REVIEWS

A VERY GOOD READ

Reviews by Steven Garrett

David B. Sachsman, Editor. A Press Divided: Newspaper Coverage of the Civil War. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. London and New York, 2014.

     This book is not our normal history of an event or person(s); it is a collection of essays that were products of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s School of Journalism’s “Symposium on 19th Century Press.” This symposium has been held for well over twenty years.  The collection is edited by one of the founders of the symposium and includes the acknowledged best essays from that forum. The book is divided into three parts, each containing several essays.

Part I: Splitting the Nation

  • Newspaper Coverage of the Rise of Lincoln in 1860: Cooper Union, the Republican Convention, and the Election.

  • Lincoln and the Southern Press: The Election of 1860.

  • Just Before a Mighty Earthquake: Secession Crisis in Muscogee County, Georgia.

  • The War Within the State: The Role of Newspapers in Missiouri’s Secession Crisis.

Part II: Covering the Conflict

  • Father Abraham, Mammy Lincoln, and Aunty Abe: Gender in Civil War Cartoons of Abraham Lincoln.

  • Bohemian Rhapsodies: Ulysses S. Grant, Sylvanus Cadwallader, and Civil War Journalism.

  • An Affair of Words: Tennessee Civil War Press and the Confederate Nation.

  • “Custar” in the News: George Armstrong Custer in the Gettysburg Campaign.

  • Beyond the Household Gate: Women War Correspondents in the Confederacy.

  • The Men Who Took the Pictures: Civil War Photojournalists Associated with Mathew Brady.

Part III: Dissension and Suppression North and South

  • “Principles Opposed to Public Peace.” Kentuckians Reactions to John Brown’s Raid.

  • The Suppression of the Mid-Atlantic Copperhead Press.

  • A Divided Illinois: Abraham Lincoln and Coverage of the Emancipation Proclamation by His Hometown Press.

  • Copperhead Christians and the Press.

  • “Freely and Fearlessly:” The 1863 New York Editors Editors’ Resolutions.

  • “Do Not Place Us between Two Fires:” Connecticut Soldiers, Connecticut Newspapers, and the Gubernatorial Election of 1863.

  • We Have Spoken for Public Liberty: The Press, Dissent, and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism.

  • Ex Parte McCardle and the First Amendment During Reconstruction.

There is much in the above essays to interest many different history “buffs.”  Examples are:

  • The first essay about newspaper coverage or non-coverage of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech and the Republican convention is very interesting as it runs counter to much historians have written about the importance of the Cooper Union speech and Lincoln’s growth as an acknowledged possible presidential candidate.

  • The essay on Sylvanus Cadwallader and his relationship with U.S. Grant argues how he may have assisted Grant rise in popularity.

  • The essay on the newspaper non-coverage of Custer at Gettysburg does question the myths associated with this individual.

  • The essay “Do not place us between two fires” is a discussion of how CT soldiers were able to impact an election when there was no provision for absentee ballots.

  • Possibly the last essay discusses the most impactful event for journalism’s future, the decision on the Ex parte McCardle How an ex-Confederate challenged the legality of the reconstruction act and almost changed history.

     This is a very good read. Well written on the whole, well researched with many references to their sources. I recommend this series of essays on the impact of 19th Century media on the events prior to, during, and after the Civil War. How we read history may have a lot to do with sources and context. Enjoy its challenges to some of our long-held myths.

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Earl J. Hess. In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat. The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, N.C, 2009.

     If you are interested in the impact of the trench warfare around Petersburg and the impact of trench warfare during the Civil War this is the book for you. Written by the foremost expert on trench warfare from its evolution to the end of the war, this is a very detailed and researched presentation. Consider the authors conclusion on page 285:

“. . . Grant pinned the Army of Northern Virginia to the ground for ten months at Petersburg, allowing the world around it to crumble without giving Lee an opportunity to salvage anything like victory.  He had also given the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James their opportunity to defeat the South’s most effective field army.”

      Additionally, this volume is loaded with photographs and drawings of the various trench networks around Petersburg so the reader can see what was unique and specific for those various networks as the author wrote of them. Let’s look at the structure of the book by chapter:

  1. Engineers and War

  2. Crossing the James River

  3. Three Days in June

  4. Searching for a Solution

  5. Digging in

  6. Soldiering in the Trenches

  7. The Third Offensive

  8. The Crater

  9. August

  10. The Fourth Offensive

  11. September

  12. The Fifth Offensive

  13. October and the Sixth Offensive

  14. November, December and January

  15. Winter

  16. The Seventh Offensive, February and March

  17. Fort Stedman and the Eighth Offensive

  18. The Nineth Offensive, April 2

  19. Conclusion

     The above list of chapters indicates the breadth and scope of this volume. This is the third volume of Hess’s study on the use of field fortification (trenches), their evolution, and their use during the Civil War. This study cements his reputation as an expert with respect to this aspect of Civil War history.

     A question that remains is why the leaders of WWI did not learn from the American Civil War experience of trench warfare! This is an outstanding and detailed look at trench warfare in our Civil War. If you are interested there is no other book you should read about Petersburg.

[See also Earl J. Hess. Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 and Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Fortifications in the Overland Campaign, both University of North Carolina Press.]

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James M. McPherson. Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. The Penguin Press. New York, 2014.

     This is one of the premier biographies of a much and easily maligned individual from our history. As was stated in a November 20, 2014, New York Times review by Steve Hahn:

McPherson is not interested in comparing Davis and Lincoln or in building a case against Davis for treason or anything else. Rather, he is interested in the challenge of transcending his own convictions and understanding Davis as a “product of his time and circumstances.” This could not have been easy. Davis was a major slave owning planter in Mississippi, a staunch defender of slavery and the imperial ambitions of slaveholders, a believer in state sovereignty even while benefiting from federal largess, and a bitter foe of Lincoln and all he was presumed to represent. To make matters worse, Davis had few charms or virtues. He was a lovely amalgam of haughty, prickly, humorless, argumentative, cold and thin-skinned. His poor state of health may have accounted for some of this, while his workaholic tendencies may have exacerbated his many maladies.

     Much hated in the north and by many in the south, Davis pursued his task that he did not campaign for nor was it the task he wanted. Davis wanted to be named Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate military, seeing himself as the best choice. However, after being elected by the Confederate legislature, he pursued his duties as he saw them. Strapped by overseeing a confederation of states with deep mistrust of a central government and a belief that state rights transcended the power of the central government, Jefferson Davis forged ahead. He not only battled the northern aggressors (as he saw them), but the state governors, his generals, and many who believed they knew how to pursue the war more effectively, all while battling many physical ailments. McPherson describes how Davis’s single-mindedness was also his downfall as a government and military leader—he was unable to delegate even minor decisions. His personality also drove him to play favorites, even when it became obvious that a course of action was questionable.

     Let us look at the structure and organization of this fine and balanced biography:

INTRODUCTION

  1. WE MUST PREPARE FOR A LONG WAR

  2. WINTER OF DISCONTENT

  3. WAR SO GIGANTIC

  4. THE CLOUDS ARE DARK OVER US

  5. WE SHOULD TAKE THE INITIATIVE

  6. WE MUST BEAT SHERMAN

  7. THE LAST RESORT

CODA

     Unlike most leaders, north and south, Davis recognized what the war meant. Unlike many who fantasized about a quick end to the war, Davis was much more realistic. His experience as a senator, Mexican War veteran, and secretary of war, gave him a much better view of reality. The book’s structure follows the rise and fall of the Confederacy’s wartime ebb and flow of success and failure.

     To be honest, this is a well-balanced view of a very difficult individual. I would highly recommend this as the first book to read about Jefferson Davis. It is impossible to fully grasp the Civil War era without understanding the impact of this individual. James McPherson has done Civil War historians and Civil War “buffs” a favor by writing this balanced biography. Your opinion of Jefferson Davis may not change as a result of reading this biography, but you will have a better understanding of this historically significant figure. Get this book and read it. It is worth your time even if he will never be a popular historical figure.

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Ted Widmer. Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. New York, 2020.

     There are good books, very good books, and excellent books. Excellent books are those that you must reread—not because you missed something, but because the book is so good you want to read it again. This is one of those books. Very well researched, full of detail that contributes to the message, and reads as if it were a very good novel. Even with its length, 467 pages, you will have a hard time putting it down.

     This is the story of Lincoln’s trip from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington by rail that is used to tell Lincoln’s story. If you have any doubts about why Lincoln was a great man and president, this is a book you must read. Unlike his predecessor, James Buchanan, Lincoln made an effort to meet the American people. Prior to this trip no president made himself a public figure. Lincoln used the railroad to visit many towns and cities to be seen and make speeches at each stop in small towns and large cities. In fact, he gave over a hundred speeches during the trip. Lincoln knew he was not part of the eastern/southern establishment and was the first westerner to be elected president. He knew he was an outsider, but he also knew he needed to have the citizens see him, understand that he was one of them, accept him, and know he represented them.

     Lincoln also understood that America was in the midst of a technological revolution.  Railroads, fossil fuels, the telegraph, and the Erie Canal, impacted the location of wealth and influence in the country. Lincoln was an outsider, a threat to the establishment, and the subject of assassination threats. Baltimore was the center of these efforts, being in a slave state with very large anti-Lincoln and pro-Confederate influences. How Lincoln and his supporters avoided these efforts is part of the story of his trip. How to be a public-friendly representative of the people, be seen and give open public speeches, and to avoid the threats is a central part of the story.

     The incoming Lincoln administration and the new political party was a threat to the insider corruption that had a hold on the federal government. The power structure did not know or understand how Lincoln had won and what the election would do to them. The Buchanan administration was corrupt in the usual manner of awarding federal contracts to political allies, etc. The elites: eastern Ivy Leaguer’s, cotton elites, transportation companies, bankers, insurance companies, mill owners, and plantation owners saw an end to their dominance of the federal government coming and led the movement to secession. Lincoln’s party was supported by the abolitionists that struck at the core of the cotton elites’ source of income, slavery. Lincoln was a westerner who wanted farmers and workers of all sorts to have access to the government. Lincoln’s view was that the “Declaration” was the moral guide for what America could be: “all men are created equal,” not just the power elites!

     The structure of the book follows his journey. A prologue, thirteen chapters, and an epilogue that follows his trip home after his assassination. An early reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books says: “Quite simply as good as it gets in the art of writing biography.” It could not be said better. Go get this book and read it. This is simply “as good as it gets!”

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Mason Philip Smith. Confederates Downeast: Confederate Operations In And Around Maine.  The Provincial Press. Portland, Maine, 1985.

     Mason Philip Smith was trained as a photojournalist, a leading portrait photographer. After his retirement in 1993 he pursued more serious photographic works, that included many trips to China, and received many awards for his work. A fixture in Portland, Maine, he maintained a demeanor described even by his close friends as a “curmudgeon.” I knew I had to read his book and learn about this man. In addition to photography, he pursued other interests including Maine history.

Mason P. Smith says:

I first read about the Confederate raid on Calais, Maine in 1953 while serving with the United States Air Force in Yongdong-po, Korea. I had just joined a bookclub and my first selection was a book titled Confederate Agent by James D. Horan . . . and Horan while consulting the recently released papers in the National archives . . . discovered a long suppressed file dealing with the Calais raid. . . .Horan’s account in his book . . . raised more questions than it answered. (p. i-ii)

Further:

Returning to Maine after . . . Boston University, I remembered Horan’s account of the raid on Calais and decided to investigate the matter further. (p. ii)

Confederates Downeast is the result of my continuing research . . . (p. ii)

     Let’s move forward and have a look at Mason P. Smith’s Confederates Downeast. Smith has organized his book beginning with the Calais affair with the most famous or infamous affairs that involved Maine. After the Calais affair came the Confederate raiders that, for a while, caused major damage to the Maine merchant and fishing industry, and the Caleb Cushing affair in Portland Harbor. What makes this book a great read is the author’s presentation of the characters that lead the attempted Calais Bank robbery, the raids on the merchant and fishing fleet, and the Cushing affair. For example:

  • William Collins who led the attempted bank robbery in Calais and his brother, the Reverend John Collins. The good reverend was a participant in early raids on Maine shipping, but thought the idea of the raid on Calais was inappropriate and informed on his brother.

  • Charles W. Read who led the raid and capture of the Caleb Cushing failed due to the officer on board the Cushing who did not reveal the hidden powder and mother nature failed to provide the necessary wind.

  • John Clibbon Brain, adventurer, swindler, and spy. This individual, if an honest movie was made of his exploits, would not be believed except as fiction.

  • Lastly, the role our neighbors to the north, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and especially Halifax, played in supporting the Confederate efforts.

     The strength of this book is not the telling of what happened in and around Maine, but the author’s descriptions of the major participants in the affairs. These individuals are amazing in their abilities to get anyone to follow them and the success they accomplished through audacity, guile, and pure luck. Anyone interested in Maine history and the impact of what were minor events in the big picture, but events that were kept from the public for many years, should read this very readable and informative book. Honestly, I was more than pleasantly surprised by how this book grabs you and keeps you turning the pages. Go out and get a copy and read the adventures that drove fear along the coast of Maine and embarrassed our government and navy who strove to stop the raids.

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Don Umphrey. Southerners In Blue: They Defied the Confederacy. Dallas TX: Quarry Press, 2002. (Kindle Edition)

     One of my interests is how divided the South really was prior to and during the Civil War.  This is directly due to my father’s family and their strong Unionist roots and the stories I was told by my great-aunt Penelope. “Neppie,” as she was known to her family and friends, was a mother to my father after he lost both of his parents and a paternal grandmother. She was also the family historian and told me how a great-great uncle was conscripted into the Confederate Army, but escaped and came back to East Tennessee as a Union cavalryman.

     Don Umphrey’s Southerners In Blue is a historical novel based upon his great-grandfather’s autobiography. Umphrey began the journey of preparing this book as a boy while visiting his maternal grandmother in Alabama. He had seen a portrait hanging on the wall of her home asked, “who is that?” The answer was John R. Phillips, Umphrey’s great-grandfather.

     This book tells the story of John Phillips; how he and his family survived during and after the Civil War. Seeking land for a successful farm and opportunity, John Phillips and his family emigrated to northwest Alabama, near Bear Creek. They brought strong pro-Union beliefs with them. Being well north of the cotton belt and the plantations of the power structure that ran Alabama, this area was home to many pro-Union settlers. They were isolated from the secessionist movement and any desire to leave the Union.

     The author’s curiosity was wetted by his great-grandfather’s autobiography. John Phillips wrote his story after being encouraged by his great-aunt, Isabella (Phillips) Scharnagel.

     Umphrey began his research while in high school, but life got in his way and led him to a career in journalism and, subsequently, university teaching. Twenty-five years later he began the research necessary to get the story as historically correct as possible. After considering his options, the author determined that the story would best be told as a historical novel. All the characters in the book were actual participants, with only one minor character remaining unknown.

     After introducing the basic history of his family, Umphrey vividly recalls the wartime challenges that John Phillips and his family endured. The trials were many: defying Confederate conscription; learning to elude capture and support his family as a “layout” (hiding from the Confederate conscription); joining the Union Army’s First Alabama Cavalry; experiencing the terror and confusion of Civil War combat, in some cases facing the infamous Nathan Bedford Forrest; dealing with repeated illnesses and hospitalizations for malaria, mumps, measles, and rheumatism; fearing for family and neighbors at that hands of Confederate home guards and partisans; wartime intrigue; interactions between U.S. Colored Troops and white Southern Union soldiers; the fate of his comrades held prisoner at Belle Isle and Andersonville; and a host of related trials and tribulations. The book concludes with an interesting post-war biography of John Phillips and his family as well as a concise history of all the major players in the narrative.

     One of the strengths of this book is the bibliography. It provides you with the extensive research the author accomplished over twenty-five years and the last few years of full-time research and writing. It is exceptionally thorough and valuable for a “history buff” reader. The index to the characters are linked to sources which is a wonder for researchers! I realize this book may not be every Civil War “history buff’s” cup of tea, but it does fill in the patchwork quilt that was the Civil War. It describes in detail what the Union supporters in the South suffered and helps to explain the violence against some families that endured into the twentieth century. I can strongly recommend this book. It is well researched and well written with an amazing number of references. It is a truly great book for those interested in “Southerners in Blue.”

Editor’s note: John R. Philips, The Story of My Life Story, is available in digital format through the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/storyofmylife00phil/page/n9/mode/2up. The digitized text includes this picture of J. R. Phillips in the frontmatter. (p.j.s.)

 

 

 

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Introductory picture credit: Unidentified soldier in Union frock coat and forage cap holding book. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-DIG-ppmsca-27443. (Cropped and enhanced for presentation.)

 

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