Archive | June, 2016

Review of Philip Henry Gosse: Science and Art in Letters from Alabama and Entomologia Amensis, by Gary R. Mullen and Taylor D. Littleton

28 Jun

As I continue to chip away at the lengthy backlog of books occupying my bookshelves, I recently finally got around to reading my friend Gary Mullen’s beautifully illustrated book on the remarkable work of renowned scientist and artist Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse, a native of Great Britain, sojourned in Alabama for a brief time in the 1830s as a teacher, utilizing apparently every free moment to produce one of the most detailed and artistically complex catalogs of insects and plants native to the central portion of the state ever produced. He observed and recorded behavior, habitat, coloration, and other aspects of appearance with painstaking detail. Among the scientific community, his work is heralded as a landmark not just in Alabama, but in the study of American natural history. Mullen’s book is the first time the entire collection of his work has been published in full color.


The book is divided into two sections: 1) a thoughtful introductory essay exploring Gosse’s life and placing his work in context as well as explaining his methods and purposes and 2) the richly-colored full-scale reproductions of his artwork. Originally published in 2010 as the ceremonial three millionth volume entered into the Auburn University Library, the book was a partnership between the Library and the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art in collaboration with the authors, both former instructors in science at the university.  Although the book will clearly appeal to a rather narrow audience, I am glad to see this acclaimed—and uniquely Alabama-associated—scientific study in print.


Touring the Sites of the Civil War’s Red River Campaign

21 Jun

As we noted in our recent review of Through the Howling Wilderness, the Red River Campaign remains one of the lesser known of all significant Civil War actions. Despite featuring the largest battles in the Trans-Mississippi theater and involving perhaps the largest and most ambitious combined-forces effort of the war, the campaign is usually remembered—when remembered at all—more for the blunders of both the Union and Confederate command than for any actual combat. The campaign can be a little difficult to follow, to boot, as it involved army and navy forces spread out and at times crossing the same ground twice as they advanced and retreated up and down the river valley. Complicating matters for the contemporary heritage tourist is the fact that the constantly-shifting Red River has left some former riverside areas high and dry.

With all that said, there are some good books on the campaign readily available (led by Joiner’s Howling Wilderness and One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End), and there is still a good bit to see for the Civil War historian interested in exploring the grounds on which major actions of the campaign took place. Most of the major clashes of the campaign are memorialized with historic markers, and there is good interpretation of the important naval action at Alexandria and the pivotal fighting around Pleasant Hill and Mansfield. Mansfield State Historic Site, preserving a portion of the battlefield on which the campaign’s deciding contest took place, is the anchor of any tour of Civil War sites in the region.

Confederate Navy Yard marker compressed

Historical marker for the Confederate Naval Yard in Shreveport, one of the key components of the Confederate supply center which the Union army targeted.

Reproduction of wooden cannon at site of Fort Humbug compressed

A reproduction of one of the fake cannons Confederates placed at “Fort Humbug,” formerly Fort Turnbull, to deceive Union invaders on the outskirts of Shreveport.

Fort DeRussy sign compressed

Sign for Fort DeRussy, a pivotal Confederate defensive position which fell early in the campaign. Unfortunately, the site is currently closed to the public.

Mansfield State Historic Site preserves the site of the Battle of Mansfield. The battle and the associated fighting at nearby Pleasant Hill the next day turned back the Union army’s advance on Shreveport and kept the region in Confederate hands.


Battle of Pleasant Hill monument compressed

There are several memorials at the site of the Battle of Pleasant Hill. The battlefield is privately owned but the public can access a portion of the area where the heaviest fighting took place.

Site of Bailey's Dam compressed

Interpretive panel at site of “Bailey’s Dam,” an ad-hoc impoundment constructed by Union engineers to raise the level of the shallow river high enough to allow Porter’s imperiled fleet to escape.


Tom Green marker compressed

Historical marker at the site where Gen. Tom Green was killed by cannon fire from a Union gunboat

Battle of Mansura marker compressed

Historical marker for the Battle of Mansura, in which Confederate forces attempted to slow the withdrawal of Banks’ army


Battle of Yellow Bayou marker compressed

Historical marker for the Battle of Yellow Bayou, the final battle of the campaign


The Purpose of Public History

14 Jun

As historians, we all feel that our work serves an important function in a healthy society. We express what our work means in different ways, usually pointing in some way to the value of education in understanding the world we live in and how it came to be, or understanding the shared nature of the heritage which connects us. Both Clay and I have elaborated often on these and other themes in this blog previously. Today, though, I would like to point out what may, in the long run, be the most significant of the many purposes our work serves.

public history

I believe the most timeless quality of the service we as public historians perform is to inspire future generations to care about the past and the vestiges of our history that remain all around us. By providing engaging and educating programs in a wide variety of formats, we sow the seeds of historical awareness and appreciation in our audience. That service, more than anything else specific that we do, ensures that the stories, artifacts, sites, and structures we care for and educate our visitors about will continue to be important to the generations that follow in our footsteps. We are part of a broad continuum of educators in this respect, keeping alive the flame of memory and heritage, and we should consider it an honor to have such an avocation. I urge all of us lucky enough to work in this field to keep that in mind as we go about our very important jobs.




Review of Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West, by Gary D. Joiner

7 Jun

Compared to most major campaigns of the Civil War, the Red River Campaign of 1864 is certainly among the least-studied and least understood. Most overview histories of the conflict devote a paragraph or two at most to the entire affair if that much space, and there are only a very small number of books devoted to the campaign in print. Thanks in no small part to the work of Gary D. Joiner, clearly the dean of historians who have written about the Red River Campaign, this rather large but almost comically disastrous combined-forces effort is finally getting its due. Joiner has published two book-length studies of the campaign; One Damn Blunder From Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864 and Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West. We recently decided to read the second of these works, published in 2006, in preparation for a visit to some of the sites significant to the campaign.


The series of blunders and missed opportunities that was the Red River Campaign reveals it to be ill-conceived, poorly planned, and wretchedly executed. Officially a combined-forces effort on the part of the Union army and navy to capture the regionally-strategic Louisiana capital and war production center of Shreveport, occupy western Louisiana and Texas, and prevent Confederate authorities from sending Trans-Mississippi troops to slow operations in more coveted eastern campaigns, the truth is the affair had political overtones that threatened its effectiveness from the beginning and was plagued by poor decision-making. In 1864 the Red River region featured one of the most productive cotton-producing areas of the Confederacy still in Southern hands, and the politically-ambitious Nathaniel P. Banks, placed in charge of the operation, angled to capture a share of the fiber to fuel the silent mills on his New England homeland and thus advance his political aspirations. That the Union high command acquiesced in the schemes of an inept and unqualified general is bad enough, but the series of errors that resulted in the near capture of the  invading force and destruction of the entire naval fleet renders it one of the most infamous campaigns of the war. While Joiner rightly blames Banks for much of the colossal failure of the effort, he shows there was plenty of culpability to go around on both sides, as a seemingly resounding Confederate success in truth was nowhere near complete as it could have been due to strategic failures on the part of the sometimes dysfunctional leadership of the Trans-Mississippi Department.

While we discovered Joiner’s book to be informative and detailed, we also found it to be at points tedious and repetitive. Featuring a rather dry and technical text, the book is more of a campaign study focusing on and evaluating strategy than a simple account of the major events of the campaign. Joiner must be commended for his comprehensiveness nonetheless, discussing seemingly every aspect of the campaign from its planning to its implementation on the ground and rivers of Louisiana and Arkansas, and its repercussions in the region and beyond. The several unique maps produced by the author for the book are of immense benefit to those wishing to follow in the footsteps of the armies, but it must be noted that some are printed so small that they can only be read with difficulty. Indeed, the font of the paperback version of the book—the only version readily available—is small to distraction. We believe that the book might have featured the same number of pages in a more readable font size if the author had not consistently repeated himself, recapping virtually every segment of the campaign within and sometimes again at the end of each chapter. Further, the inclusion of an entire chapter focusing on the findings of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War regarding the campaign, discussed in detail throughout the book, strikes us as extraneous to the narrative and might have been a summarized appendix instead.

Despite all these criticisms, the truth is Joiner is hands down the expert in all aspects of the Red River Campaign and if anyone wants to learn more about it, his books need to be on their reading lists. Through the Howling Wilderness is definitely geared more toward those who enjoy evaluating strategy and the famous “what ifs” in the Civil War than a straightforward blow by blow of perhaps the least-chronicled major campaign of the conflict. We suspect most readers looking for an introduction to the campaign should opt to first read his supposedly more strictly military engagement focused One Damn Blunder.