Review of Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought The Second War of Independence, by A.J. Langguth

23 May

The past few decades have witnessed enough scholarly studies of the War of 1812 that in some ways it seems almost disingenuous to continue to call it America’s “most forgotten conflict.” We certainly have nowhere near the awareness of that war’s impact that we should, but I do believe that the several relatively recent books on the war and the many special commemorations of the 200th anniversary of some of its most pivotal events have helped bring it into our collective consciousness. If you do not know about the War of 1812, it really is no one’s fault but your own. Recently, I at last got a chance to read the entirety of one of the more popular books on the war which has been published in this last decade, A.J. Langguth’s Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence.


The book is a narrative of the War of 1812 era as revealed through the biographies of its leading figures. Rather than a series of standalone biographical sketches, Langguth skillfully weaves together the experiences of frontiersmen such as David Crockett; Native American leaders like Tecumseh; politicians including James Madison; and military leaders such as Oliver Perry. Each of the well over two dozen notable individuals chronicled in significant detail are examined both on their own merits and how it was that their paths crossed. It is an intriguing approach, and one that many readers will no doubt find breathes life into the standard biography.

Langguth comes to the task with something of a reputation as biographer due his success with a similar study of many primary characters from the Revolutionary War, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. The common denominator in both is that he attempts to understand the conflicts through the experiences of the key decision makers who influenced their outcome and who we have chosen to remember as critical players in our shared past. Along the way he examines military, civilian, and political events and demonstrates their persistent entanglement. Union 1812 in the end, then, is much more than a collection of life stories—it is a lens through which to view a pivotal era in the nation’s history by understanding how and why individuals acted as they did. Readers looking for equal time and space devoted to all individuals mentioned, or all battles discussed, will need to look elsewhere. Make no mistake, though, if you read this book you will better understand how and why the War of 1812 was fought and the context of the times in which it took place.


Touring Dade’s Battlefield Historic State Park and Seminole Wars Sites in Florida

16 May

Sites where military engagements took place are always intriguing to me owing to the fact that what occurred on their grounds—regardless of whether they were skirmishes or epic clashes of huge armies—are often associated with events of enduring consequence in American history. They are also compelling to me because they are, in simplest terms, places where men fought and died. There is naturally a somber aspect to any battlefield visit as a result. While fascinated to learn about what occurred at these sites, I am always cognizant that they are in some respects memorials to lives lost.

At few sites has that heavy sense of reflection been more powerful in my conscious than during my visit to Dade’s Battlefield Historic Site. A small, out-of-the-way park near the small town of Bushnell in central Florida, the park preserves and interprets an unfortunately little-known conflict known as “Dade’s Battle”. The fight essentially began the Second Seminole War. There, on December 28, 1835, just over 100 U.S. troops under the command of Major Francis L. Dade were marching along the King Highway from Fort Brooke (modern Tampa) on their way to Fort King (modern Ocala) when they were ambushed by a larger group of Seminole warriors. At the conclusion of the day-long struggle, all but three of the soldiers lay dead; those that eventually survived were presumed to be. One of the badly injured soldiers who survived the battle was found and killed the next day. The harrowing account of one of the survivors, Ransom Clarke, informs our knowledge of exactly what happened at this Gulf South version of Little Big Horn.

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Tensions had been on the rise in the region for a long time prior to the massacre as the Seminoles resisted the seizure of their land and their forced removal as best they could, but Dade’s Battle marked the official beginning of the seven-year long Second Seminole War. The battlefield where the encounter took place is essentially a section of the road over which the troops were traveling when they came under attack and an archaeologically-informed recreation of the makeshift barricade of fallen trees they hastily constructed under fire. Along the trail visitors can see exactly where a few individuals, such as Major Dade, fell, and contemplate the desperate fight the men in the small fort must have waged as they were surrounded by a ghost-like foe which artfully moved through the dense underbrush. A modest but informative visitor’s center is on site where a few compelling artifacts that survived the battle are on display. The site of a pivotal event in one of the nation’s longest and saddest sagas (the three Seminole Wars were fought between 1816 and 1858), Dade’s Battlefield Historic State Park is worth a visit if you are traveling in central Florida and a must-see for anyone wishing to tour the scattered sites offering interpretation of the Seminole Wars in Florida.

A few other Seminole War sites of note in Florida:

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

9 May


There are, thankfully, a growing number of informative studies of the Civil War Campaign for Mobile available to readers. This relatively recent scholarly outpouring is certainly long overdue, for this last major campaign for the last major city in Southern hands is among the most intriguing of the war and perhaps most illustrative of the fundamental changes in the nature of warfare the conflict had wrought over the course of four eventful years. In truth, the fighting for Mobile in the fall of 1864 and spring of 1865 alongside and on the waters of the Mobile Bay area in many ways had more in common with the fighting which took place on the battlefields of Europe in World War I than the open field maneuvering of the contests waged between Rebels and Yankees in 1861. Scholars investigating the campaign have noted this as one of the more its intriguing aspects, and brought to light considerable information illustrating the details of the fighting for Mobile. It would seem that because the target of the long, complex campaign involved one of the largest cities in the Confederacy it might also yield itself to more than its fair share of civilian perspectives. Until the last few years, however, this has not been the case with the campaign’s historiography. In fact, the civilian perspective has been noticeably lacking in this story.




We are fortunate that two brief but entertaining studies with a decided focus on how civilians responded to the military situation in the “Paris of the Confederacy” have been published within the last year. I recently reviewed the first, Russell Blount’s Besieged: Mobile 1865, in this space. Today I draw your attention to Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade, by Paula Webb. A reference and outreach librarian at the University of South Alabama who hails from Mobile, Webb brings her great familiarity with the city’s history and considerable research skills to bear in producing her account. The result is a refreshingly different approach to a story many have told from a primarily military standpoint that finally attempts to wrestle specifically with civilian reactions to the war.


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


The book is richly illustrated with images that complement the text. Readers will find that there are a few passages which might have benefitted from some more detailed copyediting and occasional doses of hyperbole. Plus, those knowledgeable of the military engagements of the campaign may find the discussion of the fighting rather thin in places. I doubt many in the books intended audience will find any of these small criticisms a drawback, nor should they. Webb’s book is informative and a welcome addition to a growing body of literature on the Mobile Campaign.




Review of The Civil War Siege of Jackson, by Jim Woodrick

2 May

Fellow Mississippi Department of Archives and History employee Jim Woodrick has tackled an aftermath engagement of the larger Vicksburg Campaign in The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi. As a former Civil War Sites historian for MDAH, Woodrick is imminently qualified to tackle the subject of this lesser known affair. And yet, when it is all said and done, was there enough to talk about in the first place?

Jackson Siege

Woodrick’s narrative provides a rapid overview of the Vicksburg Campaign to set the stage for the later action at Mississippi’s capital. Vicksburg surrendered to Union forces under U.S. Grant after a long campaign and 47 day siege.  Afterwards, Grant ordered his subordinate William T.  Sherman to march his men to Jackson to defeat/disperse the Confederate Army of Relief led by Joseph E. Johnston. Sherman’s men pushed Johnston’s army inside earthworks surrounding the city and for a week (July 10-17, 1863), bombarded, skirmished, and braved the unyielding heat until Johnston pulled his men out, yielding the city to the Union army. Woodrick describes in detail troop movements, the dangers of sharpshooters, and one costly Union assault as well as interesting vignettes such as Confederate soldiers playing a piano during one particular action. Woodrick does this in a well written prose, but it is easy to see why in most book length treatments of the war in Mississippi that this siege is usually described in a paragraph or two. Basically, the story is Sherman’s men pushed Johnston into the city, encircled it and then Johnston escaped eastward. End of story. There was simply not that much action and very little intrigue.

The book’s strongest chapter is its last when it explores the “Chimneyville” description of Jackson; Union forces did so much damage to the city that all that basically remained were the chimneys of buildings no longer left standing. Woodrick provides ample evidence to convince the reader that the “Chimneyville” narrative is probably true. This reviewer, however, will always question that theory since the state capitol, governor’s mansion, and city hall all survived.

In summary, Civil War Siege of Jackson is a well-written and detailed narrative of an oftentimes ignored operation. It has not had any book length treatments in over thirty years. Any Civil War historian seeking to complete his collection involving the Vicksburg Campaign needs to add this book to his library.

As an aside, living in Jackson gave me the opportunity to visit a few of the sites associated with the siege and take images of existing markers and surviving entrenchments. Unfortunately, there are only a few markers of the siege, but it was enjoyable to identify these markers that relate to the book and get a better idea of where the armies were positioned as they squared off against one another.

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Review of Go South to Freedom, by Frye Gaillard

25 Apr

The latest book by accomplished author Frye Gaillard, currently Writer in Residence at the University of South Alabama and longtime favorite Gulf South storyteller, is a slender volume based in regional history aimed at younger readers. Entitled Go South to Freedom, the book is Gaillard’s entertaining and smoothly written retelling of an actual oral history of an African-American family in the Mobile area. The book is illustrated by Anne Kent Rush with depictions of the scenery and wildlife native to the region in which it is set.

Gaillard Go South

The family legend which inspired the book, an intriguing but fragmentary account handed down through the generations, centers on an intrepid African-born slave and his desperate attempt to lead his family to freedom in 1830s Georgia. Although this family patriarch, named Gilbert Fields, intended to take his family north, a cloud-filled and stormy night hid the stars during the flight and threw him off track. In the fugitives’ haste to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the plantation they fled they realized too late to reverse course that he had been traveling south by mistake. Grasping the futility of following the original plan, Fields instead led his family on an adventurous pursuit of freedom that found them living among the Seminoles of Florida for a time before ultimately making their way to Alabama.

There are of course a lot of gaps in this story, and Gaillard takes a few liberties (with the family’s permission) in the process of transforming this piecemeal family history into a continuous narrative. The result is a simple but profound tale based in fascinating historical fact that is sure to enlighten and inform readers of all ages. There are moments of sadness, moments of drama, and moments of revelation in the span of the book’s mere 72 pages, all related in a way comprehensible to the book’s primary audience. While expressly geared towards younger readers, the realities of the world in which the epic journey takes place are introduced in compelling fashion. In addition to illustrating the desperate gamble of flight from slavery by bondsmen during the time and the precariousness of life on the run, the book introduces readers to the unique world of the antebellum Gulf South region, a place where Old South plantations and maroon settlements among sympathetic Seminoles existed within a short distance of each other, and a place where cities such as Mobile and New Orleans contained substantial populations of free blacks among their citizenry at a time in which such populations were nearly nonexistent elsewhere in the Deep South. As an introduction to the time period for younger readers, Go South to Freedom is highly recommended.


The Beauty of Antique Maps

18 Apr

I love old maps. They are unique artifacts that contain many layers of information and are often quite literally works of art. Maps from centuries ago had to be hand drawn with painstaking detail, required tremendous research to produce, reflected to a great degree the physical exploration by real people of the places they depicted, and often contain elaborate ornamentation. Digital maps of today are utilitarian and antiseptically technical in comparison; much better at telling us exactly where things are but utterly lacking anything that would make them endearing or worthy of framing and placing on a wall. While many antique maps are entirely obsolete for the purposes they were meant to serve, many are unique artifacts of the era in which they were produced that help us understand what people viewed as worth noting, how they traveled, and from what perspective they viewed the world around them.


Having spent over a decade of my career as a museum curator, I am aware that not everybody sees old maps, or a great many other tangible reminders of the past, from quite my same point of view. For example, I remember vividly an exchange several years ago with a student at an educational program for an exhibition I had curated on antique maps of the Southeast dating back to the 1500s. The kid thought the old maps were “neat” and was glad that we had them on display, especially since “nobody needed maps anymore.” I’m sure what he meant was that digital technologies such as those available as standard equipment on virtually any smartphone had rendered printed maps obsolete as a tool for finding your way around. I suppose there is a story in this exchange about how our digital age is creating a virtual world in which things like maps, books, newspapers, and other printed materials are increasingly presented electronically and that we are in some way losing something in that process, but that is a blog for another day. For now, I just want to draw attention to the craftsmanship and beauty of antique maps and the layers of information they hold because nothing like them is produced today.

Map of Florida and Louisiana

We do not have charts like those European explorers created, mapping coastlines in some detail but relying on rumor and conjecture to depict the interior. We no longer have maps produced by colonial powers, claiming huge swaths of contested continents as their dominion and exaggerating their influence in remote locations where forts stood near allied Indian villages. Nor do we have “emigrants guides” such as those produced in the early 1800s, showcasing the best roads into undeveloped areas and highlighting their potential wealth. In short, maps are no longer used to communicate what might be; they are definitive representations of what is. Understanding that fundamental change helps us appreciate antique maps in a new way, I think, and makes them all the more fascinating as historical artifacts.



Review of Fort Maurepas, by Jay Higginbotham

11 Apr

Accomplished historian Jay Higginbotham is largely unknown outside of his home Gulf Coast region and the few scholars who have spent time researching the region’s French colonial heritage. In two landmark books, however, he basically provided the essential narrative of why and how the French first established themselves on the Gulf in the first two decades of the eighteenth century.

Higginbotham Fort Maurepas

I hope to review in this blog on another day his magnum opus, Old Mobile, a 500-plus page tome that is the definitive study of the founding of Mobile. Today I would like to draw attention to a slim volume he published in the 1960s entitled  Fort Maurepas. While featuring less than 70 pages of text and nearly fifty pages of images and appendices, in my opinion the book is essential reading for anyone interested in the region’s colonial-era history. The book is of course a chronicle of the founding of the French Fort Maurepas on Biloxi Bay in modern Mississippi in 1699, but it is much more.

In his swift-moving narrative, Higginbotham offers one of the best accounts available of the reasons for French colonization of the area and the triumphs and setbacks they experienced in the process. Grand strategy is presented in coherent fashion without overlooking the fascinating stories of the individuals on the ground who made things happen. It is a wonderful introduction to one of the most intriguing eras in Southern history, and I highly recommend it as a starting point for understanding the days of French influence in the Gulf South.