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America’s Civil War Book Reviews: Confederate Invasion of Maryland

By Mike Clem
9/5/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Last Chance for Victory: Jubal Early’s 1864 Maryland Invasion

Brett W. Spaulding; Thomas Publications, 2012, $12

The Confederacy’s Last Northern Offensive: Jubal Early, the Army of the Valley and the Raid on Washington

Steven Bernstein; McFarland & Co., 2011, $35

Given the titles of two new volumes about the Confederate Army of the Valley’s incursion through Maryland in July 1864, both would appear to be simple campaign studies. But each veers away in different directions from the operational level in examining the raid on Washington, D.C.

Brett Spaulding’s Last Chance for Victory: Jubal Early’s 1864 Maryland Invasion focuses on Union General Lew Wallace’s desperate struggle against overwhelming odds to delay the Rebel advance on Washington at Monocacy, Md. A former Army paratrooper now serving as an interpretive park ranger at Monocacy National Battlefield, Spaulding displays a deft command of the combat intricacies in that July 9 engagement and demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the terrain upon which the armies fought.

The profusion of maps chronicling the Confederacy’s last major invasion— and only victory—north of the Potomac River is a particularly nice feature. Forty full-page operational and tactical maps with 3-D topographic features chart the combat at brigade and regimental level. The footnotes, orders of battle and bibliography, with its extensive list of manuscript collections, reflect solid scholarship in primary sources, and Spaulding makes careful selections that let the men speak vividly for themselves. For general readers, Spaulding’s methodical “They Were Here” manner, rather than flashy “You Are There” literary style, may slow the narrative and drain some of the campaign’s drama. They will also find little in the way of biographical sketches of the major participants and in-depth analysis or critique.

While the author supplies sufficient material to place the battle in its strategic context, other elements of the campaign are only briefly discussed. Early’s half-hearted demonstration in front of Washington’s forts—which usually grabs the spotlight in most Civil War histories—and the Confederate cavalry’s impossible mission to free Rebel prisoners at Point Lookout, Md., receive only a short chapter. And the book ends on an abrupt note as the Army of the Valley’s retreat to Virginia is wrapped up in just a few pages.

Steven Bernstein’s The Confederacy’s Last Northern Offensive: Jubal Early, the Army of the Valley and the Raid on Washington is the opposite of Spaulding’s straightforward study. In lively prose, he takes us on a quick march from the political situation at the beginning of the war’s fourth year to the battles of Lynchburg and Monocacy, the gates of Washington, back across the Potomac, a raid on Chambersburg, Pa., skirmishing in West Virginia, the seesaw engagements up and down the Shenandoah Valley that ended in the North’s victory at Cedar Creek, then finally to Early’s last stand at Waynesboro in late winter 1865. Along the way, the author throws in a few detours with lengthy discourses on the Democratic presidential convention, Copperhead conspiracies and the Atlanta Campaign.

Those unfamiliar with this period in the war may appreciate Bernstein’s efforts to provide the wider social, political and economic circumstances that shaped Confederate strategy surrounding Early’s raid. And although apparently gathered mostly from secondary sources, readers will enjoy his dramatic and swift-moving recounting of events, such as the ongoing saga of Frederick, Md.’s $200,000 ransom—which has yet to be reimbursed—and a moving depiction of the burning of Chambersburg.

Yet this wide-ranging approach naturally limits the depth of detail in Bernstein’s narrative and makes generalities unavoidable. This becomes a major drawback when his exploration of various actions and their possible outcomes stretches beyond the boundary of analysis and into the realm of conjecture. What-ifs of history are fun to contemplate, but the author has an unfortunate habit of offering his speculation as an unequivocal statement of fact, such as when he writes: “However, but for Wallace’s delaying Early at Monocacy Junction, Grant’s sanguinary thinking on Early’s whereabouts, and his dilatory response, would have resulted in the Confederate capture of Washington.”

 

Originally published in the January 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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