“Grant” by Ron Chernow – A Review

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author James F. Epperson

Many compelling tales come out of the history of the American Civil War. One of the most interesting is the story of the slouchy Ohio-born tanner’s son who progressed from leather-goods store clerk to Lieutenant General and commander of the Union armies and who began the war having trouble getting any position at all in the Federal war effort, yet ended up accepting the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in Wilmer McLean’s parlor. There have been many biographies of Grant in recent years, and Chernow’s, while suffering from some flaws, is perhaps the best.

Grant was a complex man, and efforts to reduce him to a simplistic caricature—stolid, taciturn, drunk, butcher, stupid—simply do not stand up to much scrutiny. As Chernow shows, Grant lived with fundamentally honesty, yet was tragically susceptible to being conned by unscrupulous men. Loyal to a fault (literally), he could yet (and did) admit fault regarding men he had tangled with. (He was also quite capable of nursing a grudge.)   Whatever his issues with alcohol – and this is a large and important focus of Chernow’s book – he kept them mostly, if imperfectly, in check. He remained absolutely devoted to his wife and just as devoted to the cause of civil rights for the men freed by the war he won.  And when faced with an opponent he could not defeat – cancer – he managed a moral and literary victory of epic proportions.

Grant’s life story has been written many times since the 1860s, and the basic outline is generally well-known: First-born child of an Ohio tanner and his pious, near-silent wife; enrolls at West Point in the class of 1843 (graduates 21st out of 39); distinguished service in the Mexican War; difficult period on the west coast leads to his resignation in 1854; struggles to provide for his family in civilian life; re-enters military service as the colonel of an Illinois infantry regiment in 1861; rises to the rank of Lieutenant General, accepting the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in 1865; is elected to two terms as President of the United States; left destitute by a Wall Street swindler, and confronted by a terminal cancer diagnosis, he writes a magnificent memoir of 336,000 words in less than a year, dying literally days after declaring the job done.

That is the bare-bones version, of course, and there are a lot of details needed to flesh that out. Chernow’s biography ranks near the top of the list of Grant biographies that I’ve read.  The first task of a biographer is to understand their subject, warts and all, and I think the author does this.

I have read numerous complaining predictions (on various blogs, mostly) that Chernow’s book is uncritical, but this does not hold up to an actual reading of the text. Chernow’s Grant has an alcohol problem, can be over-confident as a military commander, was clearly not expecting the Confederate attack at Shiloh, does not perceive the ethical issues in accepting gifts from wealthy benefactors, and is consistently unable to avoid being “conned” by public or private associates. If that is not being critical, then I guess I don’t know what the word means.

Ulysses S. Grant

There are three specific issues I’d like to address in some detail.

While Chernow’s treatment of Grant’s Civil War campaigns is far superior to that in Ronald White’s American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, the absence of any campaign studies from the bibliography troubled me. Considering Chernow was not coming to this project as a “Civil War historian,” I think it is reasonable to expect him to spend some time with the many fine works that exist on Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the 1864 campaign in Virginia, etc. He does list a number of “standard” histories of the Civil War, including outstanding works by Catton, Foote, and McPherson.

One cannot review this book without some discussion of Chernow’s treatment of Grant’s drinking. My personal view concludes it is both a strength and a weakness of the book.  Chernow offers more detail on the subject than most Grant biographers, much of it drawn from the Hamlin Garland Papers, copies of which have apparently been archived at the Grant Library at Mississippi State University (Garland wrote perhaps the first scholarly biography of Grant in 1898 and conducted many interviews with people who had known him). While Chernow occasionally presents fresh perspectives on well-known incidents, he usually provides very little evaluation of the evidence. Essentially – and this is a bit of an over-simplification, but I think it is essentially correct – he presents nearly every story, anecdote, or rumor that he can find, putting them all on equal footing. His basic thesis presents Grant as a binge-drinker, someone who, once started, could not help going downhill into full intoxication. In this regard, Chernow follows James McPherson, who put forward essentially the same thesis in his highly regarded Battle Cry of Freedom (page 589), drawing heavily on an article by Lyle Dorsett (“The Problem of Grant’s Drinking During the Civil War,” Hayes Historical Journal vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 37–48, 1983). Neither Chernow nor McPherson spend much time assessing the evidence that exists, and while McPherson – who was writing a single-volume survey of the entire Civil War – can perhaps be forgiven, Chernow should have done more critical analysis. In particular, Chernow should have paid more attention to the many dogs that did not bark.

There are several anecdotes showing Grant was able, on occasion, to take a drink without going on a “binge.” There are also indications that those close to Grant knew they could offer him a drink without risking anything. For example, there is an oft-cited story in which Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, one of Grant’s corps commanders during the Vicksburg campaign, suggests Grant should take a break from studying how to crack the Confederate citadel, “join with us in a few toasts, and throw this burden off your mind”  (page 253). There are several other, similar stories, including bottles of alcohol being sent to Grant by his own family. My point is not that Chernow has misrepresented anything.  My point is that the full story is more complex than Chernow presents. Did Grant drink?  Certainly. Did he sometimes drink too much? Almost surely. But between the uncontrollable binge-drinker and ordinary social drinker, there lies a wide range of alternative realities in which I think the truth lies, and the author should have mined this vein.

Some of the best parts of the book are the several chapters devoted to Grant’s political career, including his two terms as President (and his effort at a third term in 1880). The traditional view of Grant as a politician generally ranges from corrupt to inept, and there certainly is much to criticize here – which Chernow does. But he also points out that Grant’s over-riding motivation for getting in to politics was to secure what had been purchased with blood during the war: the freedom of the former slaves, not only theoretically, but as a practical matter. Frederick Douglas, an appropriate authority on this, said, “That sturdy old Roman, Benjamin Butler, made the negro a contraband, Abraham Lincoln made him a freeman, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant made him a citizen” (page 858). Grant’s embrace of the ethically-challenged Stalwart wing of the Republican Party was driven by the very valid fear that the more reform-minded wing of the party was willing to sell out the Republicans in the South, who were mostly freed slaves. The entire reason for toying with a third term in 1880 was the fear of what a Democratic victory might mean for the freedmen.

This biography, although very well-written, is not for a casual reader – at 1,200 pages, it is not a weekend read – but it rewards those who reach the final page, when William T. Sherman and Mark Twain sit down with cigars and whiskey to talk about their friend, after his funeral.

James F. Epperson is a 60-something child of the 60s (both 19th and 20th Centuries) who taught university mathematics for 21 years before moving to Ann Arbor, MI to take a position in academic publishing. He is a frequent speaker at CWRTs, maintains a number of Civil War-related websites and lives modestly in Ann Arbor with his wife of 35 years and their elderly Border Collie. Check-out his websites Civil War Causes, Petersburg Siege, and JFEpperson.org

Book Review: “The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865”

Let me say right up front that The War Outside My Window is NOT the feel-good book of 2018. In fact, it is just the opposite. The war is lost, the boy dies, and animals are harmed in the passing of this time period in Georgia. Nevertheless, with a cup of good coffee and a positive attitude, it is one of the most interesting books published in a long time.

This book is the diary of young LeRoy Gresham, the youngest son of an affluent slaveholding family in Macon, Georgia. He was twelve years old in 1860, and an invalid due to a combination of a serious leg injury from a fallen chimney that crushed his leg and skeletal tuberculosis, specifically Pott’s disease. Google up some images of this affliction and you will get a good idea of the misery that was a daily companion to this bright, inquisitive, witty, well-read, and sensitive young man.

LeRoy began keeping his journal on June 12, 1860, with a very mundane entry: “Mother has gone to the serving society.” As time continued, he began to find his own, very authentic voice. The diary is not a series of maudlin, self-pitying entries. Rather it is a view of the South from the beginning to the end of the Civil War, as Macon reacted to secession and gathered men for volunteer soldiering (in a state with a governor who did not necessarily want to send them), until the surrender at Appomattox and beyond. Interwoven among the usually inaccurate news reports, Leroy gave evidence of his deteriorating physical condition.  This amazing young man who read Greek and Roman classics along with Shakespeare and Dickens, loved math and solving puzzles, and played chess on a very high level, lay in his bed and observed the collapse of his world. To relieve the tedium of dying, his family somehow came up with a cart or small wagon to relieve his bedridden condition. A relative or more often, a young slave, pulled him around town so that LeRoy could immerse himself in the goings-on of the day.

News came in the form of newspapers, letters, and gossip. The reader will be struck with the military inaccuracies, especially as to casualty counts. Young LeRoy read every newspaper he could get and bemoaned the diminishing sources of current news as the war went on. His immediate family was impacted directly. His older brother, Thomas, served in Lee’s army in Virginia and many others in the extended group of family and friends served as well. The home front deteriorated, as evidenced by the actions of LeRoy’s mother and sister. New bonnets were made of palmetto, and dresses were repurposed in order to attend local gatherings and church. Homespun cloth was sent up from the family plantations along with meat and vegetables for the table, and to share among the less fortunate.

LeRoy wrote about everything, from social events to family matters. Deaths (many), weather (hot or raining, it seemed), and his pets were recurring topics. He named his various dogs for Confederate generals, but most were ill-behaved and ended up changing ownership. His declining health was addressed regularly, and the reader gets a solid look at family medicine in the 1860s. LeRoy’s parents could afford the very best for their son, but without an understanding of germs or disease, most of the efforts of doctors did little to alleviate his discomfort or alter the progression of his disease. Both the Preface and the Appendices have detailed accounts of how editor Janet Elizabeth Croon, publisher Theodore P. Savas, and Dennis A. Rasbach, MD, FACS worked to solve the mystery of LeRoy’s diagnosis. His care is analyzed piece by piece and compared to modern medicine, making for fascinating, if painstaking, reading. LeRoy wrote: “I am weaker and more helpless than I ever was . . . I have been sick with a pain in my back and heart all day . . . Saw off my leg.” He did not realize until the very end of his life that he was dying, and the reality of this came as a shock to young LeRoy.

Editor Janet Croon, an educated educator in her own right, has given the reader much more than just a glimpse into the past. The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Journal of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865 presents the compelling story of a doomed young man of white privilege who was dying at exactly the same time the southern dream of an independent Confederacy was dying. Eventually, both fail. Without the efforts of Croon, Savas, and Rasbach, LeRoy Gresham’s voice, which speaks as powerfully to us from the past as does that of Anne Frank, would have continued to be unheard. Readers will remember LeRoy long after the covers of the book have closed. As sad and difficult as this book is to read, it is definitely an important addition to the understanding of the Southern home front.

Janet Elizabeth Croon, Editor–The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

Savas Beatie, LLC, 2018

401 pages

Publisher’s Preface, Introduction, Medical Forward, Dramatis Personae, LeRoy Wiley Gresham Obituary, Postscript, Medical Afterwords, Appendix, Note on Sources, Acknowledgements, Index, Maps and Illustrations

Book Review: “The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi”

Easy as it is to imagine the Confederacy made up of a solid group of Union-hating slave owners and their friends, the reality of the situation is much more complex. Jarrett Ruminski, a freelance writer, researcher, and consultant, investigates this reality in his dense, well-researched book The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi.

If the reader can get past the first chapter, he or she will be in for an enjoyable, informative read. Chapter One, “A Contest of Passion, Not Reason,” lays out a great deal of academic vocabulary necessary to understanding the ordinary Mississippians and their reaction to secession, then to occupation, and finally defeat. Phrases like “Protective Nationalism,” and prefixes like micro and macro become important ideas as author Ruminski discusses whether or not taking an oath of loyalty is a serious commitment–or not. He uses primary sources from planters who did not serve in the Confederate Army to debate and defend personal decisions to continue selling cotton to the North, and using whatever means necessary to go through Union lines to obtain the material goods that defined life prior to the outbreak of war. Suffice it to say that a Mississippian’s money was not always where his or her mouth was alleged to be.

Mississippi was under Union control early in the War. Her location along one of the most vital waterways in America made her strategically important to the Union and the Confederacy. Politically and socially, the state was one of the most rabid in the Confederacy. She seceded early (January 9, 1861) but was under Union control from May 1862 onward.

Because people had to continue their lives even with the Union Army next door, local people had to make pragmatic changes One example, given early in the book, was the Oath of Allegiance to the Union. At first, Mississippi newspapers railed against taking the oath, calling for “unyielding resistance under all circumstances,” from the state’s citizens. As the war continued, the problem of loyalty became more complex until the oath became a practically meaningless promise for southerners who found that feeding their families and maintaining their property took precedence over mumbling mere words.

Some argued that they were even more loyal to the Confederacy by taking the Union oath, for it enabled them to continue sending food and goods to the Confederate armies in the field.

Mississippi sent about 80,000 white men to fight for the Confederacy, leaving many households under the control of women. In Natchez, for instance, women had to deal daily with Union occupation. Ruminski clearly defines the daily, micro loyalties of the women who ran small households, plantations, and everything in between. Macro loyalties–those to the ideals of a separate Confederate nation–often took second place to providing for and maintaining a household. Mississippi civilians often “held their noses” and did what was necessary to continue on in the face of economic collapse, even if it meant trading with Yankees for household staples.

One particularly interesting chapter, “Prey to Thieves and Robbers,” concerns the problems made by Confederate deserters who often travelled as a group, pretending to be partisan rangers. Deserters had many other reasons to leave the army besides “defending hearth and home from Union invasion.” In fact, Ruminski questions the historiography of this idea, writing that “Military defeat, Union occupation, economic collapse, and the breakdown of law and order facilitated opportunistic collective violence among Confederate deserters, whose localized group attachments underlay their indiscriminate pillaging of the Mississippi home front.”

As I said, this book is dense, as in full of facts and information. The Appendices are copious, and the entire book is a very intellectual undertaking. It is not an easy read, nor is it a comfortable one. If a reader is looking for a way to prop up a “Lost Cause” mentality, this book is not the right choice. If, however, a reader is looking for a serious study of the Mississippi home front in an effort to better understand the Confederacy as it was, not as how you hoped it would be, The Limits of Loyalty will suffice nicely.

Jarret Ruminski, The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi.

University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

2 Appendices, Notes, Bibliography, Index, 284 pp. total.

Book Review: “Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer”

Book Review by Emerging Civil War’s Derek Maxfield


In the small Upstate New York city of Batavia, there are no historic heroes bigger than Emory Upton.  You need look no farther than the larger than life statue honoring him and soldiers of the Civil War that sits strategically by the county courthouse at the split of two major highways.  Yet, few can tell you more than that he was a Civil War general.  A new biography by Dr. David Fitzpatrick, Professor of History at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan, seeks to bring the life of Upton to a new generation.

Prior to 2016, the last biography of Upton was written by Stephen E. Ambrose, Upton and the Army, published in 1964, so Upton was overdue for a new look and, according to Fitzpatrick, a reappraisal because for too long the critical view of Upton has dominated the scholarship; “the Weigley-Ambrose appraisal of Upton and of his influence remains prominent into the early twenty-first century.” Russell Weigley, a respected military historian, called Upton a “militaristic zealot” who “proposed a military system…which even he scarcely expected to work in the American context.”  The Ambrose biography, Fitzpatrick contends, “builds a biography based largely on Weigley’s critique.”(4-5)

Although he did not set out to challenge Weigley or Ambrose, Fitzpatrick discovered, much to his surprise, that far from denigrating the volunteer soldier or “that Upton had been a militarist and had held anti-democratic proclivities,” instead he had “been their advocate” and was greatly “concerned about the threat to republicanism posed by a politicized army…”  While Weigley found a “Uptonian pessimism”…[that] pervaded the U.S. Army in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” Fitzpatrick found “little pessimism…Uptonian or otherwise.”(4-6)

As the title of the book suggests, Fitzpatrick is mainly concerned with Upton the reformer.  Anyone looking for a Civil War book may be disappointed to find that Upton’s Civil War career is over by page eighty-three.  This is unfortunate given Upton fascinating career that spanned service in the infantry, artillery and cavalry.

As commander of the 121st NY Infantry, Upton is well known for his iron discipline, but Fitzpatrick demonstrates that “he also developed a system of rewards for those who performed their duties well.”(37)  The colonel even held out the possibility that those who showed merit might be promoted to lieutenant.  On the other side of that coin, Upton had a disregard for incompetent officers who he had no problem disciplining or cashiering.

Developing a theme that would recur throughout Upton’s career, Fitzpatrick illustrates the beginnings of Upton’s disgust with politicians who sought to interfere with the army.  According to the author, “Upton resisted politicians’ efforts to influence promotions in his regiment.” In fact, the colonel had developed a system of examinations which he used to ensure “the highest state of discipline and efficiency…”  Merit alone would determine fitness for promotion in “Upton’s Regulars.” (38)

Undoubtedly, one of the characteristics that Upton exhibited in his Civil War career was ambition.  When he determined that he was more fit for a brigadier general’s rank, he worked tirelessly to gain the star on his shoulders – even if it meant he needed to secure the cooperation of a politician.  This distasteful effort began shortly after Maj. Gen. George Meade, then commander of the Army of the Potomac, admitted “he would never receive his much-desired and well-deserved promotion without the intervention of a prominent politician.”  “This judgement,” Fitzpatrick argued, “reinforced the New Yorker’s already pronounced distrust of the role political influence played in the commissioning and promotion processes.”(50)

Of course, Upton’s most famous tactical exploit was at the Battle of Spotsylvania in May 1864, when his brigade would launch an unorthodox attack on the Muleshoe salient.  That and an enlarged version of it later were tactical successes but strategic failures.  Still, they proved the wisdom of Upton’s tactical vision and earned him a battlefield promotion to brigadier general from Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.  This episode led Fitzpatrick to observe that “Upton had experienced a remarkable metamorphosis…At the start of the war he had been willing to serve his nation in any manner required; by 1864 he was in search of personal glory.  These two desires were not mutually exclusive.”(66) Ambitious though he became, Upton was clearly right that he was better suited to command than many others.

As if there was any doubt of Upton’s capacity, at the Battle of Opequon Creek, Upton and his brigade saved the day when a Confederate counterattack threatened to break a hole in the Union lines.  “For the third time in less than a year,” Fitzpatrick observed, “Upton had proven that he had few equals in the entire Union army in the realm of tactical leadership.”(70)  Unfortunately for Upton and Sheridan’s army, the general would be grievously wounded at the Third Battle of Winchester and would leave the war to recover in Batavia.

The final chapter of Upton’s war career featured command of a cavalry division in the west under Maj. Gen. James Wilson, who had admired Upton’s conduct in the Shenandoah.  Diving into Alabama in March 1865, the objective was the destruction of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s force and rebel industries supporting the war effort.  Stunningly successful, as few could boast they bested Forrest, Wilson’s corps captured Selma, scattered Forrest’s command, paraded through the streets of Montgomery, and seized Columbus, Georgia, before word reached them that Lee and Johnston had surrendered their armies.

The war’s end was bittersweet for Upton.  He had attained great success and considerable renown, but the carnage of war haunted him.  “Unlike Charles Royster,” Fitzpatrick wrote, “who argues that the war’s destructiveness and violence were the inevitable outcome of the developments in mid-nineteenth-century American society, Upton had come to believe that politicians, some of whom were traitors, and inept generals were responsible for the length of the war and its attendant death and devastation.”(83)

Upton’s career as a reformer took a new turn in the summer of 1865, partially as the result of encouragement by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, when he undertook the task of rewriting the U.S. Army tactics manual.  Upton appeared before an army board in the summer of 1866 where he presented his findings and demonstrated his tactics using the Corps of Cadets at West Point.  The result was unanimous endorsement by the board and subsequent approval by Gen. Grant.  Upton’s Infantry Tactics, Double and Single Rank, Adapted to American Topography and Improved Firearms was now the official tactics manual of the U.S. Army.

The five years following the war’s end were crowded with frustration and sorrow for Upton as he bounced from post to post and getting nowhere fast.  The high point and later the low point of the period were Upton’s courtship and marriage to Emily Martin in Feb. 1868.  In addition to companionship, though this would be frequently interrupted by tours of duty and Emily’s need to recuperate in milder climates, the marriage would bring religion squarely into his life.  According to Fitzpatrick, “Religion remained important to their relationship even as the couple was apart.  Upton seems to have realized that Emily had married him, at least in part, to bring him back to godliness.”(102-103) When Emily died in March 1870, Upton was crushed.  At about the same moment, Upton had been appointed Commandant of Cadets at West Point.  This at least might open an avenue to rejuvenate his career.

After a rocky tenure at West Point and a seventeen month mission to study militaries around the world, Upton set out to reform the U.S. military.  According to Fitzpatrick, “His ideas reflected lessons he had learned during and after the Civil War, and they represented an effort to adapt the German system to American realities.” While Germany had mandatory service, Upton based his recommendations on what he called “National Volunteers” which was more appropriate to “serve and preserve democratic-republican institutions.”(182)

Upton’s resultant work, The Armies of Asia and Europe and Military Policy of the United States, both would come in for much criticism over the years.  Fitzpatrick is sensitive to criticism of Upton’s work and takes great pains to answer the many critiques.  In answer to those that would claim that Upton’s recommendations were inadequate to the wars of the twentieth century, Fitzpatrick argues that Upton’s work needs to be understood in context.

Upton’s proposals for the reform of the means by which the army expanded its organization in time of war, of its bureau system, of the relationship between the secretary of war and the commanding general, and of the officer promotion and education systems all were efforts to apply the lessons of America’s previous conflicts as well as what he learned from his observations of other nations’ armies. (206)

The reforms suggested by Upton for the military were nonetheless also political.  And, after all, it would be a matter of political will to make the necessary changes in the face of entrenched interests.  Rolled into a long complex bill – the so-called Burnside Bill – the reforms met defeat.  Although disappointed, Upton’s skepticism and distrust of politicians had prepared him and he had expected the worst.  That did not stop him, however, from continuing to advocate for particular reforms such as a compulsory retirement requirement for officers.

Finally in the summer of 1880 Upton was promoted to colonel.  But with the promotion came a transfer to San Francisco to command the Fourth U.S. Field Artillery at the Presidio.  Upton, however, was beginning to suffer the effects of the illness that would lead to his demise and he sought leave to delay his departure for California.  Upton’s brief tenure in San Francisco was marked by worries about his Tactics and growing unmanageable pain in his head.  Sometime during the night – probably early March 14th – Upton ended his life using a Colt revolver.

There has been much speculation about why Upton committed suicide.  Some have suggested his frustrated career ambitions, the death of Emily, his growing belief in the failure of his Tactics and the defeat of the Burnside Bill.  But, as Fitzpatrick argues, “Upton’s family appears to have been correct in attributing his actions to the pain from his “nasal catarrh.””

Following the discussion of the reasons for Upton’s suicide, Fitzpatrick dedicates the remaining pages to a spirited defense of Upton and his suggested reforms, concluding that Upton has been much maligned and misunderstood.  “Portrayed as anti-democratic and Prussian-like,” Fitzpatrick wrote, “Upton believed himself to be the defender of republicanism and molded his reforms to accomplish that mission.”(257)

All in all, Fitzpatrick’s biography of Upton is a good read, well researched and compelling.  There is little doubt that Upton is under-appreciated and made important contributions both on the battlefield and in writing.  Some might find that they would prefer more about the war and less about the post war politics, but such was Upton’s life.  Ironically, he might have preferred that too.


David Fitzpatrick, Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer

Harper Perennial; Reprint edition. Paperback edition: 704 pages.

Paperback: 704 pages

Endnotes, Bibliography, Index.

Book Review—That Bloody Hill: Hilliard’s Legion at Chickamauga

Author: Lee Elder
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017.
239 pages, $35.00 paper
Endnotes, Bibliography, maps and photographs

This review also appears on Chickamaugablog.

It wasn’t that long ago that single-volume overviews of the battle of Chickamauga – let alone individual unit micro-studies -were a rarity. Thankfully, that particular gap in Civil War Studies is closing. This most recent contribution to that body of work, penned by author Lee Elder, focuses on one of the more unusual formations to fight in that battle.

Hilliard’s Legion was an Alabama unit, raised in 1862, with a muster strength of nearly 3,000 men. As envisioned by its first commander, Henry W. Hilliard, the Legion consisted of three infantry battalions, one artillery battalion, and a cavalry battalion; essentially a combined-arms brigade structured to mirror similar organizations raised in the American Revolution. Several such were raised across the South. By 1863 the formations were deemed unwieldy however, their battalions broken up and assigned to cavalry or infantry brigades. Hilliard, frustrated at the dissolution and seeing his hopes of a brigadier generalship dashed, resigned in December 1862. At Chickamauga the Legion consisted of four independent infantry battalions (all but one company of the artillery having been converted to foot soldiers) with the cavalry battalion merged, along with the 19th Georgia Cavalry Battalion, into the 10th Confederate Cavalry Regiment.

The Legion served mainly in East Tennessee and Kentucky, seeing much marching but little fighting. They were brigaded under Brigadier General Archibald Gracie III, in Brigadier General William Preston’s Division of Simon B. Buckner’s Infantry Corps. Chickamauga would be their first major engagement, with their commitment to action coming at the very end of the last day, September 20, sent to attack Federal defenders on what history now knows as Horseshoe Ridge.

Though the battle lasted three days, with the heaviest action coming on September 19 and 20; the men of the Legion were seriously engaged for only about 2 – 3 hours, from 4:00 p.m. until perhaps 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. on the 20th. Despite this, they faced a terrifically stubborn defense, mounted by Union defenders under George Thomas, and suffered among the heaviest Confederate casualties of the entire battle. Gracie’s brigade, which included the 43rd Alabama and 63rd Tennessee as well as the four battalions of legionnaires, suffered 725 losses out of 1927 engaged, 38%; with the Legion’s 1st Battalion losing 59% of their men. Given the duration, it was a brutal engagement; centered largely on Hill One of the Horseshoe Ridge complex, near to the Snodgrass farm.

Like many similar works, the author’s interest in this project was generated by a family connection. That inspiration has clearly led to a deeply researched and well-developed story. Elder briefly sketches the Legion’s origins and outlines, but the heart of the work is devoted to their experiences at Chickamauga. Fortunately for the telling, several members left letters and memoirs concerning their epic fight on that September Sunday afternoon, sources which Elder uses well.

I should add a note here about style. Elder writes in a conversational, often casual tone; I confess that at first, I was put off by that choice. In the past, I have found this technique tends to override and obscure the writings of the veterans, introducing a jarring modernity that contrasts negatively with the period letters and other writings of the men who where there. As I read farther, however, I found myself enjoying Elder’s flair, which proved witty without being overbearing. His subjects’ voices were not drowned out at all. The writing flows along at an enjoyable pace.

Organizationally, That Bloody Hill includes thirteen chapters, ten appendices, and rosters for all five battalions of the legion, drawn from service records. Frankly, some of the chapters could have been appendices, and vice-versa. Chapter 13, for example, titled “The end of the story,” consists of summary biographies of some of the men quoted in the text; a nice touch, but contrast that with Appendix 1, detailing the Legion’s subsequent service in East Tennessee and Virginia after Chickamauga. These two items seem better off reversed. Additionally, Appendix 5 examines whether the Confederate Army of Tennessee should have pursued the Federals on September 21. It is preceded by appendices detailing the death of General Gracie in 1864, two affidavits from members of the legion detailing their experiences on September 20, and a short examination of Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s supply woes during the campaign. In another example, chapter 9, “Was there a fake surrender?” delves minutely into the question of an incident where each side, Union and Confederate, accused each other of falsifying a white flag of surrender to trick the other into an ambush – to me, this chapter also should have been set aside as an appendix. In places the book’s structure is choppy and disruptive, the focus uneven. A heavier editing hand could have been used here.

However, the good news is that Elder’s work is concise. Extraneous information is limited. Some additional background on the Legion’s composition could have been useful (how many were slave-owners? How did they feel about the war?) but Elder’s focus in the battle and the Legion’s engagement is laudatory. The book reads quickly and to the point.

This reviewer is no stranger to Chickamauga, having written several books on the subject, and so I would be remiss in not mentioning that my own works get some scrutiny from Elder. In Appendix 8, “The charge of disloyalty,” Elder disputes my own finding; namely that charges of treason and excessive desertion were later leveled against some in the Legion. Elder presents convincing evidence to suggest that these charges were unwarranted, or at least overblown. I found this section especially interesting and would like to know more. Perhaps some future work will provide a more systematic social history of the Legion, such as a modern regimental history.

In sum, I enjoyed This Bloody Hill, and recommend it. Spend some time with the Legion at Chickamauga.

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.


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