Archive | December, 2013

Review of Jamestown: First Contact, by Cecelia Holland

19 Dec

I recently ran across novelist Cecilia Holland’s short book about the Jamestown colony while browsing through some ebooks online. Since it had good reviews and I am becoming more interested in America’s founding era, I decided to download it. I found it to be packed with far more information about the first permanent English colony in America than its short length would suggest. Not only does the short book give insight into the legendary personalities associated with the colony (John Smith, Powhatan, etc…), but it relates in surprising detail the events that together form its story. These include tragic misunderstandings between settlers and natives, colossal blunders by the naïve English, and amazing suffering by the ill-prepared colonists. Taken together, the Jamestown story is at the foundation of American history, illuminating the rough beginnings of our country in miniature while forecasting some of the broad trends that would shape its development. Written with the skill one would expect of a fiction writer, it is both engrossing and packed with a surprising amount of information. While there are certainly more comprehensive narratives about Jamestown and its importance in our nation’s past, this book is a great introduction to the topic.



Review of Osceola: His Capture and Seminole Legends, by William Ryan

16 Dec

William Ryan’s Osceola: His Capture and Seminole Legends is a new approach to telling an old story. Written as if it is a narrative related by Osceola himself, the book attempts to explain the events leading to the outbreak of the Second Seminole War and ultimate capture of the famed leader Osceola from the Seminole perspective. Such an approach is tough to do convincingly because we simply don’t have written records sufficient to illustrate the Seminole point of view. Ryan has mined the original sources well, though, and with the help of obvious in-depth knowledge of the time period, delivers a believable narrative.


The book is certainly a change of pace from most of the material available on the Seminole War. However, it must be taken as supplementary to the primary texts, many of which have been previously reviewed in this blog. Not only does it necessarily rely on supposition and inference at times, the e-book version I read unfortunately contains many typographical errors. In addition, its first-person approach is at times annoyingly repetitive, rendering the book in places excruciatingly slow-moving at best and perhaps condescending to the Seminoles to whom the author attempts to give voice. I am not aware how it has been received by those of Seminole ancestry, but it would be interesting to know. All these complaints aside, it is in the end interesting if nothing else and leaves the reader to contemplate people, places and events chronicled elsewhere in a new way; an admirable goal for any history book.


Review of The Revolutionary War, by Bart McDowell

9 Dec

I recently read again a book I have had in my library since childhood and probably last read as a teenager, Bart McDowell’s The Revolutionary War. Originally published under the auspices of the National Geographic Society in the late 1960s, the richly illustrated and concise book (196 pages) remains one of the best overviews of the war I have seen.


The book is a pretty straightforward but well-written overview of the war, presented in chronological fashion. What makes is so compelling to me is that it is told as an unfolding experience by the McDowell family through visits to the sites on which the war played out. The author does his best to even visit the sites at the appropriate time of year relative to the events of the Revolutionary War that took place on their grounds. The sites he visited have changed a bit, and the dated photos of the family—with father in suit and tie, right out of a “Father Knows Best” episode—may appear a bit hokie to some as will the occasionally strained effort to turn supposedly real conversations into learning opportunities for both the author’s children and the reader. The whole thing is contrived but novel and strangely entertaining.

It is easy to overlook the basic reasons why the book can still be found on a host of online bookselling websites and in libraries across the nation: there is real substance here. It features an engrossing and insightful narrative that explains complex events in laymen’s terms, features a virtual catalog of the best artwork depicting the war that has been produced (including some great battle maps in the vein of David Greenspan’s work in Bruce Catton’s history of the Civil War), and communicates a profound appreciation for historic sites that manages to give them life and meaning some four decades after being featured in the book. Contemporary readers looking for a good overview of the Revolutionary War will certainly look elsewhere, but if you are seeking such a volume you could do a whole lot worse than this book.



The Random Nature of Where History Happens

5 Dec

My recent visit to Independence National Historical Park was wonderful. I was glad to finally get to visit so many important historic sites associated with the American Revolution and the origins of our country that I have longed wanted to see. For the most part, the sites in the expansive park were well-interpreted and maintained, and the overall experience was excellent. I was inspired by seeing Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was passed; Congress Hall, where our young nation’s legislators met while Philadelphia served as capital; the site of Benjamin Franklin’s house, the home of one of the most iconic individuals in American history. The one place that struck me most, though, was a relatively small and off the beaten path structure that had sparse interpretation, minimal staff, and no regular organized tours.

Carpenter’s Hall was the meeting place of the First Continental Congress, where leading lights from twelve of the thirteen colonies gathered to discuss coordinated action to redress grievances against the actions of the British Parliament. If there is a single space where the American Revolution, as a cooperative event, can be said to have begun, this is it. It is not a large space, and one is hard pressed to envision what the atmosphere was like with so many people huddled into a cramped space in the fall of 1774. The building was definitely uncomfortable, and doubtless not especially memorable for most of those attended, I would assume. In fact, they only met there because other larger facilities were unavailable. Yet, the place is a vital link in nation’s history and today stands as a tangible connection to the formation of our country.

Over and over in my visit I was similarly reminded of one of the few commonalities in our nation’s most treasured historic sites; few who were there the moment the events they are remembered for today could have imagined how significant they would one day become in American history. In fact, I would guess a majority of the battlegrounds and buildings that are today venerated as important in our past acquired their significance quite accidentally. Who could have imagined that the spot at which George Washington chose to attempt to cross the ice-filled Delaware River in December of 1776 would one day be enshrined as the very spot where the tide of the Revolutionary War turned?  Who could have imagined in that the then-isolated location of the winter encampment of the Continental Army, a remote place known as Valley Forge, would one day become one of the iconic names in all of American history? To me, historic sites such as those I got to visit in Pennsylvania point out one of the things that make history so compelling:  a series of decisions determine the fate of wars and the course of nations. How and why these decisions were made are important, but without understanding where they were made a vital element of the past is missing.


Review of Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, by Joseph J. Ellis

2 Dec

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence is another masterful narrative about our country’s formative era by a master historian. By his bringing years of research and writing on the time period to bear in a sweeping narrative of the crucial months in which nation formed, Ellis’ recent book is as dramatic as it is informative.

Revolutionary Summer

Taking the liberty of defining “summer” as the extended period between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the military campaigning in the fall of 1776, Ellis attempts to demonstrate in real time the reciprocal impact of events playing out in Independence Hall and the battlefields around New York in those pivotal months in which the upstart American republic was most vulnerable. Indeed, he demonstrates that were it not for the hesitancy of British military leadership to make the most of their capture of New York and rout Washington’s army, the fledging nation may have never made it past that crucial summer.

The takeaway from Revolutionary Summer is, of course, that instead of easily becoming the summer of the demise of the idea of American independence, it instead became the trial of fire that tempered national resolve. Regardless of and at times because of the military situation, the electrically-charged political will for separation from Great Britain quickly became grounded in sober awareness of what it would really take to attain the goal. Owing to timing, luck, and confidence, the “spirit of 76” that inspired the revolution transitioned into a steely determination to sustain it. It is an epic story that has been told many times and in many ways, but few have done it with the enlightening contextualization or the flair of Ellis.