Review of The Yellowhammer War: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama, edited by Kenneth W. Noe

23 Aug

Published in 2013 in honor of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, The Yellowhammer War is a collection of essays broadly addressing Alabama’s experience immediately prior, during, and after our nation’s most cataclysmic event. It features serious, cutting edge scholarship and gives the reader a sense of the broad contours of the major issues of the time period and insight into several sidelight events and trends. For most readers, however, the inadvertently deceptive title and inherent lack of cohesion around any central themes will leave them still hoping for a comprehensive account of one of the state’s defining eras.

Noe

Although the book is definitely useful as a reference source and will surely have some appeal to a broad readership, it has some severe limitations regarding use by the general public. It is not a narrative history of any particular themes and in truth barely discusses any fighting in the state of Alabama at all. True, there are multiple avenues of inquiry into the war era outside of the battlefield that need to be explored and this one admirably does so, but for a book of this purported scope to have only one of fourteen essays focus on the actual military conflict within the borders of the state (another focuses on a battle in Virginia in which Alabamians figured prominently) is curious if not negligent. In addition, several of the essays focus on topics so narrowly defined—reactions to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the connection between Reconstruction in Perry County and the Civil Rights Movement, for example—that coming away with a clear picture of how the war impacted Alabama in the larger sense will be difficult for most. We are all familiar with the maxim about not judging a book by its cover, but the stunning cover image of the flag of Rucker’s Brigade of the Seventh Alabama Cavalry and its very title—alluding to an early-war Alabama Confederate unit mocked by their peers for their gaudy yellow-trimmed uniforms which eventually gave the state its nickname—certainly communicate something a little different from what the book actually contains.

This criticism in structure and marketing aside, it must be acknowledged that most of the essays are thoroughly researched and truly enlightening. In the pages of the book readers learn about isolated episodes in the social, cultural, and political life of the state during the era, perhaps none more informative than Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins’ reflection on the way Reconstruction has been remembered, or rather, misremembered, in the state for generations and Jason Battles’ overview of the activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the postwar years. In summary the essays are thorough probes into individual topics, some with direct relevance to the state as a whole, others re-analyzing already-familiar information, and still others shedding light on very specific events and populations that have not received much attention previously. They collectively add a lot to our knowledge of Alabama’s war years even if they do not attempt to address all of its major issues; the experience of slaves, the impact on the economy, the depth of support of secession and the degree to which Unionist sentiment prevailed in areas of the state all come to mind.

Such is the nature of collections of essays in book form, I suppose.  They inherently are hodge-podge groupings that only broadly address an era or event. So, buyer beware and make sure you know what you are in for with this volume. The Yellowhammer War is a good book and surely points the way towards further inquiry into the Civil War era by the next generation of historians, but I doubt most lay readers will feel they have a thorough understanding of the war and Reconstruction in Alabama after perusing its pages. Alabama still awaits a grand narrative of its Civil War years.

JMB

Review of David Crockett: Lion of the West, by Michael Wallis

16 Aug

David Crockett was a true legend in his own time, a frontier hero by his late twenties and the subject of plays and books by the time he reached his forties. At once an intrepid warrior and populist politician with a folksy charm, he had a unique combination of ability, charisma, and old-fashioned common sense that allowed him to rise from the anonymity of the American backwoods to the inner circles of the most powerful leaders of his day. The reasons he is still as recognized today, however, probably have more to do with 1950s Hollywood depictions of him than the actual man. In movie-makers hands, David Crockett became “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”—a coonskin-wearing bear hunter roaming the mountains of Tennessee. That Crockett captured the imagination of a generation and created a caricature that continues to endure in our collective minds. The truth is Crockett was more complex than his legend, but there is a good deal of truth in it and his journey by any measure remains one of the most remarkable in American history.

Wallis

In Lion of the West, Michael Wallis presents a balanced portrait of Crockett that strips him of just a little of his legend even as he imbues him with lesser celebrated attributes. The result is an entertaining and honest chronicle of an unmistakable American original who remains every bit larger than life today as he was a century ago, warts and all. Wallis begins his unearthing of the real Crockett by tracing the man back to his humble roots and upbringing, relying no little on Crockett’s own words as taken from his oft-quoted autobiography. This lends color and some additional substance to the work, but to his credit Wallis is judicious in accepting as total fact Crockett’s own account of his life and critically analyzes his account of his experiences throughout the narrative.

The facts themselves make for an unbelievable story, nevertheless, and are a major reason Wallis’ book is so entertaining. Crockett ran away from home as a teen, working odd jobs to survive before rejoining his family and entering into a series of misadventures in business that demonstrated, if nothing else, where Crockett’s passions lay. He was never more at home than when on a hunt, and his wilderness skills are the stuff of legend; he once killed over 100 bears in a single season on a long, meandering trek through the sparsely inhabited forests of his homeland. He served in the Creek War, raised a family, and threw his hat in the political ring as a relatively young man—going so far as to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives despite having almost no formal education. Wallis shows that Crockett was a man of principle in his political ascent, becoming one of the few Southern men willing to challenge Andrew Jackson on the issue of Indian Removal and willing to countenance defeat before compromising himself. But Crockett’s restlessness matched his ambition, and his inability to concentrate on any one thing for long left him perpetually in debt, chronically disassociated from his own family, and chasing fleeting dreams which he never quite attained. His life famously ended at a place called The Alamo while on one of his flights of fancy, pursuing a chance to finally make his fortune in the wilds of Texas as he approached his fiftieth birthday when he got caught up in a local insurrection against the Mexican government.

Lion of the West is one of the most enjoyable biographies I have read in a long time. Part adventure and part search for authenticity in a subject encrusted in myth, the book manages to increase the reader’s interest in a familiar story even as it meticulously separates fact from fiction. If you have an interest in Crockett, his times, or the stuff from which early American heroes were made, you should pick up a copy of this book.

JMB

Historic Marker Redux

9 Aug

I recently made a trip in central Louisiana with Mike to tour historic sites associated with the Civil War’s Red River Campaign. As mentioned in an earlier blog, I love seeking out places where important events occurred, even if that means simply finding an historic marker. During this trip, we journeyed to the town of Colfax, Louisiana, to find the site where one of the largest and bloodiest Reconstruction struggles took place. On April 13, 1873, opposing sides, mainly blacks and whites, battled regarding disputed state elections. When it was over, 150 blacks were slain. Only three whites were killed which indicates this was not much of a battle, but a massacre instead. I am not overly familiar with this event, only to know it was one of the truly horrific events of this difficult time period in our history.

Colfax marker

What amazes me is the text of the historic marker that stands near the current courthouse.  Installed in 1950, it is typical of that age’s mindset when the text uses terms like “Riot” and “carpetbag misrule” and “negroes.”  Markers established in the early and mid-20th century typically espouse such old-school philosophy and thought. Many of these markers have since been replaced with more historically accurate descriptions. I am stunned to see that this marker has not been replaced. In this day and age when the topic of Civil Rights is at the forefront, I am amazed that there has not been an outcry to have this marker removed and/or replaced. Since 2000, there have been new books published about this topic, discussions of a museum to discuss reconstruction in the area and commemorations of the event, but somehow, this obviously biased marker still stands as a testament to the region’s troubled past.

CPW

Review of Visions of the Black Belt: A Cultural Survey of the Heart of Alabama, by Robin McDonald and Valerie Pope Burns

2 Aug

Alabama’s famed Black Belt is at once one of the state’s most historic, most beautiful, and most economically challenged sections. At various points in time the epicenter of the antebellum cotton kingdom and the Civil Rights Movement, the region boasts a cultural history as rich as the fabled soil which once made its narrow arc one of the South’s wealthiest districts. But it is not just for its particular abundance of antebellum architecture that it has appeared in some respects frozen in time. So much of the region remains remarkably similar to its appearance over a century ago not because of applied preservation efforts but simply because economic prosperity, and the growth and redevelopment that traditionally accompanies it, have stubbornly by-passed the region. Needless to say this is a mixed blessing that has caused the region to be simultaneously celebrated and forgotten, and at a loss to determine exactly how to define itself.

Visions of the Black Belt

Attempting to present the region’s complex story in measured words and provocative images is Visions of the Black Belt, a stunningly successful partnership between acclaimed photographer Robin McDonald and accomplished historian Valerie Pope Burns. The book is a beautiful portrait of a special region and its people which communicates a distinctive sense of place with just the right balance of candor and pride. Everything is not perfect in the Black Belt, which has long been stigmatized as one of Alabama’s most economically challenged regions. But McDonald’s captivating photographs illustrate the beauty to be found in a downtown’s dignified decline and the grace inherent in time-worn facades without claiming either to be some genteel ideal. In similar fashion, Burns’ smooth prose guides the narrative with solemn honesty even as it purposefully celebrates its rich heritage. The reader cannot help but come away cognizant of the Black Belt’s challenges but fully appreciative of its centrality to Alabama history.

The book is at its best as a cultural and historical documentary of the region’s built environment, showcasing hauntingly beautiful churches, old homes, and businesses and revealing some of the stories contained within their walls. When it ventures to try to incorporate contemporary cultural figures such as singers, writers, and artists, it is less resonant. Even if unequal in impact individually, the combination of subjects works to support the larger points communicated by the authors. Visions of the Black Belt is no mere coffee table book full of  pretty pictures; it is a profound and intriguing piece of scholarship examining the overarching shadow of the past in a region uniquely defined by its heritage.

JMB

Review of Fort Toulouse, French Outpost at the Alabamas on the Coosa, by Daniel Thomas

26 Jul

With an interest in the colonial Gulf South, I finally purchased and read Daniel Thomas’s Fort Toulouse. This short book provides an overview on the French colonial fort established in the early 1700s near present-day Montgomery, Alabama. Originally published as an entire issue of the Alabama Historical Quarterly in 1960, this 1989 version contains an introduction by Gregory Waselkov that provides more information on the subject after archaeological work was done at the site after Thomas’s work was first completed.

Thomas-Fort Toulouse

In seventy pages of text, Thomas uses a host of primary sources to detail the fort’s history from its construction in 1717 to France’s evacuation of the fort in 1763. Thomas discusses all aspects of the fort from its construction, daily life at the post, and the site’s role as a military fort, trading center, and diplomatic post. Established to serve as a counter to English expansion into the area as well as an attempt to build stronger relations with the areas natives, the fort proved to be an overall success. The commanders of the fort, with a garrison never more than fifty, managed to establish trade with the natives and fend off the encroaching English, pushing the boundaries of the colony of Louisiana eastward. France’s eventual departure from the region due to the results of the French and Indian War does not diminish the French success with this establishment. Thomas concludes his story with information on the site’s later years when it became home to Fort Jackson, established by Andrew Jackson at the conclusion of the Creek War and the location of the famous treaty where the Creeks ceded over twenty million acres. As an addition to Thomas’s original thesis, Waselkov provides an introduction that paints a more complete picture of the fort. Archaeological work done in the 1970s and 80s has given us more information on the fort’s layout, construction, and armament along with artifacts left behind from the fort’s garrison such as earthenware.

Fort Toulouse will not win any awards with its narrative, which at times only quotes primary source material, but it remains the primary study of this important colonial fort. It is a wonder there have not been any more recent full-length studies of this fort or at least of all the posts that France established in the region. That this book, nearly fifty years old, remains the definitive study of Fort Toulouse shows a definite need for more colonial scholarship.

CPW

Review of America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation, by Kenneth C. Davis

19 Jul

I picked up an audio recording of bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis’s book, America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation hoping to gain some new insight into important chapters in our nation’s past.  What I got instead was a disconnected series of occasionally interesting stories, few of which are forgotten and none of which are hidden. And as for the fighting women, there indeed is one, but she does not seem to merit mention as a key player any more than the others alluded to in the somewhat grandiose subtitle of this book. America’s Hidden History is at times interesting, but in the end a frustrating read because it is one of those unfortunate works of nonfiction without a clear thesis.

Davis Hidden History

Davis is the accomplished author of the bestseller Don’t Know Much About History, and has through that publication acquired a reputation as an entertaining teacher who relates America’s past in compelling and understandable form. I have not read that more famous book, but it has to have a more clear purpose than this effort to allegedly relate some seminal “tales the textbooks left out.” The chapters of Hidden History do individually discuss some admittedly lesser-known events or attempt to strip away layers of legend that distort our understanding of actual events—the odyssey of the early explorer Cabeza de Vaca, the massacre of the French pioneers of America’s first European colonial settlement, the story behind George Washington’s colossal failures in his first military tour of duty during the French and Indian War, the truth about the details of “Paul Revere’s Ride.” But collectively they are simply a collection of essays with no clear unity of purpose.

I suppose that if one is truly and totally unaware of some of the episodes Davis discusses, his narrative will be on some level revealing. I doubt that alone will be satisfactory even for the most casual of readers, however. They, and especially those with any knowledge of American history, will surely be asking one critical question after reading this book and browsing its curiously extensive timelines prefacing each chapter: “What is the point?”

JMB

Review of Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, by Alan Pell Crawford

12 Jul

It seems that in modern times the reading public positively disdains uncritical veneration and hagiography in biographies of historical figures. While I applaud this as a good thing, I do sometimes worry that the frequent overt effort to illustrate the unsavory side of our erstwhile heroes is less a genuine effort to present their lives in an unbiased light than a flagrant attempt to discredit them. If authors remove American historical icons from their pedestals by highlighting something scandalous, it only seems to make for an even better story. Crawford

It is in the light of this historiographical trend that I picked up Alan Pell Crawford’s chronicle of the last decade and a half of perhaps our most scandalous founding father, Thomas Jefferson, entitled Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson. In it Crawford attempts to bring the authentic Jefferson to our attention by focusing on his last years, in the process revealing both his ability to inspire his contemporaries and even us today as well as his glaring failings. Even with the attention given to the overall accomplishments of his celebrated life, it is not a flattering portrait that he paints. Crawford gives us a glimpse of a selfish, privileged and impractical man utterly unable to manage a mounting debt because of an unwillingness to live within his means even as he was lauded by many during his day as an oracle of his age.

Crawford begins his narrative with a brief overview of Jefferson’s life before retirement and moves on quickly to his last days at Monticello. Unlike so many other biographers, Crawford chooses to not dwell on the latter-day corresponding relationship between him and John Adams or his long-lasting relationship with his slave, Sally Hemmings. It is just as well, as those topics have been thoroughly examined, and exposed in turn, by other scholars. But Crawford’s narrative is not a particularly powerful or enthralling tale, as it is filled with the lackluster routines of an aging man minding the weather, maintaining his property, battling illness and infirmity, dealing with various family matters, and attempting—unsuccessfully—to manage his finances. Further, the book is written with an uneven pace and focus, dwelling at times on certain events and brushing quickly past others. In sections it seems as much a book about those who surrounded Jefferson as the man himself. All this no doubt lends context, but Jefferson does not necessarily emerge from the pages of this book as a more thoroughly understood character so much as a thoroughly observed one.

Even if dry, the book comes across as honest and does not appear to be a calculated attempt to make us question his place as a legend of America’s founding era. Rather, it is one of dozens of recent biographies of the men who are credited with establishing our nation and its guiding principles that demonstrates just how remarkable it is that such imperfect people could rise above their situation to create a government based on some of the loftiest notions of freedom and equality governments men have ever purported to strive towards. I do believe our myths and legends need to be explored from time to time so that we better understand where we actually came from and how we got to where we are. Similar to learning late in life of the indiscretions of a beloved parent, sometimes the truth that is unearthed will be uncomfortable. But coming to a sober understanding of the basic humanity of our heroes should not lessen their impact in our minds. So it is with Jefferson, revealed in Twilight to be a deeply flawed man who nonetheless managed to transcend his time, place, and even himself in important ways and is still today rightly remembered as an incredibly influential force in our nation’s development.

JMB

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