By Winston Groom
National Geographic, $30;
IN THE BLUBBER ROOM:
A BIOGRAPHY OF THE WILLIAM BADGER 1828-1865
By Peter Kurtz
University of Alabama Press, $34.95; 190 pp.
THE KNOXVILLE CAMPAIGN:
BURNSIDE AND LONGSTREET
IN EAST TENNESSEE
By Earl J Hess
University of Tennessee Press, $39.95
At the start of the third year of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, variety of subject and method among histories is especially welcome.
Is there a compelling need for yet another study of the oft-told battle of Shiloh, even though it was the first “great and terrible” battle of the War? Apparently, yes, if you know that the author is Winston Groom, famous for Forrest Gump, but more appropriately here for his highly valued works of history, especially his brilliant Kearny’s March. In his case, by “ variety” I mean the kind of forceful style and dramatic presentation that made Fletcher Pratt’s short history of the Civil War in 1935 and Shelby Foote’s trilogy of the 1960s so powerful an inspiration to future, more scholarly Civil War historians.
Whether facts are well-known or new, style makes a difference. Can you hear Groom’s voice, saying, “They had gone into the battle at 10:30 a.m., and now, at straight-up noon, there was only the glaring sun overhead to remind them that they were not already dead and rotting.”
Groom doesn’t do footnotes, but one should hesitate to challenge the accuracy of his research. For those who hunger for scholarly apparatus, Earl Hess gives satisfaction. But, compared with the superfluity of books on Shiloh, Hesse’s story of Burnside and Longstreet’s Knoxville campaign in East Tennessee will be a new, dramatic experience, with a variety of elements in fresh contexts. There is the saga of burning bridges from Stevenson, Ala., up the Valley of East Tennessee to Abingdon, Va. And there is the long march of Longstreet’s army into Knoxville, and, after defeat in the battle of Fort Sanders against Burnside, out of Knoxville and further into East Tennessee, and a final battle at Bean’s Station.
Another somewhat unique feature is the number of forts and batteries on salient points of the hilly topography en-ringing Knoxville, bisected by the Tennessee River, across which an obstructive cable and an essential pontoon bridge were laid. Whether Gen. Sanders was shot from the tower of Bleak House or from some other angle remains a mystery.
The battle of Fort Sanders was made especially cruel for Longstreet’s Confederates by the laying of entangling telegraph wire, a ditch much deeper than Longstreet’s own eyes surmised and by the pouring of hot water down the steep slopes to create ice that November night. Capt. Lemon “used his sword to dig out toe holds in the frozen slope. He left the sword stuck in the muddy clay as he entered the fort, his pistol blazing. A federal bullet slammed into his throat ...”
Hess’ minute research enabled him to describe every conceivable military and civilian aspect of this campaign; it was the foreseen critical consequences that inspired Lincoln to set this campaign in motion.
Kurtz’s style is not as enjoyable as Groom’s or Hess’, but good enough to tell the forgotten, fascinating story of the William Badger (1828–1865). It served as a merchant vessel, a Melville era whaler, and a preeminent coal supplier for the Union blockade ships. Any story, repeated or not, about the role of ships in the war provides variety among the plethora of land battle studies, for naval warfare is relatively neglected.
Especially welcome are the simple, sad stories of obscure ships such as the William Badger as compared with the more famous vessels. Even so, the Badger was “an extraordinary vessel that sailed through American history with ‘rattling cordage’ and ‘toilers at their task.’”
All three of these books provide a good many illustrations, maps, useful bibliographies and indexes.
From the height of great expectations, I am always on the lookout for books that provide unusual perspectives on the war. I invite you to look with me.
David Madden is the author of numerous fictional and nonfictional works on the macrocosm of the Civil War. His 11th novel dramatizes the microcosm of life on ancient London Bridge in London Bridge in Plague and Fire.