Review In Brief: The Battle of Hanover Court House by Michael C. Hardy

by Brett Schulte on July 25, 2006 · 0 comments

Books on the Peninsula Campaign

The Battle of Hanover Court House: Turning Point of the Peninsula Campaign, May 27, 1862. Michael C. Hardy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & company, Inc., Publishers, 2006. 205 pp. 13 maps.

The Battle of Hanover Court House finally gets its own book in this McFarland offering of author Michael Hardy. As is usually the case, I would recommend this one because of that fact unless it happened to be a really bad book. I can say without reservation that Hardy provides a very solid look at this small battle overshadowed by Seven Pines and the Seven Days. This is your typical McFarland offering in a solidly constructed hardback of less than 400 pages (only half of that in this case) with an oversized price tag. The author seems to contradict himself somewhat between the subtitle and the text, however. In the subtitle, Hardy calls the battle the “turning point of the Peninsula Campaign.” However, in the last paragraph of the book, Hardy says that “while [the soldiers who fought at Hanover Court House’s] legacy is a modest one, it should still not be forgotten.” This seems to be a far cry from the turning point of a campaign that could have led to the end of the war.

By late May 1862, General McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign had moved forward with barely a hitch. He had managed to move within five miles of Richmond with very little bloodshed, and he was determined to keep it that way. To ensure the success of his upcoming siege, McClellan wanted Lincoln and Stanton to forward as many troops forward as possible. One such group was the 40,000 men of McDowell’s I corps, Army of the Potomac (now called the Department of the Rappahannock), then positioned at Fredericksburg in order to guard Washington, D.C. from any sudden Rebel movement in that direction. McClellan wanted to extend his right wing in McDowell’s direction to clear the way for a smooth march for that general’s troops. To do this, McClellan detailed his favorite Corps commander, Fitz-John Porter to take a large portion of his newly formed V Corps and move north to the vicinity of Hanover Court House. Porter was opposed by several Confederate brigades in the area, including the North Carolina brigade of Lawrence O’Bryan Branch. In the end, only Branch’s troops took part in the actual fighting, while a large portion of Porter’s two divisions arrived by the time the Confederates quit the field. The Federal battle line was mainly directed by John H. Martindale, who seems to have been the only Federal commander who knew what was happening for most of the fight. Martindale took one regiment of his brigade, the 2nd Maine, added another regiment and a battery, and held on against branch while his superiors Morell and Porter initially refused to believe Branch was attacking. The sounds of the firing eventually convinced them otherwise, and the large number of arriving reinforcements caused Branch to quit the field. The battle turned out to be rather unimportant in my view, since the scare Jackson’s Valley Campaign put into Lincoln and his cabinet meant that McDowell’s troops would not be forwarded anyway.

I enjoyed this one tremendously. It is a rather short, compact read at a little over 200 pages, but I thought Hardy did a good job covering events before, during, and after the battle. The book seems to be written in a new military history mold, with varying chapters concentrating on the wounded, the reporting of the battle in various newspapers, and the way the battle has been remembered over time. I enjoyed the ratio of tactical descriptions to everything else. It seemed to strike a nice balance as far as that goes. The maps were numerous and went down to the regimental level, though I do have several gripes. First, the maps are not to scale, which is a large omission in my opinion. Second, the maps seem to go from a large map of central Virginia to extremely zoomed in maps depicting the fighting. I would have liked to have seen an intermediate map depicting troop positions on both sides as well as the route Porter took to Hanover Court House. Hardy’s appendices include the usual (orders of battle) as well as the unique (the Official Reports of Porter and Branch as well as a list of every casualty by name suffered as a result of the fighting). In addition to the ubiquitous Official Records, Hardy relies on quite a few excellent books in his notes, including Russell Beatie’s Army of the Potomac series, Steven Newton’s controversial look at Joe Johnston and the defense of Richmond, and Joe Harsh’s book detailing Confederate strategy in the first two years of the war. For the chapter focusing on the battle, Hardy relies mainly on the Official Records and the OR supplement. His later chapters typically draw from a wealth of letters and newspaper accounts. Anyone interested in the Peninsula Campaign will absolutely want to have this one. For others, the price of $45 for a 200 page hardback may be a bit steep considering the narrow focus.

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