Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Geiger: "HOLDING THE LINE: The Battle of Allegheny Mountain and Confederate Defense of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, 1861-62"

[Holding the Line: The Battle of Allegheny Mountain and Confederate Defense of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, 1861-62 by Joe Geiger (West Virginia Book Company, 2012). Softcover, maps, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:201/276. ISBN:978-1-891852-83-1 $19.95]

Spanning several Appalachian Mountain peaks and ranges, the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike was an important transportation artery linking far western Virginia (Parkersburg on the Ohio River) to the Shenandoah Valley at the town of Staunton. Though experience would quickly demonstrate the road to be unsuitable for sustained use during bad weather, it was actually considered a viable invasion route early in the war by the Union high command. All of these factors would make the turnpike a bloody witness to several battles and innumerable raids and skirmishes during 1861 and early 1862. These events are the subject of Joe Geiger's groundbreaking new study Holding the Line: The Battle of Allegheny Mountain and Confederate Defense of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, 1861-62.

Geiger's overview of the strategic importance of the turnpike to both sides is excellent, as is his exploration of the tug and pull relationship between military operations along the turnpike and adjacent fronts (especially Stonewall Jackson's Romney campaign, which drew heavily from the Confederate defenders of Allegheny Mountain). In terms of numbers present, the largest battle discussed in the book is the first, the October 3, 1861 clash at Greenbrier River between the division-sized command of Union General Joseph J. Reynolds and a Confederate brigade led by General Henry R. Jackson. In this fight, Jackson's Camp Bartow defenders turned back Reynolds's weak probes against both southern flanks, but the main action was a cross river artillery duel.

The bloodiest battle described in the book occurred two months later on December 13, when Union General Robert Milroy launched a two-pronged assault on the Confederate fortifications atop Allegheny Mountain. The federal attacks were uncoordinated, and Colonel Edward Johnson was able to shift his meager forces to meet both attacks and repulse them. As noted by Geiger, the irony of the battle was if Milroy only had waited a few days he could have taken the peak nearly unopposed [the Confederates were in the midst of a general withdrawal]. The southern victory confirmed the fears of those that saw the mountain passes as federal invasion routes that needed to be garrisoned.  Thus, the Confederates would remain there during the miserable winter months of 1861-62.

During his research, Geiger uncovered a prodigious body of primary source material, especially in the form of unpublished diaries and letters. In addition to facilitating the author's construction of detailed accounts of the fighting, these sources also convey to readers how difficult it was for the soldiers, especially those native to the Deep South, to endure the brutal fall and winter weather conditions in the mountains.

Overall, the 1861 campaigns in western Virginia have been covered quite well in the literature, with book length studies from writers and historians like Francis Haselberger, Terry Lowry, Tim McKinney, Hunter Lesser, Eva Margaret Carnes, and Clayton Newell, but the subject matter discussed in Holding the Line is entirely new. In addition to his accounts of Greenbrier River and Allegheny Mountain, Geiger also meticulously documents the large number of raids, skirmishes, scouting expeditions, and guerrilla operations that occurred in the region through the spring of 1862.

The only significant problem I have with the book is with the maps, none of which are original creations. The handful of reproductions [O.R. atlas plates, a pair of drawings, and an engraving] are helpful with the big picture and offer a general understanding of the Battle of Greenbrier River, but there are no maps for the attack on Camp Allegheny and the archival drawing depicting sites of January 1862 skirmishes is illegible. A series of maps specifically wedded to the narrative should have been considered essential by author and publisher.

Map issues aside, Holding the Line is an important achievement, a highly detailed account of military events never before the subject of book length study. In addition to its descriptive accounts of regular operations, the book's concurrent guerrilla narrative (which highlights a number of aspects of the "inner" war) should educate readers of all backgrounds on the fact that the irregular war in the wilds of western Virginia was every bit as brutal and widespread as that experienced in border regions currently better documented in the literature. Holding the Line is highly recommended.

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