Archive | March, 2013

199th Anniversary of Horseshoe Bend

28 Mar

One hundred ninety nine years ago today, within a horseshoe-shaped curve in the Tallapoosa River in what is now eastern Alabama, a battle that determined the fate of two cultures played out. The cataclysmic event was the culmination of a brutal war that shaped the development of much of the Southeast, and one might even say, the nation as a whole. More Native Americans died in this battle than in any other battle in United States history, while the leader of the victorious force was launched on a trajectory that would ultimately bring him a degree of power so remarkable that he defined an era. Did anyone read about this anniversary in your local paper?

Horseshoe Bend diorama

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend and the gem of a park that interpret its story and preserve its site deserve more attention than they receive, especially as we approach the battle’s 200th anniversary. Let’s hope the slow development of plans to commemorate that event pick up speed as the final countdown to this milestone begins.


The Civil War Maps of David Greenspan

25 Mar

I recently wrote in this space of my respect for author Bruce Catton and the influence his writing about the Civil War had on me as a child. Today I’d like to mention a particular aspect of the specific book by Catton I referenced that, to be honest, may have had as much of an impact on me as Catton himself.

greenspan chickamauga

Catton’s American Heritage Pictorial History of the Civil War contained the best maps of Civil War battles I have ever seen. In fact, to call them maps actually does them a disservice in my opinion. They pieces of art, elaborately detailed and three-dimensional dioramas explaining the ebb and flow of battles unlike anything I have seen before or since. The maps provide viewers with an understanding of the physical layout of the battlefield and the pivotal moments in space and time that occurred on them that is unparalleled. Intriguing, informative, and unique, they are the one thing I remember most about Catton’s book. I could not help but be captivated by them as a child, and I’ll admit I still am today.

greenspan spotsylvania

I do not know what spark of genius caused them to be created, or why their creator, a gentleman named David Greenspan, remains so anonymous. I have looked for information on Greenspan but not found much. Surely someone with such talent did more work before or after illustrating Catton’s volume!? I am glad I have a copy of Richard O’Shea’s Battle Maps of the Civil War (1995), which showcases the Greenspan series among dozens of other battle maps. But, sadly, the book contains nothing further enlightening readers as to Greenspan’s life or other work. If anyone knows anything more about this mysterious artist, please let me know.


Review of Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

22 Mar

I will admit I was a little skeptical of how well I would like Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, when I downloaded it as an audiobook from my local library. I knew little about President James A. Garfield (really, who does?) and was dubious of how well his assassination could be portrayed as the convergence of important developments in American history.

Destiny of the Republic

To my surprise, I found the book to be a genuinely intriguing story, full of colorful characters whose central event is presented convincingly as the embodiment of a changing of eras in our nation’s past. The story admittedly starts somewhat slowly, with the author presenting vignettes of those who will become the book’s major characters: pioneering scientist Dr. Joseph Lister, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, political boss Roscoe Conkling, and of course, President James A. Garfield and his assassin Charles Guiteau. The book picks up pace with Garfield’s shooting, and it soon becomes apparent how these seemingly unconnected characters come together at a time when medicine and politics were transitioning from one stage of development to another. If anyone is ever interested in producing a film on Garfield’s assassination, here lies the script.

Garfield comes to life as an influential, honest, and consistent figure through Millard’s writing, even if the admiration Americans of all walks of life had for him is perhaps overplayed a bit. A remarkable amount of information is presented on Guiteau, who was clearly disturbed and dangerous for years before he shot the president in an insane belief the act would make him a national hero. Some of the ordeal through which Garfield suffered—he lingered for months after Guiteau’s shooting and ultimately died more from medical ignorance and malpractice than a bullet—is difficult but important reading. It is in that suffering that the very future changed trajectory according to Millard; in Bell’s hurried invention of a device to locate the bullet that would ultimately lead to wide-spread use of the x-ray, through former Conkling toadie Chester A. Arthur’s distancing himself from his mentor and the political spoils system he espoused in the wake of the murder that brought him to the presidency, and in the long-delayed acceptance of antiseptic surgery advanced by Lister which if administered to Garfield almost certainly would have saved his life.

The book is not a masterpiece, and will not necessarily cause a reevaluation of Garfield or his era. What it is, however, is an engrossing story shedding light on a little-known event that brought together, briefly, some of the leading men of the era. It is the type of book that could very well show a jaded public that history, and the fascinating stories it contains, can be at once entertaining and educational.


Review of Old Hickory’s War by David and Jeanne Heidler

20 Mar

Few conflicts in our nation’s history are more complicated and less understood than the Seminole Wars. The First Seminole War stands as a pivotal event in American history, at once involving international intrigue, American expansionism, cultural conflict, high-stakes political maneuvering, and the single-minded determination of Andrew Jackson. I have begun some reading on these wars lately to try to better understand them, and have found that although there are not a lot of books on the topic, the ones available are generally good. Certainly none are better, however, than Old Hickory’s War, by David and Jeanne Heidler.

Old Hickory's War

The Heidlers’ work is a masterful account of the origins, conduct, and consequences of the First Seminole War. As much an investigation into the personality and influence of Andrew Jackson in American history as a narrative about a forgotten conflict, the book is remarkable for its detail. But it is not really the facts that few other historians of the era seem to have uncovered (there are many) or the insight into Jackson’s motives (which demonstrate an amazing understanding of what drove him) that is noteworthy about the book. Rather, it is flowing prose that you will remember if you read their work.

The Heidlers write with the experience of those who have studied the topic for years. Every passage demonstrates their grasp of the facts and knowledge of the people whose actions they chronicle, and it is not really an exaggeration to say that each sentence is packed with meaning that, if handled differently, could easily result in the book being twice its length. The book is not just the best single volume of the First Seminole War, it is the best scholarly work connecting the war with those that immediately preceded and followed it. It demonstrates as few others have the connection and continuity of warfare between Americans, Creeks, and Seminoles that underlay the development of much of the Southeast.


Thank You, Bruce Catton

18 Mar

Bruce Catton helped steer me toward a career in history. I never met the man, and the books he wrote that influenced me so profoundly appeared well before I was born. But when I list the people who, for better or worse, helped influence me to pursue a career as a professional historian, Bruce Catton must be listed.


Catton (1899-1978), who published over 20 books between 1948 and1978, was a Pulitzer prize-winning historian who achieved fame through chronicling in story-like fashion the American Civil War. His books, such as his trilogy on the A Stillness at Appomattox, This Hallowed Ground, and Terrible Swift Sword are classics and are narrative history at its finest. From 1984-2006, the Society of American Historians awarded their top prize for lifetime achievement in the field, the Catton Prize, in his honor. There is even a historical marker outside his boyhood home in Michigan.

I knew none of his fame when I first read a reprint of Catton’s American Heritage “Picture History” of the Civil War when I was about 11 years old. All I knew is that the richly illustrated book, incredible maps (more on those in a later blog) and accessible flowing narrative intrigued me as nothing I had ever seen. It was relatively brief. It was not footnoted. It was not written for academics. It was a book written for the general public in the truest sense, and it made the epic story of the Civil War come alive for me in a way that inspired me to want to learn more. That book is still the most treasured in my library.

Thank you, Mr. Catton, for helping give me an appreciation of the importance of America’s past.


More Proof Concerning the End of History Education!

14 Mar

Just when you think the teaching of history couldn’t be hampered even further, the Mississippi Department of Education is considering omitting the standardized U.S. History test from a proposed new rating for high schools. Educators say students would still take the course and the test, but scores would not be a factor in determining the rating of schools. Are you kidding me? How can I wake up from this nightmare?

If that test is not factored into a school’s ratings, then you can imagine how much emphasis will be placed on it. The saying “What gets tested (and counted) gets taught” holds true! Maintaining a high or a passing grade in the rating system is the number one priority with school administrators, so if the U.S. history test is not counted in that rating, then administrators will not emphasize it to the teachers. Students apparently have to pass the test to graduate, but again, administrators are more concerned with their overall school rating than individuals graduating from high school.


This disturbing news provides more evidence of how the subject of history continues to get less and less emphasis in schools today. From elementary school to high school, students are taught less and less about the basic history of our country and state. History education is critically important in teaching a variety of skills such as reading comprehension and critical thinking. Even more important, a firm grasp of our nation’s history produces more responsible citizens. Whether it is how our nation was formed, the struggles we have undergone to grant rights to all of our citizens, or the conflicts we have fought to preserve the nation and provide freedom around the world, the teaching of history provides knowledge our children need to have to assist them in making important decisions in the life of our country. A strong foundation in history and social studies is necessary to produce a more informed citizenry capable of going to the polls to vote for elected officials and important issues. Math, science, and computer skills are important, but do not prepare our children to be informed citizens. And we wonder why this nation seems to have a lack of competent leaders to guide our country into the future?

When will we as citizens take a stand against shortsighted educational philosophies and standards that stress technical abilities to the exclusion of a broader liberal education built upon a solid understanding of our nation’s history? Failure to do so is not just a disservice to our children, it jeopardizes the future of our nation!



12 Mar

Authors who write on subjects that describe geographic locations MUST include maps in their writing. Sounds simple enough, but the list of published works that lack adequate maps to assist the reader in visualizing location or the actions that take place in locations is astounding.  This need is magnified in military narratives where authors describe the movements of armed forces in relation to terrain, cities, and each other. Nothing is more frustrating to a reader than to read a detailed narrative of troop movements and have no accompanying map. Without a map, this text becomes basically useless to a reader trying to comprehend the actions on the battlefield. And yet, too many books are published without adequate maps.


Why is this? How can such an essential element to telling a story be so consistently omitted? If readers are truly to understand the story you write, it is imperative to show them where things happened.



Review of American Lion by John Meacham

11 Mar

My job requires me to be on the road a lot, and I occasionally take advantage of this time to listen to an audiobook. Recently, I listened to Jon Meacham’s examination of the presidency of Andrew Jackson, entitled American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. The book was engrossing and, despite its formidable length, dramatically written as an unfolding story.


There were both things I liked and things I thought could have been better about the book. I liked the narrative flow and style, the examination of some intricate details of social life in the White House that shaped Jackson’s presidency, and especially appreciated the broad context in which the author places Jackson in American history. Meacham ultimately convincingly asserts that Jackson is a central character in American history on several levels: 1) because of the precedents he set regarding expanding the power of the executive as the nation’s leader and his influence over many of the presidents that have followed him, 2) because of his essential “Americanness” and the fact that Jackson, for better or worse, represented the embodiment of the American character of his age, 3) because of his vision of the role of “the people” in American politics, and 4) because of his sheer force of will and incredible patriotism that almost single-handedly shaped an era.

The book was not without some shortcomings in my opinion, however. For one thing, it is not really as much a biography of Andrew Jackson as an examination of the turmoils and jealousies that shaped his inner circle, and therefore, the political climate of the nation. While this is admittedly exactly what the author intended to do, I feel that at times Jackson is intermittently lost in the narrative. Secondly, the book focuses so tightly on a small cast of characters (Jackson’s family and the Eatons primarily) that when Meacham does attempt to discuss broader issues such as the Nullification Crisis and the bank controversy, the examinations at points seem lacking some broader context and informed by too few voices. And, for a book that purports to examine Andrew Jackson’s presidential years, a surprisingly small number of major developments are investigated at any length.

What Meacham examines, however, he examines well and in compelling fashion. The book is entertaining and, some minor quibbles aside, does a good job of helping us understand that while Jackson was entirely a man of his age, his influence is tangible and timeless.


Memorializing the Past

4 Mar

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the annual meeting of the Mississippi Historical Society, held in Vicksburg. Naturally, several sessions concerned the Vicksburg Campaign, and I of course toured the National Military Park that preserves the site of the siege of the town. Although I had lived in Mississippi previously and toured the park before, this was the first time I had gotten a chance to do so in several years. The experience was moving owing to both the events the park interprets and the vision it took to create it.

Illinois Monument

Vicksburg was one of our nation’s first national military parks, established in the 1890s. The effort and commitment it must have taken to create the park at a time when such a thing was a novel concept is remarkable. It is an enormous park, containing well over 1,000 acres. The care taken by the park’s creators to mark all the critical locations, where to some degree the fate of the nation played out, is abundantly clear. But most striking to me are the monuments everywhere in the park. Vicksburg is one of the most heavily memorialized battlefield parks in the nation, maybe even the world. It is not merely the number of monuments that impressed me though; the scale and beauty of many is truly striking. The expense and effort required of each state that had troops present at Vicksburg to create permanent memorials to their service in stone and steel represents and amazing expenditure of public resources. Tour the battlefield and one will find impressive and lasting memorials to the troops from all twenty-eight states that existed at the time, as well as several to individuals. It is a grand public acknowledgement that turning points in our nation’s history deserve to be and should be remembered by future generations and that this duty is not one to be taken lightly.

Sadly, it couldn’t happen today. People, individually and collectively, just don’t seem to have the same passion and vision for preserving our nation’s shared heritage. Certainly no public funds could be used by states in such a manner, and nothing requiring such an enormously expensive budget for upkeep would seriously be considered. There was a time when public memorialization of important events in national history was something recognized as vital to the preservation of America’s unique heritage. Next time you visit one of our nation’s great military parks, please remember not only the sacrifices they are designed to commemorate; remember the effort and vision it took to create and fund that commemoration and pray that such enlightened thinking and firm resolve regarding the importance of the past will be found in our halls of government again. To put it gently, our current generation of shortsighted leaders is seriously wanting in this regard, and it is to the detriment of both us today and those who will come after us.