The Battle of Glendale: The Day the South Nearly Won the Civil War
Jim Stempel; McFarland & Co.
The Battle of Fair Oaks: Turning Point of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign
Robert P. Broadwater; McFarland & Co.
The Confederates’ defense of Richmond from May to July 1862—the monumental Peninsula and Seven Days’ campaigns—has not yet produced any detailed tactical histories of individual battles. Two new books attempt to fill that void. Unfortunately, neither meets even the most superficial standards for what one would call a battle history.
The first is Jim Stempel’s look at the June 30 Battle of Glendale, the penultimate engagement in the Seven Days’ Campaign, which abruptly stopped the Army of the Potomac short of capturing the Confederate capital. Rich primary sources abound on this battle (known to Southerners as Frayser’s Farm), including wonderful eyewitness accounts by South Carolinian Elihu Cannon and E.D. Patterson of the 9th Alabama that vividly portray the intense fighting, but Stempel chose not to consult them.
Patterson, an Ohio schoolteacher who fought for the South, left a particularly evocative narrative. “We knew that the death angel had his eye on many of us,” he wrote. “We saw him plume his wings and felt his breath.”
But not only did Stempel not use Patterson’s or Cannon’s contributions, or any of the multitude of others, he didn’t even consult the Official Records. The result is a dreadfully confused account.
Badly flawed maps compound the narrative’s defects. Stempel’s uncertainty in identifying the Willis Church Road as the Quaker Road, for example, vitiates the book’s breathless subtitle. The South “nearly won the war,” we are told, when Colonel Micah Jenkins’ Confederates cut the enemy in half on that road—had someone only been willing to support him. Jenkins, however, never actually occupied the road during the battle, nor did he ever claim that he did so.
The colonel, in his own words (which the author apparently did not see in any detail, as he does not even cite Jenkins’ original report), notes that his men “had gained command” of the road. What that meant was his riflemen irritated enemy reinforcements by firing toward the road—a worthwhile achievement, but not nearly the decisive event you’re led to believe it was.
Robert Broadwater’s treatment of the May 31–June 1 Battle of Fair Oaks, meanwhile, does cite the Official Records and displays more focus than Stempel’s book— and its maps (though not good) at least rise above the ghastly level of the Glendale set. But it does not come close to supplanting Steven H. Newton’s Seven Pines (the more familiar name for the battle), published in 1993.
Broadwater, in fact, does not pay all that much attention to the eponymous battle. Fully 80 percent of his book covers events occurring long before, long after and far away from that site.
Misspellings in both books betray a lack of peer review and editing, from which they could have benefited considerably. Within a few pages in Fair Oaks, for example, the names of Generals George W. Morell, Maxcy Gregg, Robert Rodes and Lafayette McLaws are misspelled as Morrell, Maxey, Rhodes and McLaw; reporter Charles Carleton Coffin’s middle name is given as Charleton; and Loudoun County, Va., is spelled Loudon.
The technological advances that make book publishing widely accessible cannot be considered anything other than a bonanza for authors and readers. But they necessitate more exercise of caveat emptor than of yore. Both of these titles might more accurately be called something like What I Think About a Civil War Event After Reading a Few Superficial Books. There’s not a thing wrong with publishing such books, but the utter lack of research is among several reasons to avoid buying them.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.