Book Reviews

Six Days in September: A Novel of the 1862 Maryland Campaign

A Courier Book Reviewed by Stuart McClung

The 1862 Maryland Campaign has gotten wide coverage over the years by any number of authors, Stephen Sears and D. Scott Hartwig immediately come to mind.

However, their publications were narratives or campaign studies. In this case, it is a novel of historical fiction.

Author Alexander Rossino has written a story of what is essentially an insider’s look at the main Confederate players, Lee, Longstreet, etc., their perspectives and decisions made in addition to some rank and file soldiers.

In particular, these are men of the Raccoon Roughs, Co. D, of the 6th Alabama Infantry of Robert Rodes’ Brigade.

In the run up to the Battle of Sharpsburg, all of the travails associated with this campaign come to the fore: Lee’s injuries to his wrists and hands and consequent need to ride in an ambulance, Longstreet’s worn heel and need to wear a slipper, the “Lost Orders” and the uncertainty that McClellan caused in the Confederate high command as a result, Stuart’s failure to keep D.H. Hill informed at South Mountain and the defensive struggle there which ended any possibility of a further advance into Maryland or Pennsylvania and the withdrawal to Sharpsburg to fight a battle which might salvage some measure of the intended campaign to bring about Southern independence.

All of these historic events are incorporated into the story’s thread as the author also focuses on the personal stories of other characters.

One is an officer, native to the Sharpsburg area, attached to Jackson’s staff, concerned that his extended family is in harm’s way as battle approaches and then also the aforementioned members of the Raccoon Roughs who provide valued context in terms of what the soldier in the ranks experienced when it came to combat and loss of friends therein, thoughts of home and family, obtaining food, water and shelter and wondering if they would live to see another day.

A highlight is the well-written description of the fighting in the two battles which occurred in the six day period.

Specifically, this would be the confusion, uncertainty and fog of war inherent in combat for all participants; indeed the swirling nature of it where one only knows what is going on in one’s immediate vicinity.

To his credit, Rossino covers all three phases of the Battle of Sharpsburg, from Hooker’s advance down the Hagerstown Pike in the early morning, to the fighting in the Sunken Road where Gordon and the 6th Alabama played a major role, to the “rescue” of Lee’s army with the timely arrival of A.P. Hill’s Division from Harpers Ferry just when it appeared that all was lost.

An added bonus is the inclusion of the episode where Lee plans a counter-attack against the Union right during an ebb in the fighting. Not everyone knows or is familiar with this event.

By the end of the battle, the exhaustion from combat is almost palpable as Lee and his army prepare to move back across the Potomac River into Virginia and the survivors are left to contemplate the deaths of many and the carnage and destruction on the battlefield.

As a first time foray into historical fiction, Rossino has parlayed a virtual life-long interest in the Civil War into an interesting and engaging story which rises above the usual battle narrative with inter-personal dialogue and emphasizes the decisions and dilemmas forced on Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia by the circumstances in which they found themselves.

Understandably, there are no photographs (other than those on the cover) and the one map provides the detail and scale needed to show the theater of operations of Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and western Maryland.

Other than some minor mistakes of 19th Century terminology or nomenclature, there is certainly nothing here to criticize. As noted by the endorsement of James McPherson on the cover, “this page-turner of a novel…….provides the most vivid description” that one might want to consider in a fictional setting about one of the most important six day periods of the American experience.

Title: Six Days in September: A Novel of the 1862 Maryland Campaign

Author: Alexander Rossino

Publisher: CreateSpace

Pages: 390

Price: $15.99

Softcover

“The Last Road North: A Guide to the Gettysburg Campaign, 1863”

Courier Book Review by Brian Bennett

The Last Road North is one of four volumes dealing with Gettysburg presently in Savas Beatie’s “Emerging Civil War Series” and lives up to already-established high level of the collection. Authors Robert Orrison and Dan Welch also continue in the pattern of offering something new to the subject matter.

The unique aspect in this case are four different tour routes allowing the reader to retrace the paths of both armies during the Gettysburg campaign. Covered are the Confederate Advance (26 stops, 167 miles), the Union Response (23 stops, 150 miles), Jeb Stuart’s Ride (22 stops, 215 miles) and the post-battle retreat from Gettysburg to Williamsport (12 stops, 50 miles).

The routes follow the original roads as close as practicable, with stops relating to camp locations, river crossing, battles/skirmishes or other notable aspects of the campaign. Clear and numerous maps, along with separate and detailed driving directions (including GPS coordinates) are provided. A handful of side trips and alternate routes are offered as well; for example the route taken by General Dick Ewell, who ventured farther north than the main element of the Confederate forces.

Orrison and Welch were well-selected as the co-authors, with numerous relevant professional links, including Orrison’s service on the board of Virginia Civil War Trails. Most of the stops have interpretive markers as part of the overall Civil War Trails program, while others include battlefield sites or museums, which will supply the reader with additional, more in-depth information.

The authors expressed the desire to “introduce people to some sites of which they are aware” so while stops at the battlefields of Brandy Station and Second Winchester and the municipalities of Frederick and Emmittsburg are certainly expected, tourists will also find themselves in such rural locations such as Barnesville, Jefferson, Richfield and Lewistown.

While the touring aspect of the book is its major component, the maps and presentation of information gives it value for those not necessarily making the trip. In addition, it serves as a valuable resource for someone making separate visits to any of the 83 individual sites included in the tours.

Title: The Last Road North: A Guide to the Gettysburg Campaign, 1863

Author: Robert Orrison and Dan Welch

Publisher: Savas Beatie

Pages: 172

Price: $14.95

Soft Cover

A Finger in Lincoln’s Brain: What Modern Science

Reveals about Lincoln, His Assassination, and Its Aftermath

Courier Book Review by Jay Jorgensen

The first three sentences of E. Lawrence Abel’s Preface raise the issue many potential readers will pose when they pick up A Finger in Lincoln’s Brain. “Another book about the Lincoln assassination? Surely everything that could be said about the death of America’s sixteenth president has already been written. So what is different about this book?” Abel, a faculty professor of psychology and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Wayne State University, presents a compelling case for why you should read his book.

The author takes a systematic look at the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath.

Relying upon a newly discovered document he opines that the initial treatment of the president right after he was shot probably did not occur in the manner commonly believed.

By examining the extant records a different analysis is presented as to the ultimate cause of death. The fat that three different physicians inserted their fingers into Lincoln’s head through the bullet hole (providing the title for the book) certainly did not help Lincoln’s survival chances.

The book also covers the actions and demise of John Wilkes Booth. Was booth suffering from syphilis, which contributed to his delusional state leading to the assassination?

The author examines that likelihood by reviewing the cumulative evidence. In doing so Abel provides an interesting perspective into the motives behind Booth’s fateful decision.

There is a chapter devoted to the embalming of Abraham Lincoln in preparation for his train journey home to Illinois.

Rarely considered in Lincoln’s assassination accounts, this proves to be an interesting topic that contributes to the aftermath of Lincoln’s death. The author also provides readers with the impact the embalming had upon the body and the subsequent viewings along the train stops.

A Finger in Lincoln’s Brain is a very readable book. It provides an interesting viewpoint of the Lincoln assassination story that is not often told.

Title: A Finger in Lincoln’s Brain: What Modern Science Reveals about Lincoln, His Assassination, and Its Aftermath

Author: E. Lawrence Abel

Pages: 269

Price: $48.00

Perish From the Earth

Courier Book Reviewed by Greg M. Romaneck

It is 1837 and Joshua Fry Speed is deeply troubled.

His once prosperous family in Kentucky is facing financial difficulties due to his father’s rising debts.

As the eldest son, Speed must try to find a way to quickly raise money in order to cover the debts and restore some balance to the family portfolio.

Speed chooses to tackle the family investment in a steam-powered river boat known as the War Eagle as his first foray into the battleground of familial money matters.

Once on board the War Eagle Speed swiftly realizes that making money and trimming expenses is no simple matter.

Confronted by a ship captain who is self-confident and high-handed, Speed has little success in terms of cutting costs or increasing profits.

On the War Eagle Speed encounters the son of another landowner who has become involved in a high stakes card game.

Despite Speed’s counsel, the young man wagers far more than he can afford to lose and finds himself on the short end of a very questionable deal.

Enraged by his losses and amidst allegations of cardsharping, the young planter threatens both the gambler and the ship captain. Once subdued, the planter is confined to his cabin.

Sadly, less than a day later this young man is found by Speed and his closest friend, Abraham Lincoln, floating in the Mississippi River, drowned and the starting point for a murder trial in Alton, Illinois.

Suspicion falls on an aspiring artist with ties to a lovely young woman who once was romantically pursued by the murder victim.

Once the trial begins, the accused artist is defended by a relatively inexperienced but rising lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln.

With the odds stacked against Lincoln and the accused, and the citizens of Alton itching for a hanging, the outlook for a not guilty verdict seems quite dim.

But Speed, accompanied by his resourceful sister Martha, set out to find evidence that will clear the accused.

Journeying downriver the Speeds strive to retrieve the young woman who can potentially clear the accused artist.

Along the way the Speeds get a real dose of what steamboat travel on the changeable Mississippi River was like and just how risky it was to venture forth both on the great river and as detectives.

Eventually, the Speeds also retrieve enough evidentiary resources to give their client a fighting chance but will it be enough and will they get back to Alton in time?

Even worse, can Abraham Lincoln develop a strategy of defense that hits the right targets at a time when issues such as assumed guilt, mob justice, and violence against abolitionists is so prevalent in the Alton area?

These and other puzzles are introduced and solved in chapter two in Jonathan F. Putnam’s Lincoln & Speed mystery series.

In revisiting this pair of Illinois figures Putnam once again does an excellent job of combining historical fact with mystery writing.

Aside from telling a good mystery story Putnam also manages to incorporate actual historical fact and detail into his narrative that draws readers into the pre-Civil War atmosphere of Illinois.

In laying out his narrative Putnam taps into the topsy-turvey world of legal justice in mid-19th century America.

Courtrooms in 1837 Illinois were rough and ready places where the niceties of American justice we now take for granted were not self-evident.

Similarly, social justice at that time was a far cry from what we aspire to in the United States in or own era.

Putnam addresses these matters, and in particular the ugliness of slavery, in a very direct way in this book.

The murder of abolitionist newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy is a critical event in the narrative of this book.

Likewise, issues linked to the Underground Railroad, fugitive slave laws, and racial attitudes of Illinois citizens all come into play in the mystery that Putnam so ably constructs.

Historical figures such as a young Robert E. Lee, Judge Jesse Thomas, artist George Bingham, attorneys Stephen Logan and Ninian Edwards, and legendary riverboat gambler George Devol all appear in this book and walk onto the pages in a realistic manner. But at the core of Putnam’s book rests the friendship between Joshua Speed and Abraham Lincoln.

In real life these two men shared a room for approximately four years.

Their friendship developed and deepened over time until it could be argued that Speed was the best friend Lincoln ever had.

This relationship is well portrayed in Perish From the Earth making it a highly readable work of historical fiction.

Hopefully, Putnam will revisit the Speed and Lincoln pairing with even more books in this newly minted series. If so readers should expect even more insights into a unique friendship that helped shape the career, thinking, and prospects for a man who would assume the presidency at arguably the most critical moment in American history.

Title: Perish From the Earth

Author: Jonathan F. Putnam

Publisher: Crooked Lane

Pages: 325

Price: $25.99

Hard Cover

The Fateful Lightning: A Novel of the Civil War

Courier Book Review by Edith Elizabeth Pollitz

Fifteen previous books are attributed to Jeff Shaara in the front of The Fateful Lightning. His father would surely be proud.

The Fateful Lightning follows a similar pattern to both Shaara authors’ style.

Pick a major time period in American history (pretty much some portion of the Civil War) and focus on a major player in the event, possibly throwing in a few fictional characters to round things out.

Jeff Shaara takes on one of the most difficult to analyze and likely the most complicated personality of the war in choosing William T.Sherman.

The review copy of the book was a prepublication copy with a page in front providing additional information, including that the target sale date was set to have the books available before Father’s Day. So much for sales in the South.

If folks in Dixie do take the time to pick up and actually slog through the over 600 pages of the book, they might be pleased--or at least feel justified.

Sherman is a brilliant guy--in the book and in reality.

You can’t take that away from him. But, as characterized in The Fateful Lightning, he really is sort of off. He has a dark place in his head where he fumes or has thoughts of insecurity, or just isn’t quite right.

His own staff members tend to steer clear of him much of the time.

He really doesn’t seem to like much of anybody or anything except the army as a whole and the concept of Union.

The Sherman in this book is based on the general’s quantifiable traits--nervous, impatient, smart, and sometimes not as adept as he should have been when dealing with political realities.

His lack of concern for the crowds of former slaves who followed his troops across Georgia and into the Carolinas is brought out.

The only question is really whether Sherman’s traits are exaggerated in the book or not. We’ll never know, but I suspect Southerners will be positive that this is William T. Sherman--not someone you want to hang out with.

There are other people populating this book. One of the more interesting ones is Franklin--that’s his name, first and last.

His adventures from a hopeless life under a cruel overseer (who routinely sends dogs out to tear slaves apart) to traveling with and actually fighting with the Union army provides some relief from Sherman’s intensity.

The Confederates, General Hardee and a cavalry officer named Seeley, seem to be there just to let readers know that there’s a reason the Union Army is marching and burning through the Deep South.

No doubt many people can’t wait for the next Shaara book. It is good reading--a little long, but entertaining and with enough historical underpinnings to make it seem real--real enough to make Southerners have nightmares about Ol’ Cump.

Title: The Fateful Lightning: A Novel of the Civil War

Author: Jeff Shaara,

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Pages: 640

Price: $28

Hardcover

Thunder on the River - The Civil War in Northeast Florida

Courier Book Reviewed By: Duane Benell

This book covers the period of 1840 to 1876 in the Jacksonville, Florida area.

It begins with the sectional debates regarding slavery and its expansion into the nations’ new territories, focusing on the reactions of citizens in northeast Florida, particularly those in Jacksonville.

The Jacksonville Town Council passed ordinances to regulate the life and labor of both slaves and free blacks living within the town of 2,100.

Situated on the St. Johns River, it was an important shipping site exporting lumber, turpentine and cotton to the North and receiving manufactured goods from the North.

Jacksonville also had a railroad junction that supplied food stuffs for other Southern states and later, Confederate troops.

The Union Navy patrolled the river as part of the naval blockade of Confederate ports and in March 1862, transported troops to occupy Jacksonville for the first of four occupations.

Neither side had the men or supplies to make the occupations permanent.

During the occupations each side used the torch liberally, burning businesses, homes and whatever could be used by the enemy. Strife continued throughout the war between the pro Secessionists and the pro Unionists, as well as guerrilla warfare.

In February 1864 the Battle of Olustee, the largest Civil War battle in Florida, was fought with Confederate troops and local militias soundly defeating black and white Union troops.

Wounded blacks were shown no mercy and the Union troops retreated to Jacksonville. They would remain there until the end of Reconstruction in 1876.

Florida did not see much action in the war and this area has received little attention from Civil War historians.

This excellent book gives you a complete picture of what was occurring at this time and place. The author’s research is thorough and detailed.

Firsthand accounts include information on local citizens, including blacks, and names the owners of the properties destroyed, such as homes, mills, hotels, etc. Considerable coverage is also given to Union Naval operations.

Better or more readable maps would have been helpful, though the photos and illustrations are interesting. I highly recommend this informative book to all Civil War readers.

Title: Thunder on the River - The Civil War in Northeast Florida

Author: Daniel L. Schafer

Publisher: University Press of Florida

Pages: 353

Price: $19.95

Soft Cover