Book Review: Turning Points of the American Civil War


by Chris Mackowski & Kristopher D. White, editors.

Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2017. Pp. xx, 250. Illus., maps, notes, index. 24.50, paper. ISBN: 0809336219

Critical Episodes of the Civil War

A volume in the Southern Illinois University Press series “Engaging the Civil War”, Turning Points of the American Civil War consists of nine essays by various scholars that examine “turning points” in the American Civil War, plus a commentary for each one by the editors. Many of the essays are outstanding efforts, though some fall short.

James A. Morgan’s essay “Unintended Consequences: Ball’s Bluff and the Rise of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War,” first introduces the situation around northern Virginia in late 1861. He then details the engagement at Ball's Bluff, which had such an outsized impact on the Union war effort. Initially unopposed upon crossing the Potomac, a small Federal force was pushed back into the river by an equivalent number of Confederates. Despite being a very modest affair, even this early in the war, the scandalous defeat—and the death of Republican Senator Edward Baker of Oregon—resulted in the creation of a congressional “Frankenstein’s Monster”. Led by Radical Republicans, the Joint Committee stuck its militarily inexperienced nose into army affairs and vastly complicated the mission of the Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln. It defended commanders seen to be solidly Republican and unfairly attacked many who weren’t. The JCCW even had an impact after the war, as Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman both used it as an object lesson in what not to do (“Truman was determined that his committee would conduct ‘no white-wash or witch hunt”).

Similarly. Kevin Pawlak’s essay “‘The Heaviest Blow Yet Given the Confederacy’: the Emancipation Proclamation Changes the Civil War,” makes an admirable case that this non-military action had a tremendous impact on the course and outcome of the conflict. He notes how slaves had been a tremendous resource for the Confederacy when the conflict began and that, of the 180,000 Black soldiers who served in the Union armies, “just over half were former slaves from Confederate states”, their labor thus denied to the South. The essay also contradicts the common perception that the proclamation didn’t free any slaves because it only pertained to territory under Confederate control. For instance, “[s]ome of the motivation for slaves to run stemmed from the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Stephen Davis doesn’t succumb to outdated stereotypes in “‘Far Better in the Present Emergency’: John Bell Hood Replaces Joseph E. Johnston.” This essay nicely details not only how Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ choice of commanders turned out, but how Joseph Johnston failed to stop William Sherman’s army group on its advance toward Atlanta in the first place. Davis briefly relates both Johnston’s and Hood’s earlier experiences in the war, especially in the lead-up to Johnston’s displacement. The result of Jefferson Davis’ decision is amply illustrated by the descriptions applied to the Army of Tennessee after the Battle of Nashville: “essentially dissolved,” “suffering a humiliating rout,” “essentially ceased to exist,” “no longer an effective fighting force,” “on the verge of collapse,” destroyed “as a viable combat force,” “finished,” and “all but wrecked.”

Among the other essays is Robert Orrison’s worthy contribution, “Confidence Renewed: Surviving Bull Run and the Birth of the Army of the Potomac”. He begins with the Union rout at the First Battle of Bull Run, but then goes beyond where most battle accounts stop to discuss its impact on the war in Virginia. George B. McClellan was summoned to take command. He turned the disorganized units at hand into the well-disciplined Army of the Potomac and assembled a modern staff. Orrison credits him with creating “one of the most formidable fighting forces in the world up to that time.”

As with the premature death of Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson, the impact on the Confederacy’s fortunes is a matter of speculation in Gregory A. Mertz’s “Defeated Victory: Albert Sidney Johnston’s Death at Shiloh.” After a biographical sketch of Johnston up to the battle, the author details the general’s activities before and during the Battle of Shiloh, up to the time that he died from a bullet wound to his right leg. Mertz justifies Johnston’s presence on the front lines, whereas many historians argue that this was not the place for the Confederate army’s commander. The author also points out that “virtually all of the recent Shiloh historians agree that any reasonable scenario for assaulting Ulysses S. Grant’s Last Line would have held little chance of succeeding.” His argument, that “[o]utside of an earlier start to the battle, it is hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which Johnston could have achieved a complete victory at Shiloh,” would seem contradicted by the possibility of many different events, such as the hypothetical failure of Everett Peabody to send out his crucial patrol; the actual failure of the Confederates to immediately follow up their capture of Prentiss’ camps and their withdrawal of brigades from the center to advance closer to the river; the successful defense of the Hornet’s Nest; and a myriad of other actions. But Mertz ends the piece with a judgment that Johnston’s death did not deprive the Confederacy of victory at Shiloh.

“‘Oh, I Am Heartily Tired of Hearing about What Lee Is Going to Do’: Ulysses S. Grant in the Wilderness,” by Ryan Longfellow, begins with the appearance of Grant in the western theatre and subsequent arrival in the East. The author notes how the presence of Ambrose Burnside’s corps reporting directly to Grant during the Overland Campaign “resulted in an awkward Federal command structure.” The author, however, blames only George Meade for the premature halt in the Wilderness on May 4th, while both Meade and Grant then pushed the Union army into unnecessary assaults, despite the hugely unfavorable terrain. The essay contains brief chronological descriptions of the battle’s major events: on May 5th, George Getty’s division ordered to make a futile attack at the crossing of Brock and Orange Plank Roads; Gouverneur Warren’s corps ordered to attack along Orange Turnpike; and the arrival of Winfield S. Hancock’s corps at the crossing later in the day. Longfellow correctly notes how the “pressure from the general-in-chief prevented concerted efforts.” The next day, the battle continued with the Confederates’ spoiling attack on the Orange Turnpike front; Hancock’s augmented and hugely successful assault on A.P. Hill’s Confederate corps; James Longstreet’s crushing counterattack (which more than just “stabilized their line”); an extremely effective out-flanking and rolling-up of Hancock’s corps accomplished by four Confederate brigades which utilized an unfinished railroad bed; a further, costly attack by Lee against Hancock’s Brock Road position; and finally Jubal Early’s evening outflanking of John Sedgwick’s corps on the north end of the line, forcing a Union retreat. Various sources, such as the unreliable Horace Porter, have introduced false anecdotes of this engagement, such as Grant’s assured response to Early’s success and the cheering response of the Union soldiers when they continued the advance toward Spotsylvania. Grant, however, still deserves credit for his persistence in moving on after this and the following battles, although the slaughter of his men in frontal attacks on prepared positions throughout the Overland Campaign is a black mark.

“The Point of No Return: Turning Points within the 1864 Presidential Election and the Doom of the Confederacy,” by Rea Andrew Redd succinctly demonstrates the consequences of Abraham Lincoln’s re-election, while showing how Grant’s costly Overland campaign had jeopardized it. Redd outlines the history of the Republican party and discusses how reconstruction became an issue in the 1864 campaign. Certain Radical Republicans—such as Henry Winter Davis and Benjamin Wade—opposed the President and wanted Congress to have authority over the conquered South. Particularly interesting is the section on the rebel perspective of the contest between Lincoln’s National Union party and George McClellan’s Peace Democrats. Fortunately, Union victories in the Shenandoah Valley, at Atlanta and Mobile, and on the waters off of Cherbourg, France, helped seal Lincoln’s re-election. He won a solid majority of the votes and a landslide in the electoral college. As the author notes, this victory was “a catastrophic setback” for the Confederacy.

Two weak essays deal with Grant and Lee, the war’s two top commanders.

In “The Cresting Tide: Robert E. Lee and the Road to Chancellorsville,” co-editor Kristopher White follows the current trend of Civil War historiography, in which Lee is unduly denigrated, such as with the unfortunate opinion that “his impact brought as many negatives as positives.” White characterizes Lee’s tremendous victories over the Army of the Potomac at both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville as generally “hollow.” Actually, if the Confederates had only achieved such “hollow” victories in every battle in every theatre they would have successfully and quickly seceded. Lee is likewise given little credit for the Battle of Second Bull Run where his Army of Northern Virginia defeated and nearly bagged the Federal Army of Virginia. The author merely notes that Longstreet crushed a federal flank. In the Antietam campaign, the capture of over 12,000 Federals at Harpers Ferry is unfairly minimized. The author engages in undue hyperbole when claiming that “Malvern Hill and the Seven Days were to have been [Lee’s] Gaugamela, Cannae, and Waterloo all rolled into one.” An annihilation on the scale of Cannae alone would have been quite sufficient. In sum, White indulges in the modern penchant of blaming an inept Robert E. Lee for squandering the Confederacy’s opportunity for independence. Instead, Lee really kept the South in the war far longer than its lack of sea power, materiel, and manpower would have suggested.

In the same vein, Daniel T. Davis’ “Vicksburg: the Victory That Unleashed Ulysses S. Grant,” similarly follows another current trend of Civil War and Reconstruction historiography, in which Grant is unduly glorified. Although nominally about Vicksburg, Grant’s best work throughout the conflict, this essay offers a recapitulation of Grant’s military career during the Civil War. Davis notes how Henry Halleck “tended to harbor ill feelings toward numerous officers for what he perceived as slights against him,” without the faintest recognition that Grant was far worse in this respect. The absolute necessity of waterborne assets to Grant’s western campaigns is overlooked. As to accusations that Grant’s army at Shiloh was “taken completely by surprise” (and the word “completely” sets a very high standard—but it still came close to the truth) the author wrongly argues that this is “completely false.” And he wholly ignores how Grant was almost completely unprepared for the Confederate attack that day. The success at the second Battle of Corinth, meanwhile, is awarded to Grant and not to the actual victor, William Rosecrans. Turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse, the manifold failures before the final, successful campaign to capture Vicksburg were allegedly less a sign of Grant’s ineffectuality than of his tenacity. In quoting Grant’s Personal Memoirs on how “[t]his last attack only served to increase our casualties without giving any benefit whatever” at Vicksburg, Davis implies that this referred to the entire attack on May 22, 1863, and not just to the assaults made in response to John McClernand’s encouragement. In the Editors’ Introduction, Henry Halleck, “who did everything he could to stymie Grant’s rise,” is roundly criticized. This generally unfounded argument follows the path of Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which employed faulty facts and arguments to unduly disparage Halleck (and many other officers whom Grant despised).

Although most of the “turning points” discussed in these essays deserve the appellation, it can be easily maintained that the crucial battles at Gettysburg and Chattanooga should specifically have been included.

Turning Points of the American Civil War is interesting, informative, and often thought-provoking.


Note: Turning Points of the American Civil War is also available in several e-editions.


Our Reviewer: Joseph A. Rose, holds degrees in geography and Industrial and Labor Relations, and is the author of Grant Under Fire, a critical look at the career and memoirs of U.S. Grant. He has previously reviewed James M. McPherson’s The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters.

Reviewer: Joseph A. Rose   

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