Archive | September, 2016

Review of Tippecanoe 1811: The Prophet’s Battle, by John Winkler

27 Sep

Author John Winkler adds to his collection of military campaign narratives through Osprey Publishing with his Tippecanoe 1811. Similar to his books Wabash 1791 and Fallen Timbers 1794, Winkler analyzes the campaign and battle in the Osprey format and provides a general overview of this dramatic encounter which altered the course of American history.


Following the American victory over a Native American force at Fallen Timbers in 1794 and subsequent Treaty of Greenville in 1795, the United States continued to acquire further land cessions through additional treaties with the region’s Native Americans. By the early 1800s, many natives had become angry over Americans constant grasping of land and through the efforts of the famed Shawnee leaders Tenskatawa (the Prophet) and Tecumseh, decided to stand up to this growing encroachment.  Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison witnessed the growing tensions and the Native American build-up at Prophetstown and determined to disperse them. Tecumseh, busy with visiting other native groups to build a comprehensive Native American confederacy, told the Prophet not to bring on any engagement until he returned, a directive that the Prophet failed to heed which set the stage for the dramatic encounter at Tippecanoe.

Writers for Osprey Publishing follow a pre-determined format for their campaign narratives which breaks down campaigns in approximately 100 pages under the sections of Introduction, Chronology, Opposing Commanders, Armies and Plans, Campaign and Battle, and finally Aftermath. Using this model, Winkler provides background and traces the movements of the leaders and forces until discussing the dramatic battle itself on November 7, 1811, when the Prophet’s forces staged a daring night attack on Harrison’s force. With detailed maps and full color illustrations, readers follow the nearly three hour attack which failed to destroy Harrison’s men. Harrison’s army would go on to destroy Prophetstown, delivering a near fatal blow to the burgeoning confederacy. Upon learning of the battle, Tecumseh remarked about the “fruits of our labor destroyed.”

Tippecanoe 1811 is an overall quick and enjoyable read, meant to simply provide a brief summary of the campaign and battle. It does seem at times that the format shoehorns writers and prevents perhaps a better written narrative.  This format also does not lend itself to provide the background necessary to discuss adequately the complexities of the efforts of Tenskatawa and Tecumseh as well as discuss how those efforts affected the countless thousands in the region. Osprey books serve a purpose in providing military campaign overviews in an interesting and graphically appealing format which pleases many of their devout fans. If one is looking to gain a more in-depth analysis or larger narrative on events like Tippecanoe, then readers simply need to go elsewhere.


Review of The Tombigbee River Steamboats: Rollodores, Dead Heads, and Side-Wheelers, by Rufus Ward

20 Sep

It is sometimes difficult for contemporary readers of history to appreciate the real impact of steamboats in the commercial history of the South, as our perceptions of the graceful boats conjure up images of “simpler” times and a slower pace of life that seem hopelessly antiquated by modern standards. Further, there are precious few publications that chronicle the boats on rivers other than the mighty Mississippi, the nineteenth century water transportation superhighway whose study has consistently overshadowed the more modest activity on other Southern streams. But steamboats were revolutionary technology at one point in time across the region, facilitating trade and travel with speed previously unimaginable and serving as a key cog in the economic engine that brought about the heyday of the antebellum South as the “Cotton Kingdom.” The boats were once particularly influential in the economic life of Alabama, eastern Mississippi and western Georgia, the expansive—but in the early 1800s relatively sparsely inhabited and infrastructure-challenged but agriculturally rich—region where the venerable Alabama, Tombigbee and Chattahoochee River systems flow through on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. Though for a brief time ubiquitous on the region’s navigable waterways, owing to the rise of more efficient land-based travel in the form of railroads, and later, automobiles, the steamboats were already largely a thing of the past by the early twentieth century. In The Tombigbee River Steamboats: Rollodores, Dead Heads, and Side-Wheelers, Rufus Ward offers a rare and sensitive chronicle of steamboat activity on the one of the most historic of those rivers, the Tombigbee, stretching between northeast Mississippi and the Gulf port of Mobile.


Ward’s book is a nostalgic look at a bygone era written by someone with an obvious enthusiasm for the topic. The account gives readers a feel for the importance of the boats and some of how they operated, and Ward’s appreciation of the centrality of the grand steamers to regional history is apparent. Still, it is not a gripping narrative which he provides. Many passages of the book are actually rather dry, offering unelaborated upon statistics of cargo carried and schedules of steamers doing business at key docking hubs on the Tombigbee such as Columbus, Mississippi, and Demopolis and Mobile, Alabama. Those with an interest in the history of the region will nonetheless find these chapters intriguing, if for no other reason than they serve as a useful reference resource. Ward attempts a little more lively discussion when addressing one of its the storied river’s most compelling legends, the burning of the famed steamer Eliza Battle on a frosty winter night in 1858. Ward offers the most detailed account of the fabled disaster in print and devotes and entire chapter to the subject. In it he communicates the horror and helplessness of the tragedy’s victims, who escaped from the blazing boat only to die in the frigid waters of the Tombigbee during one of the coldest winter blasts on record. Even here, however, Ward’s writing is in spells repetitive and halting, and does not come across as the type of flowing narrative that might intrigue those with a casual interest in the subject.

Even with these admitted drawbacks in composition and style, there is still much to commend the book for those interested in the topic and region. Ward has included in his book an exhaustive directory of all known steamboats to serve between Columbus, Mississippi and Mobile, gathered a tremendous number of rare images of steamers that surely comprises the bulk of all known to exist, and summarized the cotton trade on the river during the era with a mountain of research, some of which is presented in raw tables of statistics. It is a great reference resource if not a page turner that, owing to the scarcity of works on its subject alone, may still merit a place on the bookshelves of those who seek to understand nineteenth century Alabama and Mississippi.


Review of Louisiana and the Gulf South Frontier, 1500-1821, by F. Todd Smith

13 Sep

Misunderstood, complex, yet crucial to all it touches on, the story of the historical development of the Gulf South is one of the most fascinating in all of American history. Despite the wealth of scholarship on an array of individual topics in the region’s past which continues to be published, relatively few historians have ever endeavored to present the region as a defined, interrelated geographic entity. University of North Texas professor F. Todd Smith has attempted to do just that in his latest book, Louisiana and the Gulf South Frontier. The book offers a synthesis of an impressive amount of literature and strives to produce something genuinely new in the historiography of the American South; a comprehensive narrative history of the formative era of the broad region stretching from East Texas to West Florida which he defines as the “Gulf South Frontier.” The book is a welcome addition to the literature on the region’s past, but comes with a few caveats.


The first concerns the scope of the audience that will utilize the publication. Smith states his book is designed to be a reference source primarily for college students unfamiliar with the region’s history, and for this reason eschews the usage of footnotes. Instead, he opts to include short bibliographic essays for each chapter in which he lists, but does not evaluate, primary publications utilized in writing each passage. Perhaps more substantial than an introduction but not thoroughly enough documented for acceptance by scholars, the book seems to fall into a niche which could relegate it to undeserved obscurity. Assuming it will find the right audience, those who pick up the book will find a highly readable, evenly-paced narrative that covers an impressive amount of ground relatively quickly. The book contains some exceptionally well-written passages which do a wonderful job of making clear complex issues, and the brief introductions to each chapter are models of verbiage efficiency and clarity.

Unfortunately, readers may be left with a hazy understanding of what the book contains beyond those prefacing summaries. Smith’s wide-ranging narrative inherently features no central event or personalities around which a story can be structured. Complicating this is the fact that the book is an overview of an enormous number of events which features relatively little synthesis, often leaving readers to discern for themselves their meaning in relationship to the crucial interconnectivity of the region Smith offers is at the heart of the book. For a manuscript “rooted in the conviction that the affairs of the entire region—from East Texas to West Florida and from the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Arkansas River—were interrelated,” (4) there is little analysis elucidating the point contained in its pages. In addition, the rather vague criteria for geographic cohesion offered—that Indian tribes in the area were more powerful than those in other regions, that the area featured a heterogeneous population, and that there were subtle differences found in the institution of slavery—will be difficult to appreciate for most readers. While there is truth to all these points, none of these necessarily or obviously produce a cohesive cultural region.

The most problematic issue associated with Smith’s book is simple geography. The area is probably just too big and its history too disconnected over the course of four centuries to neatly fit into a comprehensible single narrative. Jumping from happenings in St. Augustine to the Great Plains, the book ends up providing the broadest of overviews with no opportunities for depth of exploration. Considering the Gulf South’s past is replete with transitory populations with shifting allegiances, drawing informed conclusions from such a cursory look is difficult. To the degree that other scholars of the colonial and early statehood-era South have attempted to link the region it has been by specific topic or era. In other words the term “Gulf South” has come to be understood as having varying boundaries over time, depending on the context of the discussion. Smith’s assertion that the region’s historical boundaries should be pushed east virtually to the Atlantic and west into Kansas seems ambitious. To his credit, Smith covers the topics he discusses well, but demonstrating causality and effect in the tangentially related actions of such disparate groups in time and space as the Creeks and the Caddos requires the type of maneuvering that few of the books’ intended audience will be able to follow. If there is a single fulcrum upon which he sees the region pivoting, it is the city of New Orleans. Smith actually sees this paramount mercantile and population powerhouse as the literal capital of a broad region of hinterlands which fueled its rise. The book focuses on the city’s development to such a degree that its name appropriately might have been substituted for “Louisiana” in the title. Fleshing that argument out more concisely would probably make this book easier to grasp for many.

Louisiana and the Gulf South Frontier may not definitively describe the boundaries of the nebulous region it chronicles, but it does still make a significant contribution to raising awareness of the fluid and confusing tangle of rhythms to which it vibrated. There is, thankfully, a general and growing acceptance that the Gulf South is a distinctive historical region owing to decades of solid scholarship on a diverse array of topics which has helped us understand both the area’s degree of interconnectedness and pivotal role in American history. Smith has highlighted dozens of these episodes and pointed the way towards further study through their elucidation as well as inventorying the available literature on each topic.


Review of Shiloh 1862, by Winston Groom

6 Sep

Unexpected, chaotic, and extraordinarily deadly, the Battle of Shiloh was the first truly large battle of the Civil War. It is remembered especially for its shocking incongruity—it took place in one of the most peaceful and bucolic backdrops imaginable within a war replete with them—and for the fact that it jolted the nation into awareness that the war in which it was engaged would be both longer and bloodier than anyone could have contemplated. Perhaps because of the carnage that followed Shiloh, at places like Antietam and Gettysburg, or because it took place in a rural area of the western theater of the war, far away from Richmond or Washington, DC, Americans have long seemed to have less appreciation for the significance of Shiloh as a turning point in the war. For these reasons and more, it is a delight to see one of America’s leading writers turn his attention to telling the story of Shiloh for a new generation. Winston Groom’s Shiloh 1862 is an engrossing and deftly-told story that reminds us anew of that terrible battle’s importance and continuing relevance.

Groom Shiloh 1862

Groom is particularly well suited to the topic, having previously authored such acclaimed books on Civil War history as Vicksburg 1863 and Shrouds of Glory, From Atlanta to Nashville, the Last Great Campaign of the Civil War. One can’t help but wonder if “Atlanta 1864” or “Mobile Bay 1864” might be in the works one day by Groom, as with his chronicle of the clash in western Tennessee in 1862 he has taken a rather large step towards being recognized as among the leading historians of the Civil War in the west. After reading his latest effort, I can only say let us hope so, for the historiography of the war would be all the better for it. I say this even though this book, like his other histories, is not footnoted but instead contains notes on sources. It is simply a pleasure to read, offering a marvelous and well-researched chronicle that is entertaining and informative, even if it will never become a standard academic reference source on the subject.

Groom eschews a straightforward narrative approach to Shiloh, explaining in his introduction both that many others have told the story from that angle and that the complicated military maneuvering inherent in such an effort would, in his mind, seem to bury the poignancy of the battle rather than highlight it. He could be right, as even some of the better accounts of the battle I have read have left me in nearly as much of a dazed stupor as the men who fought in the tangled west Tennessee wilderness those early April days back in 1862. It is easy to get lost in accounts of battles tracking every regiment’s movements. There is a place for them, but Groom is correct to point out that sometimes within their pages the essence of a battle and its impact can be lost. Refreshingly, he focuses on the experiences of a few key characters that to him best represent the totality of the experience and its impact on the nation. Within the pages of the book he traces the experience of leaders and soldiers on both sides of the conflict, including a brief summation of the roads they took that led them there, especially taking time to explain the fighting at Forts Henry and Donelson and how those actions are closely linked with what happened at Shiloh.

As he explains how a confusing two-day stalemate essentially transferred an enormous swath of the Confederacy into Union hands in one fell swoop, Groom details in his own way all the touchstones in the battle’s narrative that readers familiar with it will anticipate. There is the story of the utter shock that Confederate troops were “no closer than Corinth,” Albert Sidney Johnston’s infamous bloody boot, the incredible prolonged fight at the Hornet’s Nest, the resolve of General Ulysses S. Grant, the timely arrival of Don Carlos Buell. What makes Groom’s prose so outstanding, though, is his ability to take readers into the “fog of war” while relating those stories from the viewpoint of the individuals who drive his narrative. He takes readers onto the battlefield, into the camps, within headquarters meetings, and into the terror of civilian homes as the vicious battle raged and confusion reigned. You hear the whizzing of bullets and the boom of cannon, and are left to contemplate the random nature of death and destruction that so suddenly engulfed a place named for an unassuming quiet country church. Then, as a denouement, Groom in brief fashion follows those of his main characters that survived the battle into their lives afterward allowing the battle to be better appreciated as the watershed event that it was for so many.

Shiloh 1862 is an important story well told. As Groom demonstrates, the battle awakened the nation to the true scope of the war to come, served as a proving ground for leaders who would play an important role in its resolution, and brought about one of the most consequential transfers of territory witnessed during its course. But the beauty of Groom’s book is not that it makes these well-established points. It is that it relates the drama in visceral fashion and communicates vividly the incredibly sobering reality which coldly hit Americans everywhere in the aftermath of a multiple-day fight that left some 23,000 men dead or wounded but could still be called a draw. Shiloh 1862 is well worth reading for any serious student of not just the Civil War, but American history.