Archive | July, 2014

The Unveiling of the “Battle of Mobile Bay” Stamp

30 Jul

Today the History Museum of Mobile, Alabama will host the unveiling ceremony for a new stamp commemorating the Battle of Mobile Bay. The pivotal naval conflict of August 5, 1864 ultimately resulted in the capture of one of the Confederacy’s most important remaining ports and, coupled with the nearly simultaneous fall of Atlanta, effectively ended any possibility of a war-weary Union suing for peace. The conflict is of course best remembered for the words reputedly spoken by Rear Admiral David G. Farragut when ordering his attacking fleet into the mine-strewn channel under the guns of Fort Morgan: “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!”

I am glad to see this historic battle receive a measure of the national recognition it so richly deserves. May we remember this dramatic naval action, and honor the lives of those who died during its course.

Battle of Mobile Bay stamp


Review of Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation, by Steve Vogel

29 Jul

With the bicentennial of the British capture of Washington, DC and the successful defense of Fort McHenry at Baltimore during the War of 1812 approaching, we decided to read a recent book about those dramatic events. Steve Vogel’s Through the Perilous Fight, Six Weeks that Saved the Nation accomplished that and so much more and stands above many others as an example of how to write a great, narrative history.


Two hundred years ago during the height of the War of 1812, the British focused their attention on the Chesapeake Bay area as a critical part of a plan to end the war with their former colonies. British forces conducted several raids along the bay that decimated towns and ports in an effort to persuade the United States to quit the war. Eventually, the British aimed their powerful war machine at Washington, DC. After the battle of Bladensburg, a horrible disaster for the United States, they succeeded in capturing our nation’s capital which led to the burning of many our grandest landmarks, such as the White House and the Capitol Building. Vogel writes a grand narrative of this sequence of calamities, following the main characters and contending armies in a way that has scarcely been done before. The reader is emotionally invested in this saga detailing a lowpoint in our nation’s past as he traces iconic events such as the saving of George Washington’s portrait, the British army entering the city, and even President James Madison’s ignoble escape. In a sad, but comical episode that reveals the frustration of citizens at the time, the President of the United States was denied shelter at one house in Maryland and his wife ordered to leave a nearby inn. It is hard for us today to fathom our capital city being captured and burned after a pitiful effort to defend it against a relative small force. Vogel casts plenty of blame for this disaster, with much of it falling at the feet of Secretary of War John Armstrong. Our loss of Washington DC ranks as one of the most embarrassing moments of our nation’s history and one that the general public unfortunately has forgotten.

Just when you think things are at their worst, Vogel takes us to one of the war’s brightest moments, the defense of Baltimore and Fort McHenry. Again, Vogel paints a vivid panorama, providing details on the major players, the regular soldiers, and the drama that unfolded—a drama that ends with Baltimore being saved and the Star Spangled banner still waving proudly over Fort McHenry. The reader has a better understanding of Francis Scott Key’s role in drafting our national anthem and why he was out in the harbor in the first place, something rarely explained in other accounts of the War of 1812. The story of the inspirational flag is a great one but in one of the more celebrated bits of history trivia Vogel points out that the famous flag now on display at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History is not actually the flag that withstood the majority of bombardment. (A storm flag was on the mast during the nighttime bombardment due to strong rains and winds.) The victory at Baltimore, combined with the simultaneous victory at Lake Champlain, lent just enough creditability to our fighting forces to allow a peace treaty to be signed with provisions which saved this country from utter ruin.

We both agree that this is one of the finest books we have read in some time. It is a thrilling and engrossing minute-by-minute narrative of a period of crisis that tested our national resolve. Through the poetic words of Francis Scott Key, our resounding and improbable triumph still resonates 200 years later as a defining moment. Through the expert storytelling of Vogel, a new generation of readers can appreciate it as perhaps never before.


Review of Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, by Lee Sandlin

24 Jul

Acclaimed journalist Lee Sandlin’s account of life on the antebellum Mississippi, Wicked River, is one of the most entertaining books I have read in a while. Through a series of focused chapters centered on noteworthy events and personalities associated with the iconic stream, Sandlin paints a vivid portrait of a wild, rollicking frontier era in the Mississippi Valley that disappeared almost as quickly as it blossomed. The book is not a scholarly history of the river by any means. Rather, it is an engrossing collection of some of its most famous tales that draws on a wealth of forgotten antebellum traveler accounts to give a first-person perspective of some of the people, places, and events that have helped give the Mississippi its special place in American life.


Through Sandlin’s skilled storytelling, readers learn about the raucous life of the first generations of rivermen, the boats they traveled on, and the rowdy towns that sprang up along the river’s course. They also are introduced to the dangerous criminal gangs that haunted the lower Mississippi Valley, gain an appreciation for the majesty of the riverboats that in many ways still serve as the defining image of life on the river, trace the steps of those who fought in the campaign for Vicksburg, and learn of the tragic details of the sinking of the Sultana. One of the most entertaining chapters concerns the remarkable New Madrid earthquake of 1811 and the unworldly changes it wrought along the “Father of Waters.” The event literally caused a portion of the river to flow backward temporarily, and created a short-lived series of waterfalls traversing a radically rearranged bed.

As Sandlin points out, such “rearranging” was and continues to be one of the few constants along the river. The immense waterway—over a mile wide in many places and draining a huge portion of the continental United States—is constantly changing course and altering the land through which it flows. The river itself is fittingly the main character in Sandlin’s book, as he makes its mysterious depths and powerful flow the larger-than-life, uncontrollable landscape on which the stories he tells takes place. In Sandlin’s grand narratives the river becomes a physically and culturally distinct place whose lore has left an indelible imprint on the American imagination. There are certainly many more stories than the ones in this book that could be told to make that point, but few will find fault in the selection and none with their telling.

Sandlin’s tone is unmistakably nostalgic, and the introduction and epilogue are tied to the reminiscences and writings of the individual most closely associated with life on the Mississippi—Mark Twain. Twain’s celebrated writings were based on real-life experiences with a heavy dose of legend, and similarly the exact truth of what life along the river was like during the era chronicled by Sandlin is probably lost. One thing is sure, however. The frontier era along the river was anything like what came before or after. Even Twain, who took an extensive tour of the river in his later years, observed that what he saw on his trip was a far cry from what he remembered in his youth, and he was somewhat astounded at how quickly a way of life had come and gone. Bustling river wharves had been replaced by cities with their backs to the river, and a wild and untamed stream had been “improved” by the engineers virtually from its headwaters to the Gulf. Sandlin’s work captures the essence of what Twain remembered—and perhaps embellished—in his book. He proves that in many ways truth is indeed more interesting than fiction along the way. Like the river the book explores, his writing is alluring, colorful, and unique.


Video Tour of Mississippi’s Old Capitol

22 Jul

Mississippi’s Old Capitol is widely regarded as “the most historic building in the state.” As the seat of government for Mississippi during many of its defining events, the building has a unique connection to its storied past. In addition to being a place where history happened, the building is important in its own right, as it is a National Historic Landmark and has served as a museum under the administration of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for decades. In this short video, Old Capitol Museum director Clay Williams takes viewers on a tour of this historic building.




Why We Should Remember Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain

10 Jul

With the fate of much of the world hanging in balance in the summer of 1940, all that stood between Hitler and total domination of Europe was the English Channel and about 1500 daring Royal Air Force Pilots. The improbable British victory in the prolonged air battle known as the Battle of Britain turned back the Germans and ranks as one of the seminal moments of the storied military history of the British, remembered alongside the defeats of the Spanish Armada and Napolean. The battle’s impact reverberates far beyond the cliffs of Dover over which so much of it was fought, however. It is no stretch to say the battle changed the course of world history. We as Americans should celebrate it as a seminal moment when one of our strongest allies stood alone in the face of tyranny for all the right reasons, even if we are obliged to at the same time remember that for most of the conflict we stood idly by.

The great British Prime Minister Winston Churchill summed up the stakes before the first shots were fired, after the collapse of France before the Germans:

 “…the battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us…”

Battle of Britain

To fully understand the scale of the British accomplishment in turning back the Germans, one must appreciate the context in which it occurred. The battle was actually a months-long fight for control of the skies over the British channel and southern England preparatory for a German invasion. In the summer of 1940 the German Wehrmacht was ravaging through Europe in lightning speed and threatening to extend Hitler’s power across the continent. After the fall of France, essentially all that stood in the way of Nazi domination of Europe was an unprepared and seemingly divided Great Britain. Some high-ranking members of the British government, after all, were already debating whether or not to make a peace with the Germans and their apparently unstoppable and fearsome military when the first raids began following the disaster at Dunkirk. The odds were not good. Indeed, they appeared impossible. The United States watched as a spectator in splendid isolation, convinced the British had no hope of prevailing and unable or unwilling to see the threat to our own ideals and interests posed by Hitler’s Reich.

Enter Churchill, who practically willed his country to resist through his oratory, strength of presence, and diligence.

“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fall, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour!”


Churchill exuded bravado to be sure, but combined it with a shrewd understanding of what could realistically be accomplished by his outnumbered forces. He relied to a great extent on the behind-the-scenes savvy of the Royal Air Force, especially the plan of air defense created by Air Mashal Hugh Dowding. His genius and diligence in the years prior to the war created the intricate air defense system and strategy that would make victory possible. Churchill’s resolve and Dowding’s foresight played out in full view of world, in the form of a continuous air battle that played out over the skies of Britain in the summer and early fall of 1940. Thousands watched as RAF Spitfires engaged German ME-109s and bombers miles overhead—their silent vapor contrails tracking desperate maneuvering and spent cartridges sparkling in the sunlight as they tumbled to the ground sometimes providing the only evidence that a battle was raging due to the height at which it occurred. At other times the roar of the powerful aircraft engines was all too close, as low-level raids on air bases took place at breakfast or lunchtime. At still other times cities such as London were bombed at night as air raid sirens wailed while frantic air defense crews attempted to shine spotlights on the droning bombers in order to fire at them. Thousands of civilians died and many homes and cities were left in ruins, but the British people never wavered. Day after day, their air force inflicted greater losses on the German’s than they sustained, sometimes at a two to one rate. The British reserves were tapped to the limit, though, as the Luftwaffe simply had so many more aircraft to throw at them. They came very near overwhelming the British.


One can’t help but be struck by the determination of Churchill, who embodied the British resolve during the crisis and inspired his country to victory:

 “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”

London bombing

The line between the conquest of Europe—and much of the modern world—by an evil Fascist regime and the hope of continuation of democrat government in those same areas was razor-thin in 1940. Through leadership, technology, and sheer determination, the RAF managed to hand the German war machine its first setback and buy precious time for the United States to come to the realization of the true nature of the menace the British had stared down. Churchill’s famous remarks on the British success applied primarily to his countrymen, but I believe have a much larger significance:

 “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”



The Battle of Britain was a crucial turning point in world history in which the forces of liberty and representative government triumphed over the forces of tyranny. We as Americans should celebrate it along with some of our most steadfast allies in the modern era, the British people.


The Power of Place: Pearl Harbor

7 Jul

In many of our blogs, we have written on the importance of place as fundamental to understanding and appreciating the past.  There is simply no substitute for standing on the spot where important historical events happened. You can read about events in books or watch television documentaries, but nothing makes a bigger impact than being in the very location where an event occurred. Visiting historical locations remains at the top of our list in regards to learning about and appreciating our heritage. In truth, visiting historic sites is so inextricably linked to understanding the past in our minds that we have difficulty comprehending how this nation’s past could ever adequately be interpreted should we not have places where we can go to on some level experience the events that shaped the course of American history.

Over the past year, we have both taken separate trips to Hawaii with our families and had the opportunity to visit one of the most important places where history happened—Pearl Harbor. There cannot be many other spots on this earth that can match the power of place like being at Pearl Harbor. In a very short time, you can take a boat across the famous bay and stand on the Arizona Memorial, hovering above the remains of one of the ships destroyed by the Japanese raid on December 7, 1941. Very few places can invoke the solemnness one cannot help but feel  as you stand there knowing nine hundred sailors lie entombed below and that the events that took their lives led to our nation’s entry into World War II. The conflict altered both American and world history. We have been to many important places, but rarely have we both been moved as much as when we gazed over the clear blue water, still being stained from leaking oil from the sunken battleship at this incredible memorial.

USS Arizona Memorial



Oil at Arizona Memorial


Just a few minutes away from that spot, you have the opportunity to walk upon the deck of the USS Missouri and stand in the very spot where in Tokyo Bay in September 1945, Japanese officials surrendered to the United States, which effectively ended World War II. Most of us have seen the photographs showing the signing ceremony, but the power of standing at the spot where this occurred is a moment that can’t be matched.  Pearl Harbor provides the opportunity to witness not only where this nation entered this conflict,  but also where it ended nearly five years later.

Surrender site on USS Missouri


USS Missouri

We both feel blessed to have had the opportunity to visit this sacred ground. It is a shame that many citizens will not have the opportunity to make this journey as it should be almost a requirement for all of our citizens so we can understand the struggles this nation has faced. There are not many places that we can more highly recommend you visit!


Review of The Scratch of a Pen; 1763 and the Transformation of North America, by Colin G. Calloway

3 Jul

Author Colin G. Calloway quotes renowned historian Francis Parkman when he says “half a continent changed hands at the scratch of a pen” with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The ramifications of the end of the Seven Years War(known as the French and Indian War in North America) when the British Empire gained control of most of North America is the subject of Calloway’s book, part of the “Pivotal Moments in American History” series. This short book (171 pages) provides a glimpse into America in 1763, after the treaty is signed. As Calloway says, the book does not analyze the treaty itself, but it “surveys the enormous changes generated by the Peace of Paris and assesses their impact on many societies and countless lives in North America.”


For example, the Native Americans were forced to deal with a changed environment absent the French who had served as their ally. Since the native nations did not sign the treaty to give up their land, the “war” continued as they fought to protect their territory. Pontiac’s attempt to unify the various tribes and throw back the British is the prime example of this fight. On the other side, colonists now looked to move west of the Appalachians to lands they think they had won and the British government attempted to keep the peace by establishing a boundary line. Other societies such as the French in Canada or the Spanish in Florida had decisions to make such as to live under British rule or leave and go elsewhere. Slaves in North America also lived under new circumstances.

Calloway ends his book with a comparison of the 1763 and 1783 Treaties of Paris. Summarizing succinctly, he states, “Faced with a huge new territorial empire in North America in 1763, the British tried to defend it, administer it, and finance it. Instead they lost it.” Scratch of a Pen provides an important snapshot of North America that provides insight into the causes of the American Revolution. History builds on history and understanding this time period is crucial to gain a clear picture of what led colonies to revolt in the 1770s.


Review of With Wings Like Eagles: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain, by Michael Korda

1 Jul

Michael Korda’s With Wings Like Eagles: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain is an engaging, informative, and detailed account of the seminal moment in world history when Britain alone stood between Hitler and domination of Europe. The book contains all the stories of the thrilling exploits of daring pilots and admirable resiliency of British civilians that one would expect to find in its pages, and includes more details of what life was like for combatants on both sides than one might expect. Its focus, however, is less on the day to day events of the prolonged battle than on the strategy, logistics, and leadership that made British victory possible.


Korda recounts the remarkable foresight of Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, whose intricate defense network of radar stations, control rooms and fighter planes, assembled even as the British were following a policy of “appeasement” towards Hitler in the 1930s, facilitated resistance. With almost clairvoyant insight, he enabled the British to hold off the very type of attack the Germans would ultimately launch. Once the attack was underway, his strategy of concealing the true strength of the outnumbered Royal Air Force by only sending up small squadrons of planes against huge German waves of bombers and fighter planes somehow worked. At a distinct numerical disadvantage, the British were still able to bring their marginally superior strategy, equipment, and fighters to bear.

As Korda vividly tells, that doesn’t mean the contest was never in doubt or that Dowding’s strategy didn’t lead to huge civilian losses on occasion. It took a resolute leader—in the form of the pugnacious Winston Churchill—to see that the plan was followed in spite of setbacks and inspire maximum effort on the part of both military and civilians. Regardless of all the heroics of British leadership, though, the German Luftwaffe almost overwhelmed them. Korda’s book is most useful when explaining how all this played out from the German perspective. He clearly shows what the Germans knew and didn’t know, and explores the role of the ambition and expectations of Hitler and Luftwaffe Commander Herman Goering in the battle. Hitler seemed to sense conquering Britain would not be as easy as subduing France and postponed plans for invasion so many times that it ultimately became impossible, while Goering was so supremely confident that he daily expected total victory. Neither man seemed to understand the situation in reality, which was somewhere in the middle of these two scenarios. Korda demonstrates the two or three critical points in the battle where, due to a change in strategy or faulty intelligence, the Germans allowed the RAF the precious break it needed and let potential victory slip from their grasp.

With Wings Like Eagles takes you into the air with British and German pilots, into the chaotic fighter command control rooms and bombed radar stations, and into the offices of world leaders whose decisions in the summer and fall of 1940 affected the course of world history. There is certainly no lack of material available on the Battle of Britain, and this contribution will not answer every question readers might have about the contest. It does explain how and why British won in clear and compelling fashion.