 ships – many of the transports were acquired by the Navy from the commercial shipping trade – over several days in early January 1862. Despite a severe storm on the way down the coast, the fleet eventually assembled at Hatteras Inlet, already in Union hands from the year before.

Henry Wise

The author gives due attention to the much smaller Confederate army arrayed against Burnside. Gen. Henry Wise, the top Confederate officer in the region and a well-connected former governor of Virginia (it was he who had signed John Brown’s death warrant), had done his best with limited resources. But his pleas for more of everything went largely unanswered by the Confederate War Department. One observer wrote that Wise in early 1862 had “no gunners, no rifled cannon, no supplies, no anything except undrilled and unpaid country bumpkins posing as troops.”

When the battle began, Wise had only about 2,500 men under his command. Col. Ambrose Wright of the 3rd Georgia and Col. Charles H. Dimmock, an engineer, tried to beef up Confederate defenses at Forts Bartow, Huger, and Blanchard, at key points on Roanoke Island along Croatan Sound, just up the inland coast from Cape Hatteras. They were backed by a tiny Confederate Navy “Mosquito Fleet” of seven small warships with just eight guns between them, led by Cmdr. William F. Lynch.

On February 7, 1862, United States forces went ashore in small boats on the northwestern coast of Roanoke Island, almost unopposed. “In less than 20 minutes from the time the boats reached the shore, 4,000 of our men were passing over the marshes at a double quick and forming in most perfect order on dry land,” Burnside later wrote. “I never witnessed a more beautiful sight.” He got his entire invading force ashore with few casualties and, after an uncomfortable night out in the rain and mud, made his attack the next day on the much smaller Confederate army arrayed against him.

How the one-day battle ended will come as little surprise, given the great disparity of forces. But it is how the clash unfolded, and why, that I found the most interesting.

The Battle of Roanoke Island is not written in an especially lively way, could have done with more careful editing, and its few maps leave much to be desired. But for anyone who wants to learn more about a little-known amphibious campaign of the Civil War, it’s worth a look.


The Battle of Roanoke Island by Michael P. Zatarga

From the publisher: In the winter of 1861, Union armies had failed to win any significant victories over their Confederate counterparts. The Northern populace, overwhelmed by the bloodshed, questioned whether the costs of the war were too high. President Lincoln despondently wondered if he was going to lose the Union.

As a result, tension was incredibly high when Union hero Ambrose Burnside embarked for coastal North Carolina. With the eyes of the nation and world on little Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks, Burnside began his amphibious assault on the beaches and earned a victory that shifted control of Southern waters. Join author and historian Michael Zatarga as he traces the story of the crucial fight on Roanoke Island.

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A Review of Valley of the Shadow by Ralph Peters

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer, journalist, and award-winning Civil War novelist. His Civil War novels include Cain at Gettysburg, Hell or Richmond, and the Owen Parry (pen name) mystery series. His latest novel is Valley of the Shadow. It covers the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign, including Jubal Early’s raid on Washington.

Peters’ portrayal of both the major events of this campaign and its leading characters is gripping. The major engagements that Peters covers are Monocacy, Third Winchester, Cedar Creek, and Fisher’s Hill. In addition, there’s the battle that never happened when Early’s advance halted in front of the fortress defenses of Washington City at Fort Stevens with President Abraham Lincoln looking on, and Early decided against an attack, retreating back to the Valley. Peters captures the desperate nature of the outnumbered Early’s mission to defend the Valley and divert some of the Union forces besieging Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. This is most dramatic at Cedar Creek, when Gordon’s surprise attack on October 19 initially smashed Phil Sheridan’s army until his dramatic ride from Winchester and rally of his battered troops, leading to his counterattack that led to victory that same day. Historians credit Sheridan’s rout of Early’s army, after Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, with ensuring Lincoln’s reelection the following month.

Peters captures many of the leading military figures of this campaign and the conflicts among them. In addition to some individual soldiers, the leading military figures portrayed on the Union side are George Crook, George Armstrong Custer, James Ricketts, Phil Sheridan, Lew Wallace, and the two Ohioans who would both later become presidents of the United States: Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley. On the Confederate side are Clement Evans, John B. Gordon, and Jubal Early (Lee’s “Bad Old Man”). Peters provides brief post-Civil War profiles of their lives. He also provides the reader with his historical sources and recommendations for further reading. His favorite memoir is John B. Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War.

He also cites the memoir of Private George Nichols of the 61st Georgia. Also recommended are the memoirs of Sheridan and Wallace, as well as those of other main combatants. Peters also recommends several campaign and battle histories.

For the epic battle of Cedar Creek, Peters recommends Thomas Lewis’ The Guns of Cedar Creek. The December, 2015, issue of Civil War Times contains a tour of the key sites of this battle. The Fall 2015 issue of Hallowed Ground contains a moving article about the return of Sheridan’s veterans to the Shenandoah Valley beginning in 1883, where they had been reviled for the destructive campaign ordered by Grant to deprive the Confederates of their breadbasket: “Heal the Wounds” by Jonathan A. Noyalas, the author of Civil War Legacy in the Shenandoah: Remembrance, Reunion, and Reconciliation. (Jonathan Noyalas was our guide on the Roundtable’s 2010 field trip to Winchester, VA.)


Valley of the Shadow by Ralph Peters

From the publisher: In the Valley of the Shadow, they wrote their names in blood. From a daring Confederate raid that nearly seized Washington, D.C., to a stunning reversal on the bloody fields of Cedar Creek, the summer and autumn of 1864 witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of our Civil War―in mighty battles now all but forgotten.

The desperate struggle for mastery of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, breadbasket of the Confederacy and the South’s key invasion route into the North, pitted a remarkable cast of heroes in blue and gray against each other: runty, rough-hewn Philip Sheridan, a Union general with an uncanny gift for inspiring soldiers, and Jubal Early, his Confederate counterpart, stubborn, raw-mouthed and deadly; the dashing Yankee boy-general, George Armstrong Custer, and the brilliant, courageous John Brown Gordon, a charismatic Georgian who lived one of the era’s greatest love stories.

Sharp as a bayonet and piercing as a bullet, Valley of the Shadow is a great novel of our grandest, most-tragic war.

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A Review of The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs by Robert O’Harrow, Jr.

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved

One of the most amazing figures of the Civil War was Montgomery Meigs, the quartermaster of the Union army and one of the critical architects of its victory. Meigs’ life is recounted by Washington Post investigative reporter Robert O’Harrow, Jr. in his book The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army.

Montgomery Meigs

Meigs was born in 1816 in Augusta, Georgia, where his father was beginning his medical career. However, because slavery literally made his mother ill, they returned to Philadelphia, where Meigs enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania (where I got my law degree) at the age of 15. He then entered West Point in 1832 and graduated high in his class and was assigned to the Corps of Engineers.

While working on improving navigation on the Mississippi River, his superior and roommate was Robert E. Lee. During the Mexican War, Meigs was assigned to build fortifications near Detroit to defend against a possible British invasion. Postwar, Meigs was assigned to Washington City. There he made his mark with the planning and construction of an aqueduct from Great Falls to finally provide a decent water supply for the capital city. His next major engineering achievement, under the direction of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, was to oversee the extension of the U.S. Capitol, which he modeled on the Roman Pantheon and the Greek Parthenon. His vision produced the Dome over the capitol and the Statue of Freedom atop it. Even as he worked tirelessly on these signature projects, he and his wife lost two of their sons to disease.

On the eve of the Civil War, Meigs was sent south to the Dry Tortugas, Florida by pro-Southern Secretary of War John Floyd, whom he detested and had criticized. This prepared him for his first wartime assignment – a secret commission by President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward to reinforce Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay (held by the Union throughout the war).

Upon his return, Lincoln insisted that Meigs, a captain just promoted to colonel, become quartermaster general, which was accomplished in June 1862. Meigs took over a department amidst the chaos of the massive increase in the size of the army and navy, incompetence, and corruption. Efficient and honest, Meigs was able to create the machinery for obtaining the vast supplies needed and at fair prices to the government. Among his many organizational accomplishments were funding the western gunboats that were critical to Union victories in the West, outfitting the fleet assembled to carry George McClellan’s expedition to the Peninsula, assembling the supply depots that served the Union so well (including that at City Point for U.S. Grant’s Overland campaign), and providing the supplies that greeted William Tecumseh Sherman’s army when it arrived in Savannah to complete its March to the Sea. Meigs’ only brush with combat came on July 12, 1864 when he organized several thousand clerks and invalids to help defend Washington City against the approaching forces of Jubal Early.

Another major project overseen by Meigs was the creation of national cemeteries for the Union dead. Embittered by Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy, Meigs decided in 1864 to create one at the home of the Lees in Arlington, Virginia, which had been seized by the Union. Meigs during and after the war oversaw the creation of the cemetery and was buried there when he died in 1891. (His tomb’s epitaph is: “Soldier, Engineer, Architect, Scientist, Patriot”.) Also buried there is his wife and his son, John, killed in an encounter in the Shenandoah Valley in October 1864. Meigs always believed that he had been executed after being captured.

Following the demobilization of most of the Union armed forces, Meigs continued as quartermaster general until his retirement in 1882. He then became architect and engineer of the Pension Building, one of his greatest achievements. Meigs followed a design from the Italian Renaissance. It used more than 15 million bricks, had an innovative air conditioning system, and is adorned with a long sculptured frieze of figures from the Civil War Union forces. It is claimed that either Army commander Sherman or his successor, Phil Sheridan, when asked to comment about “Meigs’ Old Red Barn” said that the only thing wrong with the damn building was that it was fireproof. It is now the National Building Museum (www.nbm.org) located at 401 F Street (and 5th), NW, the site of presidential inaugural balls and many exhibitions, and a must visit by any Civil War buff who goes to Washington, D.C.


The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army by Robert O’Harrow, Jr.

From the publisher: General Montgomery C. Meigs, who built the Union Army, was judged by Lincoln, Seward, and Stanton to be the indispensable architect of the Union victory. Civil War historian James McPherson calls Meigs “the unsung hero of northern victory.”

Robert O’Harrow, Jr. brings Meigs alive in the commanding and intensely personal Quartermaster. We get to know this major military figure that Lincoln and his Cabinet and Generals called the key to victory and learn how he fed, clothed, and armed the Union Army using his ingenuity and devotion. O’Harrow tells the full dramatic story of this fierce, strong, honest, loyal, forward-thinking, major American figure.

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A Review of Civil War Monuments of Ohio by Harold A. George

By Marjorie R Wilson
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved

The author, Harold A. George, who is known for his in-depth Civil War programs, has photographed and indexed more than 270 Ohio Civil War monuments; 66 are featured here. Most of the illustrations are large enough for the viewer to see much detail. Each photo includes the memorial’s location, cost, and dedication date.

Uniformed men are the most common memorial subject. Most are a symbolic ‘everyman,’ but some are familiar Civil War patriots, such as Lincoln, McPherson, Steedman, John Clem (the youngest Union volunteer), and Custer.

There are lots of cannon, of course, and an assortment of obelisk types. There are some unique memorials, too, including a beautifully sculpted bronze and stone featuring the effigy of the grandfather of the family who paid for the statue.

In Canton, a bronze-draped woman, “Peace,” bows at the base of a large stone and places a palm frond on its surface. George includes the Confederate POW cemetery in Columbus with its huge boulder crudely cut with the words “2260 Confederate Soldiers of the War of 1861-65 buried in this enclosure.”

Although Civil War Monuments of Ohio is essentially a picture book, George relates some human interest stories collected, as he told me, from people he met on thousands of miles of travel researching this book. He includes quite a bit of incidental monument information. The complete index of monuments, categorized by region and county, is also in the book.

There are thousands of Civil War books, but I doubt if there is another quite like this one, dedicated to the memorials honoring those who served in a cruel war that left millions of broken hearts, bodies, and lives. As I spent time with the book, I felt that it is also a testimonial to the grief and pride of citizens who raised these memorials so that the generations will remember.


Civil War Monuments of Ohio by Harold A. George

From the publisher: This book tells the history of the Civil War monuments in Ohio. Why were they built and who built them? What did they cost and what materials were used? These questions are answered in this publication. Giving examples of the twelve types of monuments that were erected, the book also includes a “then and now” photograph section. Also in the book is a table that lists the exact location of every Civil War monument in Ohio. There are more than 260 of them in Ohio. Over 100 full color photographs are included in the book.

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A Review of “Behind Bayonets”: The Civil War in Northern Ohio by David D. Van Tassel and John Vacha

By Marjorie R. Wilson
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All rights reserved

“There is something behind bayonets…the affections of home – the prayers and blessings of the family circle – the active assistance of the women and children left at home.”

Major General James A Garfield

You may remember the 1998 Western Reserve Historical Society exhibit “Civil War, for God, Union and Glory.” The program was curated by Cleveland historian David Van Tassel, who expanded that research to create this book. Van Tassel died before finishing “Behind Bayonets”: The Civil War in Northern Ohio, and his family asked John Vacha, also a historian, to complete the work.

Behind Bayonets goes beyond the heart of Garfield’s quote and reports interesting details of events in wartime Ohio. The book discusses Cleveland’s pre-war free black population and strong abolitionist politics, Lincoln’s February 1861 stop in Cleveland en route to the inauguration, personal reports of early enlistment and camp experiences, Rebecca Rouse’s incredibly active and successful Soldier’s Aid Society, the Squirrel Hunter’s March, and activities of Vallandigham, Rockefeller, the Hannas, and other prominent locals, plus a few pages about John W. Booth, who gave one of his last theater performances here in Cleveland in December 1863.

Most of what you read here is not included in other Civil War books. Van Tassel and Vacha bring us a fascinating read, liberally illustrated with more than 100 unusual photos from the Western Reserve Historical Society archives.

Without doubt, Behind Bayonets has much to add to the library of Ohio Civil War enthusiasts.


“Behind Bayonets”: The Civil War in Northern Ohio by David D. Van Tassel and John Vacha

From the publisher: Behind Bayonets focuses on Ohio’s substantial role in the Civil War. It is perhaps the only work that uses published and unpublished sources written by northeast Ohioans to comment on the causes, course, and purpose of the war. It does not provide an overview of battles, but it does address soldiers’ enlistments and early camp experiences, women’s experiences, public reactions to emancipation and the general political interest in the war, local business growth during the war, and Lincoln’s assassination and the funeral train’s stop in Cleveland. The authors use moving first-person commentaries and accounts to illustrate and explain these issues and situations. Additionally, the text is lavishly illustrated with rare photographs from the Western Reserve Historical Society’s archives.

Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.