Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review: Shenandoah Summer

Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign, by Scott Patchan

University of Nebraska Press, 2009, paperback,408 pages

In Shenandoah Summer, author Scott Patchan provides the definitive examination of the Civil war actions in the Shenandoah Valley during the summer of 1864. While few works on the war to date provide even a chapter on the campaign, Mr. Patchan reveals a wealth of information and detail that is a delight to read.

Despite the title, I will admit that I purchased the book assuming that it would discuss Sheridan’s campaign in the Valley. In this I was very pleasantly surprised. Instead of Sheridan’s campaign, I was treated to a thorough examination of a campaign that I had previously known very little about. The majority of this book concerns the actions between Early’s raid on Washington and Sheridan’s Valley campaign of the fall. Instead of reading of the success of Sheridan’s campaign, the reader learns the reasons why Sheridan’s campaign had to take place.

Patchan skillfully blends the results of meticulous research with a vivid, readable writing style. His exhaustive research through previously unpublished works produces the detail readers hope for in this sort of book but all too seldom receive. His descriptions of individual actions and combat at the regimental level bring the action to life for the reader.

Despite the detail of his narrative, Patchan does a remarkable job of keeping the reader aware of the larger context within which the campaign takes place. Concurrent campaigns and elections had serious ramifications for actions in the Valley that summer. The difference in approach from the high commands on both sides I found particularly interesting. On the Confederate side, Lee seemed to support early as much as he could. On the Federal side, however, the “help” seemed to be in the form of pressure to make something happen instead of providing resources and assistance.

Early’s series of defeats in the Valley ultimately led to his dismissal, but Mr. Patchan depicts Early as a wily, opportunistic adversary who takes advantage of forces greatly outnumbering his own. He also objectively lays out the major difficulties facing his Union opponents, most notably division of responsibility and unity of command.

As is often the case with campaign studies, it would help if this book had a few more maps. A map of the retreat from Washington in particular would make the narration more understandable. There are a number of excellent maps and diagrams in the work, however, which greatly help readers follow the various maneuvering and battles of the campaign. Clearly Mr. Patchan has walked this ground and has an appreciation for terrain.

Overall, I found this book enjoyable and very enlightening on a previously obscure topic. Thorough research and clear prose make this a work any student of the Civil War will appreciate.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming

Home network issues have been resolved, computer issues have been fixed or replaced, the semester's over, and the office has been moved, so hopefully things are finally getting back to normal here as well as elsewhere in my life. Keep your fingers crossed and don't pull me off the blogroll just yet.

Review: Cavalryman of the Lost Cause

In Cavalryman of the Lost Cause, historian Jeffry Wert provides the first meaningful biography of James Ewell Brown Stuart in decades. While I have enjoyed previous biographies of Stuart, particularly those of Burke Davis and Emory Thomas, I think Wert’s book outshines them both. Combining a crisp, clear writing style with in-depth research into manuscript collections and other previously unpublished sources, Wert delivers a winner.

Wert’s treatment of Stuart is refreshingly objective, and I found the book an enjoyable read. Neither scathing nor fawning, the book covers his entire life, and not simply the Civil War period. Nor did this biography focus on the controversial two weeks of the Gettysburg campaign to the detriment of the rest of Stuart’s life. Wert’s well documented biography provides all of the references that could be asked for from anyone desiring to dig deeper into the cavalryman’s life.

The biography focuses on more than the military facet of Stuart’s life, and the author explores the complexities of Stuart’s personality. Relationships with both peers and subordinates are examined in a balanced manner, as is his affinity for publicity. He was a shameless self-promoter, but the same could be said of many leaders of this period. His look at relationships with his wife and lady friends are tastefully and tactfully conducted. The author portrays Stuart as a thoroughly professional and deeply religious man.

The only part of this book that could be improved is the period of his U.S. Army service during the years leading up to the Civil War, and this is admittedly a very difficult period to find references for.

I highly recommend this book. It deserves a place in the library of anyone interested in the Civil War, its leaders, or cavalry operations.