Archive | August, 2016

Review of The War of 1812: Conflict and Deception, by Ronald Drez

30 Aug

The recent bicentennial of the War of 1812 has led to an outburst of new studies of our nation’s least understood conflict. Published in cooperation with the Battle of New Orleans Bicentennial Commission, The War of 1812: Conflict and Deception, The British Attempt to Seize New Orleans and Nullify the Louisiana Purchase by Ronald Drez seeks to dispel many myths of the war, specifically dealing with the final campaign to capture the crescent city. In this account, Drez provides a solid overview of the war and makes quite a few strong statements.


One of the book’s strongest points is its emphasis on the British impressment of U.S. sailors being the main cause of war between the nations. Most War of 1812 studies cover this topic, but few have emphasized it with enough evidence that displays the lengths the British Navy underwent to collect sailors without any regard to the rights of other nations. The British Crown simply considered it their inalienable right and Drez includes ample proof including the famous Chesapeake-Leopard affair as well as others. I doubt anyone reading this account will feel that the British disrespect for the United States was not a strong enough reason to go to war. This nation had to challenge this affront to our  sovereignty!!

Drez’s account continues with an overview of the war with interludes dealing with attempts to obtain peace through treaty negotiations. Drez discusses British attempts to sidetrack negotiations by not either dealing with the primary issue of impressment and later on, adding language to the final treaty that inserted the key word of “possessions.” Great Britain considered the entire Louisiana Purchase to be illegal and felt the United States did not have legitimate claim to the land and hoped via conquest to gain it back for Spain, its rightful owner. (Of course, returning the land back to Spain meant in reality that the British would control it.) British commander Edward Pakenham was given strict instructions not to halt operations in his attack on New Orleans on rumor of any treaty signings and instead wait until confirmation that a treaty was actually ratified by the two nations. Great Britain hoped to capture the city beforehand and nullify the purchase of the entire territory.  This book’s main goal is to dismiss once and for all the myth that the Battle of New Orleans was not important at all since it occurred after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

This book only provides a quick overview of the military campaigns of the War of 1812, but the narrative gets into greater detail in regards to the New Orleans campaign. Drez does, in my opinion, heap proper praise on Andrew Jackson’s daring December 23 attack, where he states, “in fewer than five hours from the first alert, he (Jackson) had gathered his widely scattered forces, formulated a complicated plan for a daring night attack against an unknown number of enemy, issued orders to key commanders of land and naval forces, moved to the battlefield undetected, and seized the initiative in a surprise attack . . .” Drez also seeks to dispel another myth in dealing with the West Bank component of the main battle on January 8. There have been debates on whether U.S. forces spiked the guns upon retreating. Drez is confident they were spiked, meaning the British forces could not have trained those guns on Jackson’s main line on the opposite side of the river, negating any possible bigger success on that side of the river for the British.

Drez ends his book with praise for the men of the 1927 Tennessee Commission who first tried to refute the idea that New Orleans did not impact the outcome of the war. Drez hopes his book will finally end that argument and again place the significance of New Orleans back where it was initially, when January 8 was celebrated just as much as July 4. Drez states that at one time January 8 and July 4 were the only two national holidays. January 8 has lost its appeal to the mainstream of America and this book unfortunately probably won’t help.


100 Years of the National Park Service

25 Aug

NPS logo

The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial today, August 25, 2016. Created by an act of Congress in 1916, NPS has the responsibility of preserving the natural and historical integrity of over 400 places and facilities across the country as well as making them available for use and enjoyment by the public. The NPS has chosen to commemorate this landmark anniversary with a host of special events taking place over the entire year and starting today, all of their parks will offer free admission for the next four days to make it easier to allow the public to experience the sites of historical importance and scenic grandeur they administer. Whether it is natural wonders like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or iconic historical locations such as Gettysburg or Valley Forge, our nation’s national parks have something for everyone. These parks help define our nation and deserve preservation, interpretation and adulation as they stand as reminders and teachers of our natural and cultural heritage and perhaps more importantly, help unite us as citizens of this great country. So, we wish a Happy Birthday to the National Park Service and wish to express our thanks to their efforts in protecting these invaluable national and natural resources.


Review of The Yellowhammer War: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama, edited by Kenneth W. Noe

23 Aug

Published in 2013 in honor of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, The Yellowhammer War is a collection of essays broadly addressing Alabama’s experience immediately prior, during, and after our nation’s most cataclysmic event. It features serious, cutting edge scholarship and gives the reader a sense of the broad contours of the major issues of the time period and insight into several sidelight events and trends. For most readers, however, the inadvertently deceptive title and inherent lack of cohesion around any central themes will leave them still hoping for a comprehensive account of one of the state’s defining eras.


Although the book is definitely useful as a reference source and will surely have some appeal to a broad readership, it has some severe limitations regarding use by the general public. It is not a narrative history of any particular themes and in truth barely discusses any fighting in the state of Alabama at all. True, there are multiple avenues of inquiry into the war era outside of the battlefield that need to be explored and this one admirably does so, but for a book of this purported scope to have only one of fourteen essays focus on the actual military conflict within the borders of the state (another focuses on a battle in Virginia in which Alabamians figured prominently) is curious if not negligent. In addition, several of the essays focus on topics so narrowly defined—reactions to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the connection between Reconstruction in Perry County and the Civil Rights Movement, for example—that coming away with a clear picture of how the war impacted Alabama in the larger sense will be difficult for most. We are all familiar with the maxim about not judging a book by its cover, but the stunning cover image of the flag of Rucker’s Brigade of the Seventh Alabama Cavalry and its very title—alluding to an early-war Alabama Confederate unit mocked by their peers for their gaudy yellow-trimmed uniforms which eventually gave the state its nickname—certainly communicate something a little different from what the book actually contains.

This criticism in structure and marketing aside, it must be acknowledged that most of the essays are thoroughly researched and truly enlightening. In the pages of the book readers learn about isolated episodes in the social, cultural, and political life of the state during the era, perhaps none more informative than Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins’ reflection on the way Reconstruction has been remembered, or rather, misremembered, in the state for generations and Jason Battles’ overview of the activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the postwar years. In summary the essays are thorough probes into individual topics, some with direct relevance to the state as a whole, others re-analyzing already-familiar information, and still others shedding light on very specific events and populations that have not received much attention previously. They collectively add a lot to our knowledge of Alabama’s war years even if they do not attempt to address all of its major issues; the experience of slaves, the impact on the economy, the depth of support of secession and the degree to which Unionist sentiment prevailed in areas of the state all come to mind.

Such is the nature of collections of essays in book form, I suppose.  They inherently are hodge-podge groupings that only broadly address an era or event. So, buyer beware and make sure you know what you are in for with this volume. The Yellowhammer War is a good book and surely points the way towards further inquiry into the Civil War era by the next generation of historians, but I doubt most lay readers will feel they have a thorough understanding of the war and Reconstruction in Alabama after perusing its pages. Alabama still awaits a grand narrative of its Civil War years.


Review of David Crockett: Lion of the West, by Michael Wallis

16 Aug

David Crockett was a true legend in his own time, a frontier hero by his late twenties and the subject of plays and books by the time he reached his forties. At once an intrepid warrior and populist politician with a folksy charm, he had a unique combination of ability, charisma, and old-fashioned common sense that allowed him to rise from the anonymity of the American backwoods to the inner circles of the most powerful leaders of his day. The reasons he is still as recognized today, however, probably have more to do with 1950s Hollywood depictions of him than the actual man. In movie-makers hands, David Crockett became “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”—a coonskin-wearing bear hunter roaming the mountains of Tennessee. That Crockett captured the imagination of a generation and created a caricature that continues to endure in our collective minds. The truth is Crockett was more complex than his legend, but there is a good deal of truth in it and his journey by any measure remains one of the most remarkable in American history.


In Lion of the West, Michael Wallis presents a balanced portrait of Crockett that strips him of just a little of his legend even as he imbues him with lesser celebrated attributes. The result is an entertaining and honest chronicle of an unmistakable American original who remains every bit larger than life today as he was a century ago, warts and all. Wallis begins his unearthing of the real Crockett by tracing the man back to his humble roots and upbringing, relying no little on Crockett’s own words as taken from his oft-quoted autobiography. This lends color and some additional substance to the work, but to his credit Wallis is judicious in accepting as total fact Crockett’s own account of his life and critically analyzes his account of his experiences throughout the narrative.

The facts themselves make for an unbelievable story, nevertheless, and are a major reason Wallis’ book is so entertaining. Crockett ran away from home as a teen, working odd jobs to survive before rejoining his family and entering into a series of misadventures in business that demonstrated, if nothing else, where Crockett’s passions lay. He was never more at home than when on a hunt, and his wilderness skills are the stuff of legend; he once killed over 100 bears in a single season on a long, meandering trek through the sparsely inhabited forests of his homeland. He served in the Creek War, raised a family, and threw his hat in the political ring as a relatively young man—going so far as to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives despite having almost no formal education. Wallis shows that Crockett was a man of principle in his political ascent, becoming one of the few Southern men willing to challenge Andrew Jackson on the issue of Indian Removal and willing to countenance defeat before compromising himself. But Crockett’s restlessness matched his ambition, and his inability to concentrate on any one thing for long left him perpetually in debt, chronically disassociated from his own family, and chasing fleeting dreams which he never quite attained. His life famously ended at a place called The Alamo while on one of his flights of fancy, pursuing a chance to finally make his fortune in the wilds of Texas as he approached his fiftieth birthday when he got caught up in a local insurrection against the Mexican government.

Lion of the West is one of the most enjoyable biographies I have read in a long time. Part adventure and part search for authenticity in a subject encrusted in myth, the book manages to increase the reader’s interest in a familiar story even as it meticulously separates fact from fiction. If you have an interest in Crockett, his times, or the stuff from which early American heroes were made, you should pick up a copy of this book.


Historic Marker Redux

9 Aug

I recently made a trip in central Louisiana with Mike to tour historic sites associated with the Civil War’s Red River Campaign. As mentioned in an earlier blog, I love seeking out places where important events occurred, even if that means simply finding an historic marker. During this trip, we journeyed to the town of Colfax, Louisiana, to find the site where one of the largest and bloodiest Reconstruction struggles took place. On April 13, 1873, opposing sides, mainly blacks and whites, battled regarding disputed state elections. When it was over, 150 blacks were slain. Only three whites were killed which indicates this was not much of a battle, but a massacre instead. I am not overly familiar with this event, only to know it was one of the truly horrific events of this difficult time period in our history.

Colfax marker

What amazes me is the text of the historic marker that stands near the current courthouse.  Installed in 1950, it is typical of that age’s mindset when the text uses terms like “Riot” and “carpetbag misrule” and “negroes.”  Markers established in the early and mid-20th century typically espouse such old-school philosophy and thought. Many of these markers have since been replaced with more historically accurate descriptions. I am stunned to see that this marker has not been replaced. In this day and age when the topic of Civil Rights is at the forefront, I am amazed that there has not been an outcry to have this marker removed and/or replaced. Since 2000, there have been new books published about this topic, discussions of a museum to discuss reconstruction in the area and commemorations of the event, but somehow, this obviously biased marker still stands as a testament to the region’s troubled past.


Review of Visions of the Black Belt: A Cultural Survey of the Heart of Alabama, by Robin McDonald and Valerie Pope Burns

2 Aug

Alabama’s famed Black Belt is at once one of the state’s most historic, most beautiful, and most economically challenged sections. At various points in time the epicenter of the antebellum cotton kingdom and the Civil Rights Movement, the region boasts a cultural history as rich as the fabled soil which once made its narrow arc one of the South’s wealthiest districts. But it is not just for its particular abundance of antebellum architecture that it has appeared in some respects frozen in time. So much of the region remains remarkably similar to its appearance over a century ago not because of applied preservation efforts but simply because economic prosperity, and the growth and redevelopment that traditionally accompanies it, have stubbornly by-passed the region. Needless to say this is a mixed blessing that has caused the region to be simultaneously celebrated and forgotten, and at a loss to determine exactly how to define itself.

Visions of the Black Belt

Attempting to present the region’s complex story in measured words and provocative images is Visions of the Black Belt, a stunningly successful partnership between acclaimed photographer Robin McDonald and accomplished historian Valerie Pope Burns. The book is a beautiful portrait of a special region and its people which communicates a distinctive sense of place with just the right balance of candor and pride. Everything is not perfect in the Black Belt, which has long been stigmatized as one of Alabama’s most economically challenged regions. But McDonald’s captivating photographs illustrate the beauty to be found in a downtown’s dignified decline and the grace inherent in time-worn facades without claiming either to be some genteel ideal. In similar fashion, Burns’ smooth prose guides the narrative with solemn honesty even as it purposefully celebrates its rich heritage. The reader cannot help but come away cognizant of the Black Belt’s challenges but fully appreciative of its centrality to Alabama history.

The book is at its best as a cultural and historical documentary of the region’s built environment, showcasing hauntingly beautiful churches, old homes, and businesses and revealing some of the stories contained within their walls. When it ventures to try to incorporate contemporary cultural figures such as singers, writers, and artists, it is less resonant. Even if unequal in impact individually, the combination of subjects works to support the larger points communicated by the authors. Visions of the Black Belt is no mere coffee table book full of  pretty pictures; it is a profound and intriguing piece of scholarship examining the overarching shadow of the past in a region uniquely defined by its heritage.