Review of The American South: A Very Short Introduction, by Charles Reagan Wilson

31 Jan

Charles Reagan Wilson’s “very short introduction” to the American South is a diminutive book, containing just 126 pages and printed in a small format that could almost fit in one’s pocket. But readers should not be fooled by the size of the publication. It is packed with information about the cultural, social, political, and economic history of the distinctive region that is its focus and a surprisingly thorough and comprehensive overview of the region’s past.

Wilson, the former Kelly Gene Cook Sr. Chair of History and Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi and former director of the school’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, brings a lifetime of teaching, research, and writing to the task he undertakes in The American South. Few academics have studied the region more broadly and in more diverse projects than Wilson. In addition to editing several books and authoring a few acclaimed volumes of his own, such as Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 and Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis, he served as coeditor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

In his introduction to the complex history of the American South, Wilson explores the region as a blend of native, European, and African cultures which has had unique and lasting influence on the rest of the nation. The book is chock-full of information, with every paragraph a marvel of conciseness that manages to explain a topic without being cursory. Virtually anything one might want to know about the history of the South is touched on in some way in this book—from religion to music and Civil War to Civil Rights—in a narrative that unfolds as a story of development. The most impressive thing about Wilson’s writing is that he manages to bring depth and flow to a story of over 400 years of history in such a slim volume.

Of course Wilson cannot and does not devote equal space to every topic, and focuses his book more on the enduring consequence of developments in regional history than a blow by blow account of the events themselves. Hence his overview of the fighting of the Civil War, for example, is brief indeed, but his explanation on its long-lasting impact on the region is given more space. Wilson certainly has specific subjects that he knows and loves that receive attention, such as Southern music and food, which might not get as many words devoted to them had another author undertaken the task. Overall, however, I found the book to be engrossing and surprisingly informative. I highly recommend it as a short but substantial statement on what makes the South a unique part of the nation’s heritage.


Review of The Kingdom of God Is At Hand: The Christian Commonwealth in Georgia, 1896-1901, by Theodore Kallman

10 Jan

This review originally appeared in the Fall, 2022 issue of Muscogiana

Thanks to the diligent research of San Joaquin Delta College (CA) history professor Theodore Kallman, the remarkable story of a little-known late nineteenth-century Christian colony which stood just a few miles east of Columbus, Georgia has at long last been written. His book on the subject of the forgotten community, The Kingdom of God is at Hand, was published last year by the University of Georgia Press. It will surely be of note to those interested in Columbus’s past if for no other reason than the novelty of the overlooked episode it chronicles.

As Kallman explains in the book, the community, known as Commonwealth, was one of several utopian Christian colonies established in the United States during the era. These enterprises were a part of a larger movement of reform-minded spiritualists who sought an alternative way of life to America’s capitalistic society. Believing mainstream churches were inadequately addressing modern social problems of the era caused by what they viewed as the selfishness and inequity associated with an unchecked capitalist economy, these Christian dissidents attempted to create their own communities based on principles of collective contribution. While each of these entities featured some differences in philosophical underpinning and approach, most shared some vision of creating a physical reflection of their understanding of the kingdom of God on earth by working, sharing, and distributing wealth equitably among residents. If it sounds a little like communism, it is because the founders of these colonies endorsed some of that political ideology’s tenets and believed that in sharing wealth rather than seeking individual financial gain, they might come closer to living as God had planned.

The community of Commonwealth stood between Columbus and the community of Upatoi on lands that are today largely located within Fort Benning. Organizers bought the property, the core of which was an old plantation home and fields, in 1896 after considering several locations across the country. Perhaps a sense of the type of agricultural community they hoped to create is revealed by the fact that, as related by Kallman, the founders attempted to have the land deeded to Jesus Christ upon their purchase. Since Jesus would not be paying the taxes, though, county officials convinced them this could not be done. Commonwealth organizers may have been high-minded in their motivations, but they proved practical in their approach to creating a sustainable agricultural community in Muscogee County and worked diligently to further its development.

About a year after its founding, the enclave claimed nearly one hundred residents drawn from across the country. They constructed their own housing, took their meals in a communal dining room, and in place of cash received food and shelter for their labor. Colonists planted thousands of fruit trees and berry plants, grew peanuts, sweet potatoes, and an assortment of other vegetables, built a school, and even established a towel mill which they planned to use as a major source of communal income. A printing press produced a few books in addition to a monthly newsletter, The Social Gospel, which at its peak was distributed to every state in the union and seventeen countries. None other than noted Russian author Leo Tolstoy encouraged the experiment in rural west Georgia and monitored its growth and development. Within a few years, however, a combination of factors brought about the demise of the colony—struggles in creating a stable economy, an epidemic of typhoid which drove several members to relocate, and no little internal dissension including a nasty court case over the expulsion of a disgruntled member. Commonwealth had ceased operation by 1901.

Kallman presents a straightforward chronological narrative of the colony in his book, taking readers inside day to day life there while helping them understand its philosophical foundations within the context of the larger national scene. Most readers of this journal will probably have less interest in Commonwealth’s place among similar institutions of the time than how it interacted with the citizens of Columbus, however. The city seemed genuinely intrigued with this novel social experiment, and accounts of activities at the colony regularly appeared in local papers. At one point colonists even staged a religious revival at Wildwood Park. Thoroughly researched, clearly written, and enlightening on a topic about which few captivated by this area’s history are likely to have any previous awareness, the book is a unique contribution to the historiography of the Columbus area.


Review of Company H: A Confederate Soldier’s Memoirs, by Samuel R. Watkins

27 Dec

Sam Watkins’ Company H is easily the most famous of all Civil War soldier memoirs. The eminently quotable Watkins offers a plethora of homespun and pithy observations, all delivered in a humble, straightforward style by an unassuming private who seemed to be at every significant action in the long and storied history of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Of course, the fact that his quotes have appeared in seemingly every major Civil War television documentary and countless books have launched his book, originally published in the 1880s, into the category of essential reading in a large number of courses on Civil War history in colleges and universities for decades. In truth the book is so well known among those interested in Civil War history that a traditional formal review here is unnecessary. But after visiting the site of his grave during a trip to visit the nearby battlefield of Franklin, Tennessee, we wanted to offer some thoughts and observations on this familiar text after listening to it in its entirety for the first time in audiobook form.

One thing to understand about Watkins’s work is that it is relatively narrowly focused. As he reminds readers often, every few pages in fact, his writings are solely recitations of things he personally observed, and he makes little attempt to paint the larger picture of the war outside of the individual sectors of the battles in which he participated. His accounts of virtually every battle conclude with some variation of a note that if readers want to know more about grand strategies and tactics, they should “consult the histories.” But despite the clearly limited scope—sometimes requiring readers to either have a better understanding of the big picture than perhaps Watkins himself did, the book contains some of the best personal descriptions of the chaos of combat experience that one is likely to find. Few writers convey the essences of the sights, sounds, and emotions of Civil War combat than Watkins. His numerous close calls, occasional injuries, and haunting descriptions of seeing friends shot down around him and of shooting enemy combatants are unvarnished but provocative.

One thing that we did not realize about the book was that it contained a good amount of information on Watkins’s diverse experiences in camp and away from the army, whether on leave, in a hospital in Montgomery, Alabama, and various other events which we had seldom seen quoted. While most are not incredibly enlightening, some are humorous, such as his adventure in climbing to the top of the Alabama capital building—or rather his effort to climb back down from the cupola. Perhaps most revelatory as it relates to the experience of soldiers in general are Watkins’s mentions of camp politics, his opinions of various generals, and his philosophy concerning how wars are fought and remembered. Watkins clearly felt that the burdens of the war, indeed likely all wars for that matter, fell disproportionately on enlisted men, while privileged officers were remembered as heroes for deeds their troops actually performed. We found of utmost interest his candid assessment of army morale as it varied under the leadership of various generals such as Joseph Johnston and John Bell Hood, as he pulls no punches in his evaluations of the abilities of each and care for the soldiers under their charge. He relates how he and his fellow soldiers thought highly of Johnston, for example, while clearly distrusting Hood, whom he believes was little more than a butcher and a hack even as he salutes him for his courage.

Another aspect of the book we did not realize until reading it in its entirety is just how uneven is his coverage of different battles. About half of the book concerns the fighting around Atlanta in the spring and summer of 1864, events which obviously made an especially strong impression on him and were seared into his memory. Some of Watkins’s most vivid memories seem to concern the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, a maelstrom of brutal fighting in soaring summer heat which witnessed death on a scale Watkins experienced in no other contest. The very fact that some events receive more coverage than others in and of itself helps readers better appreciate that the war as viewed from the perspective of the soldiers who fought it might be very different from what we might otherwise assume by looking at the timelines of milestone events with which we are now so familiar.

We both had to wonder how it was that this ordinary soldier found himself in a position to observe so many key leaders in so many critical moments throughout the war, and how he managed to live through his experience of participating in the thickest of fights at the front lines from the beginning to the end of the war. He writes of seeing Joe Johnston before pivotal battles, observing the dead body of Leonidas Polk after killed by cannon fire, and of seeing John Bell Hood after his army’s failure following the loss of Atlanta. We have no reason to doubt the veracity of the claims, but we have to wonder if his personal observations might have been augmented by strong memories of the accounts of compatriots in some instances. The book was written as a series of articles in his hometown newspaper some twenty years after the war, after all. Regardless, the fact remains that Company H is one of the iconic pieces of literature about the war written from a firsthand perspective and is worth the time of anyone interested in its history.


Review of Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston, by Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr.

13 Dec

For many historians, the saga of the Army of Tennessee during the Civil War ended with the disastrous Nashville Campaign in late 1864. Unbelievably, 4,500 veterans of that army traveled to North Carolina to take part in a last-ditch effort to halt William T. Sherman’s Union onslaught through the Carolinas over three months later. Late historian Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr., chronicled this effort with Bentonville, The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston.

Hughes, who has written biographies of Confederate Generals Gideon Pillow and William Hardee and of the Battle of Belmont, provides a straightforward account of one of the last major battles of the Civil War that took place at Bentonville, North Carolina.  Wasting few pages and barely setting the stage, Hughes describes how Sherman’s left wing became isolated in its trek through North Carolina after his destructive march through South Carolina and allowed Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, displaying a boldness he was not accustomed to exhibiting, the opportunity to strike it. Johnston, had gathered the remnants of the Army of Tennessee and combined it with other units from Georgia and the Carolinas to form an army charged with forcing back Sherman and preventing him from linking up with Grant to conquer Robert E. Lee’s army.

The battle opened on March 19, 1865 when portions of the Union left wing walked right into an ambush staged by Confederates and suffered devasting losses. Johnston’s men then attacked and inflicted additional casualties but stubborn stands from key Union units as well as some ineptitude by Confederate leaders, such as Braxton Bragg (again) prevented Confederate troops from securing a larger victory. When the day was over, the Federals had secured their position and the other Union wing was on its way. Once combined, the two wings would greatly outnumber Johnston’s force.

Interestingly enough, when the other wing arrived, Sherman hoped Johnston would simply fall back and not offer additional battle as he had so often when the two squared off in the campaign for Atlanta. Sherman held the upper hand and simply did not want to risk a large battle. Johnston kept this army in the field, however, and additional fighting took place on March 21 in which gallant Confederate counterattacks were necessary to save Johnston’s force from complete annihilation. Johnston eventually slipped away, and Sherman let him go. Johnston soon wrote Lee that he would not be able to hold off Sherman with his small force. Both he and Lee would surrender their armies less than a month later.

Bentonville adequately describes the battle, with Hughes using each chapter to chronicle the battle from one of the side’s perspectives. There are not enough maps to follow the action and left these readers sometimes confused about how things were unfolding on the landscape. Hughes also needed to spend more time setting the stage. We both still wonder how not only logistically but emotionally did those 4,500 beaten troops stationed in Tupelo, Mississippi, make the journey to continue to fight on in what had to be seen as an absolute losing cause.  At the very least, it would seem more men were disillusioned with their leadership after a series of devastating defeats. More time could have also been spent on Johnston’s decision to attack. Completely out of character with everything he exhibited on numerous other occasions throughout the war, this remarkable change in strategy seemed to deserve more thorough explanation.

Hughes ends the book describing Bentonville from the Confederate perspective as “brave, bold, and sad” and says the battle was a metaphor for the Confederacy itself, “bright hopes drowned in dark swamp water.” Strong words indeed for a forgotten fight that deserves more attention.


Review of William Walker’s Wars: How One Man’s Private American Army Tried to Conquer Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras, by Scott Martelle

29 Nov

America’s antebellum era was a transformative and tumultuous one which ended in a cataclysm of civil war after decades of political animosity and no small amount of physical violence. In what are remembered as among the more provocative initiatives initiated by advocates of the rights of slaveholders in the era, rogue expansionists called filibusters attempted to find new areas where human bondage could thrive by either negotiating for the acquisition of foreign lands for the United States or literally taking them over by force. Political maneuvering and military campaigning of various types swirled around the expansion of the Cotton Kingdom into Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America as soon as it became clear its future in America might be imperiled. In William Walker’s Wars, author Scott Martelle chronicles the activities of one of the more outrageous and persistent filibusters.

I listened to an audiobook version of the book by Martelle, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and author of several books on dramatic episodes in American history. Like many readers of this blog, I had heard of Walker but knew very little about him. A diminutive, seemingly unassuming student of medicine and newspaper editor with no apparent fixation on slavery for most of his life, Walker seemed an unlikely person to attempt to install himself as president of Nicaragua and extend Southern cotton culture into Central America. Yet over the course of a career in journalism which took the Nashville native to locations such as New Orleans and San Francisco, he became obsessed with the idea of American expansion into the region as a part of its destiny. With a blatant disregard for federal policy and an arrogant assumption than a few dozen armed militiamen could take over a country, he recruited troops for multiple extralegal forays into independent foreign nations.

His poorly organized, inadequately planned expeditions read as Quixotic drama in Martelle’s book. Yet Walker was a determined man, convinced of the rightness of his cause and the adequacy of his own abilities. He seemed to enjoy initial success on multiple occasions, yet could never solidify what he temporarily gained. His most well-known—and final—drama concerned his attempt to set up an independent state in Nicaragua and Honduras and is the primary focus of the book. Running afoul of both American law, the British Royal Navy, and, of all people, wealthy industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was investing in the area at the time, Walker’s last campaign was a desperate and forlorn attempt to claim leadership of a politically-divided country which ended with his death by firing squad in the city of Trujillo at the age of only thirty-six.

William Walker’s Wars is a story of the remarkable life of a man once a lightning rod for controversy throughout the western hemisphere but today largely forgotten. If you have an interest in understanding the international dimensions of the controversy over slavery in the United States as it inched towards war in the 1850s, you will be interested in this book.


Review of The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I, by Barbara Tuchman

15 Nov

Few years can compete with 1914 regarding its importance to the entire world.  In her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman focused on that year’s crucial eighth month that saw the beginning of World War I. Although published over fifty years ago in 1961, her account still captivates readers with its incredible research and lively narrative. Clocking in at fourteen hours via audiobook, The Guns of August explains how the nations of the world entered this conflict and how the war’s eventual destiny was determined by its first month of action.

Tuchman, who won another Pulitzer with her biography of General Joseph Stillwell, starts the book back in 1910 with the pompous funeral of England’s Edward VII in which most of the world sent representatives to attend. She then provides background on all the major empires of the world and their lead up to war. The infamous Schlieffen plan, the German strategy of attacking France through Belgium, as well as France’s scheme of mobilization called Plan 17 garner special attention. Surprisingly, little time is given to the assassination of Austria Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but she goes into detail on the main powers and their declarations of war, and the feeble attempts made to prevent the horror from taking place.

The book’s pace quickens with the German onslaught through Belgium. Tuchman allows all the key figures such as Hindenburg, Joffre, French, Ludendorff, Haig and others their spotlight as their decisions bring their forces into combat. The capture of Liege, the Battle of the Frontiers, and the Russian defeat at Tannenberg are brought to life as Germany nearly achieves victory. A key decision by the German high command as its forces approached Paris, however, left its right wing vulnerable, providing French and English forces the opportunity to counterattack at the Battle of the Marne. This battle stopped the German advance, saving France and preventing Germany from winning the war quickly with an early knockout. Afterwards, the armies settled into trench warfare which would last for four horrible years. Tuchman states the failures of the Schlieffen plan and France’s Plan 17 were responsible for this deadlock on the western front and the horrors associated with it.

The Guns of August is a thrilling account of the beginning of World War I. Experiencing via audiobook does limit some understanding as one is unable to view maps and check any notes, but Tuchman thankfully does not get into minute detail on battles which allows the listener to follow along. Tuchman skillfully weaves her narrative and provides a multitude of information without completely overwhelming the reader (or listener.)  The book has enhanced my interest in the topic and sends me to seek out other accounts, an objective any author would be thrilled to achieve. I doubt there are any World War I enthusiasts who do not have this book on their shelf.


Review of A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Reséndez

1 Nov

The age of European exploration and colonization of North America is filled with epic tales of adventure, as people from entirely different civilizations first came in contact. Europeans dreamed of creating colonial empires and gaining wealth and influence in a new land about which they knew nothing about, while natives were at first unsure how to respond to these curious visitors and what exactly their unexpected presence meant. Most of those who read this blog are likely at least casually familiar with some of the most noted early European attempts to find a foothold in North America, such as the famed entrada of Hernando De Soto and the establishment of the English colony at Jamestowne. From their stories many of us have derived some notion of what these first interactions were like and how exploration of the continent by Europeans proceeded. Few are likely very familiar with perhaps the most incredible individual story to emerge from the time period, however. In A Land So Strange, author Andres Resendez recounts the tale of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who sojourned across the North American continent in the early 1500s after the disastrous failure of the expedition which brought him to the shores of the Gulf.

De Vaca was a part of an expedition under Panfilo de Narvaez, aimed at establishing settlements and other posts in Florida. The mission went awry almost immediately after it encountered the coast, however. Owing to poor knowledge of the area and inadequate maps, Narvaez badly misjudged his location and his colonization effort devolved into a desperate attempt at mere survival. Most of the men who accompanied him perished in grueling cross-Gulf voyage aboard makeshift rafts or starved in the coastal hinterlands. The few survivors who washed up on the shore of what is now Texas endured attack by Indians, exposure to the elements, starvation, and finally, enslavement by native groups where they were forced to perform hard labor. Some were indiscriminately killed for sport. That any made it through all this is incredible.

Somehow de Vaca and three others did, though; Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andres Dorantes de Carranza, and Dorantes’ enslaved Moor Estevanico. Despite coming into contact only periodically, they somehow hatched a plan to escape to Spanish settlements in Mexico together. Improbably, the group became recognized as medicine men, a status which allowed them to be accepted by different groups as they made their way west. They eventually became so secure in their status that, for reasons known only to them, they actually chose to press on into the western interior rather than make way south to Mexico after crossing the Rio Grande. Along their extended their journey they came into contact with ancestors of Plains Indians and made it all the way to the Gulf of California before eventually reaching a Spanish outpost and walking in to Mexico City among astounded residents in 1536. Their story was published in an account by de Vaca on his return to Spain, where it inspired no less an adventurer than Hernando De Soto. A Land So Strange is indeed an epic tale of adventure and sheer survival in some of the most adverse circumstances imaginable. It is highly recommended if you have an interest in the age of exploration. I listened to an audiobook recording of the title, which ran just a little over seven hours.


Review of Day by Day Through the Civil War in Georgia, Michael K. Shaffer

18 Oct

(This review originally appeared in the Spring, 2022 edition of Muscogiana, the journal of the Muscogee County, Georgia Geneaological Society. It is published here in edited form.)

The Civil War was a four-year long (1,630 days to be exact), upheaval of almost every aspect of life in the American South. In few places were the effects of the conflict felt more directly than in the state of Georgia. Scene of pivotal battles such as the fighting for Atlanta, lesser-known but regionally-significant clashes such as the Battle of Columbus, and a host of other noteworthy events ranging from Sherman’s March to the capture of Jefferson Davis, Georgia played an important role in the course of this turning point in American history. All the while, its citizenry experienced a range of trials, tribulations, and disruption we are still struggling to grasp. Here with a unique and detailed attempt to chronicle all of the major military, political, and social events which unfolded in the Peach State during the war is historian Michael K. Shaffer with Day by Day Through the Civil War in Georgia.

A noted author of multiple books and an instructor at both Kennesaw State University and Emory University, Shaffer brings unquestioned credentials to the singular task he has undertaken. The handsome hardcover book is published by Mercer University Press, an outfit with a track record of producing high-quality scholarly books on Georgia history. But where does his monumental effort to document every single day of the Civil War in Georgia fit within a robust historiographical record on the subject, and what is its ultimate value to those with an interest in the era of its focus?

Shaffer proclaims his book to be first of its kind, both for its format and for its exclusive reliance on primary sources. It should be noted that the text is preceded by a rich selection of images of key people and places of the war in Georgia which includes maps, flags, ships, and portraits that in and of itself is a valuable reference source compilation, along with several appendices consisting of reproductions of important documents pertaining to the war in Georgia, ranging from the state’s secession ordinance and Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens infamous “cornerstone” speech to important military orders. As for the day by day listing of events itself which is the heart of the book, it is comprised of over 1,600 short entries focusing overwhelmingly on major military and political actions occurring within the state. All are thoroughly documented, citing the original source they came from, such as newspapers, diaries, and official records. For reasons not entirely clear, the monthly stages of the moon are also given alongside the text.

Day by Day in Georgia is a wealth of information on some of the largest military campaigns and headline political decisions of the war in the state, with scores of interesting tidbits of information on lesser-known events included. It is, however, inherently random. Any attempt to make a single entry for every day cannot possibly cover every aspect of the life in the state at any particular time or give adequate coverage to every community. The author, understandably, had to make choices as to what was the most important thing to discuss for his entry on that individual day. It goes without saying that this is probably not a book for casual readers of Civil War history, and likely not something that readers of every region of the state looking for local information will find compelling. It is, however, an amazing compilation and an unparalleled reference resource that is destined to become a standard in every library in the state and beyond, and promises to be of immense value to researchers delving into several areas of Georgia’s Civil War experience (at least the most written-about aspects of its military and political record) for many years to come.


Review of The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville, by Wiley Sword

4 Oct

“Franklin was the grave of the Army of Tennessee,” commented a Confederate veteran years after the Civil War.  Throughout those bloody years of conflict, the primary Southern army that fought west of the Appalachian Mountains had matched up with a host of Union forces sent against it and were beaten time and time again. Although the soldiers fought courageously, they suffered under poor leadership that either snatched defeat from the jaws of victory or worse, led them in fruitless campaigns and frontal assaults that bled the army dry. Historian Wiley Sword epically chronicles that army’s final grasp at victory in The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville.

The late Wiley Sword, who wrote an exhaustive account of the Army of Tennessee’s first major encounter with Shiloh, Bloody April, initially published this book as Embrace an Angry Wind: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville. This book primarily focuses on the Confederate perspective in the war in the western theater, mainly from Atlanta all the way through the doomed 1864 Tennessee campaign led by John Bell Hood. Sword dramatically tells of Hood’s rise to leadership, from his glory days serving under Robert E. Lee in Virginia, to his transfer west to participate in the Battle of Chickamauga to eventually gaining corps command under Joseph E. Johnston in the initial stages of the Atlanta Campaign.  The overly ambitious Hood had a hand in Johnston’s removal as Federal forces menaced the city and eventually became overall commander of the Army of Tennessee. Hood would fail to save the city through his strategy of launching several bold and bloody attacks, including many doomed frontal assaults on entrenched positions. These tactics might have worked in Virginia in 1862 with the oversight of an organizer and a tactician such as Lee, but they were poorly conceived and executed in front of Atlanta owing to a combination of a wont of strategic vision, a faulty conception of the military situation, a lack of clear communications, and no small measure of incompetence. Under this cloud of mismanagement the army’s final campaign would begin.

The book picks up momentum with Sword’s narrative of Hood undertaking his campaign to reverse the war in the west and strike into Tennessee after the fall of Atlanta. Hood initially hoped to lure Sherman away from Atlanta or at least carry the war northward. He led his battered army into north Georgia and then turned westward across Alabama, looking for a way to cross the river with which his army shared its name. Sherman followed for a while, but soon tired of the chase and returned to Atlanta and eventually launched his famous March to the Sea. He left soldiers under the overall command of George Thomas to deal with Hood.

At this point, Hood’s campaign, as Sword expertly relates, started to unravel as mistakes built upon mistakes. First of all, Hood took too long to move his men across the Tennessee River, staying over three weeks near the Shoals area in northwest Alabama. This delay only allowed Union troops additional time to gather and undercut his chances of trapping the smaller Federal army under John Scofield which lay between him and Nashville. The next blunder would lead to much worse repercussions later. A flawed command structure allowed a portion of the Union Army to escape from a position at Spring Hill which could—some have suggested should—have resulted in the loss of an entire army. Hood had successfully placed his army into position to trap a large portion of Scofield’s army but Union troops marched directly past Confederate troops who had did not block the road connecting Columbia and Franklin. Sword states the failure was just another example of failed high command that had doomed the Army of Tennessee throughout the war. Spring Hill ranks as one of the greatest Confederate failures of the entire war.

After the debacle at Spring Hill, Hood marched his men towards Franklin where the Union troops who had just eluded him had positioned themselves. Hood, irate after letting the Union army escape, ordered a frontal assault. His subordinates tried to dissuade their leader, but Hood launched the attack anyway, almost as punishment for the soldiers and their leaders’ lethargy at Spring Hill. Hood even placed the units on which he placed most of the blame, those men under Benjamin F. Cheatham and Patrick Cleburne, in the lead.

In perhaps the best narrative of the drama of any Civil War battle we have read, Sword describes the legendary charge of the Army of Tennessee. In an attack even more foolhardy—and involving more men—than the more famous Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, Hood’s soldiers were slaughtered as they assaulted the positions in a forlorn display of incredible bravery. Describing the event as a “Monument to Southern Valor,” Sword captures the moment with unusual flare. Sword offers a detailed and comprehensive telling of the story that one general described as “the most magnificent site he had ever seen” without overwhelming the reader. When the brutal fighting was over, the Army of Tennessee was smashed. Thousands of casualties littered the bloody battlefield along with a host of generals dead or dying including the famed Cleburne. Scofield would pull out and march his men to Nashville afterwards. Sword places blame on Hood and declares him “a sad anachronism, a fool with a license to kill his own men.” The Battle of the Franklin is the crescendo in Sword’s tale, the epic event after which everything else is a sad and almost predictable denouement.

After Franklin, Hood marched his shattered army to Nashville, as much because he had no better plan than any real strategy. The surreal scene of a poorly equipped and dispirited army attempting to lay siege to a superior and well-organized defending force then unfolded in a bitter December outside of Nashville. Troops without shoes in icy conditions and having been led as sheep to the slaughter were asked to make superhuman sacrifice and wrest victory from an impossible situation. The Army of Tennessee was a house of cards. Everyone but Hood seemed to know it, even his opponents. Ironically, Hood based his unrealistic hopes on goading the Union forces to attack him and that is exactly what happened. Sword poetically states what happened next, “Hood’s army had given way to fear. . . Hood’s soldiers had suffered, until further suffering just didn’t make any sense anymore. Since Franklin, the army had become essentially a disaster waiting to happen.” Against the Union juggernaut, the Army of Tennessee now collapsed. Only the miserable winter weather, horrible roads and the strong work of Confederates leaders Nathan Bedford Forrest and Edward Walthall—and a little luck—saved the Army of Tennessee from complete capture or annihilation. When it was all over, barely 15,000 men of the once formidable Army of Tennessee could be mustered in Tupelo, Mississippi. Firsthand accounts reveal the assemblage of haggard soldiers hardly resembled an army so much as a disorganized and aimless mob. Hood, the central character in Sword’s book, was at last removed from command. While elements of the army would see even further fighting in the war’s final spring at places such as the Carolinas and on the Gulf Coast, the Army of Tennessee had effectively ceased to be a fighting force long before it straggled into its last camp after destruction in central Tennessee.

To say this book is highly recommended to those interested in the Civil War’s western theater is a disservice to the book itself. It captures the essence of the Army of Tennessee, the major Confederate force in the west, and tracks through its last campaign to its dissolution. It had fought for so long under such failed leadership that its ending story reads as one of the Civil War’s most compelling dramas. Sword’s narrative reads like an engrossing piece of fiction and is a model for good historical writing. The book is no mere melodramatic tale, though, as Sword offers well-informed insights from his research which have influenced the historiography of the war in the west. He pulls no punches with his criticism of Hood but also manages to have the reader pity him in his chronicle of his doomed romance with Sally “Buck” Preston, his horrible wounds suffered during the war and his eventual death along with other family members of typhoid fever in 1879. Hood, like the army he led to ultimate destruction, seemed marked for suffering. For anyone who has read about the Army of Tennessee during the Civil War’s Western Theater, this book proves a fitting epitaph to its incredible story. After reading it, one can better appreciate the homespun, poignant, lyrics of one of the soldiers who experienced the army’s infamous descent into disaster:

“So now I’m marching southward;

My heart is full of woe.

I’m going back to Georgia

To see my Uncle Joe.

You may talk about your Beauregard

And sing of General Lee,

But the gallant Hood of Texas

Played Hell in Tennessee.”


Review of The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783, by Joseph J. Ellis

20 Sep

Master historian and retired professor Joseph J. Ellis has a long list of award-winning publications focusing on America’s founding era and its leading figures to his credit. In books ranging from American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson to Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Ellis has established himself as one of the country’s foremost experts on the Revolutionary period. His latest book, The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783, attempts to help us understand the complicated foundations of the American nationalism which gave rise to a unique national identity and propelled the country to victory in an all-consuming war and still serves as the disputed basis of the notion of American exceptionalism.

I listened to an audiobook version of the title recently, and found it, as expected, to be an engrossing and well-argued take on a familiar story. In summary, more than half of Ellis’s book is a fast-moving and high-level account of how opposition to British policies in America became an organizing force which did nothing less than provide a basis for a new sense of nationhood among North America’s rebellious British colonies. Showcasing political thought among high profile leaders and a variety of lesser-known individuals from a range of social classes, he shows that opinion over what the proper responses might be varied considerably. Ellis demonstrates, however, that a movement within the otherwise loosely-connected colonies gradually took shape and encouraged a coalescing of resistance to Great Britain. That resistance, as we know, enabled a remarkable attempt to found a new nation and sustained a fragile political entity through a long and bitter war. There is really not all that much new in the book upon reflection in these regards, but Ellis’s incredible comprehensive knowledge of the story and its key leaders enables a new understanding of a familiar story through his expert storytelling and revealing personal profiles of central characters.

But in the larger picture, “The Cause,” as Ellis explains so convincingly, is nothing less than the way Americans understood what their struggle for nationhood was all about. How and why its most noble goals came to resonate as something much more than simple resistance to taxation without representation and what all this meant for the future of the new nation and its place in the world is a story still being written. Ellis does not offer definitive thoughts on all of this postscript, but shows that victory in the Revolutionary War was not necessarily foreordained and the stability of the nation in the decades after independence was anything but assured. Belief in a vaguely-defined cause somehow guided developments in the war and indeed after its conclusion. Ellis is at his best in demonstrating how local, tangible, concerns meshed into a larger, somewhat ephemeral, set of values which have become fundamental to understanding America’s past, present, and future. In short, The Cause is a compelling attempt to frame America’s story for a new generation by a mature historian with a lifetime of experience in the craft. It is definitely worth a look by anyone interested in the Revolutionary era and America’s founding principles.