Archive | December, 2014

Campaign 1776

31 Dec

Campaign 1776

Earlier this year the Civil War Trust announced a new venture into uncharted waters—focusing its considerable battlefield preservation expertise on protecting Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields. The move, brought about to some degree by conversations with the National Park Service following a comprehensive 2007 report on the status of the places where these important conflicts were fought, promises to be among the most important undertakings in American preservation history. It may sound strange at first blush that an organization that has so long been dedicated exclusively to Civil War sites should become involved in this effort, but upon consideration the fit is natural. The Trust uniquely has the experience in battlefield preservation that such a large and important task demands. I am very glad to see they have accepted this most urgent challenge, as few efforts could be more timely or promise to yield greater results for us as a country for generations to come. As followers of this blog know, we have long despaired over the lack of appreciation for America’s founding era, and are delighted to see attention being focused on events that so richly deserves our consideration. If the Trust has anything approaching the success it has experienced with its Civil War battlefield preservation efforts, the future for the study of history on the places where it actually happened in this country is bright indeed. For more information on this most worthwhile endeavor, visit


Review of Historic Cannons of Mobile, Alabama: An Illustrated Guide, by David Smithweck

29 Dec


Yes, someone has actually written a book about the historic cannons lying in and around the city of Mobile, Alabama. I came across this short e-book recently online and thought that for $2, it might be worth having on my Kindle. The book is essentially a brief tour guide, providing interesting background information on the surprising number of historic cannons that are on display throughout Mobile in parks, museums, and neighborhoods. These range from one of the French cannons dating to the founding of the city in the early 1700s to a British gun captured during the War of 1812 to a variety of Civil War-era pieces. The book is not a compelling narrative and a host of formatting issues, including text spacing to a few poorly reproduced images, make it a little clumsy to read in places. I have not seen the print version, but I would suspect these issues apply solely to the e-book version. Admittedly about as much of a niche publication as one is likely to find, it would not appeal to a wide audience even if the presentation was highly polished. I personally will find it useful, and I’m sure there are a few dozen others who will as well.


History and Empathy

23 Dec

Empathy, generally defined as an “ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” is on some level a prerequisite for the work of objective professional historians, in my opinion.


By this I do not mean we are engaged in some touchy-feely psychological exploration in our research. Rather, I maintain that what sets us apart from, for example, the narrowly family-centered research of geneaology buffs, is our appreciation of the larger story and its effect on individual lives. We believe that the human experience is worth investigation because the lives of those who have become before us are worthy of our study regardless of any connection we may or may not have with them. Nothing is wrong with interest in the stories from the past that most directly impacts us as individuals, mind you, and being interested in the bigger picture is not inherently more praiseworthy an endeavor. But as professionals we approach our craft not exclusively on a selfish quest, but to sort through the sequence of events that shaped societies. A desire to understand and relate the experiences of others, often very different from us, lies at the core of what we do. In fact, history that is not approached with an empathetic appreciation of lives from the past is not compelling and consequently rarely informative; it is merely a dry recitation of facts. The “story” that makes good history so riveting, after all, is the narrative of individual lives.

The study of history requires investigation, imagination, empathy, and respect.
           Dr. Jill Lepore, Professor of History, Harvard University

Don’t Tread on This Uniform

16 Dec

The Naval Academy dressed up a little for its annual contest with Army this past Saturday, in the form of a special uniform for the game that many feel is among the best rivalries in all of sports. (Despite the hype, it really hasn’t been all that competitive of late, with Navy winning an unprecedented 13 in a row.) In similar fashion to the Star Spangled Banner-inspired uniforms donned by the University of Maryland earlier this season, Navy wore a special creation that referenced the service’s rich heritage.

Navy uniform

Featuring a version of the First Navy Jack supposedly used by the Continental Navy during the American Revolution, the uniform showcased several elements of that iconic banner—the 13 alternating red and white stripes symbolizing the American colonies, a rattlesnake, and the famous phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.” It was an altogether appropriate reference to our nation’s heritage and I’m glad to see such historical symbolism being incorporated into something as distinctly modern as major college football.

Navy uniform 2 Navy uniform 3

Of course, there is the inconvenient fact that the flag that inspired all this may never have existed. I’m no vexillologist, but it appears there is really no firm evidence of a flag with all those elements being used by our nation’s naval forces during the Revolution. The original Naval Jack may actually have simply featured red and white stripes and only in later depictions did elements of the famed “Gadsden Flag” depicting a rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me” make their way onto it.

Naval Jack

Modern and historic Navy Jack

First Navy Jack verified

Gadsden flag

“Gadsden” flag

All manner of things referencing our 13 founding colonies were popular in early America, and the rattlesnake, which supposedly only strikes when threatened, appeared in several banners of the Revolutionary era. Conflating these pervasive symbols seems to be only natural, so even if we don’t have firm evidence of a banner exactly like the one on which Navy based its uniforms, I’m willing to give them a pass and celebrate the heritage-inspired creativity. After all, the banner flies on our navy’s ships today, per orders of the Secretary of the Navy in 2002.


Review of Bottle Creek: A Pensacola Culture Site in South Alabama, edited by Ian W. Brown

10 Dec

The more I learn about the Mississippian period mound-building societies which once inhabited much of the Southeast, the more I am intrigued by them. Some of the most complex and largest prehistoric societies in world history, the Mississippians left us no written records and consequently can only be known through archaeology. Fortunately, they left us some great clues about where to dig, in the form of the remarkable mounds that were once the centerpieces of their sprawling cities. One of most intriguing of those communities in the Southeast is Alabama’s Bottle Creek Mound Site. Among the largest mound centers in the Southern U.S., the site is located in the heart of the Mobile-Tensaw delta in south Alabama. Ironically about a remote a spot as one can find today, at its height it is believed to have been the gateway for a sprawling chiefdom stretching from the Gulf to the Appalachians.

Mound sites such as Bottle Creek stir the imagination of those who love historic sites, but the literature on the discoveries archaeologists have made at them is inherently scientific, comprised overwhelmingly of reports and graphs and charts analyzing stacks of sherds, soil types, post holes and post molds, tiny bits of bone and corn remains, and charred ruins. Such is the case with Bottle Creek: A Pensacola Culture Site in South Alabama. The book features essays on various topics written by an all-star team of those who have worked with anything associated with the Bottle Creek site. In the usual dry, scientific reports it contains, the story of the amazing Bottle Creek site is buried. Reports demonstrate that life there from the 1300s to the 1500s conforms in large part to what is known of mound centers elsewhere in that the mounds were apparently the homes of the elite, supplied by farmsteads scattered throughout the region, and that the community in which they were located was the center of a substantial political, cultural, and economic network. Some things don’t quite line up, though, such as the fact that it was occupied later than many other regional sites, lending it an air of uniqueness and virtually demanding more study.


The most enjoyable part of the book is the summary provided by project editor Ian Brown, in which he ably brings together all the various bits of narrow inquiry contained in the book’s many short chapters to postulate on some wider hypotheses about this amazing site. These can’t be conclusively stated as fact, of course, but they are informed and interesting opinions that lean toward a conclusion that Bottle Creek was something of a sacred site, comparable to the famed Moundville in its influence, with an aura of respect among Native Americans that persisted centuries after its mysterious abandonment. Whatever original significance it had, Brown indicates, seemingly only grew in legend after the Mississippian societies that inhabited it collapsed and dispersed. Brown relates the story of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founder of the city of Mobile, and his experience with the site in the early 1700s to illustrate his point. Bienville recorded in his journal having explored the area with local Indians and collected some European-manufactured items (likely dating to the De Soto era). The locals who guided him there dared not approach the mounds, choosing instead to take the Frenchmen to the site and staying a distance behind. The spot, they claimed, was “the place where there gods are.” For some reason that anecdote seems to tell me more about the Bottle Creek mounds and sites like it than all the graphs and charts contained in Bottle Creek. For now, though, the closest one can come to understanding the site and how its builders viewed it is this book, which brings together a great deal of recent scholarship and should enable us to create more informed visions of what life was like there. If you are interested in the Mississippian Period in the South, it is worthy of your attention.


Review of Robert E. Lee: Confederate Commander, by Jennifer Blizin Gillis

4 Dec

As readers of this blog can easily tell, the life of Robert E. Lee is one of the historical subjects that continues to interest me. I tend to collect just about everything about Lee’s life that I run across, so when I saw Jennifer Blizin Gillis’s short biography of the general on sale recently, I grabbed a copy. The book is aimed at younger readers, but there is much even the most polished academics could learn from it.


Gillis’s well-illustrated and attractively-designed book packs a lot of information on one of America’s most polarizing figures into its 100 pages. I was impressed that even though it was aimed for younger readers, it dealt with some pretty weighty issues with clear, accessible prose. As one should expect, the Civil War and slavery were given treatment in a direct manner that I believe would help make these complex issues understandable for younger readers. What I liked most about the book is that it presented Lee as someone worthy of our attention today even though he was associated with the institution of slavery and the failed Confederate war effort. It attempts to explain why he was so beloved despite his flaws, how he made an impact on American history, and why his life is worthy of study even though his world and ours are very different places. I wish we could encourage everyone to approach contemplation of Lee’s era with these same points in mind.


Review of George Washington: The Crossing, by Jack Levin

1 Dec

There are a few particularly poignant moments in American military history that those of us interested in the past seemingly never tire of reading about, for there continue to be books published about the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, yearly if not monthly. I will admit I have read my share of books about subjects that I already knew about pretty well, not so much to gain new insight into their details as much as to see how someone else tells their story or to gain new understandings about their continuing relevance to us today.


On both counts, this is exactly why I recently picked up a copy of Jack Levin’s slim souvenir-style volume on one of the most iconic American martial moments of all—George Washington’s crossing of the ice-filled Delaware River on Christmas day of 1776 and his subsequent legendary victory at Trenton. There is nothing new in the little 64-page book, but it is nonetheless is powerful and compelling. Richly illustrated, its sparse narrative (aimed at younger readers but edifying for those of all ages) captures the essence of the pivotal events of December 25 and 26, 1776 and their impact on our nation both yesterday and today. It is driven by a phrase-by-phrase illustration of what occurred during the famed crossing and battle, as drawn from the text of the letter written by Washington to John Hancock answering questions about how his men performed in the contest. It is fun, inspiring, well-conceived, and well executed if not profound, exceptionally eloquent or groundbreaking. In other words, it is exactly all that someone interested in history for history’s sake could want in a short but entertaining overview account of a historic event about which much has been written. Thanks, Mr. Levin.