Review of Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, by Tom Clavin

18 Jan

Tom Clavin’s riveting account of one of the most famous towns in the American west and its two most celebrated residents, Dodge City, is a compelling and entertaining chronicle of a legendary epic in our nation’s history. Sifting through layers of accumulated myth to paint a portrait of the place and the people as they really existed, the book is informative and colorful. Even if its shoots down some of the more fanciful legends that have grown up around both its subjects, it reveals that the wild west was in actuality a place and time richly deserving of the attention it has garnered in American lore.

Author Clavin, a former journalist who has written more than fifteen books, several of which have appeared on the New York Times’ bestsellers list, is well-known for his interest in iconic moments and stories from the American past. From tales from the Revolutionary War (Valley Forge) and World War II (Halsey’s Typhoon) to biographies of sports heroes (Being Ted Williams) and legendary gunfighters (Wild Bill), his growing list of books are a unique take on some of our nation’s most enduring legends. In Dodge City, which I listened to in audiobook form recently, he vividly chronicles the birth and early life of a town that in many ways stands as the epitome of our picture of a western frontier community during the days of the cowboy and tracks the lawmen who attempted to keep some semblance of order within it and beyond.

The main characters in the book are, as indicated in the subtitle of the book, Wyatt Earp and his trusted friend Bat Masterson, perhaps the most well-known law enforcement officials of the era. Clavin tracks them from their early lives and arrival in Dodge City to the later fame they acquired in such events as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona. It is a well-rounded biography at that, shedding light on both their personal and professional lives in equal measure. The book ends up being as much biography, then, as story of a community, and explains in detail some of the most pivotal events of the period in which these larger-than-life figures played key roles. As is so commonly the case with figures of this era, actual motivations and actions in some cases may never be known in their entirety. Clavin is therefore admittedly forced to paint a picture that, while relying on documented information, is nevertheless shaped by his attempt to sift through an accumulation of accounts that have appeared over the years which differ in significant respects. Not being familiar enough with the scholarship on the West to say with confidence how well some of this is done, I can only offer praise for his forthrightness in explaining the process. I can further say that Clavin spins a highly entertaining tale in the book. Dodge City brings to life some of the most familiar names in western lore and the dusty cowtowns in which they made their names.

JMB

Review of We Want Bama: A Season of Hope and the Making of Nick Saban’s Ultimate Team, by Joseph Goodman

11 Jan

Alabama’s national championship-winning 2020 football team set numerous records and won every game on its schedule. It is not the first time the school has fielded an undefeated championship team, but the circumstances of this season, happening as it did during a global pandemic which threatened to cancel the entire season and did result in the cancellation or postponement of several games, made it completely different than any other. Players and coaches, including head coach Nick Saban himself, missed some games along the course of a brutal all-conference game schedule played in almost empty stadiums. Journalist Joseph Goodman sees that magical season as uniquely important for more than what was accomplished strictly on the field of play, though. Making a connection between nationwide racial unrest and the quest to for a more equitable society and the special team unity that propelled the Crimson Tide to a title, he attempts a chronicle of the 2020 team and its times in We Want Bama: A Season of Hope.

This is not your typical football book. While it contains plenty of information on Alabama’s players, coaches, and the special sense of togetherness and commitment they shared in their quest for a title, the book is best understood as a statement on Alabama’s football culture set against the backdrop of a troubled past. One is reminded early and often of the racism which once characterized Alabama’s politics and society in the pages of the book. Nearly half of it, in fact, seems to be a polemic on the outrageous racial inequities which defined so much of Alabama’s early and mid-twentieth century history. There is an equal amount of space in the book devoted to examining the exuberant, almost irrational enthusiasm of the large and loyal Alabama football fan base. The result is a book that is part history lacking contextualization, intriguing biographical investigation, humorous examination of outrageous fandom, partisan political diatribe, and chronicle of a memorable football season.

Each component of Goodman’s narrative has its merits, and parts of each are genuinely entertaining. But none are developed fully, and forced together they make for a discordant mess of a read. At times the speed at which the author changes gears and focus is disorienting and his over-the-top writing style—at moments humorous but in large doses grating—loses punch the deeper one goes into the book. The slapstick-style description of boisterous bars on gamedays in Tuscaloosa that comes off as light-hearted writing which one might read in a periodical article seems poorly suited for a book-length narrative, especially when dealing with weighty issues. The stream-of-consciousness, hyperbole-filled, rapid-fire style becomes wearisome pretty early, in truth. But it is Goodman’s attempt to make a symbolic rally by the football team in support of social justice the central event to his story where the book’s shortcomings are most noticeable. The pre-season march to Foster Auditorium—the site where George Wallace once made his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door”—was an important statement of unity and progressiveness in a year of many similar events. But to insinuate that Alabama’s racial climate was so similar to that of the early 1960s that such an occurrence could be remembered as a turning point in the state’s history is a bit naïve and terribly uninformed historically. Goodman has many worthwhile points to make in a narrative, but the attempt to make that summertime march the central event in a football season which will be remembered for any number of other on-the-field events—including the winning of a Heisman Trophy and the hoisting of a national championship trophy—seems more than a bit of a stretch. In candor the event is even lost in the shuffle of the book’s spasmodic narrative. If you have an interest in any of the multiple points of focus addressed in this book, you are likely best served by looking elsewhere for them. Goodman is original and at times incredibly entertaining, but this book seems to somehow be a bit less than the sum of its parts.

JMB

Best Books on the Mobile Campaign

4 Jan

It has unfortunately been all too easy for generations of historians to dismiss the Mobile Campaign—the last major combined-forces operation of the Civil War, involving over 55,000 troops and over three dozen warships—as some sort of inconsequential mopping up operation largely due to the simple fact that it occurred in 1865. While it certainly cannot be said to be as pivotal to the overall course of the war as events at places such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg, the months-long campaign which led to the ultimate capture of the last remaining major port and city in Confederate hands is nonetheless a significant event which has long deserved more attention than it has received. In the past few years, I have reviewed most of the small, but thankfully growing, body of literature on this intriguing but relatively little-understood campaign in this space. Today I am offering my thoughts on the best books about this incredibly interesting but largely overlooked campaign and the city which was its target.

The Campaign of Mobile, by Christopher Columbus Andrews

Major General Christopher Columbus Andrews commanded the portion of the federal forces which assaulted the center of the Confederate lines at the Battle of Fort Blakeley on April 9, 1865, the pivotal battle in the campaign for Mobile. He visited the battlefield just a year later in the course of research for a book about the Mobile Campaign, during which he sketched or arranged for the sketching of key parts of the battlefield as they appeared at the time. The book he published shortly after that visit (in 1867), The Campaign of Mobile, was the first about the effort to capture Mobile to appear in print and for many generations remained the only one. By any measure, it is an authoritative, day-by-day account, coming as it did from an eyewitness involved in creating many of the official orders he drew upon for the arrangement of the book. Anyone interested in the Mobile Campaign needs to have this book, for it is a key part of the foundation for virtually all the scholarship on the subject that has come after. Plus, it has those incredible sketches which show the battlefield as it stood just months after the pivotal clashes at Spanish Fort and Blakeley.

Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign, by Chester Hearn

Hearn’s book analyzing the Mobile Campaign is superbly researched, constructing into narrative form vast amounts of information unearthed in extensive research into original resources, especially official reports filed by the contending armies. It takes readers all the way back to 1862 and the beginnings of the campaign for Mobile, and allows them unprecedented insight into the planning, logistics, and ultimately dramatic fighting for the city that raged on both land and water. As Hearn demonstrates, the campaign for Mobile did nothing less than foreshadow the future of warfare. It featured ironclads, torpedoes, land mines, hand grenades, advanced rifled artillery and repeating rifles, coordinated amphibious assaults, elaborate earthen fortifications, instantaneous electronic battlefield reports via telegraph, and skillful deployment of troops. It involved combat between some of the war’s most celebrated veteran units and one of the highest concentrations of black troops in combat anywhere in the war. While Hearn’s book excels in its execution to the point of being the unquestioned standard resource on its subject, this is no work of engrossing literature. It is as dry as a textbook and as straightforward a recitation of facts about military maneuvering as ever was written. Nevertheless, the book presents the story of the Mobile Campaign with as much detail as anyone before or since.

Mobile, 1865: Last Stand of the Confederacy, by Sean Michael O’Brien

Sean Michael O’Brien’s compelling account of the Mobile Campaign, Mobile, 1865, is one of the best tellings of this overlooked campaign. Written by an Alabama librarian who preferred to publish under a pen name, the book deserves far more attention than it has received for its comprehensive detail and engaging style. O’Brien’s handling of the campaign involves both overview strategy and poignant individual stories, all woven together in a book that anyone with an interest in Mobile’s Civil War experience should consult. He trods some well-traveled ground in parts of the book, relating the basics of the context of the campaign, but particularly shines in his meticulous accounts of the fighting at both Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley. Readers familiar with Christopher Columbus Andrews’ book on the campaign will easily recognize his reliance on the publication for portions of his narrative, but he nonetheless makes the story his own.

The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865, by Paul Brueske

In Last Siege author Paul Brueske chronicles in its totality the fighting on land and water which led to the capture of Mobile, including cavalry skirmishes along the Florida-Alabama line, sieges at Spanish Fort and Blakeley, and naval actions in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. With a keen eye for unique details, Brueske brings to light many personalities and occurrences otherwise lost to history, such as the fact that future governors of both northern and southern states fought in the campaign; the story of a female soldier who participated in it disguised as a man; the tale of the Union army’s attempt to bombard Confederate lines with mortars fashioned from the trunks of sweet gum trees, the use of land mines and underwater torpedoes by outnumbered Confederates; the actions of one of the largest contingents of African-American soldiers to fight in any battle of the Civil War; and numerous other colorful details that have rarely, if ever, been discussed in books on the Mobile Campaign. Brueske makes a convincing plea for the campaign’s relevance in the pages of Last Siege as he fashions a sentimental but insightful overview of the definitive campaign of the war in the Gulf Coast region.

Last Stand at Mobile, by John C. Waugh

With a narrative consisting of under ninety pages of text, Last Stand at Mobile is admittedly a slim volume, but packs a lot into those pages. In fact, the book is in some ways a model of superb public history, as it communicates a basic understanding of the essential people, places and events associated with the Battle of Mobile Bay and the associated campaign for the city of Mobile, Alabama in accessible prose. Originally published in 2001, it promises to serve for years to come as among the best points of entry for those seeking to understand the events surrounding the capture of one of the last Confederate-controlled port cities during the Civil War. This is no simple task, as the events chronicled include a blockade, a naval battle, a siege, and a military campaign several months long waged for the capture of the city. Engaging and informative, it is a great example of the type of historical writing the public craves and deserves.

The Assault on Fort Blakeley: “The Thunder and Lightning of Battle,” by Mike Bunn

I do not customarily rank my writing among the “best” books on any subject when composing lists such as this, but I feel my publication on the Battle of Fort Blakeley merits inclusion here. It stands as the only book-length treatment of that pivotal battle in the Mobile Campaign ever published. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, some sixteen thousand Union troops launched a bold, coordinated assault on the three-mile-long line of earthworks known as Fort Blakeley in the climax of the weeks-long campaign that resulted in the capture of Mobile. The charge was one of the grand spectacles of the Civil War, and the battlefield where it all happened stands in a state of remarkable preservation in a state park. The book serves as both a history and guide to the battle, explaining how it unfolded zone by zone and featuring the words of participants throughout.

Confederate Mobile, by Arthur Bergeron, Jr.

Arthur Bergeron, Jr.’s overview of the Civil War experience of Mobile, Alabama, Confederate Mobile, first appeared in 1991 and has become a standard reference source on the history of the city. Mobile had been largely overlooked in Civil War historiography prior to Bergeron’s book, even though it was one of the largest and most important cities in the Confederacy. The book consists of some thirteen chapters detailing the city’s strategic position, its role as a point of Confederate supply, the plans made for its defense, and the fighting that took place in late 1864 and early 1865 that resulted in its capture by Union forces. It is a detailed, if not necessarily engrossing, account of military activity in Mobile, unearthing a story that few had ever attempted to tell. Its strength lies in the comprehensive way it deals with that military history, providing details on everything from the purpose and nature of the rings of defenses that encircled the city to the chronic shortage of troops to man them to the special role played by slaves and free blacks in the city’s defense. It is a little less convincing in integrating the story of the civilian experience into the narrative, providing a rather cursory overview of the topic despite the fact that “Confederate Mobile” saw no fighting until the very late stages of the war and life carried on as normal there perhaps more so than any other large Southern city. What it does it does well, though, and it remains a standard reference on its subject today.

Besieged: Mobile 1865, by Russell W. Blount, Jr.

Despite its brevity, the book gives you about as well-rounded and as thorough a picture of the campaign for the “Paris of the South” as one is likely to find. The book chronicles the period between the Battle of Mobile Bay and the fall of the city to Union forces, or a period roughly from January to April of 1865. In a dozen brief, quick-moving chapters, Blount gives readers an understanding of life in Mobile during the time, the strategies and movements of the opposing armies and navies that battled for the city, and the personal experiences of the soldiers who comprised those forces. Utilizing well-selected quotes from those who lived through the events he chronicles, he brings the story to life in convincing fashion.

Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade, by Paula Webb

In nine short chapters, arranged as a month by month chronicle of life in Mobile from August of 1864 to April of 1865, Webb discusses life in the city as revealed in newspapers, journals, diaries, letters, and other correspondence involving both civilians and military officials. The progress of the military campaign aimed at the capture of the city is the constant backdrop, and she gives overview analysis of its major developments as she introduces readers to details of morale, devotion to the war effort, social life, economic crises, and political divisions within Mobile. In the process readers come to know a bit of the personalities of some influential figures in the city at the time, such as Confederate General Dabney Maury, socialite Octavia LeVert, and author Augusta Evans, as well as a host of lesser known individuals. Webb’s description brings to light what was on the minds of Mobile’s citizens during the siege, and discusses the military campaign at their doorstep from the viewpoint of what they knew and when. Interestingly, there is considerable attention given to the lively discussion during the period over whether or not to arm the slaves to achieve Confederate independence.

JMB

Review of The River was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow, by Bryan Steel Wills

14 Dec

Perhaps the Civil War’s most controversial event occurred at the Battle of Fort Pillow where Confederate cavalry troops under Nathan Bedford Forrest overran an outnumbered garrison to capture the fort along the Mississippi River. In the chaotic final moments of the battle, many of the garrison’s troops, a large portion of them African-American, were killed. News quickly spread that Forrest’s men massacred them after they had attempted to surrender. For over 150 years, historians and the general public have speculated on what actually occurred on that April day in 1864. Historian Bryan Steel Wills takes aim at this topic with The River Was Dyed with Blood, Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow, which seeks to provide not only a narrative of the event, but the multitude of reactions to it not only at the time but over the years.

Wills places the divisive Forrest at the heart of the issue. His narrative briefly describes Forrest as a self-reliant man whose only education came from his life experiences and who became the war’s most feared cavalryman. His harshness, grit, determination and bravery on the battlefield defined him. His methods of deceiving his opponent into thinking he had more men than he actually had as well as his strongly worded surrender demands, in which he threatened dire repercussions for those who refused, served him well during the war. However, this tactic would serve as evidence against Forrest at Fort Pillow.

Wills provides plenty of accounts from multiple sources on what did occur at Pillow. The fort, perched atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, fell quickly once it came under assault by Forrest’s command and Union soldiers retreated down to the river’s edge for safety. Forrest uncharacteristically did not personally lead the assault and once inside, as accounts indicate he became fixated on a Union gunboat operating on the river in the distance instead of taking charge of the situation. Casualty rates were high and there is no doubt that many Union soldiers were killed after the fort had fallen. The main question has always been whether Forrest ordered this “massacre” or did the situation get out of hand once some of his men, who despised black troops, took out their anger unchecked. Wills does not take a definitive stand on the question, instead reviewing many contradictory claims in detail and summarizing the affair as an example of battle fury at its worst, featuring “the pandemonium of a collapsing defense aided by the racial and sectional antagonisms that motivated many of the participants.” The book makes a few things clear, though. In the final moments of the Battle of Fort Pillow some Confederates either believed Forrest sanctioned their refusal to give quarter to a defeated enemy, or they took terrible advantage of his unusual lack of visibility to take independent action in violation of the rules of war of the day. Wills believes that Forrest probably did not personally instigate the killing of men after they had surrendered but that ultimate responsibility does fall upon him for the actions of his men.

After describing the action at Fort Pillow, the author’s narrative then proceeds to trace chronologically the reactions to the assault from the immediate aftermath to years in the future. He does an excellent job presenting various viewpoints, North and South. Reactions varied from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War that emphatically proclaimed a massacre had occurred to other reactions that claimed the story had been blown out of proportion. Wills does point out that some Northern politicians used the incident at Fort Pillow as ammunition for prosecuting the war to the fullest. Finally, Forrest himself struggled to defend his reputation after the affair. Interestingly enough, Wills traces Forrest’s responses to the accusations of having sanctioned atrocities all the way up to his death in 1877, but never mentions Forrest’s involvement in the Klan which obviously had an effect on his reputation in regards to treatment of African Americans.

The River was Dyed with Blood is more than a simple recounting of the action at Fort Pillow. Wills goes beyond the battle to examine the aftermath of the affair and note how it altered the course of the war and reverberated in the postwar political environment for decades after the last shots were fired.  Anyone wanting a simple narrative of the action should look elsewhere as most of the book is about reactions and responses to it.  The Battle of Fort Pillow itself is summarized in one short chapter, with the backstory leading to it and the controversial aftermath being the focus of the volume. No doubt the events at Fort Pillow will continue to resonate strongly among those interested in America during the Civil War and Reconstruction and this book does add fuel to the fire without definitively answering the essential question of whether or not a coordinated massacre took place along the banks of the Mississippi in 1864. Then again, that question will probably never be answered to the satisfaction of everyone.

CPW/JMB

Best Books on the Vicksburg Campaign

7 Dec

Perhaps no other campaign sealed the fate of the Confederacy than the fall of Vicksburg. For over a year, Union forces attempted a variety of methods to either capture or bypass the city with no success. Not until Ulysses S. Grant ‘s daring plan landed men south of the city where his soldiers marched across the heart of Mississippi and won several battles, did the city fall after over forty days of siege. There have been quite a few studies on Vicksburg over the years, but here are some of the best.  (I limited my list to only those books that covered the entire campaign and not on books that targeted specific aspects such as Champion Hill and the Siege.)

At the top of my list is Ed Bearss’s epic three-volume The Vicksburg Campaign. Bearss, thelong-time Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service and epic tour guide of the war, masterfully guides the reader on the Union’s entire effort to capture the Gibraltar of the South.  Vicksburg is the Key, Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow, and Unvexed to the Sea are clearly written and expertly researched by one of the field’s true masters and therefore must be on the bookshelf of any true historian of Vicksburg.

Michael Ballard’s Vicksburg, the Campaign that Opened the Mississippi might be the best one volume study today. Ballard, who has also written the definitive biography on John C. Pemberton, the Confederate Commander at Vicksburg, makes a strong point that the complexity and the length of the campaign tends to overwhelm many aspiring historians.  Ballard covers the campaign from both sides, giving credit and blame where it is due.

One of the most recent accounts is Donald Miller’s Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy. Miller provides one of the best written accounts of the campaign that although is over 500 pages, never seems to overwhelm the reader. Its only fault is that it does not provide enough information from the Confederate perspective.

Ninety Eight Days: A Geographer’s View of the Vicksburg Campaign written by retired geologist Warren Grabau puts the spotlight on logistics and topography of the campaign. This weighty tome contains some of the best maps of any other book, but its length is not for the average reader.

Long-time Vicksburg National Park Historian Terrence Winschel has written a well-received two volume set entitled Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign. Each book contains essays that examine various aspects of the campaign such as Grant and Pemberton’s leadership, Grierson’s cavalry raid, various battles, the naval aspect, and the siege.

Most single volume books on Vicksburg are mammoth. For anyone wanting a shorter, more concise account would do well to read Vicksburg is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River by William Shea and Terrence Winschel. This volume is part of the Great Campaigns of the Civil War Series that seeks to provide solid scholarship and overviews of battles and campaigns in a condensed volume.

One of the more unique books on my list is Compelled to Appear in Print: The Vicksburg Manuscript of John Pemberton. Edited by David Smith, this important piece of scholarship publishes Pemberton’s long-thought lost response to criticism by Confederate General Joseph Johnston. Although Pemberton’s comments do not completely excuse his actions, it does provide historians with more information on the complicated Confederate command structure that led to defeat.

Finally, I must list The Final Fortress, The Campaign for Vicksburg 1862-1863 by Samuel Carter III. Carter’s book published in 1980 was one of the first books that I read concerning this campaign. Up until that point, my mind had been fixated on events in the Eastern Theater. Carter’s encompassing narrative opened my eyes for the first time on the importance of events in the Western Theater in determining the war’s outcome and convinced me that Vicksburg was just as important as Gettysburg.  My book’s dust cover shows plenty of wear-and-tear from multiple readings as I leafed through the images and maps over and over again as I became fascinated by war along the Mississippi River.

CPW

Review of One Damn Blunder From Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864, by Gary Joiner

30 Nov

Author Gary Joiner is the acknowledged expert on the Civil War’s Red River Campaign. He has written two full-length books on the subject including Through the Howling Wilderness, which we have previously reviewed. Written first, One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End, The Red River Campaign of 1864, is a more straight-forward account of the action that explains the Union’s failed attempt to capture Shreveport and gather cotton for the Northern economy starved for the valuable commodity.

One Damn Blunder, winner of the 2004 Albert Castel Book Award, is a volume in the American Crisis Series which seeks to offer concise overviews of important persons, events, and themes on the Civil War era. Joiner chose William Sherman’s colorful quotation on the campaign as the book’s title which was an apt description of the operation from both the Union and Confederate points of view. Shreveport was the fourth of four cities being targeted by Union forces in the spring of 1864 after Richmond, Atlanta, and Mobile. Lincoln’s administration favored the campaign to help establish Federal rule throughout Louisiana as well as to capture the most important city west of the Mississippi River. More importantly, this endeavor would allow Union forces to gather hundreds of bales of cotton to supply desperate Northern mills which were experiencing acute shortages of the fiber. Nathaniel Banks, a political general of the highest order, was selected to orchestrate the campaign and he knew the person who could procure this valuable commodity would reap huge political rewards. Banks planned a three pronged approach, the greatest combined army and navy operation to date, that would have overwhelming superiority to achieve victory. Faulty decision making and the river itself would prove to be obstacles the Union forces could not overcome.

Confederate leadership had its own issues as its two primary leaders were at odds with one another. Overall commander Kirby Smith preferred a passive defense that relied on field fortifications whereas Richard Taylor preferred an active offensive to drive the Union forces away. Failure to agree on a course of action prevented Southern forces from achieving a more decisive victory. Taylor’s forces halted Union forces at Mansfield as Banks’s troops were too far spread out, preventing the Union force from bringing its superior numbers to bear. Banks decided to retreat back to the safety of his gunboats although many of his men preferred to fight.  Banks’s earlier decision to march to Shreveport on a road further away from his fleet also proved detrimental. On the Confederate side, Smith ordered several of Taylor’s divisions northward to handle a threat from Arkansas which prevented Taylor from having adequate numbers to seriously challenge Banks’s escape. Union Naval forces under David Porter had their own issues due to falling water levels, manipulated by the Confederates. The massive ironclad Eastport was scuttled and several supply ships were lost. Only the efforts of Army Engineer Thomas Bailey, who’s hastily constructed dam which rose water levels, allowed Porter’s flotilla to escape complete destruction.

One Damn Blunder provides an excellent summary of the campaign from all perspectives without getting bogged down with too much detail and repetition as does the more thorough Through the Howling Wilderness. Joiner’s narrative is clear, allowing the reader to fully understand the campaign and his expert analysis places proper blame and credit where it is due. This book is highly recommended for anyone wanting a brief (150 pages of text) synopsis of an important, but rarely studied operation of the Civil War.

CPW/JMB

Best Books on the Battle of Shiloh

9 Nov

Regular readers of this blog are well aware of our continued interest in the Civil War battle of Shiloh.  We have reviewed numerous books and provided a historic tour of the battlefield. We have always been fascinated by the Confederacy’s failed attempt to reverse the course of the war in the Western Theater in early 1862 by uniting all available forces for a surprise attack on Union forces encamped at Shiloh. This blog seeks to list the best books on the battle in one place for those seeking an understanding of the literature involved. You can read more in-depth reviews of several of these books by clicking on the links.

Tim Smith’s Shiloh, Conquer or Perish, published in 2014, is now probably the definitive account of Shiloh.  No one is more qualified to write on the battle than Smith, a long-time historian of Shiloh who spent years working at the national park. The book dispels many Shiloh myths and is really the first to fully examine the battle’s second day of action. Most other accounts focus on the battle’s first day.

Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 was the recently published dissertation of O. Edward Cunningham. Written in the 1960s, it has held up to be one of the better campaign studies of the battle. It covers the events leading up the clash such as the actions at Forts Henry and Donelson, and provides a well-written narrative of the battle itself. Its conclusions and analysis have held up well over the past fifty-plus years. Any true historian of the battle must have this on their shelf.

The most detailed account of the battle is Wiley Sword’s Shiloh, Bloody April. Sword conducted exhaustive research to meticulously recount the battle. His narrative is so comprehensive that even those enamored with the battle can sometimes find the book tedious and difficult to finish. I include the book for its thoroughness and usefulness as a resource more than for its narrative.

Anyone looking for a great read can probably find none better than Winston Groom’s Shiloh, 1862. Although many historians will frown upon including a book by an amateur on this list, Groom’s masterful storytelling and prose overcomes any minor errors that may occur within. In his numerous historical works, Groom shows time and time again how history should be written; telling a great story with captivating descriptions and not getting overwhelmed by the research and attention to detail that unfortunately derails many other historical works.

Other deserving works include James McDonough’s Shiloh-in Hell Before Night and Larry Daniel’s Shiloh. These were two of the earliest books I read on the subject, leading me to this lifelong fascination with Shiloh. Anyone interested in the battle should consult them both. The Shiloh Campaign, edited by Steven Woodworth, contains outstanding essays written by the leading experts in the field on various aspects of the campaign. Finally, Tim Smith’s The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield provides a look at the historiography of the battle and the creation of the national battlefield park itself.

In conclusion, this blog has emphasized that one’s understanding and appreciation of an event is greatly enhanced by a personal visit to the place where it occurred. There are numerous books that provide assistance with touring battlefields, but I find Shiloh, A Battlefield Guide by Mark Grimsley and Steven Woodworth and the Guide to the Battle of Shiloh, edited by Jay Luvaas, Leonard Fullencamp, and Stephen Bowman to be some of the best. Both provide overviews of the battles and solid maps for helping you tour the landscape. The latter book also includes eyewitness descriptions that one can read from various points on the battlefield for a more intimate feel.  Shiloh is one of the most well-preserved and pristine national battlefields in this nation. Walking on its hallowed fields is a moment one will not forget.

CPW

Review of Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign, by Buck T. Foster

2 Nov

“Meridian . . . no longer exists.”  Union General William T. Sherman reported these words following his army’s destruction of Meridian, Mississippi, following a February 1864 campaign aimed at destroying railroads and other supplies vital to the Confederacy during a whirlwind march across central Mississippi. The general public usually associates Sherman’s application of “total war” with his “March of the Sea” undertaken after the fall of Atlanta later that year, but author Buck T. Foster explains Sherman first utilized this method months earlier. In Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign, Foster not only provides a narrative of Sherman’s campaign, but provides analysis and conclusions on its effects on the war itself.

Foster gives the readers a solid account of Sherman’s trek across Mississippi. Sherman sought to destroy Mississippi’s value to the Confederacy and prevent future threats along the Mississippi River. By marching across the heart of the state and eventually destroying Meridian, which was a hub of two major rail lines along the eastern portion of the state, Sherman thought he could accelerate the war’s end. Railroads, warehouses, crops, and any other supplies that were of value to the Confederacy were his targets. Not only would this harm Confederate war efforts, it would also cause harm to those on the home front who supported secession. Sherman thought this type of war would actually lower casualties, by weakening civilian support for the war effort and thereby bring the fighting to an end sooner.

In the narrative itself, Foster explains how Sherman mainly succeeded in his goals. His 20,000 men marched basically unopposed across Mississippi, pushing aside weak Confederate cavalry trying to stop him. Since Sherman’s men basically lived off the land, there was no vulnerable supply line for the Rebels to attack. Two Confederate divisions were available to provide resistance, but ineffective leadership by Leonidas Polk failed to utilize them in any constructive way. Polk thought Mobile, Alabama was Sherman’s ultimate objective and maneuvered troops accordingly. The author’s strongest statement might have been that Sherman’s expedition was largely successful due to “the continued incompetence of Polk.” (Someone needs to do a book-length study on Polk almost single-handily undermining Confederate efforts in the Western Theater.) Sherman also had plans to proceed into Alabama, but a large cavalry force expected to join him was pushed back from northern Mississippi by Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest, who remained a pesky problem for Union forces.

In the book’s preface, Foster states the book’s purpose is “to provide readers with a thorough, analytical study that explains the development of Sherman’s unique style of warfare . . .” The only other book-length study of Sherman’s trek across Mississippi from Vicksburg to Meridian does not offer any detailed assessment. Foster goes extra lengths to supplement his narrative with a thorough evaluation of the events. In fact, it could be said that the biggest weakness of the book is in its repetitive nature of constantly discussing Sherman’s approach to warfare. Nevertheless, Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign fills a gap in Civil War historiography by addressing this little known campaign in detail and with an easily readable style.

CPW/JMB

Review of Colonial Mississippi: A Borrowed Land, by Christian Pinnen and Charles Weeks

26 Oct

The colonial period remains one of the most fascinating periods of Mississippi history. The interaction and intrigue involving Spanish, French, and British attempts to colonize the Gulf South has long captivated those interested in the state’s rich past. The colonial era features some of the most compelling human sagas in the state’s history, and its setting as a backdrop for the alternate clashing and blending of European, Native American, and African cultures make this era a treasure trove for professional and lay historians alike. With this in mind, we highly anticipated reading an updated summary of these years in Colonial Mississippi: A Borrowed Land by Christian Pinnen and Charles Weeks. Unfortunately, our initial excitement waned as we waded through a fragmented and disjointed narrative that failed to not only provide a solid summary of the information, but also lacked the exhilaration of reading these captivating stories in our region’s history.

Colonial Mississippi is the latest volume in the Heritage of Mississippi Series,which seeks to tell an updated version of Mississippi’s entire history in celebration of the state’s bicentennial. The authors organized the book chronologically with chapters corresponding to the attempts made by the three European nations to establish themselves in the Gulf South. The book’s subtitle comes from the words of a Chickasaw chief, who when speaking to a Spanish commissioner in the 1790s, indicated that it was the Native Americans who were the true owners of the land the Spanish were attempting to control. This theme of arguable Native American control and sovereignty is pushed throughout the book, essentially minimizing the endeavors of the French, British and Spanish as some sort of inconsequential sidelight in the region’s development. Several major military and political events receive little more than a passing mention. For instance, the battle of Ackia between the French and their Choctaw allies against the Chickasaw only gets one sentence! While we agree that Native Americans are a vital part of the colonization story, we regret that their perspective is so dominant that the book is not a history of the colonial era at all. It is the story of Native American reaction to European diplomacy—a topic surely deserving of scholarly attention—but hardly a thorough chronicle of colonial establishment in the region.

The narrative itself is very choppy, delivered less as a continuous story than a reference summary divided into subsections that break up the narrative into a series of multi-paragraph vignettes. This style prevents a clear understanding of the years and timeline of events, and leads to an underdevelopment of some of the most important events of the era. Regretfully, we believe anyone who does not already have a clear understanding of this time period will fail to gain one through this book, and those familiar with this era will largely fail to gain any new knowledge.

There are so many rich and fascinating stories to tell in the era, but the authors’ narrative seems to gloss over most of them. With only 150 pages of text, we expected that not every story could be fully developed, but in truth the book is even shorter than readers might expect. The actual story of colonialism in Mississippi is over by page 100. The book’s penultimate chapter deals with events after colonialism, such as removal treaties decades into the future, forming a useful afterward but far beyond the scope of the work. The book’s last chapter, an overview of how the colonial era has been interpreted over the years, is interesting, but does not really fit with the rest of the story. The whole tone of this portion of the book seems to be one of mere condemnation of previous scholarship—some of which we fully acknowledge as deserving. But asserting that all earlier works can essentially be understood as having “merely reflected current views and opinions” (148) and should be dismissed is a disservice to many of them and is confusing. This comment needed more explanation.

Good historical work needs to be based on solid research and objective conclusions, and without doubt Colonial Mississippi meets those criteria. No doubt the authors know the material and have demonstrated an understanding of the sources, and their work will certainly find a place on the reference shelves of libraries for academics to peruse for many years. But other than a desire to emphasize Native American hegemony during the colonial era, there is little to help readers make sense of what the upheaval of the colonial era means to Mississippi today. Good history must be grounded in scholarship, but must also tell a story. The Heritage of Mississippi Series is geared for the general audience, but unfortunately we find it unlikely this book will entertain or enlighten the majority of the public which it seeks to serve. The work and the format simply do not seem a good match.

CPW/JMB

Review of The Five Capitals of Alabama: The Story of Alabama’s Capital Cities from St. Stephens to Montgomery, by Tom Bailey

19 Oct

The story of Alabama’s five capitals incorporates the full length of the state, including chapters in the Tennessee Valley, the Black Belt, and the southwestern coastal plain. Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Cahawba, and St. Stephens have all laid claim to being the state’s seat of government at one time or another between the territorial period and the first decades of statehood. The movement of the state’s governmental center from one locale to the other does not follow an arbitrary course, but rather, traces Alabama’s development over time. Tracking it provides a geographic framework for understanding how its borders took shape, where its people lived and worked, and where its economic and political centers were located over time. Here to chronicle that saga and introduce readers to the intriguing historic sites the former capitals and current seat of government have become is Tom Bailey with Five Capitals of Alabama: The Story of Alabama’s Capital Cities from St. Stephens to Montgomery.

Bailey is an experienced writer. In addition to producing numerous biographies of notable Alabamians for younger readers, he has worked as an editor for both the Anniston Star and Birmingham News. In this book, Bailey sticks to what he knows best as a journalist and storyteller—meaning this is no academic history but rather a compelling and fast-moving introduction to a part of Alabama’s colorful past that will be new to many readers. Clearly a book for the general reader, the book heavily relies on only a few sources, though they are unquestionably some of the best sources on the subject. It features an easy-going, summary-style presentation. A collection of large-format, richly-colored and evocative images are the heart of the book, and little wonder given that the photographers NewSouth Books worked with on the project are some of the best in the business. Art Meripol spent over two decades working with Southern Living, and Robin McDonald has been the principal photographer for Alabama Heritage magazine for even longer. The collective visual images of the sites and structures associated with Alabama’s seat of government are unparalleled as an assemblage dedicated to the subject and encourage readers to explore the sites featured on their own. The Five Capitals of Alabama is a beautiful keepsake book that anyone with an interest in Alabama history will enjoy.

JMB