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Book Review: The Military Memoirs of a Confederate Line Officer: Captain John C. Reed’s Civil War from Manassas to Appomattox edited by William R. Cobb

Cobb, William R. (editor) & Reed, John C. The Military Memoirs of a Confederate Line Officer: Captain John C. Reed’s Civil War from Manassas to Appomattox. Savas Beatie. (2023). 192 pp., 4 maps, 8 images. ISBN: 978-1-61121-514-4 $19.95 (Paperback).

Georgia Captain John C. Reed’s Civil War Memoirs are captured and ably edited in The Military Memoirs of a Confederate Line Officer: Captain John C. Reed’s Civil War from Manassas to Appomattox. Although Reed served from First Manassas to Appomattox, his memoirs are extremely uneven in detail and coverage, as he was often knocked out of the war for lengthy periods due to illness. Despite this, Reed’s account has its high points, including excellent descriptions of the First Battle of Manassas as well as The Battle of Fussell’s Mill on August 16, 1864. It also shows the political maturation of a Confederate soldier and aristocrat as he comes to realize it was better for the South to have lost the war and slavery to be at an end. For the very first time, the entire Reed manuscript has been published in annotated form by Savas Beatie.

This is editor William R. Cobb’s first book on the Civil War.  He is well-known in baseball history and SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) circles for his numerous books on the history of baseball, especially his edited biographies of Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. Like many in the business of writing and editing Civil War books Cobb is not a professional historian.  He holds degrees in Physics, Nuclear Engineering, and Engineering and Management. Cobb’s ancestor served in the 59th Georgia, which at times was brigaded with Reed’s 8th Georgia in Tige Anderson’s Brigade.

John C. Reid (later Reed), a minister’s son, was an antebellum lawyer in Georgia. He spent three years studying in the North at Princeton before the war.  His father wished him to go into the ministry and follow in his footsteps, but Reed didn’t take to it.  Instead, he poured his heart and soul into three years of intense Greek and Latin study in the late 1850s.  His dedication to education and learning shows in his numerous references to classical and military history throughout his memoirs. Reed’s father was a wealthy slaveowner, and Reed grew up in the Southern aristocracy, privy to many advantages in life. Reed served in the 8th Georgia, a regiment primarily associated with George T. “Tige” Anderson’s Brigade, Hood’s Division, First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. He thought seriously about publishing these memoirs in the late 1800s, but nothing came of it.  They lay in the Alabama State Department of Archives and Military History until “the late 20th Century” before being rescued from obscurity.

The following is a description of Reed’s Civil War service.  He joined what would become a company of the 8th Georgia as a 2nd Lieutenant not long after Georgia seceded in 1861, rising to the rank of Captain and commanding the company at Appomattox.  He was present at First Manassas and provides what is to date the best description of Bartow’s Brigade at that battle in his memoir.  The 8th Georgia wintered in Centreville before being moved to the York-James Peninsula, where they participated in the Peninsula Campaign and saw action again at Warwick Dam. Reed lost his brother early in the war.  He was mortally wounded at Seven Pines on May 31, 1862.  After the Seven Days, Reed’s regiment marched north to participate in the Second Manassas Campaign.  Reed and the 8th Georgia were engaged late on the afternoon of the second day of fighting on August 30, 1862 near Henry Hill.  Reed lost his friend Jake Phinizy at this battle, and was wounded himself on the back of the neck from artillery fire.  The wound and his exertions now kept him out of the war for many months. He missed Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg during his lengthy recuperation.  Hood’s Division was not present at Chancellorsville.  Reed says almost nothing of battles and campaigns between Second Manassas and Gettysburg, preferring instead to reflect on a few personal vignettes of his time as a Confederate soldier. Reed was in the thick of the second day’s fight at Gettysburg, and he was wounded a second time.  He rejoined his regiment in late August 1863, was sent to Charleston, SC with his brigade, missing Chickamauga, and then finally rejoined Longstreet’s Corps in East Tennessee in time to participate in the Knoxville Campaign.  Reed gives a good description of this campaign from his perspective.  He also covers Longstreet’s Corps overwintering in East Tennessee after their failure to capture Knoxville.

Although Reed was at the Wilderness, he disappointingly covers it in one small paragraph, jumping immediately to Spotsylvania.  There Reed led his company for the first time.  But he soon became sick and was knocked out of action from mid-May to July 1864, missing the North Anna, Cold Harbor and the early stages of the Siege of Petersburg entirely.  When Reed returned, he and the rest of Field’s (Hood’s former) Division were most often stationed north of the James River protecting Richmond, and so they saw relatively less action than other units.  One massive exception was during the Second Battle of Deep Bottom.  Reed writes in some detail about the skirmishing at New Market Heights on August 14, 1864 and the larger and more serious Union attack in the same vicinity at the Battle of Fussell’s Mill on August 16, 1864.  Reed’s account of the 8th Georgia’s role in this latter fight is one of the best I’ve read in 20+ years studying the Petersburg Campaign. After going over a few more personal vignettes, Reed covered his experiences at the Battle of Williamsburg Road, or Second Fair Oaks, on October 27, 1864.  Portions of this battle were fought on nearly the same ground as McClellan’s opening attack at the Seven Days at Oak Grove in late June 1862. Reed says no more about the Siege of Petersburg and picks up late on April 2, 1865, as Field’s Division and the rest of the Confederate Army started their retreat from Petersburg and Richmond.  He covers some fighting done by Field’s Division on April 7 before getting into his recollection of the surrender of Lee’s Army at Appomattox Court House two days later.

Reed provides a long monograph on the postwar years, covering his views of the “Old South” versus the “New South.” He ultimately concluded it was better for the South to have lost with slavery permanently ended rather than any other alternative. I was surprised to see in these postwar writings he personally thought the average ex-slave was had “as much mental capacity” on average as anyone else, only needing to be raised in “a pure moral atmosphere” to succeed.  In most other ways, however, Reed’s views on Blacks and slavery echoed the standard views of former Confederate soldiers.

Editor William Cobb provides tight and informative editing paired with concise explanatory footnotes to provide readers with context.  And boy oh boy will readers need that added context given Reed’s many obscure references to classical and military history. Reed’s memoirs, published in full for the very first time, are a welcome addition to Confederate first person accounts.  Reed was well educated, wrote well and in an engaging style, and was very descriptive when he wanted to be.  His numerous personal vignettes describe life in an average Confederate regiment in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Most if not all these stories would be lost to history if not recorded by Reed’s pen.  The downside for those of you expecting a complete narrative of the war from First Manassas is that Reed was away for many months several times throughout his career.  There is nothing at all written about Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.  Very little is written about Sharpsburg (Reed was not present) and the Wilderness (where he was present). Reed also wrote very little about the Siege of Petersburg, but the few exceptions stand out for their detail.

The maps in this book mostly come from Hal Jerspersen at CWMaps.com as well as from Hampton Newsome, who created the maps in several of John Horn’s books about the Siege of Petersburg. They are excellent as usual, which is a hallmark of Savas Beatie books across the publisher’s entire run. A very short bibliography covers only one page.  Rick Allen’s roster of the 8th Georgia, also published by Savas Beatie, is included.  Editor William Cobb used it many times to identify men Reed discussed in his manuscript.

The Military Memoirs of a Confederate Line Officer: Captain John C. Reed’s Civil War from Manassas to Appomattox, edited by William R. Cobb, is an important if uneven addition to the Army of Northern Virginia’s literature.  It is as tantalizing as much for what it contains as for what it doesn’t.  What if Reed, for instance, had participated in the Battles of Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg and the Wilderness?  The cynic might reply that we would risk having no manuscript at all, but the possibility of more detailed and well written material from John C. Reed remains a sadly missed what might have been.  Despite this, Cobb has provided an important new account of First Manassas and Fussell’s Mill, along with several dozen looks into the everyday life of soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Competitively priced at $19.95, this book is a must have for anyone interested in First Manassas and the Army of Northern Virginia.

The reviewer purchased this book for the purposes of this review.

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