Review of Civil War Alabama, by Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr.

21 Feb

For a state whose historical identity is as inextricably bound up in the antebellum and Civil War years as Alabama—Montgomery served as the Confederacy’s first capital, after all—there are surprisingly precious few studies of the state’s overall war experience by historians. In truth the last serious scholarly attempt at chronicling the political and military battles which ravaged the state from 1861 to 1865 and the way both impacted the collective homefront was Walter Lynwood Fleming’s Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. While still useful in some ways, that landmark book (published in 1905) is hopelessly outdated and far from an objective one. There have been numerous studies since its publication that addressed some of its main themes, most of them either strictly military or political, and even more focusing on individual geographic regions. Clearly, Christopher Lyle McIlwain’s recently-released Civil War Alabama is a welcome addition to the state’s historiography, then, and would seem to promise to address a long-overdue subject and frame it for a new generation. It is and it does, but not necessarily in the way one might assume.

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For starters, the book is a provocative study that will surely spark discussion and encourage a new understanding of the war among its readers instead of elaborating in more detail on events of relatively common knowledge. It may actually make some question all they thought they knew about the causes, course, and consequences of the Civil War in Alabama in the process. McIlwain’s primary argument, made early and often, is that most Alabamians either opposed or had lukewarm enthusiasm for the Confederacy, and in effect were led as sheep to the slaughter by a short-sited, arrogant, but powerful ruling class who, despite their minority status, possessed the means and authority to squelch dissent in a ruthless manner. The majority of these dissenters, in McIlwain’s view, were “reconstructionists” who desired a Union where slavery still had a place. That citizens of such persuasions existed and operated in every corner of the state during the war may not necessarily be a revelation to many, but McIlwain’s study asserts their numbers and influence as larger and more pervasive than most previous scholars. His most eyebrow-raising assertion, that secessionists may have even been in the minority during the very height of the fervor which led to disunion, hints at a major revision in the way we approach an understanding of the war and undergirds his thesis.

Due to an undeniably high level of scholarship, this is a serious book that deserves attention. It is built upon some substantial research, for starters. McIlwain has seemingly unearthed virtually every letter, article, and order that he could find during decades of investigation to lay the foundation for his argument. He brings to light the breadth and depth of disaffection in Alabama and explores how internal division wrought havoc on the war effort and the homefront. As one might imagine, the results are impressive, but careful readers will note they are arranged to communicate his points in such a way that one cannot help but sense a lack of balance in some areas.

If the Confederate war effort was truly as half-hearted and outright resisted across the board in the manner his numerous examples suggest, one cannot help but wonder how the state seemingly so enthusiastically embraced secession, or why so many of its men volunteered to fight in its armies at home and abroad and endured four long years of deprivation and defeat in a doomed cause which, to continue, required them to put their lives on the line. It also leaves one to wonder how so many could so vociferously and strenuously lie to themselves and others in proclaiming their support for the Confederacy in communications private and public. Further, McIlwain seems to allude to a vague but omnipresent, and apparently omnipowerful, Confederate state infrastructure ruled by demagogues and served by a pliant press as able to successfully intimidate and silence opposition throughout the war as the primary reason the reconstructionists were trumped at almost every turn. With resources inadequate to defend its borders and often even maintain a functioning government, plus with defeat and economic ruin steadily engulfing the state as the war dragged on, one must additionally wonder how this authority was so successfully leveraged by so few upon so many for so long. To dismiss every bit of Confederate optimism among journalists, or every bit of collective resistance to Union troops as the orchestrated political spin of a conspiring press or the rhetoric of blowhards is unintentionally disingenuous. Alabama did as much as any other state to bring on the war, to continue the war, and it fought to win the war. This is not to suggest McIlwain is wrong or in some way devious in the way he brings to light his well-documented evidence of dissent, however. Rather, it begs a number of questions that go largely unaddressed in his narrative and must be pondered to arrive at a true estimation of the book’s merit. In places it seems as if the author does not adequately allow for that most fundamental of situations in understanding the commitment of the public to any cause—a change of opinion as circumstances and costs changed. Alabama was a much different place in 1861 than in 1865, and attempting to explain the course of the war through a probe into a nonexistent continuity of opinion is an impossible task. Perhaps the most obvious thing that many will feel is not adequately addressed in the book, though, is the war itself. This is not a book about the course of the war in Alabama as the title suggests; it is a political history of the wartime state and a chronicle of the degree of anti-Confederate sentiment which existed among the general population in every walk of life and the way political leaders wielded influence in pursuit of their goals.

The book is, in truth, one part of a many-sided story, but a part which has really never been told well, if at all. For that reason alone, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in this era of Alabama’s past and should find a prominent place in the historiography of the state. It will challenge readers to understand the war from a new vantage point, and it will surely enlighten them on many things of concern to Alabama’s citizens at the time they scarcely have given much thought to previously. Alabama still awaits its definitive chronicle of the Civil War on the battlefields, but Civil War Alabama has forced us to think of an old topic in a new way. This is no small feat, and one worthy of our consideration.

JMB

Review of The Battle of New Orleans, In History and Memory, edited by Laura Lyons McLemore

14 Feb

A series of essays, presented in commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 Battle of New Orleans in November of 2014 at a symposium held at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, forms the basis for The Battle of New Orleans, In History and Memory. In it, editor Laura Lyons McLemore showcases the work of nine accomplished historians who approach the study of the battle and the way we have remembered its significance in very different ways. The result is a substantial contribution to scholarship on the Battle of New Orleans which will help a new generation of scholars better understand its continuing relevance to our national saga.

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Unlike many books of this type, this collection thankfully features many excellent essays and only a few somewhat dull ones. Alexander Mikaberidze, for example, presents an excellent overview of the War of 1812 as an international affair by demonstrating the connections between this conflict and the Napoleonic wars in Europe—in a mere twenty pages doing a better job of explaining these nuances and circumstances than many full-length treatments. Joseph F. Stoltlz III presents an excellent essay on the centennial celebrations of the conflict. His overviews of events in Nashville and New Orleans and connections to the Lost Cause and World War I are fascinating insights into the way in which the memory of the battle has been appropriated and advanced to fit different agendas at different points in time. Tracey E.E. Laird’s discussions of music of course had us humming along with Johnny Horton’s iconic tune. Gene Smith provides a solid overview of the role of African Americans during the war, while Leslie Gruesbeck offers a compelling discussion of how Andrew Jackson has been portrayed in portraiture during his day and afterward. Esteemed historian Donald Hickey provides one of the more intriguing essays in the book, focusing on the many myths—some still stubbornly held to today—associated with the war. Hickey may be actually be the dean of historians featured in the pages of The Battle of New Orleans, but we tend to disagree with his summary point that had the British won the battle, they would have promptly returned the city to American control just as they had returned minor frontier forts. We cannot help but believe the city might have been held for leverage in negotiations if nothing else, as it occupied a pivotal strategic position along the nation’s largest river trading system besides being one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the nation.

As is always the case with collections of essays of this sort, though, other entries were not as strong or did not further the purported purpose of the book. Mark R. Cheatham’s exploration of Jackson’s legendary hatred of the British initially leads readers to believe that perhaps Jackson did not hold a strong dislike of the British going back to the Revolutionary War, but ends up essentially asserting the legend is in fact based in truth. Paul Gelpi’s article on the role of the famed Battalion d’Orleans really did not reveal any new interpretation on the topic, but perhaps readers less familiar with the unit’s role at the battle will nonetheless find it informative. Blake Dunnavent provides an article on how current U.S. military leaders could learn from the War of 1812, but reached rather vague conclusions that at first glance would not necessarily seem to illuminate any enduring lessons to be learned by the leaders of our nation’s armed forces.

Overall, the book offers a quick look at several aspects of the way we remember the war and makes a case that it deserves continuing attention by scholars and the general public. If there is one single point which emerges as paramount from this collection of essays, it is that the war occupies a central place in American history and its relevance is revealed not just through the basic facts of what was accomplished militarily on the plain at Chalmette on January 8, 1815. The battle has permeated American popular culture in many surprising ways over the years, and served as a linchpin in our understanding of the era in which it occurred. For bringing this fact to the attention of a new generation alone, the book deserves a place in libraries.

Sadly, despite it accomplishments the book did still remind us that this epic confrontation has been lost to the memory of our citizens today. It is to our detriment as a society. The War of 1812 was truly our second war of independence and has left us with many iconic historical figures and events which should serve as touchstones in our collective memory. The Battle of New Orleans pitted a rough-hewed citizen army comprised of one of the most diverse groups of people ever assembled under American arms to that point to defend one of its most important cities from an invading army fresh from having defeated none other than Napolean, and shortly removed from burning our own national capital! We can only hope that books such as this one will revive our memory of the War of 1812 and encourage future generations to better understand what is arguably its most monumental event.

CPW/JMB

Reconstruction National Monument

7 Feb

In January 2017, President Barack Obama designated the nation’s first National Park Service site dedicated to Reconstruction. Obama chose Beaufort, South Carolina, as this significant place of interpretation. Beaufort fell under Union control in late 1861 and was one of the first places where former slaves began exercising some basic rights of citizenship like property ownership and voting. There have been strong calls recently for establishing a NPS site to interpret the critical years of Reconstruction. The fifteen or so years following the conclusion of the Civil War are some of the most important, yet most difficult years of our nation’s history to understand. After four years of bloody conflict, the nation had to determine how to reunite and various sides jostled on how best to do it. The former slaves were caught in the middle and when it was over, most of them were left in a status not too far removed from the harsh institution of slavery that they had just escaped from in the first place.

 

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National Monument dedication ceremony, from Beaufort Today

 

Citizens today still have different understandings of these critical years and NPS interpretation will further educate the public on what actually did happen during this time period. I do wonder how you choose one site for such a broad, sweeping discussion and I fear a remote place in South Carolina might not attract as many as would be preferred, but it is a start. As one who sees the disappointments of Reconstruction as one of this nation’s biggest failures which set the South behind for nearly 100 years, this interpretation is desperately needed. I have wondered how this nation can devote so much energy to examining the modern Civil Rights Movement without providing the necessary background of the failures of Reconstruction. This is just another example of history building upon history and it is our job as historians to make sure we provide the proper background and context so the public can grasp the bigger picture of our history.

CPW

Touring Guilford Court House National Military Park

31 Jan

 

The site of the largest battle in the American Revolution’s Southern campaign is one of the smaller National Park Service military parks interpreting the war. Nestled within the city limits of Greensboro, North Carolina (Guilford County), Guilford Court House National Military Park has the look and feel of a well-manicured city park. A busy road actually bisects the park and separates the visitor’s center from the primary tour route. Owing to its location, well-traveled heritage tourists will notice many more hikers, bikers, and dog-walkers than they might encounter on other Revolutionary War battlefields in the South while touring this decidedly more urban battlefield park. Nonetheless the park is scenic, well-interpreted, protected from the urban sprawl a short distance beyond its borders, and the trail route easy to follow and the flow of the battle consequently easy to comprehend. The park also features creative and compelling exhibits in its modest visitor center.

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Depiction of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, by Don Troiani

 

 

 

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Nathanael Greene monument

 

 

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Exhibits at the Visitor’s Center

 

 

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A large window in the Visitor’s Center offers a stunning view of the battlefield

 

The battle pitted a British army of just over 2,000 men under Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis against Major Nathanael Greene’s rather large but more haphazardly trained and equipped army of about 4,500 troops. These forces clashed on March 15, 1781 in a frenzied, chaotic fight in dense forests which prevented orderly formation and carefully organized movement. At the end of the fight the British could technically claim victory—indeed they had come close to devastating the disorganized Americans and forced their withdrawal—but owing to casualties in excess of 25% and their inability to take the offensive the Americans viewed it as a strategic triumph. The armies went their separate ways in the aftermath of the affair; Greene into South Carolina to regroup and continue to harass smaller British forces scattered over the region, Cornwallis north into Virginia to link up with other forces and plan for his next move. By the fall, the British would find themselves besieged at Yorktown and the war coming to a sudden close. Anyone with an interest in following the sequence of events which led to that watershed moment would enjoy a visit to this park.

 

JMB

 

Touring Cowpens National Battlefield

24 Jan

Cowpens National Battlefield is one of those off-the-beaten path historic spots that only those who know where they are going will find. Located in a rural area along a country road in upstate South Carolina, the bucolic park appears at first blush little similar to what one would expect from a National Park Service facility interpreting a major battle. The scenic, rolling meadows and open woodlands of this peaceful location, however, were once the site of one of the most consequential engagements of the Revolutionary War. On January 17, 1781, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan soundly defeated Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton here in a fight remembered as much for the resolve of the American troops as the brilliant strategy of its commander.

 

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The visitor’s center and monument at Cowpens National Battlefield

 

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Daniel Morgan, from a painting by Charles Wilson Peale

 

 

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Banastre Tarleton, from a painting by Joshua Reynolds

In one of the more original deployments on a battlefield during the war, Morgan arranged his troops in three lines and instructed the first and second to fire a few shots and retreat. The unsuspecting British took the bait, and rushed headlong to their doom once the Americans assumed the offensive against Tarleton—perhaps the most hated, and most feared, British commander in the war at the time owing to his relentlessness and brutality. At a cost of only 25 killed, the Americans captured an entire British army. It was a stunning defeat for the British and a landmark victory in American efforts to recover South Carolina after the disastrous loss of Charleston the previous year.

 

 

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Depiction of the Battle of Cowpens, by Don Troiani

 

 

 

 

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The heart of the battlefield as it appears today

The unusual name of the park stems from the lands’ use in the 1700s as a cattle grazing area. The height of the battle actually raged in this pastureland, within an area of about 500 square yards. Visitors to the site today can walk to the locations of the positions of the American lines and visit some of the very spots where individuals stood along a trail just over a mile in length. An outstanding visitor’s center with well-designed exhibits and a good overview film complements the experience. Anyone interested in learning about the importance of the Revolutionary War in the South in securing American independence should pay this beautiful park a visit.

 

JMB

Touring King’s Mountain National Battlefield

17 Jan

If Americans truly understood their history, the Battle of King’s Mountain would be rightfully heralded as one of the more remarkable iconic moments in our national drama. The out-of-the-way contest which took place on the North Carolina-South Carolina border in the fall of 1780 was certainly not large by even Revolutionary War standards—the contending armies had about a thousand or so men each—but its consequences were truly monumental. This Patriot victory in the Carolina forest helped turn the tide of the American War for Independence by boosting morale after a string of devastating defeats, forced a change of plans in Britain’s Southern Strategy, rallied untold numbers of men to action in the Patriot cause, and simultaneously deprived the British of potential Loyalist support in the Southern backcountry.

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Typical of the numerous, deadly, smaller encounters in the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, virtually every participant in the Battle of King’s Mountain was an American. The Patriot force, composed of several small backwoods militia groups under various commanders, had been raised defiantly in the wake of Major Patrick Ferguson’s ultimatum for such groups to lay down arms and disband. The British force, commanded by Ferguson, was comprised of Tories from the region who had cast their lot with the Royal Army. They met on a modest hill in the dense woods of the Carolina backcountry on October 7, 1780. It was one of the most lopsided defeats of the war for the British, who suffered over 450 killed and wounded and over 650 captured while the Patriot victors lost less than 100 men.

 

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Painting by Don Troiani depicting the battle

 

The battlefield today is preserved as the King’s Mountain National Battlefield, a unit of the National Park Service. Easily accessible just off of I-85 near Charlotte, the surprisingly compact park features well-interpreted walking trails allowing visitors to follow the progress of the battle and a stunning visitor’s center. King’s Mountain is not a typical battlefield with a large open area where contending armies maneuvered; it is a serene wilderness location where monuments and markers incongruently rise from the wooded landscape. For many, it will require some imagination to appreciate the vicious, guerilla-style warfare which briefly raged here. But King’s Mountain is the very epitome of the unconventional fighting which characterized the war in the South, and we are fortunate that this special place can still be viewed much as it stood on that fateful day in 1780. If you have an interest in America’s War of Independence, you owe it to yourself to visit.

 

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Looking up the slope of King’s Mountain

 

 

 

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Monument at the Battlefield

 

JMB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, by John Ferling

10 Jan

Epic!! That word not only describes the American Revolution itself, but John Ferling’s mammoth tome Almost a Miracle, The American Victory in the War of Independence. This nearly 600 page work must be the most comprehensive account of the military history of the American Revolution in existence. It is certainly among the best-written. Having taken a few months to conquer, we both feel like we have fought the war ourselves and are left rethinking many of our previous assumptions of the war.

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From the war’s beginnings at Lexington and Concord to the Treaty of Paris eight years later, readers of this book are marched through the conflict with analysis interpreting battles, campaigns, and diplomacy from both the Patriot and British perspectives. The amount of material is overwhelming as Ferling traces the war in detail but surprisingly, does not get bogged down in any area. He moves quickly and deftly through even the most complex topics, keeping his narrative lively and compelling. It is hard to avoid repetition and keep a reader engaged throughout the course of a book of this length, but Ferling is a master at conveying the sights, sounds, and emotions of individual moments in time. He brings both a balance and a polish to the story that makes the book easily among the best resources on the subject available. But, this is not a quick read and anyone who wants a concise overview of the war should look elsewhere.

Ferling recounts all the key battles and important events that occurred during the war on battlefields, in camps, on the seas, and in the halls of Parliament and Congress. Many points in the book spark especially in-depth discussion by Ferling and are a defining aspect of the book, such as the leadership of George Washington. While it is axiomatic in many studies that Washington was the visionary that saw the Revolution to completion, readers here are left questioning the infallibility of the “Father of our Country.” Although Ferling praises his determination, courage, and virtue, he demonstrates he was not without faults. He seemed infatuated with recapturing New York after its abandonment early in the war and never fully comprehended the strategic importance of the war in the South. Many of us seem to forget that after 1778, Washington and his army were basically silent until Yorktown. And French leadership was instrumental in making even that bold stroke. Ferling heaps perhaps more praise than might be expected on Nathaneal Greene and his exploits in the South, saying no other commander played a larger role in securing victory and leaves little doubt that the Southern campaigns were pivotal in determining the war’s outcome.

The at times glaring British ineptitude in the conduct of the war also comes in for examination by Ferling. He points out that there were numerous times when a bold and energetic leader could have won a decisive victory. William Howe had several opportunities to eliminate Washington and his army in 1776 during the New York campaign and failed to seize the moment. Lord Cornwallis abandoning the Carolinas only to get trapped at Yorktown was a monumental mistake, but then again, Henry Clinton simply sat in New York and did nothing to help his subordinate.

Ferling gives careful consideration to the role of the French in securing American independence, as well. Economically, France loaned funds that propped up the country so it could survive. These loans of course led France to economic ruin and toward a revolution of their own. Militarily, the French provided critical manpower and naval forces that swung the balance of the war.

Ferling uses his last chapter of his book to evaluate just how the “miracle” of American victory occurred. Indeed, it was a long shot and at several key moments stood on the verge of faltering. It is easily the strongest part of the book. He discusses the British difficulties with a divided government and populace unsure of the value of waging war in the first place, logistical and supply difficulties, and failures of military leaders during the war. On the American side, a weak national government was the biggest hindrance to victory as the Continental army was woefully ill supplied and fed and the economic situation was in ruins—troops went for months and often years with no pay. Ferling claims point blank that American independence depended primarily on our allies from Europe. “French help was the single most important factor in determining the outcome of the War of Independence.”(564)  Few Americans today truly realize how close the United States was to never happening! Besides serving as an epic narrative of the conflict, this book serves as a reminder of how fortunate we are to have become a nation in the first place.

CPW/JMB