11 September 2007 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 5 comments

My recent rant apparently rankled Marc Leepson, the author of a recent book on the Battle of Monocacy. Evidently, he tried to post a comment to my rant, and failed for whatever reason. Consequently, he tracked me down through my professional website and sent me an e-mail through the “contact me” feature.

So that nobody can accuse me of censorship of comments or of not permitting Mr. Leepson the opportunity to respond, here is the e-mail verbatim (although I have left out his telephone number and personal e-mail address, both of which the form requires):

Name : Marc Leepson
email : XXXXXXXXXX@aol.com
phone : (XXX) XXX-XXXX
comments : I tried submitting this as a post to your blog, but it seemed to be rejected.

Here is what I wrote:

I must reply to your posting, which I have just seen for the first time.

You made some serious mistakes in your posting. I did list Ed Bearrs’ excellent book in the bibliograpy and I credited him in my acknowledgements. I didn’t quote from it, but I went through every page and relied on it for battle details.

I don’t believe you read the book. Because if you had, you would have seen that not only did I not “completely overlook” the National Tribune, but I quoted from several of the articles in there by Union Soldiers.

I quoted Corp. Roderick A. Clark from the 14th New Jersey on pages 113 and 129 from his April 15, 1886, National Tribune piece.

I quoted Pvt. Daniel B. Freeman of the 10th Vermont on pages 109-110, from his March 18, 1897, National Tribune article.

I quoted W.T. McDougle of the 126th Ohio on pages 97, 100, and 103 from his Feb. 21, 1884, National Tribune article.

I quoted similar reminiscences from The Weekly Observer from Thomas Scott, B.F. North, Stuart McDonald, Charles H. Enos, and Andew Wilkin of the 122nd New York.

In fact, it was a line from Scott’s article that gave me the title of the book: “Now began a desperate engagement,” he said of the fighting outside Ft. Stevens. “In no other engagement of our three years’ service did we witness so many acts of individual valor and daring.”

I spend many months going through scores of memoirs and collections of letters, and quoted from nearly all of them in the book.

Here’s a list of the just the Union sources I used from memoirs, letters or diaries:

George Ames, David Homer Bates, Alfred Bellard, John H. Brinton, James Bowen, Noah Brooks, Sylvannus Cadwallader, F.B. Carpenter, Lucius Chittenden, Charles C. Coffin, Henry Colyer, Cyrus Comstock, Alonzo Clapp, Chares Dana, John William DeForest, Charles G. Halpine, Abner Hard, Amos Hardy, John Hay, Henry B. Hays, Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Daniel M. Holt, Charles A. Humphries, Thomas W. Hyde, Charles F. Johnson, Elizabeth Blair Lee, Charles Russell Lowell, Theodore Lyman,John M. Marble, Charles McDowell, Nelson A. Miles, Alexander Neil, Simon Newcomb, John Nicolay, Horace Porter, Ely Parker, Robert Reyburn, Alfred Roe, Piny Fiske Sanborne, Frederick William Seward, William T. Sherman, George T. Stevens, David Hunter Strother, Horation Nelson Taft, Mason Whiting Tyler, ALdace F. Walker, Gideon Welles, Frank Wheaton, Frederick Wild, and Frank Wilkerson.

I also have a list of Confederate diaries, journals, letters and memoirs I could add.

Yes, this is the first book I wrote about the Civil War. But I worked extremely hard on it. That included three trips to Monocacy. The folks at the Monocacy National Battlefield have extensive files with photocopies and transcriptions of first-person accounts of the battle from several archives. And they kindly allowed me to photocopy the material. That saved me from having to visit places like the Huntington Library in California.

Please think twice the next time when you make such harsh criticism. All of the reviews of the book have been extremely positive, from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly Book List, The Washington Post (by Jonathan Yardley), and the Richmond Times Dispatch. You can read the Yardley Review and the PW review in their entirety on the Amazon.com page for Desperate Engagement. The others are exceprted on my web site, www.marcleepson.com

I want to respond to several of the comments.

1. I have, indeed, read the book, just as I read everything that gets published on the Battle of Monocacy. As I have said here repeatedly, this is a subject of great interest to me, and I snap up everything about this battle I can get my hands on. What I did not do was spend a great deal of time going through the footnotes. Instead, I carefully went through the bibliography, and NONE of the sources that Mr. Leepson mentions in his e-mail were included in the bibliography. Why they weren’t included there is a complete mystery to me. I am, however, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that his publisher made that ill-advised call, and not Mr. Leepson.

It also bears noting that I was referring to UNPUBLISHED manuscript material with respect to memoirs, diaries, and letters, not published sources. Just about all of the sources Mr. Leepson claimed that he used were published. Anyone can find the published materials. The trick–and the talent–is in finding the caches of unpublished material.

2. Sean Dail has already pointed out to me that I was wrong about the Bearss book not being mentioned (see the very first comment to my original post), and I acknowledge that error.

3. I believe that the rest of my critique remains valid and appropriate. The fact is that Mr. Leepson is not an authority on the Civil War, and does not have a solid grasp of either the tactics or the terrain. As an old friend of mine, who spent 26 years as a combat engineer in the U. S. Army, is very fond of saying, “the terrain is THE primary source.” No truer words have ever been spoken. One can only truly understand Civil War combat by spending the time on the terrain and letting it talk to you. You HAVE to understand both the tactics AND the terrain, and, with all due respect to Mr. Leepson, there simply is no way that he could have spent the necessary time on the terrain in three visits, most of which were evidently spent going through the park’s research files, to really understand either the terrain or the tactics. Over the years, I have visited this battlefield at least 15 times, and have had to figure out the terrain and tactics on my own, before there was interpretation available out there.

By contrast, I spent seven entire days on the battlefield at Trevilian before thinking about writing, and then made several more trips DURING the process of writing to make sure that I had the terrain correct. The same holds true of my Monroe’s Crossroads study.

4. The lack of a response to my criticism of the lack of good maps speaks volumes. Again, there is no way to do any sort of detailed tactical study of a major battle with three maps for a 250 page book. It simply can’t be done.

As pointed out in my original post, this book does have some real pluses. It’s very well written, as I would expect of a journalist. It likewise gives an excellent overview of things, and makes for a good introductory study of this important battle. However, as someone who is hardly a novice, I found it really lacking in the sort of depth that I would expect, and instead was disappointed by its cursory examination of these events.

In short, the door remains wide open for a detailed tactical study of this important battle. I understand that one of the park rangers at the Monocacy National Battlefield is working on just that, to be published by the park, so I guess I will just have to wait and see how that pans out.

Scridb filter


  1. Tue 11th Sep 2007 at 4:41 pm

    I think that you were very fair by posting his replies here and I hope that the author appreciates that fact Eric. No one can accuse you of not knowing your material my friend (that is unless it is in regards to quality baseball). I actually think in retrospect, that people may look at this book based upon your analysis and not ignore it. Although it may not be a definitive study – you did compliment him by stating that it was ‘very well written.’

  2. Wed 12th Sep 2007 at 7:29 am

    You are accusing me of something I never set out to do: a “detailed tactical study” of this battle. I believe that Frank Cooling did that in his book. And I didn’t feel the need to do that in mine, which is aimed at a general audience. Plus, the book deals with more than the details of the Battle of Monocacy. It covers Early’s move to the Valley and into Maryland, Monocacy, his march on Washington and what happened outside Fort Stevens. I gave what I thought was a reasonable summary of the main events at Monocacy. I thought the one map of the battle would suffice for that.

    For the entire book I primarily examined strategy and personalities. Yes, most of the sources I used were “published,” including the reminiscences from the National Tribune, which you accused me of not including. Not all of them were, however. They came from letters and diaries in several archives.

    Thank you for acknowledging that the book was well written. I do consider myself primarily a journalist. I have written for countless publications since I began my career at Congressional Quarterly in 1974. You can find a list of some of them on my website, http://www.marcleepson.com

    But I also am a historian. I received my M.A. in History (George Washington University, 1971), and teach U.S. History at Lord Fairfax Community College. My aim in this book was to write a readable account that was thoroughly researched.

    This is my sixth book, and fourth history book. I can provide dozens of sterling reviews of all four books from book reviewers and historians. No one ever has accused me of doing anything but thorough research. That’s one reason I had to respond to the inaccuracies in your post.

  3. Bill
    Wed 12th Sep 2007 at 2:43 pm

    The first comment is correct. I’m always on the lookout for “well written” battle/campaign books that provide an “excellent overview” and “make for a good introductory study.” I added this book to my list after reading this post. I try libraries first, but usually end up buying the books if they don’t have them in their catalogs.

  4. Scott
    Wed 12th Sep 2007 at 10:13 pm

    Jonathon ‘s Yardley’s review in the Washington Post can hardly be considered an endorsement of Leepson’s book. Yardley recognized the limitations of the work and in a general sense made some of the same criticisms.

  5. Scott
    Wed 12th Sep 2007 at 10:22 pm

    From Yardley:

    “Writing about military maneuvers and military commanders is a tricky business that can lead to confusion and cameo biographies indistinguishable from each other. These are traps that Leepson does not entirely avoid. He seemed more at home in a previous book, Saving Monticello, in which military history was of no consequence.”

    I’m waiting for a book on Monocacy that explains why Wallace get so much credit when one division of Early’s army did all the fighting and wiped out Ricketts. Was Washington saved at Monocacy or when Early dawdled around Harper’s Ferry and Maryland Heights for several days prior to the battle?

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