Review of Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom, by Robert Gudmestad

27 Jul

Outside of the cotton gin itself, there is no technology more closely associated with the rise of the antebellum South’s cotton trade than the steamboat. Developed at the very time in which some of the richest cotton lands on the planet were being put under cultivation for the fiber which stood in unprecedented demand by northeastern and European markets, the steamboat played a key role in the economics of the region. Providing an insightful overview of the importance of steamboats in the development of the Deep South is Robert Gudmestad with Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. The book, which I recently listened to in audiobook format, is a rather wide-ranging study that investigates these iconic boats in their reality as machines, economic tools, and extensions of antebellum Southern society.

Gudmestad clearly has a love of his subject, and communicates the importance of steamboats to the antebellum South with rare thoroughness. Examining everything from the technicalities of their machinery to life for workers aboard them, the book is a look at steamboats and their role at a time and place from seemingly every angle. The most interesting passages are Gudmestad’s depictions of travel aboard steamboats from the perspective of travelers and workers. Notions of ease and grandeur surround river travel of the time even today, but Gudmestad takes readers into the cabins, boiler rooms, and pilothouses of steamboats on Southern rivers to explore it in its gritty reality. Crowded, dirty, rigidly segregated, and featuring frequent stops to take on as much cotton as could be packed aboard, steamboat travel was far from glamorous. The hazards of navigation, lack of regulations that made their operation relatively dangerous, and fierce competition for lucrative business are all explored. Sometimes this information is explained from multiple perspectives, however, and at points there is some repetition of information. Less satisfying are the author’s attempts to conflate steamboat travel with wider trends in Southern history, such as devoting a chapter to their role in transporting Native Americans west during forced Removal. His reflections on steamboat’s impact on the environment yield some surprising details on the level of deforestation that accompanied the operation of their wood-fired boilers and the amount of raw sewage they dumped into rivers in the course of their operation. But these passages feel less well developed and relevant to the main story as do other chapters.

Overall the book is an entertaining and enlightening read, informed by the author’s evident deep research into every account he could find on the operation of and travel on steamboats. Gudmestad communicates clearly his primary point—that steamboats facilitated the rise of the “cotton kingdom” by providing ready transportation of goods to market and people to places, and spurred the development of the interior South at a faster pace than it might otherwise have been accomplished. In his view, steamboats placed the interior South at the very forefront of modernization in antebellum America, a surprising contention but one meriting consideration as it involves commercial networks. In final analysis, the book probably attempts to do a little too much by placing the steamboat at the center of everything in the antebellum South, and perhaps would be more useful with a tighter focus. Still, for anyone interested in one of the primary technologies which influenced how and where the Old South’s economy grew and all that made it tick, this short book will be an enjoyable read.


Review of Presidential Archivist: A Memoir, by David Alsobrook

20 Jul

David Alsobrook’s recently published memoir, Presidential Archivist, is a candid and thoughtful reflection on the distinguished career of a public servant by one of the most successful and influential members of his profession. Alsobrook, an Alabama native, played a central role in the creation of three presidential libraries in addition to serving in a variety of other positions in the federal government and in cultural heritage institutions in his home state during his working career. His recollections of a remarkable life’s work are a unique window not only on his personal experiences but on how the archival profession has developed over the last several decades.

Those who have met or known Alsobrook—and his connections are extensive throughout the nation and especially in Alabama—are aware his easygoing, affable nature belies his rare talent, ability, and experience. Anyone who can successfully navigate the treacherous political waters of party factionalism at the federal level over a period of decades and be asked to be involved in creating the public legacy of both Democratic and Republican presidents in our modern era is obviously held in high regard by a broad spectrum of people. As is revealed in the pages of the book, Alsobrook’s path to rubbing elbows with world leaders seemed unlikely in his youth. Born into modest circumstances in post-World War II Mobile, he found his way into what was at the time the new archival program at Auburn University—in fact he was its first doctoral student—after earning a master’s degree in history by happy accident. It was during a climb into the dirty, hot, loft of a barn in rural Alabama to retrieve records of an old mercantile establishment, in fact, that he claims to have realized he had found his calling. He served a stint at the Alabama Department of Archives and History (his delineation of that organization’s leadership during the era is instructive to those interested in Alabama history) before obtaining a job with the Office of Presidential Libraries in Washington, DC. Over the next quarter-century, Alsobrook would enmesh himself in a unique career path which would bring him into the orbit of some of the most powerful people in the world.

The portions of the book which will resonate with most readers will be will likely be his discussion of his work on the Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton presidential libraries. From behind-the-scenes insight into how presidential administration transition teams are created and the work they do to details into the scope, purposes, and development of presidential libraries, his narrative of his archival career is enlightening, entertaining, and fast-moving. This is despite the avalanche of acronyms for the various agencies and departments with which he worked. Most interesting in this regard are his reflections on the personal connections, however fleeting they sometimes were, with our nations’ leaders and their wives. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George and Barbara Bush all make appearances as real people in the pages of the book. Their actual personalities, interests, attitudes, and quirks may surprise some. Through it all Alsobook is straightforward, as unawed in his assessments of these historical figures as he is modest in his role in crafting the repositories for their records.

Just as intriguing as any of Alsobrook’s encounters with presidents and first ladies is his cautionary tale on the mercurial nature of American political loyalties at the levels to which he ascended. Running afoul with the inner circle of trusted confidants of powerful people ultimately forced an unwanted change of theater for Alsobrook late in his career. The incident was not based around philosophical differences on politics or competing visions for institutional purpose, but apparently some rather indecorous, pointless squabbling among turf-obsessed administrators at a university. Yet Alsobrook’s account of his latter years within the presidential library system is far removed from any sort of bitter ax-grinding, and in truth is treated with a good deal more grace than is perhaps merited. It struck me as impactful all the same owing to the fact that his experience illustrates with unusual clarity the tragically petty, self-centered, unconstructive and myopic nature of American party politics at times, even decades after the careers of the politicians who are at the center of all of it have ended. 

Presidential Archivist is a unique book but one that will likely enjoy a rather modest readership. “Archivist memoir” is not a category one typically finds on bestsellers list, after all. Nonetheless to those with an interest in the profession, American politics, and Alabama biography the book is a compelling record of the career of a distinguished public servant who has quite literally played an unheralded role in the preservation of nothing less than multiple eras of American history.


Review of Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, by Steven E. Woodworth

13 Jul

The Civil War in the western theater is perhaps best understood as a complicated series of maneuvers by the opposing armies taking place over large swaths of territory, all with the aim of getting into position for decisive actions. They are linked in at least two ways. One, the overall strategy pursued centered on defense or capture of strategic geographic points. Second, virtually all of the major campaigns to take place in the theater—at least while the outcome of the larger conflict lay in doubt—at one point or another featured some combination of negligence, incompetence, or arrogance on the part of the Confederate high command which contributed mightily to defeat and failure when victory and success were realistic possibilities. So it was with the series of events in central and eastern Tennessee which unfolded between June and December of 1863, usually explained by historians in their separate components—The Tullahoma Campaign, The Battle of Chickamauga, The Siege and Battle of Chattanooga, and the Knoxville Campaign. These campaigns, waged for control of a pivotal region, were all to some degree bungled affairs for Southern arms. In an effort to best communicate their significance to Confederate defeat, noted historian Steven Woodworth offers a comprehensive narrative of these interrelated events in his groundbreaking book, Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns.

Woodworth, a professor of history at Texas Christian University, is one of the nation’s foremost Civil War scholars in general and a leading expert in the conflict’s western theater specifically. He is author of numerous books on the war. Included among his growing list of publications are such noteworthy titles as Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War, Beneath a Northern Sky: A Short History of the Gettysburg Campaign, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, Shiloh: Confederate High Tide in the Heartland, Chickamauga: A Battlefield Guide, and Cultures in Conflict: The American Civil War. With Six Armies in Tennessee, originally published in 1998, he offers a masterful and unusually comprehensible overview of some of the most decisive campaigns of the war in the west. As indicated in its title, the book focuses on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga campaigns. But it also gives significant attention to the maneuvering in central Tennessee preparatory to those clashes (the Tullahoma Campaign) as well as the closely related effort by the Confederates to break the Federal occupation of Knoxville.

Woodworth seamlessly integrates the entirety of the complicated series of movements in Tennessee in the pivotal year of 1863 in his book. He allows readers to understand them as not only closely associated with each other, but taken together, enormously consequential to the course of the war. Woodworth believes this is owing to the fact that they essentially ended Confederate control of Tennessee and opened the way for Federal advances on vital targets in the Deep South, as well as devastated Confederate morale. He combines an exceptional grasp of military strategy with an uncanny ability to point out the failures of command as he compresses enormous amounts of information into a concise, insightful, and well-argued narrative. This is not a blow-by-blow account of every regiment’s experience in every fight. Rather, it is an analysis of the campaigns in concept and execution explained in the context of the geography on which they occurred. With that said, Woodworth’s accounts of military events are still stellar. His depictions of the confused, close-quarters clash at Chickamauga, the surreal scenes of the fighting along the mountains ledges in front of Chattanooga, and the ignominious assault on Fort Sanders at Knoxville are at once clear, concise, and colorful.

Rarely have we been treated to more informed, straightforward, and we might even say, opinionated, conclusions in Civil War historiography. No major commander in blue or gray escapes thorough assessment in the pages of Six Armies. Woodworth paints Union General William S. Rosecrans, for example, as a slow-moving, by-the-book commander, whose methodical approach was found utterly wanting when compared to the aggressive and persistent style of General Ulysses S. Grant. For the Confederates, Woodworth describes General Braxton Bragg as a relatively talented strategist if ineffectual leader of men, whose best plans were unmade by the rank incompetence of officers such as Leonidas Polk or the blatant inability of James Longstreet, and in general by the pervasive dysfunction of the Rebel officer corps. Both armies, according the Woodworth, had their share of triumphs, blunders, courageous stands, and shameful episodes over the course of the fateful half-year he chronicles. Confederate defeat was sealed, he explains, owing as much as anything to their consistent ability to miss golden opportunities.

Woodworth’s book is one of the best to be written about the Civil War in the western theater, and anyone seriously interested in the topic should have it in their library. There is only one insufficiency which we must point out. As we have mentioned in countless reviews of similar books, the frustrating lack of maps in makes it difficult to grasp all the information presented by the author at times. When reading this volume, we both found ourselves resorting to pulling out other books featuring maps of the battles and regions discussed to fully understand the geography and troop movements under discussion. This was definitely the case when reading his narrative about Chickamauga which did not contain a single map! The absence of visual aids stands out especially harsh in a book like this which features such a heavy description of maneuvering over hundreds of miles of land. Provided you have a Civil War atlas handy, we feel sure that you will find this book incredibly informative about the campaigns it details specifically, and about Confederate defeat in the western theater in general.


Review of A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable, by John Steele Gordon

6 Jul

It is difficult for many of us to imagine just how transformative an event in world history was the laying of the first transatlantic cable back in the mid-nineteenth century. Up until that point, communication between Europe and North America—and by extension much of the rest of the world via a growing network of telegraph systems—still took weeks if not months. The technological challenges standing in the way of ever changing that situation were so monumental that devising a way to carry messages across thousands of miles of open water via any means other than a ship seemed so far beyond possibility in the 1850s as to barely be worth contemplating. Of course someone eventually did develop a way to make such communication possible by the mid-1860s, with the end result that the connection it enabled would do nothing less than alter world history. I recently got a chance to listen to John Steele Gordon’s account of the trials and tribulations involved in the laying of the first trans-ocean cable, A Thread Across the Ocean. I found it a surprisingly intriguing story about an event I probably would have never given much thought to otherwise.

Cyrus Field, the financier who secured the financial backing for the project, had relatively little expertise in the technology of telegraphy at first, but grasped perhaps better than anyone in his age its potential to link the world together. From 1857 to 1866 he dedicated himself to seeing the project through, somehow convincing governments and private funders that it would and could happen despite setback after setback. To his credit, author John Steele Gordon, who has written several books about America’s business history including An Empire of Wealth and The Great Game: A History of Wall Street, finds a way to relate his story as one less about science than human experience.

There are of course several passages in the book describing how the special cable was manufactured, how the ships were specially equipped for the job, and a basic explanation of how messages were sent over such a device at the time, but this is not a book about technology. The bulk of the narrative actually discusses the adventure involved in making such an audacious dream come to reality. In every attempt—and there were multiple—there is a story of high drama on the open seas that the author relates in compelling fashion. It is hard not to feel for the crews charged with the work behind making one of the technological feats of the age happen, as they came frustratingly close to success several times before finally achieving their goal. The cable broke on one occasion near the very end of the job and sank quietly into the sea, bringing a sudden end to years of preparation and months of work. In another it was actually laid from Canada to Ireland and messages transmitted for a day or two before the system failed entirely. Even in the last, ultimately successful effort, there was a breakage and the cable was somehow fished up from the bottom of the depths of the ocean from over two miles down and spliced back together, a remarkable achievement which seems astounding to consider today.

A Thread Across the Ocean was a relatively quick listen, coming in at just a little over six hours in length. As with any audiobook, it would probably have been even more enlightening to have seen the images and maps surely contained in the printed version. But it was an enjoyable book about an incredible and globally significant event that I dare so most historians have barely, if ever, contemplated.


Review of American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, by Daniel Rasmussen

29 Jun

Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831 or the Haitian Revolution on Saint Domingue in the late 1790s are common responses when anyone is asked about slave revolts in North America. The largest slave uprising in the United States occurred, however, in 1811 in New Orleans, but has been largely forgotten by historians and the general public alike. Daniel Rasmussen corrects this oversight and explains why this gripping story has been ignored with American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.  

Rasmussen sets the scene by discussing the harsh life of slaves working at sugar cane cultivation along the German Coast, located along the Mississippi River north of New Orleans. Disgruntled slaves fed up with their life of servitude in such miserable conditions held secret meetings to foment their plans. They held these discussions during the annual Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations which distracted white plantation owners and determined a time for launching their assault. Charles Deslondes, a slave driver of a large sugarcane plantation, took charge of the uprising and chose his workplace as its first target. On January 8, 1811, Deslondes and others descended upon the Woodlands Plantation of Manuel Landy, murdering his son, but the elder Landy escaped and spread the alarm. The slave army grew to nearly 500 members, many of whom wore captured militia uniforms. Armed with pikes and guns, they marched towards New Orleans, leaving burning plantations in their wake. Eventually, local militia and other plantation owners overwhelmed the makeshift force. Many of the defeated slaves were killed and their heads were placed on pikes along the river as a warning to others. Rasmussen describes the events in riveting detail, events of which I had little knowledge.

As for why this epic event has not gotten more press, Rasmussen explains a concerted effort was made afterwards to change the narrative from a revolution for freedom to one of a crime by an inferior race. Territorial Governor William C. C . Claiborne focused on the event turning multicultural Louisiana into an American State as former Frenchmen banded together to end this criminal act, establishing more civil and institutional power. Other historians glossed over the event, mentioning the event in only a sentence or two, having no desire to tell a story of men fighting for freedom. No tales could be told that impacted the accepted doctrine of white supremacy. Rasmussen says it was not until communist leaning college professors in the 1950s began exploring the topic that it was brought to light. Even today, however, the event is barely known. For instance, there is only one historic marker, located at a busy intersection at the site of a plantation where the uprising began.

American Uprising provides a fast-paced account that speeds the reader (or listener as I experienced this via audiobook) through the revolt, its background, and aftermath. Rasmussen places this event in the context of the Old Southwest and the growth of the nation, providing plenty of information and insight about the political, cultural, and racial situation of the times. His explanation for the event’s lack of notoriety is fascinating although I wonder if the description in the epilogue of a black Civil Rights leader’s militant struggle in North Carolina in the 1950s is too much a stretch in its connection to events in the early nineteenth century. Anyone interested, however, in a strong narrative on early Louisiana history, its agricultural practices, and the horrifying slave revolt that grew out of it would do well to get this book.


Review of A History of Mobile in 22 Objects, ed. by Margaret McCrummen Fowler

22 Jun

The History Museum of Mobile recently staged a special exhibition showcasing some of its most compelling artifacts, entitled “A History of Mobile in 22 Objects.” Envisioned as an evocative introduction to the city’s incredibly rich history, the project explored the broad sweep of its past, including its founding as a colonial capital in 1702 all the way up to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill of 2010, through a thoughtful assemblage of objects from the museum’s collection. I picked up a copy of the exhibition catalog under the assumption it would be an interesting read and a unique keepsake. I was not disappointed.

The catalog contains short essays on each object chosen for the exhibition by some of the leading scholars who have sorted through Mobile’s rich heritage, ranging from professors to preservationists and authors to archaeologists. Including an eclectic mix of items, such as a handcart for moving cotton bales and an identification badge used by a World War II shipyard employee, the catalog is a veritable tour through the museum’s diverse and large collection of artifacts. Each essay is accompanied by beautiful color images of not only the object, but the context in which it was used or produced. The whole volume is introduced and concluded with thoughtful pieces by museum director Margaret McCrummen Fowler which both set the stage and point the way for the future of the museum in terms of its collection development.

A History of Mobile in 22 Objects is an entertaining read for anyone with an interest in the storied past of one of the South’s oldest and most intriguing cities. It makes no pretense that the objects chosen to be featured can tell the whole story of such a multifaceted community as Mobile, but it would be hard to argue that the grouping does not address some of the most vital aspects of its heritage. In concept and execution it is the very essence of the curator’s craft.


Review of The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863, by Edward Cunningham

8 Jun

Port Hudson in Louisiana has always been the forgotten aspect of the Union’s campaign to gain control of the Mississippi River. Countless books and articles have been written about the attempts to capture Vicksburg, whereas works on the fall of Port Hudson are few and far between. Edward Cunningham, whose dissertation on Shiloh was only recently published, wrote The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863 nearly fifty years ago. Although a few more books have been written on the subject, Cunningham’s brief, but solid narrative of the gallant defense by a small Confederate force aided by poor Union leadership still stands as perhaps the best work on the subject.

Confederate forces established the bastion at Port Hudson in 1862 to not only provide another stronghold on the Mississippi River, but also to help monitor and control the junction of the Red River and the Mississippi. Many supplies came to the rest of the Confederacy from that source. While Ulysses S. Grant attempted to capture Vicksburg, Nathaniel Banks sought to secure Port Hudson’s fall. In March of 1863, Union Admiral David Farragut first tested the bastion’s strength when he attempted to run several ships past the fort’s guns. Only two ships made it past and he lost the famous USS Mississippi in the process. Banks’s Army of the Gulf eventually besieged the fort and tried to capture it with two major assaults (May 27 and June 14) that failed miserably due to poor planning and coordination. A third assault was in the works when word of Vicksburg’s capitulation was received and Confederate leaders knew there was no further need to hold the fortress as Banks could simply starve them out. Confederate leadership had hoped Banks would attempt another assault that they could beat back again which might lead to the dissolution of the Union force which was already threatened with near mutiny.

Cunningham provides a straightforward examination of this campaign. His narrative, although at times a bit dry and heavy with unit and commander names explains the harsh nature of the siege and the bitter, personal, fighting it featured. Cunningham offers numerous details about the fiercely contested assaults on the Confederate position and the close-quarters fighting in which the opposing armies were frequently in close enough contact to throw grenades at each other by hand. He also relates information on the constant skirmishing which resulted in sudden death for any who let their guard down for an instant and how the stifling heat and miserable conditions impacted the course of the siege. He is more matter-of-fact than one might expect about how the stench of decomposing bodies of Federal soldiers left in the summer sun or how Confederates being reduced to eating rats and dogs in the last days of the siege when their food supplies ran out impacted the course of events, but the whole story of Port Hudson is here. Confederate leader Franklin Gardner gets high marks for utilizing his small force expertly and Banks is criticized severely for his poor handling of troops. A better selection of maps would have helped the narrative immensely. Readers get the sense that had the Southern force been kept supplied, that they would have held on forever against the likes of Banks. The defenders of Vicksburg have long been praised by historians for their defense, but this book clearly shows how those at Port Hudson remained steadfast to the end.  Anyone looking for a quick read on the campaign that truly opened the Mississippi River will be satisfied.


Review of Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, by Walter R. Borneman

25 May

I have always thought, perhaps wrongly I will admit, that America’s presidents of the 1840s and 1850s were a relatively undistinguished lot of leaders. At a time when our nation was gradually drifting towards a cataclysmic sectional war, the country clearly needed dynamic statesmen who could form consensus on pressing issues and keep the nation together. What we got instead was the likes of John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan—all no doubt talented men in their own right and each contributing something to the nation’s growth, but hardly ready candidates for a top ten list of American presidents. Seeking to learn more about the leadership of a pivotal era of growth and divisive sectionalism in the United States, I decided to listen to an audio version of Walter Borneman’s acclaimed biography of James K. Polk. Entitled Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, this book boldly claims its subject to be deserving of a place of esteem as among our top tier of presidents.

Part of the reason I selected the book is the track record of the author in producing intriguing narratives on important parts of America’s history. Including volumes on the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and World War II, his books have frequently been best-sellers. Having read or listened to three of his works previously, I expected to find a well-written and balanced narrative. I was not disappointed.

Polk is an authoritative biography of a rather remarkable man mostly still remembered vaguely as a “dark horse” presidential candidate who served a single but enormously consequential term. Borneman reveals much about what we think we know about Polk to be incorrect, starting with the notion he was an unlikely or unexpected candidate for the presidency. A protégé of Andrew Jackson, he was accomplished and nationally known prior to his election and in fact had rather carefully orchestrated his bid for the nation’s highest office. Not only had he served in important leadership roles in Congress, but he had also served as governor of Tennessee. But in addition to being more well-regarded at the time than we generally give him credit for today, Borneman points out he should be remembered for the successful accomplishment of one of the more ambitious agendas of any president before or since. Polk oversaw controversial tariff reductions, reestablished an independent Treasury, and under his guidance brought millions of acres of new land into American control, nearly doubling the size of the nation. He brought Texas into the Union, skillfully negotiated the acquisition of Oregon, and took for America California and much of the Southwest. A bold expansionist, the Polk in Borneman’s book is a versatile and able statesman with a clear vision for the nation’s future. He was also a micro-manager and a workaholic who Borneman believes quite literally may have worked himself to death at the age of just fifty-three.

Much of book focuses on what most regard the pivotal event of his presidency, the Mexican War. In truth the central chapters of the volume are essentially a history of that contest, detailing the political maneuvering which brought it about and chronicling its major military campaigns in overview fashion. Borneman ties it all together nicely, helping readers better understand a pivotal era of dynamic, if sometimes controversial, growth which forever changed America. What all this expansion meant for the nation and how it would play a role in the coming divisive era defined by sectionalism and civil war is not touched upon even in the conclusion. This is perhaps because Borneman wants Polk, a shadowy but clearly consequential political figure if ever there was one, to have his tenure evaluated on its own merits. By any measure, his was one of the most effective relative to its goals and one of the most important relative to national growth. Polk is a good read (listen) and an intriguing introduction to a man and an era most of us still know all too little about.


Review of The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863, edited by Steven F. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear

18 May

Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s rapid and successful campaign across Mississippi that culminated in the siege of Vicksburg has been referred to as the “Mississippi Blitzkrieg.” After several failed attempts to get at the city, Grant finally decided to march his troops southward along the river in Louisiana to eventually cross over so he could finally operate on Mississippi soil. From there, his men cut a swath across the Magnolia state, marched hundreds of miles, won five battles, captured the state’s capital and eventually besieged the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” Over a span of three weeks, Grant’s triumphant Vicksburg Campaign led to perhaps the war’s greatest victory.  In a volume of the Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series, editors Steven Woodworth and Charles Grear present essays that detail this remarkable feat in The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863.

Eleven essays cover several topics over the time period between when Grant sent Union ironclads and supply boats south of the city to after the battle of Big Black River Bridge which led to Confederate General John Pemberton’s army retreating back within the city’s defenses.  Some of today’s most respected historians are featured in this collection and their essays explain and evaluate various aspects of Grant’s successful campaign. Gary D. Joiner discusses the navy’s contribution such as running the gauntlet of guns to providing logistical support. Not only does editor Grear discuss Benjamin Grierson’s Union cavalry raid that pre-occupied Pemberton, but discusses how the raid has been remembered throughout the years. Jason Frawley, Woodworth, and Timothy Smith discuss the three battles of Port Gibson, Jackson, and the Big Black River Bridge respectively. J. Parker Hills discusses Grant’s march from Port Gibson to Raymond and the choices he faced regarding the direction his army needed to move. Personalities, relationships, and strategy are explored by several writers. Michael Ballard discusses Grant and his troublesome subordinate John McClernand and John Lundberg discusses the failures of Confederate General Joseph Johnston. Other essays detail the role of intelligence gathering (William B. Feis) and soldiers and civilians (Steven Dossman.) The last essay by Paul Schmelzer examines Grant’s campaign in terms of the philosophy of Carl von Clausewitz.

As with any book of essays, the appeal of each is probably based upon each reader’s individual interest. Hills’s essay answered a long-time question of ours on why Grant did not immediately march northward to Vicksburg after winning at Port Gibson. Hills states Grant wanted to get astride the east/west railroad (Southern R.R.) and come in from the east and prevent reinforcements from making it to Vicksburg.  Ballard’s essay on the McClernand/Grant relationship was fascinating as although Grant mainly distrusted his subordinate, he did trust him enough for his corps to lead the army across the river and fight the first major battle. Conversely, Schmelzer’s essay on Clausewitz did not speak to either of us. Regardless, these essays all add to our understanding of this momentous campaign. This Vicksburg edition of the Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series joins a fine list of other volumes that provide a great outlet for essays on battles that are quick and easy reads for the historian or laymen alike to learn more about the war’s important battles out west.  


Review of A Storm in Flanders, The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front, by Winston Groom

11 May

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scare heard amid the guns below.

World War I has given us perhaps the most famous military-themed poem of all time with John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Famed writer and novelist Winston Groom’s foray into the “War to End all Wars” includes the history of this poem and much more in his epic A Storm in Flanders, The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front.  Groom utilizes larger-than-life storytelling to narrate the horrors of war in Belgium while placing it in the larger context of the war.

All soldiers who fought in World War I experienced terrors unknown to men at that time.  Improvements in military technology such as machine guns, artillery, tanks, flamethrowers, and poison gas allowed armies to kill their enemies in numbers undreamed of before this conflict, leading to trench warfare that dragged on for years without either the Central Powers or the Allies gaining an upper hand. The fighting on the northern end of the western front in Belgium typified this warfare and Groom narrates it superbly. For four years, the two sides fought over land in terrain that could only be described as nightmarish as constant rain and artillery bombardments ripped the ground to shreds.  There were four major battles around the Ypres Salient over those years, but men fought and died on daily basis, littering the land with thousands upon thousands of corpses with neither side gaining any true advantage. Men fought on with no real hope of success, suffering from plummeting morale and dwindling hopes of survival.  Groom presents it all in clear and vibrant language, filling the reader with the hopelessness of it all. From providing stories of the front line soldier to the intrigues of generals devising their plans for achieving the breakthrough that would end the war, Groom lays it all out until the war finally comes to a merciful conclusion.

Experiencing this as an audiobook brought the horrors of this conflict even more to life. A shout-out to narrator David Baker who read Groom’s prose superbly. Not being an expert on the fighting in Flanders, I am unable to fully critique Groom’s work, but I know his narrative included plenty of first-hand accounts that brought the conflict to life.  He also offers the obvious critiques of generalship such as when he faults British General Douglas Haig for the fighting at Passchendaele; one of the book’s most memorable moments came after a British general surveyed the battlefield afterward, staring in disbelief about sending troops to advance in that quagmire of mud. 

There might be more accurate and detailed books on war in this portion of Europe, but none that fully capture the horror and futility of the fighting in World War I. Coined by a British psychologist as “Shell Shock” and known today as PTSD, readers, or in my case listeners, can fully understand about the breaking point of soldiers when they are asked to do too much.

A Storm of Flanders is yet another exceptional book by Groom whose historic works have brought iconic moments in history to life for the general public; a highly recommended read.

We are the Dead. Short days ago.

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though Poppies grow

In Flanders fields.