A Review of Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Civil War by James M. McPherson

By Patrick Bray
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This review was originally published in The Charger in January 2016.


James McPherson has done it yet again: published an insightful, fair, and very readable book on the Civil War. This time his subject is the wartime presidency of Jefferson Davis, a man whose reputation over the years has had more ups and downs then a stretch along the Appalachian Trail. In his introduction McPherson acknowledges the challenges of writing about a person who has occasionally been portrayed as a tragic hero, but more often has been a target for scathing criticism.

It is reassuring when an author discloses early on the potential biases that he seeks to overcome. Perhaps unnecessarily McPherson tells us that “My sympathies lie with the Union side in the Civil War,” not that we would expect any neo-Confederate nonsense from a serious scholar like him. McPherson is also careful not to be unduly influenced by some of Davis’ disagreeable personal characteristics, a temptation which many Davis contemporaries and subsequent biographers have been unable to resist. Another pitfall which McPherson detours around is a comparison between Lincoln’s and Davis’ leadership, to which the “apples to oranges” cliché was never more true.

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A Review of April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, 2007, All rights reserved

Every once in awhile, a Civil War book makes it to the bestseller lists, appealing to a broader audience than history fans. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was one such book, in its day. So was Shelby Foote’s magnificent trilogy, The Civil War. And so, too, is Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Winik’s book was on The New York Times bestseller list for quite awhile, and President Bush was seen with it tucked under his arm not long after 9-11.

However, I come not to praise Winik, but to bury him. April 1865 just isn’t a very good book. The author has neither the writing skills nor the commitment to historical accuracy, unfortunately, to craft a good book about that momentous month.

Winik, a college professor and former Congressional and Pentagon staffer, describes the last month of the Civil War as “the thirty most pivotal days in the life of the United States.” He writes, “April 1865 is a month that could have unraveled the American nation. Instead, it saved it. It is a month as dramatic and as devastating as any ever faced in American history – and it proved to be perhaps the most moving and decisive month not simply of the Civil War, but indeed, quite likely, in the life of the United States.” Winik retells all the familiar stories of the last days of the war, arguing that the decisions made by President Abraham Lincoln, Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, and John Wilkes Booth, had a tremendous impact on the immediate postwar era and in all the years since.

From Lincoln’s policy of “letting ’em up easy” and not imposing harsh Reconstruction terms on the states of the defeated Confederacy, to Grant’s pursuing that policy at Appomattox, to Lee’s decision not to wage guerilla warfare despite the urging of many around him, to Booth’s decision to murder Lincoln when the Confederate cause otherwise seemed all but lost, the decisions of these men shaped the country in which we now live. Winik notes how easily things could have gone differently, and how much worse the aftermath of the Civil War might have been, with endless guerilla warfare, reprisals, persecution, and civil strife fatally wounding the young republic. He’ll get no argument from me there, although it’s hardly an original hypothesis.

Unfortunately, Winik is a poor writer, with an often hyperbolic and overwrought style. He makes every point with a sledgehammer. Twice in two pages he tells us that Lincoln was the “first ever” assassinated president. He writes that the war “climaxed to a close,” that the U.S. Constitution was “quite unique,” that Lincoln was “rather unique,” and that the Framers were (take a deep breath now) “boldly obliged to repudiate a political axiom that had behind it the domineering authority” of Montesquieu. Whew. Everything about which Winik writes seems to be the biggest, most important, most earth-shattering, most significant…whatever. Sometimes it seems that every other sentence should end with an exclamation point. Winik also has several irritating writing tics, such as using “Unionists” and “Union troops” synonymously.

The author also commits serious errors of historical judgment and emphasis. He’s overly critical of Sherman and his policy of total war, making Sherman and his men seem little better than Visigoths and (other than in his endnotes) overlooking much recent scholarship on how carefully calibrated and measured Sherman’s waging of war actually was. Sherman’s men did not, for instance, “massacre able-bodied males” in Atlanta or send “the city library and archives…up in flames, for the sheer naked joy of it.” Winik is also far too sympathetic to the Southern view of secession and its consequences. Did secessionism have earlier antecedents in New England than in the South? Certainly. Would an objective historian find that the U.S. Constitution “appeared to be largely on [the South’s] side,” and that Confederate secession was “but one more thread of a very long, even honorable rope in American…history”? Hardly. Winik consistently downplays the significance of slavery as a root cause of the war, and grossly overstates the Confederate leadership’s willingness to free and arm slaves.

He also makes factual errors, both large and small. The Jamestown settlers’ ship in 1607 was the Susan Constant, not the Sarah Constant. John Brown was not “summarily executed,” as Winik writes, but was convicted after a trial (whose outcome was, to be sure, almost preordained). Simon Cameron was Lincoln’s first secretary of war, not of the treasury. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had not been awarded the Medal of Honor by the time of the surrender at Appomattox, and he was not a brigadier general then, but a brevet major general. Benjamin Wade was a U.S. Senator and not a Congressman throughout the Civil War. Salmon P. Chase, as Chief Justice, was not a member of Lincoln’s Cabinet. Winik misspells the names of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, Secretary of State William Seward, and Confederate Senator Robert Toombs. In his acknowledgements the author thanks five people, by name, for proofreading his manuscript, but errors like these make me wonder what else he got wrong that I didn’t even notice. Did Lincoln drop in on General George Pickett’s astonished wife and infant while visiting Richmond? Did Secretary of War Edwin Stanton actually tender his resignation to Lincoln in the last days of the war? Winik says they did, but I’ve never read these things anywhere else, and I have little confidence in the author’s ability to get such details right.

In his celebration of Southern heroes like Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Lee, Winik ignores those Southerners like David Farragut, George Thomas, Sam Houston, and Andrew Johnson who remained loyal to the Union. He quotes Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Lincoln to good effect, however. During the Feb. 3, 1865 Hampton Roads conference aboard the steamer River Queen, Stephens said, “Mr. President, if I understand you correctly, you think that we of the Confederacy have committed treason; that we are traitors to your government; that we have forfeited our rights, and are proper subjects for the hangman,” to which Lincoln replied, “Yes…that is about the size of it.” Fortunately, the better angels of Lincoln’s nature led him away from any bloodthirsty retribution. The author draws on his personal familiarity with the aftermath of far too many Third World civil wars to show just how lucky we were that our own ended as well as it did.

To give him his due, Winik writes interesting, concise, and largely accurate portraits of the major figures of the war, and has a thoughtful chapter on those innovative figures of postwar American society – Sam Clemens, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and others – whose lives might have been cut short, or wastefully diverted, had the war descended into a fratricidal guerilla war. He explores the evolution of the law on presidential succession, correctly noting that Lincoln’s assassination and Andrew Johnson’s assumption of power had the potential, under the circumstances of the times, to lead to a debilitating constitutional crisis. Winik writes in true Dickensian style, “April 1865 was marked by tumult and bloodshed, heroism and desperation, freedom and defeat, military prowess and diplomatic magnanimity, jubilation and sorrow, and, finally, by individual and national agony and joy.”

This is some of his best writing, and his essential point is sound: April 1865 was a key month in American history, when the national die was cast for many years to come. For a far better exploration of the subject, however, I recommend Noah Andre Trudeau’s Out of the Storm.


April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

From Publishers Weekly: Though the primary focus of this book is the last month of the Civil War, it opens in the 18th century with a view of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Winik (whose previous book, On the Brink, was an account of the Reagan administration and the end of the Cold War) offers not just a study of four weeks of war, but a panoramic assessment of America and its contradictions. The opening Jeffersonian question is: does the good of the country take precedence over that of the individual states? The question of civil union or civil war is the central question of this new work. Winik goes on to describe how a series of events that occurred during a matter of weeks in April 1865 (the fall of Richmond; Lee’s graceful surrender to Grant at Appomattox, and Grant’s equally distinguished handling of his foe; Lincoln’s assassination), none of them inevitable, would solve Jefferson’s riddle: while a loose federation of states entered the war, what emerged from war and Reconstruction was a much stronger nation; the Union had decisively triumphed over the wishes of individual states. Winik’s sense of the dramatic and his vivid writing bring a fitting flourish to his thesis that April 1865 marked a turning point in American history: “So, after April 1865, when the blood had clotted and dried, when the cadavers had been removed and the graves filled in, what America was asking for, at war’s end, was in fact something quite unique: a special exemption from the cruel edicts of history.” Winik’s ability to see the big picture in the close-up (and vice versa), and to compose riveting narrative, is masterful. This book is a triumph. Forecast: Popular history at its best, this book should appeal widely to readers beyond the usual Civil War crowd. Strong endorsements from a group of noted historians, including James M. McPherson and Douglas Brinkley, along with a 10-city author tour, should also help both review coverage and sales. (Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.)

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A Review of Tarnished Eagles: The Courts-Martial of Fifty Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels by Thomas P. Lowry

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 1999, 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This review was originally published in The Charger in the Fall of 1999.


It comes as no surprise to anyone who reads about the Civil War that not every regimental colonel was as heroic, wise, or noble as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. For that matter, not even Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain always was, although he came pretty close. When the war broke out in 1861, armies were raised in a hurry on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and commanding officers were appointed with sometimes only the most meager qualifications. Many were political appointees in state-raised units, more skilled at maneuvering in smoke-filled back rooms than on the field of battle. In command of troops, some did well, most did adequately, but many failed.

It’s reading just why they failed that makes Thomas P. Lowry’s Tarnished Eagles: The Courts-martial of Fifty Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels so interesting. Lowry has pored over every Union court-martial record in the National Archives (there are over 100,000 of them) and produced this representative sampling of military misadventure, misconduct, and malfeasance at the highest regimental level. He begins with an interesting overview of the military justice system from Roman times to the American Revolution, then up to the outbreak of the Civil War. He then groups his courts-martial studies into five areas — cases involving insubordination, conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, failure of leadership, cowardice, and miscellaneous.

Lowry emphasizes the constant tension between the freedom of a citizen in a democracy and the unquestioning obedience (in that pre-Nuremberg and My Lai era) considered necessary for an army officer. “A command is an order,” Lowry writes, “not a suggestion or a basis for discussion. But unquestioning obedience to a command is not a common trait in Americans. The regular-army men had some familiarity with obedience and authority….The volunteer colonel, on the other hand, faced challenges from below, from within, and from above. Below him were roughly 900 enlisted men and junior officers, whose obedience he needed and to whose needs he must attend. Within, he had his own ambivalence about authority, mixed with various wishes for glory and admiration. Above him, he had commanders whose orders might or might not suit him.”

Some interesting patterns emerge as one reads this fine book. New York and Pennsylvania were responsible for a disproportionate number of court-martialed colonels, perhaps because the strong political machines in those states produced more politicized and, presumably, less qualified colonels. In quite a few cases, criminal charges were concocted by ambitious or resentful junior officers seeking to rid themselves of unpopular commanders. Alcohol was a common theme in many courts-martial, with either the accused colonel or the accusing junior officer having overindulged. There were more courts-martial during winter months, when troops tended to be encamped, with more opportunities to get into trouble. Many of the most disputatious colonels, physician members of the Roundtable will not be surprised to learn, were lawyers before donning Union blue. Acquittal rates were over 50% throughout the war, with many an accused colonel being cleared of all charges and ordered to “resume his sword and his duties.”

One who was unexpectedly cleared of charges was Col. David H. Williams of the 82nd Pennsylvania. During the Peninsula Campaign in June 1862, Williams failed to post pickets and, when Confederate troops infiltrated his lines, he allegedly “became so much frightened as to give several orders countermanding each other, and was so confused as to be unfit for duty.” A week later, cowering behind a tree, he ordered his troops to open fire on soldiers they recognized to be comrades of the 61st Pennsylvania. His troops refused to fire. When Williams repeated his order, some of his men yelled, “Come out from behind that tree, you damned coward, and see for yourself!”

George B. McClellan, “who relished the admonitory and uplifting possibilities of court-martial reviews.”

Every court-martial verdict was passed up the chain of command, and sometimes even all the way to President Lincoln himself. A general reviewing a court-martial verdict could confirm or reverse the verdict, or remand the case for a new court-martial. Some of the best writing by a general reviewing verdicts was by George B. McClellan when he led the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was, Lowry writes, “a man who relished the admonitory and uplifting possibilities of court-martial reviews. Whether it was the wisest use of his time may be questioned, but he was more than equal to the task of writing a court-martial review that would stand any degree of literary scrutiny.”

Tempers often flared in wartime, however, and the reader will find plenty of less-elevated discourse. There were insults aplenty flung about, with Union officers accusing colleagues of being anything from “a damned knave, a damned fool and an illiterate whelp,” to “a miserable reptile,” to having “a mouthful of tongue.” The reader will find taunts such as “General Logan can kiss my ass,” “You damned Hungarian humbug!” and “I’ll pull your nose on dress parade.” No less a personage than Gen. Henry W. Halleck wrote of one Bavarian-born officer, “I would rather trust my dinner to a hungry dog than give [a general’s star] to a foreign adventurer of this stamp. I have not the least doubt he would take pay on either side and fight on none.”

We all know about the best and brightest of the Civil War; here’s the bottom of the barrel. Here are examples of misconduct ranging from the most contemptible cowardice, to the colonel who liked to have obscene ditties sung to him, to another with a taste for “low and bawdy engravings,” to thieves, brigands, liars, and drunkards with eagles on their shoulders. Not to mention the officer who confessed of a late-night civilian visitor to his tent, “I felt of her bosoms.”

For a very readable and insightful overview of Civil War-era military justice and an entertaining glimpse into wartime folly and criminality, I highly recommend this book.


Tarnished Eagles: The Courts-martial of Fifty Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels by Thomas P. Lowry

From the publisher: An engaging roster of curmudgeons, drunkards, and fools From the author of The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War, Thomas P. Lowry’s Tarnished Eagles is the first systematic look at Civil War courts-martial, and…it offers the surprising finding that officers, in fact, were in trouble more often than the enlisted men….Lowry lets their court-martial records speak for themselves…while drawing some far- reaching conclusions from their experiences as a whole.

More than 100,000 men in the Union army faced courts-martial during the years of the Civil War. In this new study, the author has chosen 50 Union colonels and lieutenant colonels to highlight the difficulties in placing civilians unfamiliar with the rigors of army life in command. For example, one colonel was so drunk he fell off his horse, another was nicknamed Stumpy because he tended to shout orders from behind a tree stump, and still another was so drunk that he made an indecent exposure of his person in the presence of a lady, after which he rode his horse into a gully and fell headlong from the saddle. The stories of these tragicomic characters, and of many more contained herein, will add significant commentary to the burgeoning study of Civil War misbehavior.

Dr. Thomas P. Lowry is a retired professor of psychiatry. He is the author of The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell, The Attack on Taranto (with John W.G. Wellham), and The Civil War Bawdy Houses of Washington, D.C.

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A Review of How Few Remain: A Novel of the Second War Between the States by Harry Turtledove

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 1999, 2010. All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in 1999.


I enjoy Civil War alternative history, or “what-if,” books. At their best, these books challenge our perceptions of the war in intriguing ways, but remain historically plausible. These books show us how things might have gone, for want of this nail or that bullet. At their best, such books give us a good plot, solid characterization, and a few nifty twists on history as we know it.

Since (as you may have heard) the Union defeated the Confederacy, a common tactic for Civil War alternative history writers is to turn the tables and let the Confederacy win. Harry Turtledove did just that in his intriguing The Guns of the South. Once you got over your initial suspension of disbelief, Turtledove had a good story to tell. Now Turtledove has caught lightning in a bottle for a second time in a fine book, How Few Remain: A Novel of the Second War Between the States. The two books are quite different in concept and style, and How Few Remain is by no means a sequel.

The book begins on September 10, 1862 outside Frederick, Maryland. A Confederate courier manages not to lose Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191, wrapped around three cigars. Gen. George McClellan thus remains ignorant of Lee’s plans just before the battle of Antietam. The Army of the Potomac is badly beaten there, and Lee pushes further north, decisively defeating McClellan in the battle of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna River, on October 1. The book then jumps forward to early 1881. The Confederacy has had its independence for almost twenty years, helped not in the least by a generation of Democratic presidents in Washington, who have benefited from the Northern public’s longtime revulsion with the Republican Party for losing the Civil War.

But at last the Republicans have won back the White House, and a new administration led by James G. Blaine of Maine (in our history, a presidential also-ran in 1876, 1880, 1884, and 1892) decides to finally stand up to the Confederacy. When the Confederacy purchases the Mexican provinces of Sonora and Chihuahua from the cash-needy Emperor Maximilian, extending the C.S.A.’s western border all the way to the Pacific Ocean, President Blaine decides to draw a line in the sand. In due time, as you might expect, war breaks out again, twenty years after Fort Sumter.

All sorts of familiar names crop up throughout the book. Samuel Clemens is a cynical newspaper editor in San Francisco who clashes with Colonel William T. Sherman, commander of U.S. troops in the city. George Armstrong Custer is still alive, having apparently missed his appointment with destiny at the Little Bighorn in 1876, and is just as dashing and headstrong as ever. (Be warned, though, Turtledove is no admirer of Custer.) Gen. William Rosecrans is the overall Union commander, having come out of the Civil War in late 1862 with his reputation intact. The young Theodore Roosevelt, a rancher in the Montana Territory, raises a regiment of volunteers (an obvious precursor to the Rough Riders) to defend the Union’s northern border when Britain and France enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. James Longstreet is president of the Confederacy, and Stonewall Jackson, spared an early death at Chancellorsville, is his top general.

Frederick Douglass keeps fighting the good fight in 1881, still laboring against racism in a truncated United States, which blames blacks for the Union’s dissolution and couldn’t care less about slaves in the South. And Abraham Lincoln, defeated in 1864, is widely hated for losing the war, but nevertheless travels the country speaking on behalf of what we would now call democratic socialism. Turtledove also gives us cameo appearances by the Apache chief Geronimo, Alfred von Schlieffen, Gen. John Pope, and John Hay, among others. There are some interesting omissions in the novel, as well. Lee is nowhere to be seen, and is barely referred to in the Confederacy’s postwar years, a major difference from The Guns of the South, in which he succeeds Jefferson Davis as president. But, as in his earlier book, Turtledove writes well and holds your interest throughout, and I recommend the book.

But now I think it’s time for a new take on the Civil War alternative history novel, one in which the Union wins, but in a different way than we know. Perhaps Robert E. Lee accepts Lincoln’s offer to command the Federal forces and, with his military genius, brings the war to a much earlier conclusion. Maybe Meade decisively wins at Gettysburg, destroying Lee’s army soon after Pickett’s Charge. What if Lincoln never issues the Emancipation Proclamation at all, and the issue of slavery is still unsettled when the guns fall silent? Or perhaps Lincoln sidesteps fate at Ford’s Theatre and proves a better leader during Reconstruction than Andrew Johnson ever did.

Is alternative history unlikely? Yes. Implausible? Maybe. Interesting? Undoubtedly. Harry Turtledove has now made two important contributions to the genre.


How Few Remain: A Novel of the Second War Between the States by Harry Turtledove

From the publisher: From the master of alternate history comes an epic of the Second Civil War. It was an epoch of glory and success, of disaster and despair. Twenty years after the South won the Civil War, America writhed once more in the bloody throes of battle. Furious over the annexation of key Mexican territory, the United States declared total war against the Confederate States of America. And so, in 1883, the fragile peace was shattered.

But this was a new kind of war, fought on a lawless frontier where the blue and gray battled not only each other, but the Apache, the outlaw, and even the redcoat. Along with France, England entered the fray on the side of the South, with blockades and invasions from Canada.

Out of this tragic struggle emerged figures great and small. The disgraced Abraham Lincoln crisscrossed the nation championing socialist ideals. Confederate cavalry leader Jeb Stuart sought to prevent wholesale slaughter in the desert Southwest, while cocky young Theodore Roosevelt and stodgy George Custer bickered over modern weapons, even as they drove the British back into western Canada.

Thanks to the efforts of journalists like Samuel Clemens, the nation witnessed the clash of human dreams and passions. Confederate genius Stonewall Jackson again soared to the heights of military expertise, while the North’s McClellan proved sadly undeserving of his once shining reputation as the “young Napoleon.” For in the Second War Between the States, the times, the stakes, and the battle lines had changed . . . and so would history.

Once again, Harry Turtledove has created a thoroughly engrossing alternate history novel, a profoundly original epic of blood and honor, courage and sacrifice, set amidst the raw beauty of young America’s frontier wilderness.

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A Review of The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer by Douglas C. Jones

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 1999, 2010. All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in 1999.


George Armstrong Custer seems to have an unbreakable hold on the American imagination.

He was a gallant cavalier during the Civil War, the northern counterpart to J.E.B. Stuart’s elan and bravado, and he became a seasoned frontier warrior and nemesis of the Sioux after the Civil War. He was headstrong, impatient, sometimes arrogant, always ambitious. Some historians think that Custer had his eye on the presidency when he and a contingent of his beloved 7th Cavalry were overwhelmed by Indians near the Little Bighorn and, on June 25, 1876, killed to the last man.

George Armstrong Custer

“Custer’s Last Stand” shocked a nation celebrating its centennial, convinced of its own manifest destiny and contemptuous of the Plains Indians. The last hurrah for Indian military power, the battle on the Little Bighorn quickly passed into American myth, but the golden-haired cavalryman from New Rumley, Ohio has been with us, in one form or another, ever since. Countless movies and books have since featured Custer. Sometimes Custer is a hero; recently, more often, he’s a villain, but never is he boring.

He is at the heart of Douglas C. Jones’ fine alternative-history novel The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer: A Novel. Jones’ book opens in the spring of 1877, as Army trial judge advocate Asa B. Gardiner prepares to prosecute the Civil War hero, who narrowly escaped the Sioux warriors’ wrath. In Jones’ what-if story, Custer suffered a serious head wound at the Little Bighorn, but was left for dead by the scavenging old women of the Sioux and then found by scouts from Brigadier General Alfred Terry’s relief column. William T. Sherman, Commanding General of the Army, has little difficulty in convincing outgoing President Ulysses S. Grant to court-martial Custer for disobedience of orders, negligence, and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.

There is political and military intrigue aplenty as the court-martial convenes. Many prominent Civil War officers figure in the book. The presiding officer at the trial is Major General John M. Schofield, victor of the battle of Franklin, Tennessee; sitting with him are Major General Irvin McDowell, loser at First Manassas, and Brigadier General John Pope, loser at Second Manassas. Major General Phil Sheridan resists the very idea of court-martialing Custer when Sherman first puts it to him, and he becomes an influential witness for the accused officer. Both admirers and critics of Custer will find something in the book to support their points of view. Partisans for and against Major Marcus A. Reno and Captain Frederick W. Benteen, Custer’s subordinates at the Little Bighorn, who are sometimes blamed for not doing enough to save him, also won’t be disappointed.

Although the court-martial takes place on Governor’s Island, in New York City’s harbor, the 260 men killed at the Little Bighorn are with us throughout the book. The soldiers, Indian scouts, and journalists who take the witness stand vividly recreate the massacre and its aftermath. Jones very effectively contrasts the cosmopolitan, bustling New York City of the late 1870s with the barren and hostile landscape of the Great Plains.

The trial takes some unexpected twists and turns, and the ending is surprising if not shocking. This is an important contribution to the genre of alternative history, well-written and insightful. As Jones writes in his preface, ”This is a fantasy which needs no apology, for who among us has not been intrigued by the alternatives history never reveals?”

I couldn’t agree more.


The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer: A Novel by Douglas C. Jones

From the publisher: Suppose that George Armstrong Custer did not die at the battle of Little Bighorn. Suppose that, instead, he was found close to death at the scene of the defeat and was brought to trial for his actions. With a masterful blend of fact and fiction, The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer tells us what might have happened at that trial as it brings to life the most exciting period in the history of the American West.

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A Review of The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War by Thomas B. Buell

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2001, 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This review was originally published in The Charger in the winter of 2002.


When I was in the Roundtable contingent which visited Richmond in 2000, I noticed Dan Zeiser reading a thick book with one of Julian Scott’s fine old Civil War paintings on the cover. When Dan finished the book, he lent it to me, and I’m glad he did.

Thomas B. Buell’s The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War is an overview of the Civil War as fought by six very different men, three on each side: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, John B. Hood, George H. Thomas, John B. Gordon, and Francis C. Barlow. Buell’s great innovation, and the key to his book, is to use each man as a kind of military exemplar: Grant the Yeoman, Lee the Aristocrat, Hood the Knight-Errant, Thomas the Roman, Gordon the Cavalier, and Barlow the Puritan. The metaphors and comparisons are sometimes strained, but it’s an intriguing conceptual approach to Civil War history. By and large, it works.

Buell is iconoclastic, and highly opinionated; not for him is the “on the one hand, but then again on the other” style of some recent historians. His confident assertions, including lavish praise of some generals (especially Thomas) and harsh criticism of others (particularly Lee), sometimes cross the line from historical analysis to outright advocacy. As does any enthusiast, he sometimes strays into hyperbole. The author (no relation to the Union general of the same name) accuses John C. Fremont of “madness,” and says that William T. Sherman was “erratic and distraught…succumb[ing] to panic” in his botched East Tennessee expedition in late 1861. Buell derides David Hunter as “a nonentity who took days to find the front door [of headquarters]” after Fremont was sacked in November of that year.

The author blasts Grant for writing self-serving reports and lacking good tactical sense. He takes Lee to task for misleading top Confederate authorities (including President Jefferson Davis), and needlessly spilling blood by continuing to fight when he knew that the war was all but lost. Lee alone, Buell implies, would have had the prestige to make the Confederate public acknowledge that it was time to stop the slaughter. Sherman is raked over the coals for numerous mistakes during the Atlanta campaign, and for embarking on the March to the Sea without adequately dealing with Hood, thereby dumping the problem in Thomas’ lap. Buell condemns Hood for not realizing his own limitations, being overly ambitious, and for wantonly throwing his army away during the doomed Tennessee campaign of late 1864.

I learned the most from this book about Gordon and Barlow, two very different men. In contrast to the rough handling he gives Grant, Lee, Hood, and Sherman, the author seems to genuinely like Gordon and Barlow. Some of his most enjoyable writing focuses on their early lives and backgrounds, and their growth as military leaders over the four years of the Civil War. After Appomattox, Gordon was a very successful Georgia politician (and never shy about tooting his own horn, sometimes exaggerating his military record), while Barlow briefly served in New York politics before withdrawing in disgust at the corruption of the Gilded Age. I knew little about either man before reading this book, and learned a great deal.

Buell is an even greater admirer of George H. Thomas, and praises “the Rock of Chickamauga” for solid, capable, unflashy leadership that made the Army of the Cumberland “the most professional and modern of all the armies in the Civil War.” Thomas won battle after battle, despite carping from the War Department and backbiting from Grant and Sherman, and never let his successes go to his head. I’m a Thomas fan, too, but Buell’s only criticism of the general seems to be that he didn’t always appreciate the political motivations and needs of President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton. As criticisms go, it’s a pretty minor one, and it ends up being a compliment, anyway: Thomas as an apolitical general in a war full of the other kind. Thomas obviously had other faults, but you won’t read about them in Buell’s book.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this book, not all of which you’ll agree with, but which you’ll enjoy reading just the same. It’s worth noting that two former Roundtable presidents (Dan Zeiser and Bob Boyda) both found it invaluable in preparing presentations about two of the generals whom Buell profiles (Thomas and Gordon, respectively). I, too, highly recommend The Warrior Generals.


The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War by Thomas B. Buell

From School Library Journal: An extraordinary look at military leadership during the Civil War. Buell focuses on the successes and failures of three Union generals: Ulysses S. Grant, George H. Thomas, and Francis C. Barlow and three Confederate generals: Robert E. Lee, John Bell Hood, and John B. Gordon. Their battles and campaigns are examined by modern military standards, and Buell’s conclusions are insightful and at times revisionistic. By the end of the book, readers are left with an impression that Lee was often indecisive, had no strategic vision, and may have been single-handedly responsible for costing tens of thousands of lives by prolonging a war that could not be won.

Grant comes off no better. Although eventually victorious, he is shown as impulsive, vindictive, and self-deceiving. What set Thomas apart was his attention to details. His staff was professional and capable, which allowed him to master the technology that gave him the ability to command and control his subordinates over large distances and to sustain his massive army deep in enemy territory. Readers are also left with a very positive impression of Barlow. In contrast, Hood is shown to be unable to adapt to the burden of leadership and changing technology. Although Gordon’s leadership is examined, it is not with the sane detail as the other five generals; thus, there is too little information to compare him with his counterpart, Barlow. Buell crowns the book with an annotated bibliography. This superb book is easy to read, well organized, and liberally illustrated with period photographs and drawings. – Robert Burnham, Copyright 1997, Reed Business Information, Inc.

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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.

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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).

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