Booknotes – Historical Books

One of the things that keep me running with ACW is the fact that there are so many good books on the subject. Not only is the quality of academic research very high, many of the books are also eminently readable.

TomblinOne of those is Barbara Brooks Tomblin’s Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. While there is substantial research on African-American soldiers, sailors have for a long time been neglected. Tomblin provides a comprehensive overview on the activities of African-Americans in relation to the Navy’s war effort. Her decision to not just deal with the 18.000 black sailors that served the Union during the Civil War, but also to include the wider context, is very rewarding. She deals with the Navy’s contraband camps, with informants and pilots as well as all sorts of informal help provided by slaves and escaped slaves. It is really fascinating to see how the Navy’s policy towards African-American fugitives developed in the field. One case in point is Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, who had ties to rich Southern families and had started the war as a defender of slavery. However, when confronted with the realities of slavery, he changed his mind: “God forgive me – I have seen nothing that has disgusted me more than the wretched physical wants of these poor people, who earn all the gold spent by their masters at Sarasota and in Europe”.

In turn, African-Americans soon realised that the Navy offered them sanctuary and protection, and they help Union operations whenever they could. Tomblin’s book is full of incidents showing the determination and bravery of African-American spies and informants, pilots and sailors – and many of those incidents would make great scenarios for Sharp Practice.

donelsonTimothy B. Smith is an author I discovered when researching the Battle of Fort Donelson for my Altar of Freedom project. I’ve since read both his books on Grants operations to clear the Mississippi. Grant Invades Tennessee. The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson deals not only with the fights for those two forts, but also with the wider context of the operations. It’s a very well written book that is characterised by a clear narrative, stringent analysis and a masterful use of source material. Smith managed to get into the details of tactical manoeuvres without being confusing or boring, and he at the same time never loses view of the big picture. And if you thought that political generals were a problem of the Union, the cringeworthy actions of Confederate Generals Pillow and Floyd will show you that stupidity, self-importance and sheer incompetence could also be found in the Southern armies.

shiloSmith’s Shilo. Conquer or Perish continues the story by describing what was then the largest battle in American history, with a number of casualties that came as a shock to the public and dispelled any lingering romantic notions of war. Again, he masterfully managed to make sense of a confusing battle fought as many separate encounters. He argues that the terrain shaped much of what was happening and also argues that the Union was not as surprised as it was made out to be in later accounts. 

Those books got me interested in Grant’s early career, so I also read The Battle of Belmont. Grant Strikes South by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr. Belmont was Grant’s first battle and a rather small affair. Unfortunately, Hughes has difficulties conveying the importance of the engagement, and when halfway into it I caught myself asking if this battle really needs a whole book. In the hands of a better author, it might have been an engaging volume, but unfortunately it falls short of the standard I’m used to by now.belmont

Still, all three books make for a fascinating glimpse into the personality of Ulysses S. Grant. As Hughes writes, “he made mistakes and took risks and got away with it”. In all three battles, he was more or less surprised by Confederate actions, but still managed to turn something that could have been a disaster into an orderly retreat (at Belmont) or even a victory (Shilo). It seems that he has learned that the battle’s not over until it’s over and that tenacity can win or at least save the day. This is best encapsulated in the famous encounter between Sherman and Grant after the first day at Shilo. Sherman initially wanted to suggest a retreat, but when he saw Grant calmly smoking a cigar in the rain, he became embarrassed and just said: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” To which Grant replied: “Yes, lick ’em to-morrow, though.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s