A Thousand May Fall, by Brian Matthew Jordan**

I had such great hopes for this book. Jordan was a Pulitzer finalist for his work on American Civil War veterans, which I have not read, and this new work focuses on the life of an everyday soldier in the 107th Ohio Volunteer Union Infantry, which includes a large number of immigrant troops. My thanks go to Net Galley and Liveright Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

I love a good history book, but I don’t love this one. For starters, we have no apparent thesis. After reading the first third of the narrative, my largest question was where the author wanted to take this thing. Is he demonstrating that the German immigrants weren’t as worthless in combat as their reputation suggests? If so, maybe we should focus on that, rather than on the 107th. Give me a thesis focusing on German Civil War soldiers, support it, make it interesting, and I’ll be a happy reviewer. Another possibility is to find an ordinary foot soldier with a fair amount of interesting correspondence or other material to hold my attention. I like seeing the rank and file recognized, and there’s such an abundance of documentation available for this conflict that this shouldn’t be a difficult project.

Sadly, this isn’t what I find. We have a linear story here, and that makes sense, but we go through training, through the nightmare of Chancellorsville, and then Gettysburg, and when we reach the end, I still can’t locate much purpose to Jordan’s endeavor. Once in a while a compelling nugget jumps out, such as the training march at the book’s outset, where men are driven forward without water, and in the end two men are dead; the march concludes, several hours later, just a mile from the starting point, and we see that brutal leadership and poor planning left some surviving men disillusioned. But in many places research appears to be thrown in for its own sake, and no matter how you dress it up, what that is, is filler. We see bits of letters sent home saying that war is pretty bad. Another writer says that he experienced a “hard, tedious march.” Actually, that one shows up in multiple forms, several times also. There’s another quote about passing “porches and verandas,” and another about arriving at an attractive location. (“Beauty and tranquility.”) I could go on, but since he’s done enough of that for the two of us, I won’t. All of it is meticulously—feverishly, even—documented, but so much of it is documenting material that shouldn’t be here in the first place that I can’t get too excited. A professor should know that you have to edit out the extraneous junk and tighten your writing.

There are a few bright spots. I didn’t know there were two different kinds of court martial, so I learned one thing here. Jordan seems to point toward the German infantryman being courageous and willing, but crippled by cowardly, incompetent leadership. I wish that he had used this as his central thesis and thrown away the extraneous crud. There would be a point to the book if he did that, and I could write the sort of glowing review that gets me out of bed in the morning.

As it is, I can’t recommend it.

Glory Road, by Bruce Catton*****

gloryroadBruce Catton was known as a popular historian when he first published books about the American Civil War, because of his narrative nonfiction format. All of the books being released digitally now are ones previously published in a non-digital age. This reviewer hunted down Catton’s three volume Centennial History of the Civil War at a used bookstore some time back, and although they were among the best I have ever read by anyone on this topic, I was convinced that anything he had published earlier on the subject was probably repackaged in this trilogy, and so I stopped reading Catton, thinking I was done. Thank goodness Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media posted the galley for this second volume of Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy. Now that I am disabused, I will have to find the first and third volumes also, because Catton is so eloquent that he can spin ordinarily dry-sounding military history into as good a read as the most compelling fiction.

Although his Civil War books are not written in academic format, there is no denying Catton’s research or his credentials. He was one of the founders of American Heritage Magazine, and served as its senior editor until his death. During World War II, he was the US government’s Director of Information for the War Production Board, then later worked in a similar capacity for the Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce.

Frankly, in order to spin the story of the three battles that comprise most of this volume out in such a conversational manner, dropping anecdotes in at just the right moments and then carrying on so as to make us feel as if he is a journalist traveling with the Union forces and we are concealed cleverly in his knapsack, bespeaks a remarkable amount of research. Only after reading the whole thing, spellbound, did it occur to me that for every vignette he included to make the telling more personal and more interesting, he must have edited out ten or twenty. The result is a masterpiece.

I came to this work as a former instructor in the field, and wished I had read his work in time to make use of it in the classroom. At the same time, it is sufficiently accessible that someone with no prior knowledge of the Civil War should be able to keep up just fine as long as they are able to read at the level of a high school senior or community college student. There is a definite bias toward the Union, which frankly is a requisite to my enjoyment of Civil War history. (Those that feel otherwise can go find Shelby Foote’s work.)

I never in a thousand years thought I would even consider rereading some of this war’s most painful battles—the battle of Fredericksburg being perhaps the most prominent in this regard—but Catton has some little-told things to say about these battles, and in particular about Burnside and that Tammany Hall political general, Sickles, that I hadn’t seen before. I had viewed Burnside as a failure from start to finish, but he makes a case that a lot of the mishandling of this situation was due to an ungainly Federal bureaucracy that wasn’t good at receiving information and passing it along in a prompt, useful manner. It gave me pause, and reminded me that we should never assume we know enough about something to call ourselves experts.

The Battle of Chancellorsville is likewise told in a manner fresh and readable, but the bulk of the text deals with that decisive, costly three day fight at Gettysburg. He gives an even-handed assessment of both Hooker and Meade, and again I learned some things I didn’t know before.

Catton’s writing is so engaging that it is destined to live for a long, long time after he is gone, educating subsequent generations. I found myself resolved, at the end of this volume, to look for other galleys of his work to read and review, and when there are no more left, to track down those still missing on my next pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books.

For you, however, it is fortunate that Open Road is releasing this work digitally, so you won’t have to turn out the shelves of every used bookstore in the US in order to locate it. It will be available for purchase November 3, 2015 for your phone, computer, or e-reader, and is highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the American Civil War.

Simply brilliant.

Hallowed Ground: An Illustrated History of the Walk at Gettysburg, by James McPherson*****

hallowed groundHallowed Ground packs a great deal of information regarding Gettysburg, past and present, into a tight package. I own an earlier edition, and I used the photographs in it as part of my lectures when I was teaching a unit on the Civil War.

McPherson is a renowned author, winner of the Pulitzer for Battle Cry of Freedom. That volume should be the go-to book for anyone looking for a first highly literate glimpse of the American Civil War. This book is only about Gettysburg, as it is today and as it was then. McPherson has not only walked every square inch of the area involved, but also takes his students on tour there. He tells the reader what parts of the standard park guide tour script are actually incorrect, which is particularly useful for those visiting the park. In fact, this guide is primarily targeted for those planning to walk the large area encompassed, but I haven’t been there, and most likely won’t, and I never regretted the purchase of that earlier edition. If I were teaching still, or mobile enough to be able to do that tour, I’d buy this one as well.

I am delighted to be able to review the DRC for the newer edition, which contains even more digital photographs. I couldn’t see a lot of them–got a blank, gray box instead, which happens with galleys sometimes–but the quality of what I could see was excellent. Put this together with a lot of other primary sources, including battle plans, letters written by those involved at the time, and photographs that were already in the earlier edition, and it’s clear this is a volume that belongs on the shelves of every Civil War buff or instructor, as well as any other interested party.

Highly recommended.

Gettysburg, by Stephen Sears *****

gettysburgThis is the most thorough and brilliant account of the Battle of Gettysburg (all three days, plus the approach and the departure) I have ever read.

I have to laugh at the reviews that claim there is too much detail here. Hey, folks, look at the title, and look at the number of pages. If you aren’t ready to have the complete, detailed account, you should know before you buy it or check it out from your library that this isn’t for you.

I used to teach about the American Civil War, and it continues to be a strong area of interest for me. I wouldn’t have wanted this to be my first, second, or third book about this war; actually, for the serious reader who is just getting started, McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (which won the Pulitzer) is the best starting point. For those not interested in as thorough an account, it may be easier to start with historical fiction, and then move to nonfictional accounts of the war to help you straighten out the facts from the frills.

For me though, I was ready to get down and resolve some conflicting ideas I had read. Some who specialize in the Confederate angle blame JEB Stuart for not coming in when Lee expected him with the intelligence that was needed. Some blame Longstreet for not enthusiastically embracing and supporting Lee’s plan of attack. And still others say the buck stopped with Lee, who after all was in charge and made the call.

Sears says this was overall (from the Confederate side) a case of great overconfidence. Earlier in the war,Stuart had ridden all the way around Union commander McClellan’s forces twice to upset him and cut off his communications. This was intended to be trip #3, and it was expected to net similar results, apart from the foraging. The rebels were looking forward to gaining food and other supplies from the well-fed Pennsylvanians. Indeed, when Stuart did finally return–too late to do any real good regarding Gettysburg–he had an enormous trainload of wagons filled with the things Lee had sent him to get. But the Union’s forces had cut Stuart off, had come between him and Lee, and he and his cavalry had the very devil of a time safely making their way around the Union and back to Lee. Overconfidence; Sears makes a convincing case.

Another blunder attributable to overconfidence was in waiting an extra day to attack, if they were going to attack without further intelligence from Stuart. Sears makes an excellent case that if they were going to attack Union forces, it should have been later (once Stuart was there to fill them in) or right away, because there were a lot of Union forces making their way toward Gettysburg (and the Confederates knew this much) that would be there the following day–when the battle actually began–who were not yet there. And Ewell, in general a strong commander, makes a terrible, terrible blunder in telling Lee that the Yankees who occupy Cemetery Ridge will be rendered harmless because Jubal Early is occupying the hill that is east of them, and higher. He reasoned that if the rebels had Seminary Ridge to the west and Culp’s Hill, the Union would be wedged in between opposing forces and rendered harmless. But the critical mistake is in giving Jubal Early “discretionary” orders to occupy this hill, and not telling Lee this. Early waits, deciding to send another force under him, headed by Johnson, to occupy Culp’s Hill, and in the time wasted, the Union takes the ground, changing things dramatically.

Shifting to the Union perspective, we see that the forces are led overall by Meade, who has led the Army of the Potomac for exactly four days. Through intrigue among the generals below him, Hooker, a good general whose rank and file loved him but whose immediate inferiors found abrasive, was robbed of the glory of taking the field after he had made the plans and set them in motion.

On the second day of battle, Sickles, a political general (meaning that he was given command because of his high governmental office, rather than military leadership or experience) refused Meade’s orders repeatedly. And this is one thing I greatly appreciate about Sears: some writers will tread softly when criticizing a commander who later becomes a casualty, as though printing word of the officer’s stubbornness or stupidity and its consequences for the men beneath him might be a breach of etiquette.

But the fact is, a lot of men there got dead because of the stupidity or wrong-headedness of those who exercised authority over them, and in the case of this battle, both sides have let their own men know that flight or failure to fight will result in their summary shooting, so it isn’t as though a man could just duck behind a log and wander away from battle, as happened in some other really poorly conceived fights. The truth should be told exactly as it occurred, and in a thorough, well-documented, linear way, Sears lays the story, the exact truth unvarnished, before us.

As things unfold, the carnage for which this three day battle is known takes many of the bravest and best down right away. John Reynolds, one of Meade’s ablest generals who was offered overall command and refused it,was shot through the throat and died within the first hour of battle. John Bell Hood was injured and incapacitated, but recovered to fight again, but not at Gettysburg.

The most notable action on the second day is the Union’s Chamberlain’s decision not to retreat or surrender when faced with the fact that they are surrounded and completely out of ammunition. Looking down at the desperate rebs trying to climb that hill, he shouts, “Fix bayonets!” and with this, the rebels surrender. A heroic moment!

On the second day, Union efforts are hampered by the “continued obtuseness of Slocum” and Sickles’ failure to occupy the ground assigned. By the time Meade gets to Sickles in person after Sickles has refused orders sent to him multiple times, it is too late for Sickles to move, and the damage is done. When Sickles loses his leg,an officer in the Second Corps remarks, “The loss of his leg is a great gain to us, whatever it may be to him.” Hancock, a far more capable commander, is placed in command, and he does the job right.

The statistics, both regarding loss of able leaders on both sides as well as the rank and file, particularly for the rebels on the third and most gruesome day, are appalling. Many times Sears refers to this as “Fredericksburg in reverse”, and indeed, Union soldiers can be heard crying out, “Fredericksburg!”

The aftermath is controversial. Initially, Lincoln was gravely disappointed to hear that Meade had let Lee and the rebels that still lived “escape”. Yet I cannot help but wonder, if he had stood in the pouring rain that came down on a sea of bodies, one acre of which was completely covered with corpses, some three days dead, and more than one body thick in places; if he had seen that there were only four of the original ten commanders still alive and fit to serve; if he had watched the 17-mile long hospital train of wounded Confederates that groaned away toward the Mason-Dixon line; if in viewing all of this, Lincoln himself would not have said, “Enough. Enough for now. Let’s bury our dead and treat our wounded, and get in out of the rain.”

I hope I have conveyed the level of detail you can expect from this tome. If my review is a mite lengthy, you may not want to read five hundred pages plus notes on the topic. Sears writes better than I do, of course, but this is a study only for those who can already tell Sickles, Slocum, Sykes and Sedgwick apart. If you are still getting to know the players, this ballgame may be too long for you. But it is the ultimate detailed account for those who know some, but don’t feel they know enough.

I often am forced to give books away because of the finite amount of space in the home library my family has collected, but this particular volume will retain a place of pride as long as I am here.