Book Review: “Under the Crescent Moon with the XI Corps in the Civil War”

There have been legions of studies done about the corps of the Army of the Potomac and its fighting units. Authors have filled shelves with monographs about the Iron and Irish Brigades, or the 20th Maine. Guides have told and retold the heroics of John Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock But throughout those years and those studies, the Eleventh Corps has remained noticeably out of the picture. Historian James S. Pula looks to change that.

Pula’s first volume of Under the Crescent Moon serves as an excellent introduction to the much maligned 11th Corps. His study goes from its creation to the opening stages of the Gettysburg Campaign, and provides a new look at the fighting men and officers of the corps. 

While one could technically write about the 11th Corps’ action when it was part of John Pope’s Army of Virginia (before it was officially the 11th Corps), Pula starts his narrative in the wake of the devastating defeat at Second Manassas. He quickly covers the key players who gave the corps its identity—Franz Sigel, Carl Schurz, Charles Devens, and O.O. Howard, and then moves on to discussing the corps’ history.

One reason the 11th Corps has gotten the short-end of the stick in terms of historiography is because it had and continues to be so connected to the German ethnicity. Pula explains that in a time before Germany existed (that wouldn’t happen until 1871), to call someone ‘German’ was largely meant to be derisive (17). And even though there were plenty of American-born soldiers in its ranks, the 11th Corps’ overall identity quickly became that of the German Corps.

The 11th Corps is most famous for being the victims of Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack on May 2, 1863 at the battle of Chancellorsville. Out of some 270 pages of text, Pula devotes almost 100 pages to the battle and its ramifications. This is where the book will prove especially useful to students, and joins a couple of other equally good titles. In the 1890s, Augustus Hamlin, a staff officer in the corps, published Stonewall Jackson’s Flank Attack at Chancellorsville, and he sought to defend the corps’ honor and fighting spirit. Hamlin’s book is certainly a great place to start with the 11th Corps, and Pula’s is excellent to continue with as his thorough research quickly comes to light. Pula’s bibliography is full of citations to the corps’ official journals and diaries, allowing Pula to put, as close as possible, time stamps to events as they occur.

Pula’s is also a great book to have with its connection to Chancellorsville because it so strongly focuses on a tactical overview of the corps’ fight there. Another book focused on the corps at the battle, Christian Keller’s Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory gives short shrift to the fighting that took place on May 2, preferring to focus on its subtitle of memory studies. Pula offers a thorough re-telling of the fighting done by the brigades of the 11th Corps and the heroics of Hubert Dilger, whose six guns slowed Jackson’s men on the Plank Road.

Pula’s Chancellorsville narrative is top-rate as well because he attempts to dismiss the theory that the corps was totally surprised. The simple fact is that the corps’ soldiers knew Jackson was coming, and they repeatedly tried to warn the chain of command. Blame for the day’s events rest on Joseph Hooker, O.O. Howard, and Charles Devens. The three men, from army, corps, and division command were all equally dismissive of reports from skirmishers that trouble was brewing. As a result, the Army of the Potomac’s smallest corps found itself at the mercy of a 28,000-man attack because its commanders ignored or dismissed repeated warnings from the skirmish line.

In the aftermath of the battle, Pula begins to wrap-up his book by discussing the ramifications that took hold of the corps, including the derision it received from the rest of the army. The heavy casualties suffered by the 11th Corps left them desolate, and Pula narrates how their commanding generals preferred to cover their own tails rather than look out for the best of the corps. With that saddened state, the corps finds itself marching towards Pennsylvania and Pula’s narrative finishes right before the clash at Gettysburg.

This was an excellent narrative that really should find its way into the hands of any historian who studies the Eastern Theatre or the Army of the Potomac. The 11th Corps has a friend in James Pula who is doing his utmost to finally tell their story well. In that he has accomplished, and the second volume, covering the rest of the war, will be worth the wait.

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James S. Pula, Under the Crescent Moon with the XI Corps in the Civil War, Volume I: From the Defenses of Washington to Chancellorsville, 1862-1863

Savas Beatie, 2017.

312 Pages.

Footnotes, Two Appendixes, Bibliography, Index