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

Book Review: “The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861-1865”

In Ken Burns’ nine-part documentary The Civil War, Shelby Foote notably described Nathan Bedford Forrest as one of “two authentic geniuses” generated by the Civil War. At another point in the series, Foote lays out Forrest’s maxims of war after calling the civilian turned soldier with no military experience before 1861 “a natural genius.” How did Forrest the civilian come to be Forrest, one of the most feared cavalry commands in the Confederate Army?

Retired United States Army special forces general John R. Scales’ work seeks to answer that question. Scales is quick to point out that this book is not a biography of Forrest, and the only controversy one finds within these pages regarding the general is the wisdom or folly of his military decisions, which of course includes the April 12, 1864, action at Fort Pillow. To nail home this objective further, Scales begins the book with Forrest’s enlistment into the Confederate Army in June 1861 and concludes it in May 1865.

The pages in between are filled with detailed descriptions of Forrest’s military movements. To help build his case at how Forrest gained his prowess, Scales hardly leaves a stone unturned, examining every action that Forrest participated in during the war, no matter how large or small. In his studies of these many campaigns and battles, Scales is quick to point out Forrest’s mistakes (if there were any), his successes, and what lessons he learned that made him successful at later points in the war. Following the latter throughout the book makes it easy to watch the upward evolution of the general’s military career.

But Scales does not miss the forest for the trees. While examining Forrest’s military progression, Scales mentions the moments when the general’s actions had an impact on the Civil War at a higher level than the local one. Indeed, there are four times during his service from 1861 to 1865 that Forrest had a “significant and measurable impact on the overall course of the war”: his July 1862 attack on Murfreesboro, Tennessee that halted Don Carlos Buell’s campaign to occupy Chattanooga; Forrest’s operations in West Tennessee during the winter of 1862 delayed Federal occupation of Vicksburg; stalling the United States campaign to strike at the heart of the Confederacy by taking Selma and Mobile, Alabama in early 1864; and, finally, Forrest’s negative impact on the war, the confused fighting at Fort Pillow resulting in the massacre of black troops (441).

One of the book’s real gems is the 109 maps produced by Hal Jespersen, which are each accompanied by a driving tour, allowing a reader to take what they learned on the page and apply it to the extant Civil War landscape in the Western Theater. Indeed, it becomes evident from examining the maps and reading through the driving directions that the author visited the site of most, if not all, of Forrest’s campaigns and engagements, viewed the terrain, and made his judgments on Forrest’s performance not only from a study of the written record but from a survey of the battlefield terrain. That’s a valuable lesson for any military historian, and here Scales excels. If you do a lot of driving through what was once the western Confederacy, keep this book handy in your vehicle; you never know when you might spring onto a Forrest battlefield!

Overall, Scales’ work is a worthwhile addition to the Forrest historiography. It is an excellent examination of how someone with no prior military experience learned from his actions and propelled such a meteoric rise not often seen in the Civil War.

John R. Scales, The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861-1865.

Savas Beatie, 2017.

465 pages, 109 maps, footnotes, bibliography, index.


Book Review: “Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century”

book-reviews-header

Across the street from Ford’s Theatre and next to the Petersen House in Washington, D.C. there’s a museum dedicated to Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. The centerpiece of that museum is a three-and-a-half story tower of books written about the 16th president of the United States. Amongst the already massive historical studies of the American Civil War, Lincoln biographies and monographs stand above all else in number of studies done. Into that field of study comes a new book about the Lincoln Assassination—told not through Lincoln’s final hours, or the killer, or the people in the theatre, but rather, through the lenses of those who sought to show the world how those events unfolded.

Nicholas Pistor’s book Shooting Lincoln is a good book for those new to the study of Civil War photographers, and those who wish to look at the assassination in a way they may not have yet. Pistor’s book zooms in on the two most prominent photographers of the day: the famed Mathew Brady and his protégé turned rival Alexander Gardner.

Shooting Lincoln totals just about 200 pages of narrative, and about half of that covers the careers of Brady and Gardner before April, 1865. Some may think that that is a little too much backstory, but the exposition certainly helps explain how and why Brady and Gardner were so intent on one-upping each other and getting the better photographs. Pistor’s early chapters discuss a great exhibition in London that seriously introduced the new study of photography, as well as the beginning of the war and Gardner’s famous excursions to Antietam and Gettysburg.

Pistor’s work does not break much new ground—his bibliography is full entirely of secondary sources and easily accessible primary sources, with nothing represented from unpublished manuscripts. But the story is still told well, and Pistor brings alive the struggle between Brady and Gardner, plus other associates that have come down through history like Timothy O’Sullivan. The constant narrative thread is how Brady and Gardner consistently found themselves at odds—first, when Gardner worked for Brady yet received little to no credit for his work, and then to when they were rival photographers both looking for the best scoop.

The best part of the book comes from the inclusion of plenty of photographs, which is paired with Pistor’s narrative. In that sense, one reads about the work done by Brady or Gardner to get the photo, and then they see the finished result amongst the page breaks. Through that purview, they become more than just downloaded scans from the Library of Congress, but now have full-fledged back stories to them. Pistor’s narrative goes through the battlefields of the Civil War, to the stage at Ford’s Theatre, the deck of the USS Montauk, and to the gallows at the Washington Arsenal.

Shooting Lincoln is the ideal version of popular history—a story told well that is very accessible to newcomers who may be seeking an introduction to the major players surrounding photography and the Lincoln Assassination. What Pistor makes abundantly clear with his closing pages is that the advances in photography and innovations pushed by people like Brady and Gardner continue to help us today. Even amongst the modern hustle and bustle of constant news, it all comes back to the photographers who lugged their heavy equipment around, carefully treated their wet plates, and waited for the best shot.

Nicholas Pistor, Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century.

Da Capo Press, 2017.

272 Pages, Endnotes, Bibliography, Index.

 

 


Civil War Cookin’: It’s Just A Book Review

Well, it’s a couple days after Thanksgiving and since we’ve already “decked the halls with boughs of holly” (at least at my home), it’s probably time to wrap up Civil War Cookin‘ for 2017. If you’ve been intrigued by the recipes and historical accounts and want to read more, then we’ve got the right conclusion for you.

I spent the week reading a fascinating book about Abe Lincoln and mid-19th Century cooking, and here’s my short book review.

I stumbled across the title when I was browsing through a library catalog, requesting sources for this series. The book sounded interesting, and I placed a hold; when I picked it up, I knew I had to read it – not just speed-read and reference this book – and I’m sure glad I took the time.

Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times by Rae Katherine Eighmey (Smithsonian Books, 2013).

I became a little skeptical as I read the disclaimers in the opening chapters, but then my confidence was restored. Ms. Eighmey openly admits that the primary sources to answer the question “what did Lincoln eat?” are scarce. Most of the desirable details weren’t recorded (or didn’t survive). There are some anecdotes and variety of historical facts gleaned and interpreted with exhaustive research.

Yes, there are conclusions and “what-if” culinary scenarios presented in the text, but they are set in mid-19th Century historical context and are likely possibilities to join the known facts. I appreciated Ms. Eighmey’s honesty and clarity between facts and supposition.

The book traces Lincoln’s life with a focus on the foods he grew, gathered, bought, and ate. At the end of each chapter, there are authentic recipes adapted for modern measurements and kitchens. Although Lincoln and his family hold the spotlight of the book, the author also shares a wealth of information about cooking practices, growing and harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables, changes in cuisine prompted by changes in America.

One of my favorite stories from the book is a story shared by one of Lincoln’s neighbors in Springfield. According to the account, Abraham Lincoln regularly returned from his law office in the evening, tied on a blue apron, and joined his wife in the kitchen to help her finish the last minute preparations for the family’s dinner. Now that’s an image of Lincoln that we haven’t heard much about!

The Lincoln’s Home in Springfield, Illinois

What recipe am I planning to try? Almond Pound Cake is definitely first on my list. (I might even make it for the Civil War caroling event I’m attending next weekend.) It’s not a Lincoln family classic because unfortunately historians haven’t found a bundle of Mrs. Lincoln’s recipes. However, the recipe featured in the book is adapted from The Kentucky Housewife which was published in 1839. We do know that Miss Mary Todd made an almond cake one evening when Mr. Lincoln came courting – so there is a fun historical connection to the dessert.

Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen is a light-hearted investigation of 19th Century cooking in Kentucky, Illinois, and Washington D.C. during the mid-19th Century. Ms. Eighmey shares her dedicated research, detailed knowledge of American culinary practices and recipes, and devotion to recreating historic recipes in modern kitchens. It’s a unique perspective in an easy-to-read format, and I’m sure it will give you a year’s worth of Civil War cookin’ inspiration.