First they came for Nathan Bedford Forrest….

by Fred Ray on September 26, 2016 · 5 comments

I normally don’t do much on contemporary politics, but unfortunately political correctness is starting to have a real effect on public life and Civil War studies. The latest craze is what might be called the historical cleansing of America of all symbols which might offend the usual suspects. It started with Confederate monuments, but it hasn’t stopped there. The latest one is former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney. His statue stands outside the Maryland State House, and has been targeted for removal by the usual group of activists. Taney, however, was no Confederate, but remained loyal to the Union until his death in 1864. His crime was to have written the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which formally recognized slavery and denied that anyone of African ancestry was a “person” under the Constitution. Taney was one of the country’s top legal minds and thought this might settle the question, but instead it simply inflamed it. Only three years later, a group of Southern states seceded to form a nation of their own.

Taney personally had no brief for slavery and thought it a pernicious institution. A slave owner himself, he had unilaterally freed them and provided for the support of those too old to work. However, he strongly believed that under the Constitution this was a matter for the states and not the federal government. When the war began it was Taney who acted as the guardian of civil liberties against the encroachments of the Lincoln administration. However, was a sick man and unable to devote much time or energy to it (he died in 1864). I’ve always wondered what might have happened if he had been in better health. As it was, there were rumors (never substantiated) that Lincoln had gone so far as to prepare a secret warrant for his arrest.

Another non-Confederate to be recently targeted is Andrew Jackson, presumably because he was a slave owner and especially because of the Indian removals. However, these worthies should also remember that it was Jackson who forced South Carolina to back down during the 1832-33 Nullification Crisis. There are also rumblings about Thomas Jefferson.

The latest action against the Confederacy is brought to us by the City of Alexandria, VA, which wants to rename the Jefferson Davis Highway as well as to remove of the statue of a Confederate soldier.

All this brings to mind the old and rather bitter joke current in the former Soviet Union—that everyone knew exactly what the future would be, because Comrades Marx and Lenin had laid it all out and it was a matter of historical inevitability that could not be changed. No, the problem was the past—that was what kept changing. Every few years the history books would be rewritten to accommodate the latest shift of the political winds, and individuals who had fallen out of favor were excised from the pages and airbrushed from photographs as if they had never existed. I never thought I’d see it here, but we certainly seem to be headed that way ourselves.

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Review: Civil War Infantry Tactics by Earl Hess

by Fred Ray on September 18, 2016 · 2 comments

Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness

by Earl J. Hess

CW Infantry Tactics cover

Hardcover: 368 pages
6.1 x 9.4 inches
ISBN-10: 0807159379
ISBN-13: 978-0807159378
Publisher: LSU Press (April 13, 2015)

Earl Hess has added yet another tome to his ever-growing list of Civil War books. His latest is devoted to infantry tactics, which I must say has long been needed. It’s one thing to say that the 378th North Carolina advanced to the right with the 333rd Georgia in support, but what does that actually mean? What about an attack in column vs. one in multiple lines? How does a battalion column differ from that of a brigade? Mixed order? Fortunately the author explains all this and more in considerable detail. To put it another way, Hess has pored through the sometimes arcane drill books by Hardee, Gillem, Casey and rest so you don’t have to. Many re-enactors study their drill manuals and know small unit drill very well, but seldom if ever have the chance to operate beyond company strength, but Hess examines larger units (division and corps) as well.

While some of his previous books have been criticized for lacking illustrations, Infantry Tactics has author-drawn diagrams that clearly explain unit formations. The author follows up a description of a certain tactical formations by explaining when and why it would be used, and follows them with solid examples of them as they were used in combat. Not only that, he gives examples of how a good commander would vary his formation as he traversed the battlefield and the advantages of doing this.

Hess also addresses larger questions, such as whether or not “linear” tactics were obsolete. He observes that tactics remained such for a simple reason, “because they worked.” Given the limitations of the technology of the day and arms available, i.e. single shot, muzzle loading rifles, it remained a workable and proven system. Although dispersed skirmish tactics could be of great value in specialized situations, the basic calculus remained the same – to mass firepower you had to mass men, and that meant close ranks in linear formations. Similarly, while trained marksmen might open fire at extended ranges, the great mass of infantrymen waited for the enemy to close to within 100 yards or less to open fire.

Hess also mentions skirmishing but does not emphasize it, even though he believes that the American conflict represented a sort of high point of technique. This however is probably a good idea since it could fill another volume. My own opinion is that the war saw a gradual loosening of the line of battle and that combat was shifted more and more to the skirmish line. He also does not have much to say about the use of earthworks in the second half of the war, but of course he’s already written three volumes on this. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a discussion of tactics might benefit from a close look at how these two trends affected the campaigns of 1864-65. I also think a closer look at the wooded American landscape might be in order.

Hess moves on through the 19th Century up until WWI, giving his take on the changes in infantry tactics, much of which I agree with. However, the book’s real strengths are in the sections on the Civil War. Naturally I do have some reservations about some parts of the book, for example my take on the Battle of Fort Stedman differs considerably from his. There are some mistakes, none of which materially detract from the value of the book. For example, he cites the use of Winchester repeaters at long range at the battle of Plevna in 1877, when in fact they were used at close ranges (under 200 yards) only, the long range fire being provided by the Peabody-Martini. He also characterizes both the French Chassepot and the Prussian Needle Gun used in the Franco-Prussian War as magazine rifles, when in fact both were single-shot paper cartridge weapons.

Overall I think this is a valuable (and long overdue) work that every serious student of the war should read and have on his bookshelf. Highly recommended.

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Civil War Fought by Grasshoppers

by Fred Ray September 15, 2016

A friend send this from the recent NC State Fair. Funny, but even funnier is that both flags are Confederate. Made by a school kid, don’t know what grade.

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Author Interview: Dennis Rasbach, Author of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign

by Brett Schulte August 30, 2016

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared earlier today at The Siege of Petersburg Online and has been cross-posted here. Medical doctor Dennis Rasbach became interested in his ancestor’s unit during the Civil War.  In the course of his research, he realized the 21st Pennsylvania (Dismounted) fought in a brigade from the same division as that […]

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Pegler on Sharpshooting, Capandball on Lorenz and Needle Gun

by Fred Ray August 28, 2016

Martin Pegler, prolific author and former Senior Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, has published a series of articles in American Rifleman on sniping and sharpshooting. The first starts with the introduction of the rifle and goes into the early 19th Century. The next one covers the period starting roughly with the […]

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Blackford at Seven Pines

by Fred Ray August 24, 2016

Johnston continued to retreat until he was literally under the spires of Richmond. On May 31 he finally made his move at Seven Pines. The flooded Chickahominy River had split the Union army, leaving two corps isolated south of the river, which Johnston planned to strike with nearly his entire force. While the plan was […]

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Retreat from Williamsburg

by Fred Ray July 29, 2016

McClellan continued to bring up his heavy siege guns to the Yorktown line, and on the night of May 3, 1862, Johnston withdrew toward Richmond rather than risk a battle. Blackford wrote his mother: At 8 o’clock the whole Army moved quickly out of the works. I, with my company, was left to support the […]

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