Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review - Cobb's Legion Cavalry by Harriet Bey Mesic

Short review: A detailed history of a single Confederate cavalry unit with a definite editorial slant.

They came from Georgia
Fought mostly in Virginia
And then surrendered

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Cobb's Legion Cavalry is a detailed unit history of a single unit of Confederate cavalry that served mostly with the Army of Northern Virginia during the U.S. Civil War. The level of detail included in the book is impressive, with an almost day by day recounting of the activities of the unit, a roster of all the officers and enlisted men who served in the unit giving as much of their prior history, service record, and life following the war as could be found, and various other sundry details concerning the unit. Unfortunately, the book is marred by a pervasive and relentless editorial bias that renders many of the glowing tributes paid to the men in the unit seem hollow and forced.

About half of the book is taken up with a detailed account of the doings of Cobb's Legion Cavalry during the U.S. Civil War. Originally raised as part of a combined arms unit under a theory that was quickly discarded, the cavalry portion of Cobb's Legion, officially designated the Ninth Georgia Volunteers, was quickly detached from the artillery and infantry portions and combined with the rest of the Confederate cavalry in Virginia. The book first discusses the recruitment of the soldiers and the Confederacy's process of equipping them with horses and appropriate gear, or rather, the Confederacy's process of asking them to provide their own horses and its struggles to provide firearms, ammunition, and rations. The details her illustrate one of the primary difficulties faced by the Confederacy - the lack of an effective quartermaster system, which plagued the Southern forces from the beginning of the war throughout the conflict until its bitter end. This inadequate supply is cited as evidence of the heroism of Confederate soldiers, but what it really demonstrates is the dysfunctional nature of the Confederacy. After detailing the unit's organization, the narrative launches into a detailed accounting of the actions of the cavalry, reporting on every movement and engagement, including a regular casualty report listing which those members of the unit who were wounded, captured, or killed on that particular day or handful of days described in the given entry. This form of narrative is somewhat interesting, as it gives a view of the flow of history from a very specific viewpoint - confined to the actions of a single unit, but it also contains some limitations, being both to large and too small. To large because it is difficult to get a feel for any individual member of the unit making it difficult to generate empathy for them, and too small because it is easy to lose track of the larger events of the war amidst the details, and consequently many events lose necessary context. Even so, the level of detail provided is impressive, even though it is quite possible to easily get lost in the details if one is not familiar with the broader events of the military actions in Virginia, and later, in the Carolinas.

Following the detailed unit action report, the book contains a comprehensive listing of all the members of Cobb's Legion Cavalry complete with a thumbnail biography of each individual. The first appendix contains biographical information about the various commanding officers who led the unit, followed by a listing of every known individual who served in any capacity at any time with this cavalry, and then a listing of all of the original members who joined when it was originally formed. Also included are lists of those members who were surrendered at the end of the war, those who were killed in action, those who were taken as prisoners of war, and those who were listed as deserters. The sections that are primarily of interest are the first two giving biographical data about the members of the unit, because the remainder are simply lists of names, and are probably of limited interest to anyone not specifically tracing the fate of a particular soldier. The biographical data generally includes the particular soldier's enlistment date, his rank, what the unit records say happened to him, and in many cases a brief bit of background information about that soldier's life before and after their time serving with Cobb's Legion. This section boasts a wealth of detail, but as it is simply an alphabetical listing of the soldiers, there is no real way to get a feel for the structure of the unit, or the connections between the men. Anyone looking for the records relating to a particular soldier, such as a descendant seeking information about their forebear, will likely find this section quite useful. For most other readers it will likely be little more than a curiosity as a source of exacting detail.

But all of this wealth of detail is rendered somewhat less useful by the obvious editorial bias that runs through the presentation of the book. There are few issues in U.S. history more contentious than the U.S. Civil War. But the primary reason for the contentiousness is Confederate apologists trying to salvage some sort of honorability for their preferred side in the conflict. Mesic is no exception to this - from the outset she describes the men who served in Cobb's Legion as "fighting for Southern freedom from Northern tyranny". But this is just an attempt to divert attention from the fact that the side they were fighting for was tied to a repugnant cause. Confederate apologists have tried to argue that their forebears were fighting for something noble and idealistic, but the bare fact remains that when the Confederacy was formed, its Constitution only differed from the U.S. Constitution insofar as it enshrined ironclad protections for slavery. In short, the men of Cobb's Legion, like the men of all Confederate units, were fighting against a "tyranny" that sought to compel them to eschew treating other human beings as chattel. They were fighting for "freedom", but a freedom so narrowly defined that it removes any moral claims they might have had to fighting "civilized war" (even though those claims were somewhat dubious to begin with). Fighting in favor of slavery is inherently uncivilized. Supporting an army fighting in favor of slavery is inherently uncivilized. Complaining that your property has been destroyed when you seek to hold others as property is a stance that is hypocritical in the extreme. Confederate boosters try to argue that their cause was for "States Rights", but the brute fact remains that the only right they chose to advocate for was the right to hold other men in bondage.

For the most part, Mesic's litany of Confederate apologetics are a fairly standard set. J.E.B. Stuart's Chambersburg Raid is lauded as an example of gallantry and daring. Never mind that militarily it was mostly a failure because they were unable to destroy the Chambersburg rail bridge. Never mind that one of the major accomplishments of the raid was capturing unarmed civilians to hold as hostages. Because it was Confederate cavalrymen, they were dashing and brave and it was a brilliant maneuver. One suspects, given the descriptions given the Union cavalry movements that a similar effort on the part of the Federal troops would have been described as a futile waste of lives. Confederate frontal charges are described as bold and gallant. Union frontal charges are described as useless and costly foolishness. The blundering errors made by J.E.B. Stuart during the days leading to and during the Battle of Gettysburg are glossed over and recast as brilliant strategic decisions. By the end of the recounting of the events of the War, Mesic is reduced to lauding the brilliance of an excursion forced upon the Confederate cavalry to steal cattle to supply the starving Southern troops.

Mesic saves most of her opprobrium for Grant and Sherman, who Confederate apologists loathe, mostly because, as Mesic demonstrates, they still don't understand how these two men served as the agents of the destruction of their beloved Confederacy. Mesic consistently disparagingly refers to the large casualties suffered by the Union during Grant's Overland Campaign, but fails to place them in context. For example, she refers to the Confederate troops as the "victors" of the Battles of Wilderness and Spotslyvania Court House, and from a very technical tactical standpoint one could argue that they were, but by focusing on this narrow technical definition one misses that the "victories" were meaningless. In the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House the Union suffered 18,399 casualties and the Confederacy 13,421 and "held the field". In raw terms, this seems to show that the Confederacy got the better of the engagement, but as a percentage of their forces the Union casualties amounted to 17.5% of Grant's forces, and 22.4% of Lee's. And Lee couldn't afford the casualties. When one looks even more closely, the figures are even more disastrous for the Confederate cause - broken down the Union losses were 2,735 killed, 13,416 wounded, and 2,258 captured or missing while Confederate losses were 1,467 killed, 6,235 wounded, and 5,719 captured or missing. Union losses were mostly men wounded, many of whom would recover and return to the ranks, while Confederate losses were mostly permanent losses. The "missing in action" figures are the most telling: despite the steady drumbeat of Confederate propaganda that the boys in grey were willing to fight to the bitter end no matter the odds, it is clear that they were surrendering or deserting in droves. With the exception of the Battle of Cold Harbour, most of the battles of the Overland Campaign had similar results - the Battle of the Wilderness for example, resulted in 17,666 Union casualties (16.8% of the Union force), and Confederate casualties totaled 11,125 (18.5% of the total). Grant beat Lee on the battlefield because Lee burned his forces faster than Grant, despite what Confederate apologists will tell you. More to the point, despite "holding the field", the Confederate victories did nothing to stop the Union advance into Virginia, rendering their supposed accomplishments hollow and empty.

But Mesic completely misunderstands the nature of Grant's campaign when she discusses his eventual crossing of the James River. She notes that the Army of the Potomac had suffered 60,000 casualties by then, whereas Grant could have placed his forces in that position via ship transport without suffering any casualties. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Union strategy assuming that positioning the Union army to threaten Richmond was the primary goal of the Overland Campaign, as opposed to the destruction of the army of Northern Virginia. Grant certainly could have repeated McClellan's maneuver and landed his troops on the banks of the James River by sea, but he would not have bled Lee's army in the process. He also would not have occupied Lee's troops, preventing the Confederacy from transferring troops to confront Sherman's advance. In effect, Grant's action in Virginia allowed Sherman to gut the Confederacy by locking the bulk of Confederate troops into the defense of Richmond. One hundred and fifty years after the fact and the proponents of the "Lost Cause" don't understand what went wrong other than to say they were overwhelmed by superior numbers - which, given the advantage defenders had in the Civil War era, weren't all that overwhelming after all.

But why is this sort of editorial bias an issue? Because when one starts to notice that the author is shading the truth in favor of their preferred historical figures, it calls into question the reliability of other statements made in the text. And because of this, all of that wealth of detail that is packed into the book becomes less than useful, because one has to fact check those details for oneself, which more or less defeats the purpose of having those details in one place. And when information is presented without context in order to slant the reporting, it causes the reader to wonder what else has been left out. For example, Mesic complains frequently about how the Union troops failed to follow the rules of "civilized warfare", but overlooks, for example, that the Confederate use of mines to try to slow Sherman's advance, or the habit engaged in by Cobb's Legion Cavalry "Iron Scouts" of wearing Union uniforms were also violations of the accepted rules of civilized warfare of the time. The editorializing even bleeds into the biographical data provided: Matthew Calbraith Butler's post Civil-War legal career is described as being dedicated to opposing "cruelties" imposed upon Southerners. But Butler is most known in the post-Bellum era for his involvement in the Hamburg Massacre, a race-riot in which seven people were killed, mostly black militia men who were captured and executed for the offense of drilling in a public area. The fact that the "cruelties" imposed upon Southerners mostly consisted of trying to compel white Southerners to treat black Southerners like human beings is not merely glossed over, it is completely ignored.

It is difficult to figure out what to do with a book like Cobb's Legion Cavalry. On the one hand it is clear that the book is a labor of love that required an enormous amount of effort to produce. On the other, it is clear that it should not be regarded as anything other than an advocacy piece. Given that the primary intended audience for the book is likely the descendants of the members of the Ninth Georgia Volunteers, a certain amount of cheering for their accomplishments is to be expected - after all who would want a book that described their ancestors as evil defenders of slavery? But at a certain point, such cheerleading seriously damages the credibility of such a book as a source of historical information. Cobb's Legion Cavalry appears to have crossed that line. As a result, while the book is an interesting window into the day to day experiences of a Confederate unit, the fact that it shades the truth to advocate for a particular viewpoint means that book cannot stand on its own as a historical source.

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  1. Interesting. I just found a book from 1880 in a used bookstore entitled The Blue and the Gray.
    Have you read The Lost Regiment series?

  2. Excellent review.

  3. @Julia: I have not read that series. I have actually read very little fiction set in the U.S. Civil War. Most of the books I've read relating to that era have been histories, with a small amount of historical fiction (notably The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara).

  4. @two moons: Thank you very much.