Monday, September 06, 2010

Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Volume 2

Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Volume 2: Essays on America's Civil War (Lawrence Lee Hewitt and Arthur W. Bergeron Jr., eds.) is a worthy successor to the first volume of essays, which I discussed in earlier posts. I am sure that one or more of the Civil War sites dedicated to such things will provide a comprehensive review, so I will content myself with highlighting a few of the essays I particularly enjoyed.

The standout, for me at least, was Stephen Davis's “John Bell Hood's Historiographical Journey; or, How Did a Confederate General Become a Laudanum Addict?” The essay focuses, as the title suggests, on unraveling the origins of the story, reported in some histories, that Gen. Hood's Chickamauga stump might have led, or probably led, or did lead him into opiate use – opiate use that might have been, or probably was, or actually was one of the reasons for the debacle at Spring Hill, in which a doped up (or possibly inebriated) general went to bed for the night without insuring that his army was positioned properly to block the escaping Federals. Prof. Davis's review is both amusing and an instructive warning on how an isolated and undocumented speculation can morph over time into a fact.

The frustrating enigma that is Joseph Eggleston Johnston quite naturally draws the volume's attention, and the editors appropriately provide contrasting essays on different periods of his Civil War career – a critical examination by Terrence J. Winschel of Johnston's activities during the Vicksburg campaign (“The Absence of Will: Joseph E. Johnston and the Fall of Vicksburg”), and a more sympathetic portrait by Craig L. Symonds of Johnston during the war's final months (“Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina”). Prof. Winschel's essay, in turn, forms a negative counterpoint to Archer Jones's more forgiving analysis, in the first volume, of Johnston's actions as commander of the Department of the West beginning in December 1862 (“Tennessee and Mississippi, Joe Johnston's Strategic Problem”). Because I believe that Johnston's faults outweigh his virtues (while acknowledging the difficulties he faced), I think that Prof. Winschel is closer to the mark, but the joy of Joe Johnston to historians is that the debates will continue so long as the Civil War remains a topic of study.

Although (or because) I am no Joe Johnston fan, Prof. Symonds relates a detail that epitomizes, I think, the man's maddeningly contradictory qualities. When Johnston was appointed in February 1865 to take charge of the effort to oppose the Sherman juggernaut, he assumed that Jefferson Davis had named him to the post “only to ensure that would be the one to bear the opprobrium of the final surrender.” His reaction was anger and defeatism. After receiving the order, “he replied morosely: 'These troops form an army too weak to cope with Sherman.'”

Even so, Johnston, to his credit, did his duty and ;assumed the post. Then, “much of the self-pitying pessimism . . . evaporated in March” when Johnston learned that Robert E. Lee had made the appointment over Davis's objection. “'Be assured,' [Johnston] wrote to [Texas Senator Louis] Wigfall, 'that Knight of old never fought under his king more loyally than I'll serve under Gen. Lee.'” “For Joe Johnston,” Prof. Symonds observes. “the campaign in North Carolina was less an opportunity for victory, than a chance for redemption.”

UPDATE: At Civil War Books and Authors, Andrew Wagenhoffer has added his more thorough and, in my view, entirely fair review here.


  1. E,
    My review should be out in the next week or two. The contrasting articles on Johnston were a nice touch, and I agree the Hood essay was one of the standouts -- a great lesson in the propagation of bad CW history.

  2. Drew,

    As always, I'm looking forward to your review.



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