Book Review: Buff Facings and Gilt Buttons: Staff and Headquarters Operations in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865

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by J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.

Columbia, S.C.: Univ. of South Carolina Press 1998. Pp. xv, 352. . $29.95. ISBN:1570032203

So much has been written about the Civil War that there would seem to be no new ground to be broken. This book, however, does that. One of the most neglected aspects of the Civil War is the manner in which commanders actually exercised command over troops in battle. A matter challenging for even so great a captain as Napoleon, became even more so when one adds to the existing mix the factors that shaped Civil War combat, improved weaponry and its necessary corollary, tactical dispersion. The key element here often becomes not only the commanders themselves, but also their staffs. Yet this element of the Civil War has long been ignored, with some minor exceptions (among them the modest efforts of this reviewer).

Buff facings and Gilt Buttons attempts to fill this gap in our knowledge, at least in terms of the Army of Northern Virginia. The book has much to recommend it. Bartholomees has done a very good job of sifting through the various regulations, etc., issued by the Confederate government dealing with the issue of staffs and shows clearly how theory quickly parted company with actual practice. Bartholomees' organizational approach through the book's first five chapters is well taken, as it gives us a clear picture of a staff's organization and the duties of each staff officer. This is particularly important when it comes to the major task each of these officers was to some degree engaged in, namely the day-to-day administration of the army's needs. In addition, the book covers staffs at every level ranging the lowest (brigade) to the highest (army).

The book does have its share of flaws. The major problem concerns the research. Bartholomees admits in the preface that he limited his research to printed sources and secondary works. Even a short trip to North Carolina, where the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina and the Duke University Library are conveniently located within driving distance of each other, would have yielded much useful material. Particularly important are Sandie Pendleton's letters and Francis Dawson's papers, to name but two collections. A look at William Whann Mackall's papers would have allowed some brief comparative comments with the Army of Tennessee.

The flaws in the research effect the book most in the chapters on staff authority and relations between the commander and the staff in battle. Bartholomees may have underestimated the role that corps staffs played in Robert E. Lee's selection of corps commanders to replace first Jackson, then later Longstreet, Stuart, and Ewell. A speculative argument to this effect can be plausibly made from the contemporary evidence. As for the staff in battle, the author tends to rely heavily on some very dubious sources, especially Henry Kyd Douglas' memoirs and the entirely unreliable Heros von Borcke, about as dubious a source as can be found.

Bartholomees opens his book with the proper caveat that this is not for the casual reader. It does assume that the reader will already be familiar with the broad history and the major personalities of the Army of Northern Virginia. For the well read student of the Army of Northern Virginia, however, this book, despite its flaws is a must. It certainly ranks as one of the more original approaches in Civil War scholarship to be seen in some time.

Reviewer: R.L. DiNardo, USMC C&SC   


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