Archive | July, 2013

Civil War Kentucky

30 Jul

This past weekend, we completed a whirlwind tour of Civil War sites in Kentucky. In the span of two days, we saw as many sites related to the Civil War as was logistically possible.  Although Kentucky does not contain many war-related sites and parks well-known to the general public, the state does offer a lot of places to see and visit. Within its borders are the birthplaces of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Both locations contain museums and impressive monuments.  There are also four battlefields (Munfordville, Richmond, Mill Springs, and Perryville) which are well-preserved and interpreted. Unlike some battlefields in highly populated areas, these battlefields were serene and picturesque and offered plenty of locations that had not changed much over the past 150 years.  As you walked every battlefield, you got the feeling of what soldiering must have felt like. After walking nearly ten miles up and down the hills of Perryville, we both felt sore and understood the difficulties faced by soldiers from both armies at that pivotal battle.

We must also mention that during this trip, we came across one of the prettiest vistas we have ever encountered. Frankfort, Kentucky, contains the burial place of frontiersman Daniel Boone. His grave sits on a bluff overlooking the city and the views of the state capitol and the easy flowing Kentucky River is one that we will not soon forget.  In fact, at virtually every stop along our quick tour, we took in beautiful views of the pastoral Kentucky countryside and were able to learn about important aspects of the Bluegrass State’s rich history.  Civil War enthusiasts, or those interested in our nation’s 18th or 19th century in general, would be well served to see what the Bluegrass State has to offer.



Review of Dade’s Last Command, by Frank Laumer

26 Jul

It is ironic that the Seminole Wars remain obscure in the nation’s historical consciousness considering the several capable historians who have chronicled them. The literature on these forgotten conflicts makes up in quality what it lacks in preponderance. One of the best examples of this lies in Frank Laumer’s incredible chronicle of Dade’s Battle, entitled Dade’s Last Command. Published in 1995 as the first, and to date only, book-length study of this pivotal battle which began the Second Seminole War, the volume is essential reading for anyone interested in this important conflict.


Laumer’s book is not only among the very best available scholarship on the war, it is among the best accounts of a military campaign in American history that I have ever read. Insightful, detailed, and written in engaging style, Dade’s Last Command is a model narrative by a historian whose mastery of the facts and passion for the subject and people he brings to life is abundantly clear. This is no dry account of the surprise attack which resulted in the deaths of all but one of Maj. Francis L. Dade’s command in the Florida wilderness in December of 1835. It is a compelling drama that is told from the perspectives of both American soldiers and Seminoles.

A short passage, taken from p. 169 of the book, provides an example of Laumer’s storytelling writing style which allows readers to hear, see, smell, and feel what life was like on the fateful march from Fort Brooke (modern Tampa) to the relief of Fort King (modern Ocala). It is part of the account of the advance of Dade’s troops the day before they were attacked:


“The advance guard kept its distance, flankers out on right and left, alternately

thrashing through palmetto and splashing through ponds, rear guard following,

urging the crew on as they put their shoulders to the wheels of the gun, rolling

deep in murky water, horses straining at their harness, pawing the earth for traction,

while the dogs bounded through the woods, baying up anything that moved and

much that didn’t. On the map the road was straight, but in reality the twists and

turns kept the column weaving back and forth so that a man could see only a short

distance ahead or behind at any given moment. It created a feeling of vulnerability,

and that in turn kept the ranks closed up, the pace quick.”


Laumer’s telling of the devastating attack and the death of virtually everyone in the command (this is “Custer’s Last Stand” a generation earlier) just a few pages later is riveting. It is only exceeded in drama by the reality of the event and that somehow one man was able to escape and make his way some sixty miles back to the safety of Fort Brooke despite being shot four times and being unable to even walk. Laumer wraps up his study of the battle with his slow and painful departure from the scene of the carnage, providing in the epilogue the summary of ensuing events that became known as the Second Seminole War.

I recently had a chance to visit the ground on which the events of the book took place. The book has reminded me forcefully just how much good historical writing can mean to enhancing the visitor experience at historic sites such as Dade’s Battlefield Historic State Park. This remote patch of ground, featuring a short walking trail and an unimposing reconstruction of the hastily-assembled log barricade from which Dade’s men vainly attempted to hold off an overwhelming Seminole force so many years ago, was brought to life in my mind through this book. I enjoyed my visit before reading this book. Now that I have read it, walking that hallowed ground will be a profound experience indeed. I can’t help but think that if all of our state historic sites had such a moving chronicle of the events they interpret as Laumer’s study of Dade’s Battle, the profession of public history would greatly enhanced. If we can get the public interested in reading them, that is.


A Royal Pain

24 Jul

We guess we should join the hordes of people and offer our congratulations to Prince William and Princess Kate on the birth of their first child. We acknowledge and offer our blessing to them as much as we would any others on the joy it is to bring a new life into this world.  The great hysteria and unbelievable fanfare over this event, however, borders on the ridiculous. We are amazed and stunned that so many people are so infatuated by this birth as well as the other comings and goings of the British Royal Family, a dysfunctional and archaic lot if there ever was one. Are our personal lives so pathetic that we only find meaning in the lives of these privileged few whose obsolete and meaningless titles are their only claim to fame?  We equate this infatuation with those who follow every move of the Kardashians. To borrow an often used colloquialism, I think there are many people who simply need to “Get a Life!”

Royal watcher

Examining this fascination from an historical aspect is even more confusing. Our nation owes its existence to the courageous efforts of patriots who eschewed birthrights and royal entitlement in favor of self-sufficiency and a chance to achieve greatness on your own ability. We won our independence from the British in the American Revolution and then 30 years later secured it during the War of 1812. We later saved England two times during the World Wars in the 20th century. And yet many of our citizens still focus their attention on the other side of the Atlantic and the Royal Family as if anachronistic nobility, funded in their lavish lifestyles by taxpayers, still has either merit or relevance. It should make us cringe to hear the repeated references to “nobility” and “commoners” being bandied about in reference to the royal family. Maybe it is the Cinderella fairy tale aspect of it or simply a desire to look toward those we feel are somehow greater than us, or maybe, as noted in an earlier blog, we are just searching for heroes.  If that is the case, we should search elsewhere, because the Royal Family does not offer anything to truly admire to an American! The very notion of royalty flies in the face of the principles upon which men like Washington and Jefferson founded this country, and those such as Jackson and Lincoln championed.


Review of The Civil War at Perryville: Battling for the Bluegrass, by Christopher L .Kolakowski

17 Jul

As we continue to read as much as possible in preparation for our trip to Kentucky, we noted that Christopher Kolakowski’s overview study of the Battle of Perryville provides a wonderful introduction to this relatively little-known Civil War action. Thoroughly researched, concise and richly illustrated, the book explains the context in which the battle took place and introduces readers to many of the individuals who figure as leading players in the drama that unfolded on the rolling hills of central Kentucky in October of 1862.


The book is not an academic study of the battle of the type provided by Kenneth Noe, which we reviewed in this blog just a few days ago. It definitely serves a purpose and fills a niche that Noe’s more comprehensive study does not. It is exactly the type of short, easily-readable and lively study a great portion of those with a casual interest in history will enjoy. It entertains, educates, and provides an engaging introduction to an important event that more intensely academic scholarship does not. We believe strongly that there is a place for such literature and are glad to see a number of publishers focusing on these types of publications. As historians, we would do well to remember that these types of books are exactly the things that can introduce complicated subjects to the general public and get them interested in history.


Review of Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle, by Kenneth Noe

15 Jul

One of the favorite pastimes of Civil War enthusiasts, both amateur and professional, is debating the importance of the war’s many turning points. Where exactly was the war lost for the Confederacy and won for the Union? Many scholars tend to agree that if there is a single battle in which the fate of nations hinged, it is to be found in the western theatre. There are many likely candidates for the title of ultimate turning point, perhaps none with any more substance than the relatively little-known Battle of Perryville, Kentucky.

This long-overlooked battle finally received the detailed study it so richly deserved in Kenneth Noe’s Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle, originally published in 2002. It still stands as the ultimate resource on the contest, deserving of praise for its scope, comprehensiveness, and narrative style.

Perryville by Noe

Noe delivers a thorough examination of the causes, consequences, and fighting of the battle, highlighting the many blunders in decision-making in the both the Union and Confederate commands that ironically rendered this “high point of the Confederacy in the West” a draw. Despite the fact there was no clear winner in this bloody and hard-fought battle on the field itself, the affair clearly was a major setback for the Confederacy.

Noe clearly demonstrates the importance of the state of Kentucky to the Southern cause, and it is this light that the results of the battle must ultimately be judged. Noe’s major achievement lies in the fact that he compellingly chronicles as no one before or since the myriad individual decisions made and acts of heroism and sacrifice performed in the space of a few chaotic hours in the bluegrass that determined the course of a battle, the fate of a state. Because of his work, Perrvyille at least has taken its place in the conversation over the war’s decisive turning points.

The lasting impression that the book leaves on the reader is the absolute failures of command by both armies.  There were many battles and campaigns fought in the war where command mistakes occurred, but few rival the blunders committed by these commanders. On one side, Confederate troops moved into Kentucky in two wings and never united to fight the Federals. Both Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith deserve blame for this major tactical error that should have resulted in the total defeat of Bragg’s force.  Only the incompetence of Union General Don Carlos Buell allowed Bragg’s army to escape. At Perryville, Buell failed to even acknowledge that a major battle was being fought by his army. One of his corps was fighting for its life while he ate dinner and two corps sat motionless. It would not have taken Napoleon to utilize the forces he had at his command to destroy Bragg’s army.

And how have Americans remembered Perryville’s hallowed grounds? Noe’s book provides a chronicle of how the battlefield itself has been viewed over time. He starts with the disorder and agony of the first days when it was littered with the dead and dying, moving on to the delayed and, in retrospect, sadly inadequate efforts to preserve and interpret it during the heyday of battlefield park formation, concluding with a look at where the site is today and visions for the future.

If there is one fault in the book, it is that it does not contain enough maps. Noe chronicles the action at Perryville in amazing detail, with entire chapters being devoted to mere minutes of fighting by isolated wings of the contending armies. With this sort of construction, it is imperative that readers be provided with enough maps that they can easily follow the ebb and flow of the battle. This concern notwithstanding, This Grand Havoc of Battle is a must read for anyone seriously interested in the Civil War in the West and the definitive study of one of the war’s least understood battles.


Looking for a Hero

11 Jul

It has taken nearly 43 years, but I think I realized why I enjoy and love history. This epiphany occurred while watching Man of Steel, the latest theatrical release of the Superman franchise. Besides history, I am also a long-time collector of comic books. Around age 10 or so, I began collecting the adventures of as many super heroes as possible: The Avengers, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Daredevil, The X-Men, Thor, Spider-Man as well as many others who are far more obscure. I loved reading, and sometimes still do, the exploits of these heroes overcoming obstacles, defeating their archenemies, and saving their loved ones.


I enjoy similar historical writing. For instance, I enjoy military history. Reading a well-written narrative of leaders planning strategic moves while soldiers fight it out on battlefields is a particular favorite of mine. Other stories that capture my attention as well include a family struggling to forge a life from the frontier or a biography of someone coming from nothing to rise to greatness. To me, these rich, vibrant stories share with comic books the concept of a “hero” protagonist.

Born in 1970, I have grown up in one of our nation’s most disillusioned time periods. Although occurring in my early childhood, images of Vietnam and Watergate still resonate. Since then, there have been too many wars and conflicts without victories, the 9-11 phenomenon, multitudes of corrupt business and political leaders, sporadic economic ups and downs, bitter factionalism in politics, and a society filled with cynicism about the future.  Uplifting news seems to come far too infrequently as we are filled with stories of individuals whose only concern seems to be about themselves. Our society suffers from a lack of true heroes for us to admire.

So, as I watched Man of Steel, the story of one hero’s attempt to serve as a shining example to others, it led me to the idea that I perhaps enjoy these stories because I am searching for heroes in real-life. In an effort to escape from the current malaise of today’s society, I enjoy curling up with a good history book that fills my imagination with heroes of the past. Whether they document the common soldier of the Civil War, or a charismatic political leader, or even exploits of pioneers, these stories feel me with awe and wonderment whereas the current events of today fill me with disgust and fear of the future.  So, forgive me if I continue to switch off the nightly news to read a great historical narrative. Come to think of it, I still have some good comic books that I haven’t read in a while.


David McCullough on America’s Historical Illiteracy

9 Jul

I recently saw an interesting interview with noted historian David McCullough in which he addressed both his philosophy of history education and the great need for it in today’s society. McCullough disparaged the thought of our nation’s teachers majoring in “education,” emphasizing content in subjects about which they are passionate should be at the heart of their studies. Learning how to convey knowledge effectively would then become easier, in his opinion. “Show them what you love,” he asserted.


Perhaps even more importantly, McCullough called attention to our growing historical illiteracy as Americans. The depths of our ignorance of this fundamental subject are truly astonishing. McCullough relates in the interview how he “ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn’t know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original thirteen colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part.”

So, there you have it, a call to action with a few suggested specific steps to remedy the problem. Curing our chronically inadequate educational system as it regards instruction in history will not be easy and it will not happen overnight, but correcting its shortcomings starts with an awareness that something is indeed wrong. I am glad to see someone so respected and knowledgeable as Mr. McCullough sound the alarm. I just hope there are enough people still listening to do something about it.


Gettysburg or Vicksburg?

3 Jul

Early July contains several important days in our nation’s history. On July 4th, we celebrate the day when the American colonies decided to separate from England to form their own nation.  There is perhaps no other day in American history that deserves more recognition and acknowledgement.  However, this year marks the 150th anniversary of two other later events, which are equally deserving of attention because of their importance in signifying our nation’s perseverance.

In the summer of 1863, the Civil War had waged for over two years. Both the Union and the Confederacy had suffered their share of victories and defeats. In the eastern theater of war, Confederate armies had won a number of battles and under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, Confederate troops invaded Pennsylvania in hopes of winning a climactic victory that would force the Federal government to sue for peace. In the west, Union armies had consistently won battles, moved southward and were on the verge of splitting the Confederacy in two by capturing Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Glorious Fourth

This year, the national media and consciousness will focus the majority of its attention on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. For three days in July 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac would bloody one another in the town of Gettysburg at places that have now become iconic: the Devil’s Den; Little Round Top, and Cemetery and Seminary Ridges. The final Confederate assault, known as Pickett’s Charge, ended in failure, and on July 4th, Lee’s army retreated back to Virginia, ending what has become known as the High Tide of the Confederacy.

Hundreds of miles to the west, Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s dramatic Vicksburg Campaign was simultaneously coming to its conclusion. Begun in late April, Union troops crossed the Mississippi River, marched hundreds of miles, won several battles, and encircled the city. Following a 47-day siege, Grant accepted the surrender of 30,000 Confederate troops on July 4th, the same day Lee’s army retreated from Gettysburg.  With the surrender of Port Hudson a few days later, Union forces controlled the entirety of the Mississippi River.

Scholars continue to debate which Confederate defeat was more important to the Union winning the war. There are many ways to examine this topic, but one way to answer this question is to look at the war in a larger sense: which theater of war was more crucial?  Although the Army of Northern Virginia remained a threat to Washington and continued to stymie Union war efforts in the east, Union forces in the west won victory after victory, slowly slicing away the Confederate heartland and destroying Southern morale. For the most part, the armies in the east fought to a standstill in Virginia until Lee’s army was simply battered to oblivion. In the west, Union forces captured Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

As we contemplate the sesquicentennial of the monumental events which led to the preservation of this nation, we acknowledge those brave souls who fought in Pennsylvania. We must recognize, however, the importance of the simultaneous fighting that took place some 1,000 miles to the west where the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederate Gibraltar, joined a growing list of Confederate defeats out west that ultimately had a more profound effect on the outcome of the war by putting another nail in the coffin of the Confederacy.


History and Citizenship

2 Jul

I recently read a quote about history attributed to longtime British actor and director Anthony Quayle (1913-1989) which I thought summed up nicely a great deal of what is discussed in this blog. Further, it is especially timely given the holiday we’ll be celebrating this week. Quayle is credited with observing that:

 “To understand a man, you must know his memories. The same is true of a nation.”

I think Quayle’s comment is both accurate and profound, as what America thinks of itself and its direction is in large measure closely tied to its collective memory. Our common struggles, triumphs, and failures define who we are and where we are going. It is this understanding of a unique common passage that is at the core of what it means to be a citizen of this nation. To understand all that has taken place prior to this generation is vital to a full appreciation of all the freedoms we enjoy today.


Sadly, it appears we are in the process of forgetting a lot of our own history, and it will inevitably lead to a weakening of the patriotic feeling that has propelled America to achieve all that it has. The fact that we are as a nation increasingly historically ignorant doesn’t bother me on its own quite as much as the fact that it appears we are content with that status. Cultural institutions are always the first to feel the pain when state and federal budgets are cut, and many of our schools have arrived at the outrageous and laughable opinion that history is so irrelevant that it needs not be taught at all. A person can be taught what he does not know, but, as the saying goes, “you can’t fix stupid.” Never has history been more important than today, in my opinion. As historians, we must remember our work is not just educational; it is an essential part of creating an informed citizenry.