Category Archives: Books

The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea

the-battle-of-the-wilderness-may-5-6-1864-by-gordon-c-rheaIn The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the first meeting between Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the darkened, tangled forest west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, which ended with high casualties on both sides but no clear victor.

Rhea clarifies and explains a battle that even its participants found confusing and hard to comprehend. With its balanced analysis of events and people, command structures and strategies, The Battle of the Wilderness is a thorough and meticulous military history. This is the first of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.

Prior to 1864, the Eastern Theater had mostly been a war of maneuver. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia jockeyed back and forth with the Union Army of the Potomac with little to show for it. In April 1864, both armies sat facing one another across the Rapidan River, almost exactly where they had been one year earlier.

General Ulysses S. Grant was determined to change that, and the Battle of the Wilderness proved it. This chaotic struggle touched off the Overland Campaign, a brutal grind toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Rather than retreat to lick its wounds, as Army of the Potomac usually did after a major battle, Grant ordered it around Lee’s flank to the southeast. Finally, President Abraham Lincoln found a General who was not afraid of Robert E. Lee.

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Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears

In Gettysburg, Stephen W. Sears charts the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 to July 24, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North during the American Civil War. The campaign culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, in which approximately 48,000 Americans became casualties. In the end, nothing was gained except these men added to the casualties rolls.

No two armies could have been more similar and yet more different than the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia. For the first time, the two armies neared manpower parity. While Lee’s army was supremely confident, even contemptuous of its opponents, George G. Meade’s army had no illusions about the coming fight. Its men were eager to prove they could win a victory.

Where Lee’s command was rife with disagreement, miscommunication, apathy, and poor decision making, with some exceptions the leadership of the Army of the Potomac had its finest hour. Sears convincingly demonstrates that the Union army’s leadership simply out classed their counterparts, at least on this battlefield.

Much has been made over the years of Confederate cavalry commander Maj. General J.E.B. Stuart’s absence during the critical days leading up to the battle. Sears in some ways exonerates Stuart. Stuart was following Lee’s orders when he rode around the Union army, capturing supplies and disrupting communications.

“The very concept of Stuart’s expedition was fueled by overconfidence and misjudgment at the highest command level,” he argued. While frustrated with Stuart’s absence, Lee made no effort to rectify the situation until after the battle was underway.

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Richmond Redeemed by Richard J. Sommers

richmond-redeemed-the-siege-at-petersburg-by-richard-j-sommersIn Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg, Richard J. Sommers meticulously recounts Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifth Offensive (September 29 – October 2, 1864), primarily the Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff (Fort Harrison) and Poplar Spring Church (Peebles’ Farm), against the Confederate defenses around Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Originally published in 1981, the sesquicentennial edition contains new research, new writing, and new thinking with perspectives and insights gathered from the author’s 33 years of teaching at the Army War College and conversations with fellow Civil War scholars and enthusiasts.

The Union attack north of the James River at Chaffin’s Bluff in the fall of 1864 broke through Richmond’s defenses and gave Federals their greatest opportunity to capture the Confederate capital. Meanwhile, fighting outside Petersburg at Poplar Spring Church so threatened Southern supply lines that Confederate General Robert E. Lee considered abandoning his Petersburg rail center six months before actually doing so. Yet hard fighting and skillful generalship saved both cities. Sommers painstakingly reconstructs these events with unrivaled detail.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to read Richmond Redeemed without a general understanding of the Siege of Petersburg or the military situation around Richmond in late 1864. Sommers quickly summarizes these events in the Eastern Theater before diving right into the minutia of Grant’s Fifth Offensive. A reader unfamiliar with Grant’s previous offensives around Petersburg is left scratching his or her head. It is difficult to fully grasp the details of these events without making the larger context perfectly clear. Complicating matters, Sommers switches back and forth between the attack against Richmond and the attacks southwest of Petersburg.

Sommers‘ thesis is that these separate attacks should be considered part of the same offensive, and part of a pattern in which Grant struck simultaneously at Lee’s southwestern supply lines and the defenses around Richmond. In theory, this would force Lee to commit valuable reserves to the defense of one or the other. He could afford to save one, but not both. If Sommers would have divided the attacks into two separate parts, it would have gone a long way toward reducing confusion without taking away from his overall thesis.

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From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert

from-winchester-to-ceder-creek-the-shenandoah-campaign-of-1864-by-jeffry-d-wertIn From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864, Jeffry D. Wert charts Union General Philip Sheridan’s victory over Confederate General Jubal Early in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley during the closing months of the American Civil War. Sheridan’s campaign ensured Confederate defeat in Virginia and ultimately contributed to President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection. Drawing on manuscript collections and many published sources, Wert offers vivid descriptions of the battles of Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, Tom’s Brook, and Cedar Creek.

First published in 1987, From Winchester to Cedar Creek explores how interplay of the strengths and weaknesses of the Union and Confederate commanders, Sheridan and Early, resulted in victories for Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. It not only documents and dynamically recounts these events, but it also details the political, strategic, and tactical forces that made the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign so important to the outcome of the Civil War.

As Philip Sheridan’s star rose, Jubal Early’s fell. In June 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent Early and approximately 15,000 men up the Shenandoah Valley to clear Union troops from the area and menace Washington, D.C., in an effort to repeat Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s successes in 1862. Early, however, was no Jackson. Despite early success, by August he was on the defensive. General Ulysses S. Grant sent his cavalry commander, Philip Sheridan, to command all Union troops in the Valley and destroy Early. This is where From Winchester to Cedar Creek picks up the story.

Philip Sheridan was one of the few cavalry commanders who successfully transitioned to overall command of an army. His unique experience allowed him to better integrate infantry and cavalry. During the Civil War, it was considered suicidal for mounted cavalry to directly engage infantry, but at the Battle of Third Winchester, September 19, 1864, Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s cavalry division broke Early’s defensive line with a classic Napoleonic cavalry charge.

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The Last Citadel: Petersburg by Noah Andre Trudeau

the-last-citadel-petersburg-june-1864-to-april-1865-by-noah-andre-trudeauIn The Last Citadel: Petersburg, June 1864-April 1865, Noah Andre Trudeau charts Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Petersburg Campaign, from June 9, 1864, when General Benjamin Butler first attacked defenses around the city, to  April 3, 1865, when Federal troops at last captured this vital Virginia railroad hub south of Richmond. The ten-month Siege of Petersburg was the longest and most costly to ever take place on North American soil.

Within this non-traditional history, Trudeau brings to life these dramatic events through the words of men and women who were there, including officers, common soldiers, and the residents of Petersburg. What emerges is an epic account rich in human incident and adventure, told through various chapters covering all aspects of the campaign. This revised Sesquicentennial edition includes updated text, redrawn maps, and new material.

The Last Citadel is divided into six parts, including a prologue and epilogue. The chapters are arranged into a rough chronology, but this is not strictly a chronological account of the siege. Each chapter uses a different subject to frame the narrative, from the effect of artillery bombardment on soldiers and civilians, the role of newspapers and the press, and even fraternization between opposing armies.

This is a unique and interesting way to look at the battle, drawing from a multitude of primary sources including military orders and dispatches, regimental histories, civilian diaries and letters, newspapers, and more. Trudeau organizes his book well, so that various perspectives never become jumbled or distracting. This keeps each chapter fresh and interesting, like reading a collection of articles rather than a weighty historical text.

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New England Grimpendium a Unique Look at the Region’s Dark Side

The New England Grimpendium: A Guide to Macabre and Ghostly Sites by J.W. Ocker is one of the most unique books I’ve ever read in this genre. More than just the usual collection of haunted sites, it contains a listing of homes and birthplaces of authors and entertainers, infamous crimes and criminals, horror movie filming locations, and even creepy plants. This book has everything the eclectic tourist could ask for.

J.W. Ocker was originally from Maryland, but has lived in New Hampshire since 2008. He’s authored several books, including Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe (2014) and A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts (2016), all of which look fascinating. At his blog, Odd Things I’ve Seen (OTIS), he chronicles his visits to hundreds of cultural, artistic, natural, and historical oddities across the country and world.

Although some reviewers found Ocker’s writing style in The New England Grimpendium slightly off-putting (he leans on the snarky, skeptical side), I enjoyed every page of it. The writing is relaxed, focusing not just on the history but also on his experiences visiting the location. The fact visited most if not all the locations in this book also sets it apart from other travel guides that often rely on secondhand sources.

I picked it up in a gift shop in Salem, Massachusetts. I’m always looking for new places to visit, and although most of these are outside my usual diving radius, I couldn’t pass it up. “Grimpendium,” the author’s invention, is a fitting description for the eclectic contents. “Ghostly sites” represent a small portion of the places in this book. Most are related to celebrities and infamous people, but all are wonderfully unique.

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Haunted Rockford, Illinois

Haunted Rockford, Illinois, Kathi Kresol’s latest offering from The History Press, is a spine-tingling look at the history and folklore of the Forest City. Kathi also wrote Murder & Mayhem in Rockford, Illinois, and originally those were going to be a single book. Though related subjects (many traumatic events are believed to spawn hauntings), splitting them up was ultimately a good decision thematically.

Like Murder & Mayhem in Rockford, Haunted Rockford delves into the history and personalities behind the stories. Kathi created the popular Haunted Rockford Tours, but this is no recitation of a tour script. These stories are painstakingly researched and documented, relying primarily on interviews and newspaper articles. The chapters are divided into two parts: Ghostly Encounters and Legends, Curses and Other Curiosities.

The two most interesting chapters are “The Terrible Tragedy of Geraldine Bourbon” and “The Witch of McGregor Road.” In the first, Kathi tells a personal story of how she came to live in a haunted house in Rockford, and the horrible events that precipitated it. Imagine finding out your home was the scene of a double murder after a number of bizarre experiences. Kathi told me about her experience several times over the years and it doesn’t lose its impact in print.

In “The Witch of McGregor Road,” Kathi uncovered a possible origin for Rockford’s infamous “Witch Beulah” legend. The legend involves a school teacher who was blamed for a fire at her schoolhouse out on Meridian or McGregor Road. Or, perhaps, Beulah was a witch who cursed Arthur Blood’s family and caused the mysterious events along Blood’s Point Road.

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Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears

chancellorsville-by-stephen-w-searsIn Chancellorsville, Stephen W. Sears charts the 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign, beginning with the recovery of the Union Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Fredericksburg and ending with two armies facing each other in much the same way as before the campaign began. In what was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s most stunning victory, he divided his army in the face of a superior enemy, in violation of basic military rules, and sent Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps around the Union Army’s flank. Jackson’s death, accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers, has been recounted numerous places before, but less well-known is how Union General Joseph Hooker managed to lose a battle that looked so much in his favor.

One of the most stunning takeaways from this book was the Army of the Potomac’s condition after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Desertion, low morale, in-fighting among officers, and expired enlistments whittled the army down to an empty husk. On January 31, 1863, the Union Army counted 25,363 deserters (1/4 of the army!). In contrast, Lee had 91,000 men under his command. Why didn’t he move against the disorganized and demoralized Union Army?

One reason was lack of intelligence. Lee couldn’t be certain how many (or how few) enemy soldiers he faced. Another was lack of supply. Lee couldn’t stockpile enough supplies to go on the offensive with the trickle coming from Richmond. He actually sent 20,000 men south to relieve the burden. So his best opportunity to crush the Army of the Potomac slowly slipped away.

Chancellorsville is above all a vindication of Major General Joseph Hooker. Hooker is usually portrayed as the Union general on the losing end of Robert E. Lee’s most stunning victory. But he was a brilliant organizer and military innovator. Unfortunately, “Fighting Joe” didn’t get along well with his peers. He was outspoken, a rough character, and a middle-aged bachelor at a time when that was viewed suspiciously.

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