Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea, by Noah Andre Trudeau*****

“On earth, as in heaven, man must submit to an arbiter…He must not throw off his allegiance to his government or his God without just reason or cause. The South had no cause…Satan and the rebellious saints of Heaven were allowed a continuous existence in hell merely to swell their just punishment. To such as would rebel against a Government so mild and just as ours was in peace, a punishment equally would not be unjust.”   –William Tecumseh Sherman (quoted on page 19)

southernstormI received this excellent Civil War tome from one of my sons as a Christmas gift. I don’t request a lot of books anymore because it’s so easy to get others free, but I asked for this one and I am glad I have it. I’ll be reading more by this guy.  Despite one fact that I dispute—for which the citation also is sketchy—and some crummy maps, there’s no way to deny five stars here.  The topic is among my favorites, and of course Sherman is my all time favorite general, hailing from a time when the United States government still attracted and produced heroes.

Each time I pick up another book on Sherman’s march to the sea, I question whether there is any new information to be had. Here Trudeau deals with this neatly by referencing participants other than Sherman, most often Major Henry Hitchcock, who was Sherman’s aide-de-camp. There are lots of meaty quotes from Sherman and those alongside him, and occasionally those opposite him. There’s one royal stinker of a reference made by an Atlanta doctor, who said a couple dozen very sick and badly injured men were dumped on him by Sherman personally, who said if they survived the rebels could consider them prisoners. I call bullshit on this, not only because of the source but also because it runs contrary to everything I know about Sherman, whose troops were singularly loyal to him largely because he took great care of them and he led them to victory.

Sherman’s memoir, which I heartily recommend to you, deals with the left column with which he traveled.  The right column goes largely unmentioned there, and Trudeau fills us in. This was the column that took the most punishment, and was responsible for heading off enemy cavalry most of the time.

A mark of a terrific history book is that no matter how long it is, the reader emerges wanting to read something more, either by the author or on the subject. I have a couple of gift certificates going unused, and it’s entirely possible I will spend one of them on another book by this writer. The index and other references at the back of the book are useful also.

Highly recommended to American Civil War buffs.

US Grant: the Civil War Years: Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command*****

usgrantthecivilwaryI was fortunate to receive a DRC of this two volume biography of America’s greatest general, US Grant. Thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for providing it in exchange for this honest review. This is the sixth Grant biography I’ve read, and aside possibly from Grant’s own memoirs, which are valuable in a different way than this set, I have to say this is hands-down the best I have seen. Catton won the Pulitzer for one of his civil war trilogies, and this outstanding biography is in the same league. Those with a serious interest in the American Civil War or military history in general should get it. It’s available for purchase now.

When I had read a couple of US Grant biographies, I told myself that enough was enough, and that I should push away from this one subject in favor of others. I am glad I ignored my own advice, because I have come away from this prodigious, in-depth study with a deeper understanding than anything else has provided.  It’s over 1100 pages long, and over 800 pages once one discounts the end notes and index, but it is as great a pleasure to read at the end as at the start, if not more so.

Is this a good choice for someone new to the American Civil War? Generally speaking (if you’ll pardon the pun) I’d say no, but for someone otherwise well versed in military history or with a tremendous interest level, time, and stamina, it could be. Because Catton is known as an expert in this field, I especially enjoy not having to review his citations. I know his sources will be strong, and one brief overview convinces me this is true.

The first volume starts with his less than glorious entry into the war. As many know, he had been a member of the regular US army during the conflict with Mexico, and had fallen apart and had to go home. Now he is back, but only after a string or two has been pulled by a family friend, and even then, his task is a daunting one. Volunteer soldiers don’t take orders or submit to discipline as a West Point soldiers do, and when he arrives, it seems the lunatics are running the asylum. One of the things that I am impressed with anew every time I read about Grant is his unerring judgment, the social radar that is an indisputable part of his talent. By knowing where to go easy on his men and how to bring them into conformity where it’s most important, he creates a solid force to move South with.

The battles of Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the tragic but technically successful battle of Shiloh open up the Mississippi River for the Union and divide the South. Catton uses a number of anecdotes that are new to me, and his congenial tone, occasionally caustic wit, and spot-on analysis leave me both energized and contented at the same time.

The second volume, however, is where I learn the most. Until I read this biography, I haven’t understood exactly how great a risk Lincoln takes when he orders that the US military forces should be given the ballot, an unprecedented move, as he himself runs once more for the highest office. His opponent, McClellan, is a former Union general that at the war’s outset, was at the top of the chain of command.  He didn’t go home a happy man, and now he is running as a Copperhead, the moniker given those in the North that want to end the war and let the South leave the Union, slaves and all. And though I know it is often the case that soldiers and sailors choose to support their Commander in Chief at the ballot box, I haven’t fully recognized how badly this may go for Lincoln. Doesn’t every soldier want to go home? This is the Democratic ticket’s promise; end it now and send them home.

On top of all that, Lincoln and Grant, who think a lot alike, clamp their teeth together and endure the white knuckled ride that they know they’ll be facing when they decide against further prisoner exchanges with the South. There are two strong reasons for this decision: first, the South refuses to recognize Black men in uniform as soldiers, and won’t exchange them, assuming that all of them must be escaped slaves, including those with Northern accents. Grant declares that no prisoners will be swapped until the South is willing to parole every Northern soldier, and he means it.

In addition, both Lincoln and Grant realize that the South is running low on manpower. There are thousands of their soldiers sitting in military prisons; to trade them out and risk seeing them back in uniform is to turn a military contest into a war of annihilation. With prisoner exchanges, the war will last longer, and there will be more death. In a peculiar way, refusing to exchange prisoners is the more humane policy.

In an election year, this is a tough sell. There are families up North that have been notified that their son, brother, father, is a prisoner of the enemy, and word has by now been spread as to what kind of conditions those poor men face. How much harder is it to vote for Lincoln and the fight for the reunification of the republic when to do so is to prolong the time their loved one sits behind bars, slowly starving? Lincoln and Grant could temporarily resume prisoner exchanges until after the election, but they stand on principle, and it pays off.

Another thing that I don’t really grasp until I read the second volume is Grant’s relationship with the Army of the Potomac, a collection of men that to some extent have been poisoned with McClellanism. It’s a real tightrope walk, and he is deft in his dealing with it. I can’t tell you everything he does here; that’s the point of the book, after all. But I came away with a renewed respect for General Sheridan, and an interest in reading biographies of that general also.

How much of Sherman’s march through Georgia and then to the sea is Grant’s idea, and how much of it is Sherman’s? I come away understanding this better than before as well, although I have read both Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs. Catton has a way of crystallizing events without oversimplifying them.

And I nod with solemn satisfaction at the cold fury Grant experiences when he learns of the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of others, including himself.

I still shiver with pleasure when I reread the denouement, in which Grant sends General Weitzel and his troops, some of whom are Black, into Richmond when the Confederate capitol falls. I want to cheer as the throngs form for the military review in Washington DC after the war has been won; all those thousands of soldiers, all those citizens and international visitors in the stands and on the sidewalks, singing “John Brown’s Body”. Think of it!

I promised myself to be brief, and I haven’t really done that, but this is the least I can bring myself to say about this excellent biography. If my review is too long to hold your attention, then this two book series—even while allowing for the fact that Catton is a far better writer than I—will also be more of a meal than you are prepared for.

But for those with a sufficiently great interest level and stamina, I cannot imagine a better memoir of Grant for you to buy and enjoy. Enthusiastically recommended!

Friendly Fire, by C.D.B. Bryan****

friendlyfireBryan was a journalist and author during the mid-twentieth century, and Friendly Fire, which originally began as a story for the New Yorker and grew into something more, tells the story of the Mullen family and their response to the death of Michael, a clean-cut young man that answered his draft notice, dutifully served and was killed by friendly fire not long after he was sent to Vietnam. Thanks goes to Open Road Integrated Media and to Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This is right up my alley and I found it compelling. It was published digitally May 10, 2016 and is now available for purchase.

Michael Mullen was the favorite son of Iowan farmers Gene and Peg Mullen, working farmers steeped in traditional values and respect for authority, who had never questioned the US involvement in Vietnam. If the government said that US forces were fighting there to contain the spread of communism and keep Americans safe, then it must be so. Michael was the kind of young man that called people “ma’am” and “sir”.  When his effects were delivered to his family following his death, there were no fewer than three rosaries he’d carried on his person. He had expected to return from service, as his father had done from an earlier war, and inherit the family farm. His family was part of the Silent Majority to which governmental authorities referred when defending the role of the USA in Indochina.

In short, they were the last people anyone would have expected to see become anti-war activists.

Michael’s death rocked parents Peg and Gene, and their grief eventually alienated them from the three children left to them. The part of their story that galvanized me was in reading their intelligent, sharp responses during the initial period following their bereavement. For many of us facing the loss of any loved one—and the death of a child is the worst loss of all—ferreting out information about that person’s days, weeks, even months is our last link to them. But Peg and Gene took it to another level when they realized that some of the information they had received was untrue. Peg became an organizational whirlwind, searching for the names and stories of other Iowa boys that had died in that conflict and she realized that the casualties that were being reported to and in the media were incorrect. The responses she received from everyone from US officials to the parish priest were so insensitive, so baldly insulting that she and husband Gene made the war and those near their son when he died into an immense research project, reaching out to newspapers and television news widely. This reviewer grew up during this period and when I read that Peg was on the phone with national newscaster Chet Huntley’s secretary in New York, my jaw dropped!  In this era before satellites gave us phones in our pockets and information available at the touch of a keyboard, they typed letters, made long-distance phone calls, and in time even traveled to Washington D.C. in order to know how and why their son had been killed and who was to blame.

The fifth star here is denied because the beginning of the story, which goes into overmuch detail about the family’s genealogical beginnings and its long history in Iowa soil, is deadly dull. When the book was first published, the video game had not yet been invented and readers had longer attention spans.  Today if a book does not hook a reader from the start, chances are excellent it will be immediately and forever abandoned. Although the point that the Mullen farm had stood for five generations is surely relevant to the story, the author drags this portion of the story out sufficiently to glaze even the eyes of this history teacher, and together with an awkward introduction that appears to substitute for a bibliography or end notes, a lot of readers won’t get to the interesting part, and that’s a crying shame.

Ultimately the Mullens’ cause alienated them from their community, probably because they were so free in dispensing blame to everyone that drew breath. Everyone that had not actively opposed the war was called out at some point. The heat of their rage and grief lacked focus.  In many ways they undid a lot of the good they had done by cursing old friends and neighbors simply because they had never done anything about the war.

The story will interest those that research conspiracies. The Mullens believed more deception was in play than actually was, yet when a person knows he has been lied to about one thing, it is the intelligent thing to do to wonder how much more one was told is also untrue. And so as they relentlessly sought to find one particular officer that might be to blame for the friendly fire that killed their son, I wanted to bang my head on the wall, because it was so much more than that; the conspiracy, we know now, was seated in the Oval Office, jotting more names, possibly their own, onto his enemies’ list. Targeting this soldier or that minor officer was just wrong-headed, but when people are hurt, they lash out, and the Mullens did so exponentially.

The end of the book deals with the author’s own motivation in following the Mullens and their search for the truth so diligently; nevertheless, it seemed strange to find a host of author photos at the end of the book rather than of the Mullen family.

Had the editing of this digital edition been given to me along with permission to do anything I wished, I would have tightened up the beginning, put the author’s notes at the end of the book rather than the start, and deleted the photo section entirely.

Nevertheless, those with an interest in the struggle to end the US war in Vietnam will find this story well worth reading, and to them I recommend this memoir.