A Review of Liddell’s Record

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Sean Michael Chick

Some of my favorite works of history and literature are military memoirs. Every few months I read some of the classics: Storm of Steel, Sagittarius Rising, A Rumor of War, Company Aytch, Requiem for Battleship Yamato, etc. Yet, the memoirs left by generals tend to be a bit more disappointing. Many are bluntly self-serving, obsessed with reputation, and the causes of various defeats and blunders. Memoirs on the Confederate side are more bitter than most, fostered by the experience of defeat and an imperfect reconciliation. Some are worse than others. I have a high regard for Pierre Beauregard as a man and a general, but his memoirs are among the worst offenders. Those penned by Joseph Johnston, John Bell Hood, and James Longstreet did no credit to their authors. They reopened wounds and damaged their reputations. I tend to prefer the Union memoirs. They are often less bitter, with a noted and amusing exception being those by David Stanley.

There are exceptions on the Confederate side. Destruction and Reconstruction by Richard Taylor is among the most readable, if no less acidic. Taylor was highly educated and opinionated, which makes for a good and incisive read. Another classic is Edward Porter Alexander’s Fighting for the Confederacy. Alexander was a good writer. He was also honest and perceptive, and not quite so interested in partisan squabbles. Among the memoirs left by the generals, I most enjoy those who are frank, succinct, and observant. On the Rebel side Taylor and Alexander pass my test.

Yet, my new favorite is Liddell’s Record by St. John Richardson Liddell. It is not a polished work. It was reconstructed by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr., who later did work on William Passmore Carlin’s diary. Liddell died before he could finish it and only heavily edited sections were later published by Fitzhugh Lee. It was not a memoir meant for publication, and that is to our benefit. Liddell is better “unplugged” if you will than the memoirs of his contemporaries. This is a work that is off the cuff and therefore very immediate. It was also penned shortly after the war; this was not a work of nostalgia.

Liddell’s Record lacks the polish of Alexander and Taylor, but has an emotional touch. Unlike many memoirs, it offers an intimate window into his soul. Liddell even discusses his dreams. After the fall of Fort Donelson he dreamed of his dead father, who in the dream went from pleasure to distress upon discovering that the system of slavery was coming apart. Liddell wrote “It was but a dream” but admitted that it shook his view of the world and the conflict. It was the moment he started to see that the war was being lost.

Liddell was sure of himself and his judgments on military matters. His stellar combat record makes these judgments more acceptable. It is curious that to him the turning point of the war was Perryville and Stones River, two battles often ignored in our obsession with the campaigns that star Lee, Jackson, Grant, and Sherman. Liddell though Bragg should have concentrated and fought it out after Perryville, believing the army had high morale after driving back McCook’s Corps. For Stones River he believed one more push was all that was needed. We can debate the merits of Liddell’s grand tactical and strategic thinking; hindsight plagues everyone to one degree or another. Yet, Liddell’s feelings that victory was within the army’s grasp is real enough. When he discusses the aftermath of Perryville and Stones River his personal anguish is obvious and even heartbreaking.

Liddell’s take on his fellow officers is fascinating; he rarely goes in for unanimous praise or disparagement. William J. Hardee comes across as a capable commander and very personable, but also lazy and unwilling to take greater responsibilities. Patrick Cleburne is described as uncreative and distant, but also a superb leader in a fight. Simon Buckner is described as an excellent drillmaster but also unenergetic and captious. Liddell’s relationship with Braxton Bragg is highly complicated. The two were West Point classmates and friends before the war. The conflict saw their relationship take many twists and turns. Liddell, after swearing Bragg off as an enemy was impressed on the eve of Stones River when Bragg apologized for an earlier slight. After Tullahoma Bragg rewarded Liddell with a small division to keep him in the army only to to break up the division after Chickamauga. The officer Liddell most despised was Richard Taylor, described as being caustic, arrogant, mean, and unimpressive, despite Taylor’s many military victories. Liddell’s usual balanced judgments utterly fail because he hated Taylor. Some of this might have been because Louisiana was in such wretched shape and Liddell became depressed and found Taylor’s haughty manner insulting. Liddell may have been merely lashing out, and Taylor could be an exceeding difficult man.

Another officer Liddell held in low regard was Earl Van Dorn. After Shiloh Liddell suggested that Van Dorn lead a massive cavalry expedition into the Union rear. Van Dorn treated the idea with a cold disdain. As Hardee explained to Liddell it was too much to expect Van Dorn to take a demotion in his responsibilities. I believe one reason for Confederate defeat was the preening, self-righteous, faux-aristocratic pretensions of its leadership. This book supports my thesis, especially the passage about Earl Van Dorn.

Liddell was utterly devoted to the cause of Southern independence. In November 1864, while defending Mobile, Liddell tangled with black troops. He came away impressed with their fighting prowess. The following month he recommended that black troops be freed for military service. Slavery, the root cause of the war, was something Liddell was willing to jettison for independence. Few took his lead; indeed his ability to support the end of slavery and to see that slaves could be made into soldiers was unusual and shows that Liddell was flexible. There was a dark side to this devotion. After the war Liddell lamented that Bragg’s army showed so much restraint while marching through Kentucky. He believed the state deserved much worse from Bragg’s army after they failed to rally to the Confederate banner.

The portrait that emerges in Liddell’s Record is of a difficult and moody man, but also a brave, intelligent, and compassionate leader. The work ends with “Hope still lingers, such that it is.” Ultimately, this is a book by a proud, but defeated man, recalling events that he could not fully control. It is a work written in anguish, with a raw emotional side. The only book I have read that is comparable in this regard is Japanese Destroyer Captain by Tameichi Hara. But whereas Hara wrote his years after World War II, Liddell’s Record is a work by a man dealing directly with the consequences of disaster and defeat in its immediate aftermath. As a resource it has few equals.

10 Responses to A Review of Liddell’s Record

  1. “…he rarely goes in for unanimous praise or disparagement…”

    I think that is as it should be. We aren’t talking about a collection of saints/devils here, but real men trying to do difficult things. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. Some things they are good at; others, they aren’t. I think a problem with many CW authors today is that they either totally disparage or totally worship the men they study. Stephen Sears and George McClellan being one notable example among many. Sounds like Liddell is giving honest assessments, and that is good. (I totally agree about Taylor’s and Alexander’s memoirs, BTW.)

    “I believe one reason for Confederate defeat was the preening, self-righteous, faux-aristocratic pretensions of its leadership.” Yeah, I think a nail just met a hammer … 😉

    1. “We think that we are a wholly superior People. If we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It’s very American to do that.” – Shelby Foote

      The above explains the hagiography that drapes so much of the Civil War. It is really a shame. I love Sears’ books. His take on Hooker is fresh and convincing. But he has his favorites and those he dislikes really can never do anything right. It is hard to find balanced biographies of most leading generals and even politicians. Hatchet jobs are less common, but no less odious.

      I would say Liddell comes closest to hero worship with Sidney Johnston. He sees his limitations as a general, but he has a high opinion of his character and bearing. He seemed to think he alone had the potential of getting the likes of Polk, Hardee, Van Dorn, and others to coalesce into a team. This is debatable, but am not in the camp that dismisses Johnston outright. Like everyone else in 1862, he was learning his trade, and he certainly showed skill at inspirational leadership and division level tactics.

      Then there is Taylor. Liddell hates Taylor with a bile I found surprising. Part of this, which goes unmentioned, is that Liddell got along with Kirby Smith and by this time Taylor and Smith were at each other’s throats. Looks like Liddell landed into a situation he could hardly grasp and which left him feeling that he had made a grave error leaving the Army of Tennessee. This is a book that is ultimately about regrets and Liddell’s greatest regret was going to Louisiana in 1864.

  2. I have found Liddell’s memoir to be a goldmine of insight into the Army of Tennessee.

    1. I could not have said it better myself. It also made me consider writing a biography of Liddell, or perhaps a dual biography in the tradition of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. All of that is far in the future though.

  3. I definitely agree with the assessment of Fighting for the Confederacy but it should be kept in mind that Alexander didn’t intend it as a published memoir. His book which fits the latter category is competent but hardly insightful or frank.

    1. Very well put John. I did not dig too deep into the ins and outs of Alexander’s two memoirs. That being said, I do think his published memoirs are better than most in that genre.

  4. Have you looked at A Carolinian Goes To War: The Civil War Narrative of Arthur M. Manigault? I think it is similar to Liddell’s in that it wasn’t written for publication and he served in the same army.

    Don H.

  5. Sean, You crafted a very well written piece, one filled with careful insight and analysis. I used Liddell’s Record for a recent article in the Digest of the Kentucky Historical Society that concerns Bragg’s 1862 Kentucky campaign.

  6. Liddell’s memoir is underappreciated, and I’m glad to see this post. I used his account in both my Perryville and Stones River/Tullahoma books.

    Liddell also gave me the best description of Leonidas Polk. He “had all the attributes of a great general, except strategy and tactical combination.”

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