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.