Sunday, June 06, 2010

Hewitt & Bergeron (eds.): "CONFEDERATE GENERALS IN THE WESTERN THEATER, VOL. 1: Classic Essays on America’s Civil War"

[Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 1: Classic Essays on America’s Civil War, edited by Lawrence Lee Hewitt and Arthur W. Bergeron Jr. (University of Tennessee Press, 2010). Cloth, 7 maps, notes, bibliography, index. 312 pages. ISBN: 978-1-57233-700-8 $45.95]

This essay collection is the first volume in University of Tennessee Press's new Western Theater in the Civil War series. Dedicating its fifteen chapters to noted historian Thomas L. Connelly, general editors Larry Hewitt and the late Art Bergeron assembled for Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 1 a who's who of scholars. Five additional series volumes are already in the works, three more for the West and a pair covering Trans-Mississippi generals. But why begin with a compilation of previously published essays? Most of the articles originally appeared in obscure publications, read by few, and the editors felt they were deserving of renewed attention for a wider audience. Because the demands of scholarship have become more exacting over time and interpretations necessarily change with the introduction of new source material and specialist studies, it is no surprise that the strength of the essays (one is almost 50 years old) varies, although the editors did go back and standardize the notations and some of the authors revised and updated their work for the new volume. Additionally, there are some editorial comments inserted within the notes.

The first essay, a brief and uncompromising composition by Grady McWhiney, takes note of Leonidas Polk's unbroken stream of military blunders and insubordinate behavior. Although it appears impossible for any future scholar to discover the means to elevate the bishop's martial reputation, McWhiney does mention Polk's only discernible positive leadership trait, that of great popularity with his men. The baffling source of this would perhaps be a subject worthy of further review.

Most Civil War readers are familiar with Charles Roland's sympathetic assessment of Albert Sidney Johnston, first outlined in his 1964 biography. With only a limited early war command record (albeit disastrous in ultimate result), and denied the opportunity his peers enjoyed of growing into the position of army command, the quality of Johnston's leadership remains open to a wide variety of interpretations. Roland elected to take an optimistic tack, but others will undoubtedly disagree.

Originally published in Civil War History in 1955, T. Harry Williams's look at P.G.T. Beauregard at Shiloh appears in places a bit dated [e.g. "If any one man saved the Union army at Shiloh, (Benjamin) Prentiss was the man"(pg. 35), a view largely on the wane today], but remains a useful summary for the uninitiated. Like Roland on Johnston, Williams maintained the equally debatable position that Beauregard's conduct at Shiloh showed ability and bright promise.

One of the best and freshest essays is Art Bergeron's mini-biography of unfairly maligned (the author would argue) General Mansfield Lovell. Students are familiar with President Davis's scapegoating of Lovell for the fall of New Orleans in 1862, but less well known are the multitude of attempts by superior officers to obtain Lovell's services as a division and corps-level commander, all of which were bluntly rebuffed by Davis. Another factor that did not endear the officer to Davis was Lovell's very close connection with Davis's Mississippi political rival John Quitman. Bergeron makes a very persuasive case that it was the mentor-protege relationship (more like father and son) with ardent secessionist Quitman that most directly influenced the northern-born Lovell's decision to 'go South', even two of his brothers married Quitman daughters. Allowed no combat role after the October 1862 Corinth Campaign, the general's limited command history makes his military prowess more difficult to assess, although Bergeron credits him with doing all he could reasonably do for New Orleans.

Three other essays review in a similar manner the Civil War careers as a whole of John C. Pemberton, Patton Anderson, and Daniel C. Govan. Pemberton biographer Michael Ballard reinforces the now conventional view of the general as a highly skilled administrator but poor battlefield commander. While many West Point-trained officers like Pemberton were promoted to line positions beyond their capacity and without having to truly prove themselves, several non-professionals rose to general officer rank in the western armies on the strength of their combat performances. Two of these are Patton Anderson and the lesser well known Daniel C. Govan, their Civil War services ably chronicled and analyzed in largely positive pieces by Richard McMurry and Daniel Sutherland.

The other series co-editor, Larry Hewitt, also contributed an article, a defense of Braxton Bragg's strategic sensibility as exhibited during the 1862 Kentucky Campaign. The author's argument that Bragg's "campaigning by maneuver should have become the primary Confederate strategy in the western theater"(pg. 82) is an intriguing one, and sure to engender debate over its viability given the limited logistical and transportation resources of the South. Hewitt's essay also serves as a reminder that the general is badly in need of a balanced modern biographer. Bragg is also the subject of Steven Woodworth's chapter, an account of the general's maddening inability (with blame surely cutting both ways) to get his major subordinates to respect his authority and judgment, and follow his orders, during the 1863 Chickamauga Campaign.

Archer Jones adds a fine analysis of the early period of Joe Johnston's stint as western department commander, overseeing the coordination of armies in Middle and East Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, while extending the hand of cooperation to Samuel Jones's command in SW Virginia. The author demonstrates that Johnston actual devised and managed a creditable strategic plan, involving the rail network and a large interdepartmental cavalry force, that performed well on two test runs. Unfortunately, Johnston characteristically did not share his plans with the Davis administration and, worse, complained outwardly that the situation was impossible, leading this reviewer to speculate that he was positioning himself to reap the benefits of success while at the same time cultivating an excuse for defeat.

Tactical direction in specific battles are the subject of articles by Craig Symonds, Edwin C. Bearss, and Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes. Patrick Cleburne biographer Symonds uses the events of the 1863 Tunnel Hill battle as a window through which the Irish-American's extraordinary quality of coolness in demeanor and clearheaded decision making under fire can be scrutinized. Not surprisingly, Bearss takes on Forrest at Brice's Crossroads, and Hughes gives William J. Hardee high marks for his defense and smooth evacuation of Savannah in 1864.

Hood's campaigns in Georgia and Tennessee are the subject of a pair of chapters. In the first, William Cooper posits that President Davis's support for the strike into Tennessee was the correct, albeit most risky, decision both militarily and politically. A persuasive argument can be made that a high risk-high reward operation was required at this desperate point in the war. Less positive is Frank Vandiver's article outlining John Bell Hood's failures in overseeing his army's logistics post-Atlanta.

This assemblage of "classic" writings by multiple generations of esteemed western theater historians is well worth reading by Civil War military history students, new and old. While some of the material and opinions presented will be quite familiar to the latter, enough unusual and thought provoking ideas and analysis are exhibited in the book's pages to satisfy both groups. The quality of this first volume bodes well for the future of the series.

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