Saturday, June 30, 2012

Book Review--The Battle of Antietam

Alexander, Ted. Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day (MD) (Civil War Sesquicentennial Series).   The History Press. Charleston, SC. 2011. B/W photos, maps, index, bibliography, notes, order of battle. ISBN 9781609491796, $19.99.

Ted Alexander is the chief historian for the
 Antietam National Battlefield. In this role it would be expected that he would be able to write a clear and concise work on the battle. Overall he has succeeded. While by no means is this work going to supplant  Stephen Sears massive work Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam that is not the goal of works from The History Press. For those looking for a good introduction to the battle this may be your best option.

The book starts out with a history of the Sharpsburg area and it's surroundings. The town was originally founded in 1763. After losing a close vote to become county seat the area of Sharpsburg remained mostly rural farm land while the town of Hagertown became more industrialized. On September 17, 1862 this farm land would see some of the most violent fighting our country has known.

Mr. Alexander covers the major areas of fighting near Antietam Creek well: chapters cover the Cornfield and the East Woods, West Woods and the Dunker Church, Bloody Lane, and Burnside Bridge. Each are covered in good depth but not to a point where an unfamiliar reader is confused. While pointing out many of the "highs and lows" Alexander tends to stay away from the finger pointing and the blame game that often occurs in books. Union General George McClellan is spared the beating he is given by many historians for his slow reactions and General Edwin Sumner is spared the critisism often dealt his way in regards to his early morning actions at the West Woods.

In his book Alexander does more than cover just the military aspects of the battle. As the subtitle to the book says this was America's bloodiest day. With over 23,000 total casualties both armies took a beating. An excellent chapter covers the aftermath of the battle including dealing with the dead, both human and animal, hospitals and the civilian aid given to the injured, the spread of disease to both military and civilians, and the huge amount of property damage caused. All was not doom and gloom however as Mr. Alexander points out the medical advances brought about by Dr. Jonathan Letterman. Many of these were first implemented at Antietam.

The Confederate army, tired and defeated, retreat across the Potomac on the evening of September 18. McClellan rather clumsily sends a rather small grouping of soldiers after Lee. This leads to the Battle of Shepherstown, where Union troops are defeated by a Confederate force led by Stonewall Jackson, thus sustaining another 363 casualties the majority suffered by the 118th Pennsylvania.

With the fall of 1862 being a major Confederate disappointment, and General McClellan not following up Abraham Lincoln had seen enough and removed "Little Mac" from command. While having been relieved of command there can be little doubt that McClellan and the Union army achieved a great victory that September day. So great in fact that it paved the way for President Lincoln to unveil his Emancipation Proclamation. While the proclomation's value to slaves in seceeded areas can be debated it's longer term value to the Union cause can not be.

The book wraps up nicely with a chapter covering post battle events such as the founding of the Antietam National Cemetery, the founding of the Antietam National Battlefied, soldier reunions, improvements to the battlefield, and more.

The book is really helped along by the wonderful maps provided by Steven Stanley. There are dozens of b/w photos helping visually further the story. Also included are an index, bibliography, notes, and an order of battle. This is not a book for those with a good knowledge of the battle. I doubt you will find anything new here. For those just coming to the battle, or like me have a bit of knowledge but want to know more, this is a book I can heartily recommend. It will help when you move on and read Sears, Harsh, or Carman.

For those with more interest you might like to check out Ted Alexander's appearance on Civil War Talk Radio by clicking here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Center for Civil War Photography 2012 Image of War Seminar

Register for the 2012 Image of War Seminar!

This year the Center for Civil War Photography's annual Image of War Seminar heads back to Antietam on October 5-7, 2012, for the broadest and most detailed program to date. Attendees will experience Antietam photography in all of its formats and learn about and exploit associated methodologies-indoors, outdoors, then, now, 2D, 3D, and even 4D experiences will bring the battlefield and its photographers to life like never before.

Hike the battlefield with Ed Bearss; see 3D presentations in black and white and in color by Bob Zeller, John Richter and David Richardson; with Garry Adelman and John Hoptak tour dozens of the sites where Alexander Gardner and his crew made pictures that shocked the world; see a special presentation by Tim Smith; see Robert Kalasky unveil his groundbreaking research on the study of shadows at Antietam; get a tour of historic Shepherdstown with Nicholas Redding; and see Rob Gibson record wet plate photos right where Gardner's crew did. Gain special access to restricted sites and get a free copy of the CCWP's forthcoming Antietam in 3D book, too.

CCWP's Ambrotype, Daguerreotype, Folio, and Imperial members will be invited to a private overlook from near the site of the Elk Ridge Signal Station and climb the Pry House attic stairs and look through the roof access used by General McClellen's staff during the battle.

The seminar will be based at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in historic Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Registration is now open online at CCWP members receive a $35 discount off the registration price. Also, all registrations submitted before July 31, 2012, receive an additional $30 discount off the registration price.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Press Release--High County Festival of the Book Civil War Symposium

High Country Festival of the Book’s Civil War Symposium - August 3, 2012 from 9:00 - 4:00 Blowing Rock, NC at the Meadowbrook Inn.
Featuring Douglas Southall Freeman award-winning author Rod Gragg and Patrick Schroeder, Historian of Appomattox Court House National Battlefield and noted author/publisher. Additional speakers include authors Patricia Garber, Dr. Judkin Browning and Dr. Andrew Slap. On Saturday we have a Civil War panel discussion as part of our larger book festival with authors, Michael Hardy, Johnny Pearson, Rod Gragg, and Patrick Schroeder.

The Symposium is part of the High Country Festival of the Book. The cost for the Symposium is $50 and includes lunch and invitation to the evening opening ceremony with NC Poet Laureate, Fred Chappell (a portion of the entry fee is tax deductible). The events on Saturday are free and opened to the general public for more information on the Book Festival and Symposium tickets:

On the website click on the Civil War Symposium link on the left hand side for further information.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Interview--Meredith Henne Baker: The Richmond Theater Fire

Meredith Henne Baker
photo by Amanda K. Gille
I was recently able to read a very interesting and well written book by first time author Meredith Henne Baker titled The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster published by LSU Press. What a great read! Please see my review here.
Ms Baker has been kind enough to answer some questions about herself, her book, and her writing process and I am honored to share this with my readers.
Please be sure to check her website here or the book Facebook page here. Both are great informational resources.

CBR: Welcome and thank you for taking time to answer a few questions. First, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Thank you for hosting this interview! I'm a writer with an interest in history because of what we can learn about the present from the past. My particular interest is American religious history. I previously taught at a girls boarding school, worked in museum education, and developed educational programs for urban charter schools. Although I've won grants and awards for my historical work, I currently spend a lot more time hanging out at teeter-totters than archives, thanks to my toddlers. My husband and I do tote them around to lots of museums though.

CBR: Your book deals with what I consider to be a little known event in American history. What sparked your interest in the Richmond fire and led you to write a book about it?

I ran across about a dozen sermons about the Richmond Theater fire when I was a graduate student at William & Mary. They included sermons from the founder of Princeton Theological Seminary, from an English Quaker abolitionist, from a suicidal Unitarian schismatic--and I wondered "it was clearly an international incident...but whoever heard of this fire in Richmond?" The more I dug in local archives, the more amazing sources I uncovered besides these feisty sermons--sheaves of letters, unpublished and heartbreaking memoirs, riveting survivor accounts, and candid obituaries in the local papers among others. Here was a trove of fascinating primary sources about this fire, ample evidence that it directly affected influential men and women of the time (Monroes, Marshalls, Madisons, among others) and I couldn't find a single book about it.

I became completely taken by this story and the people who experienced it. (If I didn't find it fascinating on a personal level, I never could have stuck with it for the past seven years!) I went on to write a thesis focusing on the changes the disaster brought to Virginia's religious climate and culture, and over the next few years, various professors and writer friends urged me to be the person to write that first book about the Richmond Theater fire. It was such an amazing opportunity, to be the one to unpack the story of a long-forgotten but very significant event in American history.

CBR: Can you describe your research and writing process? Were there any particular obstacles that had to be overcome in telling your story? Any groups or people that particularly helped you that you would like to thank?

I relied heavily on Virginia archives--the Virginia Historical Society, the Library of Virginia, university libraries, and the Library of Congress. Their staffs were unfailingly helpful. Once I left graduate school and was employed full-time, I had to make day trips to these places from a distance and became really efficient at cramming a lot of research in a short time. I'd pack a sandwich and a bottle of water in my purse, show up with those triplicate request forms pre-filled, and just plow through stacks of material until the place closed. It made a huge difference when libraries began to allow digital photography, because then I could skip time-consuming transcriptions or expensive copy machine tabs and just snap a shot of a letter or document and deal with it once I arrived back at home.

As for my writing process, I treated it like a job and made myself write for x hours a day for about a year until I had the manuscript finished. My goal was to have it the book ready by the 200 year anniversary of the fire (December 26th, 2011), although I missed it by a few months. There were a few reasons for this, but I will say the writing process slowed down considerably after my two
children were born. I wrote mostly late at night then, or whenever I had an hour or two where someone kept an eye on the kids for me. I have a new found respect for writers with young children. It's not easy! Especially when working on a manuscript that requires a lot of original research. In my acknowledgements I probably thank as many people for pitching in with child care as I do historical institutions.

CBR: You point out the connection of the Richmond theater fire to Edgar Allen Poe. Can you give readers a sense of this connection and do you think it played any part in his later writing?

Poe's mother Elizabeth Arnold Poe was a popular member of the Placide & Green theater troupe, which was performing on December 26th, 1811, the night the Theater burned. He probably would have been taken inside the theater on various occasions. (Historian Martin Shockley supposes that little Edgar might even have performed on the Richmond stage in an ensemble with other cast children that season.) Eliza Poe had died from an illness earlier in December although Edgar would, I understand, claim in later years that she and his father were both victims of the blaze. In December the Poe children were taken in by local families, and Edgar went to the family of John "Jock" Allan, who lived a few blocks from the site of the theater. Poe was only about 3 in 1811, but certainly this was a memorably tragic time in his life and an event that haunted Richmond for decades. He couldn't have escaped its shadow. I don't doubt that this dark occurrence and his family's proximity to it made a lasting impression on him.

CBR: In comparison to disasters today the death toll of just over 70 seems relatively small. Can you put in perspective the impact this had on Richmond and Virginia as a whole?

I think "impact" is the key concept here, and that doesn’t always have to do with an enormous body count. Percentage-wise, though, those 72 deaths (more in the months to follow) were significant. In a town of ten thousand, this single fire killed nearly one percent of its citizens. If 9-11 had resulted in 81,000 New York City deaths instead of around 3,000, that would be comparable. Fires were common, yes, but (surprisingly) didn't often result in mass fatalities.
This was like the Titanic or the Hurricane Katrina of its day--a disaster that (to that point) was just unparalleled. Newspapers from New Hampshire to South Carolina printed breathless updates for weeks after the blaze. U.S. Congress wore black armbands for a month, the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. wore them for two. Cities across America sent resolutions to Richmond expressing their sympathy, and commemorative events were held in major cities like New York and Philadelphia. It even captured international interest--Americans overseas wrote home about it, and a
press in York, England published a religious booklet about the Theater fire. I suspect one reason for the interest in the blaze was that it happened in a large public building, the likes of which could be found in many urban areas. It was easy for people to imagine that the victims' fate could (but for the grace of God) have been theirs. Additionally, the higher social status of most victims meant people recognized the prominent family names of the dead. George Smith, the governor of Virginia was among the dead. Also, the fact that many of those killed were young women captured great public interest and sympathy—similar responses can be seen in later tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire or the U.S. Arsenal explosion in 1864 where teen aged women lost their lives.

CBR: What impact did the fire have on public safety in general?

Horace Townsend, a journalist who wrote in 1883 about the Richmond tragedy in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, summed up the public response to 19th c. theater fires rather succinctly: "Editorials are written in the newspapers, articles by experts appear in the leading magazines; the receipts of theatres and opera-houses suffer from a temporary diminution; the Fire Department officials bestir themselves and present voluminous reports; everyone comes to the conclusion that each and every place of public entertainment is a death-trap, and that “something ought to be done,” and the general result is that matters go on much as they did in the past."

CBR: We often think of early America as being a highly religious society. It seems your book actually paints a different scene. You point out the large growth in the four main churches, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, and Methodist after the fire. Can you discuss the impact of the fire on both the church and the theater?

Virginia wasn't much of a church-going society in the early 19th century. After disestablishment in 1786, the dominant Anglican Church lost all public support and had to be self-sustaining. It floundered, and took a real hit financially and in terms of their membership. Other denominations struggled as well.

Richmond wasn’t any exception. Far from being the “city of churches” it would later be called, in 1811 there were only five houses of worship—Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, Quaker, and a synagogue— for ten thousand inhabitants. In The Richmond Theater Fire I have the chance to describe religious life in Virginia in the Early Republic—ruined chapels, revivalists on horseback, and the kind of world where a church service was followed by a horse race and a drink. It's interesting--I was reading Lauren F. Winner's book A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith where she describes how everyday faith was lived out by gentry Anglican colonists in Virginia. Winner remarked that the church's fortunes turned around perceptibly after 1811. I propose that the Theater fire was the 1811 event that was the catalyst for that transformation and describe how in the book.

As far as the fire's impact on local theater, another wasn't built for nearly a decade. I write about the bickering over opening another one, the resistance from churchgoers, and the truly awful entertainment alternatives they had as substitutes for theatrical performances. A new theater was eventually built, of course, and John Wilkes Booth (among other notable actors) trod the boards there for a time.

CBR: The new Monumental Church was built on the location of the old Richmond theater. What role did the new church play in the growth of religion during this time?

I think Monumental—a Protestant Episcopal Church—made evangelicalism a viable option for the influential gentry class. To give a slapdash definition, evangelicalism (the brand of faith practiced mostly by Methodists and Baptists) emphasized missionary work, the preaching of the gospel, and a dramatic conversion experience. Evangelicals emphasized that Christians were to be separate and different from “the world.” Winner points out that Virginia’s gentry practiced their faith in a way that was comfortable with the world. You might play a hymn on your violin or a dance tune, and either was just fine.

The gentry (often Episcopalians) were very skeptical of evangelicals, who were considered “fanatics”, and their rowdy camp meetings which were spreading across the South—with convicted men and women shrieking and flailing over their sins—were just too over the top.

Yet when a new Yankee Episcopal minister showed up in the pulpit at Monumental, he gradually introduced evangelical practices, like emotional sermons and prayer meetings in a way that the congregation could accept. Mostly.

CBR: As talk of a new theater came about many people saw it as disrespectful in some way. Do you see any similarity to the way Americans respond today after a disaster either man made or natural?

Around 1816 one editorialist in Richmond argued “Four years have however now elapsed, since the disastrous event, which called forth all our sympathies—The population of Richmond has greatly changed, and is ever changing—Few persons are left in it, who were the immediate sufferers in that ever-to-be-lamented calamity…If they are convinced of [the theater’s] general good tendency … they will generously sacrifice their feelings to the public interest.” In other words: times change—eventually we need to switch out of the mourning garb, enjoy our lives, and not be mired in the past. Critics thought this man was disrespectful and callous. One suggested that every ticket for a performance at his new theater be sold at the monument to the old one—so purchasers would be forced to read the names of the dead.

There’s often controversy over how to properly memorialize the victims of a tragedy—just look at Ground Zero in New York City or the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

CBR: While this time frame is generally considered a white man's world how did the fire affect others such as women and African-Americans?

Wow, good questions. Women made up about two thirds of the victims (which didn’t say much for Virginia chivalry, some alleged), which drew a lot of sympathy from the public.

But in terms of how the calamity affected women, let’s take a look at the survivors. Most of the adult men who died were married and were the family breadwinners. In these days before life insurance, this meant that their wives were almost immediately in financial peril. In the papers, auction notices go up: the Governor’s family, now that he’s dead, is auctioning off their furniture, their slaves. A shop owned by a prominent Jewish family that lost five people in the fire is liquidated. And on and on. The story paints a very dire picture of how quickly fortunes could turn.
The story of enslaved hero Gilbert Hunt shines a light on the immense injustices suffered by African-Americans in this time. After Hunt saved the lives of about a dozen women who were jumping from the Theater’s windows, many expected him to be granted his freedom. (As a member of a volunteer fire brigade, he later saved dozens more.) Instead he labored for years until he paid for his manumission himself. Society insisted black men and women remain in a subordinate place, separate and unequal, even when they clearly deserved great public respect. Even the black and mixed-race victims’ names were placed in a lower spot on the memorial.

CBR: Your book is the winner of the 2012 Jules and Frances Landry Award. Overall, what has been the reception to your book?

The award was such an honor. What a wonderful surprise to be among the ranks of previous awardees: four Pulitzer Prize winners and such notable names as John Hope Franklin, Robert Penn Warren, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Lewis P. Simpson.

As for the reception of the book, I've had a number of historians and archivists tell me, "We've been waiting for someone to use this material and write about the fire!" The Library of Virginia hosted a marvelous book signing event (detailed on my blog at, the lovely staff at the Historic Richmond Foundation has invited me to speak on several occasions, and I’m lined up to deliver a Banner Lecture at the Virginia Historical Society this December. There’s also been interest from various churches because of the religious history aspect of the story.

CBR: Do you have an idea on what you will be working on next?

Right now I am mostly writing shorter pieces—articles and the like. I can’t wait to dig in to my next big project, though, and have a few ideas and historical characters that have captured my interest. (And there are other books I want someone else to write. For instance, I don’t have time or know enough French, but could someone please write a good biography of Louis Hue Girardin? That man must be one of the most dashing, fascinating, pulled-up-by-his-bootstraps characters in the Early Republic.)
Thanks for the interview, Robert, and readers are always welcome to send me questions or contact me through my website.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Book Review--North Carolina in the Civil War

Hardy, Michael C. North Carolina in the Civil War. The History Press, Charleston, SC. 2011. 157 pages, selected bibliography, b/w photos. ISBN 9781609491062, $19.99

Michael C. Hardy is kind of the "Renaissance Man" when it comes to North Carolina history, in particular the Civil War. He has his own website, an active blog, posts regularly to Facebook, and keeps a speaking schedule that would wear most of us down. Oh yeah, he also finds to time to write some darn good history.

His most recent book is a brief introduction to the the state of North Carolina and it's contributions to the Civil War. In normal fashion for The History Press this is a brief book and on this subject I am sure that Mr. Hardy could write volumes. In fact he has. Check his website.

In a fast paced 151 pages of text we have nine chapters. The first five deal with the years 1861-1865 each year being a chapter to itself. Chapter six is titled "Tar Heels to the Front" and covers the actions of various regiments in different battles and theaters of the war. This chapter is really a brief gloss over and serves as an excellent introduction for those wishing to study the contributions of NC troops in the war. A chapter on Reconstruction follows. The final two chapters are my favorites, possibly because of my interest in the subjects covered. Chapter eight is titled "Remembrance" and deals with the formation and goals of organizations such as the Ladies Memorial Associations, the various veterans groups that eventually became the United Confederate Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic, and also the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The concluding chapter deals with various historical locations in the state. As Mr. Hardy points out in his closing sentence: "We can learn much about the most tumultuous period of North Carolina's history by visiting the sites associated with the time period..." (page 151).

This is a book that is quick to read and that is helped along with many b/w photos and illustrations of the main participants. There is no map and the lack of foot or end notes was bothersome at times. I'm one of those who does occasionally check them. That said many of the titles from The History Press do not have these due to space constraints. There is however a nice selected bibliography for those wanting further reading or researching ideas.

Recommended highly for high schoolers and up who are interested in learning about the state of North Carolina and the contributions of it's citizens to the Confederacy. This is a great introductory work that anybody with an interest in the Civil War should consider reading!

* I strongly recommend going to Mr. Hardy's website if you are interested in purchasing this book. He has his other titles listed as well and will gladly sign your books plus he shipped mine quickly. It's also nice to directly support authors who work so hard to bring history to life!

Monday, June 4, 2012

The University of Missouri Press to Close

Has anybody else been following the saga of the University of Missouri Press?

It seems as though the university brass have decided to pull the $400,000 in funding that the Press receives each year. Mind you this is a university that has just recently joined the SEC for sports. This will lead to a large payday for the university (estimated around $20 million in TV revenue alone according to USA Today). In fact it is reported that head football coach Gary Pinkel will earn $2.7 million next year despite an average season of 8-5 in a comparatively weak Big 12 Conference. It remains to be seen what the Tigers can do once moving to the powerhouse SEC. Personally, I don't see Alabama, LSU, UF, or any of the others shaking in fear.

As has been stated elsewhere, the major schools in the SEC all have University presses or share them with other universities. UM will sure look out of place when it's rivals all can sing the praises of what their presses contribute to scholarship. Or maybe that's not really the case and I am just hoping. Is big time college only about football now? Maybe university president Tim Wolfe should reconsider and realize that not everything related to higher education and academia is about profit and loss. It's a sad commentary when football (and other sports) take the front seat to knowledge at what is supposed to be an institute of higher learning.

You can read more at the following sites:

The University of Missouri website
Publishers Weekly
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Inside Higher Education

And if you want to keep up on the anti-closure news be sure to join the Facebook page. Just type in Save the University of Missouri Press.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Book Review--Cain at Gettysburg

Peters, Ralph. Cain at Gettysburg. Forge Books. New York, NY. 2012. 429 pages, ISBN 9780765330475. $25.99.

For those who feel that the Civil War fiction sun rises and sets with The Killer Angels you may want to reconsider.

Author Ralph Peters had already built a successful fiction career under his pseudonym Owen Parry. If his Abel Jones series of Civil War mysteries is anywhere near as good as Cain at Gettysburg I will have to find them because his newest work is a masterpiece.

Peters gives us a good telling of the three days battle at Gettysburg. The major events are covered and discussed but not beaten into the ground. If you want to know more about the fights that took place at a specific location just find one of the hundreds of non fiction accounts out there.

This book excels on the human front. Union general George Meade is the key player on the Union side and for my take I feel that James Longstreet is the key Confederate. Robert E. Lee is a major player of course but I think that Longstreet is pushed to the front in this story. We tend to see Lee through Longstreet.

Human interaction pushes this story ahead. As Meade takes over the Union army he realizes he will have to work with Dan Butterfield despite their dislike and distrust of one another. On Day 2 Meade has to deal with political general Dan Sickles who has moved his corps well out of position. There is a well written scene involving the headbutting of generals Winfield Scott Hancock and Henry Hunt over control of artillery on Day 3. Confederate interaction is also well done with the scenes between Lee and Longstreet particularly memorable.

The front line soldier also plays a large part of this story. We see the horrors of the war through their up front and personal eyes. We meet soldiers from varied regiments and backgrounds: Irish and German are prominent. We see  jealousy, hatred, humor, bigotry, sadness, and more as they deal with realities of war. Many of these scenes are not pleasant. The violence of the Civil War is not implied but rather is spelled out in clear language. The reader can have no doubt of the hell these men endured as we see them walking through the battlefield able to land on a corpse with each step (see page 162).

A line in the book states that "Wars were won not by the most competent army, but by the least incompetent on a given day" (page 139). As an author Peters is not shy about putting forth those who should come under scrutiny for their actions in July, 1863.

A general knowledge of the battle would be a help for readers but not essential. There are several maps in the book which are helpful. For any reader who enjoyed The Killer Angels or likes to read military related fiction this is a must read. For those who study Gettysburg this is a worthy addition to your library and well worth reading!

Please see my review of The Killer Angels here.

*Thanks go to Tor/Forge Books for sending a complimentary review copy.