Review of Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron, by Gary D. Joiner

2 Mar

The contribution of the Union Navy in achieving victory over the Confederacy has long been underappreciated. As a whole, scholars have focused their studies on armies, commanders, and land battles rather than on the naval aspect of war. The blockade of the Southern coastline and the famous Monitor/Virginia ironclad duel has received some attention, but the efforts of the inland navy which helped the Union win many victories along the rivers has not gotten the full credit it deserves. Gary D. Joiner traces those efforts in Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy, The Mississippi Squadron.

General Winfield Scott’s famous Anaconda Plan provided the blueprint for Union victory in the war. Scott proposed to blockade the coastlines and penetrate the southern interior via the rivers to split the Confederacy asunder which would force the South’s capitulation. At the start of the war, however, the Union possessed no ships capable of riverine duty. Several key individuals helped create a force from scratch. Joiner gives special attention to James B. Eads and Samuel Pook, whose efforts helped create the formidable ironclads that gave the Union a war-winning advantage. Along with timberclads, tinclads, and rams, this eventual Mississippi Squadron would eventually dominate the western waters, reducing the effectiveness of fortifications that the Confederacy had built for defense as well as overwhelm the few naval vessels the South could muster.

After the fleet’s creation, Joiner narrates the gunboat flotilla’s role in the campaigns along the western waters. Starting with the decisive victories at Fort Henry and Donelson, he continues through the war in chronological fashion with accounts of actions at Shiloh, Island #10, New Orleans, Arkansas Post, Memphis, Vicksburg and the Red River campaign. Not surprisingly since Joiner has written the definitive book on the latter action, one of the better chapters in terms of narration and detail is that on the efforts along the Red River. The book reads smoothly, informing the reader of the navy’s role in these campaigns in straightforward, matter-of-fact prose. The book contains 175 pages, which includes endnotes and numerous maps and illustrations.

Joiner adequately, and at times definitively, describes all the actions he chronicles, but most of the information is contained in other studies of these individual battles and campaigns. We were hoping for a bit more of an overview analysis that reinforces the thesis that Union naval efforts were paramount to winning the war. The book’s last paragraph does state the war in the West could not have succeeded without the brown water fleet, and perhaps the facts speak for themselves, but a stronger conclusion which outlined how the squadron figured into the overall success of the Union war effort would have made a solid book even better in our opinion.


Review of War in Kentucky: From Shiloh to Perryville, by James Lee McDonough

23 Feb

“I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky,” is just one of Abraham Lincoln’s memorable quotes. Although sometimes regarded as comical, the remark addressed the critical importance of the Bluegrass state for both the Union and Confederate forces. Southern troops abandoned Kentucky in early 1862 following a string of defeats, but the fall presented the Confederacy an opportunity to reverse the tide of war and reclaim Kentucky. James Lee McDonough describes these events in a fast-moving narrative in his War in Kentucky: From Shiloh to Perryville.

After the crucial battle of Shiloh and capture of Corinth, Mississippi, Union General Henry Halleck faced a choice of several options, any of which would impact the immediate course of the war. He could marshal his forces and attack the important river city at Vicksburg or press the defeated Confederate forces at Tupelo. Instead of these aggressive moves, Halleck opted to strengthen his supply lines and move Don Carlos Buell’s army towards Chattanooga. Lincoln, always concerned with East Tennessee and the plight of the large loyal population there, was pleased, but many historians have since assented that Halleck missed an opportunity and more importantly, yielded the initiative to the Confederate forces. Braxton Bragg quickly transported his troops via rail to Chattanooga to plan an offensive operation with Kirby Smith into Kentucky. The prospects appeared bright for the Confederates, but like in so many cases in the war’s western theater, looks could be deceiving.

The seeds of failure had been planted when Smith and Bragg failed to establish a unified command or clearly defined military objectives.  Smith and Bragg’s forces were supposed to unite as they maneuvered northward, but Smith’s forces proceeded alone. Smith never seemed to want to place his men under Bragg’s command. Smith’s army did win one of the Confederacy’s most complete victories of the war at Richmond, Kentucky, but rather than try to unite with Bragg, he proceeded to Lexington where he hoped to arm thousands of eager Kentuckians for the Confederate cause. Bragg’s men moved through Tennessee and into Kentucky, winning a small affair on the railroad at Munfordville. Here, Bragg also faced a critical decision. His force stood astrideBuell’s supply line to Louisville so he could have held his ground and forced Buell to attack. He could have chosen to march against Louisville itself or try to move towards Smith so they could unite forces. He chose the latter. Again, without any real plan of action, the only objective Smith and Bragg seemed to share was gathering Kentucky troops. McDonough hits hard on their lack of specific goals as being the paramount reason for the campaign’s dismal results.

McDonough is at his best in providing analysis of the commanders and their decisions, whether it is his own or reminding us of those of other historians. Besides faulting the poor Confederate command structure and lack of objectives, he also analyzes Buell’s actions. He faults Buell’s lack of aggressiveness at several turns where decisive action might have meant victory. For instance, he could have moved his forces to block Bragg’s path towards Kentucky, but instead chose to head to Nashville instead. He also points out the many faults of Confederate general Leonidas Polk for not following orders and provides a quote from Bragg biographer Grady McWhiney who stated “Polk probably had been a bishop too long to be a successful subordinate.” 

As the armies came together in the sleepy town of Perryville as they searched for water during a particularly dry season, Buell had an overwhelming numerical superiority and yet only a fraction of his men saw action. The dreaded natural phenomenon known as acoustic shadow prevented the sound of battle from reaching his headquarters a relatively short distance off, but this does not fully explain how Bragg’s men were allowed to maul a lone Union corps while thousands of Federals were within easy distance of providing assistance.  In terms of major Civil War battles, Perryville is one of the smaller ones, but McDonough provides plenty of first-hand accounts attesting to its ferocity. Famed Confederate private Sam Watkins, who fought in almost every battle in the Western Theater and later wrote one of the most-quoted accounts of the war, claimed he was never in “a harder contest and more evenly fought battle than that at Perryville.” Bragg eventually saw he was outnumbered and pulled out. Buell’s lack of aggressiveness eventually cost him his command as Lincoln replaced him shortly afterward.

McDonough states that Bragg’s decision to abandon the campaign after Perryville rather than unite with Smith was another strategic choice which contributed to Confederate failure in Kentucky. Bragg was disheartened with the low numbers of Kentuckians who joined his army and with concerns over supply and the safety of Chattanooga, decided to head south. The grand campaign had concluded without any tangible results for the Confederacy except casualties that could not be replaced and a serious lack of trust in Bragg by his soldiers.

The Confederate Kentucky offensive was one of three in the fall of 1862. Bragg had left Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price in Mississippi with hopes they would march into Tennessee. Those dreams were dashed at Corinth. And of course, Robert E. Lee led the most famous campaign that was halted at Antietam. The Confederate high tide of the fall of 1862 was over once each of these advances were turned back. Interestingly enough, McDonough ends the book with a discussion of Lee fighting at Gettysburg. His point is Lee was trying to win a dramatic victory to overcome the multitude of Confederate defeats in the western theater, defeats that could never be overcome. Lee has been criticized for this maneuver, but McDonough seems to think it was the Confederacy’s best shot by the summer of 1863 considering the string of irreconcilable failures out west. A campaign of complex maneuverings over hundreds of miles of terrain with commanders having to make several critical decisions makes this Civil War campaign one of the more fascinating of the war. McDonough carefully guides the reader through it all, in well-written prose. Antietam gets all the headlines in the fall of 1862, but War in Kentucky makes it clear that it should share the spotlight with events in the Bluegrass.


Review of The Founding of Alabama: Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County, by Frances Cabaniss Roberts

16 Feb

This review was originally published in the January, 2021 issue of The Alabama Review

The extended celebration of the bicentennial of Alabama statehood has yielded a variety of excellent projects celebrating its rich heritage, none dearer to those of us interested in the interpretation of the state’s colorful history than the many great books which have made their appearance during this extravaganza. Especially remarkable in this special effort has been the veritable flood of scholarship which has been published on the state’s early years. This critical formative period had for too long been neglected in Alabama’s historiography, and the rediscovery of its significance sparked by the bicentennial is perhaps one of the celebration’s most substantial impacts. Few bicentennial-inspired books are more deserving of consideration by Alabama historians than one that was actually written over sixty years ago but finally made easily available to the public last year; Frances Cabaniss Roberts’ The Founding of Alabama: Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County.

Roberts was a highly respected historian, author, teacher, and community servant who enjoyed an accomplished career at the University of Alabama’s Huntsville (UAH) campus for over two decades and remained active in local cultural heritage organizations throughout her retirement years. Today the humanities building on the UAH campus, Frances C. Roberts Hall, bears her name. Roberts was the first woman to earn a doctorate in history at the University of Alabama in 1956, with “Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County” her dissertation. Despite never have been published, the manuscript has nonetheless been extraordinarily influential. It has been consulted by generations of historians delving into Alabama’s territorial and early statehood years, and long been recognized as among the definitive sources on the history of the region which is its focus.

As published by the University of Alabama Press in 2019 in attractive hardback form, the book contains an insightful introduction by Thomas Reidy, former lecturer at UAH. Reidy provides some information on the life, accomplishments, and point of view of Dr. Roberts, as well as some contextual background on how the practice of history has changed since the time she penned the dissertation. As he points out candidly, the book can rightfully be characterized as a product of its times, focusing as it does on the progress of white men in developing a “civilized” society which became a dynamic and influential part of the young state of Alabama. There is little discussion of slavery, and the cession of land which made the region’s transformation from Native American domain to American frontier elaborated upon merely is its processes. But this is not an overtly racist book to be disregarded as anachronistic by contemporary researchers. Its focused narrative still stands as the most detailed account of the process of Americanization of the Great Bend of the Tennessee region and it more than makes up for in detail on those events what it might lack in coverage of broader shared experiences.

Readers of The Founding of Alabama will be struck by depth of familiarity with the subject displayed by the author. The book evidences a thorough canvassing of resources on the history of the Madison County area, bringing to light information on the contours of its early development which stand up to scrutiny and remain authoritative in their particulars despite the intervening six decades of scholarship which have added to the story Roberts tells here. Some may also be surprised that Robert’s prose does not read as dated, either. It is straightforward narrative history, chock full of information but admittedly more utilitarian than florid.

Yet this prosaic style and tight focus is exactly what allows the book to still be a valuable contribution to Alabama historiography today. The Founding of Alabama details the development of “The Triangle,” the 345,000 or so acres bordering the Tennessee River in the south and the state boundary in the north, which came into American possession as a result of treaties with the Chickasaws and Cherokee in the early nineteenth century and was formally organized as Madison County in 1808. Since virtually the whole of Alabama’s Tennessee Valley tracks its American origins to this area, its story is in some ways inherently a regional saga in microcosm. Roberts’ narrative chronicles how this land came to play a central role in the development of the valley region and the Mississippi Territory as a whole, introducing readers to a host of speculators, traders, and agriculturalists who figure into the region’s story in the process. All of the events on the standard timeline of regional historical development receive treatment: the various schemes for development of the Tennessee Valley both speculative and extralegal; the distribution and use of land; the rise of an agricultural economy built upon slave labor, the path towards statehood; the Creek War; the Panic of 1819; the so-called Royal Party and the influence of wealthy Georgians in early politics; the formation of government; the establishment of communities, churches, and schools.

The book is vital as a reference source on early Alabama history for casual and professional historians alike and is a veritable treasure trove for geneaologists, as it lists not only prominent individuals but the names of dozens of pioneering merchants, minor officeholders, and early settlers in the Tennessee River region who appear in few other publications. While it does provide some nuggets of information on what life was like for the people whose lives it attempts to chronicle—relating the intriguing connection to the lost state of Franklin among some of Madison County’s founders, the festive atmosphere of militia muster day gatherings and political debates in the territorial and early statehood years, and glimpses at early architecture, for example—this is no cultural history. It is a nuts-and-bolts survey of how Madison County came into being and functioned as a part of the Mississippi Territory and the young state of Alabama. It is important on a local level owing to its richly detailed investigation into Huntsville area history, but it is significant statewide and beyond owing to its focus on a county that wielded disproportionate influence in Alabama’s formative years. Madison County at the time of Alabama statehood paid into the state treasury approximately a quarter of all tax it collected, claimed its largest and fastest-growing population, and was home to a concentration of political power unrivaled elsewhere in the state in the era. The region’s prominence was such that despite being located in its northern extremity, Huntsville hosted the state constitutional convention. The Founding of Alabama, then, is a timely contribution to state history whose publication is long overdue. It merits the attention of all interested in the state’s formative years.


Review of Andrew Jackson: Southerner, by Mark R. Cheathem

9 Feb

Andrew Jackson was a one-of-a-kind in American history whose influence and place in our nation’s political development is still fervently debated nearly two centuries after he last held public office. Jackson represented both the best and worst of the America of his time. As anyone who has ever studied his life in any detail can attest, his experiences can both inspire and revolt us all these many years later. He could be at once the selfless patriot and intrepid warrior and the greedy manipulator and condescending racist. Deciding what about him we should admire and what about the man we should disdain is not a new exercise, as even during his day Jackson was a lightning rod for controversy.

We have come to so associate Jackson with the westward expansion of America and the removal of European influence along and within our borders that we sometimes forget that he was, at heart, a Southerner. Born in the Carolinas, he established himself in Tennessee as a young man and won the fame that would propel him to the presidency in the Gulf South. In essence, historian Mark R. Cheathem claims in his recent book, Andrew Jackson: Southerner, everything about him lay fundamentally associated with the Southern slaveholding aristocracy that he strove to be a part of throughout his life. Only by understanding this basic point about his outlook and aspirations, says Cheathem, can we truly understand what animated him to pursue the course he did in the early nation’s political scene. Understanding Jackson merely as a frontiersman who brought the backwoods of the Old Southwest into the orbit of American ideals, in other words, misses a critical aspect of what made him tick. Cheathem, professor of history at Cumberland University and author of several books on Jackson and the era in which he came to power, is an authority on what we today call “Jacksonian America.” Clearly, his suggestions are worth noting by those of us interested in the time period about which he has devoted so much of his effort during his professional career.

The case Cheathem lays out to support his thesis is rather straightforward. He evaluates Jackson’s rise to prominence in a rough and tumble society which featured duels as almost a matter of course in the evolution of a gentleman. Cheathem follows him on his journeys throughout the Old Southwest and onto his plantation in central Tennessee to observe him as a slaveholder who relished the wealth and social standing the enterprise could bring men of his type during the era. He explores the network of extended kinship he forged and used to help him navigate his way through the political world he hoped to conquer. The end result is a thorough and entertaining biography of Jackson that emphasizes his identification with the Old South a bit more than most and brings to the table a few stories that those only casually familiar with Jackson will likely find new. But does it force a significant reconsideration of the man? I cannot say that it can. As a person who has long studied the era of Jackson’s rise and is familiar with the contours of its historical development, I am well aware of the physical and literal confluence of the Old South and the Old Southwest at the time. Cheathem has certainly highlighted that connection in a unique way and, to his credit, managed to write a solid biography of one of the most written-about figures in American history that truly takes a new approach. I certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in Old Hickory’s life and times, but not necessarily because it helps us understand him as anything more than what most already understand him to be. That is to say, he was an extraordinarily influential and controversial figure who can, as much or more than any other man, be studied as the very embodiment of an age in American history. By approaching the study of Jackson’s life from the slightly different direction Cheathem takes, it only makes his continuing relevance to the American story even more clear.

I should note that I listened to the audiobook version of the book, and have to say that the reader seemed to have little familiarity with the region in which Jackson performed the deeds that made him famous. The names of several people and places are routinely mispronounced, none more grating to the ears of those who know it better than his consistently calling Natchez, “Notches.” It may be a small point for most readers, but one to be aware of if considering the audiobook.


Review of Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy, by Donald Miller

2 Feb

Military Historian J.F.C. Fuller wrote, “Vicksburg, and not Gettysburg, was the crisis of the Confederacy.” (483)  The Vicksburg Campaign during the Civil War has been the subject of many studies and its importance to the conflict has been debated for years. Author Donald Miller has joined the conversation with his account that focuses on the Union perspective of capturing the Confederacy’s key bastion along the Mississippi River.

Miller, the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History Emeritus at Lafayette College, is most known for his works on World War II. He is a self-proclaimed late entrant to Civil War studies, but with Vicksburg, you would never know it. Miller has produced a solid, well-written narrative that covers the complexity of the Vicksburg campaign, that in the author’s mind, began in 1861 with Ulysses S. Grant in Cairo, Illinois. Miller relates early maneuvers such as Grant capturing Paducah, Kentucky, and fighting at Belmont, Missouri, which all contributed to either the eventual capture of Vicksburg or helped forge Grant into the winning general he would one day become. Readers trace Union armies and naval actions at Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Memphis, New Orleans, Iuka, and Corinth as part of the larger strategic endeavor to capture Vicksburg. Miller covers these campaigns expertly without ever getting too detailed and bogging down the reader, a skill unfortunately not all historians possess.

Following these initial episodes, Grant’s attempts to capture the city met with many failures over five months in late 1862 and early 1863. His overland railroad campaign was stymied by Confederate cavalry and his trusted lieutenant William T. Sherman met defeat north of the city at Chickasaw Bayou. These reverses were met with more setbacks as Grant attempted five different maneuvers through bayous and rivers to try to find a way to get his army into position to assault the city. Each attempt failed and left the army as well as the country to wonder if mighty Vicksburg would ever fall.

But eventually, Grant devised the witting strategy by sending his army south of the city and crossing the river in one of the most daring strategic military movements ever made. In eighteen days, his men marched 200 miles, won five battles and bottled up the main Confederate force from which they would not escape. Miller emphasizes that Vicksburg only fell when there was joint army/navy cooperation as the city always seemed to withstand any challenge when the two military arms acted independently. Grant deserves immense credit for the campaign but it would never have happened without the aid of the Union Navy led by David Dixon Porter.

Besides covering the basic military tactical maneuverings, Miller also emphasizes other important elements of this campaign to tell a more complete story. Miller devotes space to detail the struggles with supplying the army as well as the deadly sickness which killed hundreds of Union soldiers forced to camp near swamps and rivers in the spring and summer. Miller also stressed the hardships suffered by white Southerners caught in the Union army’s wake or trapped in Vicksburg during the siege.  Finally, Miller accentuates the massive social upheaval that the Union troop movements caused as hundreds and thousands of slaves broke away from captivity to follow the Union soldiers.

Miller also avoids a common mistake that many writers fall under when writing about an historic figure they obviously respect. Many writers fall into the trap of “hero worship” and fail to point out their subject’s failures and weaknesses. For example, Miller discusses Grant’s mistakes at Fort Donelson and Shiloh and even heavily criticizes Grant for failing to call a truce to allow his dead to be buried who had fallen in front of the Confederate trenches after the failed assaults on Vicksburg on May 19 and 22. He also examines the many occasions when Grant may or may not have overindulged with alcohol during several points of the campaign. Miller objectively lists the evidence in these instances and indicates that in many cases, the facts seem to indicate Grant’s guilt.

All in all, Miller has written a superb overview aimed at a general audience that this reviewer would recommend to anyone seeking one book to learn about this important struggle in capturing one of the South’s most important cities. Although a lengthy read at 500 pages, it does not overwhelm the reader and his prose makes it an easy page turner. The book’s fault is there is not enough information on the Confederate perspective which would have aided the reader in getting a more complete understanding of the campaign from both sides. Miller is to be commended on this work and it is hoped that he does not end his Civil War interest with Vicksburg, but chooses other aspects of our nation’s most important conflict to explore.


Review of World War One, A Short History, by Norman Stone

26 Jan

“The way was open for a second World War even more terrible than the first.”  This strong statement concludes World War One: A Short History with a prophetic warning and is just one of many excellent points by renowned author Norman Stone. Stone, whose works include the award-winning The Eastern Front 1914-1917 and the similar titled World War Two: A Short History, provides a concise and quick moving narrative about this horrendous conflict at the beginning of the twentieth century that unfortunately helped pave the way for a far more deadly one a generation later.

In only 190 pages of text, Stone provides a solid description of the events leading to war, the war itself, and its aftermath. Stone discusses Europe in 1914 and the tragic events that led to a global catastrophe. He skillfully discusses how war transformed from cavalry charges to the horrors of trench warfare and finally, the elements of modern war with tanks, aircraft and the offensive maneuvers that mirrored the future Blitzkrieg of World War II. Although the focus tends to fall upon the Western Front, he does not lose sight of the plight of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, Italy’s struggles, and the eventual fall of Czarist Russia which gave Germany a chance to achieve victory before the United States fully mobilized. Germany’s last ditch effort to win failed, leading to a decisive treaty at Versailles, punishment for Germany, and a false, yet powerful notion that Germany was not really defeated, but prevented from winning. This belief allowed Adolph Hitler to promote his extreme nationalistic program. Stone interspersed the drama with wit and wisdom and left us some gems in quotes such as referring to the Zimmerman telegram that led the United States to entering the war as “Germany’s suicide note.”

Having listened to the work rather than read it provided some difficulties. Following the military action did get confusing at times as one could not look at maps. But overall, the listening experience, at just five hours, was highly enjoyable. However, this (audio) book provided an outstanding overview of the conflict for one not overly knowledgeable of it. Stone’s writing is superb, allowing for readers (or listeners) to plow through at a rapid pace.  One does wonder how much of this epic drama is lost when confined to under two hundred pages and someone wanting a more detailed study should look to the works of John Keegan and others.


Review of the Darkest Days of the War: The Battles for Iuka and Corinth, by Peter Cozzens

19 Jan

Mississippi Civil War historiography is dominated by the struggle for Vicksburg and control over the Mississippi River. The importance of Corinth, the strategic city in northeast Mississippi situated at the junction of two vitally important railroads, has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves.  Peter Cozzens, retired U.S. Foreign Services Officer and author of several books on the Civil War’s western theater, seeks to remedy that situation with The Darkest Days of the War, The Battles for Iuka and Corinth. Although published twenty years ago, this volume remains the most complete study of these important, but mainly little-known battles fought in the Magnolia State.

Following the battle of Shiloh and the Union capture of Corinth, Northern armies yielded the initiative to the Confederacy in the spring of 1862. Confederate General Braxton Bragg transported the main force that lost at Shiloh to East Tennessee to combine with Kirby Smith’s Southern forces to invade Kentucky during the lull in activity. Bragg committed a huge error, however, when he failed to establish unified command with the troops he left in Mississippi. Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price both led separate armies that were not under one command and both interpreted Bragg’s instructions differently in terms of providing support for Bragg’s campaign. This led to Price acting independently and fighting alone at Iuka on September 19, where his force attacked one of two separate Union wings which were trying to converge upon him. Ulysses S. Grant failed to coordinate the forces properly and allowed Price to disengage after pushing his opponent back. Cozzens provides an excellent narrative of the small, yet bloody battle and explains in great detail the clash centering on the 11th Ohio Battery which was the focus of the battle.

Following Iuka, Price marched his men to join with Van Dorn’s forces to assault Corinth. Corinth had been ringed with strong fortifications begun by the Confederates during their occupation and improved by the Union once they garrisoned the place. His force, only slightly outnumbering the entrenched Union force at Corinth under the leadership of William Rosecrans, underwent a forced march with limited supplies and through extreme heat.  Cozzens describes how many of the solders marched wearily and without much hope knowing the solid earthworks that they would face. Confederate forces achieved some success on the first day’s battle on October 3 and according to Cozzens, perhaps could have captured the city had Mansfield Lovell’s division been more aggressive. The overnight hours allowed the Union forces to strengthen their lines and the Confederate attack the next day was beaten back with heavy casualties. Again, Cozzens’ narrative shines in his description of the battle, his portrayal of the action along Battery Robinett being especially compelling. Van Dorn eventually pulled his forces back and sought to escape. Again, poor coordination from Grant, who lacked his typical aggressiveness, prevented Van Dorn’s army from being destroyed. Rosecrans himself said he heard from Confederate officers who exclaimed “they were never so scared in their lives as they were after the defeat before Corinth.”

Iuka and Corinth simply added to the growing list of Confederate failures in the west by the fall of 1862. Poor leadership was to blame, this time being provided by Van Dorn and Lovell. Bragg, although perhaps dubiously, claimed these losses contributed to his failed campaign in Kentucky. Cozzens’s account is well-written and researched and is supported by excellent maps.  Few Civil War books on battles equal his ability to succinctly, but in excellent detail, relay the fighting in such dramatic prose and style. We highly recommend this book to any seeking both a riveting account of a pivotal but overlooked battle and additional evidence of how Confederate ineptitude in the west squandered any possibilities for success. 


Review of Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, by John Mack Faragher

12 Jan

Rarely have I enjoyed reading a biography as much as I did John Mack Faragher’s account of the life of American legend Daniel Boone. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, originally appeared in 1993. I recently got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of the publication. Faragher is currently the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University and an accomplished historian of America’s early westward expansion. At the time of the book’s publication, it stood as the first professional biography of Boone in more than fifty years.

In the pages of The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, Faragher tracks Boone as he blazed his figurative iconic trail across the early American west in the late 1700s and early 1800s. From Boone’s birth in colonial Pennsylvania, his youth in the backwoods of North Carolina, his exploits in the vanguard of American settlement of Kentucky, to his last days on the frontier of Missouri, Faragher explores his subject’s life and times. The story is truly high drama, for Boone lived an extraordinary life filled with enough real heroics to make his experience incredible without the myths that, even during his own time, exaggerated it in its reality. Boone was a man who braved the wilderness alone for extended times even in is middle-age years and literally lived off the land, was captured by Indians and lived to tell the tale, fought in desperate Revolutionary-era battles, rescued his own daughter from Shawnee raiders, and yes, managed to slay quite a few bears in the process. He traveled widely, exploring on foot enormous tracts of western frontier on months-long hunting expeditions that made him as informed about the trans-Appalachian region as any man during his era.

Faragher pieces together his highly entertaining narrative by relying on diverse sources of documentation on Boone. He gathers scraps of information on the man from seemingly every documentary source available, and includes healthy doses of creditable lore but always is clear to separate verified fact from supposition. He places the whole adventure-filled story in the context of the times and gives attention to the formation of the Boone legend as a fundamental American prototype in the process. This includes a bit of dissection of Boone historiography which helps the reader understand the difference between fantastic tales and pure fantasy, but it also drives home the point that Boone’s life was quite literally the stuff of legend. The reason he was a larger than life figure even during his own time is because he was to some degree, in truth, supremely brave, determined, resourceful, and hearty. In an era of swaggering backwoodsmen and self-made men in the truest sense of the term, Boone stood out as among the most accomplished of them all.

But Faragher’s account is a balanced understanding of the man that candidly reveals his failures and shortcomings as much as his near-superhuman endurance. Boone dabbled in politics, surveying, land speculation, and a variety of business dealings over the course of his rather long life (he died at age 85), all to rather lackluster results. His last move, conducted in his late 60s from the state of Kentucky with which he is so associated, to Missouri, came about as much from his continuing pursuit of elusive financial stability as much as from a desire to again escape into an unsettled wilderness frontier. Through it all, Faragher demonstrates, Boone remained an American original. He was no saint—admittedly taking Indian land even as he professed to admire their culture and lifestyle—not successful in everything he undertook by any stretch, and our memory of him is still today embellished with no small measure of nostalgic legend. But he was and is the very embodiment of the type of independent, hearty pioneer who developed much of the American interior and transformed the land in his image. Today there are many accounts of the man’s life to choose from for those wanting to learn about its specifics, many of strong merit and based in solid research. Few, though, are written with more flair or a more comprehensive understanding of Boone’s place in early America than Life and Legend.


Review of The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi, by Richard Grant

5 Jan

“Natchez is unlike any place in America, existing almost outside time.” This quote by author Greg Iles perhaps best describes the small, yet eccentric Mississippi River town struggling to come face-to-face with its past. Renowned author Richard Grant would agree with Iles’s assessment. Grant’s latest study The Deepest South of All, True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi paints a fascinating picture of this fascinating Mississippi community in a similar fashion as he did for the Mississippi Delta in his previous award-winning book Dispatches from Pluto.

Mississippi’s most historic city, Natchez is named after the “Notchee” Indians, who lived in the area for hundreds of years. Upon European contact, the French, English, and Spanish all took turns attempting to rule the regon. But the area is most known for its antebellum years where the region’s rich soil led to the cotton boom where wealthy planters built grandiose mansions in and around town. Of course, the enormous wealth was built upon the backs of enslaved blacks who reaped none of these benefits. The area did not support secession and when Union forces approached the town, city leaders quickly surrendered to protect their homes and possessions from destruction. Post war years had not been kind to the town which was in dire straits until prominent ladies in the 1930s decided to open their deteriorating houses to the public to showcase their version of the Old South, complete with ladies in hoopskirts and black maids dressed like mammies. This one-sided interpretation proved to be an overwhelming success by funneling much needed tourism revenue to help not only the struggling town, but provide money to preserve the homes themselves.

Fast forward to more recent years and these annual pilgrimages of homes and the Tableaux, a large dramatic production highlighting the history of the town and its way of life, are struggling with diminishing crowds and interest in this “old school” interpretation. Enter Grant who spent a considerable amount of time in the town, meeting many key, captivating personalities whose extraordinary tales practically wrote the book itself for Grant.  Competing garden/pilgrimage clubs who vie to control pilgrimage and Tableaux. Outrageous antebellum home owners telling wild and bizarre stories of their homes and visitors.  Even the story of former Natchez madam Nellie Jackson who ran her “business” with no interference from the law. These tales seem so crazy they can’t be true. Grant concludes that Natchez is mainly matriarchal; the women run the town. Men are mostly irrelevant. The prevalence of alcohol at all societal functions, big or small, makes one wonder if anyone is ever sober. Eccentricity runs deeper than deep. One resident simply described the atmosphere by saying, “We don’t hide our skeletons in the closet. We set them down on the front porch and tie a bow on them.”

More telling is the issue of race. Natchez has survived off the telling of the grand Old South with hardly a mention of slavery. Personalities like African American Museum Director Darrell White and Ser Seshsh Ab Heter-CM Boxley are trying to change that, but it is a difficult and tough road. Boxley was the driving force for the interpretation of Forks of the Road Slave Market, which at one time was the South’s 2nd largest slave market but for years was hardly identified and contained zero interpretation. Many residents, however, still shy away from the subject with many homeowners not wanting to include the story of slavery as part of their tour. Some visitors have exclaimed, “We all know it happened, so why do they keep shoving it down our throats? We’re on vacation, can’t they just let us enjoy the pretty old buildings?”  As Grant narrates, change is occurring, but like many things in Natchez, it happens ever so slowly.

Grant chooses to intersperse throughout his overall narrative the story of Abdul-Rahman ibn Ibrahima Sori. Grant based his information upon Terry Alford’s Prince Among Slaves, which Grant calls the best book ever written on Natchez. Ibrahima’s story is a sad, yet fascinating tale of a royal prince from Guinea who is captured and transported across the ocean to eventually become the property of Thomas Foster in Natchez. In an odd twist of fate over thirty years later, Ibrahima is recognized by someone who encountered him in Africa years before and eventually, with the local help of Washington political players Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, is purchased, along with his wife, and set free.  Ibrahima eventually makes his way back to Africa, but sadly, he dies before freeing his children and returning to his native community. Grant is obviously very moved by this tragic story and uses it as a backdrop for his entire narrative of the town’s difficult past with slavery.

The Deepest South of All is a compelling story and Grant’s easy writing style allows the reader to proceed at a brisk pace. Grant admits the town and its continuing saga has “hooked” him as his fascination continues to grow. He and his wife contemplated moving there to soak in the magnificent view from the bluffs, the lovely houses on pretty streets as well as the wonderful hospitality and stories. They decided against it mainly due to the poorly performing schools and as the wife put it, “It’s a small town in Mississippi. They act like it’s the center of the world. If you’re not from here, or writing about here, or talking about here, you don’t count.” As someone who travels to the area frequently for work and pleasure, I completely understand these thoughts. Natchez is a wonderful place to visit and soak up its unique culture. Grant’s narrative provides a great glimpse for others who do not have the opportunity to visit. It is a journey not to be missed.


Review of Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America, by Sylviane A. Diouf

15 Dec

The recent discovery of the remains of the ship Clotilda in the murky waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta have rekindled interest in one of the most intriguing but melancholy chapters in Alabama history. The ship’s notorious voyage in 1860, noteworthy as the last documented arrival of African slaves into the United States, is a moving story laying bare the brutal nature of the slave trade despite its taking place entirely illegally. The ship’s owner, acting on a bet he could bring slaves to the shores of the Gulf Coast in defiance of longstanding federal prohibition on their importation, undertook to equip the ship for the covert mission both for potentially lucrative profits and no small measure of perverse satisfaction. He and his compatriots succeeded in the undertaking, and attempted to burn and sink the ship they used to bring over 110 Africans across the Atlantic and into the Mobile River on a dark and steamy summer night just months before the outbreak of the Civil War.

But instead of quietly disappearing as the orchestrators of the enterprise planned, the ship, its passengers, and the stories both tell continue to echo through the state’s history. Back in 2007, historian Sylviane Anna Diouf provided what still stands as the best account of the famed voyage and the lives of the passengers in Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America. I recently had an opportunity to listen to an audiobook version of the publication. Diouf is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University and an authority on slavery and the African Disapora. Her award-winning book chronicles the story of the Clotilda and tracks the lives of those transported within its hold during and after the voyage. With gritty detail she relates how the effort to purchase them came about, their sale to Americans by other Africans, their heartrending experiences in the voyage across the Atlantic, and their years as slaves on south Alabama plantations prior to emancipation at the end of the Civil War. Over half of the book is devoted to telling the story of one of the most unique legacies of the shipmates in the form of a community some of them eventually established called African Town.

Located adjacent to and north of the city of Mobile, this community traces its origins to a small group of the formerly enslaved men and women who arrived in the area on the Clotilda. It survives today as a highway-bisected, heavily industrialized and rather nondescript suburb of Mobile known as Africatown. Still, it is a significant historic site whose origins speak of an era about as far removed from current circumstances as can be imagined. As candidly admitted by Diouf in the narrative, however, there are many details about it, its inhabitants, and to what degree they had any connections with other shipmates scattered across Alabama and beyond in the chaotic years of Reconstruction that are lost to history. What is known and related about the community in Dreams of Africa is nonetheless a compelling tale of perseverance and determination of a proud and confident small group of people. The true African-Americans featured in the book held fast to the culture of their native lands even after decades of life in America. They came from sophisticated societies and did their best to hold on to valued traditions despite their circumstances. The book is, in summary, an enlightening overview of an aspect of Alabama’s rich history that for too long has been scarcely known beyond its most basic sensationalized facts and surrounded in mystery or buried within inaccurate supposition. Diouf deserves credit for fleshing out this remarkable tale in comprehensible fashion.

The true value of Diouf’s book for historians may ultimately lie less in the attempt to piece together the fragmentary evidence of what life was like in the small community of African Town (whose cohesiveness as some sort of African exile in truth continues to be exaggerated) than in providing a contextual case study of what life was like for black people in the American South in the era. The narrative the author tells centers on a few key individuals whose documentary record is robust enough to build a story around. Through their biographies, put together via an impressive demonstration of research that involved combing seemingly every source imaginable including family lore, Diouf illustrates in rare form how former slaves transitioned into the quasi-freedom of late nineteenth century Alabama. The Africans at the heart of the story were clearly a unique subset of that population, viewed as outsiders to a degree even by other blacks during and after enslavement, but the trials and tribulations of the main characters in the book are a powerful testimony to aspects of shared heritage nonetheless.

African Town existed as a unique settlement, if not an organized town in the American sense, for as long as its founders lived. It seems that the community ultimately came to the attention of the wider world as its pioneers were passing off the scene. In stories recorded by writers such as the noted Zora Neale Hurston in the early twentieth century, African Town became a curiosity viewed as an abstract physical connection to a troubled past. It intrigues still to this day, due in no small part to two especially resonant tangible aspects of its special saga; the few seconds of grainy footage of African Town’s most famous resident, Cudjo Lewis (Kossola), shot in 1928, and the recent discovery of the ship that brought him here. African Town’s story promises to be more widely known and commemorated than ever in the years to come. Certainly other historians will take a look at what Diouf has chronicled, and perhaps they will be also able to add to our knowledge in their own way. But Dreams of Africa is a landmark publication that promises to be essential reading for anyone interested in the Clotilda, African Town, or post Civil-War Alabama for many years.