Archive for the ‘People and Biographies’ Category


Readers of Stonewall Goes West and Mother Earth, Bloody Ground who are familiar with the 1864 Nashville Campaign have probably spotted that Stonewall Jackson’s fictional Middle Tennessee Campaign is a commentary on John Bell Hood’s performance. Given that Hood was a product of the Lee & Jackson school, using Jackson himself to lead in a similar operation  was in my mind the best way to comment on where Hood went wrong.

Not A Man Of Papers
Robert E. Lee once wrote of Hood that he was “a good fighter, very industrious on the battlefield, careless off.” He was certainly careless off the battlefield in preparing for his crossing of the Tennessee River and his march on Nashville. Hood had no idea of the conditions he would encounter in trying to find a practicable place to bridge the formidable waters of the Tennessee, and essentially winged the entire business of crossing a field army over a major river into enemy territory.

One of the truths of military leadership is that the higher one gets on the ladder, the more important what happens on the desktop before the battle becomes. As the axiom goes, amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. Confederate armies are often criticized by historians for their poor staff work, but I think as a rule the problem was one of lack of staff manpower rather than lack of talent.

Hood started to come under criticism for the poor performance of his staff as a division commander. The evidence suggests he had no aptitude for the management side of his job as he rose into higher command. My belief is that, aged 33, John Bell Hood just wasn’t enough of a mature, settled man to appreciate this side of his job.

A Broken Man
Any analysis of Hood’s command style on the battlefield cannot help but notice a stark change after Chickamauga, and for good reason. Hood had an arm mangled at Gettysburg, and that lost a leg at the hip in the mountains of northern Georgia. Hip amputations were terrible affairs, with the lowest survival rate of all amputation procedures during the Civil War.

One of the things I made sure to do in Stonewall Goes West was describe how shattered Hood must have felt at the end of a long day in the saddle, strapped in and unable to dismount with a lot of bother. Hood’s style before Chickamauga was see for yourself and lead from the front, but not afterward. Part of that might have been that he was leery of getting shot again, but for my part I believe most of it was that his body just wouldn’t let him be as active as he was in the past.

The result was that as a corps and army commander, things went awry because Hood wasn’t on the scene as often as he once would have been. He rarely had the kind of stellar subordinates, schooled in exercising independent tactical authority, that he would need for that, nor did he have the kind of staff work in the background to help make up the difference.

A Dilatory Man
In my opinion, the great lost opportunity of the Nashville Campaign was not Spring Hill, but when Hood chose to sit and wait at Florence and Tuscumbia, Alabama for three weeks. For a man who was supposedly of the Lee and Jackson school of boldly aggressive maneuvers designed to seize the initiative and baffle the enemy, it was an unforgivable delay.

Of course, the delay was necessary because of two factors. The most important one was that Hood wanted to collect 20 days of rations before invading Middle Tennessee, and nothing like that stockpile was either with him or waiting for him there. It was essential because even though Hood had not even an inkling how depleted Middle Tennessee was of forage, he had the experience to suggest that November is not the best time of year for an army to feed itself on the march, even in ostensibly friendly territory.

This was exactly the sort of thing that better attention to staff work would have overcome. His other reason was waiting for Nathan Bedford Forrest, then already in Middle Tennessee and engaged in a raid.

Schofield and his XXIII Corps were not even assigned to George Thomas’s forces until October 30, and Hood’s West Point classmate did not join Stanley’s IV Corps in Pulaski until November 13. If Hood had crossed earlier, he would have faced only IV Corps and a single brigade of cavalry, and his odds of cutting off that force and inflicting defeat in detail on the Union forces in Tennessee would have been that much greater.

My own thinking is that a true disciple of the Lee and Jackson school would have reckoned the invasion of Middle Tennessee was a huge gamble anyway, and if it was to have any chance of success in its stated ambition of halting Sherman’s March To The Sea it had to get moving sooner rather than later. Hood probably should have pushed off once he had sufficient supplies to reach to the Duck or the Harpeth at most, ordered Forrest to meet him in the middle, and thereby caught Thomas’s forces flat-footed.

With Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott carved herself a niche as the “sizzle historian,” spinning entertaining non-fiction tales of the seedier side of America’s past. She ably continues mining this rich vein of material for her third book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, which tells four concurrent stories of women engaged in espionage on both sides of the Civil War.

Abbott delivers a piping hot helping of material, and most Civil War buffs should find at least some of it new. Take Belle Boyd, one of the four. Most Civil War fans know her name, a fact that must give Boyd’s ghost a great deal of satisfaction, yet usually references to her focus on whether she actually did anything useful as a spy. Her character as a saucy firebrand and all-around bad girl who swigged whiskey with the best of them often goes unremarked, and the extent of her hijinks certainly came as news to me.

The thing I found most interesting in Abbott’s book was how the choice of the four women, two Confederate and two Union, illustrated the stereotype personalities of the two regions. Boyd and Rose Greenhow were both arrogant, vain women whose character flaws severely compromised their espionage careers. Both were caught, both courted notoriety, and the only reason either escaped the noose was that women generally weren’t hung for treason in the early 1860s (just a couple years later, however, they were: witness Mary Surratt). By and large, Boyd’s and Greenhow’s style of conceit died out after the Victorian era, but Abbott ably translates it into the modern era.

Against this we have the example of Elizabeth Van Lew, and with her story the book truly shines. Van Lew operated as an effective spy master for the Union in Richmond, the capital of her enemies, for the duration of the war. Abbott’s portrayal of Van Lew’s poise and caution stands in vivid contrast to Boyd and Greenhow, and her story provides the book’s continuing tension. She was never caught, although she came close to it on many occasions. It is in Elizabeth Van Lew that the narrative moves from action, farce and sex romp and into the territory of the hard-bitten espionage yarn promised by the John Le Carre-inspired title.

The history of the Civil War gives short space to women. When they do appear, it is as the wife of some important man, in connection with the U.S. Sanitary Commission or as a nameless member of an angry mob in the Southern bread riots. With the addition of Emma Edmonds, who played a double game by posing as a man, enlisting in the U.S. Army, and then serving as a scout and spy, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy delivers an entertaining spread of stories about women who did their wartime service on their own terms. The book is ideal summer vacation reading, and it’s not too late to pick it up and take it on a September getaway.

When I set out to characterize my “senior co-protagonist,” Thomas J. Jackson, I had three things in mind. First, as a novelist coming from a historical fiction and not a science fiction angle, I wanted to stick closely to the facts. That led into my second goal, which was to avoid producing a stereotyped portrayal of the man.

Finally, I did not want to create a Stonewall Jackson character that whitewashed the real person. I love the work of Colleen McCullough with Julius Caesar, Mary Renault with Alexander the Great, and Sharon Kay Penman with Richard III, but all treated their principle subjects with fawning admiration. I wanted my Jackson to have his warts, although I refused to exaggerate them into caricature.

When Life Hands You Lemons…
Jackson being such a famously eccentric figure, my interpretation almost necessarily produces some disagreement. I was in an e-mail correspondence with another author about Jackson’s lemon-sucking, and she insisted that the whole thing was a myth. Serious Jackson scholars know that Jackson had a passion for fruit, and his favorite was peaches, leading some to discount the lemon-sucking thing as little more than fable.

Yet growing up as a farm boy in rural Kentucky with family roots in Appalachia, I know first-hand that even today there are people who enjoy sucking on lemons. Were it not for that for that experience, I might discount the lemon thing as a myth too. Instead, I downplay rather than discount it, and highlight other fruits. Lemons appear only twice in Stonewall Goes West and just once in Mother Earth, Bloody Ground, and are sucked on but the one time in the three examples.

Perhaps the whole lemon-sucking thing is just a figment of Richard Taylor’s imagination, but I have my reasons for thinking there is a kernel of truth to it.

Mr. Stonewall Sandpaper
If I have found anything amusing about the response to my book in internet forums or blogs, it’s the notion that I didn’t make my Jackson caustic enough. He was infamous for his high standards, insistence on absolute obedience, and complete lack of patience. Some have even accused him, quite plausibly, of scapegoating subordinates in the wake of failure.

The path of caricature for these traits would have Jackson alienating all the prickly, proud, and/or hot-tempered Western generals, placing one after another under arrest. That view is simplistic, near-sighted, and historically inaccurate to boot, because it ignores all the instances where Jackson had no problems with his subordinates or was able to work past them.

To dwell on the examples of Richard Garnett and A.P. Hill (Hill in particular didn’t get along with Longstreet either) ignores “Allegheny” Johnson, who got along with Jackson just fine. It also ignores John Winder, who clashed with Jackson but maintained a working relationship right up to his death, and it ignores examples like Dick Ewell, who thought Jackson was nuts until he was won over by his victories. Instead of focusing solely on A.P. Hill and Turner Ashby, who were as much at fault for their stormy relationships with Jackson as Jackson himself, I drew on all the examples and applied them to my story.

“You’re Just Plain Wrong”
I knew getting into these novels that I’d get nitpicked a lot, because if there is one thing a lot of otherwise perfectly affable Civil War buffs are big on is thinking they know everything. I don’t even spare myself from that charge, but in acknowledging it I at least try to make sure I have my facts straight first.

Sadly, that isn’t the case for some who disagree with my choices. One blogger recently nitpicked me for supposedly getting it wrong that Jackson wasn’t a good rider, and implied that I therefore had a poor understanding of the character. Unsurprisingly, this same guy also took issue with Jackson not being abrasive enough.

I don’t think my work is infallible, but 99 times out of 100 it’s the nitpicker who has turned out wrong. In the aforementioned example, see for yourself and Google the neutral phrase “Stonewall Jackson’s horsemanship.” The result is page after page of links to stuff about how he wasn’t a good rider, how he chose Little Sorrel because he was small and undemanding, etc.

Part and Parcel
This sort of thing is part and parcel of being a writer, because people are always going to criticize your work. Sometimes it reflects nothing more than a difference of opinion, and sometimes its friendly and fair and acknowledges that. Sometimes its the critic’s limitations, which could be fair or unfair. Either way, it’s just what comes from working with historical fiction.