16 October 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 10 comments

While in Gettysburg this weekend, I picked up Joseph W. McKinney’s new book on the Battle of Brandy Station, Brandy Station, Virginia, June 9, 1863: The Largest Cavalry Battle of the Civil War. As a cavalry guy, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing this book in the hope that it would fill a huge gap in the literature. I wish I could say that I came away from reading this book believing that that huge gap has been filled. Sadly, it has not. Nevertheless, I thought I would review it here.

The Battle of Brandy Station was the opening engagement of the Gettysburg Campaign. Fought June 9, 1863 on the fields and hills of Culpeper County, Virginia, Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the American Civil War. It offers a great deal of interest to any student of the Civil War, ranging from tactical lessons to great human interest stories.

Until recently, it has been badly overlooked by historians. Recent efforts have tried to remedy that situation. Historically, the only really work available on Brandy Station was Fairfax Downey’s 1959 book Clash of Cavalry: The Battle of Brandy Station. This superficial and poorly researched book was all there was until 2002, when Richard E. Crouch published his Brandy Station: A Battle Like None Other. Crouch’s book is awful–poorly researched and poorly written. There was, therefore, a huge and gaping hole in the body of Civil War literature regarding this important battle. In October 2006, McKinney’s book was published by McFarland Publishing of Jefferson, North Carolina.

McKinney is a former military officer who lives in the vicinity of the battlefield, which has given him numerous opportunities to visit the ground. To his credit, he has done so at length and clearly has a solid understanding of the terrain. Numerous photographs of pertinent locations taken by him are peppered throughout the book. Likewise, much of his analysis is solid and well grounded. His military background serves him well there.

The rest of the book leaves a great deal to be desired. McKinney depends heavily upon the passive voice–too much so–meaning that the book is very difficult to read. Instead of an engaging and enjoyable narrative, his book is difficult to read and ponderous. It really could have used the services of a good editor. Likewise, the narrative jumps around out of chronological order. Instead, he focuses on covering different aspects of the battle out of sequence, leaving an unfamiliar reader confused about the sequence of events.

The scope of the research also leaves a good bit to be desired. With over 21,000 men involved, there is a wealth of primary source research available. McKinney has covered only a portion of those sources. Notably missing, as one example, is the primary source account of Ulric Dahlgren, one of Joseph Hooker’s staff officers, who played an important role in an early phase of the battle. Dahlgren left an excellent and readily available account, but McKinney plain missed it. It’s one of many notable examples. As another example, I was unable to find a single citation to a critical primary source, The National Tribune, a veteran’s newspaper filled with decades of personal recollections by veterans who fought the Civil War. No modern battle or campaign study can be considered complete without referring to the veritable treasure trove found in the Tribune. In a recent newspaper interview, he indicated that he spent five years researching and writing this book; by contrast, Clark B. “Bud” Hall, the offiical historian of the Brandy Station Foundation, has nearly two decades into researching and writing on this battle. Perhaps McKinney should have invested more time into being more thorough in his research.

The maps are virtually worthless. They contain almost no detail and virtually no terrain features. It is, for instance, impossible to see the many hills and dales that dot the battlefield at Brandy Station, as only Fleetwood Hill and Yew Ridge are depicted. None of the other terrain features are depicted in any fashion. For a large and fluid battle such as Brandy Station, good, detailed maps filled with depictions of terrain features are absolutely essential.

Finally, the price of the book is simply outrageous. At $55 for a book that does not even have a dust jacket, it’s extremely difficult to justify the price for this book.

While this book is a significant improvement over the works of Downey and Crouch, it still leaves a great deal to be desired. The door remains wide open for the definitive work on this seminal battle. One can only hope that Bud Hall will soon finish his decades-long project and finally publish that definitive work.

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Comments

  1. Paul Taylor
    Mon 16th Oct 2006 at 9:33 pm

    Eric,

    Even as a McFarland author who had a very enjoyable experience working with them, I must admit to being clueless as to how they set the prices for their new titles. I like their production values as well as the laminated board look, nevertheless $55 is fast approaching the university press realm where there is little apparent concern as to how many copies are sold.

    I just finished reviewing a new paperback title from McFarland that carries a $35 price tag! And a slim book at that! Go figure.

    Paul

  2. Chuck
    Tue 17th Oct 2006 at 12:49 pm

    Eric,

    Thanks for the review. I was considering buying this, but I was waffling due to the price tag. Given your review, I think I’ll pass on it.

    Also, don’t sell yourself short on your account of the Battle in your book “The Union Cavalry Comes of Age”. While I know you were not concentrating on writing a definitive account, it is well written and easily understood. At this point, you can probably claim that your account is the best out there at the moment.

  3. Tue 17th Oct 2006 at 7:30 pm

    Paul,

    I can’t fathom the pricing. It’s astronomical. My guess is that their primary market is university libraries, where they don’t care about the cost. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for it.

    Eric

  4. Tue 17th Oct 2006 at 7:31 pm

    Chuck,

    You’re very welcome, and thanks also for the kind words about my work. I’m lucky to have had Bud Hall as a mentor. 🙂

    Eric

  5. Mike Peters
    Tue 17th Oct 2006 at 7:48 pm

    Eric wrote the following:

    “I can’t fathom the pricing. It’s astronomical. My guess is that their primary market is university libraries, where they don’t care about the cost. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for it.”

    Eric:

    Earlier this year I asked a publisher to explain the high pricing of a new book of about 300 pages. They said that they, for the most part, usually only sell to libraries. The more people that can read it, the higher the price was how it was explained to me. If they could have seen me while I was reading their E-mail they would have seen a man tilting his head like the RCA dog. Made no sense to me.

    Mike

  6. James Durney
    Tue 17th Oct 2006 at 9:42 pm

    I will no longer buy McFarland books. I have found very little content, to few maps and very high prices. They might be a good publisher to work with BUT they are not a publisher to buy from.

  7. Lanny Thomas Tanton
    Tue 17th Oct 2006 at 9:50 pm

    Dear Eric,

    Thanks for the review. I saw Downey’s book on Brandy Station at a half-price store and almost bought it as there is precious little on the subject. I did not know how precious little until your review.

    This makes me look forward to your magnum opus on Gettysburg (I assume you will include Brandy Station in it–or will you?)

    Thanks again for your input.

    Best wishes always,
    Lanny

  8. Tue 17th Oct 2006 at 10:15 pm

    Jim,

    I hear you loud and clear. 🙂

    Eric

  9. Tue 17th Oct 2006 at 10:16 pm

    Lanny,

    It will indeed, probably 25,000 words or so worth. That will be a good treatment, but not the sort of definitive work that it deserves and needs.

    Eric

  10. Thu 19th Oct 2006 at 9:41 am

    Eric and I purchased the book together in Gettysburg over the weekend, and I finally finished the thing last night. I too couldn’t have been more disappointed. I echo everything Eric has said – the maps are about as helpful as a broken foot; McKinney missed a multitude of primary sources; I have issues with several of his important interpretations; and the price tag is outrageous.

    I paid $55 for it, and I think it’s about $35 too high – with the content, poor maps, and half-shallow research, this should be a $20 book. The libraries can have it… maybe I’ll put my copy for sale up on Amazon and reinvest the money on Bud’s Hall’s book when it comes out 🙂

    J.D.

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