War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson University of North Carolina Press, 2012, $36
James M. McPherson, perhaps the greatest historian of the Civil War, continues to find aspects of the conflict that most historians tend to ignore or gloss over. In War on the Waters, he puts into focus what is usually seen as merely a side issue—the contributions of the Union and Confederate navies. “The Union navy,” McPherson proclaims, “deserves more credit for the Northern victory than it has traditionally received.” Conversely, with far fewer men and resources, the Confederate Navy—“Uncle Jeff’s web-feet,” as it was quaintly phrased—was integral to the South’s ability to hold out four years.
The Union Navy accounted for only 5 percent of federal military personnel, yet its “contribution to Northern victory was much greater than 5 percent.” For an organization with fewer than 70,000 sailors, mechanics and laborers, the task was enormous: blockade the major Southern ports while assisting Ulysses Grant and other Army commanders in the capture of Rebel river forts. The Confederates, with perhaps 10 percent of Union strength, were forced into ingenious strategies, such as the construction of the ironclad gunboat,
creating the first submarine—the Hunley—and the invention of terrifyingly destructive torpedoes.
War on the Waters offers several wonderful set-piece battles, such as the duel between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama just outside French territorial waters and Admiral David Farragut’s thrilling seizure of Mobile Bay. “That little man has done more to put down the rebellion than any general except Grant and Sherman,” a fellow officer wrote. And McPherson doesn’t leave out the clash between the Virginia and Monitor, the Confederate ship having been responsible only a short time before for “the most lethal day in the history of the U.S. Navy until December 7, 1941.”
Facts previously little known or little emphasized fill McPherson’s narrative. For instance, cooperation between Admiral Andrew H. Foote and Ulysses Grant proved essential to success in the Western rivers. “Both Grant and Foote,” McPherson writes, “were free from the overweening egotism that seemed to infect so many other officers, and they were therefore able to work well together.”
In the end, though, the Navy’s most important task was enforcing the blockade, which it finally did with ruthless efficiency: “Without a blockade, the Confederacy might well have prevailed.” Although he does not try to make the case that the Union Navy won the Civil War outright, McPherson makes it clear that “it is accurate to say that the war could not have been won without [its] contributions.”
Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln by Jason Emerson Southern Illinois University Press, 2012, $39.95
Fifty years ago, John S. Goff’s Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right was considered the definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son—the only one of the president’s four children to live past age 18. Now Jason Emerson’s new 600-page biography will undoubtedly be the standard reference for comprehending the president’s complex, and very understated, offspring. Although Robert became a husband, father and leader in his own right, he always accepted his secondary standing when compared to the man known as perhaps the world’s greatest democratic icon.
While Goff provided a good overview of Robert’s life, with plenty of emphasis on his respected public service, he didn’t have access to the family papers or Robert’s belongings in his grandchildren’s possession. Moreover, the grandchildren refused to talk to Goff and denied him access to Hildene, Robert’s Vermont home where he died in 1926. The 82 volumes of Robert’s letterpress books were at Hildene, as well as the file covering his mother’s insanity trial and residence at a sanitarium. Fortunately, Emerson was able to use this material with telling effect, focusing on salient moments, both public and private.
Emerson describes in detail how, toward the end of the Civil War, Robert became a captain on Ulysses S. Grant’s staff and became the president’s confidant while serving under the Union general in chief. His roles as secretary of war under Presidents Garfield and Arthur, and as ambassador to Great Britain, were examples of Robert’s effective public service. He also became one of the most distinguished lawyers in Chicago and befriended railroad
titan George Pullman, eventually heading Pullman’s company in the late 1890s and early 1900s. He proved a faithful worker and trusted friend.
The 1875 trial to commit Mary Lincoln to a Chicago-area sanitarium, Bellevue Place, resulted from the very public legal petition of a son who valued his privacy. Emerson believes this measure was made in good faith by a man truly concerned about his mother’s welfare and worrisome behavior.
Tragedy would continue for the Lincoln family with the March 1890 death of Robert’s only son, Abraham “Jack” Lincoln II, who died in London of an infection and pneumonia while his father was ambassador there.
Emerson’s biography of Robert Todd Lincoln is set within the context of Gilded Age culture, which was vastly different from that during the Civil War. His extensive and fresh research, as well as his inclusion of many never-before-seen photographs, should make this account one of choice for both scholars and Lincoln enthusiasts.
—Frank J. Williams
Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South by Yael A. Sternhell Harvard University Press, 2012, $49.95
The movement of human beings as a major component of the Confederate wartime experience wouldn’t, on the surface, seem to be an especially compelling theme for a Civil War book. But in the utterly absorbing Routes of War it most certainly is.
For well-read aficionados of the war, Yael A. Sternhell’s tome accomplishes the unusual: It breaks new ground and opens up new vistas of understanding about the war and the millions of Southerners whose lives it touched.
What makes Sternhell’s work so distinctive is her mining of historic documents not worn out by other Civil War authors. An example: letting the testimonies of slaves and former slaves form a significant part of the narrative of the fall of the Confederacy and the subsequent dismantling of the cruel institution of human bondage.
Sternhell, an assistant professor of history and American studies at Tel Aviv University, explores in fascinating detail connections between physical movements of Southerners from all walks of life (including, of course, those in the military) and the literal and symbolic meanings of that spatial movement. She effectively focuses on roads and woodlands and rivers and villages—connecting these with the battlefields and the Southern home front.
The transforming impact of the war on the South was most evident, Sternhell writes, on the main roads near a major battlefield, where the military and civilian worlds collided. Foraging armies, wounded soldiers and displaced locals trod the same ground over and over. Wrote one soldier, “[L]ittle is to be seen but moving masses of soldiers, ambulances, transport wagons, floating officers of all grades, men and women in search of sick or wounded relatives, etc.”
Routes of War is truly one of the best recent Civil War books to come along.
—James R. Hall
Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War by Megan Kate Nelson University of Georgia Press, 2012, $24.95
In the summer of 1865, journalist John T. Trowbridge traveled through the desolate South and chronicled the ruinous effects of war on a land and its people. Now, Megan Kate Nelson, representing a new breed of interdisciplinary historian, uses her mastery of art and architectural history, ecology and environmental studies, sociolinguistics and technology development to bring fresh insights to Trowbridge’s pioneering sociological study. The tension between what war destroys and what it creates, she declares, “is embodied in ruins and makes them such a dynamic cultural force and the centerpiece of the national wartime narrative.”
Among the ruins Nelson investigates are cities, homes and forests, but most intriguing is her study of the war’s ruined men. Three-quarters of all the surgeries performed were amputations, and an estimated 45,000 amputees survived to live and work in the post-war world. The war “had transformed their bodies, and changed what it meant to be a man in mid-nineteenth century America,” she claims. Society came to view these damaged men with both honor and horror, dramatically transforming traditional images of masculinity and often turning gender relationships on their head.
Overall, Nelson contends, Americans really don’t like ruins, and both Northerners and Southerners worked hard to make them quickly disappear during the years of reconciliation and reconstruction. Nevertheless, these same years witnessed the creation of the nation’s first battlefield parks—areas, Nelson shrewdly observes, that “produce nostalgia rather than a true understanding of the past.” In her provocative monograph, Nelson reminds us that without the ruins “we cannot fully understand the terrifying nature of wartime violence and the complex and contradictory nation that it created.”
Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle by Stuart W. Sanders The History Press, 2012, $19.99
How the 1862 Kentucky Campaign impacted the course of the Civil War, and the dramatic events and intriguing individuals who shaped its conduct, are subjects fairly well known to most students of the war. Yet there is often an equally compelling though lamentably overlooked story in a campaign’s aftermath, involving the efforts to cope with the human debris of battle and how those efforts were experienced by the civilian population. This is the story Stuart Sanders tells with tremendous effectiveness in Perryville Under Fire.
Sanders, a former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association, has clearly spent great time and effort researching and thinking about this subject. Drawing on an impressive range of resources, he provides a vivid account of the havoc that followed the October 1862 battle. When the opposing commanders withdrew, they left wounded soldiers behind, and communities such as Perryville, Danville and Harrodsburg had to care for them. Who can’t help being touched by Sanders’ accounts of Sarah Coleman’s heroic efforts to find her brother Charles, of the 10th Wisconsin, and help him recover from a serious head wound, or the dedication of a son-in-law of John Curtwright of the 41st Georgia, who located Curtwright’s remains on the battlefield and had them re-interred in Georgia next to his widow in the 1920s.
This book may not appeal immediately to readers interested in traditional “drums and trumpets” military history, though Sanders’ first chapter does deliver a solid overview of the campaign and battle—albeit one that would have benefited, as would the book as a whole, from the inclusion of maps. Still, Perryville Under Fire is a useful and powerful reminder, in both words and pictures, that war is and always has been, in William Sherman’s immortal words, hell—both for its participants and the communities it touches. For that reason, as well as for the many long untold stories of suffering, sacrifice and loss it brings to light, this book merits attention from students of the Civil War.
—Ethan S. Rafuse
Ex Parte Merryman: Two Commemorations Edited by Joseph Bennett The Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, 2012, $15
Ex Parte Merryman is a collection of essays and presentations given on the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the May 1861 arrest and detention of John Merryman, which led to Abraham Lincoln drastically suspending the writ of habeas corpus. The Library Company of the Baltimore Bar compiled these presentations, shedding light on one of the most significant cases in our nation’s legal history.
This wonderfully researched account of the showdown that ensued between the president and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney will appeal to a wide range of readers. Lawyers and judges will appreciate the legal intricacies reviewed. Lincoln aficionados will enjoy the clear examination of perhaps his most important, and misunderstood, action designed to preserve the Union early in the war. General history buffs will also find it an absorbing read.
The case began on May 25, 1861, when Merryman, a prominent Maryland farmer, was imprisoned for treason at Fort McHenry. Federal officials believed Merryman was an instigator of the pro-Southern sentiments that pervaded Baltimore after the fall of Fort Sumter, which led to an April attack on Massachusetts soldiers traveling through the city to Washington. Merryman’s attorneys presented Taney a habeas corpus petition, which Taney ordered served on Fort McHenry’s commander George Cadwalader.
To his chagrin, Taney soon learned that Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus. As Lincoln declared in his July 4, 1861, message to Congress: “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself to go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”