Civil War Book Review: Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862

by Brett Schulte on December 28, 2012 · 2 comments

SimplyMurderTheBattleOfFredericksburgMackowsiWhite 333x500 Civil War Book Review: <i>Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862</i>Mackowski, Chris, and White, Kristopher D. Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862. (Savas Beatie, December 2012). 168 pages, 171 illustrations, 6 maps, further reading, index. ISBN: 978-1-61121-146-7 $12.95 (Paperback).

Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862 is the first in a proposed “Emerging Civil War Series” of books by Civil War book publisher Savas Beatie.  The book’s main focus is to provide an introduction to the battle, with the latest interpretations included, in a concise and affordable package.  A secondary focus is to act as a battlefield guide.  While completely successful as a concise introduction to the Battle of Fredericksburg, problems exist with the book’s attempt to be a battlefield companion.

Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White, co-founders of and current bloggers at Emerging Civil War, are excellent choices to co-author a book on the Battle of Fredericksburg.  Both have worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park, and both have much experience with the main themes of the battle and with walking the ground.  With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg recently past, many of the blog entries at Emerging Civil War lately have focused on that topic.  Once you’re done reading this one go stop by their blog for even more Fredericksburg coverage.

Fredericksburg seems to be less studied than most other major battles between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.  The battle, fought on December 13, 1862 with a bloody prelude two days earlier, is popularly known as a bloodbath which a stupid and bumbling Ambrose Burnside should have avoided entirely.  The northern portion of the battlefield is usually the focal point when discussing the battle, but the authors give the southern portion of the field equal if not more coverage.  There is a reason for this.  In the 1990’s historian Frank O’Reilly, who penned the single best volume on Fredericksburg, found that Grand Division Commander William Franklin and Army of the Potomac commander Ambrose Burnside were working off of slightly different maps.  These differences, along with written orders by Burnside which differed from oral instructions to Franklin the night before, led to Franklin using a massively conservative approach in his southern sector of the battlefield.  Burnside insisted he had intended Franklin to make the main attack on December 13, 1862, south of the town and away from the strong points at Marye’s Heights and Telegraph Hill.  Instead he sent in two divisions while the rest of his massive Grand Division watched the battle unfold passively.  George Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves exploited an oversight in the Confederate line, one overlooked by Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, to wreck Maxcy Gregg’s brigade of South Carolinians, mortally wound Gregg, and wreak havoc on the first of four Confederate battle lines in the area.  With no reinforcements coming and with a single gun of “the gallant Pelham” neutralizing Doubleday’s Union division, Meade’s men were driven from the wedge they had created and the battle on that portion of the field ended in a draw.  This was bad news for the Federals because Burnside was making “diversionary” attacks against the impregnable stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights on the northern end of field, hoping to keep Lee occupied there so Franklin could punish Stonewall Jackson.  However, with Franklin going passive and with the massive casualties and confusion caused by the first assaults against Marye’s Heights, Burnside kept throwing men at the problem to both prevent a Confederate counterattack and to keep “aiding” Franklin.  The problem was that Franklin was no longer doing anything worth aiding.  The end result was a catastrophe, with over 8,000 Federal casualties versus over 1,000 for the Rebels.  Burnside attempted another offensive in the mud and precipitation in January 1863, his infamous “Mud March,” and was sacked not long after in favor of Fighting Joe Hooker.

The purpose of the “Emerging Civil War Series” per Savas Beatie is to “offer compelling and easy-to-read overviews of some of the Civil War’s most important battles and issues.”  In the promotional materials, the book is also mentioned as a possible battlefield companion.  The series’ first offering certainly is an easy to read and concise overview of the Battle of Fredericksburg in an incredibly affordable package.  You can purchase the book at the link provided for less than $10 at Amazon.com.  It compares favorably to the overviews provided in the Osprey series of books.  Simply Murder is twice as long as your typical Osprey book and features a large number of illustrations, 171 in all.  The number of maps in this book is also about the same number as you would find in an Osprey Campaign series effort.  However, in order to make this series as affordable as possible, all of the maps and illustrations are in black and white versus the full color available in much of an Osprey book.  You are left with a less visually striking book but one which offers much more “meat” in the text and maps, a fair tradeoff.  The only function of this book which doesn’t really work for me is its potential role as a battlefield companion.  A paperback is not going to hold up well on a battlefield, especially in the heat of summer.  In addition the concise nature of the book means the number of maps is less than ideal for a battlefield tramper.  For instance, only Hancock’s attack against the stone wall, one of seven total, is represented.  What if a battlefield tramper is trying to identify where a regiment in one of the other assaults moved to the attack?  Don’t get me wrong though.  The GPS coordinates along with instructions on how to get from one interesting point to another paired with background information was welcome information.  It just shouldn’t be sold as a main or even secondary purpose of this particular series.  Buy this book for the concise overview it will give you if you are new to the Battle of Fredericksburg, not as a battlefield companion.

I noticed too many small editing errors, at least ten in number.  Examples include repeated large words in concurrent sentences, two of the same word repeated back to back in the same sentence, an apostrophe present in the word “Confederates” when it shouldn’t have been present, and most noticeably, Edwin Vose Sumner’s middle name misspelled as “Voss.” This is the first work in a new series, but Savas Beatie is an experienced publishing firm.  This is a minor complaint, and I have every reason to believe that the editing will be tightened up for the next book in the series.

This review has featured some criticisms so far, so let’s move on to what it gets right.  First, the book is absolutely jam-packed with photos and other illustrations of the people, places, and events which featured heavily in the Fredericksburg Campaign.  When a book averages more than one image per page, you know the series is serious about drawing readers in visually as well as with the text.  The maps by Hal Jespersen are not all extremely detailed in terms of military units and movements, but with this book’s focus they don’t need to be.  The maps do a great job of giving readers a good idea of the terrain faced by both sides in this fight.  Some of the maps even go down to regimental level.  Short entries on visiting the battlefield end each chapter, tying modern day directions to text about historical events.  The book features no notes, an interesting decision.  Long ago, I made the determination to rarely give my time to books which were not sourced, but the credentials of the authors and publisher combined with the “affordable overview” nature of this book means the right choice was made in this case, leaving more room for additional pictures and text.

Simply Murder features a large number of pages devoted to appendices covering topics other than the strictly military history overview contained in the main chapters.  In a 160 page book, the appendices already start on page 113, and they are chock full of interesting information.  Appendix A gives a concise history of Fredericksburg National Cemetery, with the vast majority of the 15000+ soldiers buried there having fought and died in the Civil War.  Appendix B gives readers an idea of the history of the city of Fredericksburg before, during, and after the war.  It took the town more than a century to fully recover from the damage done to it from 1861-1865.  Appendix C examines civilians and their experiences in one of the few cases of urban warfare in the Civil War.  Appendix D looks at slavery and its ties to Fredericksburg.  Appendix E, “Fredericksburg in Memory,” examines how the battle has been remembered down the years, including the fact that the interpretation of the battlefield and end result led to the Confederate areas of biggest victory being preserved the best.  Union soldiers preferred to forget the bloodbath on the Rappahannock, and the town soon devoured the Federal areas of the battlefield right up to the stone wall. A “Whatever Happened To…” section provides brief post-Fredericksburg biographies of some of the battle’s major players.  The order of battle is functional, going down to regimental level and naming commanders down to brigade level.  The last section of the work is a pleasant surprise and one which Savas Beatie should receive praise for.  In “Suggested Reading: The Battle of Fredericksburg”, other good books on the battle are suggested.  What’s the catch?  Only one of the five books listed was published by Ted Savas.  This section is a natural end to an overview of the battle, sending readers off to explore Fredericksburg in more detail.  A brief set of author bios can be found on the last page.

Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862 is a solid start to the new “Emerging Civil War Series” by Savas Beatie.  Utilizing authors exceedingly familiar with the battle and pairing their text with numerous illustrations, well-done maps, and a wealth of information in the appendices, Simply Murder is an affordable and readable overview of the Battle of Fredericksburg.  Those looking to better understand this battle before moving on to Frank O’Reilly’s definitive study and some of the other suggested works on Fredericksburg would do well to purchase this book.  Those looking to introduce their friends and relatives, especially younger readers, to Fredericksburg will find this book to be a worthy choice on par with and exceeding the Osprey Campaign series.  This first book in the “Emerging Civil War Series” accomplishes its main objective well.  Expect more books to come quickly, with the next volume taking a look at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House due out in Spring 2013.  I look forward to what the series promises to bring to the table.

Note: This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

LetUsHavePeace December 29, 2012 at 9:20 am

Brett: This is an exceptional essay, even by your high standards. Thank you.

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Brett Schulte December 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Thanks for the kind words. My goal is simply to try to tell people what I’d want to know if I were reading. Hopefully I succeed more than fail.

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