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.

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 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.

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 “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.

The Best Book Ever Written About the Civil War: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Reviewed by Jon Thompson
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2005, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: On January 12, 2005, the subject of The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable’s annual Dick Crews Debate was “What is the best book ever written about the Civil War?” The article below is the text from one of five presentations made that evening.


Best book? Does that mean best research? Best scope? Best style? Biggest audience? Best reviews?

General Grant once said that in most battles two sides hammer at one another, and then the victory would usually go to the side that could put together just one more assault, one more attack. Now think about that! If we asked Grant to name the best Civil War book, he would stare at us with a twinkle in his eye and say, “The Little Engine That Could.”

I considered defending Bruce Catton’s two-volume biography of Grant for its narrative style and impeccable research, but rejected it since Catton’s A Stillness At Appomattox had already been selected, and we didn’t need to debate two books by Catton.

I considered defending Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem John Brown’s Body for its beautiful language. Raise your hand if you have read it. That’s exactly why I rejected it…too few have read it.

I considered defending Frank Haskell’s A Narrative Account of Gettysburg, written just weeks after the battle, but rejected it because the style is stilted and it’s a laborious read.

Thus, I selected Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of 1974, The Killer Angels.

Why do I believe The Killer Angels is the best book ever written about the Civil War?

Because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Pretty deep, huh? Wonder where we got that bit of wisdom? Jefferson? Franklin? No, it was Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Heaven help the society that takes its wisdom from movies.

But really, it’s simple reasoning. We in this room are passionate about the Civil War, but what about those poor souls out there, millions of them, who don’t even know there was a Civil War? We walk proudly in the light of the true knowledge, while they stumble pathetically in the darkness.

My friends, history must be made palatable. Not inaccurate, not exaggerated, but palatable. And The Killer Angels makes history palatable.

The Killer Angels was published more than one hundred years after the battle of Gettysburg…and in just a few short years sold more than two and a half million copies!

Why? Because it describes Civil War combat as no other book ever has: vividly, graphically, and accurately…

Because it takes the reader into the minds and hearts of the soldiers, to know their thoughts and feel their emotions, to know their ideas and ideals, their fears and frustrations, their dedication, their courage, their sense of duty…

Because it tells the story from both sides and, therefore, appeals to both sides…

Because you feel what it must have been like on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863…

Because you feel what it must have been like to march with Pickett’s Virginians on July 3rd, 1863…

Because it has a human touch that other Civil War books lack…

Because it captures the glory and the horror and the heartbreak that is war!

The Killer Angels takes the reader to Gettysburg and makes the reader privy to the thoughts and conversations of the soldiers. Shaara used the words of the men, themselves, and drew from their letters and documents. Yet he discloses to the reader only as much as they knew at the time…and apparently none of them knew very much. Historians peruse the events, both passionately and dispassionately, at their leisure through the years. But battles are fought by mortal men, using only the knowledge and resources available to them in that compressed moment of time.

The Killer Angels lets the reader experience and feel those pressures, frustrations, and limitations that the real soldiers faced.

One critic said that The Killer Angels is a great work of historical fiction, but fiction is not and never will be history itself. I should hope not, for the storyteller possesses the immense power to capture the imagination of the reader. To get people to read history, you must excite them about history! And that’s what The Killer Angels does!

I have truly lost count of the number of books I have read about Gettysburg. But I have never forgotten the first book I read about Gettysburg: The Killer Angels.

A final nugget of wisdom. As some of you know, I teach language arts to eighth graders. Perhaps the most overused sentence in an eighth grade book review is: it made me feel like I was right there! Ah, from the mouths of babes.

Don’t ever tell my students what I am about to say. The Killer Angels makes you feel like you’re right there…at Gettysburg…fighting the Civil War.


The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

From the publisher: In the four most bloody and courageous days of our nation’s history, two armies fought for two conflicting dreams. One dreamed of freedom, the other of a way of life. Far more than rifles and bullets were carried into battle. There were memories. There were promises. There was love. And far more than men fell on those Pennsylvania fields. Bright futures, untested innocence, and pristine beauty were also the casualties of war. Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece is unique, sweeping, unforgettable—the dramatic story of the battleground for America’s destiny.

Reviews of Gods and Generals and of Brass Pounders: The Young Telegraphers of the Civil War

By Gary Norman
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the spring of 2000.


It is interesting how no two men view a similar experience in the exact same way and how technology exists as an underlying force that helps to both form and communicate the experiences of men. This is especially true during the time of the Civil War.

There are two books that I would like to introduce to the Roundtable which touch on the issue of the dissimilarity of similar experiences and how technology forms and communicates it. The first book is Gods and Generals, written by Jeff Shaara, who is the son of Michael Shaara, author of the award-winning The Killer Angels. The second book is Brass-Pounders: Young Telegraphers of the Civil War, written by Alvin F. Harlow. Both books are well written and both blur the threshold between historical fiction and nonfiction.

In Gods and Generals, Shaara utilizes historically factual material to compose a work that examines the lives of a handful of notable Civil War leaders from 1858 to the summer of 1863 when the battle of Gettysburg occurs. Featured are such prominent characters as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. Jackson, and Winfield Scott Hancock. In the volume, the reader follows both what actually happened at the time as well as what the author imaginatively pens the various parties might have thought and said while experiencing the events in question.

In accounting both historical nonfiction and fiction, the author touches upon such events as John Brown’s raid on the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Brown’s execution for treason following the raid, and such battles as Chancellorsville. The only concern I had about the volume was the degree to which it was a historical work or a fictional novel.

This reviewer recommends Gods and Generals, because it touches on how similar events can have dissimilar interpretations. Shaara utilizes the dangerous discretion inherent in historical fiction to set forth how the Confederates viewed The Civil War as a conflagration for the survival of their unique and “superior” culture, whereas, those who fought for the United States viewed the Civil War as a conflagration for the survival of the grand Union that dated to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

This topic is the most interesting aspect of the book. One need search no farther than the impeachment of President Clinton to find a “real world” example of the idea touched upon in this work of literature. Moreover, one need search no farther than the same exact event to ascertain how communication technology both formed and shaped the experiences of men in connection with the second impeachment of a President in American history.

The other book that is the subject of this review is Brass-Pounders: Young Telegraphers of the Civil War. In our era, citizens increasingly gather information from the nascent technological medium known as the internet. The Americans who experienced the Civil War also lived during a time of profound technological advancement and metamorphosis. One of the major technological advancements of the pre-Civil War era that had a profound effect upon the conflagration was the telegraph. “It had been clear enough back in 1861 that the electric telegraph was going to revolutionize military communications in this war.” The extent to which the telegraph served both the civic and military authorities made this medium of communication for the Civil War period what the internet is for today’s “information age.”

“No sooner was the first telegraph wire put into service by Samuel P. Morris than boy’s fingers began to itch for the feel of the brass” of the instrumentation that for the first time in history transmitted great quantities of information through wires. That statement is correct. As with computers today, some of the most proficient operators of the telegraph during the war were youth. At that point in time, telegraphic services were operated through commercial telegraph companies. In the volume, the author recounts how the United States government was underequipped to handle this new form of technology at the beginning stages of the war. This was quickly remedied by commissioning a U.S. Military Telegraph Bureau that was for all intents and purposes a civilian organization under the control of the War Department. Harlow pens an interesting account of the tension between this new branch of the military and the Signal Corps. Conversely, the Confederate States of America never commissioned a telegraph branch of its military forces.

There is no doubt, as is clear after reading this volume, that the young telegraphers of the U.S. Military Telegraph Bureau were the lifeblood of the Union Army. Once again, it should be commented that the men who performed telegraphic services for the Union Army were not men, but boys for the most part. Harlow accounts how the average age of a Union telegrapher was in the latter teenage years. In fact, “a lot of the boys who worked the wires during the war were under voting age when the war ended.”

Of course, several of those young boys laid down their lives for the survival of the grand Union. Approximately one hundred of the one thousand two hundred operators who served in the United States Military Telegraph Bureau died. As Harlow also recounts, the government appreciated the services of the young telegraphers. At the closure of the war, the U.S. government gave ten of the top telegraphers silver watches worth five or ten dollars in honor of their service to the American people. Although several telegraphers received honorary captaincies for their outstanding service, the young telegraphers of the Union Army were not considered soldiers. Thus they could not join veterans’ organizations after the war. Therefore, the telegraphers established their own veterans’ organization.

This reviewer recommends the two titles described in the foregoing review.


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.

Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

Brass-Pounders: Young Telegraphers of the Civil War by Alvin F. Harlow

A Review of Days of Defiance by Maury Klein

By Daniel Bonder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved

Author’s note: The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable encourages members to submit book reviews. This assists members and those from other roundtables in choosing worthwhile reading from the thousands of books available on the Civil War. A while back, an anonymous member of the Cincinnati Civil War Roundtable wrote an interesting and informative review of the book A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman. It caught my attention, and I recently completed an enjoyable reading of this book. I feel that the best way to thank that member and the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable is to write a book review as well.


Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War by Maury Klein was published in 1997. Its heavily footnoted 430 pages trace the run-up to the Civil War. The vast majority of the book focuses on the time period from Lincoln’s election through the fall of Fort Sumter. There are flashbacks to several important historical events that helped to set the stage for secession. These included the election of James Buchanan, whose inaction and lack of leadership in the face of the gathering storm left little room for any other outcome but war.

Numerous individuals, both significant and lesser known, are followed through those fateful six months. The author provides substantial detail regarding the actors’ lives, relationships, thoughts, and actions. These asides relating to the subject person’s background tend to take away from the flow of the historical events. However, if one wants to learn about their personalities, motivations, and internal conflicts, the author provides much of that type of information.

Fort Sumter, of course, is a central topic. After completing the book, one will understand the difficult decisions relating to how this became a major thorn in the side of the South and was a critical factor in the increasing animosity between North and South. We see the struggle of conscience of some and the steadfastness of others, no matter what the possible consequences.

Another insightful thread is the inter-relationships of politicians. Many had known each other for years. There were also army officers who had attended West Point together, served in the army together, and fought together during the Mexican War. Whose side they would support was worrisome for leaders both North and South. The beginning of turning brother against brother becomes a little better understood. More exploration of this most painful aspect of the Civil War would have been helpful.

Overall, if one is interested in understanding these important few months and getting to better know the people involved, then this text generally fills that role. Just be prepared to learn about the details of their lives that may not be particularly noteworthy nor enlightening.


Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War by Maury Klein

From the publisher: In November 1860, telegraph lines carried the news that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president. Over the next five months the United States drifted, stumbled, and finally plunged into the most destructive war this country has ever faced. With a masterful eye for telling detail, Maury Klein provides fascinating new insights into the period from the election of Abraham Lincoln to the shelling of Fort Sumter.

Klein brings the key players in the tragedy unforgettably to life: from the vacillating lame-duck President Buchanan to the taciturn, elusive, and relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln; from Secretary of State Seward carrying on his own private negotiations with the South to Major Robert Anderson sitting in his island fortress awaiting reinforcements. Never has this immensely significant moment in our national story been so intelligently or so spellbindingly related.

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.

Sailing Aboard the Monitor: Reviews of Two Books about the USS Monitor

Reviewed by William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2002, 2007, All Rights Reserved

The March 9, 1862 clash of the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) has always had a tenacious grip on the American imagination. It is easily the best-known naval engagement of the war. Many historians call the first-ever battle between two armored warships a draw; after all, neither warship was sunk or seriously damaged. However, when the battle was over, it was the larger, more heavily-armed Virginia which withdrew, and the smaller, more maneuverable Monitor which remained in place, having successfully guarded the vulnerable wooden warships of the U.S. Navy blockading fleet in Hampton Roads, Va.

With the raising of the Monitor’s turret this summer (2002), interest in the stalwart Union ironclad has perhaps never been stronger. Two recent books reexamine the Monitor’s origins, history and mythology in very different ways. Both The Monitor Chronicles : One Sailor’s Account. Today’s Campaign to Recover the Civil War Wreck, edited by William Marvel (Simon & Schuster, 2000), and War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor by David A. Mindell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), are interesting and informative, and they’re complementary in the different approaches they take to the subject.

The Monitor Chronicles was published in conjunction with the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Va., the official repository of artifacts raised from the Monitor’s wreck. In the book, William Marvel selects and edits dozens of letters written by George S. Geer, a 25-year-old sailor. Born in Troy, N.Y., Geer joined the Navy on Feb. 15, 1862, “less to help save the Union than to earn some money and learn a reliable trade,” as Marvel writes. Geer served aboard the Monitor throughout her short career and, with erratic spelling, wrote to his wife Martha about virtually everything that happened aboard – particularly his tireless angling for promotion, his denunciation of liquor and its effect upon his shipmates, and his keen entrepreneurial spirit. His wife bought and sent him newspapers, small locks and keys (useful against shipboard thieves), silk and sewing notions, all of which Geer sold aboard at great profit.

George S. Geer

As a first-class fireman, Geer’s duties included working with the ship’s engines, heaving coal, and storing ammunition and supplies. He had every sailor’s concern for his own creature comforts. The pursuit of food, sleep and light duty was a major motivation for Geer, who in those days of more relaxed hygiene wasn’t too embarrassed to admit he’d once worn the same underwear for almost three weeks. Still, his thoughts were never far from home. Martha Geer raised their tight-knit family in a small Manhattan tenement, and depended on money her husband sent home to make ends meet. Geer worried about his family, and expressions of love and concern often appear in his letters. On March 2, 1862, just a week before the battle with the Virginia, Geer wrote: “Kiss both the Babys about 24 times apiece for me and don’t let them get sick and as for you I have got no love for you, you have it all.”

After the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Navy Department decided it could not take undue risks with the unique Monitor, and the ship stayed at anchor throughout the steamy summer of 1862 as a deterrent against further Confederate naval attack. Geer and his crewmates grew bored and weary in the heat. He wrote to Martha on August 13, “I do not wounder you are worid at what you read in the Papers…about the doings of the Monitor, but they are all bosh. We have not had our Anchor up, Fired a Gun, or been of the least use or service except to act as a scare crow, for most [of] one month.”

By the end of the year the Navy decided to send the Monitor south and, while being towed to Beaufort, N.C. in late December, she sank in a severe storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Geer barely escaped with his life, and wrote to Martha at the first opportunity, “I am sorry to have to write you that we have lost the Monitor, and what is worse we had 16 poor fellows drownded. I can tell you I thank God my life is spaired… do not worry. I am safe and well.” He later wrote her (in a turn of phrase I’d thought was from a century later), “You need not worry for me, as I am always looking out for No. 1 and am not going to get killed or drowned in this war.” He wasn’t, as it happened, but the book’s biggest shortcoming is that we don’t learn much more about Geer’s later life other than that he served almost another three years in the Navy, including service as an engineer aboard the USS Galena. Still, this is a worthwhile look at life aboard the Monitor through the eyes of one of her crew. The book concludes with an interesting account of current efforts to preserve what remains of the Monitor’s wreck.

By contrast, War, Technology and Experience aboard the USS Monitor is more academic in tone, exploring the broader significance of the Union’s most notable and technologically advanced ironclad. In author David A. Mindell’s conception, the ship’s story “provides a lens through which to see issues of …society, military technology, and the human implications of new machinery.”

This is an ambitious goal, and Mindell achieves it. He provides good background on the naval arms race in Europe in the mid-1800s, noting that U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had his eye on France and Britain at least as much as on the Confederacy when he set up an Ironclad Board to consider construction proposals. John Ericsson, the brilliant but mercurial designer of the Monitor, wrote in suggesting her name, “The impregnable and aggressive character of this vessel will admonish the leaders of the Southern Rebellion that the batteries on the banks of their rivers will no longer present barriers to the entrance of Union forces… but there are other leaders who will also by startled and admonished….To the Lords of the [British] Admiralty the new craft will be a monitor, suggesting doubts….On these and many similar grounds I propose to name the new battery Monitor.”

John Ericsson

Ericsson, Mindell writes, was not above altering his own public persona to fit the image of a hero of the Industrial Revolution, clashing with hidebound traditionalists in the Navy (some of whom insisted his ship would sink like a stone as soon as she was launched), insisting on his own grand vision and inventing – or re-inventing – himself along the way. Ericsson was distrusted by many for both his genius and his imperious manner, but what is now forgotten is that his private life was, by the standards of his day, rather scandalous. Mindell notes that Ericsson had a failed romance that resulted in the birth of an illegitimate child in his native Sweden. He was a poor businessman, declaring bankruptcy while working in England and spending some time in debtor’s prison. He later married, but left his wife Amelia behind in England when he came to America in 1839; he supported her financially but never saw her again. His work in designing the USS Princeton, and the blame wrongly heaped upon him when a cannon not of his design disastrously exploded aboard her in 1844 (killing several observers, including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy), made Ericsson and the Navy mutually leery. However, the inventor learned his lessons well. Mindell writes pungently of the obstacles Ericsson overcame in getting the Monitor built, with all of the political wire-pulling and maneuvering that entailed: “Appearances count; demonstrations convince; nationality inspires; politics gets things done.”

William F. Keeler

While Marvel takes us aboard the Monitor in the company of fireman Geer, Mindell reintroduces us to one of the ship’s officers, Acting Assistant Paymaster William F. Keeler. Like Geer, Keeler was born in New York. He married the daughter of a prominent Connecticut politician, and became a small businessman with a flair for machinery. He had two years’ sea experience and was an ardent abolitionist. He was 41 when he came aboard the Monitor for service as a glorified clerk, the oldest man aboard but for the captain. On such a small ship, he and Geer knew one another; Keeler was blamed by the crew when the ship’s fund ran out of money or the captain decided to withhold pay; in one letter, Geer denounced Keeler a “devilish scoundrel.” Keeler disapproved of the crew’s excessive drinking and pranks, and kept his distance. As Mindell writes, “Amid the crew, Keeler had that tinge of social awkwardness that makes a good observer.” Keeler wrote 79 letters to his wife Anna while serving aboard the Monitor, and in them he provided a thorough description of ironclad shipboard life.

Mindell makes good use of Keeler’s letters and other documents in showing how sharp a break the Monitor made with maritime tradition. The role of engineers and staff officers was in flux; the Navy’s traditionalist deck officers considered them almost second-class citizens. Officers and crew also mixed and mingled much more aboard the compact ironclad than they would on a sailing ship, breaking down some social barriers that the officers might rather have maintained. The delicate but complex machinery of the Monitor needed constant watching, and the crew was “living on a technological frontier,” Mindell writes, with constant uncertainty as to what lay ahead. The Monitor’s crew prized physical courage, as did most Americans of that era, so fighting in an ironclad vessel seemed almost unsporting. After the clash with the Virginia, Keeler wrote, “I think we get more credit for the fight than we deserve – anyone could fight behind an impenetrable armor – many have fought as well behind wooden walls or none at all. The credit, if any is due, is in daring to undertake the trip and go into the fight in an untried experiment and in our unprepared condition.” Years later, John Worden, the Monitor’s commanding officer during her battle with the Virginia, agreed with Keeler, writing, “Here was an unknown, untried vessel, with all but a small portion of her below the waterline, her crew to live with the ocean beating over their heads – an iron coffin-like ship of which the gloomiest predictions were made, with her crew shut out from sunlight and the air above the sea, depending entirely on artificial means to supply the air they breathe. A failure of the machinery … would be almost certain death to her men.” Mindell persuasively argues that, for all of the successes of the Monitor and her sister ships, they were oversold by Ericsson, were almost as hazardous to their crews as to the enemy, and sank with disconcerting ease.

Paymaster Keeler, like Geer and the rest of the crew, chafed under the Navy’s cautious policy after the Virginia steamed away. Keeler wrote his wife in frustration that “the Government is getting to regard the Monitor in pretty much the same light as an over careful housewife regards her ancient china set – too valuable to use, too useful to keep as a relic, yet anxious that all shall know what she owns and that she can use it when the occasion demands, though she fears much its beauty may be marred or its usefulness impaired.” Keeler later wrote, “I believe the department [is] going to build a glass case to put us in for fear of harm coming to us.” However, Mindell acknowledges the tremendous risk Lincoln and Welles would run if the ship were lost or captured after her first battle: “The ironclad gained value as a symbol as well as a weapon, and an emblem of victory could quickly become an emblem of defeat.”

Although ultimately lost not in battle but in a storm at sea, the Monitor was the model for most of the ironclad warships built by the U.S. Navy during and just after the Civil War. Monitor-type ships remained on the Navy List until 1937. Mindell writes that Ericsson’s little ship and her progeny “sold the ideas that navies could build both ships and machines, that naval officers had to share their glory with designers and constructors, and that mechanical warfare, whatever its indignities, might also leave a place for human skill, and hence for heroism.”

In examining the Monitor phenomena from every angle, and putting it in context with the ever-changing nature of technological warfare up through the 1991 Gulf War, Mindell offers an offbeat and fascinating look at the broader issues surrounding perhaps the most influential warship ever built.


Related links:
The USS Monitor Center
Monitor National Marine Sanctuary
The Mariners’ Museum
NOVA: Lincoln’s Secret Weapon

The books reviewed in this article can be purchased below. Click the book title 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.

The Monitor Chronicles : One Sailor’s Account. Today’s Campaign to Recover the Civil War Wreck by William Marvel

War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor by David A. Mindell

A Report On: American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” By John Oller

By Jean Rhodes
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015, All Rights Reserved

Kate Chase

Katherine Jane Chase, the daughter of Ohio politician, Salmon P. Chase was the envy of the Washington social set during the war years and beyond.

By the time Kate was born on August 13, 1840, her father had already lost one wife and child. He was to lose two more children and Kate’s mother before the end of 1845. Chase’s third wife also died but not before giving Kate a sister, Nettie. He would never marry again.

Being widowed and heavily involved in Ohio politics, Salmon Chase would groom Kate to become his hostess and social secretary, sending her to Miss Haines School in New York City to prepare her for society. While there, she was exposed to the finer things in life to which she became accustomed. Her father’s expectations for her led him to become, it would seem, overcritical, filling his letters with advice and correcting her grammar whenever possible. Salmon Chase strove to be first and wanted the same for his daughter. One senses little warmth between father and daughter, although she idolized him. Their relationship was a symbiotic one: as time went on, Kate would help her father politically and he would never marry, with the expectation that Salmon Chase would become President and Kate would be his First Lady.

Kate returned to Columbus in 1855 as her father was running for Governor of Ohio. With his election, she became his First Lady and secretary. At age 16 she was already turning heads and was known as the “Belle of Columbus”. Salmon Chase campaigned for, and lost, the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, after which he became Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary. While disappointed at the loss, Kate learned valuable political lessons, among them the need to be proactive and the importance of strategy.

The Chase family moved to Washington and Kate soon became the premier hostess in the Capitol just as she had in Columbus. Kate and Mary Lincoln “competed” for the position until the Lincoln’s lost their son and Mary went into mourning. All of Kate’s social events, everyone who was invited, the details down to the seating arrangements, were designed to further her father’s career. Salmon had set his sights on the Presidency and Kate coveted the office as much as he did.

William Sprague, IV

Her many admirers included Carl Schurz, John Hay and James Garfield; however, the man who won her heart was William Sprague IV, boy Governor of Rhode Island and heir to a textile empire. They first met in Cleveland, Ohio at the dedication ceremony of the Oliver Hazard Perry Monument. Their wedding on November 12, 1863 was the wedding of the decade, although it was soon realized that the marriage would be a rocky one. Measured by the standards of the day, it would seem she had everything. She was attractive, intelligent and had married into a wealthy family. Unfortunately, she would experience much unhappiness. She was exacting and soon found that her husband, far from a perfect man, fell short of her ideal. She spent much of her married life in Washington helping her father politically while Sprague ran the family business in Rhode Island, travelling to Washington when Congress was in session as he had been elected to the U. S. Senate.

The one man that did measure up to her standards and shared her burning ambition, her father, would never achieve his ultimate goal. Chase was hopeful of a presidential bid in 1864, but Lincoln appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, much to Kate’s chagrin.

The birth of Kate’s son, Willie, was a national event. Three daughters were to follow. Kate and her husband lived separate lives, she dividing her time between their mansion in Narragansett, Rhode Island, Washington and Europe.

With Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson entered the White House, allowing Kate to maintain her position as the most sought after hostess in Washington. In 1868, Salmon Chase again pursued the presidency. Kate was his campaign manager and held a level of political power unprecedented for a woman up to that time. Grant won the nomination, and Kate never forgave those on Chase’s staff whom she felt betrayed him.

During this time, Kate’s marriage to William declined further due, in part, to her absences from home and her husband’s drinking and unfaithfulness; she would not take her father’s advice to be more submissive. Salmon Chase died in 1873 depriving Kate of the one man she admired. Following the Panic of 1873, the Sprague financial empire collapsed amidst accusations of treasonous business relations with the Confederacy during the war.

Roscoe Conkling

Kate entered into a relationship with Roscoe Conkling, the powerful New York senator, which lasted for many years. He was her intellectual and political equal. Conkling sought her counsel and she actively campaigned to further his considerable political influence. She became a Stalwart and friend of Chester Arthur, remaining active in Washington politics.

Financial ruin, the social scandal of her affair with Conkling and a well-publicized, acrimonious divorce from Sprague would damage her reputation and emotionally traumatize her family. Paradoxically, it was only after she had lost many things that were once dear to her, did she find a measure of peace within herself.

Her last days were spent living in her father’s crumbling house, taking care of her mentally challenged daughter and eking out a living selling vegetables from her garden. It was said that as she drove her one-horse wagon with her soiled white gloves through the streets of Washington delivering produce, she held her head high and was kind to everyone she met.

Kate Chase died on July 31, 1899. As a woman of the nineteenth century, her opportunities were limited, but she followed her own agenda behind the scenes. Had Kate lived today, she would probably have run for office, or had a professional career. No matter how one interprets her historical legacy, Kate Chase was one of the most influential women of her time.


American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North”
By John Oller (Da Capo Press, October 2014, 416 pages)

From the publisher: Had People magazine been around during the Civil War and after, Kate Chase would have made its “Most Beautiful” and “Most Intriguing” lists every year.

Kate Chase, the charismatic daughter of Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, enjoyed unprecedented political power for a woman. As her widowed father’s hostess, she set up a rival “court” against Mary Lincoln in hopes of making her father president and herself his First Lady. To facilitate that goal, she married one of the richest men in the country, the handsome “boy governor” of Rhode Island, in the social event of the Civil War. But when William Sprague turned out to be less of a prince as a husband, she found comfort in the arms of a powerful married senator. The ensuing scandal ended her virtual royalty, leaving her a social outcast who died in poverty. Yet in her final years she would find both greater authenticity and the inner peace that had always eluded her.

Set against the seductive allure of the Civil War and Gilded Age, Kate Chase Sprague’s dramatic story is one of ambition and tragedy involving some of the most famous personalities in American history. In this beautifully written and meticulously researched biography, drawing on much unpublished material, John Oller captures the tumultuous and passionate life of a woman who was a century ahead of her time.

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.