The Peninsula Campaign of 1862: Yorktown to the Seven Days, Vol. 3

edited by William J. Miller; Campbell CA, Savas, 1997

Any collection of essays runs the risk of being compared to a grab bag. This risk increases with multi-volume essay collections, especially the tail end of a series. This the third volume of monographs on McClellan's Richmond campaign edited by William Miller. There is a sense that this might be Editor Miller's Contractually Obligated Third Volume, except for the presence of some unusual material here. I would have bought the book for either of two essays it contains: a study of McClellan's cavalry on the Peninsula and a day-by-day account of the weather during the campaign. There is a third selling point: the best maps you will ever see in any Civil War book are here, and there are a lot of them. They are rich in information and yet clean in presentation, beautifully balanced between data density and clarity. They disgrace the mighty Oxford University Press and other plush publishers who inflict sloppy, author-made sketches on us.

The subject of McClellan himself, however, seems to have been exhausted in the first two tomes* as there is very little Mac here, apart from the cavalry article. Let this be a piecemeal review, given in the order that pieces appear in the book.

Dark Portents: Confederate Command at the Battle of Williamsburg
by Steven E. Woodworth.

Woodworth is new to me, although he apparently has a reputation. His main problem here is the mismatch between his mission (what he has undertaken to prove, that Williamsburg bungling presaged similar CSA command failures later on) and the short, article format in which he seeks to accomplish it. These are his other problems.

"Johnston was almost neurotic," we are told, and "Longstreet's feeble intellect" was masked "with the greatest of confidence." Perhaps Mr. Woodworth got his start flaming in Usenet newsgroups.

At one point, this study suggests that if the Rebel principals (the neurotic, the feebleminded, and others) had buckled down to learn the lessons of Williamsburg, their cause might have prospered. Is Woodworth disappointed by the failure of the Rebel cause or is he simply giving impartial judgements? How strange that a scholar could be partisan in the small matter of Confederate personalities, while being impartial on the larger issue of secession.

"No Praise Can be too Good for the Officers and Men"
-- The 71st Pennsylvania Infantry in the Peninsula Campaign
by Gary G. Lash

This regimental history is somewhat out of place here despite the author's fig-leaf of an excuse that the regiment embodied "typical" experiences on the Peninsula. Having committed to a regimental-level study, however anomalous, the author should then have executed his intention. Instead, this has far too much overview of general operations and not enough "pure 71st Pennsylvania" content. I was baffled to find myself repeatedly reading about this or that New Hampshireman's comments, some doings in the 1st US Artillery, this or that going on at the IVth Corps, General McClellan this, Benjamin Huger that, Keyes this, Porter that. Hard campaigning in the mud and dust should be the point but a rapping on the chessboard is what we get.

Johnston, Davis and Seven Pines: The Uncertainty Principle in Action
by Steven H. Newton

Steven Newton argues that the Johnston/Davis relationship was not foredoomed or locked into a trajectory of ever-mounting distrust. I sympathize, but it is difficult to try to prove the negative of a general, speculative inference. There are points of interest in this essay, but the result is belabored: "Yet, by all the indicators most commonly cited, Davis' respect for Johnston should already have been nearly non-existent." (Eh?) It should be enough to point out any historian's deterministic pronouncements or any anachronistic attribution of views to Davis and Johnston. These are by definition bad practice. Readers unable to grasp errors this crude will get nothing from Newton's advanced (meta)physics.

"What Men We Have Got are Good Soldiers & Brave Ones Too" -- Federal Cavalry Operations in the Peninsula Campaign by Robert O'Neill

Any treatment of the neglected subject of McClellan's cavalry must hold some interest, however this one manages to disappoint. Instead of restricting himself to the topic described in the title (which is likely too much for a single article anyway), O'Neill has freighted his little piece with with weighty and extensive background information on the formation of the cavalry arm by McClellan. He does such a miserable job at this, it made reading the main part of the article an exercise in nitpicking and distrust. He fails to record Scott's position on cavalry, or Congress's, or McDowell's. He fails to note the cavalry allowances in the Franklin/McDowell TO&E of 1861. He fails to track the equipping of cavalry units during the build-up to the campaign. He fails to note which units were held back from the invasion by Lincoln. He fails to note why McClellan liquidated some cavalry units and refused others, depicting these as "typical" of Mac's feelings for cavalry. In short, he switches McClellan's pro-cavalry attitude with the anti-cavalry philosophies of McClellan's opponents. And one wonders, how natural a mistake could that possibly be? The real story of McClellan's cavalry awaits telling.

"To Alleviate Their Sufferings" -- A Report of Medical Personnel and Activity at Savage's Station During and After the Seven Days Battles Edited by William J. Miller

This is material assembled from the notes, reports, and letters of a New York contract surgeon named John Swinburne. Having been immersed recently in the The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, I found Swinburne's material ho-hum, even though he had the exciting responsibility of staying with those woulded captured by Lee. He was very much writing in the moment and Miller abdicated the historian's obligation to supply perspective.

"Weather Still Execrable" -- Climatological Notes on the Peninsula Campaign, March through August 1862 by William J. Miller

We move from no perspective to "all perspective" with this day-by-day account of the weather during the campaign, fully sourced. Since I was going to do this myself, Miller has saved me a lot of trouble, producing a kind of Farmer's Almanac for the Richmond Campaign. A random selection for June 3rd:

Heintzelman at Seven Pines: mid 90s, "Heavy rain all night"; Galena in the James River above the Appomattox River: heavy shower about 1:00 am, cloudy afternoon, 80s through the day, 89 degrees at 2:00 pm.

In its odd, quiet way, this is the crowning piece of the volume.

*Volumes 1 and 2 published previously, may be reviewed in the future


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