Book Review Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah by David Powell

Joshism

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Jupiter, FL
Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah: Major General Franz Sigel and the War in the Valley of Virginia, May 1864
David A. Powell
Savas Beatie (2018)

I have not yet read Charles Knight's Valley Thunder, but Powell's book endorses it in as the clear best book on the Battle of New Market. Powell notes that all previous works on New Market have been more focused on the battle in general and the Confederate side in particular. Powell is attempting to put the battle in better context and provide a better examination of the Union side of things.

The book has 212 pages of main text and less than 1/3 of that is the day of the battle. The rest of the books covers the who, how, and why the battle came about, particularly on the Union side. This includes a chapter about how Sigel came to be in charge and who the other contenders were for the position.

Someone asked in an old thread whether this book is a Sigel apologia. Not really. Powell gives credit to Sigel for things he did right, especially under the circumstances, but has plenty critical as well. Sigel had too few men, those he did have had been scattered along the B&O railroad or in other small garrisons. They were inexperienced and insufficiently drilled drilled. The campaign was beset by logistical problems, guerrillas, and weather. Sigel had serious faults as a commander, but his chief subordinates weren't good either. The entire campaign was a mess. With a nod to Mr. Wittenberg, I would say with regard to the New Market Campaign there is plenty of blame to go around.

Of particular importance, Powell explains how the campaign was envisioned as a three-pronged operation against Staunton with Crook from the south, Ord from the west, and Sigel from the north. Crook and Averill made their raid into Southwest Virginia with mixed results, then Crook got cold feet and retreated back to West Virginia instead of heading down the valley. A chapter of this book covers that operation. This left Breckenridge free to concentrate against Sigel. And yes, Edward Ord waltzed into the theater that spring, threw a hissy fit, and got transferred having been around just long enough to be disruptive (his prong of the operation was merged into Sigel's).

Highly recommended if you're interested events in the Shenandoah in 1864.
 

Rusk County Avengers

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Excellent review!

Glad to see the author tries to fair to Sigel, he could use some fair treatment. That alone peaks my interest on this book.

I'd never dare say Sigel was some kind of misunderstood mastermind tactician, but I wouldn't call him a fool either. He was good at coming up with sound ideas, just poor on the execution. His flanking maneuver at Wilson's Creek being a grand example...
 

Joshism

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I'd never dare say Sigel was some kind of misunderstood mastermind tactician, but I wouldn't call him a fool either. He was good at coming up with sound ideas, just poor on the execution. His flanking maneuver at Wilson's Creek being a grand example...

Powell's assessment of Sigel is that he got very flustered in a battle. He also was sloppy about the chain of command below him, from assigning Julius Stahel as both his Chief of Cavalry AND his Chief of Staff, and sometimes issuing orders to regiments rather than to their brigade commanders.

On the other hand, he tried to prepare his army as best he could in the short time the he had, never lost sight of the overall campaign strategy (unfortunately unaware Crook had done so), seemed to understand the geographic difficulties of the valley, and did a fairly good job protecting his line of supply from guerillas.

The impression I get from this book is that Sigel could have been a star for the Union war effort as a recruiter and trainer of soldiers, especially German immigrant units, and probably would have been a good staff officer. I need to read Engle's biography of Sigel someday.
 

Jamieva

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I have not read Knight's book, it is on my list to get to. I read Powell's book last year and @Joshism pretty much nailed it. The battle is special to Dave as a VMI grad. The other major New Market book I am aware of was one written by William C Davis some time ago, and it skews more toward the southern viewpoint.
 
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