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Earl J. Hess 

Carol Reardon & Tom Vossler 

Barbara Brooks Tomblin 

Bernard Cornwell

Earl J. Hess

Sherman's Ghosts:
Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War
Matthew Carr
Edited by Graham T. Dozier

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Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler

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Braxton Bragg:
The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy
Earl J. Hess
University of North Carolina Press, 2016, 368 pp., $35.00

Review by Gordon Berg

Among Civil War enthusiasts and scholars, Braxton Bragg has long occupied a place near the top of the list of generals we love to hate.  Truth be told, he did a lot to earn the reputation both during his lifetime and after.  But a reevaluation of his personality and professional capabilities by a reputable scholar is long overdue and Earl Hess is just the man to do it.
Hess is a prolific author on many Civil War subjects with a well-earned reputation for shedding new light on long accepted theses.  Bragg could not have asked for a more thoughtful, careful, and scrupulously honest evaluator.  "Historians," Hess maintains, "have tended to see Bragg as the actor in creating a circle of negativity around him, but we also must understand that he was in turn deeply affected by the actions and opinions of others." 

Fortunately, Hess has never been awed by pedigree, either from the subjects he investigates or from fellow historians with whom he spars, intellectually of course.  This tends to make him a lively and informative read.

The book is an investigation of Bragg's military career, not a full blown biography.  Nevertheless, Hess makes clear that Bragg's wife Elsie was the staunchest--and sometimes the only--source of emotional support for him.  Bragg's inability to form personal attachments and accept the limitations of others haunted him throughout his military career.  "He saw life in black-and-white terms," Hess posits, "had scant ability to accept the complexities to be found in others, and possessed a stubborn streak that served him ill in his relations with subordinates."

The breadth of Hess' expertise allows him to analyze carefully Bragg's abilities on the battlefield, both as a tactical commander and as the commanding general of an entire army.  Bragg fought with distinction at Shiloh although he can rightly be criticized for inserting his units piecemeal into the fray.  Hess believes that the troops of the Army of Tennessee did some of their best fighting under Bragg's command at Stones River.  At Chickamauga, the Army of Tennessee was at the height of its powers and achieved one of the Confederacy's few tactical victories in the West.  Nonetheless, Hess boldly writes, "The sad truth was that all three of Bragg's corps commanders--Polk, Longstreet, and Hill--were willful, unreliable subordinates who could not be counted on to obey orders or to cooperate with their commanders."  Not surprisingly, this nest of vipers spawned the revolt of the generals that spread through Bragg's army and percolated up to the attention of President Jefferson Davis.  Bragg never fully recovered from this attempted coup de grace.

Too many historians, Hess believes, have relied on negative observations and conclusions offered by Bragg's subordinates and which were repeated in newspapers of the day and, as a result, have become cemented in the historical record.  Hess, on the other hand, sees Bragg as "an officer of undoubted qualities" that included being "hardworking, meticulous, detail-oriented and extremely self-disciplined."  Of course, those same qualities can be attributed to someone who is overbearing, petty, and reclusive.  Bragg has often been seen that way as well.

Hess writes with an easy grace born of erudite scholarship and years in the classroom challenging fresh eyes to look upon old stories and interpret them in new ways.  Readers may or may not come away with the same interpretation of Bragg as Hess posits, but it is hard to argue with his final assessment of the general:  "Bragg was a fascinating mixture of good and bad qualities; his impact on Confederate history was enormous, and we are still grappling with it."  Clearly Hess makes no claim on having the last word about his subject.  Good historians never do.

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.      
A Field Guide to Antietam:
Experiencing the Battlefield
through Its History, Places, and People
Carol Reardon & Tom Vossler
University of North Carolina Press, 2016, 360 pp., $23.00

Review by Gordon Berg

Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler set a new standard for field guides with their earlier publication about the Battle of Gettysburg.  They have maintained the same high quality for a similar guide on Antietam, the battle that changed the Union's war aims from merely preserving the nation as it was ante bellum to include emancipating four million slaves, a change that fundamentally altered the essence of American democracy.  The importance of the battle is matched by the quality of the narrative, maps, and illustrations that make this guide informative and easy to use by experienced battlefield trampers and novices alike.

The key to the success of this guide lies in the six questions posed and answered by the authors:  What happened here?  Who fought here?  Who commanded here?  Who fell here?  Who lived here?  What did they say about it later?  There are even helpful hints on the best way to tour the battlefield including the times and costs for accessing the battlefield park, how to use the roads that traverse its landscape, the stops included on the auto tour as well as others picked by the authors, and the basic etiquette appropriate for making a visit to Antietam's hallowed ground a rewarding experience for everyone.

The tour begins at the Visitor Center maintained by the National Park Service.  The guide then highlights twenty-one locations in and around the park where significant action occurred.  The tour concludes--appropriately for the battle that was the bloodiest day in American history--at the Antietam National Cemetery, the final resting place for 4,766 Civil War dead.  In between, the guide escorts visitors and readers to places bearing names like Nickodemus Heights, the Mumma Farm, the Dunker Church, the West Woods, Rohrback's Bridge, the Sunken Road, Boteler's Ford, and other locations that have become iconic in Civil War historiography.

President Abraham Lincoln visited Sharpsburg, the Maryland town nearest the battlefield, two weeks after the fighting there concluded.  The Union victory, although not conclusive, allowed him to announce the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  For the authors, "the results of this battle recalibrated the political foundation for understanding and fighting this war."  Their fine battlefield guide recalibrates our appreciation for its continuing legacy.

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.
The Civil War on the Mississippi:
Union Sailors, Gunboat Captains, and the Campaign To Control the River
Barbara Brooks Tomblin
The University Press of Kentucky, 2016, 372 pp., $50.00

Review by Gordon Berg

From the outset of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and his military staff knew that controlling the Mississippi River was vital to defeating the Confederacy.  But to do so, the Union would need a new kind of navy, a "brown water" navy with new kinds of ships that could ply the notoriously fickle Father of Waters.

That's the story Barbara Tomblin tells from the Union Navy perspective, adroitly using a wealth of letters, diaries, and memoirs written by commodores, captains, and ordinary blue jackets.
These are not uncharted waters that Tomblin navigates.  Since Virgil Carrington Jones chronicled operations on the western waters, others have followed, concentrating on various aspects of naval and combined army/navy campaigns.  Tomblin herself has been sailing these waters since her dissertation days, and while she doesn't offer a new analysis of the military, her encyclopedic knowledge of the Union sailors and their experiences makes her narrative flow with clarity and confidence.

At first, the Western Flotilla was a mongrel assortment of converted river packets and leftovers from the Mexican War.  They were officered by a few, often reluctant, career naval officers, guided by some experienced pilots, and crewed by a motley amalgam of river men, new recruits, and, quite often, reluctant army volunteers.  Whipping men and ships into an efficient fighting force fell to Commodore Andrew Hull Foote, an old salt described by one of his captains as "not a man of striking physical appearance, but there was a sailor-like heartiness and frankness about him."  Together with another man not of striking physical appearance -- Ulysses S. Grant -- they began to change Union military fortunes and make a navy master of the Mississippi and other western rivers.  By the end of the war, the Mississippi was awash with an armada of ironclads, timberclads, mortar barges, Ellet Rams, and Pook Turtles that became part of the mightiest navy in the world.

The life of a sailor, whether blue water or brown, leaves a lot of free time between watches.  Tomblin has found some of the most prolific and literate of them and lets their words carry much of the narrative.  Captain Henry Walke, commander first of the Tyler and later of the Carondelet and Lafayette chronicles Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Island Number 10 as seen from the pilot house.  Irish-born seaman John G. Morison kept a journal throughout his wartime service and his gunner's description of the Carondelet's encounter with the powerful CSS Arkansas on July 14, 1862, is both accurate and descriptive. "She mounted ten heavy guns, three on each side and two forward and aft, Morison wrote.  "Altogether she was a mighty unpleasant looking critter to be closing you up and at the same time throwing solid shot through you."
The Battle of Memphis was strictly a navy show.  Commodore Charles H. Davis's squadron, although outnumbered two-to-one, thoroughly bested the Confederate River Defense Force.  Fourteen year old seaman George Yost, aboard the Cairo, reported "The battle lasted about 1 1/2 hours.  The last boat was captured at 7 A.M."  Mound City crewman Symmes Browne proudly told his fiancee "The Mississippi is comparatively open, and there is no more fighting for the gunboats."

Browne's prediction was premature.  There was much more work for the gunboats and Tomblin provides detailed descriptions of the first Vicksburg Campaign, Arkansas Post and Fort Hindman, Steele's Bayou, Yazoo Pass, Port Hudson, Grand Gulf, and the final blockade and siege of Vicksburg.  She concedes that "Service in the brown-water navy was not glamorous duty" but critical to to the success of Union strategic plans that would eventually win the war.
Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.