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Book Reviews

These are some reviews from a recent issue of The Civil War News:


The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War

by Brent Nosworthy.

Illustrated, maps, notes, index, bibliography, 660 pp., 2003. Carroll and Graf Publishers, 161 William St., 16th Floor, New York, NY, 10038, $35 plus shipping.

The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War consumed more than 26 years of Brent Nosworthy’s life. When you read this megalith, you will understand why. The book has 660 pages (minus notes) engorged with facts, data and anecdotes.

Most authors trying to write a book solely on methods and battle experiences would fail since almost every Civil War book has some of both. Nosworthy, however, has triumphed.

While the book reads quickly as a whole, the first 150 pages do not. It is here that Nosworthy dissects the historical innards of small arms, tactical doctrine and artillery practices. This section supports a strong European lean as most American weapons and tactics were derivatives, if not duplicates, of European predecessors. Grueling statistical analyses of target shooting and the like seem to dominate this section and while merit can be found here, the search can be tedious.

Perhaps, though, it is the absence of the Civil War in these first pages that burden them, for once Nosworthy incorporates it, the same kind of studies and data analyses pick up and gain an impetus that is not again surrendered until the book ends.

For instance, in the chapter dedicated to “The Initial Training Effort” we learn interesting morsels like at the beginning of the war Southern camps, despite disciplinarians like Stonewall, were much less organized and unruly than Northern camps. The disruptive Rebels, however, more than made up for their camp shortcomings with their accuracy with rifles when battle was on the horizon.

In that same chapter Nosworthy informs us that the press, heretofore (at least in the mind of this reviewer) thought of only as correspondents to home towns, actually wrote articles in the form of survival guides for new recruits.

In a later chapter entitled “Unpreparedness: Bull Run and Its Aftermath” Nosworthy contends that the huge loss of life at the hands of diseases was, in part, due to the inexperience of officers in maintaining their troops’ health by choosing unsanitary places to camp. This is, if not a historical fact, at least an intriguing hypothesis and fodder for the historical mind.

Among the hundreds of issues Nosworthy includes are some that I found particularly interesting — and since they piqued my interest, I thought I would include a few as they might do the same for you. The author illustrates the different styles of cavalry charges favored by some and disdained by others. Maybe I am naïve, but I had no idea that some cavalry charges were unleashed at an easy gallop.

The chapter on guerilla and irregular warfare also stands out. From high stakes raids, to narrow getaways, to forms of deception, these pages tell the story of the Civil War that is so often overlooked and terribly under-valued as a source of history.

Then we have the bayonet. Tucked neatly in towards the book’s culmination, the pages describing the use of the feared bayonet are sure to attract anyone who bleeds blue and gray. We find that bayonet wounds are mere blips on the casualty screen — only four bayonet wounds were reported at the battle of The Wilderness.

Bayonet charges were quite frequent during the war; however, hand-to-hand combat wherein the blade was used was entirely uncommon. One of two things were bound to happen during a bayonet charge; either the defenders would scamper in terrified flight or they would hold their ground and watch their assailants, who really did not want to engage in hand-to-hand fighting, stop to shoot or turn and run back from where they came.

Nosworthy maintains this analytically inspiring manner throughout the book touching on many more topics such as soldiers’ psychology, Western fighting, trench warfare, and developments in the American military during the war.

To say Nosworthy has written a “can’t-put-down” or an “edge-of-your-seater” would be misleading. There will be times when you will want to put this book down (partly because it is heavy). But you will pick it back up for the sheer knowledge, if not for the entertainment.

Kudos to Nosworthy for his nearly flawless writing and for watering a potential desert by making long, hard topics like “artillery doctrines” readable.

Chuck Romig

Chuck Romig graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in secondary education and teaches history at Penns Valley High School in Spring Mills, Pa. He continues to read and research Civil War history.

A N D M A N Y M O R E!

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