Archive | June, 2014

Review of The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta, by Marc Wortman

18 Jun

Usually it is a bad thing when I note in a review that a book is misnamed or deceptively titled. Not so with Marc Wortman’s The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta. Despite the title, the book is in truth about a lot more than the actual destruction of the town in 1864 by Union forces during the Civil War. It is an engrossing tale of the antebellum life, death, and rebirth of an iconic Southern city told through the eyes of individuals.


Wortman’s chronicle begins with the wresting of the area in which Atlanta lies from the Cherokee Indians, and concludes with the city’s postwar recovery from its fiery destruction. He gives an entertaining and informative overview of how the city came to be an important target for Union forces during the Civil War—by most counts it was second only to Richmond in terms of strategic importance by a number of measures—while giving readers an enlightening description of the sights sounds, and even smells of the young Georgia metropolis. In fact, Union troops don’t even enter the city (in September of 1864) until nearly three-quarters way into the book.

This does not mean that the fighting around and for Atlanta in the summer of 1864 are not discussed adequately. The Bonfire does cover the campaign for the city that preceded its capture, but does it in a decidedly different way than a standard military history. Wortman provides overviews of the fighting but keeps the focus on the perspective of the people of the city of Atlanta, making it a welcome addition to the almost entirely strictly military literature on the campaign. The most detailed discussion of military matters actually concerns the shelling of the city by Federal artillery and the consequent chaos in the streets and homes of the city. It is those stories of cannonballs crashing through walls and rolling through streets and the underground shelters built by many residents for cover (one is reminded of Vicksburg) that readers will likely remember as much as anything else in the book.

Wortman keeps the story interesting by having much of the story told from the perspectives of a short list of dynamic key characters including wartime mayor James M. Calhoun, diarist Cyrena Stone, a slave (and possibly illegitimate son of Daniel Webster!) named Bob Yancey who was given unusual liberties and became a remarkably prominent businessman, and Union General William T. Sherman. In Wortman’s expert hands, these characters are given real depth and vitality as individuals whose actions and experiences help define a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. Confederate generals Johnston and Hood, whose efforts to defend the city were unsuccessful, are not explored as fully but they still inherently are significant players in the drama.

The Bonfire is a great read, and a welcome counterpoint to the dozens of other studies of the campaign for Atlanta, several of which have appeared in the last decade. It takes readers inside the city that came into the crosshairs of the Union war effort in 1864 in a way nobody else has done. In other words, it is one of those rare books that complement rather than rephrase what volumes of literature about its subject already have said. I highly recommend it.


The Preservationists’ Favorite Bylaw: “Sec. 106”

10 Jun

Regardless of political persuasion, it is a rare thing for people to endorse wholeheartedly any action of our federal government. People generally think a law or regulation went too far, didn’t go far enough, or isn’t needed at all. There are certainly a lot of people over the years who have bemoaned the National Historic Preservation Act, passed by Congress in 1966, for example, frustrated at the federal government’s “meddling” in development projects. Count me as one person who unequivocally believes that act was one time they got it right.

Section 106

A discussion of the entirety of act and is stipulations is far beyond the scope of this blog. Let me get right to the heart of how it usually comes in to play today in communities across the nation—a clause in the language of the bill known as “Section 106.” That section of this landmark legislation essentially created much of the infrastructure for historical preservation activities in America today. It facilitated the creation of State Historic Preservation Offices, and encouraged the sharing of information by a wide variety of public and private historically-minded organizations and institutions in an unprecedented way. Contrary to popular belief, it does not require that historical structures or sites be preserved when threatened by demolition as a consequence of federally-funded projects or projects occurring on federal land. Rather, it forces entities involved in such projects to evaluate the impact of the proposed development on sites and structures listed on or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Sometimes that means places that a generation or two previous might have been casually destroyed are saved, sometimes it means they are thoroughly documented or interpreted even should there be no way to save them, and sometimes it means creative public education projects are developed to partially offset the loss of sites and structures. There is a ton of fine print and an infinite variety of variations on how the process works, and there are some great success stories and some frustrating failures of the system.

I applaud the act and appreciate federal involvement on this issue because it has had the effect of forcing consideration of cultural heritage resources in thousands of projects throughout the country that might not otherwise been given fair consideration if development were allowed to proceed totally unfettered. I wish state-level authorities universally encouraged such consideration of heritage resources, but that is a topic for another blog. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 isn’t perfect by any stretch, and it at times can create an inefficient bureaucracy that impedes its noble goals from being reached. But relative to most legislation coming out of DC, it is incredibly far-reaching and thoughtful, plus it has encouraged a national conversation about relationship of the past to “progress” that could not have occurred any other way.



6 Jun

Today we mark the 70th anniversary of one of our nation’s most iconic events: D-Day!! As we all should know, on June 6, 1944, allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France to begin the liberation of France and start the drive to Berlin to end World War II. Celebrations are being held across the world to honor this momentous occasion and there is not much else I can add to it. We all should take a moment today to reflect on this event and its repercussions.


dday cartoon

Courtesy of King Features
Syndicate Inc. and Bruce Tinsley

What caught my eye was a great cartoon in the “Funnies” section of today’s paper. “Mallard Fillmore” by Bruce Tinsley is a thought-provoking cartoon dealing with hot topic issues from a conservative standpoint. But no matter which side of the political fence you lean on, today’s edition has to be one that everyone can agree on. We all offer our thanks to those who took part in the decisive assault and we all lament the lack of knowledge our students are gaining in the current educational system!  A good cartoon only makes us laugh if there is a bit of truth to it and we all know that today’s students are not getting a decent history education!


Our Heritage Should be Available to Everyone

2 Jun

On a recent trip to Nashville, I had the privilege of visiting two historic places that are synonymous with the city.  The Ryman Auditorium, built in the late 1890s, was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974 and served as a venue for some of country music’s greatest performers. The Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson, teaches its visitors about our seventh president as well as plantation life in the nineteenth century. Both sites are National Historic Landmarks and provide fascinating history, but I left each place with a nagging problem about entrance fees.

The Ryman is now owned by Gaylord Entertainment who controls the day-to-day operations of the facility which includes daily tours and performances.  Price of admission for a regular tour was $15 which included a brief orientation film and the ability to walk the building and see a few traditional displays. For additional fees, you could go backstage and have your picture taken onstage. Gaylord is a business trying to make money which was evident. There is nothing wrong with that and maintaining a facility costs a great deal of money, but the ticket price just to see the building seemed a bit expensive. Charging more fees to have a photo on stage also seemed “Disneyesque” to me.  I have no problem, however, with Gaylord charging appropriate fees to see a concert there.

Ryman Auditorium



The Hermitage has been owned by the Ladies Hermitage Association since 1889 and has the responsibility for the building’s upkeep and tours. The regular ticket price was $19, but for that fee, you did get access to a great orientation film and museum plus tours of the mansion and grounds. You also got the use of a portable audio player and earphones which gave you more information at various stops along your tour. I think visitors definitely get more for their money in this instance. However, like the Ryman, I wonder if the ticket price prevents some from visiting.

Places like the Ryman and the Hermitage are vital landmarks that connect us to our past.  Visiting places like these teaches us about our shared heritage. They belong to all of us!  I understand these places cost thousands if not millions of dollars to upkeep and operate, but it seems a shame that some citizens might not be able to visit as it is too expensive for them.  Every Tennessean should have the opportunity to see the Ryman or the Hermitage since they are such visible reminders of what makes Nashville unique. I would hope these locations, as well as others across the nation, will keep that in mind and offer discounts or perhaps even free days so that everyone can enjoy them.