Civil War Photo Contest
Featured Book Reviewer
- Feb 23, 2013
- East Texas
Commanding The Storm
by John Richard Stephens
Lyons Press, Imprint of Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2012
320 pp., including Sources and Index
Commanding The Storm is an entertaining bit of fluff that may interest and should entertain many of the novice readers of the forums and possibly some of the Veterans as well. Subtitled Civil War Battles In the Words of the Generals Who Fought Them, it is made up largely of selections of the writings of two dozen of the most prominent commanders on both sides of the war, including both those who survived the conflict and several who did not. These selections are nicely tied together by author/editor Stephens who provides a running narrative of the events. The essential limitation of the book other than its rather short length lies in the dozen battles or campaigns he has chosen to feature: Fort Sumter, First Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, The Crater, The March to the Sea, and Appomattox. As can easily be seen, the book is heavy on early-war Eastern Theater subjects, so in no way can be considered comprehensive or evenly-balanced.
Of course the main subject here is really the men who led the armies in these battles, and at first glance it is an impressive roster; a closer look however reveals more imbalance, indicated by the number beside their names which indicates the respective number of times they are quoted within: P.G.T. Beauregard (7); Braxton Bragg (2); Jubal Early (3); Nathan Bedford Forrest (4); John B. Hood (4); Stonewall Jackson (2); Joseph Johnston (3); Robert E. Lee (8); James Longstreet (14!); George Pickett (3); Leonidas Polk (1); J.E.B. Stuart (1); Ambrose Burnside (2); Joshua Chamberlain (3); George A. Custer (3); U. S. Grant (12!); Winfield Hancock (6); Joseph Hooker (4); George B. McClellan (2); George Meade (5); David D. Porter (2); William S. Rosecrans (1); Phillip Sheridan (2); and William T. Sherman (7). It will be noted that a disproportionate and heavy burden falls particularly on two men, namely the old friends Grant and Longstreet; while others such as Stuart, Polk, and Rosecrans barely appear at all. Another interesting choice, the semi-literate Forrest, is actually only represented in a Recruits Wanted broadside likely composed by a staff member; the reminiscence by a doctor of something he may have said to Bragg; his "final orders" to his troops, also likely composed for him; and his well-known published postwar Memphis Civil Rights Speech. Fortunately, most of the remaining selections by the others have better pedigrees than those allegedly by Forrest; however, their inclusion serves to point out that this is an entertaining book rather than a reliable reference work.
And don't mistake me - I found this to be very entertaining, and that's why I chose to include it in my reviews. Although the battles are unquestionably skewed to the early East, the tales told by the various participants paint interesting and often contrasting pictures of events. Each battle forms a chapter within the book and is represented by quotes or selections from an appropriate variety of sources; for example, Gettysburg contains writings by Longstreet (3), Hancock (2), Chamberlain, Hood, Stuart, Custer, Meade, and Lee - as might be expected, the contrast between Stuart's official report of the cavalry battle and that of Custer sound as if they are describing two entirely separate events! Chickamauga also shows this, with the lone appearance of Bishop Polk condemning the performance of Bragg, contrasted with Bragg's own exculpatory account. Chancellorsville offers a similar contrast between the accounts of opposing commanders Lee and Hooker, plus commentary by their subordinates. Intermixed with the participants' own stories are sidebar (or Side Box as they are for some reason called here) accounts by author Stephens in almost every chapter Lincoln's War Room, Friendly Fire (Manassas), Military Intelligence (Shiloh), Arial Reconnaissance (Antietam), Sharpshooters (Fredericksburg), Surgery and Medicine (Chancellorsville), Ironclads and Submarines (Vicksburg), Espionage (Gettysburg), Rebel Yell and Yankee Cheer (Chickamauga), Trench Warfare The Crater), Innovative Weapons (March to the Sea), and Guerrillas (Appomattox). These are pretty basic but expand on some aspects of the respective chapters in which they appear and are a nice touch.
The selections themselves are the most important aspect of the book and this will probably be why a relative novice might want to consider it, especially if they have the impression that writing from the dim past has to be stilted, stuffy, boring, or otherwise incomprehensible. However, Stephens states in an introductory note, "Almost every selection or quotation is abridged for brevity and to remove superfluous material, though I have taken care to maintain context... I have also corrected typos while generally maintaining the writers' idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation to retain the flavor of the times" The very first reminiscence by George Custer recounting his feelings on the outbreak of war as a cadet at West Point while awaiting orders sets the tone for many of the others that follow. While both Grant and Longstreet are perhaps over-represented, they were some of the best writers and their contributions were drawn from various sources, not merely all taken from their well-known published memoirs; for example, an interesting reflection by Grant on the failure of Reconstruction comes from a quote in Scribner's Magazine. Author Stephens has assembled a very interesting potpourri culled from various sources that will hopefully introduce the Civil War novice reader to some of the principal characters and which should enable even a jaded buff to while away some worthwhile quality time with these men.
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