Archive | January, 2016

The History Relevance Campaign

26 Jan

In case you have not heard, there is a discussion group called “The History Relevance Campaign” (HRC) underway that should interest all who care about the place of the study of the past in modern society. Launched as an online forum for conversation among history professionals from a variety of disciplines a few years ago, HRC has focused on the tragic consequences of the marginalization of the study of the past in America in a variety of formats. Among its many accomplishments in the realm of creating awareness and encouraging conversation, it has produced a “Value Statement” which outlines several critical reasons why the study of history is important—reasons that hopefully will resonate with practitioners, interested citizens, students, community leaders and the general public. They will be useful to all of us as historians, as they elaborate on history’s worth in forming identity, developing critical thinking skills, making our communities better places to live, encouraging economic development, creating an engaged citizenry, inspiring our leaders, and creating a lasting legacy by interpreting our shared past. To join the conversation, visit!value-statement/ca2m.



Review of Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts

19 Jan

Epic! That one word description is probably the best summary of Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts. This latest biography, checking in at over 800 pages, captures the incredible life of the Corsican upstart, highly successful general, elite administrator, grandiose Emperor, and hapless exile. Obviously a great admirer of Napoleon, Roberts has culled recently acquired correspondence to relate this fascinating story that traces one of the world’s greatest figures in an age that never fails to captivate its audience.


Napoleon details the entire life of the famous French leader. Roberts of course explains his great military victories, but for me, other interesting events stood out. For instance, Napoleon’s abilities as an able administrator shine through this biography. Even while on campaign, he would send letters back to Paris dealing with all aspects of French life. His amount of hand-written correspondence during his years as French leader is mindboggling. Roberts also explains Napoleon’s efforts at placing merit before birth as the main catalyst for advancement as well as his establishing equality before the law in his Napoleonic Code. Readers are also made aware of his loyalty to his soldiers with his constant concern for their supplies, pensions, pay, and the establishment of the Légion d’ Honneur, a true merit based system of recognizing bravery under fire. Roberts also depicts his love for Josephine that suffered a crippling blow when he learned of her affair. Napoleon would of course take on mistresses of his own, but none until he himself was first cheated upon. And of course, the overall story of his rise to fame to conquer and control most of Europe and become Emperor before it all crumbled around him.

And it is that ultimate failure that provides the true tragedy of the story. The two biggest failures being inability to “cure” the “Spanish Ulcer” and of course his decision to invade Russia that would for all intents of purposes annihilate his army. Readers are left to seriously question Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia; a decision seen as so tragic as Napoleon truly admired the Tsar Alexander but simply seemed not to know of another way to bring the Russian Tsar back to his alliance.  Napoleon hoped one grand victory over the Russian forces would bring Russia back into line, but of course, he never gained that climatic triumph. The Russian campaign of course began the long road to eventual defeat for the Emperor. I also took away the attrition of Napoleon’s officer corps, either through death or desertion, as playing a huge factor in French defeat. Napoleon’s insistence on relying on family which seemed to fail him time and time again also contributed to his downfall. By the end, the reader can’t help but feel almost sorry for Napoleon.

Roberts says in his introduction that “More books have been written with Napoleon in the title there have been days since his death in 1821.” I have read only a very small amount of them and therefore am in no position to recommend this one over many others. I can say that if you are searching for a biography that casts the emperor in a favorable light and one that never fails to capture your attention and make you dream of being on the scene during this grand Napoloenic Era, then this is the book for you!


Review of The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant, by Allen Barra

12 Jan

I can vividly remember where I was sitting in Mrs. Van Gilder’s class in third grade when the principal came over the loudspeaker announcing that Bear Bryant had died. It came as a tremendous shock. Although I was barely old enough to know much about college football, I already knew that Bear Bryant WAS Alabama football, and he was some sort of permanent fixture in the state that seemingly had always been and would always be. It sounds strange to say, but over three decades after his death, Bryant still seems more myth than fact for what he accomplished and the way he did it. If anything, his legend may have actually grown larger the further we get from his era. Bryant’s status as a semi-mythic figure in Alabama is due in no small part to him remaining forever a caricature in his depiction by those who have studied him—an unvarying trademark look, a mumbled growl when he spoke, a seeming perpetual annoyance with anything at any time except the perfectly executed fundamentals of football. Even those who have admired him have never really known the man, instead remembering him in a series of iconic images and quotes. But Bryant, of course, was much more than a series of such snapshots. He was a real man with an incredible story. While there have been some good efforts at relating his life, there have been numerous mediocre ones, and no small number that are more hagiography than critical biography.


I picked up Allen Barra’s acclaimed effort at chronicling Bryant’s life and times, The Last Coach, because it is reputedly among the very best biographies of the man. I enjoyed it tremendously, and admired how the author went to great lengths to provide the most detailed stories about its subject. Barra’s book is in truth a virtual catalog of Bryant tales, seemingly containing in over 500 pages the complete assemblage of information on the man as related from his own words and those who knew him. Barra delves in great detail into Bryant’s hardscrabble upbringing in desperately poor rural Arkansas, his playing days at Alabama, and his rise through the coaching ranks at Vanderbilt, Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama. There are the expected stories of him acquiring his nickname by wrestling a bear at a carnival, playing against Tennessee on a broken leg, the infamous summer camp at Junction, Texas, “mama calling” for him to come back to his alma mater after a professional sojourn, and the series of famous moments that collectively built his legend.  There are also discussions of the nagging questions of why he was not more forceful in encouraging the integration of the Alabama football program, his mishandling of a few high-profile players, and the bizarre allegations of a game-fixing scandal with Georgia athletic director Wally Butts. Barra’s investigation of all these and other issues is perhaps the most complete to be written in several instances.

A few key themes summarize Barra’s treatment of Bryant and separate it from most of the other attempts to tell the coach’s life story. Collectively, they represent the author’s attempt to demonstrate both the root cause and far-reaching influence of Bryant in place of simple veneration. First, Barra makes clear that by any measure one might want to use—and he uses several—,the man was good at what he did. He goes beyond the usual mere statistics to explain that he coached in both the “single platoon” and the modern era, figured out how to win running the single wing, the wishbone, and a pass-heavy attack, and won impressively everywhere he worked. Second, Barra shows that Bryant had an incredible focus and determination to win, and his competitive spirit drove him to relentlessly pursue success even to the detriment of his family life and own health. Barra points to a desperate attempt to escape his humble beginnings and a lifelong nagging sense of academic inferiority as fueling a fire to constantly prove himself as the catalyst for his accomplishments over his long career. Third, Barra makes clear that the Bear knew he was something of a legend even in his own time and attempted to manage his image more than most might suspect. He could be confident to the point of arrogance, quietly fumed over perceived slights, and even had some minor plastic surgery in his later years.

Despite the wealth of information and the numerous stories about Bryant contained in Barra’s entertaining book, in final analysis it is not one of those biographies that redefines its subject. The Bear Bryant that emerges in Barra’s writing is pretty much the Bear Bryant we have always known. A few of the stories just have more detail, and the author attempts to place his life and accomplishments in context a little better than others. This judgement is not an indictment of Barra’s approach, though, as I do believe The Last Coach is the best biography of Bryant available. Barra has sorted through an immense number of stories from players, coaches, media, and friends and family and backed up as much as he could with solid research using available records. Yet the inner workings of his intensely private subject, who seemingly devoted every waking hour to his work for the better part of a half century, will likely forever remain a mystery. Bryant retired from coaching at, for the time, the advanced age of 69 in extremely poor health, having famously proclaimed he’d “croak in a week” if he was not coaching. His prediction was off by just a matter of days. Perhaps because of that timeline we never got the benefit of the full retrospective by writers and interviewers that he would never have given during his coaching days. Perhaps it would never have come at all regardless. And perhaps all that is part of the reason why he has remained and in all likelihood will remain engrained in lore as an archetype of his chosen profession who simply cannot be evaluated outside of his life’s work. Bryant and Alabama football are as inseparable today as they were when he retired, a gleaming example of success in a state long accustomed to various types of hard luck and even failure. Among the things made most clear in Barra’s narrative is the fact that this situation is exactly the way he wanted to be remembered, without the distraction of personal details.



Political Correctness Run Amok

5 Jan

The newly built USS Jackson, a littoral combat ship, was commissioned in Gulfport, Mississippi on December 5.  Named after the city of Jackson, Mississippi, the ship’s name has recently come under fire. Jackson, Mississippi is named after Andrew Jackson, whose influence in the region led to Mississippi becoming a state. Critics are stunned that the name Jackson would be given to anything as the former 7th president was a slaveholder and was instrumental in the removal of Native Americans in the Southeast.


140322-O-ZZ999-203 MOBILE, Ala. (March 22, 2014) The littoral combat ship Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Jackson (LCS 6) during its christening ceremony at Austal USA shipyard in Mobile, Ala. (U.S, Navy photo courtesy of Austal U.S.A./Released)

First of all, as Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a Mississippi native, has stated, “As we welcome USS Jackson to the fleet, we are reminded of the importance of the partnership between our Navy and our nation’s shipbuilding industry. We also celebrate the lasting bond this ship will share with the great people of Jackson, Mississippi, as it sails the globe, providing a presence that only our Navy and Marine Corps can maintain.” The ship is not named after the man, but the capital city of the state where shipbuilding is a major industry.

Secondly, although Andrew Jackson, like most of our ancestors and forefathers, had his faults, he made many positive impacts on our nation. His generalship helped produce important victories against hostile Creek Indians and won perhaps our nation’s most dramatic military victory against the British at New Orleans in the War of 1812. His presidency led to many widespread changes that increased the increased role of citizens in our government as more people were invited to take part in the political process. Jackson is like most of our other presidents who all had their share of accomplishments and disappointments.

Yes, like many other Southerners of the time, he was a slaveholder and yes, he was racist towards Native Americans. These are faults and should be evaluated when we examine the man and his credentials. And not to make excuses, but I do sometimes argue with today’s society which uses our modern perspective to criticize those who were simply products of their own generation. But, I guess at this point, our nation will re-examine everyone and try to remove them from our collective memory due to their faults and weaknesses. I suppose everyone born prior to 1861 needs to be removed from any memorial as they were either active in slaveholding or did not do enough to end it. Do we need to rename everything where a past blemish can be found? Anything named after our Founding Fathers needs to be removed.  I guess our nation’s capital needs renaming as George Washington, the Father of our Country, had his faults too.

I simply wonder when these rash attempts at sanitizing our history will be done. Our society seems to be quick at criticizing past events and people. In one hundred years, I wonder what society will do with our current heroes and memorials? Are citizens today operating under logical assumptions that one day in the future will seem ludicrous. I am not saying we should not analyze our past, and provide appropriate commentary but these quick judgments by many who sometimes do not know the full story is a scary endeavor indeed.