by Larry J. Daniel
Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2022. Pp. xiv, 204.
Illus., maps, tables, appends., gloss, noted, biblio., index. $44.10. ISBN: 0807177857
Confederate Military Engineers in the West
Historian Larry Daniel is right to begin his book with a quote from Earl Hess about how the historians of the American Civil War need to break out of “the comfortable niches imposed by their large popular audiences.” Fewer books on Gettysburg, and more on logistics and engineering.
Daniel observes that while there are several excellent recent studies of the Union army’s engineers, the Confederate States Army has been poorly served in this regard. He limits his study of Confederate engineers and engineer troops to what he calls “the Confederate Heartland,” the large area extending from the Mississippi River east across northern Mississippi and Alabama to northern Georgia, and encompassing all of Tennessee. This means omitting not just the Shenandoah Valley and northern Virginia—the most active theaters of the war—but the headquarters of the army in Richmond as well.
Daniel organizes his book chronologically, geographically, and thematically. Rather than beginning with an overview of either the Heartland as a theater, or the engineering officers as a group, he plunges right in to the loss of the Upper Mississippi. Unlike the Atlantic and Gulf seacoasts, which the U.S. Army had long before fortified, the banks of the Mississippi were unprotected. Rebel engineers rushed to fortify Island Number Ten, where Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee come together. They were overmatched by Union forces, including by the Union engineers, and the loss of this island was first step in the Confederacy’s loss of control over the river itself. Daniel then moves on to the CSA’s failures on two more important rivers, the Tennessee and the Cumberland. Defeats there would make the Union’s campaigns in Tennessee much easier.
Daniel also devotes a fair amount of coverage to several other operations, the Battle of Shiloh and the subsequent siege and fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and then the Confederate retreat to Atlanta under pressure from Sherman’s army.
Engineering in the Confederate Heartland also includes several chapters that seem focused on particular themes, such as “Organizing Engineer Troops,” “The Mapmakers,” and “The Pontoniers,” but in fact help continue to deal with the campaigns covered in the book.
Throughout all the chapters, the narrative is broken up as Daniel introduces yet another of the dozens of individual engineer officers whom he describes.
As a result, Engineering in the Confederate Heartland is hard to follow, and almost incoherent. Daniel never provides readers with a clear history of any of these campaigns, nor are there enough maps to allow readers to follow the two sides as the war moves south, and then steadily east. Although Daniel does include a tremendous amount of biographical information on the many Confederate engineers, it is never pulled together to suggest which men were most important in the overall history of the campaigns, much less the South’s side of the war. This is a pity, because in many ways, he has created a useful book: at the end, there is a glossary, two appendices, excellent endnotes and bibliography, and an index. Readers who want to understand the role of engineers in the America’s Civil War -- albeit from a Union perspective -- should look for Thomas F. Army’s 2018 book, Engineering Victory.
Our Reviewer: Jonathan Beard is a retired freelance journalist who has devoted most of his life to reading military history. When he worked, he wrote and did research for British, American and Danish science magazines, and translated for an American news magazine. The first book he owned was Fletcher Pratt’s The Monitor and the Merrimac. Jonathan reviews regularly for the Michigan War Studies Review. His previous reviews for StrategyPage and NYMAS include Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians' First Battles in the Revolution, The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944, Prevail Until the Bitter End: Germans in the Waning Days of World War II, Enemies Among Us, Battle of the Bulge, Then and Now, and Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy From Triumph to Collapse.
Note: Engineering in the Confederate Heartland is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium