Monday, August 01, 2011

New and Noteworthy---The Battle of Brandy Station, Virginia

The Battle of Brandy Station: North America's Largest Cavalry Battle, Eric J. Wittenberg, Steven Stanley [maps], History Press, 272 pp., 57 illustrations and photographs, 12 maps, notes, bibliography, guided tour, order of battle, paperback, $24.95.

Fought on June 9, 1863, the Battle of Brandy Station, Virginia was the largest predominantly cavalry engagement of the American Civil War. Many Civil War enthusiasts regard the battle as solely a cavalry fight but there were eleven Union regiments engaged. Also, though many view it as the beginning of the Pennsylvania Campaign, it may also be seen as the conclusion of the Chancellorsville campaign. Wittenberg's effort would have been strengthened by noting the Union cavalry's raid that began April 27, before the Battle of Chancellorsville. He does develop a picture of the Federal cavalry's growing aggressiveness by covering the purge of Rebel guerrillas from the Northern Neck region between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers in mid-May.

One of the several delights of Wittenberg's The Battle of Brandy Station is his handling of primary sources of the combatants. There are about 100 indented and italicized comments from the soldiers. The voices of the soldiers are heard throughout the narrative. Wittenberg takes a non-partisan stance towards the sides; both criticism and compliments fall on Blue and Gray. Stuart's three grand reviews and sham battles [May 22, June 4 and June 5] are not overweighted against him. But for Wittenberg , more illustrative are Stuart's over wrought responses to the Richmond press' reports that hold him accountable after the battle. The author does not advance speculations about the press editorials and Stuart's decision to ride around the Union army in late June and early July.

Also, Wittenberg organizes his work into chapters that are not focused on the clock but focused on the brigades' and divisions' engagements. The divisions with their brigades and regiments are well developed and the are not diminished by overcrowding pages and chapters with everything that was going on at a particular hour of the battle. Of the 14 chapters, eight are devoted to specific segments of the battle though other fighting was going on at the same time. This helps with the continuity within the day long engagement between nine Federal brigades[seven cavalry and two infantry] and five Confederate brigades.

In a minor but helpful decision, The History Press' Civil War Sesquicentennial Series places the portraits in the text where the first mention of the soldier occurs. Often times, inserting all the portraits in the center and on glossy paper, is a nuisance and minimizes the effectiveness of the illustrations. The maps in The Battle of Brandy Station contain topographic features and elevation lines. Missing is a map that shows the entire battlefield. An additional and enjoyable feature is the Epilogue that tells the story of two Federals who were detained as prisoners captured at Brandy Station and were sent to Richmond's Libby Prison. Of the many prisoners from the battle these two were chosen to be executed in retaliation for the execution of two Confederate spies quartered at Johnson's Island prison near Sandusky, Ohio. The story is a highlight that reveals the state of prisons and paroles in 1863.

The analysis of the Battle of Brandy Station and the Walking and Driving Tour of the attle are clear and concise. Overall, readers are well served by Wittenberg's The Battle of Brandy Station and the History Press' Civil War Sesquicentennial Series.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I think that's an extremely fair review, Rea, and I can't really quibble with it.

Just to give you some insight....

I elected not to go into any real detail on the Stoneman Raid for two reasons. First, I was already bumping up against my word limitation, and really didn't have much room to do more than what I did.

More importantly, though, is that my book The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863 goes into the most detail on the Stoneman Raid of any book yet published, and I simply figured that if someone wanted to read more about it, they could pick up the book and run with it.

Nevertheless, I think your review is very fair, and I appreciate the many kind things you said about the book.

Steve Stanley is doing the maps for my new one, and I can assure you that we will have a base map of the area for it. I've learned from this.

I can also report that The History Press is now including indexes in the books in its Sesquicentennial Series (in part at my behest), and that my new one, on the Battle of White Sulphur Springs (August 26-27, 1863) will have an index. That one will be out in time for Christmas.