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Book Reviews

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


Battle of Despair: Bentonville and the Carolinas Campaign

by Robert Paul Broadwater.

Illustrated, bibliography, index, 247 pp., 2004. Mercer University Press, 1400 Coleman Ave., Macon, GA 31207-0001, $35 plus shipping.

Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign, which is one of the most tactically interesting campaigns of the Civil War, has traditionally received short shrift. Perhaps that results from the fact that there was only one major battle. Or perhaps it has been overlooked because neither Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, the Army of Northern Virginia, nor the Army of the Potomac were involved. Moreover, the campaign lacks some of the drama of the Appomattox Campaign. However, the surrender of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the South at Bennett Place in April 1865 had more far-reaching implications than did Lee’s surrender.

The two best studies of the Carolinas Campaign are John G. Barrett’s timeless classic, Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas, and Mark L. Bradley’s superb Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville. In addition, noted historian Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr.’s Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnson is a fine study of the last major battle in the Carolinas Campaign, although its scope is much more limited than that of Barrett and Bradley. Hughes deals almost exclusively with the two-day bloodletting at Bentonville, while Barrett and Bradley chronicle the entire campaign.

Against this backdrop, Robert John Broadwater has just released a volume titled Battle of Despair: Bentonville and the North Carolina Campaign. This reviewer had high hopes for this book. Because it was published by a respected university press, and because I have become a student of the Carolinas Campaign, I had hoped that it would be a worthy addition to the body of literature addressing the Carolinas Campaign. I was terribly disappointed.

The book is poorly edited, and really could have stood the firm hand of a competent proofreader. There are numerous major typographical errors throughout. The name of prominent Confederate general Lafayette McLaws is misspelled throughout the entire book as McClaws. Many other typos fill these pages.

Astonishingly, this so-called campaign study does not include a single map. The reader is just supposed to envision the events described in his or her mind’s eye without the benefit of a map to help the process. For a large and complicated battle like Bentonville, it is all but impossible to try to understand what happened without the benefit of at least one map that shows the terrain features described in the book.

While the book claims to be a study of the North Carolina Campaign, it is not. For instance, it does not even mention the great cavalry battle that took place at Monroe’s Crossroads on March 10, 1865. But for the fight at Monroe Crossroads, the Union cavalry might have reached Fayetteville before Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee could evacuate his troops. There was also a significant skirmish in Fayetteville on March 11. Neither of these events is even discussed in the book.

Instead, the book begins with the federals already occupying Fayetteville. Describing this book as a study of the entire campaign, therefore, badly misstates the scope of work. A more accurate description would be to discuss the period beginning on March 12, 1865, and ending with Johnson’s surrender in late April. To its credit, the book does give decent coverage of Braxton Bragg’s battle of Wyse Fork (also known as the battle of Kinston) and to the battle of Averasboro — actions that are often overlooked by historians examining the Carolinas Campaign.

Of greater concern is the lack of solid primary source research. In many instances, Broadwater cites Barrett, Bradley and Hughes as his source, and not the primary sources. In short, there is nothing new in this book, and there is nothing to set it apart from the books referenced therein. It simply regurgitates the work of those who came first without even so much as undertaking any real primary source research. In short, this book adds absolutely nothing to the existing body of knowledge.

This reviewer believes that reader should save their money by avoiding this volume. Instead, spend your money on the much better works by Barrett, Bradley and Hughes. If you do, you will get the same information, only from the original authors, and not simply Broadwater’s regurgitation of their writings.

Eric J. Wittenberg

Eric J. Wittenberg is a cavalry historian who lives in Columbus, Ohio. His next book, An Infernal Surprise: The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads, March 10, 1865, will be published by Ironclad Publishing later this year.

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