Category Archives: Books
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.
In 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.
In Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, Stephen W. Sears draws on a remarkable cache of diaries, dispatches, and letters to recreate the fateful day of September 17, 1862 as experienced not only by its leaders but also by its soldiers, both Union and Confederate, to produce a comprehensive account of the Battle of Antietam. First published in 1983, Sears’ book is unrivaled in its elegance and complexity, examining not just the military history, but also the politics of the Army of the Potomac, which turned to 36-year-old General George B. McClellan to save the day.
In late summer 1862, the Union’s prospects for victory seemed dismally low. Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia was shattered at the Battle of Second Manassas, and President Abraham Lincoln called on George McClellan to once again take command of the Army of the Potomac and save Washington, D.C. Sears reveals Lincoln made this decision alone, against the wishes of his cabinet. By his own admission, there was no one else to turn to, but many in his administration, particularly Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, regarded McClellan (a staunch Democrat) as a traitor.
Sears excels at explaining the political conflict between McClellan and the Lincoln Administration, making it almost more interesting than the Battle of Antietam itself. It is a side of the campaign you rarely see. In the battle’s aftermath, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it incensed many officers and enlisted men. Some openly speculated about a Caesar-like march on Washington. McClellan, to his credit, discouraged those feelings and gracefully accepted his dismissal. In the end, all the talk of disloyalty came to nothing.
In Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, S. C. Gwynne brings to life Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in a vivid narrative that is rich with military history, biographical detail, and personal conflict. Gwynne’s Jackson is not a man of myth–he is often petty, uncompromising, stubborn, and very human.
No one was perhaps a more unlikely war hero than Professor Thomas Jackson of the Virginia Military Institute. He was awkward and distant, fanatically religious and a hypochondriac. He believed one arm was longer than the other, a “deficiency” he tried to self-correct his whole life.
He was not only secretive with those under his command, but he could be petty and jealous as well. While briefly stationed in Florida after the Mexican War, he frequently quarreled with his commanding officer, Major William H. French. He finally accused French of adultery, despite circumstantial evidence and the harm his unfounded accusation would cause the man’s marriage and reputation. During the Civil War, he court-martialed Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett for ordering a retreat despite being outnumbered, pressed on three sides, and low on ammunition. General Robert E. Lee later had to order Jackson to release Garnett from arrest.
Jackson’s military victories propelled him to national fame in the fledgling Confederacy, but it won him the respect of his Northern opponents as well. Jackson wasn’t always a brilliant tactician, however. During the Peninsula Campaign, Jackson’s corps arrived in virtual secrecy in time for the Seven Days Battles. But Jackson’s men hardly participated, and Jackson himself was sleep deprived and often incoherent.
In To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Stephen W. Sears charts the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Union General George McClellan’s grand plan to march up the Virginia Peninsula and capture the Confederate capital. More men and weapons of war were assembled for this campaign than for any other operation of the American Civil War. For three months, McClellan crawled toward Richmond. When Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces, he drove McClellan back to his ships in seven bloody days. How did this happen? Sears examines the men (from lowly privates to generals) and the politics that changed the course of history.
Major General George B. McClellan was a complex figure. He was an outspoken Democrat who expressly fought only to preserve the Union. He was supremely confident in his own abilities and loved the Army of the Potomac. It loved him back. How then, with over 100,000 men under his command, did he not only fail to capture the Confederate capitol, but fail spectacularly?
Sears’ narrative is unparalleled. His writing is clear, concise, and informative. He portrays a McClellan broken by Robert E. Lee’s aggressiveness–his only thought was to preserve his beloved army from what he believed was a vastly superior rebel force. He gave up strategic ground and countless supplies just to escape. The Union Army’s loss of war material in the campaign was “beyond calculation.”
To the Gates of Richmond highlights many surprising details about this early chapter of the war. Not only did the Union Army employ hot air balloons and ironclad ships for the first time, but some soldiers purchased iron plates to use as body armor (soon discarded for being too heavy). The Confederates had tricks up their sleeves as well. General Gabriel J. Rains utilized improvised explosive devices (land “torpedoes”) to harass the advancing Yankees. The Confederate high command frowned on this tactic, however, and transferred him to apply his particular set of skills against enemy ships in the James River.
In Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign, Jonathan A. Noyalas traces Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign during the American Civil War. Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was known as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” due to its ample harvests and transportation centers. The region became a magnet for both Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, and nearly half of the thirteen major battles fought in the Valley occurred during this campaign.
Through diaries, letters, and battlefield accounts, Noyalas shows how those victories brought hope to an infant Confederate nation, transformed the lives of the Shenandoah Valley’s civilians, and emerged as Stonewall Jackson’s defining moment.
In March 1862, a 35,000-strong Union army led by Major General Nathanial P. Banks invaded the Shenandoah Valley from the north. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson initially opposed him with just 3,500 men. By June 10, Jackson had driven the Yankees back into Maryland. The story of how he accomplished this is incredible. Professor Noyalas does an adequate job telling this story, but while he paints an interesting picture of the campaign’s impact on civilians, his military history falls short.
How the war affected civilians is a perspective you rarely read, especially when it comes to Union loyalists vs. Confederates in the Valley. Not every Virginian seethed at Major General Banks’ blue ranks marching through the streets. Some even cheered. Their neighbors, however, were happy to later point them out to Jackson’s men. I was surprised to read just how virulent the hatred was for Yankees. In an effort to scare the invaders, one resident of Winchester told a Union officer that after the Battle of Bull Run they collected Northern skulls and sold them for ten dollars!